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Herbert Spencer on the right of political and economic “dissenters” to have their different beliefs and practices respected by the state (1842)

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) argues that political and economic “dissenters” should have the same right as religious dissenters to have their different beliefs and practices respected by the state:

The chief arguments that are urged against an established religion, may be used with equal force against an established charity. The dissenter submits, that no party has a right to compel him to contribute to the support of doctrines, which do not meet his approbation. The rate-payer may as reasonably argue, that no one is justified in forcing him to subscribe towards the maintenance of persons, whom he does not consider deserving of relief. The advocate of religious freedom, does not acknowledge the right of any council, or bishop, to choose for him what he shall believe, or what he shall reject. So the opponent of a poor law, does not acknowledge the right of any government, or commissioner, to choose for him who are worthy of his charity, and who are not. … So the dissenter from established charity, objects that no man has a right to step in between him and the exercise of his religion.

A poor law, however, is not only inexpedient in practice, but it is defective in principle. The chief arguments that are urged against an established religion, may be used with equal force against an established charity. The dissenter submits, that no party has a right to compel him to contribute to the support of doctrines, which do not meet his approbation. The rate-payer may as reasonably argue, that no one is justified in forcing him to subscribe towards the maintenance of persons, whom he does not consider deserving of relief. The advocate of religious freedom, does not acknowledge the right of any council, or bishop, to choose for him what he shall believe, or what he shall reject. So the opponent of a poor law, does not acknowledge the right of any government, or commissioner, to choose for him who are worthy of his charity, and who are not. The dissenter from an established church, maintains that religion will always be more general, and more sincere, when the support of its ministry is not compulsory. The dissenter from a poor law, maintains that charity will always be more extensive, and more beneficial, when it is voluntary. The dissenter from an established church can demonstrate that the intended benefit of a state religion, will always be frustrated by the corruption which the system invariably produces. So the dissenter from a poor law, can show that the proposed advantages of state charity, will always be neutralized by the evils of pauperism, which necessarily follow in its train. The dissenter from an established church, objects that no man has a right to step in between him and his religion. So the dissenter from established charity, objects that no man has a right to step in between him and the exercise of his religion.

How is it, that those who are so determined in their endeavours to rid themselves of the domination of a national church—who declare that they do not need the instruction of the state in the proper explanation of the gospel—how is it that these same men, are tamely allowing and even advocating, the interference of the state, in the exercise of one of the most important precepts of that gospel? They deny the right of the legislature to explain the theory, and yet argue the necessity of its direction in the practice. Truly it indicates but little consistency on the part of dissenters, that whilst they defend their independence in the article of faith, they have so little confidence in their own principles, that they look for extraneous aid in the department of works. The man who sees the inhabitants of a country deficient in spiritual instruction, and hence maintains the necessity of a national religion, is doing no more than the one who finds part of the population wanting in food and clothing, and thence infers the necessity of a national charity.

About this Quotation:

In a very early work the young 22 year old Spencer wrote a pathbreaking work on “The Proper Sphere of Government” (1842) in which he argued that the government should be extremely limited to just “the preservation of order, and the protection of person and property.” Thus the government should not interfere with or regulate commerce or religion, and should not be involved with providing charity, education, or public health services, and should never engage in war or establishing colonies overseas. What is original about his argument is that he took a cornerstone of early liberal thought, that “the liberty of conscience” (i.e. religious belief and practice) was an “unalienable right” that every person should be free to enjoy unmolested by the state, and universalized it. He wanted to know why this right to religious dissent could’t be secularized and thus made universal to include political and economic “dissenters” as well. The example he gives here is the belief some liberals held that government provided “charity” is costly, inefficient, and violates the property rights of tax payers. This was a deeply held belief that was just as dear to them as religious beliefs were to others. So, if it was wrong to force religious dissenters to give up their deeply held beliefs and to abandon their religious practices for the sake of another government approved set of practices, why wasn’t this also true for the political and economic “dissenters” who objected to government coerced charity?

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