Poverty in America
(image by Hands On Blog)
Death by Poverty
Survival of the Fittest is a phrase often attributed in error to Charles Darwin. But it was Herbert Spencer who actually connected these words in 1864 to describe the inevitable fate of the poor in an industrialized world. Others called his theories Social Darwinism. That's right, it is a real thing, or at least it once was in times gone by. Fox Republicans are today trying to bring this long-discredited philosophy back from the dead.
Economists of the central tradition like Smith and Malthus had dealt primarily with aggregate wealth rather than the contrast between luxury and poverty in society. They acknowledged that poverty would always be the norm, and would be limited only by access to resources needed to eat and reproduce. But nobody unashamedly celebrated widespread poverty until Spencer.
(image by Wikimedia Commons)
An Englishman by birth, an economist by trade, and a racist by proclivity, Spencer took the findings of Charles Darwin and applied them to the world of human enterprise, yielding some cruel and bizarre arguments. To wit: Assisting the poor interferes with the laws of nature; as does impeding the accumulation of affluence by the wealthy. The poor require depredation to evolve; to keep it from them is morally wrong. The fittest are genetically predisposed to excellence; therefore so are their spawn. Private charity is of value only in that it allows the giver to express his generosity; no such justification exists for public charity. Among the inferior poor, widespread death from starvation or exposure was the expected, even desired, consequence.
Such were the principles of Social Darwinism, and they infused the age of opulence in the late nineteenth century. In Connecticut, William Graham Sumner served as Spencer's faithful disciple, and provided ample moral justification for the extreme wealth concentration that flourished as never before on the American continent. Think Gatsby. But these extremes were not permanent.
The Democratic Alternative
In opposition to the concentrated power of monarchy and church, our founding fathers created a social, political, and economic system based upon the notion of equality and democracy. Such a democracy gives a voice to poor people, thus balancing the power of wealth with sheer numbers. In a democracy Social Darwinism cannot long prevail, and indeed the early twentieth century witnessed increased constraints upon wealth and a renewed nurturing of the underclass. By the middle of that century increasing union membership, growing mass consumption, economic mobility, and more rational public policies had mitigated the extreme concentration of wealth found sixty years before. Social Darwinism was dead, at least for a while.
Fox Republican Social Darwinists
What has this to do with Fox Republicans, and who are these people? Many Republicans are quite decent people who believe that their party has gone astray. Many Conservatives honestly seek to return to the true virtues of a bygone era. Even in the Tea Party are those who genuinely want to limit the scope and waste of the federal government. Out of respect, I refrain from accusing any of these groups of harboring an affinity for Social Darwinism. By contrast, however, there are those who soak up the propaganda of Fox News, and spread it around their sphere of influence. These are the Fox Republicans, and they are promoting a resurgence of the beliefs of Herbert Spencer.
Examine Spencer's public-policy positions to discover some alarming parallels with today's Fox Republicans. Spencer opposed any public aid to the needy. He opposed public funding of the post office. He opposed public education. He opposed unions. He opposed a central government currency. He even opposed systems of public sanitation. Pretty cruel and inhumane, to be sure.
But even in the 21st century, Fox Republicans are unashamedly promoting many of the positions of Herbert Spencer. Fox Republicans of the 113th congress rolled back badly needed public assistance in the form of food stamps and stopped extended unemployment benefits, while thwarting efforts to raise the minimum wage. In 2006, Fox Republicans fed the US Postal Service a poison pill in the form of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act that requires full funding of retirement benefits, even while denying the Service the autonomy of pricing its own products. Fox Republicans have waged a well-organized war on public education in the form of attacks upon teacher unions, funding cutbacks, curriculum directives, and incentives for private schools. Fox Republicans have mounted assaults against unions in the form of NLRB funding cutbacks, legal challenges originating at ALEC, and direct attacks by state governments against their public unions. Fox Republicans have been led to support the abolition of the Federal Reserve, for all the wrong reasons. And although we have yet to see Fox Republicans oppose public sanitation, a longstanding trend of privatizing utilities and waste management is alive and well.
Resisting the Resurrection of Social Darwinism
Smith and Malthus assumed the presence of the invisible hand of competition to be always at work in the economy. As oligopolies developed into monopolies that concentrated wealth and destroyed competition, Spencer and Sumner celebrated the widespread poverty that followed. After all, they argued that poverty is inevitable, and its presence lends proof of their precious theory. Never mind the hypocrisy inherent in public policies that favor the formation and accumulation of capital.
Spencer was wrong. Poverty is not a feature of national economies, but rather a bug. America has a long tradition of economic policies that serve the nation poorly by favoring capital over labor. Only when we come to realize that poverty is not inevitable can we enact policies that will eradicate it.
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