Liberty Matters

Herbert Spencer: Still Unappreciated After All These Years

Was Herbert Spencer’s influence in the revival of classical liberalism in the 20th century an extensive one? I guess it depends to what we deem to be extensive. George Smith rightly reminds me that Murray Rothbard frequently mentioned and praised Spencer. Rothbard read and understood him, and I would say he even sympathized with him. There are certain affinities, I would say, between them. For one, they have both came to be identified with the doctrine they held dear and tried to perfect. But can we really trace a strong Spencerian influence over the development of Rothbard’s thought? I am not particularly sure.
I take Smith’s point that the great Frank Chodorov was influenced by Spencer. Indeed, the "Old Right" may be the link between Spencer and Rothbard, explaining how the second was influenced by the first.
I would thus rephrase my point as follows. On the revival of classical liberalism that developed in the second half of the 20th century, Spencer’s influence was negligible. In particular, the elaboration of F.A. Hayek’s thought could have been a perfect occasion to go back to Spencer and read him with a freer mind. But that didn’t happen.
In Hayek we can find several insights that might recall Spencer. But we have no grounds to say that reading Spencer helped Hayek fine-tune his own ideas, and in fact we have the impression he looked to 19th-century British liberalism with some disdain. In “Individualism: True and False,” Hayek came close to indicting Spencer with what he considered the unhealthy confusion between continental and British liberalism:
Partly because the classical economists of the nineteenth century, and particularly John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, were almost as much influenced by the French as by the English tradition, all sorts of conceptions and assumptions completely alien to true individualism have come to be regarded as essential parts of its doctrine. [58]
Thus Hayek not only considered Spencer “a classical economist,” but he conflated him with John Stuart Mill (whom he studied deeply) and regarded him as smuggling “assumptions completely alien to true individualism” into the classical-liberal doctrine.
Perhaps the only major 20th-century classical-liberal work in which explicit homage to Spencer can be found is Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, which grabs Spencer’s “fable of the slave” from “The Coming Slavery (1884)”.[59]
Regarding the Social Darwinism stigma, it has held strong. Rothbard was indeed one of the very few who did look at Social Darwinism with a free mind (see his “Social Darwinism Reconsidered” (1971),[60] and he came to appreciate both Spencer and William Graham Sumner. I think Rothbard deserves great credit for that (among many other things).
David Levy raised the issue of Spencer’s “utilitarianism,” and George Smith responded that we may consider Spencer a utilitarian, but nevertheless a utilitarian of a different sort. Social Statics begins with a powerful refutation of Bentham’s “expediency philosophy.” Spencer thought moral principles should be derived from the general laws of life, rather than from narrower pain-pleasure considerations. Anti-Benthamite Thomas Hodgskin rejoiced at reading Social Statics. In his excellent The System of Liberty, the same George Smith considers Spencer one of the most important “liberal critics of Bentham.” Bruno Leoni thought Spencer was the holder of a “new doctrine of natural rights” in which they take “the sociological form of an assessment."[61]   Spencer’s utilitarianism has been quite debated. (John Gray, David Weinstein, Tim Gray, among others, have written on the subject.)
Certainly Spencer thought of himself as an utilitarian, but he maintained utility should be “not empirically estimated but rationally determined” and thus it “enjoins this maintenance of individual rights; and, by implication, negatives any course which traverses them”. This doesn’t mean he was “rationalistic” in the sense of “constructivist,” since he considered emotions and character crucial factors in the evolution of moral sentiments and in the progress of human beings. He didn’t believe in one-size-fits-all “rational” political arrangements.
Another much debated subject over time has been Spencer’s “drift to conservatism.” His hopes for political evolution from militancy to industrialism became frustrated with time. Spencer labeled the “new” liberalism the “New Toryism,” which got him the reputation of a grumpy old man. But I would highly recommend a careful reading of The Man Versus the State. If you read it with a sympathetic mind and go to the essence of the text without being distracted by many examples that may look rather odd to the contemporary reader, you’ll see that it is all there -- all the problems that frustrated and challenged classical liberals in the 20th century: the unintended consequences of regulation, welfare dependency, the fact that one government intervention often calls for another, and democracy as a political formula that tends to legitimize all and every decision of political rulers. You may find that Spencer was better at identifying problems than at offering solutions. And yet it was a rather prescient book. I hope one day it will be better appreciated as such.
[58.] Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 11.
[59.]Nozick discusses "The Tale of the Slave" in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. pp. 290-92. This is based upon Spencer's similar discussion in "The Coming Slavery", in The Man Versus the State: With Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom([Indianapolis, Ind.: LibertyClassics, 1981, pp. 55-57.
[60.] Rothbard, “Social Darwinism Reconsidered” The Libertarian Forum, January 1971.
[61.]Bruno Leoni , “Il pensiero politico e sociale dell’Ottocento e del Novecento” (1953), in  Il pensiero politico moderno e contemporaneo, a cura di Antonio Masala (Macerata: Liberilibri, 2008), p. 99.