All of this will be old news to anyone who’s read Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, but he once more takes up the cudgel to defend Gilded Age businessmen from the charge of “Social Darwinism.” (h/t Instapundit)
In the first place, Herbert Spencer wasn’t much of a Social Darwinist:
The truth of the matter, as aggrieved libertarians have been saying for years, is that Spencer was a thoroughly benign classical liberal. Yes, he coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (a term Darwin embraced), but contrary to generations of propaganda, he did not oppose charity (he celebrated it at great length), did not advocate the mastery of superior races over allegedly inferior ones, did not believe corporations should ride roughshod over the poor (he supported labor unions), and was in fact a great foe of imperialism and a champion of women’s suffrage.
Oh, and he never called himself a Social Darwinist. He didn’t call himself a Darwinist at all (he had a different theory of evolution).
And in the second place, most of the “robber barons” never heard of him anyway:
As Robert Bannister and Irwin Wylie (and more recently Princeton intellectual historian Thomas Leonard) have painstakingly documented, the captains of industry in the 19th century were not particularly influenced by, or even aware of, Darwin and Spencer. This shouldn’t surprise anybody. “Gilded Age businessmen were not sufficiently bookish, or sufficiently well educated, to keep up with the changing world of ideas,” writes Wylie. “As late as 1900, 84 percent of the businessmen listed in Who’s Who in America had not been educated beyond high school.”
Overwhelmingly, businessmen of the period were influenced by Christianity first, classical economics second, self-help inspirational nostrums a distant third, and egghead notions about biology almost not at all. Cornelius Vanderbilt read one book in his entire life. It was Pilgrim’s Progress. And he didn’t get to it until he was past the age of 70. “If I had learned education,” Vanderbilt famously quipped, “I would not have had time to learn anything else.”
Naturally, you should Read the Whole Thing.