Herbert Spencer takes “philosophical politicians” to task for claiming that government promotes the “public good” when in fact they are seeking “party aggrandisement” (1843)

Herbert Spencer

Found in The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom (LF ed.)

Herbert Spencer demolishes the arguments often put forth by what he dismissively calls, “philosophical politicians”, to be acting in the interests of the “public good” when they enact legislation:

Philosophical politicians usually define government, as a body whose province it is, to provide for the “general good.” But this practically amounts to no definition at all, if by a definition is meant a description, in which the limits of the thing described are pointed out. It is necessary to the very nature of a definition, that the words in which it is expressed should have some determinate meaning; but the expression “general good,” is of such uncertain character, a thing so entirely a matter of opinion, that there is not an action that a government could perform, which might not be contended to be a fulfilment of its duties. Have not all our laws, whether really enacted for the public benefit or for party aggrandisement, been passed under the plea of promoting the “general good?”

In this series of letters from 1843, Spencer defines what he means by the “proper sphere of government”. Needless to say it is not very much, just defending the natural rights of man, or the administration of justice. In each letter Spencer takes a common function of government (the poor laws, an established church, war and foreign policy, national education, and so on) and demolishes it as a sound rationale for government intervention. This essay by the young Spencer (he was 23) is a forgotten gem written by a man who would become one of the leading liberal lights in the second half of the 19th century.