Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Herbie, the Capitalism Bug

The New Yorker recently carried a nice essay by Steven Shapin on Herbert Spencer, the 19th century British social theorist who is responsible for the idea of "Social Darwinism." Shapin writes:
Nowhere did Spencer have a larger or more enthusiastic following than in the United States, where such works as “Social Statics” and “The Data of Ethics” were celebrated as powerful justifications for laissez-faire capitalism. Competition was preordained; its result was progress; and any institution that stood in the way of individual liberties was violating the natural order. “Survival of the fittest”—a phrase that Charles Darwin took from Spencer—made free competition a social as well as a natural law. Andrew Carnegie admired Spencer enormously and attributed to him the decisive metaphysical epiphany of his life: “I remember that light came as in a flood and all was clear. . . . I had found the truth of evolution. ‘All is well since all grows better’ became my motto, my true source of comfort.” Thanks to Spencer, Victorian capitalists knew that nature was on their side.
Although Social Darwinism is no longer respectable (Shapin: "It was Spencer's misfortune to outlive his reputation" - zing!) its spirit lives on, lurking behind some of the "libertarian," "free market" and "supply side" economic ideology used to justify our new gilded age (which I discussed here).
Though I'm not a fan of his ideas, I do feel a certain connection: Spencer, the author of "Social Statics," was born in Derby. At Derby Middle School, my eighth-grade social studies teacher was a certain Mr. Spencer.

No comments: