Liberty Matters

Spencer on Poverty: Wheat and Chaff


The popular image of Spencer is that of a crude eugenicist who favoured letting the poor and weak die off to improve the species. The four of us participating in this conversation know that this characterisation is untrue.  But it’s only fair to recognize that this perception is partly Spencer’s fault.
The two passages most frequently cited against Spencer in this regard both come from Social Statics – specifically from chapters 25 and 28, on “Poor-Laws” and “Sanitary Supervision” respectively.  In the first, Spencer praises the process by which “society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members,” and chides “spurious philanthropists” for encouraging “the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent by offering them an unfailing provision.”[98]  In the second, Spencer picks up the same theme, explaining that “the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such” (viz., the unfit), to “clear the world of them, and make room for better,” and pronounces the stern verdict:  “If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”[99]  Certainly the tone of these remarks seems calculated to confirm the traditional stereotype.
Of course Spencer quickly follows up each of these passages by insisting that it would be a mistake to infer from them the undesirability of voluntary charity.  After the first passage, he notes that while “[a]t first sight these considerations seem conclusive against all relief to the poor – voluntary as well as compulsory,” in fact his argument condemns only “whatever private charity enables the recipients to elude the necessities of our social existence,” but “makes no objection” to “that charity which may be described as helping men to help themselves,” but on the contrary “countenances it.”  Such charity is to be extended not only to those who are in need through no fault of their own – the victims of “[a]ccidents,” “unforeseen events,” “want of knowledge,” and “the dishonesty of others” – but also to “the prodigal,” though only “after severe hardship has branded his memory with the unbending conditions of social life to which he must submit.”  While it is true, Spencer explains, that “by these ameliorations the process of adaptation must be remotely interfered with,” he considers that “in the majority of cases, it will not be so much retarded in one direction as it will be advanced in another.”[100]
The second passage is followed by similar remarks:
Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated: albeit there is unquestionably harm done when sympathy is shown, without any regard to ultimate results. But the drawbacks hence arising are nothing like commensurate with the benefits otherwise conferred. Only when this sympathy prompts to a breach of equity – only when it originates an interference forbidden by the law of equal freedom ... does it work pure evil.[101]
The fact that the two passages most often cited as evidence of Spencer’s opposition to charity are immediately followed by attempts to forestall any anti-charity inferences shows that Spencer’s bad reputation is certainly not solely his fault.  The readiness with which Spencer’s critics rip these passages from their context with no acknowledgement of the directly following disclaimers is suggestive of either dishonesty or inexcusable sloppiness. 
All the same, the apparent coldness and grudgingness of these passages does not make Spencer seem endearing.  And later passages are similarly problematic – as for example this one from “The Coming Slavery”: 
[W]hen the miseries of the poor are dilated upon, they are thought of as the miseries of the deserving poor, instead of being thought of as the miseries of the undeserving poor, which in large measure they should be....[102]
The plain implication of these lines is that those who are in need through their own fault are the rule, while the innocently needy are the exception.  And this from the man who had once denounced the English political system as a contrivance for diverting “the resources of the poor, starved, overburdened people” into the coffers of the “landowners of England” and “rich owners of colonial property”![103]  Alberto’s observation that “when he spoke of welfare dependence, he may sound awkward to the contemporary reader” seems like an understatement.
There’s a brighter side, though, which I’ll talk about in my next post.
[98.] Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed (London: John Chapman, 1850), ch. 25, § 6. </titles/273#Spencer_0331_636>
[99.] Social Statics, ch. 28, § 4.  </titles/273#Spencer_0331_729>
[100.] Social Statics, ch. 25, § 6.
[101.] Social Statics, ch. 28, § 4.
[102.] Herbert Spencer, “The Coming Slavery,” in The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1981).  </titles/330#Spencer_0020_97>
[103.] Herbert Spencer, “The Proper Sphere of Government,” Letter 6, in The Man versus the State, with Six Essays.  </titles/330#Spencer_0020_382>