Desert theory and social Darwinism

Recently, President Obama dismissed the new Paul Ryan budget as social Darwinism. Paul Ryan’s budget slashes spending on social programs for the poor while simultaneously massively cutting taxes on the very wealthy. That is, relative to the present, it redistributes money from the poor to the rich.

Paul Ryan has never specifically spelled out which conservative economic philosophy, if any, he supports. However, he is an avid Ayn Rand fan and even requires his staff to slog through her comical treatises. I suspect then that Ryan subscribes to a desert theory view (high-productivity people morally deserve higher incomes) as that is the view Rand clumsily puts forward. For Rand, business people are the most productive and intelligent people in the world, and without them the entire economy would fall to pieces. As such, they are deserving of immense compensation.

I want to mention a few interesting things about Rand before I get into my main point here. The person Rand glorifies is the entrepreneur, the owner that actively manages and works in the enterprise he or she is constructing. I find it interesting that Rand holds that person up as the most productive and deserving person in the economy, and not the stockholders and investment bankers that pull down the really immense incomes in our society. As I argued before, conservative desert theory has a really hard time explaining the fortune of those sorts of owners because those sorts of owners do not actually work in the businesses they own.

Back to the point. What should we make of the comparison of Ryan’s budget to social Darwinism? Social Darwinism interacts with desert theory as an ultimate, biological explanation of deservedness. One of the problems with buying into conservative desert theory at all is that it supports awarding people according to how much they produce, but it does not take into account what factors affect how productive a person winds up being. Immense amounts of evidence show that where one winds up in life economically has a lot to do with one’s socio-economic background. America is not the beacon of social mobility we like to pretend it is.

That fact seems to cut against the very notion of deservedness because it suggests that people from wealthier households for instance wind up capturing more productive jobs for reasons totally outside their control. When rich kids who do not go to college have a better chance at making a top 20% income than poor kids who do go to college, it sure seems like those rich kids wind up in high-productivity jobs for reasons other than their own merit and hard work.

But the social Darwinist can dismiss those charges. For social Darwinists, rich kids doing better than poor kids can be explained by the rich kids’ superior genes. As Romney adviser Greg Mankiw once wrote “Smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring.”

The social Darwinist explanation is also extended to discount race-based inequalities as well. Social Darwinist conservatives like John Derbyshire, an admitted racist, remark simply that Blacks, Hispanics, southeast Asians, and so on wind up poor because they — like poor whites — possess inferior genes.

Social Darwinism represents the biological and racist wing of the desert theory view. It exists for all sorts of sociological reasons to be sure, but it is used within argument to get around the immensely problematic data that shows parental background has way more to do with how much income one pulls down as an adult than any other variable. To the extent that Paul Ryan appears to have desert theory views, Obama’s charge that his budget is driven by social Darwinism is entirely plausible. Not all desert theory conservatives are social Darwinists, but many — like Mankiw and Derbyshire — certainly are.