06 April 2012

Is 'Social Darwinist' a smear?

Normally Republicans are the ones reflexively accusing Democrats and liberals of hypocrisy, but this time it's a libertarian, David Boaz, who makes the charge. He's irked over the fact that few in the news media are as offended by the President's recent labeling of Republican economic policy as "social darwinist" as they are when Republicans call the President "socialist." As far as Boaz is concerned, "social darwinist" is the worse insult, because it is an exclusively pejorative term. That is, no one actually claims to be a "social darwinist," according to Boaz, while many still call themselves "socialist." That somehow makes it more okay to call someone "socialist" who isn't, or who refuses the label, than it is to call someone "social darwinist." This misses the point that "socialist," when used by Republicans or libertarians, is just as pejorative as "social darwinist" is in the mouth of anyone on the "Left." Boaz would dispute that point. He suggests that calling someone a "social darwinist" is synonymous with calling that person a racist or a Nazi. Even the minimalist definition of the term, labeling someone who believes in "survival of the fittest" in modern society, is insulting to Boaz. For rhetorical purposes, he assumes that anyone using the term agrees with the entirety of the Encyclopedia Britannica entry, which would mean that a "social darwinist" believes that "the poor [are] the 'unfit' and should not be aided." Presumably, Boaz would not dispute the other half of the proposition, that "wealth [is] a sign of success." He would most likely argue that nothing Darwinian follows from that belief; after all, many Puritans believed the same thing. He'd certainly reject any suggestion that anyone's impoverishment follows from anyone's success; social darwinism, as he understands it, assumes the sort of "zero-sum" conditions that libertarians dogmatically deny. He may also deny sincerely the notion that the "weak" deserve to perish. If any libertarian or Republican believes in charity, in voluntarily aiding the poor or weak, they wouldn't be social darwinists in the Britannica sense of the term. But while many liberals, progressives, etc. probably understand social darwinism in the terms of the old chanting refrain, "You don't care if people die!" it would remain descriptively valid as a label for anyone who prefers competition to cooperation or rejects any alternative to "just desserts" as a principle for distributing wealth. If you believe that a "natural order" requires that successful people earn as much as they can get and keep as much as they can earn; if you reject "entitlement" as a basis for civilization; if you find the premise "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" not merely impractical but abhorrent -- you might fairly be labeled a "social darwinist" whether you accept the label or not. It need not come with any implication that you're a racist or an imperialist, but no one has to make or prove those charges to use the "social darwinist" label. Does that mean that libertarians and Republicans have as much right to call the President a "socialist" despite Obama's denials? Absolutely not. As Boaz himself writes, "social darwinist" is an exclusively pejorative label -- no professed social darwinist can point to David Boaz or Paul Ryan and say, "he's clearly not one of us!" -- while plenty of actually existing socialists of just about any sect or denomination will gladly (or angrily) explain why Obama isn't one of them. But if Boaz still wants to argue that "social darwinist," because of its pejorative nature, is a smear unfit for political discourse, let's have that argument. Let's have people explain what they mean by "social darwinism" and have alleged social darwinists explain why the label doesn't fit them. If they don't believe, not just in survival of the fittest but in their unconditional winner-take-all victory, regardless of the fate of the losers, I think people would be glad to hear it.


DLW said...

I think part of the smear also is the opposition of many social conservatives to evolution.

Odds are the initial opposition of many to evolution in the early 20th ctry was because of how the science got conflated with social darwinism. The opposition then ossified and they got coopted by the GOP, because of the inflammation of the cultural wars.


Anonymous said...

Really, what it comes down to, is that there are those on the right who feel they have every "right" to insult or "pejoratate" their opposition, but because their worldview is "correct", no one has a basis for insulting them. Typical hypocrisy.

The problem is, in part, that all sides make the assumtion that their world view and only their world view is correct, as if there is any universal objective basis for judging the correctness or incorrectness of an idiotology.

I would have to say that, in my opinion, the only valid basis for judging these idiotologies is according to which offers the greatest good to the greatest number. Anything else is just self-serving.

Anonymous said...

The second thing I'd like to point out is that Darwin's theory is based on observation that random genetic mutations occur. There is absolutely nothing random about planning or running an economy. So the term "Darwinist", when applied to any situation that isn't based on random factors, is simply incorrect.

What we should really be discussing is in a national economy (which according to any degree of logic or reason should be planned)can we trust either government or private business to be fair in it's dissemination of the wealth created by the working class of the nation.

Samuel Wilson said...

DLW: The irony of it all is that many members of the "religious right" c. 1925 opposed Darwinism in general in part because they thought it encouraged "social darwinism" in the real world. Taking William Jennings Bryan as an example, they were superstitious literalists when it came to Scripture yet liberals if not radicals politically.

Crhmethinc: You actually offer a good justification for using the "social darwinist" label for those who oppose any interference with the "natural order" through planning. The interesting thing to ponder is why they take "social darwinist" as an insult. Presumably they object because it implies an indifference to suffering and death that they deny -- but how valid are their denials when they reject any assertion of a duty to maintain a civilized standard of living for all?