Are Republicans Social Darwinists?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Associated Press luncheon during the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) Convention at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel April 3, 2012in Washington, D.C.  Obama criticized the Republican budget proposal during his remarks.
A Trojan Horse containing social Darwinists ... this analogy is getting convoluted. Photo: Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

In his speech last Tuesday assailing the Republican budget, President Obama described the philosophy embedded in the document as "social Darwinism." Cato's David Boaz objects that this is a smear, and that those who object to describing Obama as "socialist" should object just as strongly to Obama's use of this term against the GOP:

[Plenty] of people call themselves socialists — not President Obama, to be sure, but estimable figures such as Tony Blair and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Members of the British Labour Party have been known to sing the socialist anthem “The Red Flag” on the floor of Parliament.

But no one calls himself a social Darwinist. Not now, not ever. Not Herbert Spencer. The term is always used to label one’s opponents. In that sense it’s clearly a more abusive term than “socialist,” a term that millions of people have proudly claimed.

But isn't Boaz actually making the case here that calling Republicans social Darwinist is not like calling Obama socialist?

After all, as Boaz notes, the problem with calling Obama socialist is that it is a philosophy that politicians claim to uphold, and Obama is clearly not one of those politicians. On the other hand, nobody calls themselves social Darwinist, so it remains a term of abuse. Likewise, no politician advocates, say, "big government," but Boaz has no problem using that label. It is a contested description.

I happen to think "social Darwinist" captures the prevailing Republican philosophy pretty well. The point of the label, created by historian Richard Hoftsadter, is that a species of laissez-faire economics treated the market the way Darwinians treat natural selection — as the sole natural and correct mechanism for distributing rewards. You do not have to venture into the Republican fever swamps to find evidence of this belief. Greg Mankiw, an economist, adviser to Mitt Romney, and relative moderate within the party, has written:

People should get what they deserve. A person who contributes more to society deserves a higher income that reflects those greater contributions. Society permits him that higher income not just to incentivize him, as it does according to utilitarian theory, but because that income is rightfully his.

Now, I suspect that right-wingers object to the term "social Darwinist" because it can be understood to imply a more literal application of Darwinism — that the poor should be killed off so they cannot reproduce.  Almost none of them would take the theory quite so far. But the more symbolic application of Darwinism to the market, as a morally optimal tool for allocating rewards, seems appropriate. Republicans may prefer a more positive-sounding label, but in politics you don't always get to pick your label.