Mises and Social Darwinism
It’s often claimed that support for the free market rests on the ideology of social Darwinism. According to this nefarious doctrine, Charles Darwin showed that evolution is a process of struggle. In it, the strong, meaning those best able to reproduce, supplant the weak. Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, it is alleged, applied evolutionary theory to support the free market. If the poor did not fare well, their situation should not be deplored or remedied. The victory of the strong over the weak is a law of nature, and to endeavor to combat it is futile.
One way to respond is to claim that social Darwinism is a myth, largely concocted by the historian Richard Hofstadter in his book Social Darwinism in American Thought. The journalist Jonathan Goldberg adopts this line, but for reasons I’ve stated elsewhere, it’s a mistake. There really were social Darwinists, who defended capitalism in just the way indicated above.
A better way to counter the claim that capitalism rests on the ideology of social Darwinism is to show that Spencer and Sumner, the supposed chief figures of this line of thought, do not advocate it. In a recent column, I attempt this task for Sumner.
Mises adopts a characteristically insightful standpoint on this issue. He is strongly committed to Darwinism, but, he says, the social Darwinists draw the wrong lessons from evolution. They are right that, aside from human beings in the past several thousand years, evolution is a struggle in which the strong overcome the weak. But the onset of the division of labor changes things. With its onset, the key to
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