Epstein on the Differences between Laissez-Faire and Social Darwinism

My Primer for Obama
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
April 10, 2012

President Obama’s recent speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors signaled the opening of a political gambit in the upcoming presidential election. In dealing with the proposed budget of Representative Paul Ryan, the president sought to discredit nineteenth-century laissez-faire economics by linking that movement to Social Darwinism: Ryan’s plan, the president said, “is thinly veiled Social Darwinism. It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who is willing to work for it.”

The president’s well-crafted reference to the term ushered in a fierce political dispute between his supporters and detractors. In the midst of the din, no one has undertaken the essential task of sorting out the theoretical differences and similarities between Social Darwinism and laissez-faire.

Charles Darwin’s