Mr. Spencer Versus the State

Spencer Was a Symbol of Laissez-Faire Liberalism


Filed Under : Collectivism, Interventionism

Herbert Spencer, who would have been 178 years old in April, is a hero of mine. Spencer made himself the very symbol of laissez-faire liberalism in late nineteenth-century England and the United States. He was so much the symbol that he was regularly attacked by the intellectuals who wanted to replace laissez faire—imperfectly as it had developed—with collectivism. This was when the term liberalism began to become the label for interventionism. Spencer watched events with horror. It wasn’t just that the label was changing. Liberals were changing. In “The New Toryism” (in The Man Versus the State), Spencer observed that “Most of those who now pass as Liberals, are Tories of a new type.” The New Tories, Spencer said, were former classical liberals who confused rectifying state-generated evil, which was the liberal legacy, with achieving good. The mixed-up liberals came to think that their mission was to use coercive methods to bring about the good directly, rather than leaving people free to achieve their own good. He catalogued the interventions of Prime Minister Gladstone, whom history treats as one of the great liberal leaders of Great Britain. The phenomenon of statists in liberal clothing is not unknown in contemporary American politics.

A despairing Spencer, witnessing “The Coming Slavery” (also in The Man Versus the State), said in 1885 that he would no longer write about politics: “The wave of opinion carrying us toward socialism and utter subordination of the individual is becoming irresistible.”

How difficult it must have been for the grand old liberal to watch the world move from the edge of liberty, laissez faire, and universal progress toward the abyss of collectivism. He died in 1903, spared the agony of witnessing that triumph of statism, World War I. When the freedom philosophy is fully restored to its rightful place in the public’s thinking, Mr. Spencer will assuredly regain the respect he deserves.

* * *The free market cannot support basic medical and scientific research. There’s a common refrain. Aaron Steelman, however, demonstrates that, like so much that we “know,” it ain’t so.

In our continuing observance of the centennial of the birth of FEE founding president Leonard E. Read, we reprint his classic “On That Day Began Lies,” in which Mr. Read exposes the dangers of all kinds of collectivist thinking.

What’s the harm in a town building an ice-skating rink? George Leef offers an instructive lesson in the ways of local interest-group politics.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe society must be designed and those who grasp the idea of undesigned order. The distinction is crucial, as Wendy McElroy shows us.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune.” So said the Supreme Court, more or less, in a 1942 landmark case about a farmer who wanted to grow wheat for his own consumption. Jeffrey Snyder points out that the case is usually misinterpreted by freedom’s advocates. Its real lesson makes it even more important.

After decades of federal meat inspection, consumers still need to worry about bacteria in their steaks and chops. How could that be? E. C. Pasour puts government inspection under a microscope and finds it tainted.

If all goes as planned, we will be required to have federally approved photo identification cards complete with personal information. Of course, it’s for our own protection. Is it, asks Claire Wolfe?

We introduce a new column this month: Dwight Lee’s “Economic Notions.” In each issue, Lee will discuss a concept key to economics. He begins, appropriately enough, by explaining what interests economists.

Herbert Dow wanted to sell bromine in Europe. The powerful bromine cartel said no. Guess who won? Burton Folsom tells the story of courage and ingenuity.

In this month’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” Charles Baird decries the law that permits union agents to infiltrate and sabotage private companies.

Lawrence Reed revisits the landmark Beck decision. Doug Bandow looks at the positive side of deficits. And Mark Skousen has good news for devotees of Austrian economics.

Book reviews this month take up such matters as children’s economic sense, the values of decent people, and free trade.


—Sheldon Richman

Note: In my February article, “Reading the Second Amendment,” I neglected to credit J. Neil Schulman for my knowledge of the letter on punctuation from the American Law Division of the Library of Congress. It is reproduced in his book Stopping Power.


May 1998



Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and, and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families.

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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