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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/14497/herbert-spencer-social-darwinist-or-libertarian-prophet/

Herbert Spencer: Social Darwinist or Libertarian Prophet?

November 4, 2010 by

Herbert Spencer is often misrepresented in textbooks and websites as a “social Darwinist,” but these claims describe a mythical Spencer that never existed. The real Spencer was quite different. The real Spencer often expressed views quite similar to modern-day libertarians. FULL ARTICLE by by Peter Richards


billwald November 4, 2010 at 10:25 am

“If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.[9]

“This does sound harsh, but what the Spencer-knockers fail to quote is the first sentence of the very next paragraph, which transforms its meaning:

“Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.[10]”

I don’t see any spontaneous sympathy in the Libertarian Party. Far as I can tell, most Libertarians I talk to are mostly interested their personal advancement. Maybe what goes around, comes around

Joe November 4, 2010 at 1:13 pm

All rational individuals are interesting in their personal advancement. They also understand that as they advance in life then those other attributes of human nature kick in. They even think about charity for people who through no fault of their own can’t take care of themselves. Because you are a Libertarian it doesn’t mean you are not a human being. I think what you are describing is the socialists, communists and facists. They are the one’s that have no sympathy. I can see Stalin now losing sleep over the 30 million people he killed. Your distorted logic is emotional based on something that happened in your childhood. I suggest you see and shrink and then read Mises, Rothbard and Hyak and make a complete recovery.

Horst Muhlmann November 4, 2010 at 10:47 am

I don’t see any spontaneous sympathy in the Libertarian Party. Far as I can tell, most Libertarians I talk to are mostly interested their personal advancement.

You are simply projecting your own lack of compassion on others.

David Roemer November 4, 2010 at 10:49 am

“It seems hard that an unskillfulness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artizan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the intemperate and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.” (Herbert Spencer (1903), Social Statics, Abridged and Revised; Together with Man Versus the State, New York: D. Appleton & Company, p. 150)

The above quote shows, I think, that Herbert Spencer was a political fanatic. He was obsessed with human progress, just like Karl Marx. What Spencer and Marx had in common was that they thought religious faith was irrational. But the idea that religious faith is irrational is irrational, and it is reasonable to associate irrationality with emotional immaturity and lack of integrity. My theory is that the political extremism of Marx and Spencer was the result of their lack of emotional maturity.

Dagnytg November 4, 2010 at 11:58 am

David, with all due respect, your assessment is not consistent with the quote.

There is nothing political in the quote. Spencer is making an observation and nothing more. Having no knowledge of what preceded or followed the quote, it is impossible to come to a reasonable conclusion.

Religious faith is irrational if it replaces objective reasoning in the decision making process. There is nothing wrong with faith from a psychological standpoint.

And last, I fail to see what “emotional immaturity” and integrity have in common.

One more thing…. Marx and Spencer aren’t political. They are using past and present observations of humanity to assess certain conclusions. The people who take their ideas out of context for their own political gain are extremists like communists and fascists.

Anonymous November 4, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Herbert Spencer was smeared ruthlessly by religious fanatics in his own lifetime because he was considered the leading irreligious intellectual of the age. In the 1930s, he was rediscovered by the Old Right, so the left invented the smear-term “social darwinism” to attach to Herbert Spencer.

I attended a few college courses. In one college history class, the professor actually tried to insinuate that Herbert Spencer was an advocate of imperialism. Anybody who believes that must have never read anything he wrote and must be going solely by inaccurate accounts.

Just about every Herbert Spencer quote that the leftists use to smear him is out of context. Amazingly, there are even people in this comment thread who are quoting him out of context and attempting to smear him.

Spencer became more moderate as he got older. The older (Principles of Ethics) Spencer dropped his crazy view on land from Social Statics and also wrote a great chapter debunking the idea that voting is a right (Political Rights, so-called) and arguing that expansions of suffrage are often used to reduce genuine rights (this, of course, was prophetic, as every expansion of suffrage in the last 150 years or so in the USA has resulted in a less free society, as they have decreased the voting power of the most libertarian portion of the electorate).

amabo November 5, 2010 at 2:47 am

“and arguing that expansions of suffrage are often used to reduce genuine rights (this, of course, was prophetic, as every expansion of suffrage in the last 150 years or so in the USA has resulted in a less free society, as they have decreased the voting power of the most libertarian portion of the electorate).”

Can you expand on this, because as it stands it sounds ridiculous.

Lemmywinks November 5, 2010 at 10:23 am

Apparently, freedom only applies to white males.

Beefcake the Mighty November 5, 2010 at 10:35 am

Actually it makes perfect sense.

P.M.Lawrence November 4, 2010 at 6:54 pm

In view of Peter Richards’s background, it is curious that some of this is US-centric (including the spelling and punctuation). I shall bring this out in what follows.

The only other English philosopher to have achieved anything like such widespread popularity was Bertrand Russell, and that was in the 20th century.

Although he was not English but Scottish, there was also Carlyle, to name but one other. Maybe he just wouldn’t get classified as a philosopher.

Darwin’s theory was primarily biology centered [note the US spelling], concentrating on flora and fauna, and expressing his original idea of the mechanism by which evolution operates, namely natural selection…

That is incorrect. In his theory the mechanism operates through the interaction of two things, spontaneous mutation and natural selection.

The responsibility for the besmirching and virtual destruction of the reputation of Herbert Spencer can be laid [sic] the door of one man, the author of Social Darwinism in American Thought 1860-1915, Richard Hofstadter.

No, it can’t just be laid at his door. This is US-centric; US work had very little influence outside the USA.

It is clear from this statement that Spencer is opposed to colonialism.

No, it isn’t clear. The cited passage only shows that he was opposed to central intervention in colonial affairs, not that he was opposed to colonialism as such; it is perfectly consistent with allowing colonists to oppress natives (indeed, much central intervention in colonial affairs aimed at preventing that). That passage could just as easily have been used to support Rhodesian UDI. It would need other material to support Peter Richards’s contention.

Despite the fact that in Herbert Spencer’s day the term libertarian did not exist, I think Spencer can be classified as an early spokesperson and visionary of the libertarian movement — or, to use Roderick T. Long’s expression, he can be described as a “Libertarian Prophet.”

If so, only in the sense that the Jews reckoned Balaam a prophet. And we know what happened to him.

Another interesting fact is that Spencer argued in favor of women’s rights long before they became legally established.

No. The women’s rights he lists became legally established at about that time, e.g. with the Married Women’s Property Act. It is only other rights like the franchise, which he does not address, that were much later.

Little did he know that these “New Tories” would become the new “Liberals,” and that the original or classical Liberals would need a new name to identify them — that name was to be “libertarians.”

That simply isn’t the case, outside the USA. In Britain, that strain of thought did not displace classical liberalism among liberals, making its main home among socialists and social democrats, even though both strains continued among liberals. Here in Australia, liberalism remained what it had been, and even though statism crept in, in fact the Liberal Party is the main right wing political party.

Diogenes November 4, 2010 at 9:58 pm

the “married women’s property act” was nothing but a pitiful fraud just like every other piece of misanrdric feminist legislation that showed its ghastly head in Britain around the turn of the century. Deceptive feminist groups used the violent arm of government to make men 2nd class citizens in their own countries and continue to do so today.

Belfort Bax, a British lawyer at the time wrote about the misandric laws and deceptive feminist groups who deliberately lied about the gender bias of the Law and hid every legal female privilege there was.


By the Married Women’s Property Acts a woman has complete control over all property acquired or inherited by her in any way, free from any claim on the part of her husband. With cynical injustice she is left in possession of all her old claims on her husband’s property, and the latest charter of female privilege, the Statute of 1895, gives her claims regardless even of her adultery. 8
This matter deserves more attention than it usually receives. Let us consider the topics in order:–
(a) Source of Women’s Property.
The piteous tales of artistic working women, of wives robbed by their worthless husbands, from the Mrs. Morton of fact to the Miss Trotwood [1] of fiction, formed the foundation of the claim for a revision of the law. Liberty for women to retain their own earnings. Obvious equity here! But the bulk of women’s property, in 99 out of every 100 cases, is not earned by them at all. It arises from gift or inheritance from parents, relatives, or even the despised husband. Whenever there is any earning in the matter it is notoriously earning by some mere man or other. Nevertheless, under the operation of the law, property is steadily being concentrated into women’s hands. “Once Stridhan [Woman's property] always Stridhan.” [ 1 Mrs. Morton figures to be Hannah Morton, a successful shopkeeper in Hastings, England. Miss Trotwood is a character in "David Copperfield" by Charles Dickens. ]
(b) Control through Life.
The wife has absolute and unfettered control over her own property, man-earned though it be, and her person. This is the new style. But the gaoler and the broad arrow [government mark of ownership] make the husband, her earning slave, to be insulted and jeered with impunity. This is the old style with a difference. “All yours is mine, and all mine’s my own.” Mere man is not worth considering when the material aggrandizement of women is concerned !
(c) Control at death.
By the Married Women’s Property Acts, a woman has complete power of leaving her property away from her husband, by will, even though in his prosperity he gave it to her. The husband can be prevented from doing so, by the wife’s suing him for maintenance, when his property, or as much of it as judges think fit, is settled on her, and can no longer he disposed of by his 9 will. Conveyancers aver that the steady tendency for a woman to leave property acquired sfromome man always to a woman. A silent revolution in succession is being accomplished. But the man is left under his old burdens of supporting his wife.
(d) Bankrupting Husband for Money Lent.
A wife is privileged to recover judgment against, and bankrupt her husband for any money she may have lent him, and this privilege is no dead letter. A husband does not lend, but gives money to his wife. If he were to attempt by legal documents to turn it into a loan, he would discover once again that what is sauce for the goose, is by no means sauce for the gander. There is no case on record of a husband daring to sue his wife for a loan.
Not merely as against the husband, but against her creditors, the married woman is in a position of enviable privilege. A married woman, even when separated from her husband, and released from all duties towards him or her children, retains her privilege of having her property exempt from seizure for debt. Technicalities would be tedious, but the following is the practical working of the law. In legal phraseology, if a married woman enters into a contract, and if (an important if) there is no restraint against anticipation in her settlement, then her property, or some of it, may be attached. As to the restraint against anticipating income, this clause, introduced by Lord Chancellor Thurlow to protect an interesting relative of his against her husband, is practically to be found in every settle- ment, being now useful against the creditor, although no longer needed against the husband. 10
The husband is liable, and his wife is not, for all the civil wrongs (torts) she may commit. He has no control over her, but serves as her whipping-boy. This, though she publicly defames and insults him in every way, and has deserted him. As Sir Frank Lockwood put it, one has the deep consolation of knowing that if Mrs. Jackson utters slanders Mr. Jackson can be sued. Under the older English law, when the wife was “sous la verge de son marrye” (the canon law sub virga viri [under the rod of the man/husband ] ), the rule was reasonable enough. Now, however, it is only an illustration of the pro-feminist bias of the Courts. Every moth-eaten scrap of privilege, which is in favour of the woman, they retain. All privileges of the husband, no matter how firmly established, they deny as having ever existed. Look at the astounding declaration of Lord Halsbury in the Jackson case, that the husband never had the right in English law to restrain his wife ! ! !
Again, a pious archÃ�ology animates the judges when the woman is to be benefited. Notwithstanding the revolutionary changes in the law, another old-world privilege of the “woman under the rod” is reserved for the dominating female of to-day. If her husband is present when she is committing a crime, a married woman is presumed by an intelligent administration of justice to have acted under his coercion. This is some- times amusing, when, as often happens, the woman is the instigator of the crime. 11
This precious privilege is nominally confined to cases of minor importance, and in special is supposed not to affect murder. In practice it affects all crimes, and is no dead letter, as illustrative cases can show.

P.M.Lawrence November 4, 2010 at 11:01 pm

You’re missing the point. The author asserted, incorrectly, that those particular women’s rights weren’t legally established until much later. In fact, they were legally established at about that time. If the law wasn’t what it seemed or didn’t actually deliver much, that raises another point – but there were indeed laws for it. That makes the author factually incorrect.

Nicodemus November 6, 2010 at 4:16 am

A very interesting and well produced article. The difficulty I have here is one of credibility. I note for instance that the writer is a member of the British Humanist society (I apologise if I have this wrong). Whilst no doubt he would have no truck with a view that espouses a claim that the reason why certain of the values he promotes (even if by dint of inference) relates to the fact that all individuals are made in the “image of God”, what I find more difficult is why such an association appears, at least to me, to run into spasms of indignation towards Christians, many of whom might well end up on a similar page as him in connecting with some important parts of a philosophy that sees the dangers of increased state control and also believes in freedom of speech, property, etc throughly libertarian priciples. In other words, mention the name Christian and somehow we are beyond the pale. Maybe this is not his view but it is certainly what comes across too much to me from the Humanist Society of UK.

A Liberal In Lakeview November 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Subsequently many left-liberal writers have quoted Hofstadter’s references to Spencer without troubling to study Spencer’s original work, thus perpetuating the misrepresentation.

This statement immediately brought to mind an interaction I had this past summer with a female cashier at a Whole Foods in Chicago. She asked how my day, a Sunday, had been, at which point I explained that I’d spent part of it on the rooftop deck reading a book. “What are you reading?”, she asked. “Atlas Shrugged“, I replied.

Immediately a frown appeared on her face. It took only a few probing questions to elicit the facts that she harbored leftwing political views and that, in spite of her strong emotional reaction, she had not read the book, much less contemplated it. Everything she though she knew about Rand’s novel had been gotten at indirectly, as if by playing the telephone game.

On a related note, how about we avoid using misleading phrases such as “left-liberal” in reference to people like Hofstadter and the aforementioned cashier? It’s ludicrous to characterize any such person as politically liberal given the authoritiarianism and collectivism of leftwing politics. Surely there ought to be some consistency in our use of the Latin word from which “liberal”, “liberty”, and “libertarian” are derived. Further, there’s no benefit to ceding language to knaves who clamor for the state to be a surrogate parent to which all must submit.

So, Hofstadter was a left-illiberal.

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