Perhaps the quickest way to draw the ire of modern-day conservatives is to question the legitimacy of unlimited wealth. It’s a reminder that blind faith in the purity of wealth has far deeper roots in America than does socialist leanings.
In Victorian-era America, beliefs eventually labeled Social Darwinism were commonly accepted notions. Promoted by English philosopher Herbert Spencer and sociologist William Graham Sumner, it applied Darwin-like theories about the biological evolution of man to economic success.
In the thinking of Spencer and Sumner, Bill Gates is at the top of the food chain – he’s a superior human being, and you . . . well, if you’re a working stiff, your knuckles might as well drag the ground. To Social Darwinists of the 1880s & ‘90s, this was not only true, but also a good thing. The rich would pave the way for mankind.
You hear this echoed today in the rhetoric on the right who label the rich as, “job creators.” Kinda funny when you consider how many top earners have gotten massive year-end bonuses for cutting jobs at their companies, not creating them.
It’s surprising how many middle and low-wage earners subscribe to the lavish, “job creators,” linguistic spin, too, but it’s nothing new. This worship of the wealthy also wormed its way into the hearts of envious and hopeful 19th Century Americans who eked out lives of drudgery.
Funny, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Nearly 150 years ago, Spencer and Sumner urged trickle-down economic policies with few regulations on commerce and wealth. Let the rich get richer and it will eventually help the poor. And they opposed aid to the poor. Why intervene against the laws of nature? The rich were rich and the poor were poor as a result of natural selection.
Before that century’s end, Social Darwinism took on an ironic twist that no socialist critic could have concocted. It became justified on a religious basis by the very forces who railed against Darwin’s original theories. Not only were the rich a product of natural selection, but also that selection was sanctioned by God. Poverty was punishment for sin.
In his famous speech titled “Acres of Diamonds,” given thousands of times in big cities and small dusty towns across the country in the1880s and 1890s, the Reverend Russell Conwell argued to adoring audiences, “ . . . the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, . . .”
In this era Mark Twain dubbed “The Gilded Age,” industrialists smugly clutched this concept to their chests as justification for the profits they ground out of the lives of poor immigrants. And many immigrants themselves accepted that thinking. Ashamed of their circumstances they hoped, “maybe I’m pure enough to become wealthy, too.”
There’s nothing wrong with upward mobility – it’s everyone’s dream and the rational path to a more comfortable life, but to think it would put you straight with God converts the American Dream into an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt earn a fortune.”
This Victorian faith in wealth-without-limits played out in an era of corporate monopolies and trusts that at times virtually enslaved workers and cheated small business people as a matter of intended function. These abuses of power were so egregious they led to anti-trust and child labor legislation, and eventually the rise of labor unions. But the Social Darwinists of the era decried such developments as unnecessary intrusion into free enterprise.
Interestingly, this justification of boundless wealth for a chosen few at the expense of the majority, though defended as free enterprise, ended up having far more to do with notions of monarchy. The monopolies and trusts, best exemplified by the railroads, Standard Oil, and U.S. Steel resulted in a kind of semi-free-enterprise feudalism, with corporate leaders living like economic lords, dukes and kings, ruling from positions of staggering wealth, perverting the political system and national commerce for their private benefit.
Most modern Americans cringe at these theories and the brutal economy it created, but sympathy survives. Look up Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” on Amazon.com and see it heralded in reader reviews as a long forgotten, inspirational text.
On the surface, Social Darwinism has been relegated to the past with other harsh beliefs our ancestors once held dear, but in the same way a great grandmother’s eyes or smile are passed down through generations and inherited by a great grand child, we see glimpses of Social Darwinism today in our attitudes about the rich and poor.
Unquestioning faith in wealth is alive and well in America and influences our current political debates about taxes, balancing budgets, regulating Wall Street, the assault on teacher, police, and firefighter labor unions, and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In the late 1800s Social Darwinism was a jagged stone in the soul of America. That stone has tumbled down the riverbed of a century, its rough edges rounded, it’s nasty pallor polished smooth. But it’s still the same stone.
Next post I’ll take a more modern look at these pro-wealth impulses.
Update on Positron Post:
During an October post criticizing Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear's plan to offer the Fisher's-based corporation, Positron millions of dollars in hand-outs to relocate in Noblesville, I detailed Positron's long history of legal troubles. In late November the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission accused Positron's CEO of defrauding investors. To read details printed in the IBJ, follow this link: http://www.ibj.com/sec-accuses-positron-ceo-of-misleading-investors/PARAMS/article/31020