President Obama made a series of statements in Ohio this week that we agree with one hundred percent: “I have never believed that government can or should try to solve every problem we’ve got. I believe that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. I believe that everybody has personal responsibility for their own lives. Everybody’s got to work hard. Nothing is going to be handed to us…”
Then the President cited Abraham Lincoln: “…but I also agree with our first Republican President, a guy named Abraham Lincoln who said that through government we should be able to do together what we can’t do as well on our own.”
Actually, that’s not quite what Lincoln said. We include the same quote in our book INDIVISIBLE. Here it is exactly: “The legitimate object of government,” Lincoln argued, “is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or cannot, so well do, in their separate and individual capacities.”[i]
The sad fact is, however, the actions, practices, and policies promoted by the President contradict not just his speech in Ohio, but the Lincoln quote he reinterpreted unless he believes that there is little to nothing that private citizens and communities can do on their own. Under his leadership, the federal government is expanding at a historically fast and unsustainable rate. It now does virtually everything, including many things that we not only can do in our separate and individual capacities, but can do better.
Read the President’s quote again, and then consider another statement he made recently in response to an extremely modest budget proposal to rein in out-of-control federal spending by Representative Paul Ryan. President Obama denounced Ryan’s plan as a “radical vision,” which amounts to “thinly veiled Social Darwinism.” Understandably, Ryan called the comments “surreal,” since the Wisconsin Republican seeks to reform entitlements such as Medicare in order to save them. That clearly is not “Social Darwinism.”
In fact, “Social Darwinism” is an old left-wing catch phrase used to disparage free enterprise. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that one good catch phrase can stop thinking for fifty years. This one certainly has.
In the ’80s, former Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale criticized Ronald Reagan’s economic policies by saying he believed in “social decency, not Social Darwinism.”
In the 1950s, historian Richard Hofstadter claimed that 19th-century American businessmen were Social Darwinists. Political scientist John West, however, has shown that Hofstadter’s thesis is largely untrue. Such arguments were favored by Darwinist intellectuals such as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, rather than businessmen and free-market proponents.
“Millionaires are a product of natural selection,” argued Sumner, a Yale social scientist. If we find survival of the fittest distasteful, he argued, “we have only one possible alternative, and that is the survival of the unfittest.” He criticized welfare programs as an “absurd attempt to make the world over.”
Christians and all decent people, in contrast, believe we should care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the stranger — those who have difficulty providing for themselves. In fact, the Bible teaches this should be an essential concern. So should we oppose free-market competition? Pope Pius XI seemed to many to suggest that when he wrote, “Free competition, though justified and right within limits, cannot be an adequate controlling principle in economic affairs.”
However, leading advocates of economic freedom from Adam Smith, F. A. Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises, to Julian Simon and George Gilder, do not commend Social Darwinism, but wisely champion liberty, human rights, limited government, private property, the coordinating effects of prices, the win-win nature of free exchange, and the creative capacities of entrepreneurs.
The law of the jungle is that there is no law: The strong kill the weak. Economic freedom, in contrast, exists only where rule of law prevails — where people can’t kill, steal, and defraud each other, where private property rights are protected and trust is widespread. These laws channel our economic behavior. In a free market, if we buy a hundred dollars worth of groceries from the store of my choice, that means we prefer the groceries to the money, and the grocer prefers the money to the groceries. That’s a win-win game, not the Hunger Games.
Cooperation and coordination are just as much a part of the story as is competition. In a free market, prices fluctuate based on supply and demand. This causes goods and services to be distributed where they are most needed and wanted. The demand for sushi in Seattle raises the price restaurants can charge for it, and this “draws” sushi grade salmon and tuna to the Emerald City. For the same reason, sushi doesn’t go to waste in small Texas towns where no one likes it.
Because of this market coordination, Americans take it for granted that, ordinarily, when they enter stores, products will be on the shelves. Not so in countries with government monopolies. In the former Soviet Union, extreme shortages and wasteful surpluses were a near-universal experience.
Globally, even sporadic economic freedom has allowed millions of people, in dozens of different companies and countries, to cooperate in producing technological marvels such as the iPad that no one could have built alone. Free markets have provided a greater opportunity for many to leverage their strengths and be lifted out of poverty.
Sure, in free economies, businesses compete against each other for customers. If we shop around to buy a gift for one of our children or grandchildren and buy it at Target, then Walmart loses that sale. By competing lawfully for customers, however, both Target and Walmart provide better products at lower prices than they would if no such competition existed.
Free markets don’t create utopia. Businesses can fail and workers be displaced. In the long run, however, everyone is better off with economic freedom, which includes competition, than with the alternatives — anarchy, monopoly, cronyism, and socialism. By ignoring all this and invoking a catch phrase such as “Social Darwinism,” the president is betting that the vast majority of Americans don’t know what he’s talking about or aren’t thinking carefully. We are betting that he will prove to be mistaken. We are convinced that if people will be more informed and observant, they will realize that when it comes to policy, actions speak louder than words.
[i]The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, volume 2 (Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 220.