Ever since New York Governor Mario Cuomo accused Ronald Reagan of practicing “social Darwinism” in a speech at the 1984 Democrat Party convention, liberal politicians have attempted to cast conservative economic policies as sanctioning predatory business practices. Last year, President Obama denounced Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget as “thinly veiled social Darwinism” and just recently returned to this theme by attacking what he called the Republicans’ “winner take all” philosophy.
But if we were going to judge policies more by their results than by stated intentions, the label “social Darwinist” would more aptly apply to the Left than to the Right. Over the last half-century, liberal elites — what the late Irving Kristol described as the “new class” of educators, high level bureaucrats, city planners, health professionals, lawyers, employees of state and federally subsidized charities, and others with a vested interest in either government funding or regulation — have done relatively well in American society.
At the same time, the supposed beneficiaries of their labors have hardly gained at all. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds only three developed countries — Mexico, Chile, and Turkey — with greater income inequality than the United States. And in terms of the percentage of its people in relative poverty, the U.S. is fifth among the world’s thirty-four advanced nations.
Only 32 percent of American students are proficient in math, black unemployment is higher in both absolute and relative terms than it was in 1963, the burden of college loans for the poor and middle class now totals $1 trillion, and food stamp dependency is at record levels… and was even before the financial crisis.
Much of the failure to appreciate the rapacious nature of liberal elites can be traced to the work of Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter and other mid-twentieth century historians who regarded powerful businessman as the human counterpart to nature’s most successful predators. The result today is that for many voters the phrase “social Darwinism” automatically calls to mind the industrial barons of America’s Gilded Age.
Interestingly, Darwin himself defined a successful predator, not by its size, strength, or even intelligence, but by its ability to employ camouflage. From his naturalist’s point of view, the innocent-looking Venus fly trap or speckled frog were just as “predatory” as the most ferocious wolf or lion. Darwin also recognized that for members of many species their prosperity depended, not on individual prowess, but on the ability to collaborate in packs, swarms, herds, or, in the case of plants, patches.
William Graham Sumner, the nineteenth-century Yale sociology professor, who along with Herbert Spencer first applied Darwin’s evolutionary theories to politics, not only understood the role of camouflage in human affairs, but regarded left-wing organizers as exceptionally talented practitioners. Unlike Hofstadter and so many later academics, Sumner was skeptical that movements to make society “fairer” were ever anything more than disguised attempts by their leaders to selfishly grab power for themselves. “Invectives against capital in the hands of those who have it,” he wrote, are really “demands for capital in the hands of those who have it not in order that they may do with it just what those who have it now are doing with it.”
Were Sumner alive today, he would undoubtedly be impressed by the ability of American liberals to have sustained the illusion of altruistic intent for so long. Certainly he would be struck by the fact that the vast majority of teachers and other public workers are compensated by every conceivable criterion (degrees earned, professional title, years at work) save actual job performance.
Sumner would also be fascinated by the tacit collaboration between public employee unions and state politicians, which for decades has traded lavish retirement benefits and lax work rules for sizeable campaign contributions. It takes some pretty remarkable camouflage to keep the average voter so deeply in the dark about the size and implications of underfunded public pension liabilities that the bankruptcy of a city like Detroit can come as a surprise to so many.
But what might impress Sumner the most is the Left’s clever use of politics and geography to disguise an outrageous form of self-dealing. All across America, from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Iowa City, Iowa, to Eugene, Oregon, there are scores of upscale liberal enclaves, towns and small cities typically centered on a university and heavily populated by professionals whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on public funding. The quality of life in these communities, from their carefully manicured bicycle paths to superior medical services, stems from the ability of residents to tap city, state, and federal resources while simultaneously walling out the truly needy.
Chapman University demographer Joel Kotkin has coined the phrase “gentry progressives” to describe the politicians, administrators, activists, and government-oriented professionals who, along with their trust-fund sympathizers, populate liberalism’s version of a gated community and who “despite their expressions of concern for the lower orders” have no daily contact with the poor or underemployed except as caregivers, dog walkers, store clerks, and waiters.
All this is not to suggest that any technologically-advanced country can do without public services and well-compensated professionals to administer them. But the only proven safeguard against well-camouflaged economic predators, public or private, has always been accountability — laws, policies, and customs that measure actual performance and reward accordingly.
The commercial institutions that liberals like to attack as “Darwinian” have long been subject such oversight through competition, regulation, and most of all, consumer choice. It is those on the Left, demanding to be subsidized merely for their supposed good intentions, who are the real social Darwinists.
Dr. Andrews is the Senior Policy Analyst at Connecticut’s Yankee Institute for Public Policy.