Spencer's Law: Another Reason Not to Worry

By Davies, Stephen | Ideas on Liberty, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Spencer's Law: Another Reason Not to Worry


Davies, Stephen, Ideas on Liberty


History

One of the constant themes of today's media is crisis and panic. Everywhere we look we are told there is some dreadful social problem, a threat to all that is good and true. Moreover, it is getting worse and will bring disaster upon all of us-unless "we do something." (The authors of these jeremiads always have well worked-out ideas as to what "we" should do.) Most of the current favorites in this genre relate to children (going to the dogs), the state of the natural environment (we're doomed), or the condition of the popular culture (uniquely degraded). There are, however, many others. These kinds of accounts come from all parts of the political spectrum and seem to have a great appeal to both publishers and readers. Truly, life seems grim.

And yet my advice is (to quote the late Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy), "Don't Panic!" You should, in fact, take all such accounts with a very large pinch of salt: not only because they frequently contain elementary errors of fact, logic, and argument, but also for a more profound reason. Not only is it likely that in many or most cases there is no problem (or much less of one than the prophets of doom would have us believe)-in most instances the "problem" is diminishing and is actually on the way to disappearing. The accounts of social crisis that bombard us from every corner are examples of a principle I propose to call "Spencer's Law," after the man who first formulated it, the great Victorian philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer.

Spencer's Law states, "The degree of public concern and anxiety about a social problem or phenomenon varies inversely as to its real or actual incidence." In plain English this means that when a social problem is genuinely widespread and severe it will attract little notice or discussion. It will only become the object of attention, concern, and controversy precisely when it is in decline and its severity is diminishing. So the less of a problem there is, the more that is written about it! Spencer made this point on several occasions, perhaps most pointedly toward the end of his life in his essay of 1891 "From Freedom to Bondage," remarking on "the way the more things improve the louder become the exclamations about their badness."' The point of course is that complaints about social problems that are actually on the way out have a long history. In the work cited and elsewhere Spencer gives several examples:

Drink. In the early nineteenth century Britain suffered from a truly horrendous drink problem. Alcohol abuse was commonplace and a major cause of ill health and crime. By the 1880s consumption of alcohol had declined sharply and there had been a marked shift from hard liquor to beer. However, it was the years after 1880 that saw an upsurge in temperance campaigns in both Britain and the United States, culminating in the "noble experiment" of Prohibition in the United States and restrictive licensing laws in Britain.

Education. In the late eighteenth century illiteracy was frequent and innumeracy and ignorance were so common that they attracted no attention. By the 1860s the huge majority of British were literate and numerate and there was strong demand for popular educational materials.2 The later nineteenth century saw a campaign against the "public ignorance," which led to the establishment of compulsory state education at the primary (1870) and secondary (1902) levels.

Poverty. By every single indicator (such as average income, cost of living, conditions of life, number on poor relief) the condition of working people in Britain was far better in 1870 than it had been in 1840. This was well known, as shown in the statistical works produced at that time, such as Porter's State of the Nation. It was the years after 1870 that saw the "discovery of poverty" through the works of men like Rowntree and Booth and the growth of an intellectual and political movement that led to the creation of the welfare state in Britain. …

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