Oct 5, 2008

October 4, 2008: Social Darwinism, Selfishness as the Highest Charity, The Right to Starve

A Polish rose by any other name is still a dandelion” ---Quotations of Chairman Joe

In the American political tradition, both modern American liberalism and modern American conservatism trace their roots back to the nineteenth century European liberalism rooted in the economic philosophies of Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Stuart and Mill. Indeed so great was the influence of Smith that Darwin “confessed that his model for natural selection had been Smith's concept of Market competition; so men were just retracing Darwin's steps when they brought biological 'laws' back into the world of economics to create 'Social Darwinism'”. (1)(2)

Social Darwinism had become the rage by the late nineteenth century. Writers like William Graham Sumner took lessons from Smith but more importantly Malthus and Darwin to lay the basis for economic theory that John Kenneth Galbraith would later refer to as the “grim science”. If evolution was the law of nature then, they reasoned, “automatic progress was to be expected in man's economic activity” as well. (1) Garry Wills' summarized it this way: “If one progresses by survival of the fittest, then, as a consequence, the less fit do not survive. If the race is never finally won, at least some competitors are forever eliminated. Malthus made this clear when he said that, since the Invisible Hand (3) provides the maximum food intended by Nature and Nature's God (Malthus was a clergyman), it was the will of nature that population in excess of this divine provender should starve (if it were allowed to come into the world)”. (4) “This cruel consistency” led by degrees to the belief that the worst thing you could do was help your fellow man. Charity becomes, to these 'enlightened' souls, an abject form of evil. To feed the huddled masses would lead to further overpopulation and suffering, better—more humane—in the mind of Malthus was to let them starve. It isn't simply that the race goes to the strongest but that the survival of the 'less fit' threatens progress itself. The very concept of Charity as it had been passed through the ages by our religious institutions was stood on its head. Grown men of property and standing were known to publicly proclaim that selfishness was the highest form of charity.

The toxic mix of nineteenth century economics, biology and sociology served to give a 'scientific' veneer to greed translating itself into what Mark Twain labeled the “Guilded Age” dominated by what Ida Tarbell called the “Robber Barons”. It took over a half century of reform to right the ship.

The modern ear has no tolerance for the din of such nonsense. What is left of Social Darwinism still reverberates down through the twentieth century in the writings of Ayn Rand and in the bedrock assumptions of Milton Friedman and Bill Buckley but rarely do they give it open expression. Instead new forms must be assumed, a more progressive pose must be struck in order to appeal to modern man. To that end modern conservatives use 'liberation' terminology in order to mask the true nature of their creed. To 'liberate' the markets from harmful regulation that is, to these lights, both inefficient because it restricts the free movement of the market but also immoral because it empowers the 'less fit'. Empowering the 'less fit' means threatening progress itself. To threaten progress is to threaten the 'social good' or, in the words of the founders, the 'general welfare'. In the pretzel logic of moder conservatism the welfare state thereby threatens the general welfare. This logic extends beyond the commodities markets to embrace the labor markets, investment markets as well as the markets of political and social ideas and beliefs. It is through such mental gymnastics that conservatives can draw distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor but cannot bring the same standards to the rich. The rich, you see, are by definition deserving. It is a modern mutation of “Social Darwinism” that drives the conservative to reduce all human interaction to market functions and to resist any subsequent regulation on any such market. To introduce fetters on intercourse is said to deny freedom. What they mean of course is that to impose restraints—civility if you will—is to deny the victor his presumed right to rape not only his fellow man but mother nature in the bargain. It is also to deny the vanquished his right to starve.


1.Wills, Garry. “Nixon Agonistes, The Crisis of the Self-Made Man”
Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston 1970. page 548.

2.For an enlightening discussion of the origins of modern conservative and
liberal thought as it pertains to nineteenth century liberalism see Garry Wills'
“Nixon Agonistes” a deeply penetrating analysis of Richard Nixon and his time

3.The operation of the market at which a purchase price is reached through the
impersonal forces of supply and demand is held by Smith and others to be
the most rational and efficient means to allocate resources in a given society.
Smith held that these forces acted as like an “invisible hand” in the marketplace.
Later wits confused the Invisible Hand with Providence forever transforming classical Liberalism, that is modern conservatism, into a theology.

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