Will the Real Social Darwinists Please Stand Up?

More than two weeks later I’m still snorting my morning coffee over President Obama’s risible charge that the Ryan budget represents a return to “Social Darwinism,” even though it would return us to the same level of spending as a proportion of GDP seen under that infamous Social Darwinist Bill Clinton.

Jonah Goldberg has a nice takedown of the nonsense of the matter in the Weekly Standard, drawn from his forthcoming book, The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.  My own one sentence dismissal of this tired cliche is that Social Darwinism might be said to stand in relation to free market thought as McCarthyism stands in relation to anti-Communism.

There’s much more to be said about this, including an aspect of this issue where I disagree to some extent with Jonah.  While he is correct that both Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, the two most prominent purported “social Darwinists” of the late 19th century, don’t really live up to the liberal cliche, it is nevertheless the case that Spencer and Sumner ironically prepared the way for the Progressive embrace of Darwinian ideas in political and social thought a generation later.  (Keep in mind that it was Woodrow Wilson who said that our constitutionalism should be “Darwinian” in character: behold, the birth of the “living Constitution.”)  They did this by rejecting the Founding Era’s philosophical doctrine of individual natural right, which became the cornerstone of Progressivism.  Sumner hated the Declaration of Independence, and explicitly embraced the John C. Calhoun and Stephen Douglas view Jefferson’s handiwork.

“Before the tribunal of nature,” Sumner wrote in his most memorable formulation, “a man has no more rights than a rattlesnake; he has no more right to liberty than any wild beast.”  Spencer argued, following Bentham (“nonsense on stilts”) that the idea of natural rights should be abandoned.

From Spencer and Sumner it was but a short step to the left-leaning Social Darwinism of thinkers like Lester Ward (author of Dynamic Sociology in the 1890s), who merely turned so-called Social Darwinism on its head an in support of what we would recognize today as the Progressive agenda.  And its cornerstone is a rejection of individual natural rights. From Ward:

Not until we have succeeded in banishing the metaphysical conception of abstract right, and taken down the unrealizable standards of an imaginary disinterestedness in action, shall we be prepared to discuss intelligently the conditions of man’s progress conceived as capable of accomplishment by his own efforts. . .  It is here that the new science is destined to be strongly antagonized by the growth of erroneous ideas respecting liberty.  The so-called “abstract rights” of mankind must be denied if society is ever to become the arbiter of its own destiny.

Ward tried to invent a whole new form of government, which he called “sociocracy,” which he admits is “quite distinct from democracy.”  Hard to tell it from modern therapeutic liberalism though.

But if you really want a coffee-snorting laugh, check out a section of Dynamic Sociology entitled “The Superiority of Government Over Private Administration of Public Concerns,” where Ward argued:

Nearly every present acknowledged function of government has once been intrusted to private enterprise . . . Now, of all the enterprises which the state has thus appropriated to itself, there is not one which it has not managed better and more wisely than it had been managed before by private parties. . . The superiority of governmental administration over private management, in large enterprises of a general public character, has been clearly seen and frequently pointed out . . .  It might similarly be shown that all the functions of government are usually performed with far greater thoroughness and fidelity than similar functions intrusted to private individuals.

NOTE TO READERS: The apostrophes and quotation marks are still missing from this and other recent posts, and it makes this one especially hard to read in places.  We’re told that Google, the key vendor in the great chain of Power Line being, will have this fixed by tomorrow, and all of these posts will be corrected.  So bear with us for one more day!

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