Herbert Spencer: Radical Antistatist


The Principles of Ethics, by Herbert Spencer. Introduction by Tibor R. Machan. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics. 1978. 2 vols. $18.00/$6.00.

The republication by Liberty Press of Herbert Spencer's The Principles of Ethics, along with recent articles and books on his politics, portends a rebirth of interest in the political thought of this great, iconoclastic individualist. It is rather ironic that in our own time of burgeoning welfare statism—a collectivism that Spencer denounced in scathing diatribes toward the end of his life in Man versus the State—this radical antistatist should be enjoying a revival. In his own day Spencer was appreciated more for his contribution to the inception of the discipline of sociology—or scathingly attacked for his agnosticism. It is only in recent years that his politics have been given comparable attention.

During his lifetime, Spencer aggressively and fairly consistently fought against the enemies of economic freedom and the defenders of the State. As British politics turned in the 1880s decisively away from laissez-faire and toward its long slide into socialism, Spencer increasingly became an isolated figure.

Yet even in the earlier period of free-market domination, Spencer had been out of tune with the regnant moral defense of liberalism in Britain, that of Benthamite utilitarianism. Instead of offering an instrumental defense of political and economic freedom as ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number, Spencer—from his initial political work, Social Statics, published in 1851—established himself as a natural-rights theorist. In his own liberal era, he was thus a radical, iconoclastic defender of liberty.

On other counts, too, Spencer is deservedly remembered as a rather unusual character. Throughout his life, and he lived well into his 80s, he gave vent to excesses of hypochondria, constantly fearing that he was on the verge of extinction from some medically undiagnosable condition, usually described as thickened blood. For this bizarre malady he would take leave from his dictations to row on the river or engage in games of racquets to increase the circulation to his brain, after which he would resume his literary endeavors. In later years he became increasingly resistant to criticism and eventually took to carrying ear-muffs to his club, which he promptly affixed to his head when anyone proved bold enough to attempt to shatter his tranquility.


Personality quirks aside, Spencer was a remarkably fertile thinker. In addition to volumes of essays and folios on primitive societies (The Descriptive Sociology), he produced a massive multivolume work, The Synthetic Philosophy, the culmination of which is the sections on moral philosophy represented in the two volumes of The Principles of Ethics. Spencer's aim was to systematize all of human knowledge into a grand scheme based upon the ideas of evolution and survival of the fittest. What is truly astounding about this monumental effort is the breadth of knowledge exhibited by this self-taught man, a railway engineer by youthful profession.

This system building is exemplary of the genius, and also the superficiality, of much 19th-century thought, the grand sweep of which is certainly lost in the fragmentation of disciplines and thought of our more sophisticated time. There is something refreshing and daring about the intellectual scope of men like Spencer or John Stuart Mill who ventured to write books on virtually the entire scope of human knowledge, from science to sociology to economics, politics, and human psychology. Nothing escaped their bent toward the integration of knowledge, and Spencer was the grandest system builder of them all.

What Spencer attempted in his Synthetic Philosophy, an enterprise that he pressed to completion through 30 years of physical and mental torments, was a synthesis of all life into one overarching vision. A startling insight of his era was that vegetative and animalistic life developed through survival of those organisms best adapted to their environment. Spencer saw man developing similarly, until finally he becomes totally harmonious with a social environment based upon equal freedom, natural rights, mutual sympathy, and nonaggression. This natural process, left free from the hindrances imposed by militarism and interventionist governments, would inexorably lead to the fulfillment and happiness of men and the harmony of human society.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Spencer's life is attributable to his longevity. In his earlier work, Social Statics, a buoyant expectation enlivened his vision of mankind evolving toward a utopian future in which human beings would be individuated yet perfectly suited to peaceful intercourse with others in society. Justice, the culmination of the Synthetic Philosophy, still evinces this hope, for psychologically Spencer could not renounce the evolutionist thesis that represented the guiding impulse of his life's work. But that faith in man's glorious future succumbed to political events in his declining years.

The England of the 1890s was far, indeed, from the robust England of the first half of the 19th century. Rationalism and individualism, Spencer's abiding values, had reigned virtually unchallenged in the earlier years. In his old age they lay ruined, the victims, he thought, of renascent militarism, imperialism, and regulationism. As he wrote in the Principles of Sociology (Volume 1, 1876):

If we contrast the period from 1815 to 1850 with the period from 1850 to the present time, we cannot fail to see that along with increased armaments, more frequent conflicts, and a revived military sentiment, there has been a spread of compulsory regulations. While nominally extended by the giving of votes the freedom of the individual has been in many ways actually diminished; both by restrictions which ever-multiplying officials are appointed to insist on, and by the forcible taking of money to secure for him, or for others at his expense, benefits previously left to be secured by each for himself. And undeniably this is a return towards the coercive discipline which pervades the whole social life where the militant type is predominant.


What Spencer never could bring himself to confront was the incompatibility between his own deterministic belief in the inevitable laws of evolution, which for him dictated the inexorable victory of liberalism, and the course of British history. This history manifestly displayed the abandonment of liberalism and, in Spencer's terms, a return to barbarism. How could this have occurred if his philosophy was sound? Obviously it could not.

This failure of history to fulfill the prophecies of a philosopher is not unique to Spencer's case. As Tibor Machan points out in his insightful introduction to these volumes, Karl Marx suffered from a similar betrayal by historical developments. The insomnia, paranoia, and hypochondria of Spencer's later years are perhaps the product of the collectivization of England coupled with his own refusal to reexamine the guiding principle of his work. If he had been able to relinquish his deterministic evolutionism and salvage the natural-rights component of his philosophy, maybe then his last years would have been more bearable.

What should be most disturbing about The Principles of Ethics to modern libertarians, as Machan suggests, is Spencer's emergent willingness to relegate his "absolute" moral principles—that is, those principles of natural rights deduced from his first principle of equal freedom for everyone—to a far distant future in which man and environment would have become perfectly symbiotic. In such a society, people would be motivated by sympathy; consequently, governmental coercion would be almost completely eliminated. But until such a society evolves, said Spencer, a lower state of morality governed by merely "relative" ethical principles is acceptable and even necessary.

This severely crippled Spencer's advocacy of libertarian policies, for in a less than perfect world, blatant contraventions of individual liberty become theoretically excusable. Leaving policy aside and speaking only of the cogency of Spencer's philosophy, it is patently contradictory to designate natural rights as absolute moral principles and then to devolve into a relativistic morass in which it is not absolutely wrong to violate these same principles.


Recent critics have tended to view Spencer in his later years as increasingly mired in conservatism, having abandoned central tenets of his earlier radicalism. David Wiltshire, in The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer, advances this charge, citing Spencer's backing off from his earlier commitment to an extended franchise, women's suffrage, and land nationalization. But in fact Spencer's later positions, with the possible exception of his repudiation of women's suffrage (on the ground that women are physiologically predisposed toward worship of the State), are in crucial ways more libertarian than his original commitments.

While in Social Statics Spencer embraced an enlarged franchise, by 1867 and the Second Reform Bill his enthusiasm had paled. Why? His overarching principle here was that of individual freedom, and on pragmatic grounds he concluded that extending the franchise to the lower classes would accelerate the decline into State socialism. For him, voting per se was merely a second-order good; if voters chose to elect representatives who would erode liberty, then to hell with voting.

On the question of land nationalization, beginning in the 1880s Spencer began to retreat from the excesses of his Social Statics days, in which he had declared private property to be a violation of his fundamental principle of equal freedom. By the time he wrote Justice, he had almost completely recanted. While communal ownership is right in principle (that is, presumably, in absolute ethics) it is impractical in the real world because it would require impossible amounts of compensation. Thus, much to the chagrin of land nationalizers such as Henry George, Spencer formed an informal alliance with the Tories of the Liberty and Property Defense League.

By modern libertarian criteria—Hillel Steiner posing a conspicuous exception—Spencer's later stand on property is more acceptable, yet still flawed. While Lockeanism on property rights is manifested in Social Statics—Spencer allows for the legitimacy of ownership of goods that one has created through labor—this element of his thought is incompatible with land nationalization. What bothered Spencer was his apprehension that almost all land had been originally acquired by coercive means—a legitimate concern, considering English history. Anyway, on the land question Locke is preferable to Spencer.

What motivated Spencer, then, in his abandonment of land nationalization and universal suffrage was his abiding fear of creeping State control over the lives of individuals. Certainly, modern liberal statists would consider this a manifestation of the hardening and incipient senility that comes of an embittered old age. But Spencer, despite his inconsistencies and rigidities, was denouncing the right enemy.

At the time of his demise in 1903 it is lamentably true that he was one of the few men left in England who was aware of the peril. For this alone, Spencer deserves our consideration and appreciation, even if his evolutionary underpinnings prove philosophically unacceptable and often contradictory to his fundamental individualism.

Ellen Paul teaches political science at Miami University, in Ohio, and is the author of Moral Revolution and Economic Science (Greenwood Press, 1979).