Herbert Spencer: Libertarian Prophet

By Long, Roderick T. | Freeman, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview

Herbert Spencer: Libertarian Prophet


Long, Roderick T., Freeman


At the time of his death a century ago, the English social theorist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was widely considered one of the most significant thinkers of his era, a scholar of encyclopedic learning and enormous vision whose works formed a regular part of university curricula in philosophy and the social sciences. Today he is seldom read, and although his name remains famous, his actual ideas are virtually unknown. Textbooks summarize Spencer in a few lines as a "Social Darwinist" who preached "might makes right" and advocated letting the poor die of starvation in order to weed out the unfit-a description unlikely to win him readers.

The textbook summary is absurd, of course. Far from being a proponent of "might makes right," Spencer wrote that the "desire to command is essentially a barbarous desire" because it "implies an appeal to force," which is "inconsistent with the first law of morality" and "radically wrong."1 While Spencer opposed tax-funded welfare programs, he strongly supported voluntary charity, and indeed devoted ten chapters of his Principles of Ethics to a discussion of the duty of "positive beneficence."2

Spencer's evolutionary theories predated Darwin's by several years. For Spencer, neither physical nor social order requires deliberate design for its emergence; language, for example, was not the "cunningly-devised scheme of a ruler or body of legislators,"3 nor is the economic organization of society, without which "a great proportion of us would be dead before another week ended," to be attributed to "the devising of any one."4 Rather, order arises spontaneously, through the operation of natural laws; industrial civilization emerged "not simply without legislative guidance" but "in spite of legislative hindrances," through the "individual efforts of citizens to satisfy their own wants."5

The two chief modes of social organization are the militant-operating through compulsory cooperation and oriented toward violent conflict-and the industrial -characterized by voluntary cooperation and peaceful exchange.6 The militant mode, Spencer maintained, was necessary at a certain stage in human history, before human beings had fully adapted to social existence; but its day is passing. Since "a society in which life, liberty, and property, are secure, and all interests justly regarded, must prosper more than one in which they do not," the selective pressures of social evolution can be expected to bring about a gradual shift toward the industrial mode.7

Spencer's long-run optimism was tempered, however, by short-run pessimism; although militant society was destined to give way to industrial society eventually, there would inevitably be temporary reverses and detours along the way. And Spencer believed that the modern world, after a long period of liberalization, was headed into just such a retrograde phase. Observing an increase in "imperialism, re-barbarization, and regimentation,"8 he foresaw this trend's eventual culmination in a "lapse of self-ownership into ownership by the community."9 Like many classical-liberal thinkers at the end of the nineteenth century, Spencer prophetically predicted for the century to come a grim relapse into collectivism and war.

An Ethics of Liberty

In ethics Spencer dismissed the debate between egoism and altruism, maintaining that human interests, properly understood, are so interdependent that one cannot effectively pursue one's own welfare without giving others' needs their due, and vice versa.10 Life and happiness are a human being's proper goals, but he can achieve these goals "only by the exercise of his faculties," and so "must be free to do those things in which the exercise of them consists." But since all human beings by this argument have a moral license to exercise their faculties, "then must the freedom of each be bounded by the similar freedom of all."11

Hence Spencer derived a Law of Equal Freedom: "Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man. …

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