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Why Laissez-Faire Is NOT Social Darwinism

Matt Zwolinski

William Graham Sumner, to the extent that he is remembered at all today, is remembered mostly as a “social Darwinist.” As I explained in my last essay, this charge is almost entirely the creation of Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought applied the label both to Sumner and to his contemporary Herbert Spencer. Both of these men shared a commitment to a laissez-faire economics that Hofstadter loathed, and an opposition to the kind of “scientific” progressive reform that he championed. And both men incorporated ideas from the new science of evolution within their social thought, Spencer of course having made a significant theoretical contribution to the development of that science himself.

“Fitness,” for Sumner, was not a normative evaluation but a descriptive claim.

But a principled commitment to laissez-faire does not make one a social Darwinist. Indeed, depending upon how that latter vague term is defined, a commitment to laissez-faire is not even compatible with social Darwinism. As applied to Herbert Spencer, the charge of social Darwinism has already been repeatedly refuted. In the remainder of this essay, I will show why it fails as applied to Sumner too.

The first and most significant problem hinges on the correct understanding of key evolutionary terms in Sumner’s thought, such as “the struggle for existence” and “the survival of the fittest.” There is a natural temptation—sometimes bolstered by Sumner’s own infelicitous phrasing—to read these phrases as expressing a normative goal, as though the survival of the fittest was something that we should strive to achieve, and arrange our social institutions to facilitate. But this is not how Sumner understood the idea.

“Fitness,” for Sumner, was not a normative evaluation but a descriptive claim. To be “fit” is not necessarily to be “better” or “more virtuous” than one who is unfit. All that fitness means, in the evolutionary sense, is adaptation to environment. Thus, in Sumner’s “colorful” words, “rattlesnakes may survive where horses perish…or highly cultivated white men may die where Hottentots flourish.” The point is easily missed in the face of Sumner’s unfortunate racism, but even racism is not the same as social Darwinism, and the substance of Sumner’s point here is clearly at odds with the popular interpretation of that idea. The fact that a rattlesnake will outlive a horse in a desert doesn’t make the rattlesnake morally better than the horse. It just means that the rattlesnake is better adapted to surviving in the desert. That is all.

Thus, the survival of the fittest is a constraint within which men and laws must operate, not a goal to be pursued. And it is an inescapable constraint. We could not avoid it if we wanted to. So it is not as though there is anything particularly Darwinist about capitalism, as opposed to other forms of social organization. Switching from a capitalist economy to a socialist one would not render evolutionary pressures defunct. It would only alter the context in which they operate, and the effects they produce.

The real misery of mankind is the struggle for existence; why not “declare” that there ought not to be any struggle for existence, and that there shall not be any more? Let it be decreed that existence is a natural right, and let it be secured in that way. If we attempt to execute this plan, it is plain that we shall not abolish the struggle for existence; we shall only bring it about that some men must fight that struggle for others. (“Some Natural Rights”)

This point about the misinterpretation of key evolutionary terms counts as much against the charge of social Darwinism as applied to Spencer as it does to the charge applied to Sumner. But the charge of social Darwinism is especially difficult to sustain against Sumner, given his consistent praise and support of common working people against the economic and political “elite.” As I shall discuss in more detail in my next essay, Sumner’s hero was not the visionary entrepreneur or the capitalist captain of enterprise. It was the ordinary working person, the productive force who supports not only himself and his family, but by doing solid work well and paying his taxes faithfully, supports the nation as a whole. It is the person who does his job, meets his obligations, and otherwise keeps to himself. It is the “Forgotten Man.”

Sumner recognized that plutocracy would be a problem as long as the economy was under political control.

Sumner saw the Forgotten Man as threatened on all sides. He is threatened by the socialist, of course, whose promise of equality for all can be met only by placing an even greater burden on the backs of the responsible and prudent. But Sumner saw an even more immediate threat to the Forgotten Man in plutocracy, the system in which wealth controls politics, and in which “money buys whatever the owner of money wants.”

The threat of plutocracy—which Sumner described as “the most sordid and debasing form of political energy known to us”—comes precisely from the rich, the powerful, and the successful. And Sumner’s passionate condemnation of these persons and the system they produce shows once again that he did not regard social or economic success as anything like sufficient for moral virtue. Wealth and power can be a product of virtuous traits of character such as industry, thrift, and self-mastery. But not necessarily. And so we need to draw a distinction between different means by which wealth can be acquired.

A great capitalist is no more necessarily a plutocrat than a great general is a tyrant. A plutocrat is a man who, having the possession of capital, and having the power of it at his disposal, uses it, not industrially, but politically; instead of employing laborers, he enlists lobbyists. Instead of applying capital to land, he operates upon the market by legislation, by artificial monopoly, by legislative privileges; he creates jobs, and erects combinations, which are half political and half industrial; he practises upon the industrial vices, makes an engine of venality, expends his ingenuity, not on processes of production, but on “knowledge of men,” and on the tactics of the lobby. The modem industrial system gives him a magnificent field, one far more profitable, very often, than that of legitimate industry. (“The Conflict of Democracy and Plutocracy”)

Sumner recognized that plutocracy would be a problem as long as the economy was under political control. And so his proposed solution was “to minimize to the utmost the relations of the state to industry.” In this way, far from viewing it a means by which the strong prosper at the expense the weak, Sumner saw a policy of laissez-faire as being the only reliable way to prevent such exploitation.

This leads directly to the third and final point, which is that it is the very essence of a system of laissez-faire to prohibit the violence and plunder that characterize the Darwinian “law of the jungle.” For Sumner, as for his contemporaries Herbert Spencer and Gustave de Molinari, the peaceful economic competition that exists within industrial society is an evolutionary advance from earlier forms of more violent competition. As culture and commerce advance, they tend to ameliorate the effects of the struggle for existence, even going so far as to replace it with a more benign process that Sumner referred to as “the competition of life.” That latter process replaces the zero-sum conflict of violence with what Spencer referred to as “antagonistic cooperation,” a process distinguished by its in-group cooperation and mutually beneficial exchange.

Sumner recoiled at the imperialist rejection of the basic moral equality of persons.

Nowhere is Sumner’s distinction between these two forms of competition more clear than in his condemnation of militarism, a force that he charged with “combating the grand efforts of science and art to ameliorate the struggle for existence.” War, Sumner made clear, “is not to be relied to finish the work of selection between states.” In some cases, it is true that war “destroys social rubbish.” But in others, “it destroys things which are societally, politically, and ethically good. It belongs to primitive and natural evolution,” not to society in its civilized state.

Particularly abhorrent to Sumner was militant imperialism and colonialism, in which supposedly “superior” cultures would set themselves up to rule by force over “inferior” ones. Sumner’s contempt for such policy led him to produce one of his most powerful essays, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain,” in which he argued that America was losing the Spanish-American war by sacrificing its principles and traditions of liberty and taking on those of Spanish imperialism. In particular, Sumner recoiled at the imperialist rejection of the basic moral equality of persons, an equality that Sumner saw as sometimes stretched too broadly by those who sought to extend it into economic equality, but which nevertheless in its core meaning was central to the classical liberal vision of liberty for which he stood.

There are plenty of people in the United States today who regard Negroes as human beings, perhaps, but of a different order from white men, so that the ideas and social arrangements of white men cannot be applied to them with propriety. Others feel the same way about Indians. This attitude of mind, wherever you meet with it, is what causes tyranny and cruelty. It is this disposition to decide off-hand that some people are not fit for liberty and self-government which gives relative truth to the doctrine that all men are equal, and inasmuch as the history of mankind has been one long story of the abuse of some by others, who, of course, smoothed over their tyranny by some beautiful doctrines of religion, or ethics, or political philosophy, which proved that it was all for the best good of the oppressed, therefore the doctrine that all men are equal has come to stand as one of the corner-stones of the temple of justice and truth. It was set up as a bar to just this notion that we are so much better than others that it is liberty for them to be governed by us.

In this essay, I have tried to shed some corrective light on an all-too-common misinterpretation of Sumner’s thought. That misinterpretation stemmed from a critic who was overtly hostile to the laissez-faire principles for which Sumner stood, and who arguably (and inexcusably) confused those principles with what in many ways was their very opposite.

Still, I do not wish to correct a hostile misreading of Sumner by straying too far in the opposite direction. Sumner was not a social Darwinist. But, as his racist remark about “Hottentots” makes clear, we don’t need to make things up in order to find offensive elements in Sumner’s thought. Even if he was not a social Darwinist, there are still elements in Sumner’s ideas and—especially—his language about the poor that are likely to make modern readers cringe. I will explore some of those elements in the concluding essay of this series. For now, however, I put them on hold to turn to a closer examination of Sumner’s most memorable essay, “The Forgotten Man.”

This piece was originally posted at

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