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Our Social Darwinists Then and Now

Research & Commentary
February 22, 2015

by Claire Goldstene

Conservatives like Paul Ryan seem to have discovered inequality. But don’t take that discovery all that seriously. Their basic mindsets still haven’t changed any.

Sociologist William Graham Sumner provided in the original Gilded Age much the same justifications for concentrated wealth and power as conservatives like Paul Ryan provide today.

Sociologist William Graham Sumner provided in the original Gilded Age much the same justification for concentrated wealth and power as conservatives like Paul Ryan provide today.

By Claire Goldstene

Over the past few weeks, listening to Congressman Paul Ryan has had me thinking about the place of Social Darwinism in American politics.

Ryan, the 2012 vice-presidential candidate and potential 2016 presidential contender, has rather suddenly repudiated his years-long fondness for dividing America between the “makers” and the “takers.” As part of this campaign at reinvention, Ryan recently reproached Barack Obama for “practicing trickle-down economics” that aid the wealthy and exacerbate inequality.

Simultaneously, Ryan ripped the President for pushing an “envy economics” that promotes resentment of the financially well-off. The contradiction in these accusations could hardly be more telling.

Despite his professed new-found concern for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, Ryan has not turned any new leaf. The budget priorities he’s pushing in the new Congress — cuts to social programs for the poor and working class and tax breaks for the wealthy — embody his continued adherence to the Social Darwinist distinction between “makers” and “takers,” Ryan’s contemporary expression of the nineteenth-century distinction between the “fit” and the “unfit.”

The ideas that coalesced into Social Darwinism — as popularized in the United States by sociologist William Graham Sumner, businessman Andrew Carnegie, and Supreme Court justice Stephen J. Field — helped to justify the vast financial inequities that characterized the Gilded Age. Social Darwinism defended concentrations of economic power into corporate monopolies and resisted efforts to alleviate immediate suffering and institute reforms that might mitigate some of industrialization’s more extreme consequences.

At that time, thousands of immigrants swelled the populations of cities, straining the inadequate urban infrastructure. Families and strangers crammed into small, dark tenements after working ten or twelve hours a day hunched over sewing machines or feeding blast furnaces.[pullquote]Social Darwinists resisted efforts to alleviate suffering and institute reforms that might mitigate some of industrialization’s more extreme consequences.[/pullquote]

Meanwhile, a handful of other Americans were accumulating enormous fortunes and residing in lavish mansions. In 1892, the average worker earned about $490 annually for a 59-hour work week. John D. Rockefeller collected $18 million in income that same year.

In the name of laissez-faire, Social Darwinists applauded such disparities as the expected outcomes of a natural system of economic competition that identifies the biologically fit and benefits the social good by rewarding the most able, a system best left alone.

Sumner wrote about the hardworking and law-abiding Forgotten Man, compelled by misguided humanitarians to aid society’s failures. In Ryan’s current rendering of these ideas, “takers” receive government benefits, in the form of social programs like Social Security and Medicare paid for from the tax revenue generated by the productive “makers.” Ryan’s “makers” are, in essence, getting robbed to support our less worthy “takers.”

Mitt Romney, Ryan’s 2012 running mate, calculated that “takers” constitute 47 percent of Americans. They believe, said Romney, “that the government has a responsibility to take care of them.” They see themselves “entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Romney’s rhetoric takes legislative shape in Ryan’s budget proposals that lower taxes on top earners — the “makers” — and cut social programs for the “takers.”[pullquote]Social Darwinists define the essence of life as an unceasing struggle for survival.[/pullquote]

Social Darwinists define the essence of life as an unceasing struggle for survival. At the center of that struggle stands the inviolate individual. Any perceived intrusion, by government or anyone else, into this natural process threatens the essential sorting of the worthy from the unworthy.

Economic inequality, to Social Darwinists, becomes simply the necessary consequence of a system designed to delineate the “fit” (the rich), upon whom the survival and improvement of the species depends, from the “unfit” (the poor). The consolidation of economic and political power in the hands of the wealthy — Ryan’s “makers” — rewards those whose financial accumulations mark their worthiness.

This worldview allowed Sumner to describe those unfortunates who commanded the sympathy of nineteenth-century social reformers as “the shiftless, the imprudent, the negligent, and the inefficient” and “the idle, the intemperate, and the vicious.”

“A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be, according to the fitness and tendency of things,” Sumner declared to his audiences in the original Gilded Age. “Nature has set upon him the process of decline and dissolution by which she removes things which have survived their usefulness.”

In other words, the drunkard should die.

Much more recently, in 2010, South Carolina Lt. Governor Andre Bauer has compared recipients of government assistance to stray animals. His grandmother, Bauer went on to add, taught him not to feed strays because “you’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply.”[pullquote]One contemporary state leader has compared recipients of government assistance to stray animals. [/pullquote]

“They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that,” he continued. “And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

Bauer’s outburst expresses the crux of the Social Darwinist argument. Sumner’s “drunkard in the gutter,” Romney’s “47 percent,” Ryan’s “takers” and “makers,” and Bauer’s “stray animals” all evoke a biological imperative under the guise of economic policy. Those who do not demonstrate the requisite character traits that allow them to amass wealth should not survive.

But we have today, unlike in William Graham Sumner’s time, a political landscape that requires a viable presidential candidate to reach a broader voting public. After all, Romney and Ryan lost in 2012 to Obama and Biden. Ryan’s noteworthy new rhetoric about reducing economic inequality may suggest something about both the historical and contemporary resistance to Social Darwinist ideas.

Claire Goldstene has taught United States history at the University of Maryland, the University of North Florida, and American University. The author of The Struggle for America’s Promise: Equal Opportunity at the Dawn of Corporate Capital (2014), she can be reached at

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