Libertarian History/Philosophy

Herbert Spencer, 'the Most Misunderstood Libertarian'

A new book examines the life and ideas of the proto-libertarian philosopher.


Public Domain

Writing at the Library of Law & Liberty, Alberto Mingardi reviews the new book Herbert Spencer: Legacies, an academic volume featuring a series of essays on the life, ideas, and impact of the proto-libertarian philosopher and social theorist. "A towering figure in Victorian Britain," Mingardi notes, "Spencer was all but forgotten after his death. His works, which taken together form a 'Synthetic Philosophy,' seemed alien to 20th century academics in an age of meticulous specialization. Also his commitment to individual liberty and (seriously) limited government has not been too common in the discipline that he helped establish, sociology." I haven't had a chance to examine the book yet for myself, but Mingardi's mostly positive review certainly makes it sound promising. Here's a snippet:

One of the many take-aways of this book is that Spencer was a far more complex thinker than those who only know him as a diabolical "social Darwinist." Its essays might, for example, open the eyes of those who still have in mind the Herbert Spencer largely manufactured in the 1940s by Richard Hofstadter in a book that made history as a beautifully written and yet quite misleading tirade….

If I had any quibble about this impressive collection, it would be that the propensity to consider The Man Versus the State as "just" a political pamphlet causes the contributors to overlook that this is perhaps the first work whose arguments are truly centered around the notion of unintended consequences. All in all, though, Herbert Spencer: Legacies may foster a better understanding of this seminal thinker and raise yet more interest in his underappreciated writings.

Read the entire review here.

Related: The Unfortunate Case of Herbert Spencer: How a libertarian individualist was recast as a social Darwinist.