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The Rebirth of Social Darwinism

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What kind of society, exactly, do modern Republicans want? I've been listening to Republican candidates in an effort to discern an overall philosophy, a broadly-shared vision, an ideal picture of America.

They say they want a smaller government but that can't be it. Most seek a larger national defense and more muscular homeland security. Almost all want to widen the government's powers of search and surveillance inside the United States -- eradicating possible terrorists, expunging undocumented immigrants, "securing" the nation's borders. They want stiffer criminal sentences, including broader application of the death penalty. Many also want government to intrude on the most intimate aspects of private life.

They call themselves conservatives but that's not it, either. They don't want to conserve what we now have. They'd rather take the country backwards -- before the 1960s and 1970s, and the Environmental Protection Act, Medicare, and Medicaid; before the New Deal, and its provision for Social Security, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour workweek, laws against child labor, and official recognition of trade unions; even before the Progressive Era, and the first national income tax, antitrust laws, and Federal Reserve.

They're not conservatives. They're regressives. And the America they seek is the one we had in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

It was an era when the nation was mesmerized by the doctrine of free enterprise, but few Americans actually enjoyed much freedom. Robber barons like the financier Jay Gould, the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, controlled much of American industry; the gap between rich and poor had turned into a chasm; urban slums festered; children worked long hours in factories; women couldn't vote and black Americans were subject to Jim Crow; and the lackeys of rich literally deposited sacks of money on desks of pliant legislators.

Most tellingly, it was a time when the ideas of William Graham Sumner, a professor of political and social science at Yale, dominated American social thought. Sumner brought Charles Darwin to America and twisted him into a theory to fit the times.

Few Americans living today have read any of Sumner's writings but they had an electrifying effect on America during the last three decades of the 19th century.

To Sumner and his followers, life was a competitive struggle in which only the fittest could survive -- and through this struggle societies became stronger over time. A correlate of this principle was that government should do little or nothing to help those in need because that would interfere with natural selection.

Listen to today's Republican debates and you hear a continuous regurgitation of Sumner. "Civilization has a simple choice," Sumner wrote in the 1880s. It's either "liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest," or "not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members."

Sound familiar?

Newt Gingrich not only echoes Sumner's thoughts but mimics Sumner's reputed arrogance. Gingrich says we must reward "entrepreneurs" (by which he means anyone who has made a pile of money) and warns us not to "coddle" people in need. He calls laws against child labor "truly stupid," and says poor kids should serve as janitors in their schools. He opposes extending unemployment insurance because, he says, "I'm opposed to giving people money for doing nothing."

Sumner, likewise, warned against handouts to people he termed "negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent."

Mitt Romney doesn't want the government to do much of anything about unemployment. And he's dead set against raising taxes on millionaires, relying on the standard Republican rationale that millionaires create jobs.

Here's Sumner, more than a century ago:

"Millionaires are the product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done ... It is because they are thus selected that wealth aggregates under their hands -- both their own and that intrusted to them ... They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society." Although they live in luxury, "the bargain is a good one for society."

Other Republican hopefuls also fit Sumner's mold. Ron Paul, who favors repeal of Obama's healthcare plan, was asked at a Republican debate in September what medical response he'd recommend if a young man who had decided not to buy health insurance were to go into a coma. Paul's response: "That's what freedom is all about: taking your own risks." The Republican crowd cheered.

In other words, if the young man died for lack of health insurance, he was responsible. Survival of the fittest.

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http://robertreich.org/

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

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Well said, and so true,   But ther... by Herbert Calhoun on Friday, Dec 2, 2011 at 7:42:20 AM
  If we as a species valued cooperation ... by Theresa Paulfranz on Friday, Dec 2, 2011 at 10:34:51 AM
  If you take Newt Gingrich and the repu... by Theresa Paulfranz on Friday, Dec 2, 2011 at 10:47:17 AM
At last something form Reich that makes sense.&nbs... by AAA AAA on Friday, Dec 2, 2011 at 12:14:16 PM
lower taxes, and we know what the wealthy think of... by Jill Herendeen on Saturday, Dec 3, 2011 at 5:44:03 AM
click hereAlas, there is room for me and Mr. Reich... by Robert S. Becker on Friday, Dec 2, 2011 at 4:00:27 PM
...are better than one. Both of your articles are ... by Daniel Penisten on Monday, Dec 5, 2011 at 11:00:27 PM
It was never dead.... by David Smith on Sunday, Dec 4, 2011 at 7:39:44 PM