President Barack Obama lambasted the Paul Ryan budget as “thinly veiled social Darwinism” in a scorching budget speech last week. The charge displayed the same care as his contention that it would be unprecedented for the Supreme Court to overturn legislation passed by Congress — in other words, another verbal temper tantrum substituting petulance for reason.
Social Darwinism is the 19th-century creed that, drawing on biology, supposedly held that a laissez-faire economy should operate on the basis of “survival of the fittest.” The strong rise, while the weak fall, unaided and deserving their pitiable fate.
What are the telltale signs of social Darwinism in the Ryan budget? Total federal spending will only increase from $3.6 trillion this year to $4.8 trillion in ten years. If you can’t already hear the cries of children relegated to the poorhouse and of old people pushed out onto ice floes, you must be a 21st-century robber baron. Ryan wants to spend 19.8 percent of GDP as of 2022, a greater share of the economy than when President Bill Clinton left office — that infamous advocate of private-sector predation at the expense of the worthless poor.
Doesn’t Ryan want to cut taxes for the rich? He would reduce tax rates, while making the revenue up by closing loopholes and deductions. This Darwinistic notion was endorsed by President Obama’s own fiscal commission, chaired by men the president fulsomely praised without ever once mentioning that they were a danger to the weak and the vulnerable on account of their unhinged belief in a society run by and for the evolutionarily superior.
But Ryan wants to end Medicare, doesn’t he? Ten years from now, Ryan proposes introducing an element of choice into Medicare while limiting the program’s growth to the GDP growth rate plus 0.5 percent, the same spending goal that the president sets out in his own budget. If Ryan is “red in tooth and claw” on Medicare, so is the president. The difference is that President Obama prefers a price-setting bureaucratic panel to competition as his Darwinistic tool to weed out the maladapted elderly.
If the president were asked to enunciate a line between heartless social Darwinism and prudent budgeting, he surely couldn’t do it. What he means by a social Darwinist is someone who wants to spend less money than he does. By this standard, the president is a damnable social Darwinist compared with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which wants to spend $1.5 trillion more than he does over the next ten years and raise taxes by several trillion more.
If social Darwinism is merely the belief that the market is the best system for allocating capital and wealth, and that a free society will necessarily be an unequal one, then almost everyone in America is a social Darwinist. Even the president constantly pledges fealty to the market and doesn’t want to confiscate all of Mark Zuckerberg’s income. He is using social Darwinism as a free-floating pejorative for people whose policy preferences he doesn’t like, which is entirely appropriate.
The liberal historian Richard Hofstadter popularized the label in a book he wrote in the 1940s. He applied it to supporters of the free market in the 19th century who never applied it to themselves. As Princeton professor Thomas Leonard points out, American businessmen in the Gilded Age rarely leaned on Darwin: “Their defenses of laissez faire much more commonly invoked religion, the common good, Horatio Alger mythology, the American republican tradition.” Even the two alleged theorists of social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, were complex figures and awkward fits for the term. Hofstadter used social Darwinist, Leonard writes, “in the traditional way: as an epithet to discredit views he opposed.”
In this respect, liberalism hasn’t evolved at all down through the decades: Seventy years later, it’s still the same witless insult, for the same reason.