Spencer on spontaneous order produced by “the beneficent working of social forces” (1879)

Herbert Spencer

The English radical individualist philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) believed that the legislator makes a serious mistake in thinking of society “as a manufacture” in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that it is the result of “the spontaneous cooperations of men pursuing their private ends” in spite of much “governmental obstruction”:

Which is the more misleading, belief without evidence, or refusal to believe in presence of overwhelming evidence? If there is an irrational faith which persists without any facts to support it, there is an irrational lack of faith which persists spite of the accumulation of facts which should produce it; and we may doubt whether the last does not lead to worse results than the first.

The average legislator, equally with the average citizen, has no faith whatever in the beneficent working of social forces, notwithstanding the almost infinite illustrations of this beneficent working. He persists in thinking of a society as a manufacture and not as a growth: blind to the fact that the vast and complex organization by which its life is carried on, has resulted from the spontaneous cooperations of men pursuing their private ends.

In his major work on political philosophy, The Principles of Ethics (1879), Herbert Spencer brings together three strains of thought concerning how social structures are formed. One is the Scottish tradition enunciated by Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith which sees social orders emerging “spontaneously” through voluntary social and economic interaction among individuals, guided as it were by Smith’s “invisible hand” to create ordered structures which were not the express intent of the participants. A second tradition is a French one whose best known exponent is Frédéric Bastiat who argued that the selfish behaviour of profit seeking individuals produced a “harmonious” interlocking of buying and selling which was highly productive on the one hand and moral on the other hand in so far as coercion was not used in the transactions. Late in the 19th century Spencer adds a third strain which might be called “evolutionary”. In the post-Darwinian milieu Spencer argued that social and economic structures evolved “naturally” from the more simple to the more complex through a process of individual activity and “the spontaneous cooperations of men pursuing their private ends”. He contrasts this with the “artificial” and “manufactured” orders which politicians and legislators try to create, usually without much success.