All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1973

Herbert Spencer: Apostle of Liberty

Like any era one would care to mention, the last half of the Nineteenth Century offered a fair field for the votaries of Statism. The evil effects of the Industrial Revolution, especially in the country of its origin, England, effects of long hours and little pay, of factories dangerous and unhealthful, of woman and child labor in those factories, of squalid industrial towns, of workmen reduced to the level of automatons, combined with ever-present ignorance, disease, and poverty to complete a picture of misery for much of the British population. The situation demanded a remedy. Then, as now, the agent of deliverance, the deux ex machina, was thought to be the State. England’s ills were perceived not as the result of a natural and inevitable friction between waning agricultural life and an emerging industrial life, not as the symptoms of a society in the throes of a profound and difficult transition, but rather as the wages of a political sin of omission. Correct that omission, it was said in effect, pass enough laws, the implicit argument ran, and human suffering would vanish.

Men of all political stripes, from the Liberal Gladstone to the Tory Disraeli succumbed to the pleasant vision of a nation where laws would provide the solution to every problem. The motives of these men were doubtless pure. They were decent men who were shocked at the conditions they saw and tried to relieve them. They were good men, but they were misguided men. They vastly overestimated the law’s properties to heal, to cure, to make right. Sadly, they could not foresee liberty, a delicate thing, being ground under the heel of an unrestricted State.

There were indeed few people willing to challenge the logic and correctness of their society’s direction, and fewer still who realized its peril. The occasional cries raised in defense of individual freedom were drowned out in the clamor for more and ever more State intervention. Questions concerning the future of freedom under an accelerating State power were infrequently entertained, and more often than not completely ignored. Nonetheless, rare though the voices of liberty were, they did exist. Of those voices, the most tireless and influential was the great English philosopher, Herbert Spencer.

Darwin’s Influence

Spencer, a contemporary and friend of Darwin, is best known to posterity as the thinker who based an entire philosophic system — his “Synthetic Philosophy” — upon the theory of evolution. Scarcely less significant, but far less well-known, are the contributions which he made to political thought, chiefly in the form of two books, Social Statics (1850), and The Man vs. The State (1884). For it was in those works that Spencer registered a vigorous dissent from the prevailing dogma and expressed his deep and abiding antipathy — what he called his “profound aversion” — to the unchecked extension of State authority. And it was in those pages too that Spencer, in a lonely sixty year advocacy, championed the rights of the individual, laissez-faire, and a classical liberalism.

These several strains of Spencer’s political faith are easily discerned throughout Social Statics, at once the more theoretical and more satisfying of the two books. Whereas The Man vs. The State elaborates on certain points raised in the earlier work, thus forming a kind of appendix to it, Social Statics presents the Spencerian view of government in toto. Its wide range encompasses speculations upon the origin and purpose of government, the nature and extent of individual rights, and the proper (and improper) functions of the State. The latter portions of the book, devoted to a discussion of such timely issues of the day as poor relief, national education, sanitation and health laws, regulation of commerce and currency, postal services, and State churches, seek to relate practical concerns to the theories and principles previously laid down.

The argument contained in Social Statics, and it can be said without much fear of overstatement, Spencer’s whole political philosophy, rests on the “law of equal freedom.” The law reads: “Every man has freedom to all he wills provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” In other words, a man has freedom to act so long as his actions remain within the boundaries set up by the corresponding equal freedom of all other men. Spencer notes what he feels will be the objections to the principle, namely either “that men have no rights,” or “that they have unequal rights.” The first assumption, Spencer says, leads to the doctrine that countenances absolute monarchy or a dictatorship, i.e., “might makes right.” That men should have unequal claims to freedom, or rights in proportion to their “merits” Spencer also denies. No way exists for determining what is or is not a merit, and there is no authority for such a determination were it possible.

In a State of Nature

Here Spencer is speaking of man in a pre-social state where government as such has not yet been established. How and why government came into being is a question Spencer must answer before he can proceed to the all-important problem of the State’s lawful and moral limits. Probably, Spencer thinks, the State originated in a single individual, superior in some way to the individuals around him. The superior person keeps (exactly how, Spencer does not say) the group or tribe together, and for this he is revered by the other members of the community. As civilization advances men begin to assert what they feel to be their rights, until they finally reach a state “under which their rights will be entire and inviolable.” But why did men originally enter a social arrangement? Spencer answers thus:

… they found it preferable to the isolated one; which means that they obtained a greater sum total of gratification under it; which means that it afforded them fuller exercise for their faculties; which means that it offered a safer guarantee for such exercise —more security for their claims to life and property; that is, for their rights.

If this is the reason for the formation of society, then the duties of the State should reflect it. If men entered the social state for the better protection of their lives, liberty, and property, then it is the function of government to act first as a police force against aggression from within and without, punishing criminal acts and defending the nation from foreign invasion, and second as an administrator of justice, adjudicating the unavoidable conflicts that arise among imperfect human beings. The State creates no rights, but only the atmosphere wherein the citizen may exercise what rights he will without infringing the equal exercise of others.

The Law of Equal Freedom

The benefits issuing from the State’s correct maintenance of security and justice, are, unlike the false “rights” that the State attempts to bestow, indivisible. That is to say, they are not granted to one segment of the population at the expense of another. They are, or should be, available to all. The degree to which they inhibit liberty is offset by the degree to which they make possible a climate where liberty can flourish. Finally, they are the only functions the State may undertake consistent with the law of equal freedom — the law of free men. And if the State endeavors to expand this limited sphere, if it essays to provide more than is necessary for the safety of the citizenry and the rights of the citizenry, it transgresses doubly, first against the law of equal freedom, and secondly against the purpose for which the State itself was established, the protection of freedom. For this reason is the law of equal freedom particularly valuable as a dictum of absolute justice and as a gauge for the rightness and wrongness of legislation.

Spencer vehemently denies that the State should interfere in commerce. An Adam Smith free-trader, he opposes any regulation of the market — whether in the form of “artificial stimuli or artificial restraints.” The first, assuming the shape of bounties to encourage production, are wrong because they require more of the citizen’s property than is needed to maintain his physical protection and his rights. “Artificial restraints” are likewise improper since they directly violate the individual’s right of free exchange with other individuals.

Separation of Church and State

Neither may the State legitimately tax the people in order to set up a State-church. By doing so, Spencer believes, the State presupposes its own infallibility while simultaneously restricting the freedom of the individual to use his faculties. Furthermore, any disagreement with church doctrine would compel the State to outlaw and punish religious non-conformity, a fact which Spencer, the descendant of a long line of Dissenters, could appreciate.

Obviously the State may no more institute laws for the relief of the poor than it may intervene in matters of trade or religion. Why? Because here again it infringes on individual freedom and exceeds its proper powers as the guardian of life, liberty, and property. Spencer recognizes and meets head on the argument which says that by providing aid to the poor the State is actually increasing the freedom of action of the poor, however much it may be reducing the freedom of the man who pays for poor relief. Spencer answers: “Cutting away men’s opportunities one side, to add to them on another, is at best accompanied by a loss.” The State, he argues, can only guarantee the freedom of a person to act to the fullest extent of his rights, bounded, as always, by the equal freedom of other men. Within a confined area the State may aid in the pursuit of happiness, but it cannot assure that happiness will be attained. That is up to the individual and how he uses his freedom.

How Much Is Enough?

Spencer argues further that even if one grants that aid to the poor should be supplied, it would be impossible to decide its amount. He notes that even among the proponents of “poor-laws” there is considerable divergence of opinion as to what constitutes a suitable “maintenance.”

One thinks that a bare subsistence is all that can be fairly demanded. Here is another who hints at something beyond mere necessaries. A third maintains that a few of the enjoyments of life should be provided for. And some of the more consistent, pushing the doctrine to its legitimate result, will rest satisfied with nothing short of community of property.

This passage has a special relevance for our own day, as we hear the debate over the correct amount, but never the propriety, of a guaranteed annual income.

Other Interventions Deplored

Finally, Spencer says the State has no right to educate, to satisfy the mental needs of the population, any more than it has the right to satisfy the population’s physical needs through State-run charities. The State may not colonize, since this violates the rights of native peoples, nor can it shoulder the burden for public health, except, interestingly enough, in matters of air and water pollution. Last of all, State action in currency arrangements and postal services are both forbidden as transgressions of the individual’s freedom of association and action.

The views which Spencer enunciated in Social Statics changed little throughout the remaining fifty years of his life. The same unwavering devotion to individual liberty, the same unflagging espousal of freedom that marked that book can be found in The Man vs. The State, Spencer’s second important work of political philosophy.

Although the ultimate intent of The Man vs. The State is the same as Social Statics, the approach is somewhat different. Spencer always referred to himself as a liberal and to his philosophy of government as liberalism. He was speaking, of course, of classical liberalism, of the liberalism exemplified by men like John Locke. About 1860, liberalism of the type that Locke represented underwent a fundamental change. No longer content with merely overseeing a negative government which allowed a broad area for personal freedom, the Liberal party in England forsook its guiding ideals to wholly embrace State intervention. Spencer himself never wearied of pointing out to these “new” liberals how far they had strayed from true liberalism, and how greatly their notion of liberalism differed from his own. A sizable part of the lesson he read to the liberals of his time, that the so-called liberals of the present would do well to ponder, is The Man vs. The State.

The first essay in the book pointedly expresses Spencer’s disenchantment with the transfiguration of liberalism. Entitled, “The New Toryism,” it not only charges the Liberal party with abandoning its own basic precepts, but also with adopting those of the opposition Tory party. While liberalism had always stood for individual rights, voluntary cooperation, and a regime of contract, toryism, from the beginning, had stood for privilege, compulsory cooperation, and a regime of status. Spencer accounts for the exchange of ideologies this way:

The gaining of a popular good, being the external conspicuous trait common to Liberal measures in earlier days (then in each case gained by a relaxation of restraints), it has happened that the popular good has come to be sought by Liberals, not as an end to be indirectly gained by relaxations of restraints, but as the end to be directly gained.

The consequences and efficacy of liberal lawmaking, from acts regulating the railroads to laws preventing the sale of beer on Sundays, are considered by Spencer in the four essays following “The New Toryism.” In “The Coming Slavery” he reflects on the inability of politicians to see beyond the immediate ramifications of their actions. Pursuing the public welfare through “humanitarian” legislation (such as poor-laws), legislators, knowingly or unknowingly, move a society toward State-tyranny, or as Spencer calls it in “From Freedom to Bondage,” a military regime which uses force, or the threat of force to achieve its ends.

Whether or not legislators have the competence, much less the right, to execute the immense responsibilities they are constantly taking on, and whether laws are the best and only ways of solving society’s problems, Spencer questions in “The Sins of Legislators” and “Over-Legislation.” The needless, oppressive, or simply bad laws so often enacted by a “slow, stupid, extravagant, and unadaptive” officialdom do not simply fail, but frequently worsen the situation they were designed to relieve. And, the more they fail, the louder is the demand that they be multiplied.

Divine Right of Majorities

The Man vs. The State closes with “The Great Political Superstition.” In the past, the superstition was the divine right of kings, and in the present it is the divine right of majorities, the divine right of parliaments. Spencer cautions against seeing the proximate good in any widening of State-power and ignoring the ultimate evil that such a widening would bring about. Failure to do this, he says, will produce a state like that which preceded the French Revolution, when there was “so excessive a regulation of men’s actions in all their details… that life was fast becoming impracticable.” He recapitulates the theme of “The New Toryism” with the final lines: “The function of Liberalism in the past was that of putting a limit to the power of kings. The function of true Liberalism in the future will be that of putting a limit to the power of Parliaments.”

The more than eighty years that have passed since Spencer wrote those words have done nothing to undermine, and everything to vindicate his warnings. What he stated in Social Statics and The Man vs. The State affronted the Statist orthodoxy of his time as it affronts the Statist orthodoxy of ours. It is not so important whether Spencer’s work had any effect on slowing State-socialism, for he did not expect that it would. What is important is that he spoke for liberty when he felt liberty was threatened. For that, he will not be forgotten.