Listen carefully to the Republican debates and you get a view of the kind of society many Republicans seek. The last time we had it was in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.
It was an era when the nation was mesmerized by the doctrine of free enterprise. It was also a time when the ideas of William Graham Sumner, a professor of political and social science at Yale, dominated American social thought. Sumner brought Charles Darwin to America and twisted him into a theory to fit the times.
Few Americans living today have read any of Sumner's writings, but they had an electrifying effect on America during the last three decades of the 19th century.
To Sumner and his followers, life was a competitive struggle in which only the fittest could survive — and through this struggle societies became stronger over time. A correlate of this principle was that government should do little or nothing to help those in need because that would interfere with natural selection.
Today's Republican presidential hopefuls sound a lot like Sumner.
"Civilization has a simple choice," Sumner wrote in the 1880s. It's either "liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest," or "not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members."
Newt Gingrich warns us not to "coddle" people in need. He calls laws against child labor "truly stupid" and says poor kids should serve as janitors in their schools. He opposes extending unemployment insurance because, he says, "I'm opposed to giving people money for doing nothing."
Sumner, likewise, warned against handouts to people he termed "negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent."
Mitt Romney doesn't want the government to do much of anything about unemployment. And he's dead set against raising taxes on millionaires, relying on the standard Republican rationale that millionaires create jobs.
Here's Sumner, more than a century ago: "Millionaires are the product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done. ... It is because they are thus selected that wealth aggregates under their hands — both their own and that intrusted to them. ... They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society." Although they live in luxury, "the bargain is a good one for society."
Other Republican hopefuls also fit Sumner's mold. Ron Paul, who favors repeal of Obama's health-care plan, was asked at a Republican debate in September what medical response he'd recommend if a young man who had decided not to buy health insurance were to go into a coma. Mr. Paul's response: "That's what freedom is all about: taking your own risks." Some in the Republican crowd cheered.
In other words, if the young man died for lack of health insurance, he was responsible. Survival of the fittest.
Social Darwinism offered a moral justification for the wild inequities and social cruelties of the late 19th century. It allowed John D. Rockefeller, for example, to claim the fortune he accumulated through his giant Standard Oil Trust was "merely a survival of the fittest." It was, he insisted, "the working out of a law of nature and of God."
Social Darwinism also undermined all efforts at the time to build a nation of broadly based prosperity and rescue our democracy from the tight grip of a very few at the top. It was used by the privileged and powerful to convince everyone else that government shouldn't do much of anything.
Not until the 20th century did America reject Social Darwinism. We created the large middle class that became the core of our economy and democracy. We built safety nets to catch Americans who fell downward through no fault of their own. We designed regulations to protect against the inevitable excesses of free-market greed. We taxed the rich and invested in public goods — public schools, public universities, public transportation, public parks, public health — that made us all better off.
In short, we rejected the notion that each of us is on his or her own in a competitive contest for survival.
But if one of the current crop of Republican hopefuls becomes president, Social Darwinism is back.
Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." He blogs at http://www.robertreich.org.