Sunday, February 8, 2009

Survival of the fittest in society

In this post we will take a quick glance at the views of William Graham Sumner who was an economics and sociology professor at Yale University. Sumner followed a "Social Darwinism" believe. He based his social ideas on the theories of Charles Darwin who first proposed the idea of natural selection and survival of the fittest in nature.

William Graham Sumner
Sumner discusses in his reading "What Social Classes Owe to Each Other" the idea that even in our complex society we are still bound by the laws of Nature. In this case the theory on natural selection which favors best suited organisms for competition of the limited resources available. He suggests that by having programs in society that take from an individual to give to another who is not productive and does not contribute to society is a burden and detrimental to our long term survival as a society. Our society is about equality of opportunity. The more opportunity that's available the more disparity in social classes because some will choose to take advantage while others will choose not to. The greatest help we can provide people in need is the advancement of science, government and society. This will in turn better the chances of individuals but not necessarily guarantee equality. As Sumner said:

"The man who by his own effort raises himself above poverty appears, in these discussions to be of no account. The man who has done nothing to raise himself above poverty finds that the social doctors flock about him, bringing the capital which they have collected from the other classes, and promising him aid of the State to give him what other had to work for." William Graham Sumner " What Social Classes Owe to Each Other" 2.1: The Industrial Status Quo Defended (1833)
If we take the Social Darwinist view and apply it to the period of time between late 1800s and early 1900s where large scale enterprises played such an important role, we can see that industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller who took advantage of the opportunities in the market and in the process created thousands of jobs for those who wanted to be productive and chose not to be a burden on society.
This problem transcends time into our own. What do we do with members of society who need financial help and do not contribute to our economy.? Many of us approve of aid such as the Federal Welfare programs while others think that it's a waste of tax payers money and many are abusing it.

1 comment:

A. Mattson said...

A great post.

Sumner's ideas about equality of opportunity are still very influential today. His version of Social Darwinism at least recognizes the need to level the playing field to so that the "natural" competition between individuals at least begins as a fair fight. What is key here is the use of nature and biological theory about human nature to justify an economic and political system.