McElroy, Wendy, Freeman
Herbert Spencer by Alberto Mingardi, edited by John Meadowcrqft Continuum Publishing * 2011 * 192 pages * $130.00
Reviewed by Wendy McElroy
Who now reads Spencer?" As someone who does, I was seduced by the opening question of this recent book on the thought of Herbert Spencer.
The book by Alberto Mingardi (of the Italian think tank Instituto Bruno Leoni) is volume 18 in the series "Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers." It presents an accessible yet sophisticated overview of an English philosopher who was key in the development of classical liberalism. As the book notes, Spencer (1820-1903) was "perhaps the only philosopher to sell one million copies of his work while still alive." Nevertheless, his work has been neglected or reviled for almost a century. Mingardi remedies this intellectual injustice along with answering the question, "Why?"
Herbert Spencer clearly states its limitations. Spencer was a prolific system-builder who wrote hundreds of articles and dozens of books, including the ten-volume Synthetic Philosophy. Wisely, Mingardi narrows his focus to what many consider to be Spencer's most enduring work: Social Statics (1850) as informed by his Autobiography.
In Social Statics, Spencer presented the political theory of his youth, including "the right to ignore the state," that inspired a generation of radical individualists in England and America. They embraced Spencer's vision of a government limited to administrating justice, the propriety of laissez-faire economics, and the evolution of cooperation over coercion. His admirers, as much as his writings, form Spencer's legacy. Mingardi's book notes this well in a chapter entitled "Herbert Spencer's Offspring," to which I flipped first.
Why has Spencer's substantial legacy been dismissed? To a degree it is because time has proven some of his central views to be incorrect. For example, Spencer based much of his ethics on a theory of moral evolution. In the preface to the last part of Ethics (1893), Spencer himself expressed disillusionment in commenting that "the Doctrine of Evolution has not furnished guidance to the extent" he had expected.
But what of the writings that time did not disprove, such as his youthful politics? An entirely different explanation applies. Mingardi dates the New Deal era (1930s) as the pivot point in Spencer's political influence. With the rise of John Maynard Keynes - the modern prophet of government intervention - Spencer's laissez faire fell into disrepute. Because he wrote of the "survival of the fittest," Spencer was accused of being a Social Darwinist who would nod in approval as the weak died miserably. (In fact Spencer wrote at length about the good done by voluntary charity. …