Politics in Minutes (2016)

Social Darwinism

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, proposed in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, gave rise to a number of theories of society in the late 19th century, linking the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to liberal political ideology. This social Darwinism, as it became known, argued that the strongest and richest sections of society should be allowed to prosper without restriction by government regulation, and that protection of the weak and poor through welfare programmes and redistribution of wealth runs counter to the evolution of a healthy and prosperous society. This provided a rationale for small government and minimal social spending, and in particular for a laissez-faire approach to competitive capitalism. The idea of allowing unproductive sections of society to die out, enabling the strong to prosper, was rejected by mainstream liberals as aggressive individualism. However, some vestiges of the concept can be seen in classical liberal policies, such as the encouragement of successful enterprise to promote economic growth and opposition to a socialized welfare state.

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English classical liberal political theorist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) is today best known as the author of the expression ‘survival of the fittest’.