Liberty Matters

Herbert Spencer: Homo Non-Œconomicus

Herbert Spencer was not an economist.
This is not to say that he was uninterested in, or ignorant of, economics.  On the contrary, he had a keen understanding of economic principles and often invoked them in his writings.  Nevertheless, economics was not one of the primary lenses through which he viewed social phenomena.  His massive series of Synthetic Philosophy contains volumes on the principles of biology, of psychology, of sociology, and of ethics – but no Principles of Economics.
This fact, I suggest, is what ties together the aspects of Spencer’s thought that George Smith points to as puzzling in his lead essay.
1. Spencer and the State
One way of bringing the issue into focus is to ask: why isn’t Spencer an anarchist?  Given Spencer’s hostility to authority, his enthusiasm for spontaneous order and laissez faire, and his commitment to the law of equal freedom, why doesn’t he favor the abolition of the state’s monopoly on security?  What, in George’s words, “sets Spencer apart from those libertarian thinkers who viewed the state as a foreign element, in effect, that coercively imposes itself on society”?
Now this may seem an odd question; for after all, in one important sense Spencer is an anarchist, albeit of the long-run sort.  I refer not to his famous “right to ignore the state” , since this is only a right to withdraw affiliation from the monopoly provider of security, not a right to affiliate with a competing provider operating in the same territory.[36]  Rather, I have in mind a less well-known remark toward the beginning of Social Statics:
It is a mistake to assume that government must necessarily last for ever. The institution marks a certain stage of civilization – is natural to a particular phase of human development. It is not essential but incidental. As amongst the Bushmen we find a state antecedent to government; so may there be one in which it shall have become extinct.2[37]
In his later writings Spencer is less explicit in treating anarchy as the natural endpoint of social evolution, but the eventual non-necessity of government still seems to be implied by his doctrine that as human nature becomes progressively more adapted to social cooperation, “eventually sympathetic pleasures will be spontaneously pursued to the fullest extent advantageous to each and all,” and altruistic sentiment will “attain a level ... such that ministration to others’ happiness will become a daily need.”[38]  What need would there be for coercive institutions of social order in circumstances like these?
But if anarchy is the desideratum, it is a distant one; Spencer insists that it will take a very long time for human nature to evolve to the point at which egoistic conflicts can be absorbed into universal benevolence.  Spencer assumes that, absent government interference, benevolent motives are required to secure beneficent action – whereas economists are more likely to bear in mind Adam Smith’s dictum that it is “not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”[39]
Several of Spencer’s libertarian contemporaries – writers like Gustave de Molinari,[40] Benjamin Tucker,[41] and Francis Tandy[42] – were defending the free-market anarchist model of security providers competing on an open market.  This would not be the absence of government in Spencer’s sense of “government,” since institutions of social control would still exist; but it would mean the end of the asymmetry of rights involved in the state’s monopoly of the security industry – an asymmetry that a proponent of Spencer’s law of equal freedom might be expected to condemn.  Crucially, the free-market anarchist model does not require a transformation of human nature; it was not from the benevolence of the anarchist society’s inhabitants, but from their regard to their own interests – interests channeled by supply and demand – that Molinari, Tucker, and Tandy expected the provision of security.  Why was Spencer not among their ranks?
The clue, I think, lies in a line that George quotes from Spencer’s The Study of Sociology:  “so long as the characters of citizens remain substantially unchanged, there can be no substantial changes in the political organization.”[43]  By contrast, it would be natural for an economist to think that the same people with the same characters might behave very differently when confronted with different incentives – with those found in competitive rather than monopolistic systems, for example. 
Now Spencer is certainly capable in many contexts of noticing and pointing out how people respond to incentives.  And of course it’s also true that the social system that provides the better incentives will be stable only so long as it enjoys popular acquiescence; Immanuel Kant’s insistence that a good constitution will work even for a “race of devils”[44] surely puts too much emphasis on institutions and not enough on the culture that makes those institutions viable.  But Spencer seems to err in the opposite direction in implicitly denying that any significant alteration of political institutions and their attendant incentives can be achieved without a fundamental change in people’s basic motivations. My suggestion is that this relative overemphasis of the dependence of institutions on character both explains Spencer’s failure to regard anarchism as practicable for people as they are now and is explained by the fact that while the economic lens is one he knows how to use, and indeed uses quite well when he chooses to, it is not among the tools he reaches for first.
2. Society as Organism
Spencer’s organismic characterization of society can be off-putting to libertarians.  As Friedrich Hayek notes, “The interpretation of society as an organism has almost invariably been used in support of hierarchic and authoritarian views.”[45]  Spencer largely vindicates his organismic analogy by stressing the bottom-up, nonhierarchical character of an organism’s self-maintenance; according to Spencer, within an organism as within a society the “spontaneous activities of these vital organs subserve the wants of the body at large without direction from its higher governing centres”; and when these organs “follow their respective ‘interests’” the “general welfare will be tolerably well secured.”[46] 
And other libertarian thinkers who could hardly be accused of lacking an economic turn of mind have followed Spencer in seeing the organismic analogy as reinforcing rather than undermining the case for laissez faire.  Ludwig von Mises, for example, embraces the organismic model of society, writing:
Organism and organization are as different from each other as life is from a machine, as a flower which is natural from one which is artificial. In the natural plant each cell lives its own life for itself while functioning reciprocally with the others.... In the artificial plant the separate parts are members of the whole only as far as the will of him, who united them, has been effective.... Each part occupies only the place given to it, and leaves that place, so to speak, only on instructions.... Organization is an association based on authority, organism is mutuality.[47]
And likewise, while anthills, beehives, and termite colonies are often seen as symbols of authoritarian collectivism, economist Don Lavoie makes a case for regarding them as bottom-up instances of spontaneous order as well:
The popular conception of an insect society is one of a centrally directed allocation of obedient insects to given tasks.... In fact, however, modern research has shown that insect societies are neither rigidly structured nor centrally directed.... [T]here is no need to postulate a central decision-maker – perhaps some kind of master termite issuing decrees to his followers – in order to explain the remarkably well-ordered functioning of a termite colony. The complex activities achievable by these lowly insects are made possible by what [Edward O.] Wilson calls “mass communication,” which he defines as “the transfer among groups of information that a single individual could not pass to another.” Some of the many examples Wilson provides of such ordered behavior attained through mass communication are the complex flanking maneuvers of ant swarms, the regulation of numbers of workers pursuing odor trails, and the precise thermoregulation of nests. In these tasks the action of each individual is never strictly controlled by any mechanism but “results from the competing stimuli impinging on it, including those produced by other members of the colony.”  In other words we have a primitive form of mutual coordination in which the actions of each participant both contribute a kind of pressure to the actions of other participants while simultaneously being guided in its own actions by similar pressures contributed by others....If one observes insects at the level of the individual, one finds what Marx calls an “anarchy of production,” an ongoing rivalrous struggle among apparently uncoordinated insects, some feverishly attempting to achieve one purpose while others busily work at a contradictory goal.... “Although these various antagonistic actions seem chaotic when viewed at close range, [Wilson continued,] their final result is almost invariably a well-constructed nest that closely conforms to the plan exhibited throughout the species....”[48]
So the organismic model of society has its legitimate libertarian uses.[49]  All the same, when Spencer begins talking, as he does in the passages George cites, about towns “secreting” or “absorbing” commodities and so on, we rightly feel that something important is missing – namely, the fact that economic actors are driven by beliefs and preferences in a way that cells and organs are not, so that to understand their behavior we must take up their perspective (while cells and organs have no perspective to take up – and ants and termites a perspective only in a very limited sense).  This methodological subjectivism is the approach of economics (well, of economics done properly); as Hayek observes:
Take such things as tools, food, medicine, weapons, words, sentences, communications, and acts of production.... I believe these to be fair samples of the kind of objects of human activity which constantly occur in the social sciences. It is easily seen that all these concepts ... refer not to some objective properties possessed by the things, or which the observer can find out about them, but to views which some other person holds about the things. These objects cannot even be defined in physical terms, because there is no single physical property which any one member of a class must possess.... They are all instances of what are sometimes called “teleological concepts,” that is, they can be defined only by indicating relations between three terms: a purpose, somebody who holds that purpose, and an object which that person thinks to be a suitable means for that purpose. If we wish, we could say that all these objects are defined not in terms of their “real” properties but in terms of opinions people hold about them. In short, in the social sciences the things are what people think they are. Money is money, a word is a word, a cosmetic is a cosmetic, if and because somebody thinks they are.[50]
This economic perspective is the dimension that Spencer is missing when he views social phenomena through the lens of biology.  Circulation of the blood is circulation of the blood regardless of what anyone believes or wants, but trade is only trade because of the subjective perspective of the traders.
I don’t mean to deny that there are plenty of passages in which Spencer explains social phenomena by appealing to the beliefs, desires, and plans of the participants.  Of course there are.  I’m not saying he never uses his economic lens; I’m saying he sometimes forgets to use it.
3. War – What Is It Good For?
George’s third puzzle concerns Spencer’s conviction that warfare, while destined to wither away at the end of history (so to speak), is necessary and valuable in earlier eras. Now the idea of necessary stages of history, with unavoidable periods of conflict and domination preparing the way for a future of freedom and harmony, was extraordinarily common and influential in the 19th century; Charles Dunoyer, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Gustave de Molinari, and Karl Marx, for example, each held some version of this theory.[51]  And they were all in some sense economists, so I can’t place all the blame on an insufficiently frequent resort to the economic lens. 
All the same, I can’t help thinking that Spencer’s (admittedly intermittent) economic blind spot might play some role here.  From an economic standpoint, the nature of trade as a positive-sum game, and war as a zero-sum or negative-sum game, seems like a universal principle that should remain constant across eras; hence an economist would be likely to see wars as socially suboptimal whenever they occur.  But if one’s vision of historical development is based on the analogy of the growth of an organism, the idea of different principles applying at different stages will seem much more natural; after all, one wouldn’t try to hang a tire swing on a young sapling, or enter a newborn greyhound pup in a race. 
An organismic model of society tends to make suboptimal stages look natural.  Perhaps one root of Spencer’s distinction between relative and absolute ethics lies here?
[36.] Herbert Spencer, “The Right to Ignore the State”; in Social Statics: or, The Conditions Essential to Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (London: John Chapman 1850), pp. 206-216.  It is incidentally difficult to see how this right is to be reconciled with the right of the community, asserted by Spencer, to charge individuals for the use of land.  (“The Right to the Use of the Earth,” Social Statics, pp. 114-25.)  If each individual is free to refuse all association with the state, what agency is to collect the land-use fees?
[37.] Social Statics, p. 13.
[38.] Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1978). Vol. 1, I.14, §§ 92-95.
[39.] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London: Methuen & Co., 1904), Vol. 1, I, § 2.
[40.] Gustave de Molinari, “De la production de la sécurité,” Journal des Économistes (Feb. 1849), pp. 277-90; translation online:  <>.   See also Molinari, Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare: entretiens sur les lois économiques et défense de la propriété (Paris: Guillaumin, 1849); translation online:  </pages/molinari-s-evenings-on-saint-lazarus-street-1849>.
[41.] Benjamin R. Tucker, Instead Of A Book, By A Man Too Busy To Write One: A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism (Boston: self-pubished, 1893); online:  <>.
[42.] Francis Dashwood Tandy, Voluntary Socialism: A Sketch (Denver: self-published, 1896); online:  <>.
[43.] Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1873), p. 121.
[44.] Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay, trans. M. Campbell Smith (London: Allen and Unwin, [1795] 1917), pp. 153-54; online:  </titles/357>.
[45.] Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 51.
[46.] Herbert Spencer, “Specialized Administration,” pp. 458-59, in The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1981), pp. 435-86.
[47.] Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1981), p. 191.
[48.] Don Lavoie, National Economic Planning: What Is Left? (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1985), pp. 67-69; online:  <>.
[49.] There’s a reason the Center for a Stateless Society’s blog <> is called Stigmergy <>.
[50.] Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Facts of the Social Sciences,” in Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: Chicago Universityi Press, 1948), pp. 57-76; online:  <>.
[51.] Marx’s views are, I take it, well known. For the others, see, e.g., Charles Dunoyer, L’Industrie et la morale considérées dans leurs rapports avec la liberté (Paris: A. Sautelet, 1825). Online: <>; Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, La Guerre et la Paix: recherches sur le principe et la constitution du droit des gens (Paris: E. Dentu, 1861); and Gustave de Molinari, Grandeur et Décadence de la Guerre (Paris, 1898). Online: <>.  An interesting exception is Frédéric Bastiat, who chides Proudhon for supposing that what is harmful today could be salutary in earlier eras; for discussion, see Roderick T. Long, “The Bastiat-Proudhon Debate on Interest: Commentary” (2008), online:    <>.