A portion of an email from Steve Horwitz:
For the LF files…
Working on the family book, I was re-skimming through Stephanie Coontz’s 1992 book on the history of the American family and came across this paragraph tying together Social Darwinism and the contemporary right. See if you can count how many instances it contains of people on the left (like Coontz) being unaware of their own history, not to mention the history of ideas more generally. I’ll insert a few comments of my own.
“Social Darwinism preached that millionaires exemplified the ‘survival of the fittest.’ [No, it didn’t, aside from the fact that the closest thing to SD were the progressive eugenicists.] Like Ross Perot’s a hundred years later, their advice was eagerly sought. [That would be the Progressives whose advice was sought.] The poor were labeled ‘unfit,’ a drag on the race. [So labeled by the Progressives, the progenitors of the modern left.] To preserve the unfit in any way was to court disaster. ‘Nature’s cure for most social and political diseases is better than man’s,’ argued the president of Columbia University, as did his successors [here it comes….] in the 1970s and 1980s, George Gilder and Charles Murray.”
Now it turns out that the Columbia U President she refers to is Nicholas Murray Butler, who was, in fact, an admirer of Mussolini in the 20s as well as quite the anti-Semite. However, Coontz also neglects the rest of the quotation, which is “and without the strongest reasons the government should withhold its hands from everything that is not, by substantially common consent, a matter of governmental concern and governmental action.” Butler was not, in that context anyway, arguing against charity etc, but rather the state. The quote is from a collection of essays on Spencer and Spencer too was fine with private charity. The charge that opposition to government action to relieve poverty is equivalent to the caricature version of Social Darwinism (i.e., we’d be better off if the poor just died or stopped breeding) is one of the weakest and dirtiest arguments in the left’s arsenal, especially because it was their own progenitors who were making precisely that argument.
And of course we see the straight line from the eugenicists and progressives directly to who she sees as their modern heirs. As LF so nicely demonstrates, that line is hardly a straight one and Coontz, as much as I think she has done some really good work on the family and work that can be interpreted in classical liberal-friendly ways, is guilty of the same ignorance of the left’s history as so many others.
Anyway, I needed to rant to someone who’d understand….