If Conservatives Are Social Darwinists, Then...
That President Obama certainly has a way with words. The other day he called Paul Ryan's House-passed budget "thinly veiled social Darwinism." Does he mean that Ryan's budget is wearing a burqa? Anyway, he prompted Catholic Rep. Ryan (R-WI) to take his budget to Georgetown University, where the congressman lectured the profs at that Catholic university about solidarity and subsidiarity on the off-chance they hadn't been reading their papal encyclicals.
Social Darwinism has been an all-purpose pejorative ever since the thinly-veiled anathematist Richard Hofstadter wrote Social Darwinism in American Thought in the 1940s. He also wrote Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. So you can see what he was all about. Today we would call him a thinly-veiled enemy of civility. But his writing obviously had its intended effect. In Freethinkers, a mindless liberal screed about secularism, Susan Jacoby anathematizes Herbert Spencer, "who applied Darwin's principles of natural selection to the social as well as the natural world -- a mistake Darwin never made."
Well, why not? Surely, a theory of the evolution of social institutions is of vital interest to humans, especially right now, when European social democracy is in thinly-veiled collapse. But liberals like Susan Jacoby know that liberals don't believe in social evolution. They believe in intelligent design, in accordance with the ancient syllogism you can probably find somewhere in Aristotle: All liberals are intelligent. Liberals advocate big government. Therefore, big government is intelligent.
A corollary of this Aristotelian truth is that only liberals can intelligently design modern social institutions, and that the complexity of modern society demands that an educated elite of intelligent liberals be empowered to rule the less intelligent. Without this intelligent design, liberals believe, individuals will find themselves "on their own" and reduced to helplessness and marginalization. Thus, liberals know what to do about senior health care when intelligently designed Medicare is about to go belly-up. Just repeat after Nancy: "Republicans want to end Medicare as we know it!"
There are some people -- they now call themselves "progressives," but I think a more apt term would be "witch-burners" -- who are even more of a throwback than the Intelligent Designers. They believe that corporations are possessed by evil demons and are responsible for poisoning the air and the water. Ditto oil companies, which are poisoning the fracking gas wells. Ditto greedy insurance companies that prevent us from getting affordable health care. These witch-hunters dream of a gigantic auto da fe at Wall Street and Broad, in which the corporations and fundamentalists will be burned at the stake and purged of their demons in a great struggle of the 99% against the 1%.
President Obama's problem with Social Darwinism is that conservatives use it to promote an "on your own" society. Like many liberals, he has studiously avoided studying what conservatives actually believe. He would rather parrot what Hofstadter -- or was it Niebuhr? -- taught him. Real conservatives believe something different.
Real conservatives believe that the real "on your own" system is big-government liberalism. That's because big government hollows out the "little platoons" of society; it orders people out of the face-to-face neighborhood into a wind-swept plaza dominated by the mega-structures of big government. Believe me: you don't want to be on that plaza when the Fannie Mae skyscraper is toppling over. Catholics like John Paul II and Benedict XVI want to protect modern man from the mega-structures with "solidarity" and "subsidiarity." Solidarity, according to Paul Ryan, is "the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups, but builds up the common good of all." Subsidiarity is the notion that "matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority."
And we know what Americans do when big government leaves them "on their own." They get together and build a thick safety net of voluntary associations. Europeans? Not so much.
The reason why conservatives are thinly-veiled Social Darwinists is rather obvious. We believe that the most practical, most humane way of dealing with change is to admit that a natural selection process directs the evolution of social institutions. Social institutions that fail to provide for the common good will end up extinct, be they nation-states, churches, corporations, or labor unions. A society with a thick safety net of voluntary institutions lets ordinary people adapt to economic and social change by joining voluntary social institutions that seem to be thriving. That way, conservatives believe, individuals can avoid getting flattened by the mass extinctions of dinosaurs like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, not to mention Medicare and Social Security and their $100-trillion unfunded mandates.
Of course, this conservative Social Darwinism is premised on the radical idea that humans are adaptable social animals who naturally seek out social solutions to their problems. They are not helpless victims waiting around for the next brilliant idea to arrive in the living room with a thump -- all 2,700 pages of it -- from the Intelligent Liberal Designer upstairs.
Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his usgovernmentspending.com and also usgovernmentdebt.us. At americanmanifesto.org he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.