My Primer for Obama: Social Darwinism vs. Laissez-Faire
President Obama’s recent speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors signaled the opening of a political gambit in the upcoming presidential election. In dealing with the proposed budget of Representative Paul Ryan, the president sought to discredit nineteenth-century laissez-faire economics by linking that movement to Social Darwinism: Ryan’s plan, the president said, “is thinly veiled Social Darwinism. It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who is willing to work for it.”
The president’s well-crafted reference to the term ushered in a fierce political dispute between his supporters and detractors. In the midst of the din, no one has undertaken the essential task of sorting out the theoretical differences and similarities between Social Darwinism and laissez-faire, which I do in my column this week for Hoover's Defining Ideas.
Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859. Darwin’s tome offered the first complete view of evolution, which in two words boils down to “natural selection.” Random variation is found in all attributes of any large population of species. Those members that have variations that prove successful win out over their less successful rivals. In nature, this process takes place by a bloody process of competition for scarce resources. Individual organisms stop at nothing in order to satisfy nature’s imperative of self-preservation. The familiar expression “nature red in tooth and claw” spelled death for the losers in the Darwinian race for survival.
The social contract theory that projects the same grim fate for human beings is found in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, which envisions life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Only state power could supply the needed antidote. The critical question became, what kind of state? The standard laissez-faire answer has always been a state that is strong enough to prevent aggression and fraud. . . continue reading at Defining Ideas.