I have been reading up recently on the Progressive movement in the late 19th / early 20th centuries; a movement that still has considerable influence on modern progressive liberals to this day. One of the arguments is the notion of social Darwinism; how society and even the government can “evolve” over time into a better form. While the Founding Fathers might have rightly feared the power of government unchecked, we in a more enlightened age, need not fear such power.
How anyone who even slightly knows the history of the 20th century can continue to believe such nonsense is a matter for another essay. I would like to contemplate the notion that the idea of a powerful central government can somehow evolve using the principles of the “Origin of Species” proposed by Darwin. In many ways, this is like using Einstein’s Specific Theory of Relativity to argue for Interstate Highway Speed Limits. (If the universe has a speed limit, then why not the interstate?)
So let’s first look to Darwin; then we can look to the Progressives.
In 1859, Charles Darwin set out his theory of evolution by natural selection as an explanation for adaptation and speciation. He defined natural selection as the "principle by which each slight variation [of a trait], if useful, is preserved". In short, random variations are placed in competition; the best win out in the local environment and continue while the worst do not. Location is important because the best animal for the Antarctic will hardly be the best animal for the heart of Africa.
Let us now consider what Progressives made of this idea.
The social implications of the theory of evolution by natural selection also became the source of continuing controversy. Friedrich Engels, a German political philosopher and co-originator of the ideology of communism, wrote in 1872 that "Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom". Konrad Lorenz wrote in 1940, "... selection for toughness, heroism, and social utility...must be accomplished by some human institution, if mankind, in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication-induced degeneracy. The racial idea as the basis of our state has already accomplished much in this respect."
The irony of this notion is that it effectively becomes the opposite of what was envisioned. Instead of random mutations competing for which method is best in a given area, a “human institution,” typically an all powerful overarching state provides guidance in order to lift the people to a state that they would have not otherwise obtained. This isn’t “evolution.” This is “Intelligent Design” and I highly question the intelligence.
Doubly ironic is that if you apply the concept behind Darwin you get, not the socialist state of the utopian progressives, but a system that looked very much as the ideal form of government envisioned by the Founding Fathers of the United States. Much in the same manner as the penguin isn’t equally suited for the Antarctic and the middle of Texas, no central form of government can be equally suited to all forms of conditions the human race finds itself in. The problems of an urban area are vastly different from the problems of a farmland community, and equally as different from a small town in the middle of mountain terrain. Under a federalist model, most of the authority of government is handled at the local level. Each location is free to make choices as to how to handle the important situations in the community. Each location in turn competes with each other so that good choices are preserved and bad choices do not get retained. In the marketplace of ideas, ideas need to compete in order to “evolve.” When they do not compete, they do not evolve. It is as simple as that.
Therefore, if you really want to improve the society as a whole, the top down guided method is actually the last thing you want to do. Such methods only suffocate the entire evolutionary process and this can be easily proven by looking at the history of the 20th century. It is also clear when looks at the history of the 21st century and the complete failure of the current administration in the United States to get the economy moving in a manner similar to the way other economic downturns turned into economic recoveries in less “controlled” times. The Federal Government would rather tell farmers how to run their family farms than let the natural process of the survival of the best idea govern which method should be used and which method should not. Regulations and red tape prohibit natural variations and keep the people from easily adapting to new environments; resulting in a lot of penguins uncomfortably living in Texas.