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Last Updated: Friday, 9 September 2005, 15:02 GMT 16:02 UK
Survival of the fittest?

By Harold Evans

After so many years of Social Darwinism, Hurricane Katrina could reawaken the American people's appetite for compassion in government.

It takes a lot to shake America to the core - 9/11 did it four years ago this weekend; the war in Iraq still has not.

It's 70 years since the satirist Eric Linklater noted in his novel Don Juan that life in America was spread over so vast an area that any number of strange and sinister interludes could be enacted without upsetting the national equilibrium.

Father in flood water cradles a baby
Desperate times
Hurricane Katrina is one of those rare interludes which has upset the national equilibrium. While 9/11 made Americans angry, the fate of New Orleans has gone beyond that. In varying degrees the whole population is angry, ashamed, and fearful.

Angry at the incompetence and buck-passing between inept local, state and federal authorities; ashamed at those relentlessly recycled pictures of the abandoned black underclass; and fearful to see that the country is still unprepared to cope with a major terrorist attack.

There will be hell to pay for Katrina.

In my view, it is likely to have as traumatic an impact on American political life as the Great Depression of the 1930s. That catastrophe ushered in two decades of Democratic presidents - but even more, it reversed America's entrenched dedication to laissez faire Social Darwinism, a philosophy embraced by both major parties for 150 years.

Natural selection

Social Darwinism was a doctrine of individualism invented in England by the 19th Century philosopher Herbert Spencer, a friend of Charles Darwin's. It was Spencer who first coined the famous phrase "the survival of the fittest" and he did so nine years before the great man himself published his Origin of Species.

I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering
President Grover Cleveland, 1877
Social Darwinism never infiltrated politics as much in Britain as it did in America where it was brilliantly propagated by a Yale polemicist named William Graham Sumner.

Interventions by government to regulate housing, public health, factories, and so on, were wrong, he argued, because they impeded individual enterprise that alone created wealth. My mind, said the steelmaster Andrew Carnegie, was illuminated in a flash by Sumner's theorem that mankind progresses through the "ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong".

Politicians of all colours agreed. It was a Democratic president - Grover Cleveland - who epitomized the philosophy in a memorable decision in 1887. Asked to release $10,000 of surplus seed for drought-stricken farmers in Texas, he declared: "I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering... The lesson should constantly be enforced that though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people."

The attitude has never entirely disappeared and probably never will. Its appeal is not only to the economically powerful with a central faith in the sanctity of the marketplace, but also to the romantic ideals of Jeffersonian individualism.

America has long been entranced by stories of fortunes made by hard work and perseverance without help from government. More tellingly many of them come true, truer in America than anywhere else. It is just that they are not the whole story. When people fail it leaves, exposed as a raw nerve, the question of moral duty in a civilized society.

So Social Darwinism has remained in the American psyche, sometimes submerged in the current, sometimes coming to the surface like a log in a fast-flowing river. Cleveland's sentiments might have popped up any time in the 1980s on Ronald Reagan's teleprompter. His remark that "government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem" was an echo of Cleveland and many presidencies thereafter.

The log came clearly into view again when turbulence in the wake of 9/11 led to the re-election of George W Bush. His instinct for low taxes and small government has been neatly encapsulated by the evangelical tax cutter Grover Norquist: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

Judgement day

My judgment is that the log of Social Darwinism will disappear again under the toxic flood waters of New Orleans. The corpses floating face down in the muddy overflow from broken Mississippi levees are too shocking a sight for Americans of all classes and parties. They are too kindly a people. They will look once again for vigour and compassion in government, even at the price of higher taxes.

In the Superdome
Poor and huddled masses
Before Katrina, America's greatest natural disaster was another Mississippi flood - that of 1927 - which made half a million homeless. At the time Republican President Calvin Coolidge refused even to recall Congress to vote emergency money. He was so inactive that when Dorothy Parker, a few years later, was told he was dead, she asked, "How do they know?"

Two hundred people had drowned in the 1920s before the federal government intervened. It did so in the person of the Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Only three died after Hoover got involved. He waded in - literally up to his knees in floodwater - galvanizing everyone in six endangered states.

His vigour standing on the tottering levee amid the raging floods helped to win him the Republican nomination and then the presidency. He was called "the great engineer".

So why then is Hoover almost a dirty word in the history books? It is because faced with a bigger challenge than the floods - the Great Depression with 13 million out of work - he refused to recognise the responsibility of government to relieve individual suffering.

Watching the crash at Wall St
He believed that economic depressions, like natural disasters, were acts of God that must run their course. He expected voluntary acts of compassion by business and good neighbours would be enough, as they mostly had been in his humanitarian work in World War I. But the Depression affected so many millions it was too big and complex for that.

So slow was Hoover to respond that the shanty towns of the unemployed became known as Hoovervilles. He refused to believe that anyone was starving.

Of the men selling apples in the streets, the symbol of the depression, he said, "many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples." It was not a joke. He had a tin ear, rather like George Bush.

When GW belatedly visited the flooded region, he reminisced about his good-time days in New Orleans. His intentions were good but his off-the-cuff remark was as unfortunate as his rhapsody to the homeless about how the former Republican majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi was going to build a "fantastic new house". Brother can you spare a dime?

And Bush, like Hoover, has found it hard to confront reality. He has said nobody expected the levees to break - thereby flying in the fact of scores of predictions in official reports, science journals and newspapers.

Back in the 30s, clinging to the log of Social Darwinism did not save Hoover. He was swept away by a riptide of anger and fear like that which may threaten the Republican ascendancy today.

In 1932 Hoover lost both his reputation and the presidency in a landslide to his Democratic challenger Franklin Roosevelt. The New Deal FDR ushered in - signing 15 bills in his first 100 days - almost drove a stake through the heart of Social Darwinism. Never before had government so directly shored up the lives of individual Americans at every social level and class.

It was the foundation of a welfare state - a ringing reaffirmation of America's commitment to huddled masses yearning to share in the great American Dream.

Your comments:

I doubt a single "Katrina" would be enough to fell social Darwinism ingrained so deeply in the America psyche, and promulgated by evangelical 'free-marketers' of all creeds and shades. Indeed, the 'Norquistodors' keep exploiting the tragedy to beam their anti-government mottos. It would take more, a great depression plus a personality, like FDR, to shake it off, and replace with a civilized order. Besides any advance into civilization is shaky and can be easily swatted by any GW-type buffoon. Even now, in the face of great losses and government failures the republican congress didn't take off the table the lavish give-away to rich (call in their parlor 'death tax'). I won't be a bit surprised if it sails through unhindered (after commotion is over). A great depression is badly needed here, but it won't come until Chinese communists would stop subsidizing our absurdly wasteful and unsustainable way of life, and some western European liberals assisting in our promiscuous adventures abroad under the guise of 'democratization'.
David G., Cleveland, USA

Point of Information: It was the power of the Workers' Councils that compelled Roosevelt to enact the WPA. His strategy was motivated more by political necessity than social compassion. He was obliged to over the grass roots organizations -- incorporate them into benign government agencies, essentially -- lest they become a nationally recognized -- and hence threatening -- political force. America may be compassionate, but the Workers Councils brought socialism and communism too close to a popular front. They were, by the way, the ones behind the soup kitchens; they were the ones who fed the starving when government forces were all too keen to shoot at their own. These days, we Americans are totally ignorant of our own political and social history. As long as we can get colour TVs, a working refrigerator, plenty of booze, drugs, and anti-depressants, I truly doubt we'll ever see the scale of social and governmental reform that Roosevelt ushered into office -- however needed. Remember, the "most powerful nation in the world" still can't manage to assure full literacy.
Pamela Sears, Austin, Texas

The only thing missing from this excellent review of the failed Social Darwinism policies of the Bush administration is the telling and callous remarks of Bush's mother, Barbara Bush, who, on viewing evacuees in Texas, claimed that they were now better off since they had been underprivileged anyway.
Eileen Bach, Ithaca, NY USA

That's PRESIDENT George Bush, not GW. We do not refer to your Queen as Elizabeth and I would like to see the same respect shown for our leader.
Kim Wells, Oklahoma

American tax payers have spent 4 trillion that's Trillion dollars on social welfare programmes over the past 35 years. Spent 3 trillion dollars during the cold war defending Europe 100 Billion in 2005 dollars rebuilding Europe after WW2 is this not Compassion.
Gary Blackall, Tallahassee

I do not believe that countries that subscribe to a more socially redistributing form of governance would have handled the aftermath of Katrina any better: The mere magnitude of the storm was overwhelming and federal aid agencies around the world are known for their bureaucratic shortcomings. Admittedly, there is a large spread between the haves and have-nots in the US, but the space between them can still be crossed through merit, whereas most other industrialized countries squeeze their citizens into a depressingly stagnant amalgamation of middle class. Lastly, US American enthusiasm is a one-of-its-kind phenomenon. It alone would suffice to enable the reconstruction and healing progress, including the necessary changes to emergency response agencies. The drastic difference that this (US) system depicts is people helping other people, instead of people waiting for government intervention.
Sebastian, Santa Clara, CA

Although I'm from the States, I've had to read about the Katrina devastation from abroad; so my perception may be a bit off. However, the major difference you might find in the impact of the two disasters Evans mentions--the Great Depression and Hurricane Katrina--is first-hand experience vs the influence of removed empathy. Americans are devastated by what Katrina has revealed about our own country, but Bush has the good ole' boy charm that Hoover never had. In the short-term, it will undoubtedly lead to a few reforms, but I question the long-term impact on the "social Darwinism." I can only hope that the administration will not be able to so craftfully slip out, free of blame, from this obscenely mishandled catastrophe--like they have so many times before. I guess it all depends on your ability to have faith in the American tenet that proclaims open arms for the poor and huddled masses.
Susannah, Houston, USA

I hope that America will stop being "the land of a few that can afford to be free." Yes, in America you have to work hard for yourself, but after a disaster or in a depression, everyone, including the government, needs to work together to see it thru.
chris, cincinnati, ohio

I hope you're right. Much of what the world perceives as wrong with the US hinges on an election won by only a few votes -- then repeated because of an unclear action on Iraq. Many of us did our best to prevent it, but it happened anyway. We are still working.
Larry, Louisville, CO, USA

Commentaries like this from abroad truly astound me. Indeed, while I think the general inclination is correct and applicable to Katrina, the wider simplistic discussion about Social Darwinism is completely off-base. You might as well toss in Libertarianism, Meritocracy or any other modernistic -ism which one wants to criticize. This PROTESTANT ETHIC focus on individual merit has roots well beyond 19th century academic debates about social Darwinism in the halls of Yale. This commentary sounded good, but misses the mark by not really understanding American culture beyond this simplistic intellectual history. That said, indeed, I think it hits something vital in considering Katrina as a potential turning point in American political sentiment. I just don't think it deserves so much credit at this time.
Jude, New York

Hurricane Katrina will have a greater impact on America than the Great Depression of the 1930s? What a joke. September 11th did not have as big an impact as the Depression and if you think it did, my guess is you have been reading some pseudo-political science books and then writing an entire article talking about President Hoover in the 1930s. If you are unable to convince an audience of your point with a significant event in their own lifetime at least, just keep that thought to yourself. Americans love to site around and talk about what happened 70 years ago - yeah right. Most of the evacuees will receive some sort of aid from the good people around the nation who donated, doing their 'good deed' of the day. The question after that will be, "What is our government going to change to be ready in case that happens to MY city?"
Neal Tesseyman, Austin, TX

We already can not afford the social security system that came to be, I pray that we will not succumb further into the welfare state you predict.
Theresa Tompkins, Houston, Texas USA

We have been in a sad state of affairs for quite some time. I really do not know what Bush meant when he described himself as a compassionate conservative. We have so many internal problems is this country. I do agree that this event can sway us away from social Darwinism, but at the same time I fear that we will swing too far in the other direction. America like extremes. It surprises me that the word moderate is found in our dictionaries. Many poor in this country are trapped by the social programs designed to help them. Welfare was a great program that led to a sad imbalance of dependence.
Sarc, New York, USA

Amen! Though in the short term I am not so certain, there are many Americans rather satisfied with the status quo and not too keen on asking serious questions about the role of the individual, the responsibility of the state, the meaning of public policy in a new millennium that will require dialogue and cooperation if mankind is able to survive.
filip s, warsaw, poland

This editorial is absolutely silly. At almost every turn there is a point made that is far from conclusively supported by events, present or historic. It is really nauseating to see that Europeans take this as an opportunity to make the most clumsy sort of appeals for their preference for heavy government involvement. We are not like you, we do not share all of your preferences, etc. Get over it. Hoping that hurricane Katrina will make us like you is as silly as us believing that the force of arms will make Iraqis just like Americans.
Peter, North Carolina

Evans builds a straw man, and even then can't quite knock it down. There are many justifications in the US political tradition for wanting less government, not just "social Darwinism". Bush's tax cut programme has nothing whatever to do with social Darwinism, and everything to do with the belief that such cuts will spur the economy and create jobs. As such its explicit justification is precisely to help the people, not let them battle each other for survival. Now, I happen to believe this logic is deeply flawed, but it is not social Darwinist logic. Evan's quoting of Grover Cleveland is inadvertently humorous, since in the 20th century the Federal Government has done exactly the opposite: shovel aid with abandon at people who choose to live in flood plains, in hurricane paths, and on top of earth quake zones. Hardly social Darwinism.
Niall, Los Angeles

I wish I had your faith in my country. Unfortunately if I've learned anything in the face of our recent disasters its that we will be shaken only as long as we cannot go back to our normal lives. After that I fear we will resume our disbelief as we have on so many other occasions and return to Social Darwinism and anything else that keeps the government and its supporters feeling safe and confident.
, Arlington, VA USA

Excellent--well thought out, researched, and insightful as to the basis of this country--may it be widely read. I hope the American population will be reminded/rediscover the good values we once had here. Our sincere thanks for this to you 'across the pond.'
c s khalsa, Austin, Tx, USA

Despite Harold Evans fevered imagination the whole population of the United States is not angry, ashamed or fearful and we will never be ready to embrace the long slow death that is European Socialism. We will rebuild and we will move on to the next challenge and our optimism will not diminish.
J. Young, Atlanta, USA

From one so entrenched in American journalism (or lack thereof) reading the BBC is a breath of fresh air. In times like these, the American press has not the backbone to do honest journalism such as this. I commend your news organization for upholding the ideals that first created your station.
bob carpenter, Chicago USA

An excellent piece, so good to see writing with a sense of history and context for a change. Let's hope that the flood of Katrina will sweep away so much more than the victims.
Pete cook, Bristol

I am reminded of a cartoon in the New Yorker Magazine sometime in the late 60's. An intently serious, patriarchal mandarin is reading a bedtime story of a wide-eyed little boy. The caption says, "And the first little pig was a fuzzy thinking liberal who built his house out of straw supplied by the Federal government."
Karl Johnson, Arlington, Virginia, USA

These "experts" from England come over here, do a superficial turn around small areas of the country then developed a simplistic theory that they feel explains all that is "wrong" in the United States. They then pontificate about their own social system that only serves to reveal the inferiority of that very same system. Physician heal thyself! You have an old saying that I feel covers it well, what a load of codswallop!
Ron Knief, Bessemer, MI

I sincerely hope that you are right.
Scott Warren, Durango, Colorado, USA

In anticipating long-term affects from the pitiable images in the media, one should not underestimate the countering affect from images of looting, lawlessness and, for lack of a better term, ingratitude. Americans suppress our comments about anything that sounds politically incorrect, but those images have left a greater impression than is evident from our media coverage. Such impressions shore up, rather than diminish, our referenced tendency toward ┐social Darwinism.┐
Arthur, Kansas

Harold Evans needs to lay off the propaganda. He uses the term Social Darwinism to attack the concept of individual liberty and property rights. Americans are extremely generous, we just prefer to give through the private sector. Witness over $700 million dollars raised in less than two weeks for Katrina.
Greg Burton, Atlanta, GA USA

The question is, do Americans want it differently. The health system (not the available care)is a disgrace to the country yet a logical explanation for them not doing anything about it is that they have not known anything better. For many years the American system worked because the energy of the industrial system had produced jobs and the competition ie Europe and the far East had been set back by wars and power struggles. With jobs now being outsourced by American companies and the resurgence of other worldwide industries to supply to the USA the prognosis for the American is not good. The spirit of we can get the job done (often by working far more hours a day than other countries) will continue as a matter of national pride. Americans are very friendly, very hospitable and a great and resourceful nation. They have to see that there is a softer (dare I say more social) way of life of a better quality than the one they have which should be available to all Americans. In all sincerity, God bless America.
Geoff, Copperopolis, CA, USA

As much as I admire your premise, I believe you are engaged in wishful thinking on a grand scale. You are correct that American society rests on a foundation of social Darwinism. I just don't see what, in the current circumstances, warrants your belief that the tragedy in Louisiana and Mississippi will alter that. Millions of Americans (especially in the South) are deeply convinced that the federal government is a bloated, ineffective and culturally alien institution. The track record of the past month will do nothing to convince them to invest any further confidence in it.
John A., Washington DC, USA

Hoover won support by walking into the floodwaters and speaking from the levees. GWBush won't even touch the ground anywhere near the flood. Hmmm. GWB did give speeches from the 9/11 site. What changed? I guess he figured that he can't be re-elected any more. 9/11 brought out our compassion, but also brought out an ugly angry isolationist sort of patriotism which has done quite a lot of harm. I hope that the compassionate reaction to the tsunami last winter combined with our reaction to Katrina (and a lack of an enemy in both cases) will last long enough to make a lasting change for the better. I have my doubts, but I will keep hoping.
Keith Murray, Stamford, Connecticut, USA

Well said, except for one thing. If the government does not exist to serve the people then what purpose does it serve at all?
Jon, Seattle, USA



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