Secular Progressives: the Real Social Darwinists

Ever since New York Governor Mario Cuomo accused Ronald Reagan of practicing “social Darwinism” in a speech at the 1984 Democrat Party convention, progressive politicians have attempted to cast conservative economic policies as sanctioning predatory business practices.

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 far Left than to the Right. Over the last half-century, progressive 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.

Much of the failure to appreciate the rapacious nature of progressivism 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 progressives to have sustained the illusion of altruistic intent for so long. 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.

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.

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