Writing in Reason Magazine, Damon Root attempts to rehabilitate the image of “social Darwinist” Herbert Spencer. Root’s article is based on a forthcoming article by Princeton University economist Tim Leonard who blames Spencer’s poor reputation on historian Douglas Hofstadter.
Hofstadter was a socialist, and so the free market capitalist Spencer was a perfect villain, especially when Spencer himself wrote in Social Statics, that
If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.
But, as Root/Leonard notes, this is followed quickly in Spencer by a paragraph in which Spencer wrote,
Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it be mitigated.
The thing to take away from Root/Leonard is not that Spencer had all the correct answers but that compared to the folks that Hofstadter admired and wrote nothing but praise for, Spence was a moral beacon,
Similarly, Hofstadter repeatedly points to Spencer’s famous phrase, “survival of the fittest,” a line that Charles Darwin added to the fifth edition of Origin of Species. But by fit, Spencer meant something very different from brute force. In his view, human society had evolved from a “militant” state, which was characterized by violence and force, to an “industrial” one, characterized by trade and voluntary cooperation. Thus Spencer the “extreme conservative” supported labor unions (so long as they were voluntary) as a way to mitigate and reform the “harsh and cruel conduct” of employers.
In fact, far from being the proto-eugenicist of Hofstadter’s account, Spencer was an early feminist, advocating the complete legal and social equality of the sexes (and he did so, it’s worth noting, nearly two decades before John Stuart Mill’s famous On the Subjection of Women first appeared). He was also an anti-imperialist, attacking European colonialists for their “deeds of blood and rapine” against “subjugated races.” To put it another way, Spencer was a thoroughgoing classical liberal, a principled champion of individual rights in all spheres of human life. Eugenics, which was based on racism, coercion, and collectivism, was alien to everything that Spencer believed.
The same can’t be said, however, for the progressive reformers who lined up against him. Take University of Wisconsin economist John R. Commons, one of the crusading figures that Hofstadter praised for opposing laissez-faire and sharing “a common consciousness of society as a collective whole rather than a congeries of individual atoms.” In his book Races and Immigrants in America (1907), Commons described African Americans as “indolent and fickle” and endorsed protectionist labor laws since “competition has no respect for the superior races.”
Similarly, progressive darling Theodore Roosevelt held that the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote, was “a mistake,” since the black race was “two hundred thousand years behind” the white. Yet despite these and countless other examples of racist pseudo-science being used by leading progressives, Leonard reports that Hofstadter “never applied the epithet ‘social Darwinist’ to a progressive, a practice that continues to this day.”
In other words, “social Darwinism” was simply an epithet designed to forestall any serious consideration of free market capitalism. And, it has to be admitted, an extremely successful strategem at that.
There’s one other oddity about the term “social Darwinist” that can best be captured by quoting from Robert Reich, who never fails to take the opportunity to demonstrate what an idiot he is. In a 2005 op-ed Reich wrote,
Social Darwinism was developed some thirty years after Darwin’s famous book by a social thinker named Herbert Spencer. Extending Darwin into a realm Darwin never intended, Spencer and his followers saw society as a competitive struggle where only those with the strongest moral character should survive, or else the society would weaken. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”
Aside from completely misunderstanding Spencer’s claims, the fact is that Spencer formulated his ideas before Darwin. Social Statics was published in 1852 — seven years prior to Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species. In fact, Spencer was never really a Darwinist at all since he believed that evolution was a constant march of progress and held to what appears to be some variant of Lamarckianism.
It’s interesting that Reich can blame Spencer for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest” but can’t bring himself to admit that Darwin himself found it useful enough to incorporate into the 5th edition of The Origin of Species writing,
I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.
Ultimately, the tide has turned against the phrase with “natural selection” being almost universally favored today. But even when it was in its heyday, survival of the fittest doesn’t necessarily mean “whoever has the biggest club wins.” Natural selection doesn’t care if you’re a lover or a fighter as long as you manage to survive long enough to pass along your genes to your offspring.
One of the frustrating things about being a libertarian is that almost by definition any libertarian who actually makes a serious run for a national office also tends to be a complete nutter. The Libertarian Party remains a bad joke and the Republican Party give us libertarians like Ron Paul.
Since the late 1970s, Paul had published a monthly newsletter under a number of different titles including The Freedom Report and The Ron Paul Investment Letter. The New Republic’s James Kirchick’s wrote an article, Angry White Man, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary that documented racist content that appeared in the newsletters beginning in the late 1980s. Among other things, the newsletters accused Martin Luther King, Jr. of being a pedophile, referred to blacks as “animals”. In light of Paul’s support of the paleo-conservative view that the single worst event in U.S. history was the Civil War, there’s no reasonable doubt that the newsletter intentionally advanced racist ideas as part of its appeal.
The newsletter also contained explicitly anti-homosexual statements such as this gem,
Homosexuals, not to speak of the rest of society, were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities.
There is also plenty of conspiracy theory nonsense about the Trilateral Commission, allegations that AIDS was intentionally created by WHO researchers, etc. Paul was running ads in Michigan claiming that NAFTA was part of some grand conspiracy to create a single North American state.
Paul clearly understands that the newsletters are a problem, but has dissembled over them. When his Democratic opponent in his 1996 House race brought up some of the racist quotes, Paul accused his opponent of taking the quotes out of context. By 2001, Paul had a completely different explanation — he hadn’t written the offending passages, nor had he actually been aware of them at the time they were written, even though the newsletter was published under his name and he benefited greatly from the income the newsletters generated.
So you can either believe a) that Paul is a racist, or b) he’s not a racist, but he allowed others to write racist articles that he did not approve or read even though the newsletter went out under his name. Either explanation renders Paul unfit for public office, period, much less for President.
Yet his supporters don’t see it that way. To Ron Paul supporters this is old news being dredged up by a conspiracy designed to bring down Paul’s revolutionary run for the White House. Many attack Kirchick for being a lousy reporter or repeating this “old” story. Even the normally rational writers at Reason magazine, many of whom have been very supportive of Paul’s candidacy, have certainly not treated this story in the same way they would have if it came out that, say, John Edwards had been publishing a newsletter in the 1980s and 1990s filled with racist and homophobic invectives.
Libertarianism is such a fringe movement anyway, that it is hard to say that this episode will damage it. But it will certainly offer a very high profile example for liberals and left-wingers who already argue that libertarianism is an ideology whose subtext would be to preserve white, upper class privilege. The fact that so many of his supporters are able to so easily dismiss writings that Paul distributed under his name certainly doesn’t bode well for the possibility of a genuine libertarian political movement either independently or within the Republican Party.
One of the fun things about running a site like this is people are always sending me links to their libertarian-oriented web sites — most of which I would never have run across on my own. One of the better sites I’ve run across in this way in the past few months is LibertyBoard.Org. I’m a big fan of the Linux/Open Source discussion site, Slashdot and LibertyBoard.Org uses software that emulates the Slashdot design. Updated regularly with interesting features, LibertyBoard is sure to be a hit once more people stumble across it.
It happened again. Last
week another prisoner on Illinois’ death row was exonerated after new
evidence (DNA tests in this case) proved someone else committed the crime.
This is getting to be a habit in Illinois. Since 1987, an average of one
death row inmate every year has been cleared of the crime for which they
were sentenced to die in Illinois.
In the current case Ronald
Jones, 49, had been sentenced to death for the brutal rape and murder
of Debra Smith, 28, in March of 1985. Blood tests introduced during Jones’
trial demonstrated he might have been the killer, but what really cooked
Jones’ goose was a confession he gave police admitting he raped and murdered
During his trial and numerous
times during his 12 years of incarceration, Jones maintained he signed
the confession only to stop the beating he received from the police assigned
to interrogate him. Of course now that this “confession” has been proved
to be false, Illinois prosecutors quickly announced they weren’t going
to bother to investigate Jones’ charges that he was assaulted by police
In fact, even though Cook County
prosecutors announced on May 18, 1999 that they wold drop all charges
against Jones and not retry him, the test results on sperm taken from
Smith that proved someone other than Jones raped her was completed in
1997. Prosecutors kept Jones sitting in an Illinois jail for two years
while “investigating” whether or not they wanted to retry Jones for Smith’s
murder after the Illinois Supreme Court threw out the conviction in July
There’s nothing like speedy
Jones is certainly no choir
boy. Rather than being released from prison, he will be extradited to
Tennessee where in 1980 he walked off a prison work release program while
serving a sentence for armed robbery. But at the same time neither was
he a murderer, and without innovations in DNA testing and the numerous
delays in carrying out capital sentences that law and order types despise
so much, he almost certainly would have died for a crime he didn’t commit.
This outcome should be no
surprise to libertarians — the state is just as inefficient at ensuring
the people it sends to their deaths are truly guilty as it is in delivering
any other good or service. In other words, barely one step above what
well trained chimpanzees could do. Should it really come as any surprise
that the same government that can’t provide decent schools for children
or properly maintain roads can’t be bothered to make sure people on death
row are really guilty?
Certainly most people who
consider themselves libertarians wouldn’t hesitate to point out the abuses
of the police power that the modern Leviathan state makes all but inevitable.
The drug war tends to create and reinforce racial stereotypes among police
as well as alienate officers from the people they are supposed to protect,
creating a strong us vs. them culture in many jurisdictions. Police officers
and chiefs often turn around and become the primary advocates for banning
all sorts of consensual activities from pushing for stronger drug legislation
and more resources to go after drug users to strong opposition to citizens
arming themselves with concealed weapons. It is no secret that significant
numbers of police officers see themselves as above the very law they enforce.
But would simply eliminating
the corrupt laws, police officers, prosecutors and judges be enough to
prevent miscarriages of justice as almost happened with Robert Jones?
Perhaps if we lived in a libertarian paradise where government was minimal,
billions of dollars wasn’t wasted on the drug war, and the state respected
people’s Constitutional rights, the justice system would get it right
and the odds of an innocent person going to jail would be almost nil.
Perhaps. And perhaps in this
world of minimal government things would also be so wonderful that nobody
would really need to own a handgun for personal protection, thereby making
gun control a viable proposition (since the state is minimal, after all,
what harm can it do to the gun owner or innocent man?)
Just as most libertarians
would object to the claim that a truly just government would obviate the
need for gun ownership, so they should reject the notion that the state
should have the right to kill its citizens as an officially sanctioned
penalty for crimes such as murder.
This should not be taken to
mean that the right of individuals or agents of individuals, including
the state, lack a right to defend themselves against an imminent danger.
People certainly have the right to kill other people who pose a direct
and immediate threat to their own safety, but once a criminal, even a
murderer, is in custody and placed on trial he or she rarely poses such
a direct and immediate threat. Killing him or there, therefore, is more
akin to cold blooded murder than an act of self-defense.
Similarly, this should not
be taken as a call for the sort of coddling of serious criminals advocated
by some misguided activists (usually of Leftist persuasions). A prison
system that wasn’t bogged down with the overwhelming number of drug and
other consensual crimes could easily handle the permanent, lifetime incarceration
of those who intentionally commit murder. Those falsely accused of such
crimes could be released and compensated by the state when the error is
brought to light — an option unavailable to those killed by the state.
The historical record of the
20th century is quite clear that giving any group of people
the power to kill those who don’t pose an immediate and direct threat
inevitably leads that group to apply its power against the innocent, whether
intentionally or not. The power to kill those who don’t pose a direct
and immediate threat should be one firmly opposed by libertarians.