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Fantasies of Social Darwinism

Three generations of this imbecilic progressive talking point are enough.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By JONAH GOLDBERG
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But here’s the interesting part: Almost no one else called himself a Social Darwinist either (including Spencer’s alleged co-conspirator William Graham Sumner). Simply put, there was no remotely serious intellectual movement—at least not in America or Britain—called Social Darwinism, and the evil views attributed to so-called Social Darwinists were not held by its alleged founders. Geoffrey Hodgson conducted a survey of all of the leading English-language academic journals from the mid-1800s until 1937 and couldn’t find any evidence that Spencer and Sumner were part of, never mind leaders of, an intellectual movement called “Social Darwinism.” Even more amazing: In the entire body of Anglo-American scholarly publications spanning more than a century, there is only one article that actually advocates—rather than criticizes—something called “Social Darwinism.” And it not only wasn’t written by Spencer, it doesn’t mention him either.

In fairness, Hofstadter didn’t just focus on the intellectuals, he cited the views and actions of the so-called Robber Barons as proof that the conservative mind had adopted Darwinism on a massive scale. He writes:

With its rapid expansion, its exploitative methods, its desperate competition, and its peremptory rejection of failure, post-bellum America was like a vast human caricature of the Darwinian struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. Successful business entrepreneurs apparently have accepted almost by instinct the Darwinian terminology which seemed to portray the conditions of their existence.

Others followed Hofstadter’s lead. 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.

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