Monday, January 12, 2009

Post No. 72b: Book Review of Interest re Social Darwinism

We frequently allude to the concept known as "Social Darwinism" in our discussions. The United States is an interesting mix of competing social and governmental philosophies. The characterization, by his detractors, of President-Elect Obama as a "socialist," reflects the tension in our society about how we should collectively be permitted to live our lives, with or without governmental involvement. As our friend Dan Perin recently noted, we appear to be drifting toward the government taking more and more responsibility for things in our lives, while we simultaneously tell it to stay out of our lives.

In order to competently address the various problems which we face as a society (and to come up with the society-based New Year Resolutions we continue to seek: http://theviewfromoutsidemytinywindow.blogspot.com/2008/12/post-no-72-country-seeking-new-year.html), we must fully appreciate who we are as a nation.

We ran across this book review in the Friday, January 9, 2009 hard copy edition of the Wall Street Journal. The author is Bill Kauffman, and he reviews Barry Werth's "Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America."

We think that this discussion is particularly timely in light of all of the discussions ongoing about governmental bailouts of the private sector, and the extent to which various industries should be regulated.

The review alone should make all of us think. We're going out to acquire a copy of the book.

DARWIN IN THE NEW WORLD
"Herbert Spencer, the 19th Century British philosopher, is remembered today as the forbidding-almost forbidden-father of "Social Darwinism," a school of thought declaring that the fittest prosper in a free marketplace and the human race is gradually improved because only the strong survive.
* * *
Applying Darwinian insights about evolution to political, economic and social life-though he did not himself use the term "Social Darwinism" - Spencer concluded that vigorous competition and unfettered capitalism conduced to the betterment of society.

11 comments:

  1. I think I’m following the line of thought. I strongly believe in the value of the fittest or strong survive. Creating a competitive edge drives this nation, any business or individual to excel beyond the ’norm.’ When you take that freedom or ability to be ‘more than’ and hand out the goods to everyone (even those who fail) - the results are counter productive. All incentive to excel or even try is gone. Isn’t that what ‘socialism’ is? We’re all one big happy family and no one gets more on their plate. Please!!

    I understand this is a quandary and even contradiction in terms of capping our Health Care cost -but I believe there is a difference. Let’s get real for a minute: Health Insurance companies are out of control and ripping off everyone. They’re crooks. They’re holding our ‘wellness’ hostage. Who do we turn to but our government?

    As far as the government’s involvement in ‘tax payer’ paid bailouts to big business: shameful. I don’t think I need to explain the side of the aisle I was on with that issue.

    Vikki

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  2. It's all about "balance", Vikki. That we never achieve it for more than 10 minutes at any given time is a given. Life is juggling good and bad. It is always the "unintended consequences" which result from "good intentions" which messes things up.

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  3. Thanks Vikki.

    We're going to look up the word "socialism" here shortly, since it was used with such frequency during the past election. (In a similar way, we were very surprised as to the meaning of "evangelical," which was tossed around quite a bit during the past two years. Additionally, although we are reasonably familiar with the definition of "communism," we'd be curious as to the distinctions, probably matters of degree, between the two, since we suspect that the concept of socialism gets tainted somewhat by the world's practical experience with communism as actually practiced.)

    Could one definiton of socialism, or a variant thereof, be ensuring that all citizens have a certain minimal, subsistence level of existence, in the areas of food, housing, clothing, and healthcare, and that anything beyond that "bare minimum" is left up to the individual to pursue? Or is the fact that some would find "bare minimum" to be good enough, and thus not be motivated to pursue anything further, problematic?

    How about socialism just for children/minors who arguably do not make decisions for themselves?

    We've mentioned previously our interaction with many Russian cab drivers in the US. When whether conditions were better in the former USSR or in the United States, the sentiment was best expressed as follows: If you were a high motivated, ambitious individual, the US is a better place. If you are the average citizen, comfortable with a decent standard of living and raising a family, but not much more, the USSR was a better place.

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  4. Douglas: We could conceptually agree with you that it is about "balance," in theory. However, the analysis, in our view, should be about what balance there should be (if any), and at what point on the sliding scale the line should be drawn, by the INSTITUTIONS AND AGENCIES WHICH MANAGE US, not what the individual citizen perceives as balance.

    Once again, our view is that governance of any society simply boils down to "management." (The Roman Empire pulled if off, for at least some period of time, although in admittedly a far less option-filled fashion than we employ, and less tolerant of personal liberties.)

    A certain set of management rules, procedures, and policies have to be instituted and implemented to maintain order, and achieve certain goals of the society (or those in control).

    Although balance might be a laudable goal, inherent in the execution of activities to achieve that balance is the risk of sending mixed messages. Is it better to simply lay out the black and white rules, and have everyone know ahead of time and thus govern their lives accordingly, about how to survive in this society? Doesn't trying to achieve balance result in frequent arguing and perversion of our political process just to achieve the ends sought by various groups?

    Should there be greater consistency and/or rigidity in the rules and practices of a nation, so that it is less subject to variability and disparate treatment of its citizens?

    We pretty much summarize it in this fashion: If it works for you, you subscribe to it. If it doesn't, you don't. Herbert Hoover was a self-made man who worked his way up through society. One of the reasons that he purportedly had such a disconnect with the citizenry and was reluctant to try to assist the common man during his administration, was because he felt that if he could do it, so could others. On the other hand, FDR was from a privileged background. Some have called him a 'traitor to his class,' since he turned on the rich and privileged and made them the scapegoat for all of America's problems and managed to convince the people of the same. Additionally, his bout with polio and resulting physical problems made him appreciate the common man perhaps more than Hoover.

    It's always bigger than you and me, and it's always bigger than the here and now.

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  5. What a can of worms! Balance is the right word. America did not work well when robber barons trampled society, but Canadian type socialism is going too far in the other direction. Here is where having moderates in office makes sense. Right wingers want no regulation over markets or employers, but left wingers promote extreme socialism. We have moral duty to feed and shelter the poor, but without incentive to succeed, America will slide into third world status.

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  6. To all: Thanks much for commenting on our blog. We just acquired our new computer and should be back up to speed shortly.

    Good stuff thus far. Keep it going.

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  7. Thought that this wikipedia piece on "socialism" might be of interest.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialism

    Upon reading it, it also made us think of something radical. What if our society practiced socialism in various form for minors, under the age of majority, since they theoretically do not have much control over their existence, at least in their early years when the groundwork for success in society is significantly laid?

    How about this? An adult can pass on wealth and property to his or her children up to a certain amount or not more. The remainder of a person's estate would transfer to society to be distributed equally amongst all children, so that they might have somewhat more of an "equal" chance during their formative years.

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  8. Jonathan: Funny that you and several others have mentioned the issue of balance. You specifically mentioned that "...having moderates in office makes sense." Earlier today, there was a C-Span2 Book TV program focusing on a book about leading from the center. The author contends that political moderates make better presidents.

    The program will air again on Monday, although at 5 am EST. http://www.booktv.org/program.aspx?ProgramId=9542&SectionName=Politics&PlayMedia=No

    One of the more impressive "political" or governmental figures which we have read about during the existence of the Institute is the individual responsible for turning Singapore around in the matter of a generation. Check out what is required, or perhaps we should say, "was required in that instance."

    http://books.google.com/books?id=-Wqq6MFcQrcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22From+Third+World+to+First%22&ei=3zFySePFB42ONpPpueIM#PPR7,M1

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  9. Just returned from the Library, where I had an opportunity to read more chapters of "Banquet at Delmonico's." Really interesting reading, and really challenges one on the role of government in our lives. Also take a look at our most recent Post No. 77, "Rethinking the Role of Government," for some of Nobel Laureate Economist Milton Friedman's views on the subject. http://theviewfromoutsidemytinywindow.blogspot.com/2009/01/post-no-77-rethinking-role-of.html

    ReplyDelete
  10. What a can of worms! Balance is the right word. America did not work well when robber barons trampled society, but Canadian type socialism is going too far in the other direction. Here is where having moderates in office makes sense. Right wingers want no regulation over markets or employers, but left wingers promote extreme socialism. We have moral duty to feed and shelter the poor, but without incentive to succeed, America will slide into third world status.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks Vikki.

    We're going to look up the word "socialism" here shortly, since it was used with such frequency during the past election. (In a similar way, we were very surprised as to the meaning of "evangelical," which was tossed around quite a bit during the past two years. Additionally, although we are reasonably familiar with the definition of "communism," we'd be curious as to the distinctions, probably matters of degree, between the two, since we suspect that the concept of socialism gets tainted somewhat by the world's practical experience with communism as actually practiced.)

    Could one definiton of socialism, or a variant thereof, be ensuring that all citizens have a certain minimal, subsistence level of existence, in the areas of food, housing, clothing, and healthcare, and that anything beyond that "bare minimum" is left up to the individual to pursue? Or is the fact that some would find "bare minimum" to be good enough, and thus not be motivated to pursue anything further, problematic?

    How about socialism just for children/minors who arguably do not make decisions for themselves?

    We've mentioned previously our interaction with many Russian cab drivers in the US. When whether conditions were better in the former USSR or in the United States, the sentiment was best expressed as follows: If you were a high motivated, ambitious individual, the US is a better place. If you are the average citizen, comfortable with a decent standard of living and raising a family, but not much more, the USSR was a better place.

    ReplyDelete

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