Herbert Spencer on “the seen” and “the unseen” consequences of the actions of politicians (1884)

Herbert Spencer

The English radical individualist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) criticizes politicians for focusing only on the “direct” and “proximate” consequences of the legislation they introduce, and ignoring the “indirect” or “remote” consequences.“ He believes the "political momentum” they have created will lead to a new form of slavery:

The incident is recalled to me on contemplating the ideas of the so-called “practical” politician, into whose mind there enters no thought of such a thing as political momentum, still less of a political momentum which, instead of diminishing or remaining constant, increases. The theory on which he daily proceeds is that the change caused by his measure will stop where he intends it to stop. He contemplates intently the things his act will achieve, but thinks little of the remoter issues of the movement his act sets up, and still less its collateral issues. … The question of questions for the politician should ever be— “What type of social structure am I tending to produce?” But this is a question he never entertains.

In this passage Spencer seems to be channelling Frédéric Bastiat’s idea of “the seen” and “the unseen,” or what Spencer calls here “the direct” and “the indirect”, or “the proximate” and “the remote.” We have removed the copious historical examples Spencer gives to support his argument. As often happens, his examples often hide the more theoretical point he is trying to make. In this case, the idea that repeated legislation of a certain kind can eventually lead to an entirely new social structure which may not have been the intention of the original legislators. He summarizes several decades of social and economic legislation in England which tended to weaken one kind of social structure, that is a “system of voluntary cooperation by companies, associations, unions”, and replace it with a new structure, namely “compulsory cooperation under State-agencies.” This may not have been the intention of what he calls “the practical politician” who is only interested in solving short term problems (as well as getting re-elected) but the unintended consequence of his actions and those of his fellow politicians produce such “a voluminous flood” of legislation that a tipping point is reached and freedom is replaced by a new kind of “slavery.” What he would like the “practical politician” to do is to step back and ask what kind of social structure would result if repeated doses of this kind of legislation were passed over many years. He calls this “the question of questions” for all legislators.