Herbert Spencer on the idea that society is a spontaneous growth and not artificially put together (1860)

Herbert Spencer

Found in Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative, Vol. 1

The English radical individualist social theorist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) based much of his theory of society on the idea of spontaneous orders a century before Hayek did. Here is an early statement of this from 1860:

Yet that societies are not artificially put together, is a truth so manifest, that it seems wonderful men should ever have overlooked it. Perhaps nothing more clearly shows the small value of historical studies, as they have been commonly pursued. You need but to look at the changes going on around, or observe social organization in its leading traits, to see that these are neither supernatural, nor are determined by the wills of individual men, as by implication the older historians teach; but are consequent on general natural causes. The one case of the division of labour suffices to prove this. It has not been by command of any ruler that some men have become manufacturers, while others have remained cultivators of the soil. … Thus that which is so obviously true of the industrial structure of society, is true of its whole structure. The fact that “constitutions are not made, but grow,” is simply a fragment of the much larger fact, that under all its aspects and through all its ramifications, society is a growth and not a manufacture.

Spencer is often hard to read because of the profusion of historical and anthropological examples he provides in order to make his points. He also liked to use many biological examples as was the fashion at the time. In this essay from 1860 he argues that society evolves like a living organism in which the various parts coordinate their activities to satisfy the needs of society without the direction provided by any central planner. The specific example he uses is that of the emergence of the division of labour. In language which is strikingly similar to that used by Adam Ferguson (and much admired by Hayek) he states that “vital arrangements of our social structure have arisen not by the devising of any one, but through the individual efforts of citizens to satisfy their own wants”. The division of labour which was made possible by means of the cooperative efforts of millions of individuals has produced far greater output than at any other time in human history. This “economic organization” which was created by millions of individuals going about their own private affairs has become “the all-essential organization” which can provide a model for all other aspects of the broader society, including the political, such as constitution making.