What is the theory of Social Darwinism and how was this theory related to laissez faire and dual federalism?

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enotechris eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Laissez-faire (from the French, "let it be") economic practice suggests that government should not regulate business, as market forces, through the law of supply and demand, will determine what goods and services will be produced at what price. In other words, those engaging in business must answer to the market, and not some governmental authority.  Certainly government should be required to regulate business practices when they infringe on individual rights, and in a healthy culture this would be so.  However, government tends to regulate for the sake of regulating, and, in not having to respond to market forces (nor not having to respond to any counter force) typically makes policies that weaken and destroy businesses.

"Social" Darwinism is a misappropriation of Darwin's theories of Evolution applied to society.  "Only the strong survive" translates into "only the wealthy survive."

These two things have little to do with each other, yet there's a persistent implicit linking of cause and effect between the economic practice and the resulting social theory, suggesting that a free market created social conditions where the poor don't survive.  In reality, a free market created social conditions where the poor could exist. Even during the time that this "social" concept evolved in the late 1800's, in addition to the phenomenal standard of living increase for all people living within industrializing nations, philanthropic societies to solve the problem of poverty were growing as well.  Such a development runs counter to the Social Darwinist argument. Until the wholesale takeover of social problems by the federal government in the US during the 1930's, private agencies, largely funded by those very same wealthy individuals, were doing the job. What possible value would the wealthy place in aiding the poor?

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Social Darwinism is the idea that individual people compete in a struggle for survival just like animals do.  The idea is that, in society, the fittest people survive and rise to the top of the heap.

This ideology was closely related to the ideas of laissez faire in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The idea was that the government should not interfere with the economy because, if the economy were left alone, the fittest would win their battles and rise to the top.  Thus, by staying out of the way, government could ensure that the best people would win and the people who lacked the intelligence, talents, or drive to succeed would fail.

In this way, laissez faire would promote societal progress and would reward the "fittest" rather than helping the weak to survive.

The only connection I can see between this and dual federalism is that (you could argue) dual federalism allows states to compete with one another to attract businesses to locate there.  This allows the "best" state policies to win out and forces "bad" state policies to die off.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The misapplication of Darwinian thought is what many used to justify the misuse of free market techniques.  At the zenith of industrialism, those who sought to solidify their position as titans of business growth felt that the notion of "survival of the fittest" justified success at all costs and that nothing was off limits in terms of practices and techniques.  This philosophy was meant to substantiate the idea that the free market was the "jungle" where all businesses fought to survive and that some individuals and businesses would live and prosper and some would die off.  It was believed that this was natural and government intervention was not and could not be tolerated to stop a natural state of affairs.  In this setting, the desire for economic wealth and social prosperity led to misusing both laissez faire philosophies, which stress the fair use of market principles, and Darwinism, who did not develop his theories of biological reality to justify businesses to gain more wealth and consolidate more power.

nicolas123 | Student


Darwin (1809-1882) made physical observations, of the reality of life over massive periods of time. That initiative distinctly contributed toward setting in motion a spirit of inquiry, and definition. That upset many aspects of how people assumed their intentions should preserve the continuity of how they could get along

The mass extinction of species found by Darwin in geological strata suggested man is not the measure of everything, and so unraveled threads of political and religious hierarchy toward exposing many Achilles Heals.

Social Darwinism became a 20th century umbrella term for notions of social control that used Darwin’s 19th century science to justify expansions which that science found baseless. The term encompasses horrific social strands which define political and religious paradoxes from which our time emerged.


Laissez Faire, for example, invoked God-like acceptance of fear to direct child labor in factories, ‘training schools’, and work at large (in time, use of such labor was clearly defined as not legal). Nazi German Concentration Camp eugenics, which grew through Laissez Faire ‘looking the other way’, was shut down by World War II. Ironically, as much as government can run amok it can also be a stabilizing.

Darwin’s science fed curiosities that individual initiative, which had accrued through  millennia of human development, was ripe for. Work such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), Lewis Hines (1874-1940) photographs of factory child labor, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle  (1906) are examples of responses to Laissez Faire Social Darwinism which freely emerged from protections of individual liberty put forth in The Declaration of Independence (1776) and The Constitution of The United States (1787).


Dual Federalism arrived before Darwin, with the late 18th century writing of the United States Constitution. With Dual Federalism, explored in The Federalist Papers (written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and others) the concept of checks and balances on government included state government as well as a central government. The United States was unable to reconcile slavery politically (as, for example, Great Britain had). Eventually the South invaded the North claiming State’s Rights Social Darwinism. Both sides claimed religious Social Darwinist justification of the slaughter involved. The US Civil War (1861-1865) concluded with the country together again, and reconstruction of what’s going became an element of the American psyche.


 Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic during the Civil War, was the first to proclaim Mother’s Day, with a Mother’s Day Proclamation reflecting the fact that after the Civil War it was women which carried the labors of love for …their families, (so many men had slaughtered themselves). Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), a freed slave who became pivotal to defining the nature of emerging American leadership through the 20th century, said “There are two ways of exerting one's strength: one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.”

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