The Cardus Daily

Malthus, Darwin, Rand, and Social Conservatives

Diane Weber Bederman  |  September 21, 2012  |  Economy, Institutions, Justice, Politics

We have recently heard the views of Mitt Romney in a newly released video where he says that 47% of the American population think of themselves as victims, entitled to government care like food, housing, and shelter. And he claims this same 47% of the population pay no taxes. He seemed to have no compassion or empathy for those who struggle. There was a disdain for them. By suggesting they see themselves as victims, Mr. Romney displayed great disrespect for them as God’s children. How might social conservatives who have a strong attachment to the teachings of the Bible synthesize those beliefs with any positive views of Romney/Ryan’s attitudes toward the poor, the downtrodden, the stranger, the other?

I fear that social conservatives are falling into an ideological abyss that has somehow attached itself to an 18th century evolutionary idea: the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, which began with Malthus. According to Jacques Barzun, who wrote Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage in 1940, Malthus taught that one need not worry about overpopulation. Although Malthus believed that the problems of 19th-century England were due to too many children, especially amongst the lower classes (read: the poor) and the lack of food to feed the population, they would be solved naturally: “The beneficent Providence consisted in the natural checks to the growth of population: war, famine and disease. It followed that any interference with these checks through almsgiving, hospital care or peace societies, was cruelty to the rest; while starvation, pestilence, and bloodshed were merciful gifts from on high.” Malthus seemed to be suggesting that this is God’s way of dealing with the poorest amongst us. Barzun added that after Darwin’s theory of natural selection was released, “War became the symbol, the image, the inducement, the reason, and the language of all human doings.” It unloosed a war metaphor that made its way through all of culture. We still live with it, today.

This elevation of survival of the fittest leads to a heightened desire for individualism as an ideal prioritizing it over responsibility to others. Paul Ryan, held up as the ideal candidate for the right, has reached into the past for solutions for the future: the ideology of individualism promulgated by Ayn Rand who took her personal reaction to Communism and universalized it. Her life in Russia took a terrible turn following the 1917 revolution. Her family lived in near starvation. Once in the United States she started writing about the struggle between the state and the individual. Based on her personal history her dislike of state and state intervention of any kind was understandable.

Yet Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan and the right have seconded Rand’s ideologies, the same ones that are inextricably tied to Darwin and Malthus. The two men on the Republican ticket have somehow managed to stray from the ethics of one God, who values balancing individual freedom with caring for the stranger, to an ethic of individualism, which resents helping the less fortunate, presenting them as victims of their own circumstances (or moochers, or parasites, or freeloaders). This seems to be the official platform of the Republican Party in the United States—the party that is supported by social conservatives. This does not auger well for civil society.

There is no historical proof that a society that eschews care for the oppressed and the downtrodden can remain a society that prioritizes freedom and free will. On the contrary, history shows us that those countries that bind themselves to ethical monotheism—those that demand that their citizens balance rights and responsibilities personally as well as universally—are the countries that have had the greatest success in maintaining freedom and wellness for the greatest number of people.

Social conservatives have an important part to play in the evolution of ethical monotheism. But in this U.S. election campaign, the road they seem to be following may lead them down the path to the wrong side of history.



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