Barack Obama recently attacked (Republican House Representative) Paul Ryan’s proposals for cutting the federal budget deficit ‘social Darwinism’, referring to the apparent negative impacts on federal programs aimed at the poorest. I won’t go into the debate around Ryan’s proposals, as wish to note the debate spurred round a now little read nineteenth-century political and social thinker Herbert Spencer. Though as we will see some enthusiasts for market liberalism (that is classical liberalism or libertarianism, which may or may not be be synonyms) have studied Spencer. At the Financial Times , Christopher Caldwell looks at the historical and intellectual framing in ‘Obama’s traps of social Darwinism is yet to evolve‘. Caldwell’s account is highly critical of Obama, but he suggests that Obama’s insulting of free marketeers with a supposedly badly thought out reference from intellectual history is no worse than what a lot of right wing politicians say. Caldwell’s main point is that Darwinism is so pervasive in talking about social phenomena that it is meaningless to associate it with any particular political point of view. Like some other commentators, he refers to Richard Hofstadter’s book 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought. A work which appears to have been very influential on American ‘progressives’ (a standard way of referring to the left inclined in the USA) in defining free market thought as nineteenth century social Darwinism, and as an inappropriate extension of evolutionary theory.
That ‘progressive’ interpretation can be found in the New York Times ‘Opinionator’ comment blog, in an time by well known Columbia philosopher of science, Philip Kitcher in ‘The Taint “Social Darwinism”‘. This where the attack on Herbert Spencer comes in, though there is precious little sign that Kitcher has read Spencer or thought about his arguments. I have to concede that I have not read Spencer and cannot say he is priority for future reading, but I think I can tell the difference between a thoughtful response, and repetition of ‘progressive orthodoxy’, an assumption that Spencer was far from Darwin and Darwinism, and was a believer in violent struggle between humans, and an elitist contemptuous of average humans.
Damon Root’s ‘In Defense of Herbery Spencer’ responds to Kitcher in Hit and Run (blog section of the Reason libertarian website) referring to Spencer’s advocacy of feminism, pacifism, anti-colonialism, private charity, the evolution of human society towards peaceful co-operation, and Darwin’s use of Spenser’s phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ in the fifth edition of The Origin of Species. Root also directs his readers to his earlier post ‘The Unfortunate Case of Herbert Spencer‘.
There’s plenty more discussion of all this online, but I’ll finish there. The important points here are that interpretations of the history of thought are important in politics and that academics can be as irresponsible and superficial as any journalist, politician or blogger when referring to the political aspects of the history of thought.