Libertarian History/Philosophy

Herbert Spencer, "Agnostic, Libertarian Hypochondriac"


The popular sci-fi blog io9 has published a long and mostly positive profile of the libertarian political philosopher and social theorist Herbert Spencer. Given that most mainstream accounts of Spencer smear him as heartless villain who wanted to let the rich feast on the poor, this is a surprising and welcome story from an unexpected source. Here's a snippet:

In general, Spencer's positive reputation is as the coiner of "survival of fittest" and as the popularizer of Darwin. His negative reputation comes from his attempts to wed these ideas to society at large. Social Darwinism—the term generally applied to Spencer's sociological efforts—is often thought of as apologism for the wealthy, as it says those who are successful in society are those best-adapted to it, meaning the poor are less fit to survive in society.

It's an understandable misconception, and other philosophers have advanced ideas more along those lines, but that wasn't really what Spencer was driving at. The main focus of his social evolution was focused on the state itself, which he basically believed evolved first to give society structure, and then withered away as the members of that society were sufficiently evolved to do without it. (This is, like most paragraph-long summaries of a lifetime's work, something of an oversimplification. But it will do for our purposes.)

As we previously mentioned, his writings proved staggeringly popular, and he became the most famous philosopher of the Victorian Age. He became an international inspiration for revolutionary groups looking for an innovative system that could replace their failed states, and his ideas were influential in various movements as far away as Poland, China, and Japan. No less than Charles Darwin called him "twenty times my superior."

You can read the whole profile here. Previous Reason writings on Spencer are available here.

Thanks to Roderick Long for the link.

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  1. Thanks to Roderick Long for the link.

    Thanks to Roderick Long for bringing Spencer to my attention in the first place, at a seminar around 15 years ago.

    I love me some Spencer.

    1. Damn! More books to read. I am digging the reading list I am putting together from Hit & Run.

      1. Man Versus the State, comrade. You can find it free online in PDF form, probably over at the Von Mises Institute.

  2. Social Darwinism – the term generally applied to Spencer’s sociological efforts – is often thought of as apologism for the wealthy, as it says those who are successful in society are those best-adapted to it, meaning the poor are less fit to survive in society.

    Undeniable, with one clarification: That you measure success relative to where one started, rather than relative to everybody else’s position. Furthermore, if you have to make the cross comparisons, at any period in time the better adapted are gravitating to the top, while the less adapted are gravitating toward the bottom.

    1. Yes – that is why Buffett/Gates prefer large estate taxes in their belief in the USA as the last meritocracy.

      1. Is not one Buffet’s business’s setting up insurance and trust funds to the wealthy in order to avoid estate taxes? Yes, I believe it is.

    2. I though Spencer himself stated that there are no limits to who are fit to survive?

  3. I am a Hume/Spinoza/Locke/T. Jefferson liberal. Darwin provided the science to support their ideas so this Spencer guy gets cred with me – especially since he was a Utilitarian.

    1. You are part of the Sockpuppet Alliance and a troll.

      1. Who am I allied with?

        It would help me to know that bit of info.

      2. He’s not on any of our lists…

        1. He’s at the top of ours.

      3. Does this mean you view yourself as the Darth Vader of Hit & Run? I note for the record that the quote is from his cool period, when he wasn’t some whiny kid.

        1. I find your lack of faith disturbing, ProL.

          1. I just don’t want to go around believing you’re the Hit & Run Sith Lord, then have you be revealed as an annoying, implausible person in the prequels.

            1. And the Jedi that I admire most/
              met up with Darth Maul, and now he’s toast
              I’m alive, and he’s a ghost/
              I guess I’ll teach…this boy.

              1. I enjoyed Weird Al’s Star Wars period.

                1. Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design, ProL. Your friends, up there on H&R, are walking into a trap of Weird Al references, as is Warty’s fleet.

                  1. Look, you can’t be Darth Vader and the Emperor. Wishy-washiness doesn’t become a Sith Lord.

                    Where’s Naga? He understands such things.

                    1. Wishy-washy?!? Vader + Emperor is the best of both worlds! You get to be super cool like Episodes IV-VI Vader, plus you are super ultra powerful and run everything like the Emperor.

                    2. The emperor was a loser. In fact, even in the prequels, it’s pretty clear that just about every Jedi could defeat him, head to head. Crap, Samuel L. Jackson would’ve kicked his ass if whiny boy hadn’t interfered for reasons that still escape me.

              2. Now the killer was smiling
                With nerves made of stone
                He climbed the stairs
                And the gallows groaned
                And the people’s hearts were pounding
                They were throbbing, they were red
                As he swung out over the crowd
                I heard the hangman said
                We’re all gonna be
                Just dirt in the ground

                Now Cain slew Abel
                He killed him with a stone
                The sky cracked open
                And the thunder groaned
                Along a river of flesh
                Can these dry bones live?
                Ask a king or a beggar
                And the answer they’ll give
                Is we’re all gonna be
                Yea yeah
                We’re all gonna be just
                Dirt in the ground

          2. How can I be in an alliance?

            No one here likes me!

            1. No one here likes me!

              Our hearts are filled with sorrow for your grief.

              Anyway you being a stringent believer in Darwinian evolution I am somewhat perplexed that you would not expect us to dislike someone who constantly attacks us. Defense against attack is a fairly common adaptation.

              How many run of the mill libertarian atheists have you called “Christfag” in the past year on this blog?

              50? 100?

              How many run of the mill libertarians have witnessed you doing this?

              500? 1000?

        2. Given the quote, wouldn’t that mean if Episarch is Vader, then shrike is his daughter?

    2. I am a Hume/Spinoza/Locke/T. Jefferson liberal.

      No one cares.

  4. Thats not really making a whole lot of sense dude.

  5. All I want out of this is a SugarFree rant on the sucktasticness of io9.

    1. Sugerfree like all good scifi geek hipsters reads the SF Signal blog and as such hates io9 as posers.

    2. Just go read it and you’ll come up with your own rant, trust me.

  6. Can we blame the shallow power suckup, Richard Hofstadter? A true consensus crank.


  7. No less than Charles Darwin called him “twenty times my superior.

    No doubt the left ignores this fact when they bitch about small government proponents.

    I do find it interesting that Darwin did comment on classical liberal political philosophers. I wonder if there is more.

    Was Darwin a libertarian?

    1. Funny! Darwin is a hero to liberals and an enemy of conservatives.

      1. Because they think Darwin said “progress is good.”

        1. Even funnier that Shrike thinks Darwin who sailed under a British flag and was schooled in theology and argued his points formally at Oxford was not a member of the establishment and therefor opposed conservatives.

          1. Darwin represents the abandonment of Conservatism – and the new reality of naturalism much like Thomas Harding and Thoreau did later.

            The fact the he was an educated elite is irrelevant. Still today, idiots like Beck/Limpdick hate Darwin. Conservatism is dying, pal. It is a relic and Fat Rush is our modern day Savanorola.

            1. Creationism is not conservatism.

              The Pope long ago said Darwinian evolution does not conflict with biblical text.

              Furthermore many creationists do not have a problem with natural selection as it is readily provable…they have a problem with species diverging through natural selection.

              Furthermore many of the founders were deists who specifically believe in a creator who created the universe and then left it to its own. Although the founders lived before Darwin I find it interesting that their core belief would allow them to believe in Creationism and be able to believe in evolution.

              Anyway not only is your definition of conservatives misguided and oblique but you understanding of the conflicts between creationism and evolution are polar and misinformed.

              On a random guess i would also say that you do not understand the theory of evolution and are probably incapable of describing it accurately let alone are you able to understand its implications.

              1. To be (gag) fair to Shriek, while you present an accurate portrayal of what many conservatives believe (in regards to evolution), there is a vocal “young earth” component to christianity which completely disavows all possibility of natural selection and evolution.

                I had only ever read about them before it turns out this dude I’m friends with, and his brother, are adherents to this belief. They completely deny that carbon dating, or any science which indicates that the earth is more than ~5,500 years old, is valid. Dinosaurs were tame and lived side-by-side with cavemen, there was a “water canopy” that gave people super-powers, etc.

                I’m sure this by no means represents the majority of regular christians out there, but they do exist, even in relatively “mainstream” baptist and methodist churches.

                1. Also, at the risk of starting an evolution debate, I must fix this statement as well-

                  “many creationists do not have a problem with natural selection as it is readily provable…they have a problem with species diverging through natural selection, meaning they don’t completely understand the theory of evolution since “species diverging through natural selection” is the definition of evolution.

                  And to preempt any stupid “but where is the evidence” garbage, I give this link.


                  1. meaning they don’t completely understand the theory of evolution since “species diverging through natural selection” is the definition of evolution.

                    I was specifically saying that one can believe in natural selection without believing in it leading to species diverging.

                    ie there are Christians who can readily see that natural selection occurs but deny that it was the method by which species diverged.

                    Also should note that Spencer himself, as indicated in the io9 article, recoiled initially by the directionless nature of natural selection. He thought evolution was tied with progress and the ultimate creation of the ultimate man.

                    Natural Selection specifically forbids this funny idea.

                    Anyway the point of my whole discussion was to show Shrike that there is a vast gray area in belief over creationism and evolution. And to demonstrate that his Black and White assessment is juvenile and uninformed.

                    1. one can believe in natural selection without believing in it leading to species diverging.

                      Then they don’t understand natural selection.

                      To put it another way, there is ZERO difference in terms of the explanations of the mechanisms between Macro and Micro evolution.

                      The natural selection that, for instance -changes the color of certain types of bird feathers- is due to biologic traits becoming more or less common in a population due to consistent effects upon the survival or reproduction of their bearers. This is the same natural selection that allowed velociraptors to evolve in to the winged animals we see today.

                      There is no difference.

                    2. There is no difference.

                      Bullshit. From from an observational viewpoint I can demonstrate natural selection with a petri dish and some bacteria in less then a day. It is readily provable and demonstrativeable through repeatable experimentation.

                      Now do an experiment that proves man evolved from monkeys.

                      It can’t be done. The evolution of man from monkeys (and yes I understand that man did not evolve from monkeys but evolved from a common ancestor but fuck it that common ancestor looked an awful like a monkey) is demonstrated through a litany of fossil records and DNA evidence. In other words the division of species through evolution cannot be demonstrated through repeatable experimentation…cuz the shit happened by chance over a time span of millions of years…..because of these limitations it is much easier to deny.

                      Secondly the history of the theory of evolution through natural selection does bifurcate the two.

                      There was a theory of evolution that predates Darwin’s theory that thought that parents passed on adaptations acquired during their lifetimes and that evolution was pseudonymous with progress.

                      The io9 article speaks to this and if you have not read it then I suggest that you do.

                    3. Joshua,

                      You’re missing my point. The mechanisms that allow natural selection to happen in your day old petri-dish are the same ones that allowed humans to evolve from common primate ancestors. Just because one takes hundreds of thousands of years to happen doesn’t mean it’s completely different, just that it takes longer. But either way it’s happening for the same reason.

                      I’m not sure you understand this.

                  2. I demand to see a croc-o-duck.

                    1. I demand to see a croc-o-duck.

                      Watch Jurassic Park.

                2. I’m sure this by no means represents the majority of regular christians out there, but they do exist, even in relatively “mainstream” baptist and methodist churches.

                  I understand that there are “those” types of Christians.

                  But in their defense there is nothing preventing one of “those” types from understanding the fundamentals of natural selection. It is fascinating to understand the natural history of life on our planet and evolution’s role in that history…still when you come right down to it it is natural selection that has the most utility and if you can understand and apply it you are well over 50% there.

                  I have more intellectual respect for one of “those” Christians who can actually describe natural selection and its implications then I do Shrike and his dismissive hatred.

                  1. And even further, it really doesn’t matter to 90% of the people in this world. It’s amazing how wrong all sorts of people are about all sorts of “truths” when their life doesn’t depend on those facts. For good reason, evolution has become a locus for these disputes, but it really really doesn’t matter. In the end.

  8. For some reason I often mix up Herbert Spenser with Jeremy Bentham… who if I remember correctly was kind of a dick,

    I had a similar strange problem when I was 12 distinguishing between Gene Hackman and Dabney Coleman.

    1. I had a similar strange problem when I was 12 distinguishing between Gene Hackman and Dabney Coleman.

      Who is the dick of your Hackman/Coleman match up?

      1. Well, not a dick, I suppose, but Gene Hackman is certainly the vastly superior actor.

        I think i’d probably seen more of Coleman than Hackman at my young age… Like Barnaby Jones, Tootsie…. this =

        I definitely identified with the kid with the imaginary spy-friend and who real spy-terrorists were trying to kill. Not kill the imaginary friend; I mean the kid. Although that would have been a cool twist if they did kill the imaginary friend with an imaginary poison dart or something.

        …I think whenever I saw Hackman, I think I was convinced Dabney Coleman had shaved. And had greatly improved as an actor.

        1. Actually, given a real role, Coleman is quite a good actor. You’re just thinking of him in goofy roles like 9 to 5 and Cloak and Dagger.

          1. Word.

            Also, I was double checking, and I’m not sure Jeremy Bentham was actually a dick.

            His position included arguments in favour of individual and economic freedom, usury, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts.[2] He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children.[3] Although strongly in favour of the extension of individual legal rights, he opposed the idea of natural law and natural rights, calling them “nonsense upon stilts.”

            I think i read about the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish and assumed he was a bit of a fuckstick. But on most counts he generally seems a righteous dude.

    2. My wife continually confused Jack Nicholson with Jack Nicholas. Imagine The Shining with a golf club smashing through the door…or…

      “You can’t handle the 9-iron”

  9. I am a Hume/Spinoza/Locke/T. Jefferson liberal.

    Dude. You’re a libertarian. Let your freak flag fly!

    1. What, shrike? He’s just a troll.

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