Darwinism, Economic Liberty, and Limited Government

Dr. John G. West, PhD

In my chapter, “Darwinism, Economic Liberty, and Limited Government,” I challenge the thesis cultivated by pop culture as well as by scholars such as Larry Arnhart that Darwinian theory provides support for economic liberty and limited government. The most common examples cited to justify this thesis are seriously wrong. For instance, the claim that nineteenth century businessmen appealed to Darwinian ‘natural selection’ to justify laissez faire capitalism is largely a myth. More typically, Darwinism during the ‘Gilded Age’ was used as a method to discredit capitalism by socialists and progressives who wanted to stigmatize it as nothing more than ‘survival of the fittest.’ Similarly, the claim by some free market thinkers that the development of ‘spontaneous order’in economics is akin to adaptations produced by undirected evolution in biology is suspect. Unlike the results of the blind, non-teleological process of natural selection, the ‘spontaneous order’ found in economics is the result of the conscious goal-directed choices of innumerable rational agents, making it more properly the product of intelligent design.

I go on to argue that the case for ‘socialist Darwinism’ is more convincing than the case for Darwinian capitalism, and I discuss the ways socialist, Marxist, and progressive thinkers drew inspiration from various parts of Darwin’s theory.
Finally, I propose that Darwinism helped erode the very idea of limited government by fueling a virulent strain of scientific utopianism that led to crusades such as eugenics. Championed by the nation’s leading biologists, eugenics was motivated by the fear that civilized society was destroying itself by continually counteracting Darwin’s law of natural selection. Although eugenics has been discredited, the cult of scientific expertise it promoted is still with us, and Darwinism leaves modern society uniquely susceptible to the temptation of human bioengineering because in the Darwinian framework, there is nothing intrinsically right about the current capacities of human beings, so there can be nothing intrinsically wrong about trying to alter them.

There are many routes for further research and discussion related to the issues discussed in my chapter. Detailed studies need to be done of nineteenth century capitalist and socialist thinkers and how they did or did not draw on Darwinian thinking. Additional work also needs to be done in the history of eugenics to explore the various roles Darwinian theory played in the thought of major eugenicists at both the local and national and international levels.

More broadly, there is a need for both theoretical and historical studies of the use of ‘science’ as a trump card in political and cultural debates during the past century (continuing to our day). There are many questions worth exploring in this area: What are the appropriate limits of scientific expertise? What are the dangers of deferring to scientific experts in questions of public policy? Is there a valid role for dissenting scientific experts when it comes to public policy? In a representative democracy based on the idea of human equality, how should public policy controversies involving science be adjudicated? What are the tensions between freedom of speech, religious liberty, and claims of scientific expertise when it comes to political and cultural debates?

For Christians, there is also an opportunity to address the sometimes conflicting ways in which Christians in the past addressed Social Darwinism and other applications of scientific claims to politics and culture. Regarding eugenics, many Catholics and evangelical Christians were critical, while mainline Protestants embraced the movement as part of their progressive view of science and Christianity. What were the arguments on each side? In the British context, Catholic writers like G.K. Chesterton and Protestant writers like C.S. Lewis were articulate critics of scientism and the misuse of science on behalf of philosophical materialism. Their critiques of scientism and its relationship to culture remain worthy of further exploration.

To learn more about the contributions of Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension (Lexington Books, 2013), click here for a fuller discussion at the EPS website. Readers are also encouraged to take advantage of a 30% discount when purchased through Rowman and Littlefield’s website (Lex30Auth14 – this discount expires 12/31/2014).