Liberty Matters

Puzzles Aside, Spencer Is Worth Reading


Spencer’s philosophy is a vast, interesting, and puzzling matter. While writing my monograph, which George H. Smith was so kind to mention in his essay (Herbert Spencer, Continuum, 2011), I was glad I could concentrate exclusively on his political thought. That book was conceived as an introductory text and is far from satisfying for a refined reader. I should take this opportunity to apologize for the mistakes I have certainly made, grammar included, and to thank the four readers who succeeded in finishing the book—including, and this pleases my ego enormously, George himself.
I’d just like to stress a couple of points now that this conversation is coming to an end.
The first is that the discussion over Spencer’s sometimes puzzling organicism shouldn’t lead readers to infer the existence of a soft spot on the part of Spencer for some kind of interventionism. On the contrary, one of the main arguments Spencer uses against interventionism is precisely that, because the social organism evolves and lives in way  that human beings do not understand, they should not interfere with it. Spencer’s “The Social Organism”begins with one of his favorite quotations from Sir James Mackintosh, on constitutions that are not made but grow.
In that very essay, Spencer explains that:
It is well that the lives of all parts of an animal should be merged in the life of the whole, because the whole has a corporate consciousness capable of happiness or misery. But it is not so with a society; since its living units do not and cannot lose individual consciousness, and since the community as a whole has no corporate consciousness. This is an everlasting reason why the welfares of citizens cannot rightly be sacrificed to some supposed benefit of the State, and why, on the other hand, the State is to be maintained solely for the benefit of citizens. The corporate life must here be subservient to the lives of the parts, instead of the lives of the parts being subservient to the corporate life.[94]
I do certainly agree with George Smith that “analogies should serve to clarify the point one wishes to make, and Spencer’s innumerable “‘parallelisms’ between organisms and societies rarely serve this purpose.” I just wanted to make clear, for readers for whom this online discussion may be the first encounter with Spencer, that his social-organism analogy reflects his concern with what he sees as the ever-growing complexities of society.
Spencer views this complexity as the main argument against interventionism. This is from The Study of Sociology:
In a society living, growing, changing, every new factor becomes a permanent force; modifying more or less the direction of movement determined by the aggregate of forces. Never simple and direct, but, by the co-operation of so many causes, made irregular, involved, and always rhythmical, the course of social change cannot be judged of its general direction by inspecting any small portion of it. Each action will be inevitably be followed, by some direct or indirect reaction, and this again by a re-reaction; and until the successive effects have shown themselves, no one can say how the total motion will be modified.[95]
The Study of Sociology is a plea for humility and patience in reading social phenomena: people’s biases and uncertain data can embolden grand and yet mistaken claims. This work of Spencer presents caveats that could be used by social scientists today too. Likewise, The Man Versus the State is perhaps the most powerful book ever devoted, by and the large, to the subject of the unintended consequences and perverse effects of the tinkering in society’s workings.
Writes Spencer in “The Sins of Legislators”:
A druggist's assistant who, after listening to the description of pains which he mistakes for those of colic, but which are really caused by inflammation of the caecum, prescribes a sharp purgative and kills the patient, is found guilty of manslaughter. He is not allowed to excuse himself on the ground that he did not intend harm but hoped for good. The plea that he simply made a mistake in his diagnosis is not entertained. He is told that he had no right to risk disastrous consequences by meddling in a matter concerning which his knowledge was so inadequate. The fact that he was ignorant how great was his ignorance is not accepted in bar of judgement. It is tacitly assumed that the experience common to all should have taught him that even the skilled, and much more the unskilled, make mistakes in the identification of disorders and in the appropriate treatment; and that having disregarded the warning derivable from common experience, he was answerable for the consequences.We measure the responsibilities of legislators for mischiefs they may do, in a much more lenient fashion. In most cases, so far from thinking of them as deserving punishment for causing disasters by laws ignorantly enacted, we scarcely think of them as deserving reprobation. It is held that common experience should have taught the druggist's assistant, untrained as he is, not to interfere; but it is not held that common experience should have taught the legislator not to interfere till he has trained himself.[96]
Legislators are ignorant, and yet they are amazingly bold in meddling with complex social phenomena they cannot possibly understand. As a consequence, their interventions may produce consequences that are frequently the opposite of the ones they wanted to achieve. Political interventions are conceived as though Policy A can produce Outcome B, but a complex order has many dimensions and is continuously changing and unfolding: this makes intervention particularly pernicious.
In a famous essay, Robert Merton argued that “in some one of its numerous forms, the problem of the unanticipated consequences of purposive action has been treated by virtually every substantial contributor to the long history of social thought.”[97] Yet I think there is room to argue that Spencer made that argument particularly consistent and conspicuous.
The other point I wanted to stress concerns Spencer’s antimilitarism. As George has emphasized, Spencer’s appreciation for war as conducive to the development of social cooperation is puzzling precisely because of his strenuous antimilitarism. But the latter shouldn’t be overlooked.
Spencer has been one of the most admirably consistent classical liberals in his continuous advocacy of peace and opposition to war. I would like to point the reader to this wonderful little piece from Facts and Comments (1902) that Roderick Long has put online on his website. The subject is “Patriotism.” It is a short read of great profundity. Indeed, there are good reasons to read Spencer today.
[94.] Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, (Indianapolis, Ind.: LibertyClassics, 1981). [Editor: Possibly a reference to the conclusion of Mackintosh's "A Discourse on the Law of Nature and Nations" (1799) where he states "Such a body of political laws must in all countries arise out of the character and situation of a people; they must grow with its progress, be adapted to its peculiarities, change with its changes, and be incorporated with its habits. Human wisdom cannot form such a constitution by one act, for human wisdom cannot create the materials of which it is composed." See, Sir James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works. Three Volumes, complete in One. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871) </titles/2266#Mackintosh_1446_59>.]
[95.] Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology (London: Henry S. King, 1873).
[96.] Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, (Indianapolis, Ind.: LibertyClassics, 1981).
[97.] Robert K. Merton, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” American Sociological Review, I, 6, 1936, p. 894.