No Virginia, Paul Ryan’s Budget Is Not An Example of Social Darwinism at Work

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 10, 2012

Richard Epstein tries to explain some things to the president:

These principles of laissez-faire, which I am proud to endorse, do not amount to a grisly form of Social Darwinism, as the critics of laissez-faire claim. Social Darwinism has no view whatsoever on the question of how the state supplies public goods to its citizens. Social Darwinism also (at least in some of its versions) takes a decidedly hostile attitude toward private charity. In its weaker version, the argument is that charitable assistance only weakens the fiber of the human race and thus should be assiduously avoided. Classical liberals never denied that risk, but thought that they could design their private institutions in a way that provided for short-term need without planting the seeds of long-term breakdown in social mores.

In its stronger (and rarer) version, Social Darwinism argued that the state should prohibit voluntary assistance to the poor and perhaps take on the ugly business of eugenics and forced sterilization of mentally impaired human beings. That view received a grudging constitutional blessing from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote that “three generations of imbeciles is enough” in his opinion for Buck v. Bell (1927), sustaining Virginia’s program of forced sterilization for the feeble-minded.

The irony here runs deep. The same Justice Holmes was the perennial favorite of the Progressives because of his one sentence denunciation of laissez-faire in the 1905 case of Lochner v. New York: “The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.” Yet Holmes never bothered to identify which Supreme Court justice, if any, had taken a position remotely similar to the one that Holmes falsely attributed to Spencer.

[. . .]

. . . [President Obama's] insistence that his program will open up opportunities for all Americans across the board is a bit of idle self-promotion in the face of the deadly combination of high unemployment rates and shrinking labor-market participation that his policies have wrought. His plea to restore the dignity of the middle class is code for his nonstop program of strengthening the hand of labor unions whose regressive and exclusionary policies undermine job opportunities for the very individuals Obama purports to hold closest to his heart.

He compounds these errors by insisting that the enormous contributions of those at the top of the income scale are futile exercises in “trickle down” economics, without bothering to note the literally thousands of good jobs created by the new technologies and businesses introduced by the billionaire entrepreneurs whom he castigates at every turn. His final insult is to denounce those who pay the bulk of the nation’s tax revenues as free riders on those who take much from it. Right now, the top one percent that garners roughly 20 percent of the income pays about 40 percent of the taxes. But in our current political culture, it receives only a small fraction of the particularized goods that constitute the bulk of the entitlement budget.

Yet Obama, without argument, always treats the current social distribution of burdens as the legitimate baseline. Every new increase of burdens on the rich is legitimate. Any effort to undo them is not. But it is not possible to cut the taxes on those who at present pay no taxes nor to cut benefits on those who at present receive no benefits.

It is imperative for all thinking citizens to oppose programs that have two objectives: increasing transfer payments and destroying the productive base. Every defender of laissez-faire should oppose the president’s policies, even at the cost of being dubbed a Social Darwinist. It is, after all, a small price to pay.

In a better world, a mea culpa would issue from the White House for use of the “Social Darwinism” epithet. But we do not live in a better world. Rather, we live in an election year, which means that the White House will ignore facts, and continue to peddle nonsensical arguments in the hopes of getting the votes of knaves and the gullible.

Previous post:

Next post: