Epstein on the Differences between Laissez-Faire and Social Darwinism

My Primer for Obama

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 Origin of the Species was published in 1859. Darwin’s tome offered the first complete view of evolution, which in two words boils down to “natural selection.” Random variation is found in all attributes of any large population of species. Those members that have variations that prove successful win out over their less successful rivals. In nature, this process takes place by a bloody process of competition for scarce resources. Individual organisms stop at nothing in order to satisfy nature’s imperative of self-preservation. The familiar expression “nature red in tooth and claw” spelled death for the losers in the Darwinian race for survival.

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