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August 11, 2017


First things first: What is Social Darwinism? Jonathan Chait in the June 26-July 9 edition of New York correctly defines it as follows: “Social Darwinism is a philosophy that treats the market as a perfectly efficient and moral mechanism for allocating wealth. Just as natural selection favors those species best adapted for survival, the theory goes, capitalism rewards the smartest and most deserving amount us. It is the intellectual scaffolding, constructed by writers like Ayn Rand and various Austrian economists, behind the vision of conservatives like Paul Ryan and David Koch.” Well said, and if the market is perfect in picking winners and losers, then who needs government or any other kind of regulation of our economy? How can we improve on perfection?

Back to the topic – I first encountered William Graham Sumner’s Social Darwinism while studying for a degree in economics preparatory to going to law school. I was not impressed with his views of Darwin’s survival of the fittest as applied to economics since, after all, and to use a baseball metaphor, some are born on third base and others have two strikes and no balls while still at the plate, which led me to conclude that the prize went to the richest and not the fittest. However, his views in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are still with us, as exemplified by the current occupant of the Oval Office, who is both rich (to hear him tell it) and a Social Darwinist.

My second encounter with Sumner’s Social Darwinism was some twenty years later, when my wife was working on her doctorate in education at the University of Illinois. One of the courses she took had to do with the usual academic lineup of Marx, Aristotle, Dewey and, of course, Sumner, among others. We had many lively discussions about Sumner’s contribution to economics as well as well as its ripple effects on education. We agreed that his views were at odds with democracy and that there was nothing “natural” or predestined in transferring a survival of the fittest model to economics, which is a purely man-made order already set forth by such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo long before Sumner’s day.

My third encounter was yesterday, when an old friend and retired archivist of the Truman Library sent me some papers having to do with Sumner that I never knew existed. It seems from such a trove that I may have been too harsh in my judgment of Sumner since he mellowed with age per an unpublished paper written in 1909 that has since been retrieved from the archives.

Sumner apparently had second thoughts on his previous hard right theory of a rigid “survival of the fittest” view as applied to economics when it became obvious during the days of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie that the unregulated and even unmoderated capitalism of that day was inimical to the public good and whose then ruthless capitalists were finally brought to heel with Republican progressives such as Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and such laws as the Sherman Anti-Trust and Clayton Acts, even though we are now back into the second Gilded Age and combinations via mergers and acquisitions and other ultimate price-fixing and restraint of trade practices in a monopolistic fervor that today’s politicians are paid via “campaign contributions” to ignore.

The paper my friend sent me is from The Journal of American History written by Bruce Curtis, a professor at Michigan State University, whose dissertation was on Sumner’s middle class progressivism, and whose findings in the paper sent to me include the surprising (to me) a heretofore unpublished paper written by Sumner that sounds as though it were written by a modern day liberal Democrat even though written one hundred and eight years ago. This paper is entitled “On the Concentration of Wealth,” and ranges from Daniel Webster’s famous oration in Plymouth on French law of equal inheritance to the date he wrote his Concentration of Wealth paper.

Webster, of course, was writing just after the horrors of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, a time of confusion and fear in a revolutionary Europe (only to worsen with the coming of Marx), and Sumner was writing in a time of a post-Civil War America and a rapidly industrialization and innovation marked by unregulated excesses of such ruthless capitalists as John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company (which was finally broken up by Supreme Court edict). My point in mentioning the era in which such orations were given and papers written is to give context to the motivations of such orators and writers. They, like we today, were victims of the political and economic environments of their day.

Curtis opines that the reason we did not have access to Sumner’s 1909 treatise is that Albert Galloway Keller, Sumner’s good friend, academic heir-apparent and editor, not want to publish it because its tone and contents were not consistent with Sumner’s previous social and political attitudes, attitudes that Keller continued to fervently embrace after Sumner’s death. Also ignored for publication by Keller were many other such papers including 150 sermons which Sumner, a former Episcopalian priest, had preserved. It is apparent that Keller served as Sumner’s gatekeeper and only allowed publication of Sumner’s efforts that were in accord with the views of the gatekeeper, thus misleading people like me who believed that Sumner was an apologist for ruthless capitalism under some Darwinian banner.

The views expressed in Sumner’s post-death paper could largely have been written today as the propaganda of the rich and corporate class at this moment has seemingly and successfully brought public opinion to the digressed view that survival of the fittest should be the measure of how our economy should function, with the exception of Wall Street banks, of course, whose insolvency and accompanying bailouts violated this principle of survival of the fittest in favor of political intervention under the banner of “too big to fail” and other such framing designed to create an aberration to the Darwinian rule. The real rule, it is plain to see, is that the rich and corporate class have finally found their economic nirvana, i.e., privatization of the profits and socialization of the risks in which you and I are mere ATM machines, innovations that were not available in the days of Adam Smith and William Graham Sumner.

I will discuss Sumner’s now-published bombshell paper in Part II. Stay tuned.      GERALD      E


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