Good article about Social Darwinism

Coincidentally (?) just as I was blogging about Social Darwinism last week, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune was getting ready to publish a major op-ed piece about the subject. I don’t know what access you might have to it on line, but it is on the front page of the “Opinion Exchange” section (OP1) Sunday, May 27 (2012). Hopefully, if you want to read it, it is available on line.

The article is entitled “Survival of the fittest: The evolution of an idea” and is by Stephen B. Young (global executive director of the Caux Round Table, “an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral captitalism”).

What’s expecially interesting about the article is the author’s drawn connection between Herbert Spencer’s idea of social “survival of the fittest” and John Calvins’ follower’s (especially in post-Civil War America) idea of prosperity as a sign of election. A bold print side bar (drawn from the article itself) underneath pics of Spencer and Calvin says “The base of today’s Republican Party is enthusiastically behind Herbert Spencer’s demand for minimal government funded by minimal taxation of private wealth combined with a special American Calvinist conviction about God’s desire to reward those who enter the lists of social and economic combat to win through as witnesses to Christ’s truth.”

Now, it must be said that it was, at most, only SOME Calvinists who believed in prosperity as a sign of election. Many Calvinists (especially those influenced by the Kuyperian tradition) believe strongly in social justice including redistribution of wealth to care for the weakest members of society.

This seems like a strange coincidence. If I were a Calvinist I would trumpet it (the publication of this op ed piece a few days after my post here about Social Darwinism) as evidence of God’s providential imprimatur of my argument. Even as a non-Calvinist I could do that. But I won’t. It’s probably just a coincidence. However, it’s a kind coincidence.

Please, as you are able, read the entire column. While I think it could use more documentation, I won’t fault it for that lack as it is an op-ed piece and not a scholarly article. It’s convincingness is based on “seeing as.” I am convinced by the overall thrust of the article because it sheds light on what I see happening in contemporary American politics and economics and its roots in American and European history.

As I see it, this is why many Americans, including some Christians, love Ayn Rand. When they read her they find literary justification  for their presupposed uniquely American brand of Social Darwinism.

The problem is, of course, that this leaves the weakest members of society, orphans and widows, the indigent and disabled, behind in the dust in the mad scramble for hoarded wealth. And it provides justification for it. Sure, Christian Social Darwinists will alter strict Social Darwinism to include private charity for the “deserving poor.” But that has not worked. That is no safety net. Too many fall between the cracks of charity. Some element of redistribution of wealth via a system of entitlements is the only thing that works to guarantee that at least most of the deserving poor are helped to live minimally decent human lives.

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  • Chad

    I’ve wondered myself if this may be more of a hermeneutical issue than anything else. Since a good number of evangelicals and fundamentalists ascribe to a grammatical-historical/”literal” interpretation of the Bible, is the connection here a hermeneutical one? Is the draw toward a less-restrictive form of government developed as a hermeneutical conviction rather than an ethical one? Is the desire simply to reinforce the vision of the founders (as they interpret it in the Constitution, etc.) for a limited federal government and free market system? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t see any biblical basis for small government (which is what I take it you mean by “less-restrictive form of government”). Also, I think a government can be very “restrictive” in other ways than regulation of the economy. A government that does not regulate the economy can be very oppressive in other ways.

  • Jayflm

    Dr. Olson, thanks for the heads-up on the article. Here’s the link:

    I agree that the author is a bit sloppy with his evidence, but I wonder how persuasive the piece would be even if it was fully notated. What I sense from the conversation today among most conservative Christians is very akin to the quote from William Graham Sumner in the article. They believe that nanny government is subsidizing bad behavior, and the best corrective is to allow these people to experience the bitter fruits of their foolishness. There is either a blindness or a willful refusal to consider that there are larger economic forces at work which have pushed many ‘good’ people into desperate circumstances from which the old ‘work hard and you’ll get ahead’ nostrum may be inadequate to recover. Not to mention the fact that the majority of children being born in this country right now are being born to these people. Do we really think that American well-being, much less the cause of Christ, is being advanced by leaving these little ones to experience the deprivation of their circumstances without our help?

    There have been a couple of interesting opinion pieces in the Washington Times over the past week or so that come at the subject from different angles. One reveals a change in the nature of conservatism itself, and the other shows how capitalism has evolved into something that is only concerned with the benefit of a relative few. Please forgive if you do not like links being posted.

    • Jayflm

      That should be the Washington Post! Sorry.

  • Bev Mitchell

    “a kind coincidence.” Indeed! But God does still work in mysterious ways 🙂
    I wonder how often, and in what manners this general connection between Spencer’s and some version’s of Calvin’s views has been made, very publicaly, over these many decades? The idea to connect the two is always there, it seems, for non-Calvinists who turn their minds to such questions. Do Bezan Calvinists get it? Have they heard it with ears that hear? Or, is it possible that it has not been expressed enough publically for it to become a ‘truism’. Or, like death and taxes, do many people know this but choose not to talk about it, out loud, or very much?

  • “Some element of redistribution of wealth via a system of entitlements is the only thing that works to guarantee that at least most of the deserving poor are helped to live minimally decent human lives.”
    I agree. The system of private charity may have worked reasonably well in a small tribal economy like ancient Israel’s, but it won’t work in today’s large, modern nations. And even in ancient Israel, giving to the poor was mandated by law, not left up to each individual in a misguided belief that everyone will be charitable if the government stays out of the way.

    But the term “deserving poor” worries me a little. Who are the “deserving poor”? And who is to be the judge of that?
    As long as only those who are attempting to game the system are deemed “undeserving,” I have no problem with the term. But it used to be that unwed mothers were not considered part of the “deserving poor.” It’s too easy to use the term to exclude groups of people from the safety net just because they’re on the outside of social norms. Ex-convicts, for example, desperately need the safety net if they’re going to even have a chance to go straight upon release. I suspect we’re in agreement on this too– I just thought I’d bring it up.

    • rogereolson

      I meant to exclude as “undeserving” only those who are gaming the system, as you call it–those able to work and support themselves who won’t. I include their children as “deserving poor.” But I don’t believe in giving cash even to the deserving poor. I believe all who are able to work should work (“work fare”) even if that means government providing temporary work. A single mother, for example, should be provided meaningful work by government rather than simply handed a check. The government should then give her vouchers for child care or provide child care for her children so they won’t be left home alone which sometimes happens. I think when most people hear “redistribution of wealth” they think it necessarily means taking cash from the rich and just handing it out to the poor indiscriminately. I don’t believe in that and neither have most progressives. Walter Rauschenbusch, for example, believed work is dignified and those who don’t work at something productive should not have income (unless they are not able to work). He applied that to the idle rich. I would apply it to all people able to work and contribute to society. For example, a young man out of work due to not fault of his own and unable to find a job should be put to work by federal, state, county and/or city government (e.g., picking up trash in public areas) in exchange for enough to live a minimally decent human life–until he can find better employment.

      • Workfare has its problems though. If the work is useful, it can be done by people earning a proper wage. If so, then is there not a danger that such schemes will actually create unemployment?

        Workfare might also potentially make it harder for people to find proper jobs. If an accountant is out of work, he needs to look for jobs that use his skill. He won’t be able to do that if he is being made to paint fences.

        • rogereolson

          There are simple ways around those (and all) objections to what you are calling workfare. I won’t spell them out here, but my mind immediately goes to them. They are simple and obvious.

      • gingoro

        Roger Ah now I understand how you are using the term Social Darwinism and I agree with your position. But as you do I also reject the idea that one’s financial status should be independent of the profitability of one’s business and work success. Probably in the US such a position is not held even by the far leftist wing of the Democrats however, where I live, some of the leftists sound as if they think that everybody should be provided for equally and I do object to that idea.

        • rogereolson

          I would say that children should be guaranteed a decently human existence by society. They should also be given equal opportunity in terms of education. Unfortunately, in our increasingly Social Darwinist society even schools are not equal. Many schools in poor neighborhoods and rural areas (especially of the South) are under funded and under staffed and under equipped. “Equal Opportunity” is an American myth. If it means anything it must mean that every child is guaranteed an equal education with every other child. That has never been the case in the U.S. and now is becoming a pipe dream.

  • I found the article. It’s called “Is it Raining Libertarians, Or What?” Here’s the link:

    • rogereolson

      I think that was the overall headline for the page. The title I cited was just for the one article. there was another article under that larger headline.

  • I think the problem is the entitlements. Once a person thinks that they are innately entitled to something, then they loose site of their God-given purpose to rule and create in this world. Entitlement destroys ambition, hope, and dreams, and glorifies contentment in the mediocre.

    I have no love of Social Darwinism. Indeed, I abhor it, while I merely disagree with entitlements in a practical way. But that doesn’t mean that government is the solution to the problem. While I am comfortable with safety nets, and programs which enable people to grow and learn beyond their circumstances, any theory of government which believes that the government has the obligation to care for each and every soul will eventually lead to a centralized meticulous governing body very similar to the God of Calvinism. Every Julius Ceasar is eventually followed by a Tiberius and Nero.

    The only true solution is God. Only through a commitment to His Church and Kingdom can salvation and provision come. I am a capitalist not because I believe it to be a moral system, but that I don’t trust any system which gives complete control over a society in the hands of men. It is my distrust of government which forms the foundations of my political theory, and I believe it formed the foundation of the founding fathers’ as well.

    • rogereolson

      When I talk about “entitlements” I mean government programs that have conditions but not based on race or gender. Social Security is an entitlement program, not because everyone is “entitled” to it but because the Social Security Administration cannot refuse (for example) disability benefits to someone based on their race, ethnicity, gender, etc.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    The poor would never “fall through the cracks” if the righteous principles of the gospel were the observed norm of government — whether it be small government or big government. The real problem is not government, but, rather, those who govern. God has provided enough resources (and more) to assure the needs of all humanity. But in the hands of ignorant and unscrupulous leaders there is often graft and inequity in the distribution of goods and services. It’s a spiritual problem. Solve that, and the rest will take care of itself.

    • rogereolson

      But that’s not going to be solved until the Kingdom comes. In the meantime, we are to be good stewards and that includes developing just systems of government and economics that take depravity into account.

  • John Inglis

    The social darwinists among Chrsitians rely on such verses as 1 Thess. 3:10 “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.”

    However such an approach not only takes that verse out of context, but it ignores God’s own compassionate heart for the poor, as expresses in his word. Hence, even in the days when men’s hearts were so hard that God allowed divorce, he nevertheless commanded that the poor were not to pay interest on loans (Ex. 22:5, Deut. 17:7-11 & 17:1); every 7th year they were given the right to use the fields, vineyards,and olive trees at rest (Ex. 23:11); they were given the right to gather from the corners of fields, and to pick up left over grain, grapes, and olives etc. — and owners of the fields were not to harvest so completely that nothing was left in the fields for the poor(Lev. 19:9-10); they were not to be abused or exploited when employed (Lev. 25:34ff.; Deut. 24:12-15).

    These matters were structural parts of Hebrew society, party of the laws of their nation. Such laws, though they do not directly apply to us, do provide adequate warrant and justification for making similar structural provision for the poor in our laws. Note also that God’s laws did not discriminate between the so-called “deserving” poor and the poor who are not deserving.

    From a sermon I’ve read on Lazarus:

    “In truth, I don’t think we need to hear any more about Lazurus at all. Do you? We’ve read the statistics. We saw him on the news and we gave at the office! And it’s not my fault that Lazurus hangs out with the dogs, and it’s not as if I was the one who covered him in sores. And if he’d just get himself a job, he could get some proper medical treatment for his skin anyway. After all, it’s no good me just giving him a handout. He’ll just take my money down to the pub and drink his way through it and be back at my gate by sunrise!

    Ain‘t it the truth? People like Lazarus are professional beggars, aren’t they, and they don’t generally get that way through bad luck! Indeed, in Lazurus’ case – covered in sores and the dogs licking his wounds – we know full well what his problem is. He’s on the needle! There’s nothing more certain!

    Am I being a hard bastard again? It’s just the way things are. If you abuse your body with drugs for any length of time, your skin problems will be a give-away. And it makes sense to me that Lazarus has a problem with the dogs. He’s probably too out-of-it most of the time to shew them away!

    You see, you can’t trust people like Lazurus, and you’ve just gotta be a bit bloody-minded about these things because the fact is that we have limited resources and unlimited demands on those resources, which means that we have to save our welfare reserves for those who truly deserve them.

    Surely this is the essence of any good Christian welfare program – the all-important distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Why waste your scraps on Lazurus when your hard-earned excess wealth could be given to someone whose painful situation was not their own fault . . . [but]

    Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in making judgement calls over who deserves what!

    So was Lazarus a good guy deep down, and was the rich man a greedy, money-grabbing, tight-fisted, slave-driver? Don’t know, not interested, find somebody who cares, because Jesus, it seems, doesn’t!”

    [yes, the distinction between the deserving is not the focus of the parable, but it does in its silence play a part in the framing of it, and Jesus lack of concern for who “deserves” what comes out in other parables and narratives of what he said and did.]

    • rogereolson

      Surely we all agree that there are poor people not deserving of welfare–those who could work but simply refuse to work. I do not include among the undeserving poor their children, however.

      • John Inglis

        I’m not rejecting the concept of “deservingness” out of hand, but it is important to raise and discuss several underlying or pertinent issues. First, is the distinction relevant to expressions of Christ’s love? God forgives all, first before they do anything, he sends rain on both the evil and good, heals both, and does not remove the weeds from the wheat. Is it a distinction that God has given us to make? What are are the assumptions of the concept that force the discussion toward particular criteria? Is “deservingness” a Biblical category? etc. The assumption that deservingness is by nature defined as “x” and has criteria “y” is too easily made, and in fact is almost unwaveringly made without reflection on the concept itself. The 9 Marks statement on this topic so often appears unamended on church websites that it is clear that no popular evangelical is seriously dealing with these underlying issues.

        Beyond the conceptual issues, there are the very practical ones. How do we determine who is undeserving (e.g., what counts as “not working”? does it matter if one is not working but is looking for work? or is looking after family members? etc.) How do we discover who is undeserving and how much money do we spend doing that? How do we remove the undeserving from the list of recipients. How do we adjudicate or otherwise resolve claims by people who say that they were wrongfully removed from or excluded from the list? It is in fact quite expensive to do this, and some level of so-called “ripping off the system” must be tolerated because it would cost more to find and remove the undeserving than would be saved by just letting the rip-off occur.

        Furthermore, there are people who do not qualify within the necessarily generic rules of the system, but have needs and so “rip-off” the system temporarily while they are making a transition to paid labor (e.g., people taking training or education that eventually lands them a job with a living wage).

        In 2010 the BBC had an article by Chris Bowlby entitled “The deserving or undeserving poor?” He traces the relationship between morality and welfare, makes some good points about the current debate in the U.K. on this issue, and raises some good questions, including,

        “Conservative blogger Mr Montgomerie wants his party to be bolder. “The more the Conservative party expresses its views on welfare and taxing the wealthy in moral terms the more successful it will be,” he says.

        And that mention of the wealthy raises an intriguing final thought, which might make tax evaders and big bonus bankers uneasy. If we are now more prepared to talk about the “undeserving poor”, who are the “undeserving rich”?” [end of quote]

        Though 20 years old, Michael Katz’ book, “The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare” is still a pertinent and valuable review of the situation in the U.S.(he takes up some of the same issues in his later book, “The Price of Citizenship”). The Library Journal wrote of the first book, “He argues that the overwhelming tendency historically has been to identify “the poor” as a culturally defined sub-unit of society, lacking ambition and moral standards, undeserving recipients of public assistance. Stereotyping has obscured evaluation of the control and distribution of political and economic power in America, and of the overall community benefit were every individual to be assured the minimum condition of human dignity at least in the economic sphere.”

        Katz begins his book with the relevant observation that “in poverty discourse, moral assessments have nearly always overlain pragmatic distinctions. The issue becomes not only who can fend for themselves without aid, but more important, whose behaviour and character entitle them to the resources of others.”

        I am not abandoning using criteria of some kind to both collect and distribution of wealth, but I am suggesting that the evangelical discussion of this matter has for the most part been lacking (i.e., not undertaken) or extremely narrow and shallow. Poverty relief is not just about giving money to people “who deserve” (by our, rich person, criteria) and avoiding giving what “we” have earned “by ourselves” to those who “don’t deserve it” (again, the criteria of the haves). Poverty is also a systemic and structural issue, even in respect of the so-called “undeserving”.

        I end my post with a quote from Rebecca Bank, a christian, award winning author of “It takes a Nation” (1997), educator, and policy developer / implementer, “In the last decade we have consistently misunderstood the nature of poverty in America, believing that it is more behavioral [etc.] . . . To the extent that this book has a single message, that message is to avoid simple explanations for poverty, and the false promise of simple solutions. There is no single cause of poverty, and there is no easy way to abolish it. The challenge is to build a balanced system which relies on the contributions of many different groups and programs.”

        • rogereolson

          I don’t see how we disagree. I don’t have a category of “deserving poor,” but I do have one of “undeserving poor.” I stated it rather clearly, I thought–people who are able to work but refuse to. Okay, that requires some clarification, so I’ll clarify–people who do nothing and contribute nothing to anyone but prefer to be idle and indolent and live from other people’s charity and/or government handouts. I know such people. I don’t mean to suggest Christians and others should not attempt to help them; I just don’t think the government should be obliged to support them in their indolence. Rather, I believe those who are able and willing to work should be provided work that bridges them over to private sector employment. Yes, there are also idle, indolent rich. That’s a whole other subject. I think they should be taxed heavily to help pay for the massive government programs (e.g., military) that primarily protect them and to take care of the working poor whom they refuse to pay sufficiently to live decent human lives.

          • John Inglis

            I don’t think we agree either, and I do know similar people to the one’s you do. And Iagree that someone who can work but refuses to should not receive either charity or welfare. Sorry if I appeared to be disagreeing; I used your points as a springboard to do a further thought exploration of my own.

            I also did not mean to imply that your thinking on this topic was narrow or shallow, though I can see how readers might take it that way because I posted underneath your reply, as a reply. I initially had a small reply, but then kept reading and thinking and my post grew. I should have posted it at the end as a new comment.

            It was upon reading various church websites, and reading passages from Banks book that I realize how shallow evangelical thinking was on this topic, how imbued with naive moralism, and how complex the topic really is. That caused my reply to grow, and in the end I was not replying to your reply at all.

          • rogereolson

            So I suspected. I just wanted to make clear that by “undeserving poor” (a bad phrase, to be sure) I meant only those who could work but simply refuse to and prefer to live off others’ charity. I think they are few in number, but from what today’s Social Darwinists proclaim, you’d think all people on every form of government assistance belong in that category which is, of course, nonsense. My guess is that most of THEM (the anti-welfare Social Darwinist Ayn Rand admirers) are benefiting from some form of government assistance whether they know it or not.

  • John Inglis

    From John Chrysostom’s 21st homily on 1 Corinthians:

    It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with cold, so that they can hardly hold themselves upright.

    Yes, you say, he is cheating and he is only pretending to be weak and trembling. What! Do you not fear that lightning from Heaven will fall on you for this word? Indeed, forgive me, but I almost burst from anger.

    Only see, you are large and fat, you hold drinking parties until late at night, and sleep in a warm, soft bed. And do you not think of how you must give an account of your misuse of the gifts of God?

    … On the other hand, you question very closely the poor and the miserable, who are scarcely better off in this respect than the dead: and you do not fear the dreadful and the terrible judgment seat of Christ. If the beggar lies, he lies from necessity, because your hardheartedness and merciless inhumanity force him to such cheating. … If we would give our alms gladly and willingly, the poor would never have fallen to such depths.

    … But for him, who prays and calls on God, and beseeches you humbly and modestly, to him you will vouchsafe neither an answer or a glance, but at the most, you will give him a reproach and say: “Why does such a one have to live and breathe and see the light of the sun?” And while God says to you “Give alms and I will give thee the Kingdom of Heaven,” you hear it not.

    … Indeed, for your charioteers in the circus, you are ready to sacrifice your own children, and for your actors you would deliver up your own soul, but for the hungering Christ, the smallest piece of money is too large for you to give. And if you do sacrifice a penny for once, it is as if you were giving away your whole property. Truly, I am ashamed when I see rich people riding about on horses decorated with gold and with servants clad in gold coming along behind them. They have silver beds and multitudes of other luxuries. But, if they have to give something to a poor man, suddenly they themselves are the poorest of the poor!

  • Jon

    Roger, you say that you don’t think the Bible supports small government. Can you please cite where it supports big government? Can you cite where it commands us to give money to the poor via forced redistribution? Your only argument against voluntary (and thus compassionate) giving is a arm-waving “it doesn’t work.”. So you’re saying that because the church is (supposedly) not obeying it’s mandate to care for widows and orphans, then we should throw out he Bible’s prescription and run to government to bail us out?

    Also, please cite a historical case where your socialist views have worked in the real world.

    If anyone would like to hear the biblical view of this issue, I highly recommend Joel Mcdurmon’s excellent book “God vs. Socialism.”. There you will find a true biblical case for God’s plan for caring for the poor.

    • rogereolson

      I am hesitant even to post your comment as it borders on being uncivil. I most certainly did NOT (!) suggest that we should “throw out he [sic] Bible’s prescription.” Of course we should rely on the church to care for the widows and orphans. But show me where the Bible FORBIDS government from doing it. Or forbids Christians from supporting government intervention on behalf of the poor. It doesn’t. Your logic is abominable. Here’s an analogy to your logic: The Bible says to pray for the sick (James 5:14) so we shouldn’t rely on medicine and Christians who do tell people to rely on medicine “throw out the Bible’s prescription.” Such utter nonsense.

      • Jon

        Roger why do you not post replies that are contrary to your viewpoints? What kind of dialogue is that? Do you consider yourself intellectually honest? What are you afraid of?

        • rogereolson

          Oh, please. you are obviously not reading all the comments I post here. Many of them are critical of my views. The only ones I do not post are those that contain blatant falsehoods, slander or that are uncivil and disrespectful of others including myself. I’m only allowing yours through now to encourage you to read all the comments or, if you do, pay greater attention to the numerous ones that express disagreement with me.

  • Jon

    Roger, I am amazed that you actually use the government school system to try to support your case for socialism as it actually PROVES the bankruptcy of your prescribed solution. The public school system in America is one of the best examples of socialism’s utter failure to achieve that which it attempts to accomplish. Year after year, we are forced to give (at gunpoint) more and more money to the failing public schools. And year after year they get worse and worse.

    For a real world example, downtown Pittsburgh schools spend around $18,000 per student per year! A nearby private Christian school spends around $4,000 and yet the private school’s results are much, much higher (it’s SAT scores are some o the highest in the area). Looks like more tax money, better paid teachers, less freedom, fewerr options, and more powerful unions all made the socialist school worse!

    Please put your trust in God, not Caeser.

    • rogereolson

      You are calling public education “socialism?” Go back and study what socialism really is. It is by definition “public ownership of the means of production.” I’m not going to post your comments here if you continue to misuse words so egregiously.

  • Ron Bell

    My comment is directed to John Inglis. John quotes “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” as being a Christian verse from 1 Thessalonians 3:10 is entirely incorrect… in fact, it is to be found nowhere in the Gospel. So no one “takes that verse out of context” as John then states, since it does not even exist. End of comment.

    • rogereolson

      Try 2 Thessalonians 3:10.