The Corner


McCloskey’s Mistake

It’s no secret I am an enormous fan of Deirdre McCloskey’s. I’m working on a book that not only draws heavily on her work but is partly inspired by it. She’s not just a brilliant, perhaps Nobel-worthy, economist, she’s an amazingly prolific and insightful historian of ideas.

But even the greats get stuff wrong from time to time. In her much-discussed essay in the Wall Street Journal – adapted from Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions Enriched the World – she writes:

Intellectuals on the political right, for instance, looked back with nostalgia to an imagined Middle Ages, free from the vulgarity of trade, a nonmarket golden age in which rents and hierarchy ruled. Such a conservative and Romantic vision of olden times fit well with the right’s perch in the ruling class. Later in the 19th century, under the influence of a version of science, the right seized upon social Darwinism and eugenics to devalue the liberty and dignity of ordinary people and to elevate the nation’s mission above the mere individual person, recommending colonialism and compulsory sterilization and the cleansing power of war.

McCloskey is speaking about intellectuals in a transatlantic context here, so it’s possible she’s talking about the German “right” – i.e. Nazis and their progenitors – when she’s talking about social Darwinism and eugenics. If that’s what she means, that’s a debate I’m happy to have given that book I wrote.

But if she’s talking about America or even Britain, I think she basically gets this flatly wrong. “Social Darwinism” was a phrase invented by progressives – pro-eugenics progressives – to demonize laissez-faire capitalism. The notion that the 19th-century American “right” – at least as we understand the term in the Anglo-American tradition — believed in social Darwinism was almost entirely an invention of progressive statists and the 20th-century historian Richard Hofstadter. 

The most famous alleged social Darwinist was Herbert Spencer, a thoroughly McCloskeyan figure it seems to me. Yes, he was certainly a “Darwinist” in the sense that he believed in evolution (see below), but his views on the topic supported his conviction that people should be left alone. Here’s how I put in an article I wrote for The Weekly Standard (adapted somewhat from another book I wrote):

The truth of the matter, as aggrieved libertarians have been saying for years, is that Spencer was a thoroughly benign classical liberal. Yes, he coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (a term Darwin embraced), but contrary to generations of propaganda, he did not oppose charity (he celebrated it at great length), did not advocate the mastery of superior races over allegedly inferior ones, did not believe corporations should ride roughshod over the poor (he supported labor unions), and was in fact a great foe of imperialism and a champion of women’s suffrage.

Oh, and he never called himself a Social Darwinist. He didn’t call himself a Darwinist at all (he had a different theory of evolution).

But here’s the interesting part: Almost no one else called himself a Social Darwinist either (including Spencer’s alleged co-conspirator William Graham Sumner). Simply put, there was no remotely serious intellectual movement—at least not in America or Britain—called Social Darwinism, and the evil views attributed to so-called Social Darwinists were not held by its alleged founders. Geoffrey Hodgson conducted a survey of all of the leading English-language academic journals from the mid-1800s until 1937 and couldn’t find any evidence that Spencer and Sumner were part of, never mind leaders of, an intellectual movement called “Social Darwinism.” Even more amazing: In the entire body of Anglo-American scholarly publications spanning more than a century, there is only one article that actually advocates—rather than criticizes—something called “Social Darwinism.” And it not only wasn’t written by Spencer, it doesn’t mention him either.

If you consider state-driven eugenics to be evil, then the villains of the tale aren’t the so-called “Social Darwinists” at all, but the reform Darwinists (in historian Eric Goldman’s phrase). These were the progressive social engineers and economists who believed, in the words of Sidney Webb, “No consistent eugenicist can be a ‘Laisser Faire’ individualist,” he wrote, “unless he throws up the game in despair. He must interfere, interfere, interfere!” Many if not most of the founding fathers of progressive economics — some still considered titans of the economic profession — were devout eugenicists.

Thomas Leonard writes: “The progressive social scientists, those who led the Progressive Era movement for labor reform, were especially attracted to eugenic ideas. Scholars like Irving Fisher, Francis Amasa Walker, Henry Rogers Seager, Edward Alsworth Ross, John R. Commons, Sidney Webb, Charles Richmond Henderson, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and journalists like Paul Kellogg of the Survey and the New Republic’s Herbert Croly, all invoked eugenic ideas, especially to justify the exclusionary labor and immigration legislation that is a central legacy of the Progressive Era.” Leonard’s new book Illiberal Reformers hammers all of this home. The sainted liberal jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the infamous Buck v. Bell decision which made forced sterilizations of “imbeciles” constitutional (Buck was not an imbecile for the record). The liberals on the court voted with him, while the sole dissenter was a conservative, Pierce Butler. In Britain, The Catholic conservative G.K. Chesterton fought eugenics with every fiber of his being, while progressives and socialists like H.G. Wells, the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw believed it was the heart of socialist or progressive reform.

I don’t think any of this undermines any of McCloskey’s larger argument. But it’s frustrating to see someone so committed to the cause of liberty repeat a slander popularized by liberty’s enemies.

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