September 12, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Will Hurricane Katrina End Social Darwinism in America?

Harold Evans, writing an op-ed piece for the BBC News, thinks the TV images of destruction from Hurricane Katrina will arouse a new wave “compassion in government” (which he interprets as “the responsibility of government to relieve individual suffering”), and spell the end of Social Darwinism (which he interprets as laissez-faire individualism):

My judgment is that the log of Social Darwinism will disappear again under the toxic flood waters of New Orleans.  The corpses floating face down in the muddy overflow from broken Mississippi levees are too shocking a sight for Americans of all classes and parties.  They are too kindly a people.  They will look once again for vigour and compassion in government, even at the price of higher taxes. (Emphasis added.)

Evans pointed to Herbert Spencer, who coined the term survival of the fittest nine years before “the great man himself” Charles Darwin wrote the Origin, as the founder of Social Darwinism.  Evans claimed that Social Darwinism caught on in America more than in Britain, under the “Yale polemicist” William Graham Sumner.
    How does Harold Evans illustrate the Social Darwinist attitude in America?  Primarily, by presidents of both parties who have expressed reluctance to send federal aid for disaster relief.  His only Democrat example, however, was Grover Cleveland; Republicans Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush he used as illustrations of the Social Darwinist attitude that government should not get involved when nature takes its course.  FDR, who according to Evans, “almost drove a stake through the heart of Social Darwinism” with his rapid-fire government aid programs during the Depression, illustrates to him a compassionate reaction to Hoover, who “was swept away by a riptide of anger and fear like that which may threaten the Republican ascendancy today.”

It’s always welcome to hear Social Darwinism get badmouthed, but Evans, clearly a British liberal seeing government as the solution to everything, makes some historical and logical flaws in his arguments.  He portrays Social Darwinism as a primarily conservative/capitalist phenomenon, when actually it was embraced not only by laissez-faire capitalists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, but just as much – if not more so – by political liberals and materialists in the eugenics movement.  (Laissez-faire capitalism actually had roots in Adam Smith, long before Darwin.)  He also wrongly conflates belief in individual responsibility with Social Darwinism; the two overlap somewhat at a pragmatic level, but are clearly pointed in nearly opposite directions.  Belief in individual responsibility is as old as Moses; it’s a matter of character, not evolution.  Individual responsibility and compassion are Christian virtues.  Christianity and Social Darwinism are polar opposites.  Many Christians and political conservatives who have nothing but the utmost disdain for Social Darwinism do not feel it is solely the government’s job to bail people out of all their mishaps.
    The amount of government aid that is proper, compared to private charity, is hotly debated in both parties.  Social Darwinism enters very little into the discussion nowadays.   Evans thus creates a false dichotomy that one is either a compassionate Democrat who believes government is the primary provider of disaster relief, or a laissez-faire Republican who lets people die in floods.  Isn’t that a switch.  Many conservatives arguing for limited government are the first rushing to help the New Orleans victims, illustrating that compassion and responsibility are not mutually exclusive values.  Evans also commits a non-sequitur that big government equals effective aid.  Some would argue that some of FDR’s well-intentioned reforms caused more and bigger problems than they solved.  The New Deal created lots of activity, motion and emotion, and many touching stories, but the court is still out on whether its policies or World War II actually ended the Depression.  And just who is the government, anyway?  Who pays the bills?  Taxpayers!  Government is not some independent benign Father, dispensing its own largesse with magnanimity and impunity.  When it steers the people’s money toward disaster relief, it is supposed to be acting as a steward, managing the people’s compassion with the consent of the governed.

  Some of the New Deal alphabet agencies, long past their period of usefulness during the Depression, have become eternal bureaucracies.  Drawing on the finite pool of wealth available for disaster relief by a process Frederic Bastiat called “legal plunder” (i.e., taxation), agencies like FEMA do provide relief in the name of Government, but this begs the question whether they do it faster or cheaper than private charities.  Go to any disaster center and you are just as likely (if not more so) to see aid being dispensed by local churches, the Red Cross, World Vision, the Salvation Army, Samaritan’s purse and many other non-governmental groups funded by charitable contributions, not by taxes – and with typically far less overhead than government.  The main contributions of government to disaster relief are mobilizing the armed forces for civil defense, providing protection from disease epidemics, and rebuilding the infrastructure.

For Evans to use Reagan or Bush as exemplars of a Social Darwinist attitude, therefore, is absurd.  A Christian and advocate of intelligent design (08/02/2005), Bush is no more a Social Darwinist than Richard Dawkins is a Pentecostal.  The heirs of Spencer and Sumner are not Republicans, but the overwhelmingly-liberal elitist scientists in the AAAS, NAS and Smithsonian who remain committed to the principles of “the great man himself” to this day.  For consistent Darwinists, disasters have opened up new evolutionary niches for billions of years.  Altruism is just a game to them (03/07/2002, 02/22/2004), with no moral content whatsoever.  If disaster has produced such biodiversity, who are we to get in the way of progress?
    If it weren’t for the historical fact that Social Darwinism produced the likes of Hitler and Stalin, Darwin’s disciples would still be advocating it today, and some are, with the prospect of a New Eugenics (10/12/2001), 10/18/2004, 10/21/2004).  Evans should look not to the Americans but to his British brethren – Spencer, Darwin and Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin, the father of eugenics) – as the instigators of the worldview that would rob civilization of civility, and passion of compassion.  Social Darwinism has only preceded its intellectual forebear onto the ash heap of history.  Meanwhile, churches all over America, without government pressure or assistance, are rushing into New Orleans and Mississippi with aid (example), and with messages of hope, comfort and salvation (example.  Let’s see the Church of Darwin put its rubber on the road.  What are they going to tell victims: “Tough luck”? 

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