Liberty Matters

Why Do Classical Liberals Neglect Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a tremendously successful author in life, and a much forgotten one since his death. I think George H. Smith’s truly illuminating essay on Spencer’s “Sociology of the State” will help even the reader who is most alien to Spencer’s works to understand why.
Smith suggests that Spencer may be one of the most “complex figures in the history of classical liberalism.” Yet Spencer is ritually caricatured as a rather simple, linear, and almost naive proponent of laissez faire. Much irony has been made of the following episode, told by Spencer: His friend George Eliot (1819-1880) told him once that
considering how much thinking I must have done, she was surprised to see no lines on my forehead. “I suppose it is because I am never puzzled,” I said. [Autobiography, vol. 1, p. 462.]
Spencer meant that his thoughts matured more by means of accumulating data than by delving into the answer to any specific question.[29] But many thought Spencer was never puzzled because he had the solution to any problem: reliance on the forces of progress and, in political matters, strict adherence to the principle of laissez-faire.
If you compare him with his contemporary John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), for example, Spencer stands out clearly as an adamant proponent of libertarianism. For Albert J. Nock (1870-1945), Spencer’s Social Statics was “to the philosophy of individualism what the work of the German idealist philosophers is to the doctrine of Statism, what Das Kapital is to Statist economic theory, or what the Pauline Epistles are to the theology of Protestantism” [Nock, "Introduction", to Spencer, The Man versus the State.]
Of course, this might be a bit of an exaggeration. But it is indeed surprising that Nock is basically alone, among 20th-century classical liberals, in holding such a view. Take Spencer’s best known contributions, at least today -- the essays included in The Man Versus the State. They are prophetic, having anticipated some of the major problems classical liberals would have to wrestle with in the following century: welfare dependency, unintended consequences in law-making, the fact that one state intervention leads to another. He also exhibited classical liberalism’s skepticism over the idea that popular government per se legitimizes any government intervention.
Why, then, did 20th-century classical liberals not pick up on Spencer? “Hayek’s philosophy has many affinities with Spencer’s,” John Gray wrote,[30] but there is no evidence Hayek ever dug deep into Spencer’s essays. Neither have many Hayekians.
I suggest there might be two reasons for Spencer’s eclipse in 20th-century classical liberalism.
One I’ll trace back to the influence of Walter Lippmann’s (1889-1974) The Good Society.[31] Lippman read Spencer and borrowed some of his arguments. However, he considered him one of those “latter-day liberals” who “became the apologists for miseries and injustices that were intolerable to the conscience.”[32] Spencer was supposedly exposed as heartless,[33] whereas 20th-century liberals wanted to prove they were not. It is understandable: government intervention in, say, education is perhaps so embedded in the contemporary mind that calling for a little bit of competition (vouchers), instead of outright repeal of compulsory education, sounds revolutionary enough.
The second reason is what George Smith points out in his essay. Spencer’s thought is more complex than people commonly acknowledge. He was a remarkably consistent political thinker, but he evolved (pardon the pun) in constructing a global view of society that he hoped to be value-free and objective, in the positivist fashion. Spencer’s works are swamped with data collected from different sources: history, anthropology, and reports of geographical explorations and of encounters with “primitive” cultures. From all that, without being puzzled but building layer after layer of knowledge, he tried to deduce regularities and trends.
I am afraid this is the only meaningful comment I may add specifically on the important question George Smith raises—and it is hardly an original one. Spencer incurred in many way a fate similar to that of Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923). In his younger years, Pareto was the staunchest of classical liberals and, as a matter of fact, a great admirer of Spencer. But in later years, Pareto’s positivism grew over his libertarianism, and the latter was at least partially laid aside. (Pareto’s humanitarian pacifism certainly was.)
Now, what may be indeed puzzling in Spencer is that he did not sacrifice his youthful ideas to the altar of his science. I think his skepticism over state intervention is remarkably expressed in the following passage of his Autobiography:
[Again,] why should we hope so much from State-agency in new fields, when in the old fields it has bungled so miserably? Why, if the organisations for national defence and administration of justice work so ill that loud complaints are daily made, should we be anxious for other organisations of kindred type?
Similar words you may find in many of his works, regardless of the age at which he wrote them. His essay “Over-Legislation” (1853) is perhaps one of the most eloquent libertarian perorations ever written, besides being the singular article to read to acquire, in Robert Nisbet’s words, “an accurate and full appreciation of Spencer’s liberalism.”[34]
Indeed, sometimes Spencer considered that in The Proper Sphere of Government the youthful enthusiasm of two-and-twenty naturally carried me too far”, for example, in arguing for the possibility of a stateless citizens’ self-organization in the event of a foreign aggression. However, as George Smith reminds us, Spencer “vigorously protested against the evils of war during his entire career.”
And yet he considered war as instrumental in consolidating social organization at some stage of society’s evolution. The development of organization in society was in itself instrumental for the advent of industrialism (e.g., factories relied on principles of organization first developed and tested with armies). Societies that grow complex and decentralized began as simple and hierarchical.
This tension within Spencer’s thought is not necessarily an inconsistency, but I think it reflects his struggle to develop a dispassionate view of societal development. His distinction between relative and absolute ethics was for me the source of several headaches. But I find it indeed admirable that Spencer succeeded, somehow, in securing an equilibrium between value-free sociologist and the classical-liberal theorist.
Of course, this doesn’t help the world to accept the truths of Spencer’s writings, even if now it has indeed “traveled a certain number of times from Bismarckism to communism, and back from communism to Bismarckism.”[35] Nor does it help us either to single out those very truths. But I consider it a testimony to the intellectual honesty and depth of thought of the man who was never puzzled.
[29.] As Spencer himself described it this way: “[My] mode of thinking did not involve that concentrated effort which is commonly accompanied by wrinkling of the brows. It has never been my way to set before myself a problem and puzzle out an answer. The conclusion at which I have from time to time arrived, have not been arrived at as solutions of questions raised; but have been arrived at unawares—each as the ultimate outcome of a body of thoughts which slowly grew from a germ” Autobiography, vol. 1, p. 463.
[30.] John Gray, Hayek on Liberty (London: Routledge, [1986] 1998), p. 103.
[31.] Walter Lippmann, The Good Society (New Brunswick: Transaction, [1937] 2004), p. 182.
[32.] Often liberals complained of Spencer’s alleged “drift to conservatism,” particularly because he revised some of the ideas expressed in his 1851 edition of Social Statics. But the very page on which Lippmann refers to Spencer as an apologist for the status quo, he footnotes Social Statics. Lippmann was convinced that  laissez faire was useful for removing old restrictions in the 18th century, but it became “grotesque” as it evolved into a dogma that some area of human life should be preserved from government regulation.
[33.] Spencer, as a matter of fact, wasn’t so heartless, as he maintained there was a role for charity in human affairs. (See Roderick Long’s admirable defense, “Herbert Spencer: The Defamation Continues” <>. But indeed sometimes, for example when he spoke of welfare dependence, he may sound awkward to the contemporary reader.
[34.] "Over Legislation" first appeared in The Westminster Review in July, 1853 and was reprinted in vol. 3 of Spencer’s Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative (London and New York, 1892, in three volumes) </titles/337#lf0620-03_head_007>. It can also be found in the Liberty Fund edition of The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, introduction by Albert Jay Nock (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981) </titles/330>. Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress, New Brunswick: Transaction, 1980), p. 231.
[35.] Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) wished the world could accept the truths of Spencer’s writings once it had traveled a certain number of times from Bismarckism to communism and back from communism to Bismarckism. See, "Essay Two: State Education: A Help or Hindrance?" (1880) in Auberon Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays, ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1978). </titles/591#Herbert_0146_60>.