Liberalism versus Social Darwinism

Two unequal siblings

1. Introduction

Even if most people consider "freedom" a good thing: The term liberalism - the ideology with the primary aim being to help people get more freedom - does not always arouse positive assocations. The reason for this is that since the 1990s, the media have often claimed "neoliberalism" to be the cause for an increase in social insecurity. Neoliberalism is understood to be a radical focus on economic issues, and neoliberal politicians are supposed to care more about the profit margins of big companies than the provision of less fortunate people with vital goods. This neoliberalism is made responsible for an increasing reduction of social welfare. Occasionally liberals are reproached for advocating a dog-eat-dog society in which everybody cares for themselves and the weak ones perish. In this context the term "social darwinism" is sometimes mentioned. Social darwinism is the ideology postulating that society should be designed in such a way that the natural selection processes discovered by Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882) take effect. In the following essay I want to show that even radical liberals are not social darwinists although it is possible that consistent implementation of liberal policies without consideration of the social component might lead to a social darwinist society. The conclusion is that if liberal parties get a majority one day, they will also have to take care of social problems. But as long as the liberals are a minority group, other issues might have priority.

2. The Nature of Liberalism

It is certainly admissible to state that the liberal way of thinking stems from the urge to develop freely without having to consider social forces and repressions. In our society there are limits to free development. Already as children, we are forbidden to do certain things by our parents, and a couple of years later the state-run educational process begins, which has a definite influence on the next few years of our lives. Obligations and bans dominate the lives of infants. And as soon as you are mature, nothing will change. Whatever you do, you have to take care of laws invented by people and enacted by state authorities. If you ignore them, you risk breaking a law and getting punished for that.

The primary aim of liberal politics is to reduce the legal limits to free development. Liberalism is an attempt to change the rules of the game on a political level in such a way that free development and self-actualization of individuals are supported. Of course liberalism is only a piece of a puzzle in a person's struggle for personal freedom. To actually demand this freedom, is up to the individual. Politics only defines the legal frame.

In classical liberalism, which got popular in Central and Western Europe in the 19th century, government was considered the source of all unfreedom. Back then Europe was ruled by absolute monarchies and the crowned heads of state had a lot of power over their subjects. As the emperors and kings were able to do what they wanted, and thus restrict other people's freedom, it is understandable that classical liberals were primarily interested in the adoption of a constitution which restricted the rights of the monarch and granted all citizens basic rights such as the right to life and property. Classical liberalism mostly focvused on "negative" freedom, such as the freedom from force, paternalism and arbitrariness. This is different from some political movements which consider themselves modern liberals and demand "positive" freedom, such as scholarships which would allow people from less privileged classes to study at university. While the classical liberals of the 19th century were principally opposed to the state, some who consider themselves modern liberals view the state as an instrument that may help people obtain freedom.

Nowadays there are various political movements which consider their roots to be in liberalism. They differ in their concrete goals. Apart from "modern liberalism", which mostly addresses the portions of the US American population that would vote for social democratic parties if they were Europeans, there are also movements which disapprove of governmental interference in the economy. One of them is the libertarian movement. The radical opposition towards government which the libertarian ideology is based on includes a total rejection of social welfare. That is the reason why radical forms of liberalism are sometimes considered to be related to social darwinism.

3. Social Darwinism

After Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species", other 19th century thinkers applied Darwin's ideas about natural selection on human society. One of them was Francis Galton (1822 - 1911), a cousin of Darwin's and the author of "Hereditary Genius". Galton was of the opinion that intellectual abilities and personality attributes which made individuals outstanding people had a genetic basis and were present in young people from all walks of life. Therefore the educational system should identify and support these talents already at an early stage. A generous system of scholarships should allow gifted young people to pursue studies which would enable them to get a professional occupation in which they could fully unfold their talents.

Galton's line of thinking so far resembles "modern liberalism": The government should help gifted youngsters to actualize their positive freedom. However, Galton not only reasoned about education. He was also interested in "improving" the population itself by increasing the number of gifted people. This was supposed to be achieved by means that would make gifted people reproduce earlier and more often than less talented ones. A basic element of Galton's plan was the abolition of social welfare. In this way people unable to sustain themselvs should be hindered from reproduction. Instead, they should live in celibatary monastries.

These ideas of Galton's are considered the root of eugenics. Many scholars in all of Europe and even more in the United States adopted them. Consequently politicians enacted measures to hinder people with undesired features from reproduction, such as compulsory sterilization of mentally handicapped people. Even in Northern Europe and Switzerland such measures were implemented until the 1970s.

Of course compulsory sterilization is not compatible with liberalism since they are restrictions to personal freedom. What some people reproach liberals for is social darwinist tendencies in the following sense: People who are able and willing to work can make a good living, while those who are not perish.

4. Are Liberals Social Darwinists?

Consistent classical liberalism may lead to a society resembling social darwinism. For this reason it is legitimate to pose the question whether liberals are social darwinists.

From what I wrote about the nature of liberalism, no demand for implementation of natural selection in human society follows. The demand for more individual freedom and the wish for self-actualization do not imply that anybody wants to harm anybody else. Natural selection may only be a possible consequence of a radically liberal social order.

However, you have to pay attention to the fact that consistent liberalism includes the freedom to help other people. This is not desired by social darwinists. Social darwinists would want to forbid helping other people as it would harm his aim to exterminate the less fortunate. For this reason a social darwinist cannot be a liberal, and so a liberal cannot be a social darwinnist. The question whether liberals are social darwinists must hence be answered with a clear no.

Another question is whether some people who claim to be liberals are actually social darwinists. In Austria there is a party named Liberal Forum, which political opponents often call "left-liberal". One of the reasons for this may be that the Liberal Forum proposes a basic income for all grown-up persons which they should receive no matter whether they are employed or not. Some people consider this non-liberal, while as a matter of fact it was the liberal economist Milton Friedman (1912 - 2006) who made this idea popular. A basic income enables people to live without existential worries. Since basic income makes some types of social welfare, such as unemployment benefit, obsolete, administration costs can be reduced. This is a pleasant side-effect which economic-oriented observes sometimes forget. The only admissible criticism from a liberal perspective is that it is a government measure. If you consider government as the ultimate enemy or even want to abolish it as some radical liberals desire, the introduction of basic income is inconsistent. But most classical liberals do not desire the total abolition of government. They only want to reduce the influence of government in areas that endanger individual freedom.

5. Conclusion

With this essay I managed to show that it is not legitimate to call liberals social darwinists while it is in theory possible that a radically liberal society would have social darwinist traits. For this reason liberal politicians have to ponder over how to organize an efficient and fair social system. The idea of basic income seems quite reasonable to me.

Claus D. Volko
November 2011