Darwin times 2

'Let Me Get This Straight' by Barry Knister

“Toward the end of the 1800s, social thinkers tried to apply Charles Darwin’s discoveries about the animal world to the human world. Englishman Herbert Spencer and many of his American admirers developed a theory about human society that became known as Social Darwinism.”

This is a quote taken from my last column. I took it from a guest commentary published in the NDN on April 17, 2010. I decided to write on the subject because President Obama had recently charged Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin with being a Social Darwinist. Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee, so the subject seemed worthy of a second look.

It still does. The Ryan budget (which all parties for and against knew would never be enacted) represents an ideal, an economic brass ring. If one day captured, it would achieve a distinct set of aspirations.

What is this ideal? Essentially, it seeks a major reduction in the size of government. In the Ryan budget, this is to be accomplished by repealing Obama’s health-care bill and replacing it by using subsidies with caps, for the purchase of private health insurance; reducing the top individual and corporate tax rate to 25 percent; cutting food stamps, along with aid to college students through Pell grants, and other smaller cuts, while exempting the military from budget reductions.

Ryan has made his point of view clear: he worries that Americans are becoming too reliant on government benefits, and he expresses this in a metaphor: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency.”

For me, the idea conjures up the image of the Flying Wallendas, the famous high-wire circus act. Unlike the tightrope daredevils, hard-working Americans are protected by government against financial falls. These protections put them at risk of devolving into slackers dozing on the couch at taxpayer expense. Arizona Senator Richard Kyl held much the same view when he argued against extending unemployment benefits. To do so, he said, would entice the unemployed to give up efforts to find work.

Much in the news recently has been anti-tax activist Grover Norquist’s successful effort to get rid of senior Indiana senator Richard Lugar. Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform, and his own literary bent is registered in an image he often relies on to dramatize his hatred of government: “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” (Presumably, after the baby has been drowned, it gets thrown out with the bathwater.)

Thus, even with one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, Lugar had to go. He had refused to sign Norquist’s famous pledge to never vote to raise taxes. Lugar had argued that signing such a pledge would be turning over his responsibilities as a U.S. senator to an unelected lobbyist. Lugar is now gone.

How does all this relate to Social Darwinism in Naples? Here’s a letter published on February 6, titled “That is all.” It voices the point of view expressed by many:

“President Barack Obama tells us to pay more taxes to fund entitlements for others.
But why is the happiness of others important and good, but not our own?
It is not the job of government to tax us to ‘subsidize’ and decide what’s ‘fair.’
Government’s job is to provide only those services that the free market cannot: roads, sewers, streetlights, the legislature and judiciary, and the common defense.”
Amen.”

Perhaps the writer would be willing to include “water,” since that will be needed for Norquist’s bathtub.

Add to this the torrent of opposition in Bonita Springs to a homeless shelter. Here’s the first paragraph of a typical example, published on April 2: “Why does St. Matthew’s House continue to pursue a homeless shelter in Bonita Springs where the resounding number of residents do not want it?”

Opposition to the shelter takes many forms, but my general impression is one of fear of homeless people. By the very nature of being without homes they are suspect in one way or another.

If I’m right, such views are consistent with Representative Ryan’s wish to save the nation from sloth, and Norquist’s targeting any politician able to imagine a circumstance that requires a tax increase. These men and their ideas—especially Representative Ryan—take their inspiration from the key Social Darwinist in our time, Ayn Rand.

Stay tuned: a look at what she thinks will figure next time.

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