Happy Birthday, Herbert Spencer!


Herbert Spencer, the great libertarian philosopher and social theorist, was born on this day in Derby, England in 1820. A classical liberal in the tradition of John Locke and Adam Smith, Spencer championed what he called the "law of equal freedom," which was the idea that "Every man has the freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man."

A brilliant and wide-ranging scholar, Spencer's writings explored political philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, and biology. His The Study of Sociology (1873) served as one of the first sociology textbooks used by an American university while his pioneering theories on evolution preceded those of Charles Darwin.

Yet for all his many accomplishments, Spencer is remembered today mostly as a villain, as a heartless and evil "social Darwinist" who believed the rich should feast on the poor. This false portrait is due largely to the slanderous work of Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter and his first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944). In Hofstadter's account, Spencer was the driving intellectual force behind the pseudo-scientific use of evolution to justify the harshest forms of racial, social, and economic inequality. And according to Hofstadter, the eugenics movement, which advocated forced sterilization and other violent and coercive measures, "has proved to be the most enduring aspect" of Spencer's "tooth and claw natural selection."

But the truth about Spencer is almost the exact opposite of Hofstadter's vile caricature. As I wrote in "The Unfortunate Case of Herbert Spencer":

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.

Happy birthday!