Liberty Matters

Spencer: A Paterson-Rand Connection?


On the question of Spencer’s influence on 20th-century libertarianism, Alberto mentions Albert J. Nock, and George adds Frank Chodorov and Murray Rothbard.  Rothbard is an interesting nexus here, since he was influenced not only by Spencer but also by those whom Spencer influenced – including the radical English Spencerians Auberon Herbert[82] and Wordsworth Donisthorpe;[83] the Belgian economist and free-market anarchist Gustave de Molinari;[84] the American sociologist William Graham Sumner;[85] and a great many of the American individualist anarchists.[86]
But another intriguing possibility of influence, not running through Rothbard, concerns Isabel Paterson, whose 1943 book, God of the Machine, played an important role in the birth of the modern libertarian movement.   Paterson was familiar enough with Spencer to have read his relatively obscure essay “Re-Barbarization,”[87] which she refers to in noting:  “Ninety years ago Herbert Spencer perceived the political trend; he said: ‘We are being rebarbarized.’”[88]  Paterson also devotes a chapter of the book to the distinction between the society of status and the society of contract;[89] she cites Henry Sumner Maine[90] for the terms, but the echo of Spencer’s opposition between militancy and contract is clear throughout Paterson’s discussion.  Given Paterson’s enormous influence on Ayn Rand, and Rand’s enormous influence in turn on modern libertarianism, we have here a possible indirect Spencerian influence.
Did Rand herself read Spencer? It’s difficult to know.  But there are some interesting parallels between Rand’s defense of rights and the one Spencer offers in his essay “The Great Political Superstition.”  Spencer, for example, writes:
Those who hold that life is valuable, hold, by implication, that men ought not to be prevented from carrying on life-sustaining activities. In other words, if it is said to be “right” that they should carry them on, then, by permutation, we get the assertion that they “have a right” to carry them on. Clearly the conception of “natural rights” originates in recognition of the truth that if life is justifiable, there must be a justification for the performance of acts essential to its preservation; and, therefore, a justification for those liberties and claims which make such acts possible.[91]
It’s not hard to see a similarity between that passage and the following one from Rand:
If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.[92]
Herbert Spencer actually makes an appearance, of sorts, in Rand’s novel The Fountainhead; her character Gail Wynand steals one of Spencer’s books.[93]  As Wynand is a semi-virtuous figure whose tragic flaw is his failure to distinguish individualist self-expression from the struggle to dominate others, Rand’s connecting him with Spencer may be a veiled criticism of Spencer’s evolutionary views.
[82.] See, e.g., Auberon Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays, ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1978); </titles/591> Herbert, Taxation and Anarchism: A Discussion between the Hon. Auberon Herbert and J.H. Levy (London: The Personal Rights Association, 1912). </titles/2257>.
[83.] See, e.g., Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Principles of Plutology (London: Williams and Norgate, 1876); <> Donisthorpe, Law in a Free State (London: Macmillan and Co., 1895); </titles/290> Donisthorpe, Individualism: A System of Politics (London: Macmillan and Co., 1889). </titles/291>.
[84.] See, e.g., Gustave de Molinari, L’Évolution Politique et la Révolution (Paris: C. Reinwald, 1884); <> Molinari, Grandeur et Décadence de la Guerre (Paris: Guillaumin, 1898).  <>. 
[85.] William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1911); </titles/346> Sumner, War and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919).  </titles/345>
[86.] Spencerian terminology, including the law of equal freedom and the distinction between militant and industrial societies, permeates the individualist anarchist writings.  See, e.g., Dyer D. Lum, The Economics of Anarchy: A Study of the Industrial Type (New York: Twentieth Century Publishing Co., 1890);  <> Clara Dixon Davidson, “Relations Between Parents and Children,” Liberty, September 3, 1892;  <> Francis Dashwood Tandy, Voluntary Socialism: A Sketch (Denver: self-published, 1896). <>.
[87.] Herbert Spencer, “Re-Barbarization,” in Facts and Comments (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1902), ch. 25, pp. 172-88.  <>
[88.] Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943), p. 232.  <>.
[89.] Ibid., ch. 5.
[90.] Sir Henry Sumner Maine, Ancient Law, its connection with the early history of society and its relation to modern ideas, with an introduction and notes by Sir Frederick Pollock, 4th American from the 10th London edition (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1906). </titles/2001>
[91.] Herbert Spencer, “The Great Political Superstition,” in The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1981).  </titles/330>
[92.] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1996), p. 1061. 
[93.] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Plume, 1994), p. 419.