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The Most Misunderstood Libertarian

To the surprise of many, scholarship on Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) has flourished in the last few years. A towering figure in Victorian Britain, Spencer was all but forgotten after his death. His works, which taken together form a “Synthetic Philosophy,” seemed alien to 20th century academics in an age of meticulous specialization. Also his commitment to individual liberty and (seriously) limited government has not been too common in the discipline that he helped establish, sociology. Talcott Parsons famously called him a victim of the very God he adored: evolution.

Toward the end of the 20th century, however, interest in Spencer began to revive. In 1974, J.D.Y. Peel published Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist and Robert Nisbet dealt at length with Spencer in his 1980 History of the Idea of Progress. In Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), Robert Nozick adapted his “tale of the slave” on taxation and democracy from Spencer’s 1884 The Man versus the State. In 1982, the journal History of Political Thought published contributions on Spencer from John Gray, William Miller, Jeffrey Paul, and Hillel Steiner that remain a landmark.

New monographs and studies were later published, and today a number of scholars in different disciplines (history of political thought, sociology, anthropology) can be counted among the Spencer connoisseurs. But few of them have come from the classical liberal camp. (The most notable exception is George H. Smith.) Spencer may be routinely included among the forerunners of modern libertarianism but it is rather uncommon to find a contemporary individualist thinker deliberately appealing to his insights. Take F.A. Hayek: Long ago, John Gray pointed out that Hayek and Spencer share the “same aspiration of embedding the defense of liberty in a broad evolutionary framework,” but Hayek himself appeared to have been largely unaware of this affinity. More recently, Gray wrote that Hayek told him he never read Spencer.

The paradox of one of the fiercest libertarians ever to be ignored by libertarians emerges vividly from Herbert Spencer: Legacies, edited by Mark Francis and Michael Taylor. Interestingly, the two editors have published extensively on Spencer in the past, but their interpretations of him do not overlap. Francis, as he attempts to rescue Spencer’s philosophy from oblivion, in his Introduction calls The Man Versus the State and also Social Statics (1851) “popular works” that, “while they were liberal and progressive, . . . were not scientific or philosophical.” Taylor, in contrast, deals at length with Social Statics—as Stephen Tomlinson does in his chapter in this volume.

Spencer’s legacy is plural, as the title of this collection suggests, and may have come to us mediated by subsequent developments in different fields. The plural nature of the “legacies” is stressed throughout, and has multiple dimensions: disciplinary, political, and even geographical given the “migration” of Spencerian theories all over the world.

Sometimes, however, by looking far away you disregard what you have nearby. Bernard Lightman, for example, focuses his essay “Spencer’s British Disciples” on Beatrice Potter Webb and Grant Allen, quickly dismissing Auberon Herbert as a not very influential British disciple of Spencer. There might be a problem here: the influence the disciples themselves had may have to be disentangled from the thinking of the disciples qua disciples. Lightman presents in fascinating and plentiful detail the most interesting paths of Webb and Allen, who both turned socialist to the disappointment of the master.

It would be hard to overemphasize the emotional nature of the relationship between Webb and Herbert Spencer. He was a family friend and a confidant of Laurencina Potter, Beatrice Potter Webb’s mother. A solitary man, Spencer bestowed unlimited affection on his dear friends’ kids. Young Beatrice grew up thinking that he was her best ally and the only adult truly interested in her intellectual development. Spencer, as Webb later wrote, pressed her “to become a scientific worker” and to a certain extent he became a model, for the “continuous concentrated effort in carrying out, with an heroic disregard of material prosperity and physical comfort, a task which he believed would further human progress.”

In her 1926 memoir My Apprenticeship, Webb described at length the old friend, in a portrait very familiar to modern readers. She saw in him “the mental deformity which results from the extraordinary development of the intellectual faculties joined with the very imperfect development of the sympathetic and emotional qualities.” Webb’s Spencer is a human being obsessed with rationality and purpose who paid the price on the affective side. Though Webb is not stingy of kind words or affectionate recollections, it is hard not to speculate that her portrait of Spencer evokes magnificently all she disliked in unregulated capitalism: a purported organizational efficiency with little humanity to spare for those who are needy.

It is indeed true that Spencer was the one who, as Lightman writes, “originally taught” Beatrice Webb “to value the scientific method and to think about social issues from a scientific perspective.” One wonders, however, exactly how much of Spencer’s insights she kept in her later thinking.

As for Auberon Herbert, certainly a less grand figure, he was an advocate of a libertarianism “that verged on anarchism,” in Taylor’s words. Reading Spencer was for him a truly life-changing experience. It made him lose “faith in the great machine” of politics and convinced him to become an apostle of freedom. Herbert’s libertarian anarchism is one of the “legacies” Michael Taylor examines in his essay.

He approaches Spencer as a historian of political thought. The Taylor chapter, on the one hand, presents Social Statics as a text that inspired multiple legacies, including the work of Henry George (who resented the fact that Spencer wanted the 1892 revised edition of this 1851 work to leave out the original chapter on land) and Piotr Kropotkin. Taylor stresses how Spencer goes for voluntary and spontaneous arrangements, not necessarily for institutional settings based on the price system. But this won’t sound particularly controversial or new to libertarians, who, despite the caricature often made of them, understand that not everything in life is tradable at a money price. Their point is more subtle (and Spencerian): that is, top-down government intrusions may retard or altogether stop the spontaneous evolution (or adaptation to new circumstances) of human societies.

On the other hand, Taylor puts in context Spencer’s later, famous polemics against an intrusive state. The articles included in The Man Versus the State were by and large a reaction to the “drift to the left” of William Gladstone’s 1880 government. Taylor emphasizes that “although Liberals were always suspicious of an overextended sphere of state action, the prevalent attitude was one of wariness of government overreach rather than an outright opposition to a positive role for the state.” In other words, Spencer belonged to a minority of truly committed minimal government types that was never hegemonic in the intellectual realm, let alone in the pragmatic world of politicians. Fair enough, though the younger Spencer certainly saw himself as surrounded by writers with ideas rather close to his, particularly after the abolition of the Corn Laws.

But the opposite is also true. Many critics have used against Spencer the same argument they later employed against Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom: namely, that pointing to the slippery slope of state interventionism was ridiculous given that government was pursuing just limited (particularly in Spencer’s times) and benevolent interventions. In the 1870s, government spending was less than 10 percent of the British GDP—but increased rapidly in the new century.

One of the many take-aways of this book is that Spencer was a far more complex thinker than those who only know him as a diabolical “social Darwinist” may believe. Its essays might, for example, open the eyes of those who still have in mind the Herbert Spencer largely manufactured in the 1940s by Richard Hofstadter in a book that made history as a beautifully written and yet quite misleading tirade. Taylor explains that Spencer never thought that “social existence involved an unrelenting struggle for survival in which the richest were the most successful and the poor should go to the wall.” He quotes Thomas Leonard’s important study on the Hofstadterian myth.

Jonathan H. Turner explains Spencer’s view of evolution as a process of continuous differentiation, which entailed at the same time more interdependence among the parts of the “social organism” and the need for a flexible regulation that allows for ever further differentiation and specialization. The pace of civilization, so to say, is limited by the extent of the division of labor.

Francis, who like his co-editor cites the Leonard monograph, also makes clear Spencer’s commitment to pacifism: “Spencerians believed that imperial conquest might have been a natural phenomenon when employed by ancient states, but was an archaic activity in modern times” and a most immoral one. The thread running through all of Spencer’s works is the idea that society progresses toward the minimization of violence, which had been needed at earlier stages of civilization.

This book may convey a sense of Spencer’s true understanding of complexity. In the last pages of Social Statics, which revolves around the idea of betterment and progress, he explains that “the institutions of any given age exhibit the compromise made by these contending moral forces at the signing of their last truce.” His magnificent The Study of Sociology (1873) would be a relevant work for those interested in the proper role of the social sciences and their limits, if only they read it.

Turner’s essay, possibly the most thorough in this collection, claims Spencer’s centrality in the development of sociology. Turner is sure that Spencer was “a theorist, not in the often sloppy and vague social theory sense, but in the hard-science view of theory as a series of abstract laws that explain the operation of some portion of the universe.” Unfortunately, he writes, though “many of his ideas have endured,  . . . most people do not know that they come from Spencer, so ingrained is the avoidance of anything Spencerian.”

Turner signals, for example, that Spencer had a very perceptive and thorough vision of power and the dynamics of the mobilization of coercive resources, which also anticipates the analysis of political elites by Vilfredo Pareto (not by chance, an avid reader of Spencer’s). Spencer’s dichotomy of militant and industrial societies is not the naive teleology many assumed. “Militant societies are always centralized because they must deal with conflict and war, whereas” industrial societies “are not centralized and allow individuals and corporate units considerable freedom of activity.” Nations may go in one direction or another, depending on many factors.

Spencer learnt it the hard way. His alleged “drift to conservatism,” or the fact that the tone of his articles and political pamphlets got drier, is due to his understanding of developments in England, which he considered revealed a resurgence of the militant spirit.

If I had any quibble about this impressive collection, it would be that the propensity to consider The Man Versus the State as “just” a political pamphlet causes the contributors to overlook that this is perhaps the first work whose arguments are truly centered around the notion of unintended consequences. All in all, though, Herbert Spencer: Legacies may foster a better understanding of this seminal thinker and raise yet more interest in his underappreciated writings.

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