The interplay and relationship between Social Darwinism and Social Welfare in the United States typify the nation’s struggle to make the best of a capitalist society, while at the same time correcting pitfalls. Social Darwinism in our capitalist society compares wealth with fitness, but historically, unregulated markets given the false sanction of natural law have proven out that Darwinist economic competition has a destructive side for society. The role of raw power, the frequency of failure and the spirit of want has out of necessity, fostered a fiscal and monetary policy defined as social welfare, in order to conserve some commitment and core of resistance to the corrosive impact of market power on the nation’s social bonds. Social welfare emerged out of the fray, a public drive to provide the salve of predictability in the private sector. Both of these instruments of American society are in interconnected and independent.
In order to comprehend the present state of these two forces, it is necessary to analyze more completely the meanings of Social Darwinism and Social Welfare. Every since Charles Darwin published the Origin of the Species in 1859, social scientists have attempted to explain human behavior as a product of natural selection. In the 19th century, Social Darwinism held that history was about the “survival of the fittest” and “superior” social groups were evolutionary more fit to rule the world. Social Darwinism was at the heart of many pernicious theories of the past century, including scientific racism and eugenics (Goldfield, et al, 1998, p. 721).
Social Welfare, as a government program designed to support broad groups of people, began in Germany in 1883 (Martin, 1972, p. 37). By the 1930’s most of worlds’ industrial nations had government sanctioned, comprehensive social welfare programs, as well a highly active private sector welfare network shaped by the increasing power of organized labor (Sexton, 1991, p. 76). The rise of labor, according to sociologist, and anthropologist Patricia Cayo Sexton, was largely in response to the pressures imposed upon workers by entrepreneurs capitalizing on the Industrial Revolution. The latter lobbied heavily against a social welfare state on the premise that it violated the concepts of Social Darwinism and of capitalist laissez faire. As Sexton notes, the mood of the day permeated throughout American ideology, even in the justice system. “The law upheld hostile employer acts but punished those of labor; according to historian Irving Bernstein, no other advanced nation in the world had conducted industrial relations with ‘such defiance’ . . . ” (Sexton, 1991, p. 73)
Herein lay the conflict of pure Social Darwinism. The struggle was the law of life, in the financial markets as Darwin’s biological pool. Men fed upon men; The fittest survived and the weak were their rightful prey. At the post Civil war height of laissez faire, the most greedy robber barons invoked Social Darwinism to collect hundreds of millions of dollars, benefitting from what many considered unfair advantages. In fact, a recent ranking of the forty wealthiest Americans of all time shows that only three of them did not make their fortunes during the Industrial Revolution (Klepper, Gunther, 1998, p. 56).
By the late nineteenth century, the growth of huge monopolistic corporations created concentrations of power controlling most commodities as oil, railroads, steel, agriculture, and the banks that funded them. They were accountable to no one and needed by everyone (Goldfield, et al, 1998, P. 564-573). Child labor was a regrettable by product of Social Darwinism. Nearly one-third of the textile force in the southern United States in the early 1900’s consisted of children under the age of 14 and women (Goldfield, et al, 1998, p. 569).
Eventually, such negative impacts provoked public alarm, fueled as well by public horror over the consequences of Social Darwinism charging Hitler’s attempt to secure domination and build a supreme race. The result during the United States postwar decades was development of social ideas in economic thought, making fundamental departure from the pure, Social Darwinist doctrine and creating a rationale for welfare state. Americans by this time likewise longed for a coherent vision of urban life to replace the chaotic outcomes for the believers of Social Darwinism. Regulated, consumer-based capitalism became the norm, with grossly divergent income patterns created in America’s competitive-based society offset by growing the United States Social Security, welfare and dependent care laws enacted between the 1930’s and present time.
As a result, with regard to its outward demonstrations, the American version of Social Darwinism in the form of a regulated capitalist economy appears sound and healthy. “The contemporary economic indicators are essentially positive, unemployment is falling, inflation is low and essentially stable, profits are generally high, industrial production is close to capacity . . . and the stock market averages are at or close to record levels,” observes economist Vernon Briggs (1998, p. 473). However, social indicators pointing to the quality of contemporary life are “almost universally morbid and depressing” (Briggs, 1998, p. 473).
Even with such measures designed to regulate runaway capitalism and control losses which isolate those less privileged, the relationship between Social Darwinism and Social Welfare is apparently a fragile balance. The competitive principles built-in capitalist economies mean, by definition, that there will be winners and losers. Economist Lester Thurow contends that Social Darwinism as it has been practiced in the United States, is still politically incompatible with democracy. There will then, always be “the need for large social welfare income transfer systems” (Thurow, 1992, p. 17). Briggs notes that today, “divorce rates are staggering, bankruptcies are increasing . . . homeliness is spreading . . . the percentage of children living in poverty, the incidences of violent crimes, the magnitude of adult illiteracy . . . are the highest in the industrial world” (Briggs, 1998, p. 473). While Social Darwinism may be good for state of the nation’s economy and for a privileged few beneficiaries in particular, analysts claim the widening economic disparity is a symptom of a growing intensification of Darwinian laissez-faire capitalism. Even billionaire financier George Soros now fears the house of cards that he helped to create. “Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society” ( Soros, 1997, p. 45).
Sociologist Geoff Mulgan takes the concept of Social Darwinism further, arguing that as embraced in American consumerism, it reveals both th limits and cost of providing too much freedom. “Full freedom of consumption has led to obesity, drug abuse, and so on. This entails costs both for the individual and for society” (Malik, 1996, p. 36). In terms of Darwinist thought regarding social problems, the concept that some people are scientifically less fit and therefore limited in employability or tendencies toward criminality tends today and define even social response to these issues in ethical terms. “The idea of limits to social activity has led people to question how far we can ‘engineer’ social solutions,” remarks social observer Kenan Malik. “Perhaps in the end, an inflexibility of human nature constrains the potential of social change” (Malik, 1996, p. 36).
In conclusion, Social Darwinism has contributed greatly to economic growth of the United States, leading its position as a powerful and wealthy industrial nation. A consumer driven capitalism that typifies Social Darwinism is a vital machine for producing goods and services based upon the concepts of free enterprise and democracy. However, it is clear that in doing so, Social Darwinism creates a severe gap between a privileged few and a growing number of people who are sorely unequaled in income and opportunity. Clearly, social welfare is a critical part of the equation in maintaining and preserving social bonds and social order in the United States in response to the prevailing Darwinian system of American society. If, however, as Malik observes, there is in fact a cap on America’s potential to create effective redresses, a sort of national natural selection, there may be a finite end to the ability of a social welfare to correct the negative influences of Social Darwinism.
Klepper, Michael, Robert Gunther. (1998, Oct.) A Ranking of the Forty Wealthiest Americans of All Time. American Heritage, 56 (11).
Malik, Kenan. (1996, Dec. 6) The Beagle Sails Back into Fashion: Renewed Interest in Social Darwinism. New Statesmen, Vol. 125, 35 (2).
Soros, George. (1997, Feb.) The Capitalist Threat. Atlantic Monthly, 245, No. 2, 45 (2).