Thursday, April 26, 2012

Conservatives Are Indeed Social Darwinists

President Obama, deep in his liberal bubble, seemed to think he was hurling the worst insult in the world at Paul Ryan when he described Ryan's budget as "thinly veiled Social Darwinism."  He was relying on the notion that, ever since Richard Hofstadter and Social Darwinism in American Thought, "social Darwinism" was an ever-useful pejorative to sling at evil Republicans to send them slinking back to their whites-only country clubs.

Of course, the way that Hofstadter defined it, no doubt it is enough to intimidate practically anyone.  But seriously, conservatives should be proud to be social Darwinists.  Darwinism, as developed in The Origin of Species, merely states that the animals that survive in any habitat (particularly in boundary zones) are the animals that produce offspring that adapt best to the environment.  Darwin includes a diagram to illustrate "the probable effects of the action of natural selection through divergence of character and extinction, on the descendants of a common ancestor."

President Obama wants us to think that, without the beneficent Oz of government programs, the poor will become extinct in an "on your own" economy.   What rubbish.  Applied to human society Darwinism merely warns that its social institutions, like the species "large in its own country," are subject to the law of natural selection.  The ones that adapt best to the social and economic environment will wive and thrive; the ones that don't will wither away.  Individual people, being resourceful and energetic, will be sure to join and contribute to the thriving institutions and abandon the withering ones.  You see this occurring in the United States today as ordinary people abandon bankrupt blue states with onerous state income taxes like California and Illinois and move to red states with right-to-work laws and no state income tax.  Humans are social animals; they know that survival depends on belonging to the right collective.

Conservatism, ever since Edmund Burke, has recognized the importance of trial and error in social evolution, especially in the gradual reform of social institutions.  Capitalism and freedom provide the best social process for gradual improvement and reform, because all the time and in every way, capitalism motivates people to adapt to the changing social and economic conditions, to react to small riffles in the stream before they turn, further downstream, into a Class VI unrunnable rapids.

Indeed, there is a whole conservative subculture that has shown that conservatism is the opposite of an "on your own" society.  That is because a non welfare state society develops a rich undergrowth of mediating structures between the government and the individual that protect and nurture the individual.  In totalitarian and welfare states there is no shelter for the weak and helpless, because there is no social middle ground between the all-powerful state and the helpless individual.  You go along to get along, or else.

If conservatives are Social Darwinists, believing in an adaptable, flexible society, how should we categorize the other Big Beasts on the ideological plain: communists, fascists, and our liberal friends?  These species come in two flavors.  The communists and fascists we can call Big Bangers.  They believe in the revolutionary convulsion, the Year Zero.  Everything changes in the revolution; the old order goes out, and with it all memory and all superstitious attachment to the past.  Society is reborn from a single point, with no memory of the past, as our modern cosmologists imagine the birth of the universe 14 billion years ago.

Our liberal friends are Intelligent Designers.  Well, they are.  They believe that liberals can intelligently design modern social institutions, and that the complexity of modern society demands that an educated elite of intelligent liberals be empowered to rule the less intelligent.  Without this intelligent design, liberal believe, individuals will find themselves "on their own" and reduced to helplessness and marginalization.  Of course the science on this is settled, except for the tribe of liberal deniers.  Ever since Hayek we have known that modern society is too complex for intelligent design.  Thousands of intelligent designers in Washington DC simply cannot outperform millions of producers and consumers out in flyover country.  The situation is rather like the situation with the Intelligent Design argument for the creation of the universe.  It may just possibly be possible for God to do Intelligent Design and direct everything from the Big Bang and the cosmic constants to the fall of a sparrow.  But when it comes to Intelligent Design of health care and affordable housing and student loans, well, the most charitable judgment is that the jury is still out.

So much for the overall design of social institutions.  But the big question is: what happens when something goes wrong?  In the Big Bang, it's too bad, because once the revolution erupts and the New Era begins, that's it.  Whatever the the God of the perfect society did when he set the cosmic social constants, that's it.  Actually, the record of Big Bang societies isn't too hot.  The Bolshevik cosmic constants caused it to run down in 60 years.  The Nazi Big Bang collapsed in on itself in 12 years.  Mao's Big Bang was reversed by Deng XiaoPing after 30 years.  The Intelligent Design universe is not much better; it seems to be running down after about a century.  So what is the problem?  The problem is that the Big Bang and Intelligent Design models of society are not designed for humans to run.  They are suitable only for the divine gods, driving around heaven in their chariots, as Plato imagined.  The gods are lucky; they have two good horses pulling their chariots, but the souls of mortal charioteers have one good horse and one bad horse, and spend so much time and attention wrestling with the bad horse that they can barely glimpse what the gods can see up at the rim of heaven: Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

But conservatism is different.  It is designed with humanity in mind from the ground up.  That is why it is Social Darwinist.  It is constantly inventing new institutions and replacing old ones that fail.  You don't need an Intelligent Designer, you just need to make sure that the government is built upon the principle of the separation of powers.  The idea is to prevent one branch of government totally dominating the others, or for two branches to gang up on the other.  And more than that, you need a Greater Separation of Powers--that's my idea--so that the three great sectors of institutional society, the political, the economic, and the moral/cultural are separated.  We already have the idea of the separation of church and state, the separation of the moral/cultural and the political.  Now we need to go the next step, the separation of political and economic.  Sure, the political and the moral/cultural sectors can set the rules for the economic sector.  But it's time to tell them to stop trying to run it.  Because when they do, they make a mess of it.

The reason that our liberal friends make such a fuss about Social Darwinism is that their situation is very close to the panic fundamentalists experience with regard to The Descent of Man.  It cannot, it just cannot be true that society does not need Intelligent Designers to organize and direct the lives of Everyman.

Of course the mystery of the modern era is the great question.  Can it really be true that Adam Smith's Invisible Hand is true and that humans naturally act in a social manner because that's the best way to meet their own needs?  Conservatives admit we don't really know.  But we would really like the chance to find out--if only those liberal Intelligent Designers would stop messing up the blueprints.

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