I’m halfway through a series of four essays on William Graham Sumner over at Libertarianism.org – the first is here and the second here.

It might seem a bit odd for a Bleeding Heart Libertarian to devote so much time to the thought of Sumner (and, for that matter, to his contemporary Herbert Spencer). Both of these men today are remembered mostly as social Darwinists who celebrated laissez-faire and excoriated socialism and charity in the name of the “survival of the fittest.” Why would someone who believes in social justice care what people like this have to say?

Part of the reason is to learn from them. Libertarians have been arguing against ideas like “social justice” for a long time. And while some of the arguments just don’t work, a lot of them contain a good deal of sense. I want to sort out the good from the bad, and take as much of the former on board to develop a view about social justice that’s responsive to it. Since Spencer and Sumner have the reputation of being more strongly against aid to the poor than just about any other libertarian of whom I’ve heard, I figure their arguments are worth taking a very close look at.

But this leads directly to my second reason for being interested in these two figures – to see if and to what extent their reputation matches up with the reality of their views. Every libertarian I know is used to having their position misrepresented and vilified in the most uncharitable light. I’ve seen this happen enough times to people whose work I know well enough to spot the smear. So when people vilify Spencer and Sumner as “social Darwinists,” I want to look at their work first-hand before making up my mind one way or another.

Unfortunately, people who use the term “social Darwinism” aren’t terribly careful about providing a clear definition of the term, so my first essay is devoted largely to figuring out what it is supposed to mean.

The second essay argues that William Graham Sumner was not, in fact, a social Darwinist. He was a laissez-faire liberal who was a fierce opponent of militarism, protectionism, and plutocracy. Far from being a champion of the strong against the weak, he was a champion of the common man against both the socialists who would exploit his labor for the benefit of the masses, and the plutocrats who would exploit him for the benefit of the privileged few.

It’s a long essay, and I hope you’ll have the patience to read the whole thing. But to entice you, and to give you just a sense of why the charge of social Darwinism misfires, here’s one of my favorite passages from Sumner’s excellent anti-imperialist lecture, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain.”

There are plenty of people in the United States today who regard Negroes as human beings, perhaps, but of a different order from white men, so that the ideas and social arrangements of white men cannot be applied to them with propriety. Others feel the same way about Indians. This attitude of mind, wherever you meet with it, is what causes tyranny and cruelty. It is this disposition to decide off-hand that some people are not fit for liberty and self-government which gives relative truth to the doctrine that all men are equal, and inasmuch as the history of mankind has been one long story of the abuse of some by others, who, of course, smoothed over their tyranny by some beautiful doctrines of religion, or ethics, or political philosophy, which proved that it was all for the best good of the oppressed, therefore the doctrine that all men are equal has come to stand as one of the corner-stones of the temple of justice and truth. It was set up as a bar to just this notion that we are so much better than others that it is liberty for them to be governed by us.

More here. And more to come in the next two weeks.

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  • Eelco Hoogendoorn

    There seems to be a lot of confusion in common language concerning the term ‘social darwinist’. A literal reading of the term to me suggests a preference to leave the state out of reproductive matters. Contrary to popular usage of the term, sterilizing people by bureaucratic decree is not ‘social darwinism’ but ‘social engineerism’, pur sang.

    Being opposed to a priori judgements and generalizations as to which group of people is and isn’t worthy of life, and at the same time feeling the state has little business taking positive action to influence which child lives and dies, that I think is the core of social Darwinism.

    I think the term social darwinst as thus understood applies to sumner; as it does to the less bleeding heart of libertarians whom are honest with themselves.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      that is an interesting take on it. But the classic attack of being called a social dawinist was always to accuse people of allowing the poor to starve. No distinction ever being made as to public and private charity.

      • Bongstar420

        How is the Narcissist not the biggest benefactor of the existence of charity? They get paid well to give charity to those in “need” and could not exist without others perception of “need.”

  • Sean II

    I cannot hear “social Darwinism” without wincing. To use the term (other than in debunking its use) is to commit an atrocity against biology, economics, and history.

    Here’s the short version: humans are K-strategists, but if you take a good look at poor people, you notice they have some things in common with r-strategists. They mate early and often, with a consequent decline in the attention lavished on any individual offspring. For selection to work against the “unfit”, it would have to kill most of them before puberty. Even pre-capitalists societies, though splendidly arranged to do that very thing, couldn’t quite manage it.

    Clever people who were alive in 1870 could plainly see that the r-strategists of humanity weren’t going anywhere. Indeed, they were proliferating as never before. The same trends that made Malthus and later Marx predict an ever-increasing horde of wretches would have told people like Spencer and Sumner that whatever was going on around them, it was certainly NOT a thinning of the human herd.

    School kids and even college students are taught that “social Darwinism” was
    a theory that literally called for the gradual extinction of the poor. It was, and remains, a bullshit smear based on a deliberate failure to understand what was clearly just a metaphor.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Specifically, I was always told that social darwinists wanted to allow the poor to starve to death.

      • Bongstar420

        I’d prefer to allow the rich to starve to death by requiring them to be productive rather than being allowed to survive of the capitalization of others productivity.

    • Bongstar420

      I always thought social darwinism was the proposition that there should be no third party intervention for social outcomes?

      For example, if a person’s business fails, there is no third party to help the with that failure (by third party they mean a government).

      I always found it to be a rhetorical device intended to distract people with anti-darwinism (or I should anti-natualism?). There is never no third party unless you limit the definition (which is what the distraction is intended to do).

      Social darwinism, if it were to be accurately constructed, is mere social evolution per se. It does not have a particular requirement like eliminating the poor and includes the presence and absence of “help.”

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  • Dennis Richardson

    Instead of government taxation towards a utopian dream of a collectivist state, a Jubilee is a better solution. Elite bankers in London have ripped off the entire world for three centuries and New York bankers for one century, kept any discussion away from laying the blame of world wide poverty where it belongs. Poverty is caused by dishonest currency NOT inadequate government tax rates on any body mid class or rich. Politicians and public education have not told the truth that the warfare state and the welfare state cause poverty through dishonest currency. The Rothschilds have been lying to you for two hundred years.

    • Bongstar420

      In the United States, taxation is on a currency that is infinite in supply (opting for Gold will not change that). It is unnecessary ultimately as the government does not “have” to barrow its own money from a private for profit bank (which atm there is a law that congress “could” change which does establish that mandate).

      Why would we need a tax code if the currency was put into circulation from direct government spending rather than from indirect spending that imposes a unnecessary debt burden on the public? This was imposed by people who believed in limited government power (never mind that power was simply displaced to the private sector- an organization not answerable to the public in any substantial way).

  • Bongstar420

    So Social darwinism isn’t the absence of social policies designed to produce different alternative outcomes vs “laissez faire?”

    I can’t see how an actual libertarian is anything but a social darwinist (assuming that they literally do ascribe to the proposition that government social policies are generally evil).

  • SocraticGadfly

    Read Walter Kaufmann’s “Without Guilt and Justice” for some modern, neo-Nietzschean ideas on this. I’m a libertarian socialist who acknowledges that the likes of John Rawls is fairly much all wet.

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