Man Versus the State


Writing in Sunday's Washington Post, novelist Louis Bayard reviews Barry Werth's new book, Banquet at Delmonico's, a sort of pop history of Social Darwinism, which draws its title from an 1882 dinner party given in honor of the libertarian social theorist Herbert Spencer at Delmonico's celebrated restaurant in New York. Sadly, though predictably, Bayard regurgitates many of the slurs and falsities that have unfairly dogged Spencer for decades, including this ugly little bit of misrepresentation:

In the scientific community, at least, Darwin's theory has withstood nearly 150 years of rigorous scrutiny. Time has not been so kind, however, to the Social Darwinists. We have Spencer to thank for coining the term "survival of the fittest," but what he really meant was survival of the finest. He opposed any government interference in business or society because it would keep unsound specimens from being weeded out. (He himself was notably frail.) His paeans to the Aryan race no longer have the quasi-scientific panache they once did, and now that the fever glow of evolution has passed, we may find it easier to question his starting assumption.

I'm guessing that Bayard—like most of Spencer's critics—hasn't bothered reading anything that Spencer actually wrote. If he had, it would be pretty hard to type something as outrageously false as Spencer composing "paeans to the Aryan race." As I explained in this article, the defamation of Spencer started with Richard Hofstadter's 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought and is still going strong today:

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.