Michael Knox Beran & social Darwinism

From a reader:

Mr. Goldberg,

Please see this portion of Mr. Beran’s essay in the City Journal. I find it to be in enormous agreement with your book, and follows the general trend of the Democratic Party since the days of Indian removal—that, rather than being the anti-mercantilists liberals vying against the corporate Republicans, as some would have us believe, they were consistently the party of local paternalism and militarism.

“Those three powers—Russia, Germany, and the United States—would go on to dominate the twentieth century. Only one did not become a slave empire. Had Lincoln not forced his revolution in 1861, American slavery might have survived into the twentieth century, deriving fresh strength from new weapons in the coercive arsenal—“scientific” racism, social Darwinism, jingoistic imperialism, the ostensibly benevolent doctrines of paternalism. The coercive party in America, unbroken in spirit, might have realized its dream of a Caribbean slave empire. Cuba and the Philippines, after their conquest by the United States, might have become permanent slave colonies. Such a nation would have had little reason to resist Bismarck’s Second Reich, Hitler’s third one, or Russia’s Bolshevik empire.”

Who were the scientific racists? The Progressives. The social Darwinists? The Progressives. The jingoistic imperialists? The Progressives. Who created a cult of personality out of the “benevolent” doctrine of paternalism? The Progressives. At the very least, I applaud Hillary Clinton’s intellectual integrity for harkening back to this term of yore.

Me: Interesting stuff, and I agree with his larger point. But I have one quibble. As readers of my “Liberal Racism” chapter know, I think “social Darwinism” is often misused, and I think the above might be a good example. Social Darwinism is usually deployed as a term to mean little more than “doing really bad things in the name of Darwin.” But it’s worth emphasizing that this is not the root of social Darwinism. It may well be bad, but the American social Darwinists were not the Nazi style eugenicists.  Those were the “reform Darwinists” — a phrase used by many, but which I get from Eric Goldman. They wanted to cull defective populations, sterilize the unfit and the inferior, and so forth. The social Darwinists, meanwhile, were the callous conservatives and libertarians who didn’t want to intervene on eugenic grounds. Herbert Spencer — the ur-social Darwinists — was a radical classical liberal who did not believe in statist interventionism. Social Dariwnism was denounced as the eugenic branch of laissez-faire economics. Sidney Webb & Co. were the ones who wanted to breed new men, pull undesirable weeds, remove defective germ plasm etc. 

Now in the European context, Hitler was often called a social Darwinist, because he believed in the “survival of the fittest.” But he was in no way, shape or form laissez-faire about it. He was more properly an extreme reform Darwinist. Personally, I don’t care what words we use to describe these things so long as we use the same words consistently. If we want to call Hitler a social Darwinist, fine. But let’s not call libertarian minded folks like Spencer (or Charles Murray) social Darwinists too. 

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