"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 9, 2012

Survival of the Fittest

In an article in today’s New York Times, author Philip Kitcher of Columbia University has referred to President Obama’s characterization of Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget as Social Darwinism http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/08/the-taint-of-social-darwinism/?ref=opinion which can be defined as follows:

Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” thought about natural selection on a grand scale. Conceiving selection in pre-Darwinian terms — as a ruthless process, “red in tooth and claw” — he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition..Those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in…competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve….

The heart of social Darwinism is a pair of theses: first, people have intrinsic abilities and talents (and, correspondingly, intrinsic weaknesses), which will be expressed in their actions and achievements, independently of the social, economic and cultural environments in which they develop; second, intensifying competition enables the most talented to develop their potential to the full, and thereby to provide resources for a society that make life better for all.

So far so good, for few people will deny the argument that we are all born with intrinsic abilities and talents.  What is problematic for Kitcher is the assumption that these qualities ‘will be expressed….independently of the social, economic, and cultural environments in which they develop’.  In simplistic political terms, Republicans believe this premise feel that government should get out of the way of the individual so that these abilities can mature without inhibition.  Democrats, who reject the premise, feel that in order for individuals to realize their potential, they must be nurtured by the State – provided the right social, economic, and cultural environment in which they will thrive.  In other words, a motivational public nanny.

This, of course, is an exaggerated statement of the issue. The focus on individualism by Republicans, says Kitcher, is hard-hearted, brutal, and devoid of any Christian values of community and brotherhood and a reversion to the fang-and-claw society which prevailed in the 19th Century, and only through government support can individuals and the collective society to which they belong progress.  He begins reasonably, suggesting that a favorable environment can help those who have talent but who need only the encouragement and support to express it.  I have argued in this blog on numerous occasions that the current educational system needs to be radically reformed to encourage the gifted and talented – those potential Steve Jobs and Bill Gates whose own ambition and drive may have been suppressed by a Neolithic public school system:

Success has been facilitated by all kinds of social structures, by educational opportunities and legal restrictions, that were in place prior to and independently of their personal efforts or achievements. For those born into environments in which silver spoons rarely appear — Barack Obama, for instance — the contributions of the social environment are even more apparent. Without enormous support, access to inspiring teachers and skillful doctors, the backing of self-sacrificing relatives and a broader community, and without a fair bit of luck, the vast majority of people, not only in the United States but throughout the world, would never achieve the things of which they are, in principle, capable.

Kitcher then goes off the rails entirely:

Even if rigorous competition enables the talented — or, better, the lucky — to realize their goals, it is completely unwarranted to suppose that their accomplishments will translate into any increased benefit for the overwhelming majority of those who are less fortunate… We might reasonably expect that a world run on social Darwinist lines would generate a cadre of plutocrats, each resolutely concerned to establish a dynasty and to secure his favored branch of industry against future competition. In practical terms it would almost certainly yield a world in which the gap between rich and poor was even larger than it is now.

This is a complete distortion of the issue. Why does it follow that a collection of talented individuals who either emerge on their own or with the kind of enlightened public support suggested above will necessarily band together and collectively rule the disadvantaged in a plutocratic, insensitive way? 

First, as I have mentioned above, few would doubt inherent, intrinsic attributes or qualities in every individual; and that some individuals have particularly useful or productive talents – high intelligence, motivation, drive, natural risk-taking ability, etc.  Second, few would also doubt that government programs are more often than not detrimental to the maturation and emergence of these talents.  The public schools are not only mired in dismal performance, they spend almost all of their money on those least likely to succeed.  While programs to help these students may be beneficial to raise them to average levels of attainment, public money should be spent equally on those most likely to succeed.

Third, history and experience have shown that despite the draconian image presented by Kitcher and other advocates of social programming, competition in the broadest sense of the term does sharpen the skills necessary for individual progress and advancement.  Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton all have written about the adversity of their youth, and the absolute determination to rise above it.  Generations of new Americans – immigrants from Europe and now from Latin America have had exactly the same deliberate, focused, and determined spirit of self-betterment.

Fourth, capitalism, unless reined in, can most definitely be exploitive, manipulative, and detrimental to large numbers of ‘captive’ workers.  The era of the Robber Barons to which Kitcher refers did exist, and the government regulations which were put in place after the Depression were most welcome.  It is true that the most talented and ambitious without regulation can and will make bad moral decisions.  We have only to look at today’s Wall Street and the recent expose by a former Goldman Sachs employee who showed why good people do bad things – the environment in which they work and live can be corrupting and corrosive.

Therefore, casting the debate in such dramatic philosophical terms – the red blood, fang-and-claw Social Darwinist Republicans vs. the compassionate, Christian, caring Democrats is not only misleading, it is wrongheaded and can only lead to further divisions in already divided country.  The issue is not either-or.  It is how to find, nurture, encourage, and promote individual enterprise for the good of the country without totally ignoring those members of society – any society – who are without talent, hope, or ability.

What any sensible budget-making process should do is to focus on establishing this balance which is currently far from equilibrium.  It is not a question of slash-and-burn, clearing vast swaths of government programming on the basis of gross principle.  It is more cutting those programs which either have been designed incorrectly – that is, no matter how efficient they are they will have little impact – or are simply too inefficient to succeed.  Moreover, some of the savings (remember, the budget cutting has the principal goal of deficit and debt reduction) should be reinvested in those limited programs which have been proven to increase individual and collective productivity.

Similarly, there always has been a delicate balance between too many government regulations and too few; and the current Republican House feels that no regulation is a good regulation, and here I might agree with Kitcher that Congress wants to turn the clock back to the early days of the 20th century.  Again, the issue is not either-or, but a delicate balance between the two.

In all this often acrimonious debate, it is easy to forget the very individualistic origins of this country.  I wrote a post yesterday on the history of the Old Southwest, and how its development was not because of government, but because of the single-minded pursuit of individual betterment (wealth, status, privilege) of those individuals who hacked their way through canebrake and swamps to get to the fertile land of the Black Prairies; and it was the private investment companies who bought and sold land, rights of way, and rights to ports and transportation who build America.  Government was a facilitator.

What is most often forgotten is that American individualism has a religious basis.  The individual was so valued by the Founding Fathers because of his God-given soul the expression of which can only be unique and personal.  In Calvinist doctrine, creation of wealth and success were signs of salvation and to be sought. 

These arguments are still true, and the past few decades have been characterized by a deliberate attempt to downplay the individual in favor of the community.  Community, after all, is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals grouped together to add to personal value.  It is not a whole larger than the sum of its parts.  It is not a particularly holy or sanctified creation.  It is a practical human constitution to preserve and promote individual rights and well-being. 

In conclusion, I am very much a Social Darwinist when it comes to refocusing attention on the individual and acknowledging that human nature – one of an incessant drive for self-protection, self-aggrandizement, self-betterment, and individual superiority – has its very positive side as well as the negative.  Too much government in the name of reining in the negative at the expense of the positive is not good.  It ignores the ferocious power of the individual.

I am, however, not a Social Darwinist when it comes to favoring an enabling environment.  We have moved out of the kill-or-be-killed era of Wild West Capitalism; and the more the world becomes inter-related and integrated, the more accommodation and negotiated settlements are required.  Let us just not overemphasize the role of the State and undervalue the role of the individual.

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