The early SDs, in the time honored tradition of all conservative movements, created an ideology that justified the existing order of power and privilege, of ruler and ruled. In this respect, it was new only in that it made a pretense of giving these relations the imprematur of science (rather than resting it on, for example, religion). The way it worked was simple: society was said to be an organism that evolves by a process of "survival of the fittest." The existing order of rulers and ruled is, thus, "natural," having resulted from this process. The wealthy and powerful were said to be wealthy and powerful because they were the most economically fit. Want proof? Hey, they're wealthy and powerful! Similarly, someone mired in poverty is mired in poverty because he has proven unfit, and similarly the proof was that he was, in fact, mired in poverty. The wealthy and powerful must be allowed their wealth and power because to do otherwise would be to interfere with the "iron laws of nature" (preventing the species from progressing). The poor, on the other hand, must be left to their lot for the same reason--to do otherwise would be to preserve that which has proven "unfit." The SDs thus favored the doctrine of "laissez faire," advancing a notion of government neutrality with regard to economic matters, in order to allow people to rise or fall based on their merits.
The holes in this are more numerous than can be easily listed. The most obvious is that government isn't capable of neutrality. The rules it establishes, and, indeed, the premises that underpinned its form in the first place, allow certain outcomes and disallow others; codify certain interests and not others. SD doctrine assumes, without really saying, that those premises and those rules are as close to perfect as they could be: everything else is to be allowed to evolve--government is not. Even thinking about any substantive changes, in that area, was to be regarded with hostility--nothing drew forth more furious venom from an SD than a "reformer." SD doctrine is anti-democratic, pseudo-scientific, anti-historical, status-quo-affirming in the extreme, and doesn't even follow its own rules. Liberal and radical writers picked its bones clean over a century ago, yet we're still plagued by this body of discredited nonsense. Today's SDs offer only a minor shift in tone as the only real evidence those devastating critiques ever existed (they sometimes tend to be less blunt than their progenitors).
SD doctrine, if it needs to be said, is not classical liberalism. It's as alien to the liberalism of the 17th and 18th centuries as was the Divine Right of Kings (which it resembles). This will no doubt be a subject of much discussion here as time goes on. For the moment, though, here's a taste of the original SD vintage, some excerpts from WHAT SOCIAL CLASSES OWE TO EACH OTHER, by William Graham Sumner, at the time (1883) the foremost American prophet of the movement:
Certain ills belong to the hardships of human life. They are natural. They are part of the struggle with Nature for existence. We cannot blame our fellow-men for our share of these. My neighbor and I are both struggling to free ourselves from these ills. The fact that my neighbors have succeeded in this struggle better than I constitutes no grievance for me.
There is no possible definition of a "poor man." A pauper is a person who cannot earn his living; whose producing powers have fallen positively below his necessary consumption; who cannot, therefore, pay his way. A human society needs the active co-operation and productive energy of every person in it. A man who is present as a consumer, yet who does not contribute either by land, labor, or capital to the work of society, is a burden. On no sound political theory ought such a person to share in the political power of the State...
The man who has done nothing to raise himself above poverty finds that the social doctors flock about him, bringing the capital which they have collected from the other class, and promising him the aid of the State to give him what the other had to work for.
In all these schemes and projects, the organized intervention of society through the State is either planned or hoped for, and the State is thus made to become the protector and guardian of certain classes...
Society... does not need any care or supervision. If we can acquire a science of society, based on observation of phenomena and study of forces, we may hope to gain some ground slowly toward the elimination of old errors, and the re-establishment of a sound and natural social order. Whatever we gain that way will be growth, never in the world by any reconstruction of society on the plan of some enthusiastic social architect. The latter is only repeating the old error over again, and postponing all our chances of real improvement.
Society needs first of all to be freed from these meddlers--that is, to be let alone. Here we are, then, once more back to the old doctrine--laissez faire. Let us translate it into blunt English, and it will read, Mind your own business. It is nothing but the doctrine of liberty...
We never supposed that laissez faire would give us perfect happiness. We have left perfect happiness entirely out of our account. If the social doctors will mind their own business, we shall have no troubles but what belong to nature. Those we will endure or combat as we can. What we desire is that the friends of humanity should cease to add to them. Our disposition toward the ills which our fellow man inflicts on us through malice or meddling is quite different from our disposition toward the ills which are inherent in the conditions of human life...
There is a beautiful notion afloat in our literature and in the minds of our people that men are born to certain "natural rights." If that were true there would be something on earth which was got for nothing, and this world would not be the place it is at all. The fact is, that there is no right whatever inherited by man which has not an equivalent and corresponding duty by the side of it, as the price of it... Something for nothing is not to be found on earth.
If there were such things as natural rights, the question would arise, Against whom are they good? Who has the corresponding obligation to satisfy these rights? There can be no rights against nature, except to get out of her whatever we can, which is only the fact of the struggle for existence stated over again. The common assertion is that the rights are good against society; that is, that society is bound to obtain and secure them for the persons interested. Society, however, is only the persons interested plus some other persons; and as the persons interested have by the hypothesis failed to win the rights, we come to this, that natural rights are the claims which certain persons have by prerogative against some other persons. Such is the actual interpretation in practice of natural rights--claims which some people have by prerogative on other people.
This theory is a very far-reaching one, and of course it is adequate to furnish a foundation for a whole social philosophy. In its widest extension it comes to mean that if any man finds himself uncomfortable in this world, it must be somebody else's fault, and that somebody is bound to come and make him comfortable. Now, the people who are most uncomfortable in this world (for if we should tell all our troubles it would not be found to be a very comfortable world for anybody) are those who have neglected their duties, and consequently have failed to get their rights. The people who can be called upon to serve the uncomfortable must be those who have done their duty, as the world goes, tolerably well. Consequently the doctrine which we are discussing turns out to be in practice only a scheme for making injustice prevail in human society by reversing the distribution of rewards and punishments between those who have done their duty and those who have not....The yearning after equality is the offspring of envy and covetousness, and there is no possible plan for satisfying that yearning which can do aught else than rob A to give to B; consequently all such plans nourish some of the meanest vices of human nature, waste capital, and overthrow civilization. But if we can expand the chances we can count on a general and steady growth of civilization and advancement of society by and through its best members. In the prosecution of these chances we all owe to each other goodwill, mutual respect, and mutual guarantees of liberty and security. Beyond this nothing can be affirmed as a duty of one group to another in a free state.
--j. of j. & Jenn