All Commentary
Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Spencer’s Law: Another Reason Not to Worry

The Less of a Problem There Is, the More That Is Written about It

One of the constant themes of today’s media is crisis and panic. Everywhere we look we are told there is some dreadful social problem, a threat to all that is good and true. Moreover, it is getting worse and will bring disaster upon all of us—unless “we do something.” (The authors of these jeremiads always have well worked-out ideas as to what “we” should do.) Most of the current favorites in this genre relate to children (going to the dogs), the state of the natural environment (we’re doomed), or the condition of the popular culture (uniquely degraded). There are, however, many others. These kinds of accounts come from all parts of the political spectrum and seem to have a great appeal to both publishers and readers. Truly, life seems grim.

And yet my advice is (to quote the late Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), “Don’t Panic!” You should, in fact, take all such accounts with a very large pinch of salt: not only because they frequently contain elementary errors of fact, logic, and argument, but also for a more profound reason. Not only is it likely that in many or most cases there is no problem (or much less of one than the prophets of doom would have us believe)—in most instances the “problem” is diminishing and is actually on the way to disappearing. The accounts of social crisis that bombard us from every corner are examples of a principle I propose to call “Spencer’s Law,” after the man who first formulated it, the great Victorian philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer.

Spencer’s Law states, “The degree of public concern and anxiety about a social problem or phenomenon varies inversely as to its real or actual incidence.” In plain English this means that when a social problem is genuinely widespread and severe it will attract little notice or discussion. It will only become the object of attention, concern, and controversy precisely when it is in decline and its severity is diminishing. So the less of a problem there is, the more that is written about it! Spencer made this point on several occasions, perhaps most pointedly toward the end of his life in his essay of 1891 “From Freedom to Bondage,” remarking on “the way the more things improve the louder become the exclamations about their badness.”1 The point of course is that complaints about social problems that are actually on the way out have a long history. In the work cited and elsewhere Spencer gives several examples:

Drink. In the early nineteenth century Britain suffered from a truly horrendous drink problem. Alcohol abuse was commonplace and a major cause of ill health and crime. By the 1880s consumption of alcohol had declined sharply and there had been a marked shift from hard liquor to beer. However, it was the years after 1880 that saw an upsurge in temperance campaigns in both Britain and the United States, culminating in the “noble experiment” of Prohibition in the United States and restrictive licensing laws in Britain.

Education. In the late eighteenth century illiteracy was frequent and innumeracy and ignorance were so common that they attracted no attention. By the 1860s the huge majority of British were literate and numerate and there was strong demand for popular educational materials.2 The later nineteenth century saw a campaign against the “public ignorance,” which led to the establishment of compulsory state education at the primary (1870) and secondary (1902) levels.

Poverty. By every single indicator (such as average income, cost of living, conditions of life, number on poor relief) the condition of working people in Britain was far better in 1870 than it had been in 1840. This was well known, as shown in the statistical works produced at that time, such as Porter’s State of the Nation. It was the years after 1870 that saw the “discovery of poverty” through the works of men like Rowntree and Booth and the growth of an intellectual and political movement that led to the creation of the welfare state in Britain.

The status and treatment of women and children. Spencer pointed out on several occasions that women and children enjoyed more rights and were better treated in the nineteenth century than at any other time in history. Yet the years after 1850 saw the growth of feminism and the appearance of the first campaigns against child labor and cruelty to children.

More Cases

To Spencer’s examples we can add:

Pollution and the state of the environment. Contrary to popular belief pollution is steadily declining and the quality of the environment has improved since 1900.3

Poverty. This is less of a problem for much of the world than at any time in history, and the long-term trend is for absolute poverty to decline everywhere. In fact, all indicators of human well-being show a steady rise over the last hundred years.

So how do we explain Spencer’s Law? Why do we become exercised by social problems precisely when they are in decline or much diminished? One reason is lack of historical perspective—most people do not know of the comparison between the present and the past and so are unaware of the trend. They only see the problems today without realizing how much worse it was in the past.

Second, there is a problem of perception. When a phenomenon such as poverty, child labor, or mistreatment of women is widespread, it is not noticed, but simply taken for granted as part of “the way things are.” When, however, such phenomena become rare or exceptional they stand out more by contrast and so attract attention. As the problem becomes less commonplace, attitudes change from (at best) resigned acceptance to outraged rejection.

Finally, there is a basic fact of human psychology: Bad news sells while good news does not; gloomy pessimism seems to have an appeal lacking in sunny optimism.

This explains why accounts that present a declining problem as acute and worsening are believed or found plausible. However, they do not fully explain why such accounts are produced in the first place. In addition to the above factors, two others come into play.

First, people who are concerned about a problem or issue and want to do something about it now realize that they have to present their message in a certain way if it is to have any impact. “Situation improving, a bit more needed” does not excite in the way that “situation desperate—urgent attention required” does.

Also, such accounts often have a specific agenda. In contrast to Spencer’s time, when many social activists called primarily for self-improvement and private (non-state) action, such as philanthropy or mutual aid, modern campaigns typically call for an increase in the power of government. Instead of arguing that processes such as economic growth, which reduce social problems, should be allowed to take their course or be encouraged, or calling for action by individuals or voluntary cooperation, they advocate some kind of collective action via politics; that is, through legislation and the state. The evidence suggests that this will be at best ineffective, at worse counterproductive. However, in many cases the “problem” is being used as an excuse for advocating something that is wanted for other, philosophical reasons.

Experience has taught advocates of power that to openly advocate increasing the size of government is to court defeat. Much easier to describe a “terrible problem” and argue that government action is the only solution.

That is the final lesson to draw from this. In all the examples of Spencer’s Law there is a common feature. These are all cases where things are improving without resort to planned, collective action.

In Spencer’s own time living conditions were improving, levels of education were rising, and the problem of drink was diminishing, as a result of orderly yet unplanned social processes. These desirable trends were the unplanned outcome of many millions of actions and decisions made by individuals. Even where there was conscious action (as in the case of charities or mutual aid) it was piecemeal, localized, and diffuse. Many people, then and now, simply find it difficult to accept that improvement or social reform can come about except by conscious, collective action, by using power to direct people’s affairs.

Does this mean we should simply sit back, believing like Doctor Pangloss that “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”? Not at all. In the first place we should all be looking to do what we can to make matters better in our own sphere, by practicing the virtues of personal responsibility.

Second, there is a role for public policy. The benevolent trends identified by Spencer and contemporary authors such as Stephen Moore and the late Julian Simon can only exist and continue in the right institutional framework.4 Get the “rules of the game” wrong and all that improvement will stop or go into reverse. The irony, as Spencer pointed out, is that when government grows in response to panics and jeremiads, that is usually just what happens. The growth of state action in response to misleading panics is often self-defeating. Frequently, the outcome is to actually diminish or even reverse the previous beneficent trend. This can be seen most clearly in education, where the rise of state schooling has brought about a decline in general knowledge, literacy, and capacity for critical reasoning. Similarly, controls on the sale of alcohol actually made drinking problems worse.

The role of law and government should be to create the right conditions for human ingenuity and good-spiritedness to do its work.


  1. Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State, With Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1981), p. 487.
  2. E. G. West, Education and the Industrial Revolution (London: Batsford, 1975) and Education and the State (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1970).
  3. Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 335–40.
  4. Julian L. Simon and Stephen Moore, It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2000) and Julian L. Simon, ed., The State of Humanity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

  • Stephen Davies is a program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies and the education director at the Institute for Economics Affairs in London.