History

Happy Birthday, Herbert Spencer!

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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!

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  1. Where’s his tophat and monocle?

    1. He had seriously fantastic muttonchops to compliment his baldness, dude. One doesn’t want to over do it.

  2. “Every man has the freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”

    Sounds good in theory, but in reality it is not so clear what amounts to such an infringement.

    1. Let me rephrase then:
      “Every man has the freedom to do all that he wills, provided he does not make an antenna out of any other man.”

      1. Let me rephrase then:
        “Every man has the freedom to do all that he wills, provided what time is the fish.”

    2. Kicking Dan T. in the balls would clearly not amount to such an infringement.
      I’m just sayin’.

    3. In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.-Yogi Berra

    4. “Given the reputation of the Mildrens, I have decided that if they find us, and I believe they will, we will not be able to prevent them from boarding this ship,” Smith continued. “As your captain, I plan to comply with standard procedure if this happens and employ the suicide switch. As per Federal law, if any of you object to this self-terminating course of action, you may now invoke your Jowtersh rights.”

      As Smith expected, there were no objections.

      “At this point, however, I would like to emphasize that I am not giving up and plan to exhaust every option in order to bring the Nonix to safety. I also welcome any suggestions or ideas.”

      Smith paused. “Because, frankly, I don’t have any myself.”

      An awkward silence followed for the next few seconds, and then Hanngush slowly raised a mechanical arm to speak.

      1. As the door dilated.

      2. Hmm. Is that a cloud of sadness or of sin? It’s certainly a sin to write that poorly, but it also makes the reader sad. I’ll be magnanimous and let you have that one.

      3. “Mommy, where to kitties go when they die? To Heaven?” asked six-year-old Janet Yelton.

        Terri Yelton took a slow drag from her cigarette and exhaled. “Doubt it. They just die and they’re gone. Now shut up.” She was trying to watch her soap operas.

        1. Well Good kittens go to Heaven, and bad kittens go to Warty’s stories.

    5. You’re right. Better get the government to take away all of our freedoms just to be on the safe side.

  3. It would be nice if this and Root’s original article got picked up by the mainstream.

    But I’m not holding my breath.

  4. Wow, I dunno man, thats one old dude.

    Lou
    http://www.anon-vpn.se.tc

  5. “To put it another way, Spencer was a thoroughgoing classical liberal, a principled champion of individual rights in all spheres of human life.”

    Individual rights are a social adaptation that gave us a very real advantage over the competition.

    It’s ironic, I guess, that some of that competition was made up of Social Darwinists, who, for whatever reason, didn’t recognize individual rights as a superior adaptation.

  6. Kicking Dan T. in the balls would clearly not amount to such an infringement.

    It would certainly not be clear to him that getting kicked in the balls was an infringement, apparently. Particularly if the foot doing the kicking was attached to an agent of any majority-approved political elite.

    Since he has 1.5 balls less than the American average, however, the point is moot.

    Strange how the Golden Rule is just so hard for some people to understand.

    1. The Golden Rule doesn’t apply here, as a masochist would have no problem beating you over the head as long as he got some in return.

      1. Yeah, there’s a sociopath in every crowd, but the golden rule doesn’t exactly make criminal law impossible. And why would we construct a society geared towards controlling a few oddballs? That’s jut not the overwhelming majority…

        For most people, the reason they don’t go around raping and pillaging has nothing to do with criminal law.

        Just speaking for yourself, is the only thing stopping you from killing people and stealing their money the fear of being caught?

        1. That’s not the only thing but it’s a pretty major factor I think.

          1. Dan T has just explained his philosophy. The fear of being caught is a “main factor” for him to not rape and kill others. No wonder he fears freedom.

            1. Heh. No, I’m not wandering around looking for people to rape and kill but if I could take your money without fear of prosecution I would possibly try to do it.

              1. The liberal mindset in a nutshell.

              2. I’m not an anarchist, but even the anarchists have ways of dealing with criminal behavior.

                You understand that, right?

                You haven’t defeated over a century of anarchist thought–no one’s saying “Doh! Criminal Behavior! It exposes everything we believe in as a farce! Why didn’t we think of that before Dan showed up?!”

              3. The last time a cargo ship had attempted an emergency docking there, in fact, the Nyr-Roimms blasted it to bits with a beewtryl cannon.

              4. Government!

              5. if I could take your money without fear of prosecution I would possibly try to do it.

                Well shit, at least know we’re fully aware of the kind of scumbag we’re dealing with.

                I will say I appreciate your – forthrightness (as “honesty” seems inappropriate here).

                Gotta wonder what kind of parenting you had.

            2. It’s the fallback position of many anti-liberty assholes. If we are but slavering beats under a thin veneer of civilization, then even the most chafing collar is appropriate.

              1. *beasts* [sigh]

                1. So you weren’t referring to Allen Ginsberg?

                  1. Sadly, no. I’m not commenting, I’m typing.

                    1. ‘Cause Slavering Beats Under a Thin Veneer of Civilization would be a great name for a book about the mid-50s San Francisco arts scene.
                      And for a rock band. (Peace be upon Dave Barry.)

                    2. “Did you catch the latest SBUTVC show?”
                      “Yeah, man. Their tribute to Nico ruled.”

                    3. Yes, yes, yes.

                2. Heh. No, I’m not wandering around looking for people to rape and kill but if I could take your money without fear of prosecution I would possibly try to do it.

                  Between this comment and SugarFree’s, we get a pretty accurate picture of the statist’s view of humanity. Which also explains why they were able to pervert the views of Spencer – they simply twisted his viewpoint to match their own beliefs about humanity.

    2. Strange how the Golden Rule is just so hard for some people to understand.

      Oh, they somewhat understand it. The problem is they themselves like to be treated in ways offensive to many of us.

    3. If you don’t like getting kicked in the balls, you can just move somewhere where they don’t kick people in the balls.

      1. SOCIAL CONTRACT!

        HURR DURR DURR HURR!

      2. Of course, the libertarian response would be that it is your personal responsbility to protect your balls and others should not have to be coerced into funding said protection…

        1. You confuse libertarians with anarchists…again. The libertarian position is that if someone was unsuccessful in defending their balls against your kick, you can be prosecuted by the state for committing assault. We may vary somewhat on whether or not charges have to be pressed by the victim for the state to bother.

          1. But, but… that leaves me no room to argue at all!

          2. So how do you fund the state, since it costs money to prosecute and punish people?

            1. What libertarians oppose all taxation and/or fee for use? Doing so would mean there is never a government. Libertarians, even minimalists don’t argue that.

          3. How is that an Anarchist position? I think you’re confusing Anarchist with anarchy.

            1. Wouldn’t an anarchist rely on himself or his voluntary assembly with family/friends/neighbors or his wallet for all defenses? What did I get wrong?

        2. Before the crew could leave the bridge, however, a blast rocked the ship. Smith was thrown forward, catching himself on a Pyllinam monitor.

        3. If you watch any type of fighting on TV, this phrase is probably familiar: “Protect yourself at all times.” It’s actually pretty good advice.

      3. And that’s the rub of the modern world… there are increasingly fewer places to move to.

        Federal authority now supercedes state sovereignty – in almost all practical respects – and the Feds are working hard to make every other country in the world equally oppressive, thus reducing the incentive to run.

        Bend over and take it!

  7. The mental pretzels that leftists have to knot themselves in to justify all the rights of self-ownership while excepting the right to property would be hilarious if it didn’t have such disastrous consequences.

  8. The Golden Rule doesn’t apply here, as a masochist would have no problem beating you over the head as long as he got some in return.

    I see nothing in the Golden Rule that precludes self defense, however.

  9. far from being the proto-eugenicist of Hofstadter’s account, Spencer was an early feminist

    The early feminists were eugenicists, mostly. But I’m sure that whatever Hofstader-like misrepresentations it takes to make Spencer sound decent will…uh…do stuff…for…yeah.

    1. The early feminists were eugenicists, mostly.

      The more Progressive among them, yes. Eugenics went together with birth control and abortion; the abstinence-not-abortion suffragettes were generally more focused on alcohol Prohibition than eugenics.

  10. O please, Spencer certainly laid the intellectual ground work for social Darwinism. Sure, his ideas were twisted from a sort of market mechanism for determining what is an is not a desirable social feature, into statist control of the same (AKA eugenics). So not an proto-eugenicist, but the originator of the central premise of social Darwinism (that societies are competing for survival, not an unreasonable idea in of itself). Once you accept this idea, getting to ‘the state must decide in an industrial/medicinal (where meaningful evolution has ceased) society who breeds for the good of the nation/society’ isn’t a big intellectual lift.
    I would say blaming Spencer for eugenics isn’t so different then blaming Marx for soviet-purges.

    1. “So not an proto-eugenicist, but the originator of the central premise of social Darwinism (that societies are competing for survival, not an unreasonable idea in of itself).”

      Again, I’m not a political philosopher, I just go with what works, and I’ve just come to see individual rights as a social adaptation.

      I wish more people would see individual rights as the social adaptation they are.

      “Social Darwinists” didn’t recognize individual rights as a social adaptation, and the societies that didn’t have that feature ended up in the dustbin of history… And they were put there by the society that had that feature!

      It’s one thing to dismiss him as a Social Darwinist, quite another to see him as a Social Darwinist who recognized the greatest social adaptation in the history. Isn’t that the biggest problem with Social Darwinism–the contempt for individual rights? Well he doesn’t seem to have that problem!

      1. Except that, especially in the early to mid-20th Century, everyone thought that regimes based on individual rights were weak and decadent, and would be crushed by regimes based on the magic power of the nation/race/state/working class etc. It took real guts to stand up for individual rights then.

        1. “Except that, especially in the early to mid-20th Century, everyone thought that regimes based on individual rights were weak and decadent, and would be crushed by regimes based on the magic power of the nation/race/state/working class etc.”

          I know that was what the majority thought. And they didn’t have the benefit of seeing a society that featured individual rights shut down Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and then win the Cold War…

          Darwinism solidified in Darwin’s mind while anchored off the Galapagos, as he was reconciling “The Wealth of Nations” with Malthus, then it shouldn’t have been surprising to find that Adam Smith’s invisible hand was at work in societies, making them better, more formidable…

          Indeed, isn’t that the gist of “Theory of Moral Sentiments”?

          The Social Darwinists got lost ’cause they chucked the importance of individual rights out the window, but you can’t blame Adam Smith for that. I don’t know a whole lot about Spencer either, but if he was a champion of individual rights, then I don’t think you can blame him either.

          We certainly don’t have any excuse at all. We saw individual rights tear the Third Reich apart. We saw what a society featuring individual rights did to the Soviet Union.

          …and yet as I look at all the public policy being proposed today, especially by the Obama Administration, it seems that individual rights are being treated as an obstacle. …like a bug rather than a feature. It takes a lot of guts for our leaders to stand up for our rights today, and we don’t have the disadvantage of not seeing how the 20th Century would end.

          We don’t have any excuse.

        2. Except that, especially in the early to mid-20th Century, everyone thought that regimes based on individual rights were weak and decadent, and would be crushed by regimes based on the magic power of the nation/race/state/working class etc.

          Kind of off-topic and not disagreeing with your point about his guts and bravery, but what part of that prediction were they wrong about?

          Maybe it was a softer method of “crushing” – less Stalin and more Sunstein – but we have well moved closer to their vision than the opposite side’s.

      2. I wasn’t trying to dismiss him as a social Darwinist ( I didn’t even call him one), he’s a pretty interesting character, certainly more right then wrong.
        But I would say something similar about Marx. Being more right then wrong doesn’t allow one to pretend like his ‘scientific socialism’, didn’t lead (predictably) to Lennon and Stalin (however much they may differ from what Marx envisioned).

    2. The difference is that purges are the inevitable result of communism followed as Marx proposed.

      Eugenics is not the inevitable result of social competition. You prove this with “the state must decide”. Its a decision.

      1. Spencer’s social competition wasn’t between individuals , it was between nations (German vs English for instance), and importantly wasn’t limited to economic competition (wouldn’t have been a ‘new’ observation). So I think eugenics flow as directly from that, as purges flow from Marx (which I think is fairly easy, just have to ignore 20% of what either said)

    3. Once you accept this idea, getting to ‘the state must decide in an industrial/medicinal (where meaningful evolution has ceased) society who breeds for the good of the nation/society’ isn’t a big intellectual lift.

      Only by rejecting everything that he wrote. So yeah, in the sense that it “isn’t a big intellectual lift” from “liberty_equality_solidarity” to soviet-purges, murdering kulaks , and Pol Pot’s reign of terror in order to preserve “equality.”

  11. Give it up, man. The New Deal scholarship has thoroughly trashed America’s classical scholarship and their memes and falsehoods are now “common knowledge.” Cue the NEW DEAL “saving capitalism” which still won’t die after all the thorough refutation. Now just that, but even economists are loathe to honestly evaluate the period outside of few free-market economists.

    1. You right wing historical revisionists!

      Don’t you remember that, straight after the 1929 crash, President Roosevelt went on nationwide tv and calmed everyone down, preventing the Great Depression?

      1. Yes and an Amtrack in every pot (along with a chicken) too!

  12. Is there anything that dick Hofstadter said that isn’t total bullshit?

  13. So, Hofstadter’s bit on Spencer was as accurate as his drivel on the Paranoid Style?

    I’m starting to think the only reason one needs a familiarity with Hofstadter is to be able to refute him when the usual suspects bring him up.

  14. I’m starting to think the only reason one needs a familiarity with Hofstadter is to be able to refute him when the usual suspects bring him up.

    Ding ding ding!

  15. Well, Hofstadter is useful in another way – if he said it, you know you need to be extra careful before you go believing it.

  16. I was delightfully surprised when I discovered that Spencer’s grave is right across from Marx’s at Highgate cemetary.

    The Man vs. The State is a totally sweet read, by the way. Put it on your reading list if you haven’t read it already. I think the Von Mises Institute has a free PDF posted.

  17. I was delightfully surprised when I discovered that Spencer’s grave is right across from Marx’s at Highgate cemetary.

    Mental note: next time in London, find a pub near Highgate Cemetery, take on a few pints, and find Marx’s grave to offload said pints.

    1. Highgate Cemetary is one of my two favorite attractions in London. Aside from the celebrity deaths, it’s got some delightfully spooky spots.

      My other favorite is the Hunterian Museum. There the corpses (or bits thereof) are right there in the open.

  18. I always mix him and Jeremy Bentham up. Dont ask me why.

  19. I offer a handy rule in dealing with Spencer, which readers of this blog might consider: Do not talk about him if you haven’t read him.

    “Reading Spencer” does not amount to one quick read of THE MAN VERSUS THE STATE.

    That’s where so many have gone so wrong before.

    Spencer was a theorist of social co-operation.

    He carried on the examination (and importance of) empathy (“sympathy”) for social evolution and ethics.

    His basic divisions of ethics are worth talking about.

    Current work in evolutionary psychology may have moved beyond his thought in some areas, but has not caught up to him in others.

    The Dan T. challenge to his Law of Equal Liberty was very much what L.T. Hobhouse articulated. But Spencer had already responded to such criticism in his Principles of Ethics, and I have never seen a leftist critique of the notion ever cite Spencer’s own responses. Lazy. (On their part, not mine.)

    This is not to say Spencer was right and everybody else wrong, but there’s a lot there to chew on, and he was on a better track than state-of-nature type theorizing that so many libertarians seem to prefer.

    Several interesting strains grew off of Spencer’s political thought: the English individualist strain, the American individualist Anarchist strain (Victor S. Yarros, before he sold his soul to FDR), and the Mises-Hazlitt strain . . . to name just three. All are worth our attention. All require a lot more work.

  20. “carried on” the empathy tradition FROM ADAM SMITH, I meant to write.

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