Before President Obama called Rep. Paul Ryan's budget "thinly-veiled social Darwinism" last week, I must confess, I had never heard of "social" Darwinism. Jonah Goldberg has stepped into the breech to explain the history of the term. Apparently, it is part of the lexicon used by the left to tar the "robber barons":
. . . Merle Curti in The Growth of American Thought argued that Social Darwinism “admirably suited the needs of the great captains of industry, who were crushing the little fellows when these vainly tried to compete with them.” Henry Steel Commager wrote in The American Mind that “Darwin and Spencer exercised such sovereignty over America as George III had never enjoyed.” And of course Robert Reich has said that Social Darwinism “offered a perfect moral justification for America’s Gilded Age, when robber barons controlled much of American industry, the gap between the rich and poor turned into a chasm, urban slums festered, and politicians were bought off by the wealthy. . . . The modern Conservative Movement has embraced Social Darwinism with no less fervor than it has condemned Darwinism.”
The only problem: None of this is true either. Yes, Andrew Carnegie was a follower of Herbert Spencer and lots of people referenced “natural law” (though rarely as a reference to Darwinian evolution). But for the most part the captains of industry couldn’t care less about this stuff. As Robert Bannister and Irwin Wylie (and more recently Princeton intellectual historian Thomas Leonard) have painstakingly documented, the captains of industry in the 19th century were not particularly influenced by, or even aware of, Darwin and Spencer. This shouldn’t surprise anybody. “Gilded Age businessmen were not sufficiently bookish, or sufficiently well educated, to keep up with the changing world of ideas,” writes Wylie. “As late as 1900, 84 percent of the businessmen listed in Who’s Who in America had not been educated beyond high school.”
Overwhelmingly, businessmen of the period were influenced by Christianity first, classical economics second, self-help inspirational nostrums a distant third, and egghead notions about biology almost not at all. Cornelius Vanderbilt read one book in his entire life. It was Pilgrim’s Progress. And he didn’t get to it until he was past the age of 70. “If I had learned education,” Vanderbilt famously quipped, “I would not have had time to learn anything else.”
Also, it’s worth noting that the so-called red-in-tooth-and-claw Gilded Age was a time of massive, historic economic growth. It was when America overtook Britain as the economic powerhouse of the globe. That’s one reason the left has always hated it. When Europe was boldly embracing socialism, America was proving that capitalism was better at generating wealth and lifting people out of poverty. Moreover, as anybody who’s been in a library, hospital, university, or concert hall bearing the name of Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, et al, can attest, the “Robber Barons” didn’t remotely believe in letting the little guy fend for himself or that wealth was a reflection of either moral superiority or evolutionary “fitness.” Even the one real Spencerist in the bunch, Andrew Carnegie, believed that “the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry—no idol more debasing than the worship of money.” He believed that the man who “dies rich dies disgraced” and himself died one of the most famously generous philanthropists in the world.
One reason the term “Social Darwinism” caught on with progressives was that it served to divert attention from the sins of “reform Darwinism”—i.e., the progressive passion for eugenics. The progressives advocated aggressive statist intervention to improve the genetic stock of the country, while the alleged Social Darwinists championed laissez-faire and private charity and—gasp—reproductive freedom. Moreover, the term Social Darwinism, which in Europe was used to justify nationalist and racist theories of the Hitlerian variety, was the perfect label for playing guilt-by-association in America. Ever since Hofstadter’s book, liberals have used the term to accuse conservatives of desperately wanting to return to a past that never was.
On April 4, Mitt Romney had his turn in front of the newspapermen. “The president came here yesterday and railed against arguments no one is making—and criticized policies no one is proposing. It’s one of his favorite strategies—setting up straw men to distract from his record.”
One suspects that even Romney had no idea how right he was.
And for a bit more clarity, here is the great economist, Milton Friedman, discussing the place of the "robber barons" in our economic history: