Liberty Matters

Herbert Spencer’s Two Greatest Contributions to Sociology

1) Alberto Mingardi has rightfully stressed Spencer’s significant contributions to the theory of spontaneous order. This theme is interwoven throughout Spencer’s writings and may be viewed as the thread that connects his many social observations and analyses. But with the exception of some of Spencer’s libertarian commentators, this valuable feature of Spencer’s writings has been largely overlooked in secondary sources. As I wrote in a 1981 article:
Herbert Spencer, in my judgment, is a major theorist in the spontaneous order school of social theory. The similarities, for example, between Spencer and F.A. Hayek are remarkable, yet Hayek pays little attention to Spencer’s contributions. And it should be noted that Spencer did more than simply repeat the principles of spontaneous order defended by Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and others. In a sense, Spencer’s entire social theory may be seen as an elaboration of the spontaneous order model. Spencer explicated this model in far more detail than his predecessors.[122]
2) Perhaps Spencer’s greatest contribution to the sociology of the state was his formulation and extensive treatments of two ideal types: the militant and industrial forms of social organization. This distinction would influence later sociologists, as we see in the 1928 discussion by Pitirim A. Sorokin, who wrote: “In its essentials, Spencer’s generalization appears to me to be valid.”[123] Sorokin gave an excellent summary of Spencer’s ideal types and their respective relationships to war and peace. Here is the first part of that summary: 
Probably the most important generalization in this field [of the relationship between war and social types] was set forth by H. Spencer, in his theory of the militant and the industrial type of society. The essentials of Spencer’s theory are: first, that war and militarism lead to an expansion of governmental control; second, to its centralization; third, to its despotism; fourth, to an increase in social stratification; and fifth, to a decrease of autonomy and self-government of the people. In this way, war and militarism tend to transform a nation into an army, and an army into a nation. Peace tends to call forth the opposite results: a decrease of governmental interference, an increase of the people’s liberty and self-government, a weakening of social and political stratification, and decentralization.[124]
Sorokin, following Spencer, noted that the militant type of society is not limited to one kind of government or ideology.
[War and militarism] may assume various “dresses”—especially in the form of “ideologies” and “speech-reactions—according to the circumstances. Sometimes they have the appearance of a despotism of military leaders, kings, and aristocratic dictators. But sometimes they assume the forms of “socialism” and “communism,” “dictatorship of the proletariat” or “nationalization.” In spite of the difference in such “dresses,” this difference is quite superficial. Both types of “dresses” wrap objective social processes of an identical nature. Both tend to realize an expansion of governmental control (in the form of a “communist,” “generals’ or king’s despotic control). Both tend to make it unlimited (in the form of an emperor’s autocracy or of a despotic “dictatorship” of communist leaders) through the universal control of “nationalized” industry and wealth; through the limitation of private ownership, property, and initiative; through the control and regulation of the behavior and relationships of the people; both restrain the liberty of individuals up to the limit, and turn the nation into the status of an army entirely controlled by the authorities. The names are different in the two cases; the essence is the same. Thus, according to Spencer, militarism, “communism,” and “socialism” are brothers.[125]
Sorokin (again, writing in 1928) noted Spencer’s considerable influence on other sociologists.
Spencer even predicted a coming temporary rise of socialism as a contemporary “dress” for the expansion of governmental control due to militarism. Spencer’s theory, with some modifications, has been further developed by W.G. Sumner in his War and Other Essays, New Haven, 1911. It was brilliantly corroborated by R. Pöhlmann, in his Geschichte d. Antiken Kommunismus und Socialismus; by V. Pareto in his excellent Les systémes socialistes, and by a great many other investigators of the problems of socialism, militarism, despotism, and étatism.[126]
Spencer remains a respected figure in sociology, as evidenced by the prominence given to Spencer’s ideas by Robert L. Carneiro in Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology, a book that I highly recommend to anyone with a serious interest in Spencer. [127]
[122.] George H. Smith, “Herbert Spencer’s Theory of Causation,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. V. No. 2 (Spring 1981): 151, note 89. <>.
[123.] Pitirim A. Sorokin, Contemporary Sociological Theories (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), p. 344.
[124.] Ibid., 344.
[125.] Ibid., 345.
[126.] Ibid., 345, note 77.
[127.] Robert L. Carneiro, Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2003). See also, Robert L. Caneiro, "Herbert Spencer as an Anthropologist," The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 5, Number 2 (1981) <>.