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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Herbert Spencer

“Who now reads Spencer?” As someone who does, I was seduced by the opening question of this recent book on the thought of Herbert Spencer.

The book by Alberto Mingardi (of the Italian think tank Instituto Bruno Leoni) is volume 18 in the series “Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers.” It presents an accessible yet sophisticated overview of an English philosopher who was key in the development of classical liberalism. As the book notes, Spencer (1820–1903) was “perhaps the only philosopher to sell one million copies of his work while still alive.” Nevertheless, his work has been neglected or reviled for almost a century. Mingardi remedies this intellectual injustice along with answering the question, “Why?”

Herbert Spencer clearly states its limitations. Spencer was a prolific system-builder who wrote hundreds of articles and dozens of books, including the ten-volume Synthetic Philosophy. Wisely, Mingardi narrows his focus to what many consider to be Spencer’s most enduring work: Social Statics (1850) as informed by his Autobiography.

In Social Statics, Spencer presented the political theory of his youth, including “the right to ignore the state,” that inspired a generation of radical individualists in England and America. They embraced Spencer’s vision of a government limited to administrating justice, the propriety of laissez-faire economics, and the evolution of cooperation over coercion. His admirers, as much as his writings, form Spencer’s legacy. Mingardi’s book notes this well in a chapter entitled “Herbert Spencer’s Offspring,” to which I flipped first.

Why has Spencer’s substantial legacy been dismissed? To a degree it is because time has proven some of his central views to be incorrect. For example, Spencer based much of his ethics on a theory of moral evolution. In the preface to the last part of Ethics (1893), Spencer himself expressed disillusionment in commenting that “the Doctrine of Evolution has not furnished guidance to the extent” he had expected.

But what of the writings that time did not disprove, such as his youthful politics? An entirely different explanation applies. Mingardi dates the New Deal era (1930s) as the pivot point in Spencer’s political influence. With the rise of John Maynard Keynes—the modern prophet of government intervention—Spencer’s laissez faire fell into disrepute. Because he wrote of the “survival of the fittest,” Spencer was accused of being a Social Darwinist who would nod in approval as the weak died miserably. (In fact Spencer wrote at length about the good done by voluntary charity.) Murray Rothbard explained (in the Libertarian Forum) what Spencer meant by “survival of the fittest”: He meant that “the natural law of cause and effect works its inexorable way, and what this means is that bad premises, bad goals, and ineffective means are dysfunctional for man.”

This relatively uncontroversial insight was used to great effect as a smear on every other position held by Spencer. Poignantly Mingardi observes, “As a theorist of laissez-faire, Spencer was buried with the very principles he upheld.” He has fared no better posthumously.

The book ends, as it begins, with a provocative question: “Who should read Spencer today?” It is here, in his answer, that Mingardi and I part ways. I do share his puzzlement at “how the intellectual adversaries of Keynes have by and large ignored Spencer.” But I hold little hope that the academic attention Mingardi applauds will restore Spencer to his place of proper esteem.

What will? The answer resides in a theme developed within the book itself. Mingardi emphasizes what most commentators sadly miss: Spencer championed the working man. In spotlighting Spencer’s critique of the Poor Laws in Social Statics, Mingardi quotes the argument that such law “divides the community into two great classes—labourers and paupers, the one doing nothing towards the production of the general stock of food and clothing, and the other having to provide for the consumption of both. Hence it is evident that each member of the producing class, is injured by the appropriation of a portion of the general stock by the non-producing class.”

Mingardi comments that Spencer “was invoking the abolition of the Poor Laws because he saw that . . . the greatest portion of it comes from the toils of the labouring class.” It is no wonder Spencer felt so deeply for the working man. His uncle, Thomas Spencer, Herbert’s role model, was active in repealing the Corn Laws (the tariff on grain imports), one of the most successful working-class and libertarian causes in history.

His passion for individual liberty and the working class is most likely to spark a Spencer revival. It inspired a generation that read his freshly published work. It is no less relevant today.

Herbert Spencer is a well-written, -referenced, and -researched book that never slips into the error of academic cleverness. Mingardi pays respect to a fallen leader who deserves to stand tall. He steps back and lets Spencer speak.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.