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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Social Darwinism Again

I have now finished Richard Hofstadter's book on social Darwinism (see last post), and it has stirred more reflections about the present and the distant past. Essentially Social Darwinism has once again, in a different form, become our prevailing social philosophy, and threatens to become insitutionalized in our legal system, as it was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet because the same ideas have reappeared in new forms, observers are only beginning to recognize what it is, and it has already gone so far that it is not clear how much, at this late stage, can be done about it.

As promulgated by Herbert Spencer, Social Darwinism argued that history was the product of an unregulated struggle among individuals that was certain to produce better types of human beings and better outcomes for society. Attempts to control this process, he argued, were worse than useless, since the outcomes they produced would be both inferior and temporary. As Hofstadter notes, this philosophy did not conflict with classical economics as it was then understood, and implicitly validated the growth of huge industries and rampant inequalities of wealth. At the other end of the specturm, Marx and Engels also seized upon Darwinism as a vindication of the idea of the class struggle. Geopolitical thinkers also began to see international politics as a struggle for survival among different races, leading to rampant, self-righteous imperialism and playing a major role in the coming of the two world wars. (I treated this at great length in Politics and War.) A similar Darwinist perspective, I would argue, is at work today, both in the domestic and international spheres, and is providing an intellectual and even moral legitimacy to drastic changes in domestic and international life.

In last Sunday's New York Times, Jeffrey Rosen discussed a strong new current in legal thought: the "Constitution in Exile" movement, to which Justice Clarence Thomas already adheres. It argues, essentially, that the judges of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who argued that the Fourteenth Amendment protected corporations, as well as persons, from deprivations of "life, liberty or property without due process of law," and that any restrictions upon freedom of contract were unconstitutional. That argument had been used to invalidate a host of state attempts to regulate wages and hours and restrict corporate power. Dissenting from one such opinion, the Lochner case. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. objected that "The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics." "Freedom of contract" was an equally powerful weapon against labor unions, of course, and helped keep them in check during the same period. In the Progressive Era, as Hofstadter showed, countervailing currents emerged, including Pragmatism, which argued that human agency could shape the environment in which competition took place in order to bring about more just outcomes. The Progressives scored some modest successes in the 1901-14 period, but by the 1920s they were in full retreat.

It was only the catastrophe of the Depression that invalidated the Social Darwinist consensus. As Charles A. Beard wrote in his neglected classic, The Open Door at Home, in 1934, no one could now argue that human life was governed by immutable laws of progress, and men and women were free to introduce ethics and aesthetics into discussions what society should look like. The Supreme Court, dominated by men who had reached adulthood during the Gilded Age, held the line against the New Deal's attempts to regulate the economy through 1936 and invalidated several major New Deal reforms on 14th Amendment grounds. But the scare of Roosevelt's court packing plan and a couple of retirements shifted the balance on the court, and the idea that the commerce clause enabled the federal government to regulate economic activity became geenrally accepted for the next sixty years or so. That idea, Rosen showed, has been repudiated from the bench by Justice Thomas, who described the 1937 shift as a "wrong turn," and by a whole school of conservative lawyers and justices. It could, Rosen argued, become orthodoxy again.

Meanwhile, of course, laissez faire has staged a tremendous comeback since the Reagan Administration, with enormous consequences. Labor unions have a fraction of their strength and influence. The minimum wage has fallen relative to the cost of living and restrictions on hours laws are becoming a dead letter. Above all, any attempt to keep competition within limits by favoring domestic production over foreign competition has been abandoned, with catastrophic results for the American working class, and the tax burden on the rich as been cut by more than half since the 1950s. Whether or not the Gilded Age interpretation of the Constitution returns from exile, economic life has once again become a struggle for survival in which different individuals fight with weapons of enormously unequal strength.

How has this happened in the absence of an explicit revivial of Social Darwinism? The main intellectual impetus for the changes of the last thirty years, I would argue, is the fetishism of the market that dominates the economic professsion. Despite the survivial of a few prominent dissenters like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, the idea that competition and market forces on a world scale hold the key to the progress of the human race has become dogma. As anyone who ever took Economics 1 knows, economic logic has a terrifying power, yet any student who retained his critical faculties could also see that it does not actually reflect human behavior and certainly does not guarantee the most just outcome. It has evidently become almost impossible to earn a doctorate in Economics, however, without buying into the orthodoxy.

The power of market thinking among economists is truly awesome to behold. One striking example made a splash thirty years ago, when Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman published Time of the Cross, which was marketed as an econometric analysis of slavery. Actually it made relatively little use of data. Starting with the generally accepted conclusion that slavery was profitable, Fogel and Engerman simply assumed that it could only have been profitable if slaves were exhibiting classic economic behavior and responding to a system of incentives and relatively good treatment. Unfortunately for them, as a whole book worth of critics immediately pointed out, when they attempted to support their thesis with contemporary observations of slaves' behavior, they often wound up misrepresenting the sense of what the source had actually said. Another spectacular illustration of the power of market thining emerged a couple of months' ago in Lawrence Summers' notorious remarks about the lack of top-level female scientists. Lost in the controversy was one or the more astonishing parts of his argument: that if deserving female scientists were being ignored, some universities would inevitably take advantage of this market anomaly to hire them. That a man of Summers's intelligence could spend much of his life in academia and continue to believe that it allocates jobs in a rational fashion is a truly astonishing testimony to the power of the indoctrination he must have gotten in his youth.

Thus, with few exceptions, the American educated elite accepts the idea that lower wages, longer hours, fewer benefits, and the movement of industry to the Third World must in the long run be good things, and that there is no conflict between the interests of the powerful and the rest of us. Supply side economics, which specifically argued that letting the rich keep more of their money would help the economy as a whole, was an attempt to reconcile the market with the general welfare, and it was a staple of President Bush's re-election campaign, even though it clearly is not doing what it was supposed to. As a matter of fact, we may yet see a revival of a completely different kind of economic analysis that emerged during the Depression--the underconsumption argument, which argued that only an economy in which the benefits were broadly spread could stimulate production and create new jobs. That, however, will only happen if we enter a very serious long-term crisis. Meanwhile, the idea of the sovereignty of the market has become a substitute for thought and the excuse for a revival of a social Darwinist economic system, and neither political party has stood in the way.

The columnist Bob Herbert also drew attention to this phenomenon last week when he quoted excerpts from Franklin Roosevelt's last State of the Union address. Every American, Roosevelt argued, should enjoy basic economic rights, including a useful and productive job that paid enough both for life and recreation, access to health care, security in old age, protection against unfair competition, and more. Those principles, I would argue, were a very simple reaction to the Depression and the various catastrophes it had brought about--proof that the market could not be counted upon to assure optimal, must less just, outcomes. Roosevelt's beliefs sustained a whole generation of American leaders--Republican and Democratic--for about 35 years. Now Americans too young to have heard his words are consigning them to the ashcan of history. Survivals of an earlier era, such as the health care benefits General Motors still gives its former assembly-line workers, are cited as crushing obstacles to competition in the new economic world, and the business press anxiously waits for Europe to abandon the workers' rights of the twentieth century as well.

Meanwhile, because manufacturing has been moving offshore, economic social Darwinism and simple greed have funneled more and more of our brightest people into the financial world, and the manipulation of financial markets and the exploitation of new financial innovations have become the highest calling. While it is not generally recognized, our system of higher education has become a mechanism, as a prominent journalist remarked to me lately, for funneling our best and brightest onto Wall Street. (The accumulation by students of six-figure debt during their years of college and graduate school has done a lot to encourage this process as well.) That development, of course, was what made Enron the most esteemed corporation in America before it collapsed. It was not the first example of where unrestrained financial manipulation can lead, and it will not be the last.

Nor is the influence of Social Darwinism confined to economic life. While racism is clearly out of fashion, our current foreign policy leadership sees the world in Social Darwinistic terms as well. To make this point it is only necessary to quote from the opening paragraphs of our current National Security Strategy, published in 2002.

"The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages."

The twentieth century, in short, was a Darwinian laboratory on a grand scale, and the results of the experiment are in. That, moreover, not only proves that the United States was right, it gives us a duty to enforce the results worldwide and wipe out any backward pockets of resistance, in the same way that eugenicists of the early twentieth century sought to stop the propagation of unworthy human beings. A skeptic like the late George Kennan might instead suggest that while Fascism and, eventually, Communism both failed, that does not imply that democratic capitalism is bound to succeed, much less take over the entire world. Both our economic and political life are now dominated by simple linear projections, and such projections have never been a reliable guide to the future of human events.

No aspect of this picture saddens me more than the role of my own generation, which began repudiating our parents' work in the 1960s and has continued tearing it down ever since. Much of what we did was necessary. Our parents' world was socially intolerant and emotionally constricted to a degree that those born since 1960 will never understand, and American life is freer and fairer emotionally because of Awakening that took place then. But in the political and economic sphere our parents had done very well, and we have no comparable achievements to show. The battle over Social Security (which Roosevelt began, but which the GI or "greatest" generation turned into a benefit the elderly could live in) will determine whether we save anything of what they left us. But FDR's principles--which became our parents' principles--are nearly dead, and nothing less than huge economic catastrophe seems likely to revive them.


Anonymous said...

You don't get much exciting dialog here do you?

You didn't like my little bit about being descended from a minister to the court of St. James, did you?

Well, it is your blog, you post what you approve of. Which seems to be very little.

Good bye.

Anonymous said...

I thought your article was excellent. I do also feel sad and helpless at the resurgence of social Darwinism, both in the US and Australia where I live. I felt happy, though, to know that there's somebody who can articulate so well the way I feel.

Keep writing!!

PS. How do I send this on?

Roberto said...

Mr. Kaiser,
Your insight on Hofstadter's analysis of Social Darwinism is on the mark. If you have no objections I would like to link it to my article on the The Great Human Experiment in so far as it relates to my ancestors, the West Indian diaspora in Panama. Your blog makes history blogs something to look forward to.

Anonymous said...

interesting to look back and see this was written right on the cusp of the great recession~