Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought

38 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2008

See all articles by Thomas C. (Tim) Leonard

Thomas C. (Tim) Leonard

Princeton University - Department of Economics

Abstract

The term social Darwinism owes its currency and its association with free markets to an unresolved tension in Richard Hofstadter's (1944) influential Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (SDAT). Hofstadter's New Deal sensibility condemned both free markets and the use of biological ideas in social science; he championed economic reform and a social science purged of biology. But the Progressive Era reformers Hofstadter celebrated in SDAT - men like Lester F. Ward, Edward A. Ross, Thorstein Veblen, Charles Horton Cooley, and John R. Commons - were enthusiastic biologizers who often justified economic reform on biological grounds. Because Hofstadter's reform-good-biology-bad schema does not map upon Progressive Era reform, there are two different Hofstadters in SDAT. The first Hofstadter disparaged as social Darwinism biological justification of free markets, for this was, in his view, doubly wrong. The second Hofstadter acknowledged the biological underside of what he called Darwinian collectivism: racism, eugenics and imperialism. This essay documents and explains Hofstadter's ambivalence in SDAT, including its connection with the Left's longstanding mistrust of Darwinism as apology for Malthusian political economy.

Keywords: Social Darwinism, Richard Hofstadter, Progressive Era economics, eugenics, free markets, planning

JEL Classification: B10, B13, B15

Suggested Citation

Leonard, Thomas C. (Tim), Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1122430

Thomas C. (Tim) Leonard (Contact Author)

Princeton University - Department of Economics ( email )

Princeton, NJ 08544-1021
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.princeton.edu/~tleonard

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