Sunday, 15 April 2012

Are you a Social Darwinist?

Note: This article was first published on the Adam Smith Institute blog (April 13th) in a modified form. For all my other ASI writings see here.

In a recent exchange of compliments on the American political scene, the US President Barack Obama accused the GOP budget commissioner Paul Ryan as well as the supporter of his budget proposal and Obama’s likely Presidential opponent Mitt Romney, of being “Social Darwinists”. The severe budget cuts called for by the Republicans enraged the President as he feels that the government must take an active role in supporting education, R&D, and infrastructural investments, which are not only important in restoring short-run recovery, but also for creating a long run, sustainable, government-led dynamism of the US economy. However, government investments will always fail the assumptions of the Smithian market signalization and specialization and will never be robust enough to produce the optimal outcome in the economy. 

Anyone opposing this civilizational aspiration of humanity to be led and controlled by the government is apparently a Social Darwinist. Let me just clarify that the GOP is far from Social Darwinism in terms of government intervention in an economy. But I do understand why the President would use this term to describe them. 

The term will always be considered in a pejorative fashion. Why? Because Social Darwinism implies survival of the fittest; an application of Darwin’s natural selection law into a society. In the animal kingdom struggle for existence the strong survive and succeed, while the weak fail and are left to die. The stigma of Social Darwinism in a society implies that the poor shouldn’t be aided in a system where wealth is a sign of success. 

I feel this definition needs a bit of clarification. Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean that those who fail should die. This means that those who fail should undergo a trial and error process until they do succeed. No one reaches success immediately; we all undergo a trial and error process, whether through looking for jobs, applying for schools or looking for a place to live. Our experience gained through a series of trials and errors ensures a process of constant cognitive learning. 

Social Darwinism has much more examples in real life situations than one could think of.

In sports, every sporting competitor strives on proving he or she is stronger than the competition. Strong teams and strong players will defeat the weaker ones, and we will celebrate the strong ones while bantering on the weaker ones. And for some reason this behaviour is perfectly acceptable. And why shouldn’t it be? 

In Premier League football, one team wins the league, three teams fall out of the league. Unfair? Better call up the lefties to fix this: “We cannot have anyone dropping out of the league. It isn’t fair to those who came in last. It’s the society’s fault they came in last, so we should help them. Maybe the players instead of practice went on watching mindless shows on TV – that’s society’s fault for letting the ‘free market’ ruin good television with their quests for ratings.” How many times have you heard this argument? 

Another example is higher education – who gets admitted, those with best SAT/GRE/GMAT scores or those with the worse? Opportunity to study is given to anyone who proves his or her worth with hard work and competence. In schools kids learn that success in a society should be based on merit. This is how they distinct themselves from others and ensure a better life further on. 

Finally, in a competitive marketplace, this is more than welcomed behaviour. Firms that treat their customers poorly will be considered weak and will go under, while those who offer an extra service and value to the customer will be considered strong and will be able to prosper. Trial and error means that good companies which offer an added value will succeed while bad ones will fail. Bear in mind, this doesn’t include bailouts and socialization of the costs. Under Social Darwinism this is strictly forbidden. Under common sense this is forbidden as well. 

But unlike my ‘imaginary’ aforementioned examples, the competitive marketplace does get unfair intervention. Why is that? Why we chose to accept the educational system to produce experts based on merit, sports to produce results based on merit, while companies aren’t allowed to do so? If it produces Messi, Jordan, Federer, many brilliant Nobel prize winners or companies like Facebook, Google or Apple, why shouldn’t it be allowed to produce more companies that behave like Messi, Jordan or Federer in their respective fields? 

In the animal kingdom, natural selection ensures only the strongest of the species survive. In a society, a competitive marketplace will yield the same outcome. This doesn’t mean that those left behind due to natural congenital disadvantages should be left to die. I don’t think anyone within a society thinks this way and I don’t think this is implied in the definition of Social Darwinism. When it comes to human beings everyone should get an equal opportunity to prove him or herself based on merit. When it comes to companies the same rule should be applied. Call it Social Darwinism or call it competitive meritocracy, unlike its ideological opposite - socialism, at least it hasn’t killed anyone. 

P.S. As for the Ryan budget, I think it’s highly hypocritical of the Republicans to cut everything apart from defence and national security spending. They fail to realize that economic freedom cannot fully express itself without individual freedom. One cannot go without the other.


  1. How do you justify this definition of social darwinism:

    "At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies, sustaining belief in Anglo-Saxon or Aryan cultural and biological superiority."

    That is from encyclopedia Britannica:

    1. Hand-picking races and nations as a dominant ‘breed of humans’ is hardly what Darwin would consider as ‘natural selection’. The same goes for any imperialist and colonial supremacy of one nation over another. This is not natural selection where individual merit within a society drives one to become more successful over another, this is individual selection of vicious minds who misinterpret their racial or social origin as the dominant one. One shouldn’t prove him or herself with their origin, but through their actions.

  2. fight_for_your_right17 April 2012 at 12:12

    There is no way to justify social darwinism! It is by definition a rouge system based on exploiting the misery of others. From the children factory workers in the 19th century in Britain to the slave labor in China and other Asian countries today, social darwinism is present and dominant. It is the main reason behind the generic society we see today. People run over each other for money. How can there be progress in such a state of mind.

  3. I don't think there is any conceivable way in which social darwinism would be considered as a positive thing. I too believe in meritocracy but I don't consider it to be in the same basket as social darwinism. I can see how you are able to find similar arguments, but they just aren't the same.. Social darwinism would imply reaching success by beating everyone else to it. Meritocracy doesn't imply that. In fact, meritocracy is a non-rival system (one person's success doesn't undermine it from anyone else) while social darwinism is a rival system (either one or the other makes it).

    1. I see your point, but look at it this way - my examples of sports, education or a competitive marketplace all imply that you have to beat others in order to succeed. These natural rivalries between students getting into college or finding jobs, teams competing for the championship or firms competing for customers and market dominance are the examples of social Darwinism (or competitive meritocracy) in the real world. Furthermore it is due to this that they tend to produce state of the art results (like the examples mentioned in the text). Those who don't posses the same amount of skills or talent can work hard and still be competitive enough to succeed. They won't be annihilated, they will undergo a trial and error process until they find something they are good at. And presumably they'll stick with it.

      Perhaps if I substituted the term 'social Darwinism' with 'meritocracy' there would be much more agreement on what is the driver of success in a society - but the point of the text wasn't to stress out the obvious, but to try and reduce the negative bias against the term Social Darwinism. I understand this was a difficult task, but I gave it a shot.

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