How Did the Theory of Social Darwinism Affect the Government Relationship to Big Business?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a controversial theory called Social Darwinism emerged. This theory, inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, applied evolutionary principles to human society.

It suggested that society could progress and thrive through competition, survival of the fittest, and individual success. As this theory gained popularity, it had a profound impact on various aspects of society, including the government’s relationship with big business.

Understanding Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism posited that societies evolve through a process of “survival of the fittest,” where only the strongest individuals or businesses could thrive and succeed. It argued that competition among individuals and businesses was not only natural but also necessary for progress and improvement.

The theory emphasized that individuals with superior abilities would naturally rise to positions of power and wealth, while those who were less capable would fail. This concept was often applied to justify income inequality and concentration of wealth among a few economic elites.

Government Laissez-Faire

The rise of Social Darwinism coincided with a prevalent ideology known as laissez-faire capitalism. This ideology advocated for minimal government intervention in economic affairs. According to this perspective, the government should not interfere with business operations or regulate industries.

The proponents of laissez-faire argued that if left unregulated, businesses would compete freely in the market, leading to economic growth and prosperity for all. Social Darwinism provided intellectual support for this ideology by suggesting that any attempt by the government to regulate or control businesses would hinder their natural evolution.

The Impact on Government-Big Business Relationship

Social Darwinism significantly influenced the government’s relationship with big business. The theory’s emphasis on individual success and competition led to a hands-off approach from the government, allowing businesses to operate without much interference.

One notable consequence was the lack of regulation on monopolies and trusts. Social Darwinism argued that the strongest businesses would naturally dominate the market, and any attempts to break them up or regulate them would impede progress. Consequently, many monopolies emerged during this period, controlling vast sectors of the economy.

Furthermore, Social Darwinism contributed to a shift in public opinion regarding government intervention in economic affairs. The theory suggested that government interference hindered natural selection and stifled progress. As a result, support for regulations and anti-trust laws weakened among politicians and the general public.

The Rise of Robber Barons

The ideas propagated by Social Darwinism also influenced the rise of “robber barons,” wealthy individuals who amassed enormous fortunes through ruthless business practices. These individuals were often seen as exemplifying survival of the fittest and were admired for their success.

However, critics argued that these robber barons’ unchecked power led to exploitative labor practices, unfair business practices, and widening wealth gaps. Despite these concerns, their actions went largely unregulated due to the prevailing belief that they were simply asserting their superiority in the competitive marketplace.

Reform Movements

Over time, growing public dissatisfaction with rising inequality and social injustices led to reform movements challenging Social Darwinism’s influence on government policies. The Progressive Era marked a turning point when efforts were made to curb corporate power and promote social welfare.

Regulations such as the Sherman Antitrust Act aimed to break up monopolies and promote fair competition. Additionally, labor laws were enacted to protect workers from exploitation. These reforms signaled a shift away from laissez-faire capitalism and a recognition that unregulated competition could lead to detrimental social and economic consequences.


The theory of Social Darwinism had a profound impact on the government’s relationship with big business. It justified a hands-off approach from the government, allowing businesses to operate without interference.

This led to the rise of monopolies and robber barons, generating concerns about inequality and unfair practices. However, as public awareness grew, reform movements emerged to address these issues and promote a more balanced relationship between the government and big business.