Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University and a contributor to the popular liberal legal blog Balkinization, had a post over the weekend challenging libertarian critics of the Progressive Era, including me, to face libertarianism’s “own embarrassing grandparents.” Specifically, after admitting that “there is much truth” to libertarian arguments about the ugly racism enshrined into law by turn-of-the-century progressive reformers, Tamanaha argues that libertarian forerunner Herbert Spencer is equally problematic, since he “opposed all government aid to the poor and infirm because it thwarted the biological law that the weakest should die.” Tamanaha also notes that Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which he offers as further proof of Spencer’s cold-hearted Social Darwinism.
While it’s true that Herbert Spencer was a classical liberal and therefore favored maximizing individual rights while restricting government power, it is entirely incorrect to suggest that Spencer thought “the weakest should die.” In fact, Spencer spent 10 chapters in his Principles of Ethics spelling out the importance of “Positive Beneficience,” or private charity. In Social Statics, perhaps his most famous book, Spencer argued that “the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other” was an entirely “proper” response to the “severity” of the world. Spencer believed that private charity was an essential component of true liberalism.
As for the much-abused phrase “survival of the fittest,” Tamanaha seems ignorant of what Spencer actually wrote. By fit, Spencer most certainly did not mean brute force. In Spencer’s view, human society had evolved from a "militant" state, which was characterized by violence and force, to an "industrial" one, characterized by trade and voluntary cooperation. Thus any increase in private charity and “the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other” count as prime examples of the “survival of the fittest” as articulated by Spencer. As did the rise of labor unions, which Spencer supported—so long as they were voluntary—as a way to counteract the "harsh and cruel conduct" of employers.
It’s also worth noting that Spencer holds up quite well on two issues that matter to today’s progressives: feminism and anti-imperialism. Two decades before John Stuart Mill’s feminist classic On the Subjection of Women first appeared, for example, Spencer advocated the complete legal and social equality of the sexes. And when it came to the imperialism of the European powers, including the shameful actions of his own government in Britain, Spencer attacked the imperialists for their "deeds of blood and rapine" against "subjugated races."
If anything, both today’s libertarians and today's progressives should spend time reading Spencer. There's nothing to be embarrassed about.