All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 1984

Herbert Spencer: Freedom’s Philosopher

Jerry Millett is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Southwestern Louisiana at Lafayette.

Every broad social movement must have a philosophy behind it, something to give coherence, to explain, to justify, and to encourage. The freedom movement is no different. So in England, over a century and a quarter ago, driven by ideas of progressive liberty, Herbert Spencer published Social Statics: The conditions essential to human happiness specified, and the first of them developed. The book did not attract much attention, and Spencer sustained a loss on its publication. Nevertheless, the book worked its way into the public consciousness in both England and the United States, so much so, that in one famous statement, Justice Holmes protested that his fellow Supreme Court Judges were trying to write Social Statics into the Constitution.

Though plagued by chronic ill health, Spencer continued to turn out major works such as The Principles of Ethics and The Man Versus the State until his death in 1903. The success that finally came his way never turned his head, and the honors offered him were often declined: for example, when it was proposed to award him an honorary university degree (he was mostly self- taught), he turned it down, on the grounds that he did not want his ideas accepted because of the authority behind them, but because they appealed to the reason of the reader.

His beliefs in liberty and progressive development were very controversial during most of his lifetime, and since then his ideas have fallen into decline in public estimation and interest because of the attack of his enemies. He has been identified as the premier “social Darwinist,” which has come to refer to a set of racist, Fascist notions of throwing little old ladies out into the street to starve, on grounds that “survival of the fittest” must be ruthlessly enforced on everyone. In short, the term “social Darwinist” has come to be a term of abuse, with no serious meaning behind it, and no attempt made to discover what “survival of the fittest” might really mean. Generally, the attack on Spencer has been of the personal variety, with one author, for example, even suggesting that Spencer’s philosophy is traceable to his not having access to modern methods of dentistry for treating his bad teeth!

Rediscovering Spencer

Probably this is not the place to sort out the many differences (and similarities) between Spencer and Darwin, nor to make the case for abandoning the “social Darwinist” label: nevertheless, in the past few years, the tide has begun to turn back toward freedom once again, as Spencer recognized it would, so it may be time to rediscover Spencer, to make use of his stalwart defense of civilization, progress, and liberty.

Indeed, his quality as a prophet can be mentioned first of all: writing in his Autobiography, Spencer saw in 1889 the demolishing of much of the freedom of the industrial revolution and the “. . . immense development of public administrations and the corresponding subordination of citizens—a system of industries carried on under universal State-regulation—a new tyranny eventually leading to new resistances and emancipations.”[1] With the new movements toward deregulation, lids on taxes, and even tax cuts, we seem now to be at a time when our generation’s “resistances and emancipations” are developing. If we are to achieve substantial gains in human freedom, we must have some idea of where we come from philosophically and where we are going practically, which means we must understand ourselves and our fellow beings better, in order to convince them of the rightness of liberty. Spencer’s analysis can help us do these things.

To begin: human society is a changing thing. We live under far different circumstances, with different requirements than we did in hunting tribes, 10,000 years ago. Back then, a constant state of militancy, a stage of continual struggle, tribe against tribe, tribe against nature, was necessary for survival. That is no longer true today. We can no longer live successfully as barbarians, prepared to wage war against one and all for the benefit of our tribe. And if this seemed clear to Spencer as early as the 1850s, how evident it must be to us today, with the threat of nuclear war looming over us! Today, we need a far more peaceful way of life if we are to survive.

But if our way of life must be far different, one thing is constant: however organized, society is necessary-we are social beings. And, Spencer points out:


. . . social life must be carried on by either voluntary co-operation or compulsory co-operation: or, to use Sir Henry Maine’s words, the system must be that of contract or that of status; that in which the individual is left to do the best he can by his spontaneous efforts and get success or failure according to his efficiency, and that in which he has his appointed place, works under coercive rule, and has his apportioned share of food, clothing, and shelter.[2]

The organization by contract, industrialism, free enterprise, that is, the peaceful social state, is the new social condition to which human beings must adapt themselves if they are to survive (and this, by the way, is all the “survival of the fittest” means): yet the character of these beings still retains elements from the preceding, barbaric, state. Thus a conflict is inevitable between the requirement of peace, with its voluntary cooperation which characterizes the new social state toward which we are heading, and the still existing set of ideas and beliefs with their tendencies toward violence and militancy, the marks of barbarism.

The Peaceful Society

How do we identify the peaceful society of the future? It is a society in which people are happy, because they are fulfilling their desires, and their desires do not involve the physical harming of the liberty of others. This is a society in which the law of equal freedom is recognized and followed. This is “. . . the general proposition that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man.”[3] And when we have reached the point where people generally obey this law, we will have reached genuine civilization: few, if any, barbarous traits will remain in the species.

The particular instances in which people act—creating or trading goods or services, speaking, writing, and the like—are cases of rights, a right being just a particular exam-pie of the general principle of equal freedom, and Spencer gives a number of these examples in Social Statics. If this law of equal freedom is correct, it can help us define what these specific instances of rights are, and we need not go and look up every reference in Spencer on the subject.

For example, I am a teacher: do I have a right to teach? In a sense, yes. I certainly have a right to stand on my property, and say what I choose, and if I choose to discuss elementary arithmetic, I may do so, as this is clearly part of my right of free speech, as it interferes with no one’s equal freedom. But this does not mean that I have a right to compel someone to set up a school for me to teach in—that would be an interference with his use of his property, nor does it mean that I can force students to attend my classes, for that would be an interference with their rights. All the parties to the arrangement, the owner of the prospective school, the teacher, the students, must come together willingly, under terms acceptable to all.

Turn the proposition around a bit: it is sometimes said that there is a “right to education.” But refer this presumed right back to the law of equal freedom and it can be seen as no right at all. If Joe and Sally wish to be educated, say, in the doctrines of Plato, and I know a good deal about Plato, if they have a right to education, they may compel me to teach them, which would be clearly damaging to my freedom to do as I wish with my time and energy. If Joe and Sally are to become knowledgeable in the doctrines of Plato, they must come to me and together we must compromise and cooperate voluntarily if no one’s rights are to be violated.

This also serves to make the point about government schools and taxes for education. Says Spencer:

Inasmuch as the taking away, by government, of more of a man’s property than is needful for maintaining his rights is an infringement of his rights and therefore a reversal of the government’s function toward him, and inasmuch as the taking away of his property to educate his own or other people’s children is not needful for the maintaining of his rights, the taking away of his property for such a purpose is wrong.[4]

Yes, of course it is good for parents to educate their children, but for a parent not to do so is no breach of the law of equal freedom. Moreover, what we generally find, when this is called into question, is not that parents refuse to educate their children, but that they do so in ways the majority do not approve. To allow the State the power to control education, to force people to accept State schools for their children, and to force people to pay for these schools, is to give the State the power to force dissident schools to close down, a not uncommon happening even in this country in this time. The number of fundamentalist Protestant schools harassed by government functionaries seems to be growing, and the trouble can even extend to the university level, as seen in the difficulties faced by Grove City College recently.

To say that the government should educate our children is to say that government must decide what the goal of education is, and government commonly decides that the goal is to turn out good (that is, obedient) citizens, who believe everything that government tells them. Moreover, with government schools, every question of ethics, common sense, science and religion becomes a political question, to be settled by majority vote, with the consequent damage to the opinions of the minority. Should there be prayer in the schools? In government schools it becomes a political question, rather than being left to the parents, teachers, administrators, owners and children of particular schools, to decide on the basis of their beliefs and interests. Should evolution be taught? The same problems develop, and certainly neither evolution nor scientific creationism are political questions, yet they are handled in political ways.

Finally, it is sometimes said that parents don’t know what good education is, and therefore someone wiser, some government administrator, must force the matter upon them. The foolishness of this can be immediately seen if one notes that these government administrators cannot decide on prayer or non-prayer, evolution or creationism, and therefore, the whole community is likely drawn into the dispute, and a political settlement is, after much bitter argument, forced upon everyone. How much better results under the law of equal freedom, where a wide variety of schools and education institutions and processes of all varieties can be set up to accommodate all the needs of all the different interests of the community, and no one interferes with anyone else’s beliefs!

Of course this is just one example of Spencer’s philosophy that can be put into practical application. But the warning must be given that the law of equal freedom does not mean that we will all enter some utopia and that everyone will always choose what is best for themselves. People, being fallible, will make mistakes.

What equal freedom means is that: (a) people will have the responsibility for their own lives, rather than surrendering this responsibility to others (or pretending that they have given up responsibility, which is every bit as destructive), (b) since that will be true, fewer mistakes will be made, as people will be able to see directly the consequences of their mistakes, and be able to quickly correct them. How many people, for example, have ruined their lives by taking dangerous drugs, under the false belief that they are not responsible, that someone else must take care of them?

Freedom, it must be emphasized, will not make everything and everyone perfect: but if followed, it will allow us to make ourselves better. The injury caused by government interference to the person who has not completely developed socially is evident, for since this person should become self-sufficient and develop his self-control so that his desires, when acted upon, do not involve the destruction of the equal freedom of another, the objective of society rightly constituted must be to encourage, not discourage, the government of the self by the self. That is, society must encourage self-control, and the only way a person can develop self-control is by practice.

Thus the individual, in order to develop, must not be shielded by the artificial agency of government from the consequences of his or her actions, but must be required to develop strengths and self-reliance under necessity’s discipline, stern though it may be. Says Spencer in this regard:

But to guard ignorant men against the evils of their ignorance, to divorce a cause and consequence which God has joined together, to render needless the intellect put into us for our guidance—to unhinge what is, in fact, the very mechanism of existence—must necessarily entail nothing but disasters.[5]

Yes, private helps and aids are useful, as they provide us with the chance to develop our beneficence, and they involve a close check on whether we are really doing good. But this does not mean that a government agency, impersonal, loaded with regulations and restrictions which never really meet individual needs and problems, has any merit.

This is also to say that the only business and duty of government is to protect the life, liberty, and property—the facilities for action—of the citizen. The State’s sole job is comprehended by the administration of justice, the protection of the individual from physical damage from criminals at home and criminal regimes abroad. Under no circumstance should the State venture beyond this. If it does, it defeats the end for which it is permitted to function.

So the crucial question about government is what it does, not what form it takes. Certainly government ought to be democratic, because since all people are properly equallyfree, it must therefore follow that all should properly have equal political power. And since democracy is based upon the idea (however diluted in actual practice) that we are equally free, it is a relatively high form of organization, suitable for people who have made some progress toward civilized behavior. But always the basic question about government must be to what extent it is restricted to protection, the secondary question being what kind of machinery it uses.

If we are indeed in a time when personal liberty is just beginning to experience a renaissance, then we are also entering an era of sustained moral and material progress: if we follow Spencer’s advice and accept our responsibility for our own lives, we may see ahead of us one of the great ages in humanity’s long march toward the unfolding of a truly humane civilization. If this happens, a small part of the credit will be due to that extraordinary English philosopher, Herbert Spencer. []

1.   Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, 2 Vols. (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1904), Vol. 2, pp. 435-6.

2.   Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1960), p. 59.

3.   Herbert Spencer, Social Statics (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1970), chapter IV, paragraph 3.

4.   Ibid., chapter XXVI, paragraph 1.

5.   Ibid., chapter XXVIII, paragraph 4.