Hijacking Liberalism: Spencer's The Man Versus the State

Liberalism was once about repealing laws, now it is about making laws. That the way in which we use the word “liberalism” mutated with time, is beyond question. In the 20th century, “liberalism,” particularly in the U.S., overcame the idea of the sanctity of contracts between freely agreeing parties. Joseph Schumpeter once observed that that the enemies of the system of free enterprise paid it an unintended compliment as they hijacked the very word “liberal” to apply it to their own views. Old-fashioned liberalism therefore became “classical liberalism” with modern liberalism being what perhaps may be more appropriately called social democracy.

This shift in the meaning of liberalism, however, predates the great depression and the New Deal. Herbert Spencer’s The Man Versus the State (1884, reprinted by the Liberty Fund in 1982) is an illuminating treatment of the subject. After Richard Hofstadter invented the ominous label “Social Darwinist,” Spencer has become an author that even his own tribe of classical liberals and libertarians is hesitant to endorse.

At best, scholars often view Spencer as a magnificent dinosaur, at worst a grumpy phantom of Christmas past. His vigorous and unapologetic style, his referring to deserving and undeserving poor, unsurprising for his times but uncongenial to posterity, his personal oddities (he was never the life and soul of any party): all of these conspired against his popularity.

Yet his works were filled with examples from contemporary sources in anthropology and sociology, he was far more compassionate than he is acknowledged to be (though he thought the social ecosystem was made less fragile by individual failures), he played a key role in understanding and popularizing the very idea of “evolution,” and he anticipated themes and sensibilities that were to be later echoed by authors such as F.A. Hayek.

The State Keeps Growing

The Man Versus the State is one of Spencer’s works that aged better: more than others, it can speak to the modern reader. Reviewing the book from our present vantage point, the word that best describes it is probably “prophetic.”  

Spencer is dealing with a political context rather different than ours: Victorian England. He was writing in the aftermath of the strong 1880 victory of the liberals in the general election —and out of disappointment for their clear inability to steer the wheel in a direction opposite to the Zeitgeist. Liberalism, Spencer wrote, couldn’t stop the march of ever bigger government and actually cheered for it: it became the “New Toryism,” or so declared the title of the first of the four essays collected in the book.

Was Spencer right? Was government really getting bigger and bigger? In the 1860s the United Kingdom’s Factories Acts created a basic framework of regulation of the growing industrial system. Spencer mercilessly enumerates the extensions of the Acts, from “regulation for cleansing and ventilation” to the “enforcement of vaccinations.” He witnesses with horror the establishment of State-telegraphy, the Beerhouse Regulations Act and the Sea-birds Preservation Act, the first steps taken in compulsory education, the ever growing industry of granting licenses, et cetera. For those of us that are used to living in a period when the appetite for regulation seems to be never quenched, Spencer’s times hardly look grim: after all, it takes him but a few pages to enumerate the highlights of some twenty years of legislation. Try do that today.

Yet Spencer’s point is not that easy to dismiss. The great reforms of the early 1800s, the emancipation of Catholics, the dismantling of combination laws that made it impossible for artisans to organize, up to free trade won by Richard Cobden and John Bright, “diminished compulsory cooperation throughout social life and increased voluntary cooperation… they diminished the range of governmental authority, and increased the area within which each citizen may act unchecked.”  They allowed for people pursuing their own good, by limiting the extent to which government stood in the way. The liberal triumphs of the past “were abolition of grievances suffered by the people.”

At a certain moment, however, things shifted and liberalism changed. Hence the administrations led by Palmerston and Gladstone, no soulmates by any means, moved from the business of repealing laws to the business of making new laws openly aimed at improving people’s welfare. Progress in living standards was the result of the liberal triumphs of the past, but an indirect one: the old liberals focused on removing barriers. Now the “popular good” was no longer “an end to be indirectly gained by the relaxation of restrains” but “the end to be directly gained” by government action.

This interventionist state came about with the widening of the franchise. But wasn’t the extension of the franchise one of the great liberal battles, together with the national expenditure, a more equitable adjustment of our fiscal burdens, and freedom of trade?

It was. But Spencer noticed that popular government was making people, and liberals in particular, more tolerant towards encroachments on their own liberty. Before the franchise was widened, laws made by Parliament often appeared like “class legislation”: class-wise, electors and elected tended to coincide, thus it was apparent whose interests Parliament was pursuing. Democracy blurred the lines. This is perhaps best understood thinking of the issue of public finance: before universal franchise democracy triumphed in the West, people could never be tricked to believe that public debt was not a problem, on the flimsy rationale that it is a debt we owe ourselves. Sovereigns, though inclined to be profligate, were careful to rein in the debt before it got out of control. With universal franchise democracy comes the idea that the state is not a parasite of society, but rather society itself. Why should the people care about limiting it, if power is something that belong to the people and the people itself wields it?

Defining Liberty

To assess the degree of liberty individuals do enjoy, Spencer argued, what matters is “whether the lives of citizens are more interfered with than they were; not the nature of the agency which interferes with them.” That we elect our rulers does not necessarily mean that they rule us well, nor that they respect our liberties. The “divine rights of majorities,” he cautioned, are no less a superstition than the divine rights of kings. We are here at the core of a problem political theorists are still struggling with: how to strike a balance between individual rights and majority rule?

In an era of populist insurgencies, this unresolved question brings a gloomy mood. On the contrary, Spencer’s own evolutionary theory, applied to social matters, was understood as an exercise in optimism. Societies tend to move, he reasoned, from a “militant” towards an “industrial” state. Militant types of societies are hierarchical, top down, simpler: they struggle to survive and expand, and warlike needs and commands trump all others. Industrial types of society are horizontal, networked, complex, they are governed by a web of voluntary contracts and see people pursuing a cornucopia of different goals, in a complex division of labour. Like all organisms, societies move from simpler forms to more articulated ones, in which the parties multiply and better divide labour among themselves. Borrowing a catchphrase from Henry Maine, Spencer thought societies moved “from status to contract”: from stages in which everyone had their place in society set, to stages where people could enter all the voluntary deals they wished for and could accommodate.

Yet he knew well that societies tend to be hybrid, with elements of both types. If there are strong tendencies driving society in the direction of liberty and freedom of contracts, so there are opposite tendencies too. For Spencer, this is a complex interaction of culture and institutions, the latter depending on the first.

Social evolution isn’t linear. As Spencer clarified in The Study of Sociology,

in a society living, growing, changing, every new factor becomes a permanent force; modifying more or less the direction of movement determined by the aggregate of forces. Never simple and direct, but, by the co-operation of so many causes, made irregular, involved, and always rhythmical, the course of social change cannot be judged of its general direction by inspecting any small portion of it. Each action will be inevitably be followed, by some direct or indirect reaction, and this again by a re-reaction.

Precisely for this reason, as social phenomena are the result of a complex web of causes not necessarily easy to disentangle, the legislator should be prudent. This is often not the case, and he considers society “as a plastic mass instead of as an organized body.” The legislator, in his capacity as a single individual readily gives up “the thought of managing his wife”; he sees that

children on whom he has tried now reprimand, now punishment, now suasion, now reward, do not respond satisfactorily to any method. . . . Yet, difficult as he finds it to deal with humanity in detail, he is confident of his ability to deal with embodied humanity. Citizens, not one-thousandth of whom he knows, not one-hundredth of whom he ever saw, and the great mass of whom belong to classes having habits and modes of thought of which he has but dim notions, he feels sure will act in ways he foresees, and fulfill ends he wishes.

The great argument for non-interventionism is a cognitive one: we cannot apprehend all the knowledge which would be required to shape society according to whatever plan.

Indeed, the problem is not only that we don’t master such knowledge: it is that we do not think we should need it. One of the reasons why interventionism wins heart and minds, even in complex societies like the one we live in, is that we do not grasp its complexity. Here comes a sort of “atavism”: we are born in families, where benefits are not distributed according to merits or to our contribution to the family itself. Market forces are oblivious to one’s needs and consider as one’s merits only one’s contributions to others via economic transactions:

were the principle of family life to be adopted and fully carried out in social life—were reward always great in proportion as desert was small, fatal results to the society would quickly follow; and if so, then even a partial intrusion of the family régime into the régime of the State, will be slowly followed by fatal results.

Family-ethics should therefore not applied to society at large.

Expanded Franchise, Diluted Responsibility

Blaming all of this on the expansion of franchise would be quite ungenerous. But this lack of harmony between a society’s complex organization, and our simple-mindedness in thinking about it, is something worth pondering.

Paradoxically, as economic progress became more of a reality for a larger number of people, in the second half of the 19th century, the demand for redistribution became stronger and stronger. In part, this may well have been a result of the successes of the workers’ movement, who agitated against harsh labor conditions. But, as David Schmidtz reminded us in a recent paper, something changed also in the world of ideas. In particular, John Stuart Mill “foresaw a day when there would be relatively little news on the production side; human progress and human welfare would have more to do with better distribution than with rising productivity.” At some point, the production and distribution of wealth became separate topics. The philosophical discussion, Schmidtz argues, started to turn towards how to cut a static pie, rather than focusing on how make a society more productive and richer. The same happened, we may add, with the public discussion at large. At the very same time progress became a feature of human life, after centuries of stagnation, how to keep it going was a question excluded from the menu of political reflection.

In early 20th century, Spencer’s prophecy came to be vindicated, even though very few people noticed. Universal franchise democracies may be more reluctant to enter wars, but once public opinion became a factor, the public could demand the enemy’s annihilation with unprecedented fury. War demanded socialism and vice versa. New distinctively “militant” societies emerged, doing away with individual liberty as economic decision making grew more centralized.

In recent years, however, things seem to have changed. Government intrusions in the boardroom proved to be compatible with laissez-faire in the bedroom. Is that enough to let us dismiss Spencer’s anti-interventionism as a kind of paranoia? If we do it means that we came to consider the right of property, freedom of contract, the constellations of liberties that empower free enterprise as second-rate freedom. The hijacking of “liberalism” was a triumph. Perhaps this makes it all the more important to understand how it happened.


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