Herbert Spencer on the prospects for liberty (1882)

Herbert Spencer

The English radical individualist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) thought that the prospects for liberty in late 19th century England and America were not good if people continued to believe that the general welfare could be improved by legislation and “wirepulling politicians”:

The days when “paper constitutions” were believed in have gone by—if not with all, still with instructed people. The general truth that the characters of the units determine the character of the aggregate, though not admitted overtly and fully, is yet admitted to some extent—to the extent that most politically-educated persons do not expect forthwith completely to change the state of a society by this or that kind of legislation. But when fully admitted, this truth carries with it the conclusion that political institutions cannot be effectually modified faster than the characters of citizens are modified; and that if greater modifications are by any accident produced, the excess of change is sure to be undone by some counter-change. …

When, as in the United States, republican institutions, instead of being slowly evolved, are all at once created, there grows up within them an agency of wirepulling politicians, exercising a real rule which overrides the nominal rule of the people at large. When, as at home, an extended franchise, very soon re-extended, vastly augments the mass of those who, having before been controlled are made controllers, they presently fall under the rule of an organized body that chooses their candidates and arranges for them a political programme, which they must either accept or be powerless. So that in the absence of a duly-adapted character, liberty given in one direction is lost in another.

In this piece, after having developed his theory of the two different forms into which societies could develop, the militant or the industrial types of society (one based primarily on coercion and the other on voluntary transactions), Spencer turns to applying his theory to predict how the society in which he lived would develop in the near future. In the late 1870s and early 1880s when he was writing it seemed that European societies were tending away from war and the coercive “militant” types of political and economic structures which were its product, and were turning increasingly to more voluntary market-based or “industrial” types of societies. If this trend continued, he predicted that more and more activities which had been undertaken by the state would be supplied voluntarily by local communities or by the free market. If this trend were halted by the outbreak of another war or if people chose to align themselves with coercive trade unions or political parties then European societies would be regimented and subject to what he called “State-dictation” with the loss of prosperity and innovation which this entailed. He saw the dangers to liberty coming from a different direction in the United States, where he saw republican institutions increasingly coming under the control of corrupt “wirepulling politicians” would would wield real power in the name of the people. Given the presence of both these forces at work in modern society, the industrial and the militant, Spencer believed that the only thing the advocate of liberty could do was “to facilitate the action of forces tending to cause advance” and attempt to prevent “mis-direction of them” tending to increase the power of the state.