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.