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Social Darwinism or general welfare

“…the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.” John Adams, April 1776

The current conservative worship of rampant capitalism, with its resulting record-breaking income inequality, has led to an ongoing debate between those who think that societies are formed for the mutual benefit of all their members and those who believe in “every man for himself.” The Constitution itself appears to support the first group — “We the people of the United States, in order to … promote the general welfare …” The Constitution’s stance seems to be that as a nation, we should try to do what is best for all of us, not just the wealthiest citizens. Conservatives want to call this “class warfare.”

James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” said this about government’s role in preventing massive accumulation of wealth: “By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort.” (Jan. 23, 1792). He was not in favor of creating a small wealthy upper class; he believed that a more equitable distribution of wealth was healthiest for the country.

These thoughts by the Founders indicate that the United States was created to promote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all of its members. Too many people today seem to think that if someone has fallen on hard times, it’s their own fault. They should just stumble around and succeed or fail on their own, with no governmental intervention. The idea is that if the poor get help, that takes away their incentive to work and succeed; apparently this same principle doesn’t apply when it’s the wealthy who get governmental help.

Conservatives constantly trumpet the virtues of the free market, pretending this will solve society’s problems. They ignore the fact that an unfettered free market is really Social Darwinism, where the strong devour the poor. In the conservative mind, everyone has the full physical, mental and emotional capabilities to make a success of their lives. In reality, everyone has times when they have difficulties and can’t function well. Under Social Darwinism, if someone is not functioning 100 percent, the strong have every right to trample all over the weak. That’s how an unfettered free market works.

For real life consequences of this philosophy, we just have to look at the Industrial Revolution, when children as young as six and seven were sent to work in mills and factories. Their families could not survive without these children’s wages. When reformers proposed better wages for adults and free public education for the children, the wealthy factory owners were outraged. Such reforms would lead to an idle working class.

When factory workers were maimed or killed by the machines, there was no medical help, no sick days. If they couldn’t work, they starved. The system chewed these workers up and spit them out and this was considered the natural order of things. Owners would disparage sick or injured workers by saying they were lazy or lacked ambition. The owners could never admit that the system itself was stacked against the workers. If the owners admitted that, they might have had to find a solution.

This is the golden age to which conservatives want to return. Their policies reinforce the idea that those who were born into wealth and privilege are inherently more worthy, and if someone has everything stacked against them, that’s their own fault. This is also why the wealthy feel entitled to your tax money and mine, but want to cut services for the poor. After all, if the poor want help, they should have been born rich.

For those opposed to government intervention, think about Social Security and Medicare. Conservative recipients champion these programs because they have paid into them. They forget that without government intervention, these programs wouldn’t have existed in the first place, and older Americans would be thrown on the mercy of the corporations and the stock market. Not a pretty picture.

There’s much more to be said on the subject of income inequality and government’s role in protecting its citizens. A change in attitudes towards those who work hard but don’t benefit proportionally from that work might be a good place to start. Looking down on the working poor just because they are poor is about as un-American an attitude as we can have.

Jeanette Strong’s column appears every other Wednesday.