Three days after President Obama used the term “social Darwinism,” the phrase continues to rankle conservatives. David Brooks, Geoffrey Norman and Mitt Romney adviser Greg Mankiw all find the phrase (which I defended) to be a vicious smear.
Part of the problem here is that both Brooks and Mankiw have different views of what Social Darwinism means. Mankiw defines it as a belief “that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die.” Brooks describes it as “a 19th-century philosophy that held, in part, that Aryans and Northern Europeans are racially superior to brown and Mediterranean peoples.”
Neither definition describes the philosophy of Paul Ryan and the Republican budget. But neither really captures the meaning of the term “social Darwinist,” either. I managed to track down and look over my old copy of Richard Hofstadter’s “Social Darwinism in American Thought,” and it describes a fairly wide range of right-wing thought. But the main guiding principle is a defense of the free market as a moral arbiter, rather than merely a tool for creating wealth. Just as natural selection allows better-adapted species to thrive and poorly adapted ones to die out, the free market rewards talent and hard work and punishes laziness or lack of talent, in a perfect or near-perfect way.
He quotes William Graham Sumner, who wrote, “’the strong’ and ‘the weak’ are terms which admit of no definition unless they are made equivalent to the industrious and the idle, the frugal and the extravagant.” Conservatives have been echoing that logic repeatedly the last few years. And their embrace of health care as an earned privilege rather than a right actually comes perilously close to endorsing the more radical versions of social Darwinism.
Now, it is true that some social Darwinists took the Darwinian model to its full, literal implications. Others took the idea and applied it in racist ways, and to relations between nations. But not all of them did, and this was not the essence of their belief system. The essence was a more figurative translation of the principles of natural selection onto the workings of the marketplace, justifying it as a system that rewarded virtue and punished vice. That principle is pretty closely echoed by Mankiw, who writes:
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.
Mankiw objects that I should use this quote to describe his views, because he also allows for the possibility of some transfers from rich to poor. But of course, many of the social Darwinists endorsed charity for the poor, which is obviously incompatible with the belief that the poor should die off for the good of society.
As I wrote before, “social Darwinism” is a contested term. In its most important ways I think it describes the philosophy of the current Republican Party pretty well.