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Herbert Spencer on the idea that society is a spontaneous growth and not artificially put together (1860)

The English radical individualist social theorist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) based much of his theory of society on the idea of spontaneous orders a century before Hayek did. Here is an early statement of this from 1860:

Yet that societies are not artificially put together, is a truth so manifest, that it seems wonderful men should ever have overlooked it. Perhaps nothing more clearly shows the small value of historical studies, as they have been commonly pursued. You need but to look at the changes going on around, or observe social organization in its leading traits, to see that these are neither supernatural, nor are determined by the wills of individual men, as by implication the older historians teach; but are consequent on general natural causes. The one case of the division of labour suffices to prove this. It has not been by command of any ruler that some men have become manufacturers, while others have remained cultivators of the soil. … Thus that which is so obviously true of the industrial structure of society, is true of its whole structure. The fact that “constitutions are not made, but grow,” is simply a fragment of the much larger fact, that under all its aspects and through all its ramifications, society is a growth and not a manufacture.

Such a conception (that constitutions are not made, but grow) could not, indeed, fail to be startling when let fall in the midst of a system of thought to which it was utterly alien. Universally in Macintosh’s day, things were explained on the hypothesis of manufacture, rather than that of growth; as indeed they are, by the majority, in our own day. It was held that the planets were severally projected round the Sun from the Creator’s hand, with just the velocity required to balance the Sun’s attraction. The formation of the Earth, the separation of sea from land, the production of animals, were mechanical works from which God rested as a labourer rests. Man was supposed to be moulded after a manner somewhat akin to that in which a modeller makes a clay-figure. And of course, in harmony with such ideas, societies were tacitly assumed to be arranged thus or thus by direct interposition of Providence; or by the regulations of law-makers; or by both.

Yet that societies are not artificially put together, is a truth so manifest, that it seems wonderful men should ever have overlooked it. Perhaps nothing more clearly shows the small value of historical studies, as they have been commonly pursued. You need but to look at the changes going on around, or observe social organization in its leading traits, to see that these are neither supernatural, nor are determined by the wills of individual men, as by implication the older historians teach; but are consequent on general natural causes. The one case of the division of labour suffices to prove this. It has not been by command of any ruler that some men have become manufacturers, while others have remained cultivators of the soil. In Lancashire, millions have devoted themselves to the making of cotton-fabrics; in Yorkshire, another million lives by producing woollens; and the pottery of Staffordshire, the cutlery of Sheffield, the hardware of Birmingham, severally occupy their hundreds of thousands. These are large facts in the structure of English society; but we can ascribe them neither to miracle, nor to legislation. It is not by “the hero as king,” any more than by “collective wisdom,” that men have been segregated into producers, wholesale distributors, and retail distributors. Our industrial organization, from its main outlines down to its minutest details, has become what it is, not simply without legislative guidance, but, to a considerable extent, in spite of legislative hindrances. It has arisen under the pressure of human wants and resulting activities. While each citizen has been pursuing his individual welfare, and none taking thought about division of labour, or conscious of the need of it, division of labour has yet been ever becoming more complete. It has been doing this slowly and silently: few having observed it until quite modern times. By steps so small, that year after year the industrial arrangements have seemed just what they were before—by changes as insensible as those through which a seed passes into a tree; society has become the complex body of mutually-dependent workers which we now see. And this economic organization, mark, is the all-essential organization. Through the combination thus spontaneously evolved, every citizen is supplied with daily necessaries; while he yields some product or aid to others. That we are severally alive to-day, we owe to the regular working of this combination during the past week; and could it be suddenly abolished, multitudes would be dead before another week ended. If these most conspicuous and vital arrangements of our social structure have arisen not by the devising of any one, but through the individual efforts of citizens to satisfy their own wants; we may be tolerably certain that the less important arrangements have similarly arisen. …

Thus that which is so obviously true of the industrial structure of society, is true of its whole structure. The fact that “constitutions are not made, but grow,” is simply a fragment of the much larger fact, that under all its aspects and through all its ramifications, society is a growth and not a manufacture.

About this Quotation:

Spencer is often hard to read because of the profusion of historical and anthropological examples he provides in order to make his points. He also liked to use many biological examples as was the fashion at the time. In this essay from 1860 he argues that society evolves like a living organism in which the various parts coordinate their activities to satisfy the needs of society without the direction provided by any central planner. The specific example he uses is that of the emergence of the division of labour. In language which is strikingly similar to that used by Adam Ferguson (and much admired by Hayek) he states that “vital arrangements of our social structure have arisen not by the devising of any one, but through the individual efforts of citizens to satisfy their own wants”. The division of labour which was made possible by means of the cooperative efforts of millions of individuals has produced far greater output than at any other time in human history. This “economic organization” which was created by millions of individuals going about their own private affairs has become “the all-essential organization” which can provide a model for all other aspects of the broader society, including the political, such as constitution making.

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