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Friday, January 6, 2023

Herbert Spencer’s Two Types of Society

And the partisans of each.

Politics

According to the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), there are two types of society: militant and industrial.

In his 1884 book The Man versus the State, Spencer defined “militancy” as a system of compulsory cooperation. He wrote that the “typical structure” of a militant society can be seen in an army of conscripts. A conscript must “fulfil commands under pain of death.” And going AWOL is not an option, because deserters are generally also killed.

For compulsory cooperation to be coordinated, there must be a chain of command, or else quarrels over “who compels whom” will escalate into a war of all against all. For this reason, militant societies are characterized “by the régime of status, almost universal in ancient days…”

Spencer defined “industrialism” as a system of voluntary cooperation. An industrial society is typified by a private business, or as Spencer put it, “a body of producers or distributors, who severally agree to specified payments in return for specified services, and may at will, after due notice, leave the organization if they do not like it.” In other words, employers and employees alike enjoy the freedom of association and of disassociation.

Voluntary cooperation is conducted through agreements (contracts). And so industrial societies are characterized ”by the régime of contract, which has become general in modern days, chiefly among the Western nations, and especially among ourselves [the British] and the Americans.”

A business may have a status hierarchy as laid out in its org chart. And bosses may give orders to their direct reports. But following such orders is, at bottom, voluntary (non-compulsory), because the worker can always refuse and quit. And so a private business is fundamentally based on contract, not status.

According to Spencer, British political history in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was largely a conflict between two visions for the realm. On one side were those who sought to make the Kingdom a compulsory militant society of status. Arrayed against them were those who struggled to make their country a voluntary industrial society of contract.

Spencer assigned various British political parties of different eras to each side. On the militant side, Spencer put the old absolutist Tories and the new big-government Liberals (whom he denounced as “new Tories”). On the industrialist side, he placed the old anti-absolutist Whigs and the old limited-government Liberals.

Thomas Jefferson saw a similar dichotomy of political orientations: one that is universal, perennial, and rooted in human character. In an 1823 letter he wrote:

“The parties of Whig and Tory are those of nature. They exist in all countries, whether called by these names or by those of Aristocrats and Democrats, Coté Droite or Coté Gauche, Ultras and Radicals, Serviles and Liberals. The sickly, weakly, timid man fears the people, and is a Tory by nature. The healthy, strong and bold cherishes them, and is formed a Whig by nature.”

This should not be taken to imply that of the two main party organizations in any given country, one can necessarily be classified as “militant” an the other “industrial.” Often the true adherents of voluntary cooperation make up only a fringe remnant. In such cases, the major “parties” vying for power are really rival factions of the same “militant” party: each faction advancing its own variety of compulsory cooperation.

Almost everybody says they favor a free society. But only those who stand for voluntary cooperation based on voluntary agreements truly do so. Those who, as socialists do, claim to advance “freedom” by imposing compulsory cooperation (mandating behavior, confiscating earnings, nationalizing industries, conscripting labor, etc.) only make society more violent, more primitive, more regimented, more hierarchical, and less free.


  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in-chief of FEE.org. He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including FEE.org (see his author archive), Mises.org, Antiwar.com, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.