Spencer on voting as a poor instrument for protecting our rights to life, liberty, and property (1879)

Herbert Spencer

Found in The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2 (LF ed.)

The English radical individualist philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) distinguished between “rights properly so-called” (such as the rights to life, liberty and property) and “political rights so-called” (such as the right to vote). In his mind the latter were merely an “appliance” or an “instrument” for achieving the former. By 1879 Spencer was convinced that voting was not a very good way to preserve our rights but rather a means to put ourselves “in bondage” to the state:

… the acquirement of so-called political rights is by no means equivalent to the acquirement of rights properly so-called. The one is but an instrumentality for the obtainment and maintenance of the other; and it may or may not be used to achieve those ends. The essential question is–How are rights, properly so-called, to be preserved–defended against aggressors, foreign and domestic? This or that system of government is but a system of appliances. Government by representation is one of these systems of appliances; and the choosing of representatives by the votes of all citizens is one of various ways in which a representative government may be formed. Hence voting being simply a method of creating an appliance for the preservation of rights, the question is whether universal possession of votes conduces to creation of the best appliance for preservation of rights. We have seen above that it does not effectually secure this end; and we shall hereafter see that under existing conditions it is not likely to secure it.

In his major work on political philosophy, The Principles of Ethics (1879), Herbert Spencer makes a clear distinction between our fundamental rights (or rights properly understood) to such things as life, liberty, and property, and other derivative or instrumental “rights” (or “so-called rights”) which were used to create political structures or “appliances” designed to protect and guarantee those fundamental rights. Voting and representative governments were thus in his view such rights protecting “appliances.”

Unfortunately, the way in which voting and representative governments had evolved in Britain, France, and the United States by 1880 had shown that they were fast losing their original purpose of protecting rights and were becoming new forms of statism designed to violate the rights of the many for the benefit of a ruling few. Spencer particularly mentioned the U.S. in this regard with its corruption of local government by “wirepullers” and political “bosses,” the enacting of “blue laws”, and the imposition of tariffs.