Criticisms #7: Liberty the Social Darwinist

social darwinism

Continuing my series on libertarian criticisms, I will address the argument that libertarianism equates with social Darwinism. This will be a more focused view of the arguments I made in my third criticisms article about libertarians wanting a dog eat dog society.

Once again, the most recent expression of this argument stems from libertarian’s good friends at Alternet. David Atkins argues that a libertarian future would be terrifying because of an article written by economist Tyler Cowen.

Cowen argues that eventually technology will evolve to take over all jobs and describes the new social order of this society “The rise of intelligent machines will spawn new ideologies along with the new economy it is creating. Think of it as a kind of digital social Darwinism, with clear winners and losers: Those with the talent and skills to work seamlessly with technology and compete in the global marketplace are increasingly rewarded, while those whose jobs can just as easily be done by foreigners, robots or a few thousand lines of code suffer accordingly.”

The author’s use of social Darwinism will unfortunately give this next claim the implication that he does not care about those who are left behind, as he continues to say “We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given a decent standard of living to one in which people are expected to fend for themselves. I imagine a world in which, say, 10 to 15 percent of the citizenry (or more, in due time) is extremely wealthy and has fantastically comfortable and stimulating live […].”

Alternet’s writer even admits that this fantasy of Cowen’s is likely to not happen, but then ends the article by stating “Whatever happens, the libertarian fairy dreams of men like Tyler Cowen must not be allowed to become realities” suggesting that libertarians want this rich, ruling class to emerge to control everyone else.

Alternet is not the first to accuse lovers of free markets of being social Darwinists. Unfortunately, the two terms have been linked as an argument of those who reject laissez-faire economics for over a century.

Libertarians (or back in Darwin’s time, liberals) have a friendly relationship with the man who discovered evolution. Author’s at the Cato Institute suggest that Darwin’s The Descent of Man gave men like Adam Smith “a scientific basis for the moral liberalism […] that the moral and intellectual virtues could arise through the spontaneous order of human nature and human culture.”

Richard Hofstadter released a book in 1944 entitled Social Darwinisim in Amercan Thought where he accused many economists who praised free markets as being social Darwinists. The author despised capitalism and wanted an economy guided by intellectuals.

While liberals in that age loved Darwin for his science and for his disgust for slavery, social Darwinism is not something libertarians would support, nor would it be necessarily possible in a libertarian society.

In defense of William Graham Sumner, one of the economists who Hofstadter accused, Matt Zwolinski writes on how the view of Darwin’s theory influencing free market ideology was a misunderstanding. Many who use the social Darwinism argument focus on the phrase “survival of fittest” claiming that anyone not fit would be left behind to die. Zwolinski counters this with “’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.’”

Being fit merely describes being in a place where one can best meet their potential and gain the most success. This definition would fit perfectly in a libertarian society of allowing everyone to pursue their own interests if it does not harm others as it allows citizens to find their own path to prosperity.

Even though Adam Smith enjoyed Darwin’s science for its emphasis on spontaneous order, never did the economist claim that evolution and markets are exactly alike. The difference between the theory of evolution and markets are the end results. In nature, if an animal cannot adapt to find food or protect itself, it will die and those animals that do find ways to survive will come out on top, but this is not the way that an economy works.

Larry Arnhart, of the Cato Institutes, explains it (in the earlier linked article) as “Biological competition is a zero-sum game where the survival of one organism is at the expense of others competing for the same scarce resources. But market competition is a positive-sum game where all the participants can gain from voluntary exchanges with one another.”

When I purchase a TV from Wal-mart, my dollar goes towards the company finding new ways to make products cheaper and more accessible, or towards hiring more employees who then can take their paycheck to buy products from other companies. I do not take away money or resources from someone else by exchanging with business owners (besides the potential temporary inconvenience if I buy the last TV in Wal-mart).

The market is based on cooperation and even Darwin himself noted that social animals create relationships to benefit each other. Chimpanzees travel in groups to better protect themselves, birds fly in flocks when migrating and bees create hives to produce honey. Humans are naturally going to form bonds with other humans because it is mutually beneficial.

Finally, libertarians are completely against plutocracy, colonialism and imperialism that often get linked with social Darwinism. These institutions are inherently authoritarian in one sense or another and strips away rights from its citizens. So, libertarianism and social Darwinism and synonymous with each other.


Click the links below to read my other articles on Libertarian Criticisms

Criticisms #8: No Groups, Ever!

Criticisms #7: Liberty The Social Darwinist

Criticisms #6: Libertarianism Is For the White Man

Criticisms #5: The Koch Brother Conspiracy

Criticisms #4: Divided We Fall

Criticisms #3: The Free For All Argument

Criticisms #2: Libertarianism is a Return to Feudalism

Criticisms #1: How to Combat “Libertarians Don’t Care About the Poor”



11 replies »

  1. All valid, but have you tried getting an independent voter to read it? N Branden summed Ayn all up in three bullets that, if disproved, wreck everything she ever did including the NAP. And the first thing I ask when questioned is “what is the definition of government?” then “do you believe the initiation of harmful or deadly force is a good thing in this atomic age?” Every vote we get changes laws better than abt 5 to 40 kleptocracy votes. Cheerio,


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