The Unfortunate Case of Herbert Spencer

How a libertarian individualist was recast as a social Darwinist


In 1944, historian Richard Hofstadter published Social Darwinism in American Thought, an aggressive and widely influential critique of the libertarian philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and his impact on American intellectual life. In Hofstadter's telling, Spencer was the driving force behind "social Darwinism," the pseudo-scientific use of evolution to justify economic and social inequality. According to Hofstadter, Spencer was little more than an apologist for extreme conservatism, a figure who told "the guardians of American society what they wanted to hear." The eugenics movement, Hofstadter maintained, which held that humanity could improve its stock via selective breeding and forced sterilization, "has proved to be the most enduring aspect" of Spencer's "tooth and claw natural selection."

A hit upon publication, the book helped make Hofstadter's name, doing much to secure him his prominent perch at Columbia University, where he taught until his death in 1970. But there's a problem with Hofstadter's celebrated work: His claims bear almost no resemblance to the real Herbert Spencer. In fact, as Princeton University economist Tim Leonard argues in a provocative new article titled "Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism," [pdf] which is forthcoming from the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Hofstadter is guilty of both distorting Spencer's free market views and smearing them with the taint of racist Darwinian collectivism.

So what happened? As Leonard notes, Hofstadter was no neutral observer. Rather, he "wrote as an opponent of laissez-faire, and also as a champion of what he took to be its rightful successor, expert-led reform." A one-time member of the Communist party, Hofstadter himself later admitted that the book "was naturally influenced by the political and moral controversy of the New Deal era."

At the heart of Hofstadter's case is the following passage from Spencer's famous first book, Social Statics (1851): "If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die."

That certainly sounds rough, but as it turns out, Hofstadter failed to mention the first sentence of Spencer's next paragraph, which reads, "Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated." As philosophy professor Roderick Long has remarked, "The upshot of the entire section, then, is that while the operation of natural selection is beneficial, its mitigation by human benevolence is even more beneficial." This is a far cry from Hofstadter's summary of the text, which has Spencer advocating that the "unfit…should be eliminated."

Similarly, Hofstadter repeatedly points to Spencer's famous phrase, "survival of the fittest," a line that Charles Darwin added to the fifth edition of Origin of Species. But by fit, Spencer meant something very different from brute force. In his 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 Spencer the "extreme conservative" supported labor unions (so long as they were voluntary) as a way to mitigate and reform the "harsh and cruel conduct" of employers.

In fact, far from being the proto-eugenicist of Hofstadter's account, Spencer was an early feminist, advocating the complete legal and social equality of the sexes (and he did so, it's worth noting, nearly two decades before John Stuart Mill's famous On the Subjection of Women first appeared). He was also an anti-imperialist, attacking European colonialists for their "deeds of blood and rapine" against "subjugated races." To put it another way, Spencer was a thoroughgoing classical liberal, a principled champion of individual rights in all spheres of human life. Eugenics, which was based on racism, coercion, and collectivism, was alien to everything that Spencer believed.

The same can't be said, however, for the progressive reformers who lined up against him. Take University of Wisconsin economist John R. Commons, one of the crusading figures that Hofstadter praised for opposing laissez-faire and sharing "a common consciousness of society as a collective whole rather than a congeries of individual atoms." In his book Races and Immigrants in America (1907), Commons described African Americans as "indolent and fickle" and endorsed protectionist labor laws since "competition has no respect for the superior races."

Similarly, progressive darling Theodore Roosevelt held that the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote, was "a mistake," since the black race was "two hundred thousand years behind" the white. Yet despite these and countless other examples of racist pseudo-science being used by leading progressives, Leonard reports that Hofstadter "never applied the epithet 'social Darwinist' to a progressive, a practice that continues to this day."

And that's the trouble. Once Hofstadter's smear took hold, it was an uphill battle to set the record straight. Unfortunately, Leonard's persuasive and compelling article alone won't do the trick. But as an explanation of what really happened to Spencer's reputation and as a resource for those who'd like to learn more about his ideas, it's a great place to start.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor of reason.