Illustration by Bruce Bjerva, Star Tribune.
Bruce Bjerva, Star Tribune
Is it raining libertarians, or what?
- Article by: STEPHEN B. YOUNG
- May 26, 2012 - 8:59 PM
The virtual takeover of the Minnesota Republican Party by supporters of libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul, completed at last weekend's state convention, is fresh evidence to answer the question: Why have we Americans become so culturally divided?
Election after election comes and goes, but no majority consensus emerges. This year's national and state elections are not likely to bring us together. What has gone wrong?
Earlier this spring, President Obama cogently framed the debate. He said that the Republicans advocate a "thinly veiled Social Darwinism" that he will oppose. With that Obama has rightly exposed the San Andreas fault in our politics.
Out of their experience after the Civil War, America's Republicans came to believe in a philosophy called Social Darwinism, with its call for individual self-reliance, free markets and limited government. Most Americans who rejected Social Darwinism became Democrats.
My mother's family was Republican, a mix of Scotch-Irish Social Darwinist Republican and mainline, establishment, Episcopalian, moderate Republican. My father's family was Yankee Republican, a segment that went with Roosevelt during the New Deal and in World War II.
I've been a Democrat, a Republican and an independent. And I've watched Social Darwinism take over the Republican Party lock, stock and barrel.
Social Darwinism is a misleading label for this core Republican political ideology. It has nothing to do with the thought of Charles Darwin. It was created by Englishman Herbert Spencer in his 1851 book "Social Statics," where Spencer argued -- years before Darwin did -- that humanity was descended from the animal kingdom and, like animals, was engaged in a struggle for "survival of the fittest."
For Spencer, human morality and ethics were defined by winning in aggressive competition. Those who survive deserve to survive; those who die off deserve no pity.
In his 1884 classic "The Man Versus The State" -- which reads like campaign speeches of Ronald Reagan -- Spencer wrote: "When some are prevented from buying beer that others may be prevented from getting drunk, those who make the law assume that more good than evil will result from interference with the normal relationship between conduct and consequence."
Especially annoying to Spencer was the argument that government should interfere with life's natural operation of weeding out the losers among us. Spencer argued for the least government possible. He was blind to the need for checks to forestall possible abuses of power. Since animals had no checks on their power save natural selection and fate, why should we?
In his social philosophy, Spencer turned his back on the Whig thinkers who had inspired and created American government and politics such as John Locke, Edmund Burke, and the framers of the Constitution.
He concluded that: "The function of Liberalism in the past was that of putting a limit to the powers of kings. The function of true liberalism in the future will be that of putting a limit to the powers of Parliaments." The constitutional crusades of the Whigs were over and done with, Spencer thought; in his mind a new political ideology was needed to challenge the rising administrative state.
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Spencer's "true" liberalism of the future is what we today call libertarianism. It has come down to us through a variety of thinkers who followed Spencer's assumptions, including Ayn Rand, pioneering game theorists, many fundamentalist preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and secular free-market fundamentalists of the Chicago School of economics.
Maybe we should call this ideology "Spencerism" in honor of its actual founding father.
Social Darwinism never won much acclaim in England. But in the United States, after the Civil War, Spencer's thought merged with American Calvinism, adding religious zeal and the doctrine of predestination to a secular program of limited government and maximum market freedom.
By 1900, Social Darwinism had become a powerful cultural and political force in the United States. It was the comforting social vision of the Gilded Age of robber barons and great inequality of wealth, touted famously by Andrew Carnegie.
In 1883 Yale Professor William Graham Sumner popularized Spencer's thinking.
He wrote "some people have resolved to be teetotalers and they want a law passed to make everybody else a teetotaler. ... Society does not need any care or supervision. ... Nature's remedies against vice are terrible. She removes the victims without pity. A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be, according to the fitness and tendency of things."
Sumner thundered that meddlesome government is only "a scheme for making injustice prevail in human society by reversing the distribution of rewards and punishments between those who have done their duty and those who have not."
From the post-Civil War American Calvinist perspective, winners were seen as the chosen of God and losers were those whom God had forsaken for their sin and weak character. Since a just God was believed to control destiny, one could win or lose only depending to the degree one had received God's grace and favors. Victory in the struggle to survive, it was argued, came from following God's instructions.
This amalgam of Herbert Spencer and John Calvin emerged as the dominant belief system of mainstream Republicans under the presidencies of Scotch-Irish Calvinists Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and, especially, William McKinley. In the presidential election of 1896, Social Darwinism triumphed over its rivals -- social gospel compassion for the poor, progressive reformism and socialism/communism.
The now infamous 1905 Lochner decision of the U.S. Supreme Court preventing New York state from imposing limits on the working hours of bakers rested on Spencer's notion of protecting from government interference our full freedom to contract however we wish.
This year the Supreme Court, in ruling on the constitutionality of President Obama's health care legislation, will again consider whether our Constitution embraces Spencer's philosophy of economic laissez faire. I am betting that the conservatives on the court will once again align with Spencer and against the "nanny" state.
• • •
There was also an ethnic/racial side to Social Darwinism that must not be forgotten, a side perhaps not intended by Spencer but a logical extension of his thought nevertheless. This ethnic discrimination presumed a perpetual struggle for survival among ethnic groups and peoples.
Just as there was to be a hierarchy of winners among individuals to enjoy God's favors, so too were some races destined to be superior to others thanks to their intelligence, discipline, resolve and hard work -- and closeness to the Protestant Christian God.
For American Social Darwinists like my great-grandmother Etta Ross Hubbard, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were destined for greatness above all other races.
In this spirit, when the United States took colonial control over the Philippines, Kipling urged us to "take up the White Man's Burden" of bringing civilization to "lesser breeds without the law." We have recently seen something of this ideology in President George W. Bush's war of choice in Iraq.
By 1900, Republicanism in these United States defined itself as a political creed mostly for Protestant Anglo-Saxon Americans, the founding race of our republic. Republicans had by then turned their backs on Reconstruction in the South to accommodate Jim Crow segregation there.
They made little effort to bring Native Americans, African Americans, or Catholic Irish, Jews, and immigrants from southern Europe into their party. These "ethnics" were considered as just not "clubbable," not being destined for ultimate fitness in the dog-eat-dog contest of life itself.
I grew up with this Social Darwinism. When my engagement to a Vietnamese woman made the society pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times in 1970 -- due to my prominent WASP family status as a descendent of one forbear who signed the Declaration of Independence, another who had drafted the Preamble to our Constitution and others who had taken the 1775 oath to bear arms against King George III -- my grandmother boasted in an odd sort of way: "I can't understand what has gotten into Steve. Two thousand years of WASP blood down the drain."
• • •
In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt had understood that his challenge was to reject the premise of Social Darwinism and craft a welfare state for America. He and many others saw Social Darwinism in economics as the real cause of the crash of 1929.
They therefore rejected Spencer's teachings and looked for different sources of policy inspiration. In particular, they found John Maynard Keynes and multi-ethnic populism, where government would be called upon to moderate the evils of unfettered social and economic competition.
The Roosevelt coalition's successes forced Republicans to adapt. But beginning with Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign to repeal the welfare state, the Republican Party has been moving back toward its full, late-19th-century embrace of Social Darwinism. The party sought to "conserve" what had been overturned by Roosevelt's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society.
The base of today's Republican Party is enthusiastically behind Herbert Spencer's demand for minimal government funded by minimal taxation of private wealth combined with a special American Calvinist conviction about God's desire to reward those who enter the lists of social and economic combat to win through as witnesses to Christ's truth (Prosperity Gospel, Dominionism, etc.).
Some 43 percent of all Americans seem to favor this Republicanism to one degree or another. This is the base that faithful Mormon Mitt Romney must guide to win enough votes from non-Social Darwinists to defeat Barack Obama, running as the anti-Spencer and the proud heir of Roosevelt's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society.
After almost 50 years of cultural war, fighting for and against Social Darwinism, we are a country split down the middle, drifting to who knows where.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.
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