Friday, April 6, 2012

Social Darwinism and Liberal Programs

President Obama last week criticized the Paul Ryan's House budget as "thinly veiled social Darwinism."  We are to imagine, apparently, that by reducing the rate of increase in government budgets the poor and helpless will suffer, and this is the social equivalent of the ruthless natural selection in the world of nature red in tooth and claw.

Of course, "social Darwinism" is merely a political catch phrase that Democrats deploy whenever Republicans propose to reduce the rate of increase in social programs.  But when liberals want to tie someone to social Darwinism, they grab Herbert Spencer, the self-taught 19th century social philosopher. Here is a lumpen-liberal description of Spencer's idea, from Susan Jacoby in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.
Spencer translated the biological theory of natural selection into what he called "social selection," opposing all state aid to the poor, public education, health laws, government tariffs, and even government-supported postal service.  Of the poor, he declared, "If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well that they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to lice, they die, and it is best that they should die."
That is from Spencer's Social Statics.  But here is Spencer from The Man Versus the State, arguing against the poor law, i.e., welfare.  He summarizes his argument thus:
1. That the burden of the poor law fall chiefly upon the industrious classes.
2. That the existence of commecial restrictions, is, therefore, no argument for retaining it.
3. That even assuming a poor law to be directly beneficial, it is directly injurious, inasmuch as it prolongs the causes of distress.
4. That established charity is open to many of the strongest objections that can be urged against established religion.
5. That a poor law discourages the exercise of real benevolence, and lowers the standard of national character.
6. That were there no poor law, the increase of voluntary charity, and the decrease of improvidence, would render one unnecessary.
You can see how prescient Spencer is.  For our modern liberal welfare state  does indeed "prolong the causes of distress" with multi-generational welfare.  It has become indeed a kind of established religion of charity, in which the nation carelessly invests its benevolence in a class of welfare priests without actually ever actively contributing in a benevolent way.  And yes, the welfare state "discourages the exercise of real benevolence." Liberals, who believe in the state church of welfare, are the ones that give the least, as Arthur Brooks has argued in Who Really Cares?  Conservatives, who believe in a moral responsibility to give, give more.  Oh, and guess which group gives the most to charity?  It is the religious working poor.

Walter Russell Mead, in his series of articles about the end of the "blue social model" has argued that it is past time for liberals to own up to the failure of their social model.

It is past time for liberals to stop attacking the straw man of social Darwinism, if for now other reason than this.  The "blue social model" is going to be coming up, one of these days, for nomination for the "Darwin Awards."

For the law of natural selection applies just as much to human institutions as to animal species.  If a human institution won't adapt, it will go the way of the dinosaurs.  Liberals have insisted for a century that the best of institutions is the one that provides tax-supported "state aid to the poor, public education, health laws, government tariffs, and even government-supported postal service."  But what if they are wrong?  What if the state runs out of money?  What if the voters just refuse to pay for it?  What if the state, over the years, does less and less with more and more tax money?  Well, then the welfare state dinosaurs will die out and be replaced by some scuttling rats.

That was what happened in business in the 19th century when a bunch of nobodies started businesses in mid-century that ended up by the end of the century as gigantic enterprises.  The reason for their success was that with a few random ideas they massively lowered the cost of things like oil, transportation, and steel.  Natural selection at work, you might say.  Once they had made their money, of course, they got interested in philanthropy.  One of their benefactions was the University of Chicago.  You'll recall that, Mr. President.

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