Question: I've heard many people claim that Objectivism is 'just another attempt to disguise Social Darwinism.' Is this a valid comparison?
Answer: Before I get into the similarities and differences between Social Darwinism and Objectivism , I should point out that this accusation you cite—that Objectivism is just some elaborate ruse to smuggle in Social Darwinism under a philosophic cloak—is utter bunk. As accusations go, it can neither be confirmed nor disconfirmed; we would have to somehow get inside the mind of Objectivism’s author, Ayn Rand , an impossible task even when she was alive.
I have, on a few occasions, been smeared as a Social Darwinist for my advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism and the property rights of the wealthy. In my experience, it is a charge leveled when the people I am debating have exhausted their rationales for state intervention on behalf of the poor. They look for some excuse to impugn my motives and dismiss my arguments as thoughtless or cruel. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia comments on the misuse of this term in its "Social Darwinism" entry: "Because Social Darwinism came to be associated in the public mind with racism, imperialism, eugenics, and pseudoscience, such criticisms are sometimes applied (and misapplied) to any other political or scientific theory that resembles social Darwinism…capitalism, especially laissez-faire capitalism, is sometimes equated with Social Darwinism because it adopts a ‘sink or swim’ attitude toward economic activity. Supporters of capitalism respond that their goal is specifically to avoid ineffective economic behavior, and does not require or condone ‘letting the weak starve.’"
At a very superficial level, the Social Darwinist and Objectivist politics coincide. Both advocate radical laissez-faire capitalism as the proper socioeconomic system for human societies. William Graham Sumner, in What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, writes, "Any one who believes that any great enterprise of an industrial character can be started without labor must have little experience of life…Especially in a new country, where many tasks are waiting, where resources are strained to the utmost all the time, the judgment, courage, and perseverance required to organize new enterprises and carry them to success are sometimes heroic." (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883, pp. 43-57.) This is certainly similar to Objectivist views on industrialists. However, at a deeper and more fundamental level, these two schools of thought have very different views on the nature of laissez-faire—and, as a result, different reasons for advocating it.
Social Darwinism, which originated with the British sociologist Herbert Spencer, has as its ultimate goal the advancement of the human race as a whole. It believes that this can be best achieved by leaving the evolutionary principle of "survival of the fittest" free to weed out, as it were, those who are less fit to live and produce in an industrial society. It is predicated on the idea that the individual’s interests are in fundamental conflict with those of every other individual in society. So, for one person to succeed, another must fail.
Objectivism, in contrast, recognizes that individuals produce economic goods through the use of reason. Their rational interests are therefore in fundamental harmony. When one person works prodigiously to make vast amounts of money, he does not do so by encroaching on the abilities of others to do the same. Because wealth is produced by individuals’ use of their own minds, it is possible for all members of society to increase their wealth simultaneously.
Another important difference between these two systems of thought is that Social Darwinism regards social progress as an inexorable natural process, provided it is not stalled by charity or welfare programs. Objectivists, on the other hand, believe that even if man is left free to produce and achieve (a tragically rare circumstance in world history), it is not inevitable that human society will progress. Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism not because we believe it will create a utopia, but because it leaves individuals free to prosper if they choose to exercise the thought and effort necessary to do so.
Ayn Rand’s writing on Social Darwinism indicates that she was hardly sympathetic to it. In her essay "The Stimulus and the Response," she places Social Darwinism in the "junkyard of philosophy" (Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 137-38). The only favorable reference to a Social Darwinist I have found in her writings was a letter she wrote to Leonard Read, founder of the pro-capitalist Foundation for Economic Education, in 1944. In it she writes, "Personally, I am very much impressed with the quotations from William Graham Sumner and Max Hirsch, two authors I had not discovered for myself. Would you tell me the titles of the books from which you quoted? I would like to read more of these two" (The Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 172). Sumner was the foremost American Social Darwinist, and a strain of individualism made his beliefs more palatable to Objectivists than those of his counterparts.
Other Objectivist scholars, most notably Leonard Peikoff, have also been critical of Social Darwinism. In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Peikoff argues that the foremost Social Darwinist thinker actually undermined the case for laissez-faire. He writes, "As a rule, the defenders of capitalism have been worse—more openly irrational—than its attackers. The man who spread the notion that capitalism means death for the weak was the system’s leading nineteenth-century champion, Herbert Spencer; capitalism, he held, permits only the ‘survival of the fittest.’…This ‘defense’ of laissez-faire has been incomparably more harmful than anything uttered by Marx. The wrong arguments for a position are always more costly than plain silence, which at least allows a better voice to be heard if such should ever speak out" (p. 405).
Spencer also argued that human beings would eventually transcend the selfish voluntarism of industrial society and achieve a communitarian "Ethical State." In The Ominous Parallels, Peikoff criticizes Spencer’s altruist ethics: "Human nature, Spencer says, is now in a comparatively low moral state, but gradually it will be reshaped. In the course of eons of evolution, selfishness will atrophy. Eventually men will reach a level of altruism ‘such that ministration to others’ happiness will become a daily need—a level such that the lower egoistic satisfactions will be continually subordinated’…In this future Utopia, men will be eager to commit acts of self-sacrifice for their fellows; they will be so eager for self-immolation ‘that the competition of self-regarding impulses…will scarcely be felt’" (p. 121). These are the kinds of ideas one is likely to hear from Ayn Rand’s villains, and certainly never from one of her heroes.
Objectivism’s defense of laissez-faire rests on a philosophical foundation of individualist ethics. The failed attempts of the Social Darwinists to defend classical liberal government arose from their collectivist belief that the progress of the culture or group—as opposed to the rights of the individual—were the best criterion to evaluate political arrangements.
I think capitalism’s opponents—including the professors of a few of my college courses—make it a point to use Darwinist-style social theory as a sort of straw man, a weak defense of laissez-faire they can dismiss with facile condemnations. If they wish to grapple with a strong, well-founded case for capitalism, they must instead look to Objectivism.