From Smith To Darwin

There’s no rule that says secular conservatives have to be libertarian (or anything approaching that state of belief), and indeed for any number of reasons they do not (the good Mr. Hobbes comes to mind), but I was, nevertheless, struck by this passage from Matt Ridley’s much-commented upon (and terrific) London Spectator piece on Charles Darwin:

“Ideas evolve by descent with modification, just as bodies do, and Darwin at least partly got this idea from economists, who got it from empirical philosophers. Locke and Newton begat Hume and Voltaire who begat Hutcheson and Smith who begat Malthus and Ricardo who begat Darwin and Wallace. Before Darwin, the supreme example of an undesigned system was Adam Smith’s economy, spontaneously self-ordered through the actions of individuals, rather than ordained by a monarch or a parliament. Where Darwin defenestrated God, Smith had defenestrated government.”

Food for thought.

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15 Responses to From Smith To Darwin

  1. J. says:

    Adam Smith of course stated he was merely elucidating the laws of God’s liberty.

  2. mnuez says:

    Food for thought? He’s stating the obvious. No one denies that Social Darwinism (a.k.a libertarianism) “works” to bring about a better product in future generations. The question is only whether “we the living” prefer that outcome. Let the dead bury the dead and let the unborn worry about the unborn. Of course allowing the poor to die of hunger will improve the genetic quality of the next generation – again Darwinism works – but if YOU were one of those “unfit” for “the environment” within which you lived would you still vote for libertarian policies? What if we were talking about your son?

    But I’m speaking into the wind so I’ll stop.

  3. ◄Dave► says:


    A lot of good men voted with their very lives to preserve liberty for their posterity. How has Progressive altruism worked out in the past hundred years? How many producers have been discouraged from achieving their full potential by confiscatory taxes to fund their feel good experiments? How many recipients of those taxes have been locked into the cycle of poverty by the Progressives convincing them that they were “entitled” to live in sloth, because they were “disadvantaged?” The do-gooders may feel good about their selfish agenda, but the rest of us sure don’t.

    I made sure my son was “fit” for “the environment,” by convincing him his mind was too precious a thing to risk taking to college. Instead of learning how to be somebody’s employee, I gave him a practical education in how to be an entrepreneur. Lesson one was to watch carefully which way the government was leading the sheeple, and then always run the other way. He is a survivor and doing very well in life. I have little doubt that he will also give his sons the skills to survive in the real world, and kick them out of the nest at 18, just like his dad did for him. ◄Dave►

  4. hanmeng says:

    Personally, I’m comfortable with the idea of minimal religion and minimal government. The odd thing–to me–is how leftist secularists believe in life without God, but can’t conceive of limited government. And on the other hand, how many on the religious right are comfortable with limited government, but need God. But there are many more of either of these groups than there are of people like me, so in fact I’m the odd one.

  5. Polichinello says:

    Smith didn’t “defenestrate” government. When it came to preventing monopolies and collusion government involvement was necessary. He even provided a rationale for progressive taxation.

  6. Caledonian says:

    “When it came to preventing monopolies and collusion government involvement was necessary.”

    Nonsense. What prevents the government from monopolizing and colluding?

    The action of a rational and informed market is all that’s needed to defend against those things. The problem is that human society is neither rational nor informed.

  7. @◄Dave► Are you saying clean drinking water, food inspection and child labor laws have no value to society? Not to mention all those Carnegie libraries. (While privately contributed, Carnegie was certainly a believer that the wealthy should give back to society.)

  8. ◄Dave► says:

    @Derek Scruggs

    I am not sure how you made the leap, Derek; but I said none of those things. If you like, however, I will say them. Carnegie was free to distribute his own wealth however he wished, for whatever motive pleased him. It would have been none of his business, however, how I chose to dispose of mine. It doesn’t require a government to acquire clean drinking water, and government food inspection does not even come close to preventing folks from ingesting tainted food (as quite a few dead peanut butter lovers have proven of late). As to child labor laws, I reckon they have had nearly the opposite of the intended effect.

    When I was a teenager, I didn’t have time to get in too much mischief because I was too busy earning spending money and saving to buy a car, to be idle and bored. In the name of protecting them, the Progressives have made it almost impossible to give a kid a part time job nowadays. Benjamin Franklin was a bonded printer’s apprentice at the age of twelve, and it didn’t seem to hurt him any. BTW, he got his education in much the same way my son did. See here for a fascinating account of this, which ends with:

    Might there be an instructive parallel between teaching a kid to drive as my uncle taught me to do at age eleven, and the incredible opportunities working-class kids like Franklin were given to develop as quickly and as far as their hearts and minds allowed? We drive, regardless of our intelligence or characters, because the economy demands it; in colonial America through the early republic, a pressing need existed to get the most from everybody. Because of that need, unusual men and unusual women appeared in great numbers to briefly give the lie to traditional social order. In that historical instant, thousands of years of orthodox suppositions were shattered. In the words of Eric Hoffer, “Only here in America were common folk given a chance to show what they could do on their own without a master to push and order them about.” Franklin and Edison, multiplied many times, were the result.

    Which were the “progressive” times, then or now? ◄Dave►

  9. Grant Canyon says:

    “The action of a rational and informed market is all that’s needed to defend against those things. The problem is that human society is neither rational nor informed.”

    Which would then lead to the conclusion that something more than the market is necessary, would it not?


    Dave, child labor laws had nothing to do with getting a part-time job to pay for a car or interning in an 18th century print shop. It had to do with stopping the exploitation of children by mine, mill and factory owners who often “forgot” to provide things like safety equipment, decedent working hours and conditions or even, in some cases, wages. All in the pursuit of the filthy lucre. These were kids who couldn’t get an education because they were too busy working hours that no grown person, let alone child, should have to labor.

  10. ◄Dave► says:

    These were kids who couldn’t get an education because they were too busy working hours that no grown person, let alone child, should have to labor.

    They were not slaves; they came out of the impoverished hinterlands to take these city jobs willingly. However you may characterize it, this represented an improvement in their condition, and society’s. The link I provided above shows how Benjamin Franklin educated himself while working 60 hours a week as a teenager, and spending his money on books. Under today’s rules, in the name of saving him from his plight as one of 13 children in a poor family, he would have no incentive to do anything more than game the “entitlement” system, and the immeasurable contributions his mind was capable of providing to society would be stillborn. ◄Dave►

  11. Grant Canyon says:

    Oh, baloney. They were slaves in all but name. If you think that nine-year olds willingly work sixteen or twenty hours a day in a mine or a sweatshop, you’re out of your mind.

    Any society that views putting children in factories and sweatshops for 16 hrs a day so some fat cat can put even more money into his overstuffed pockets is a diseased society. There’s a difference between earning an honest buck and exploiting children. They latter should be locked up.

    (And, again, Child Labor Laws were not designed to address Franklin’s situation, but to address the industrial abuse of children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so bringing Franklin up is pointless.)

  12. Caledonian says:

    Please, won’t someone think of the children? Also, ‘fat cat’ was a nice touch.

    However, I think you could have levered a few more emotionally-loaded words and phrases into your post if you’d really tried. A couple of additional appeals to society-wide prejudices wouldn’t have hurt, either.

  13. Grant Canyon says:

    Anyone who isn’t emotionally repulsed by the industrial conditions which led to the Child Labor Laws in America is either ignorant or a sociopath.

  14. Caledonian says:

    What about the agricultural conditions which preceded them?

    For quite a long time, one of the biggest reasons people had children was so they would have more cheap help on the farm. If you were genuinely concerned about child labor, you’d be whining about that as well.

    Since it thus appears that your problem is with industrialization, you should say so openly instead of appealing to threats to children.

  15. Caledonian says:

    People react emotionally to the suggestion that ‘children are in danger’ – no matter how inane the concern is or how harmless the subject.

    We could have an intelligent discussion about precisely why early factories were such horrible places to work, and why people left their relatively pleasant agricultural drudgery to move to cities and suffer in even greater squalor. We could discuss why there was no previous distinction between ‘children’ and ‘adults’ when it came to tedious manual labor, and why the factories motivated some to begin making that distinction.

    We could even talk about why child labor is still forbidden, even in non-industrial situations where they are in no danger, and what combination of historical conditions and attractors in human psychology are responsible for this curious fact.

    Or we could wallow in emotional reflexes and inculcated prejudices some more. Your call, Grant Canyon.

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