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Herbert Spencer on “the seen” and “the unseen” consequences of the actions of politicians (1884)

The English radical individualist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) criticizes politicians for focusing only on the “direct” and “proximate” consequences of the legislation they introduce, and ignoring the “indirect” or “remote” consequences.“ He believes the "political momentum” they have created will lead to a new form of slavery:

The incident is recalled to me on contemplating the ideas of the so-called “practical” politician, into whose mind there enters no thought of such a thing as political momentum, still less of a political momentum which, instead of diminishing or remaining constant, increases. The theory on which he daily proceeds is that the change caused by his measure will stop where he intends it to stop. He contemplates intently the things his act will achieve, but thinks little of the remoter issues of the movement his act sets up, and still less its collateral issues. … The question of questions for the politician should ever be— “What type of social structure am I tending to produce?” But this is a question he never entertains.

The incident is recalled to me on contemplating the ideas of the so-called “practical” politician, into whose mind there enters no thought of such a thing as political momentum, still less of a political momentum which, instead of diminishing or remaining constant, increases. The theory on which he daily proceeds is that the change caused by his measure will stop where he intends it to stop. He contemplates intently the things his act will achieve, but thinks little of the remoter issues of the movement his act sets up, and still less its collateral issues.

Even less, as I say, does the politician who plumes himself on the practicalness of his aims, conceive the indirect results which will follow the direct results of his measures. …

But the “practical” politician who, in spite of such experiences repeated generation after generation, goes on thinking only of proximate results, naturally never thinks of results still more remote, still more general, and still more important than those just exemplified. To repeat the metaphor used above—he never asks whether the political momentum set up by his measure, in some cases decreasing but in other cases greatly increasing, will or will not have the same general direction with other like momenta; and whether it may not join them in presently producing an aggregate energy working changes never thought of. Dwelling only on the effects of his particular stream of legislation, and not observing how such other streams already existing, and still other streams which will follow his initiative, pursue the same average course, it never occurs to him that they may presently unite into a voluminous flood utterly changing the face of things. Or to leave figures for a more literal statement, he is unconscious of the truth that he is helping to form a certain type of social organization, and that kindred measures, effecting kindred changes of organization, tend with ever-increasing force to make that type general; until, passing a certain point, the proclivity towards it becomes irresistible. Just as each society aims when possible to produce in other societies a structure akin to its own—just as among the Greeks, the Spartans and the Athenians struggled to spread their respective political institutions, or as, at the time of the French Revolution, the European absolute monarchies aimed to re-establish absolute monarchy in France while the Republic encouraged the formation of other republics; so within every society, each species of structure tends to propagate itself. Just as the system of voluntary cooperation by companies, associations, unions, to achieve business ends and other ends, spreads throughout a community; so does the antagonistic system of compulsory cooperation under State-agencies spread; and the larger becomes its extension the more power of spreading it gets. The question of questions for the politician should ever be — “What type of social structure am I tending to produce?” But this is a question he never entertains.

About this Quotation:

In this passage Spencer seems to be channelling Frédéric Bastiat’s idea of “the seen” and “the unseen,” or what Spencer calls here “the direct” and “the indirect”, or “the proximate” and “the remote.” We have removed the copious historical examples Spencer gives to support his argument. As often happens, his examples often hide the more theoretical point he is trying to make. In this case, the idea that repeated legislation of a certain kind can eventually lead to an entirely new social structure which may not have been the intention of the original legislators. He summarizes several decades of social and economic legislation in England which tended to weaken one kind of social structure, that is a “system of voluntary cooperation by companies, associations, unions”, and replace it with a new structure, namely “compulsory cooperation under State-agencies.” This may not have been the intention of what he calls “the practical politician” who is only interested in solving short term problems (as well as getting re-elected) but the unintended consequence of his actions and those of his fellow politicians produce such “a voluminous flood” of legislation that a tipping point is reached and freedom is replaced by a new kind of “slavery.” What he would like the “practical politician” to do is to step back and ask what kind of social structure would result if repeated doses of this kind of legislation were passed over many years. He calls this “the question of questions” for all legislators.

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