Herbert Spencer Contribution To Sociology Essays

Herbert Spencer was a theorist whose valuable insights have often been drowned in a sea of irrelevance and spacious reasoning. He is popularly known as the British Aristotle and often called the second founding father of sociology. Spencer's ideas have left an indelible impression on the succeeding writers. Spencer's name was associated with the birth of sociology in England. Herbert Spencer was born an April 27, 1820, in Derby in England. He was a man of original and independent thinking. He has contributed to various fields of knowledge like philosophy, biology, psychology, anthropology and sociology. Spencer wrote a number of books. They are as follows.

1) Social Statics (1850)

2) First Principles (1862).

3) The study of Sociology (1873)

4) The Principles of Sociology in three volumes (1876-96)

5) The Man verses the State (1884) Organic Analogy:

Spencer is popularly known for his treatment of evolution. The evolutionary doctrine was no doubt the foundation of Spencer's sociological theory. He, however, presented the organic analogy, a secondary doctrine which also played a vital role in his thought system. He identified society with a biological organism. But this comparison of the society with the biological organism was not originally propounded by Herbert Spencer. Several other philosophers had given the concept previously. He established the hypothesis that society is like a biological organism and then proceeded to defend it against all objectives with great logical force. Indeed, he regarded the recognition of the similarity between society and organism as the first step towards a general theory of evaluation. In his "Principles of Sociology Spencer observed some similarities between biological and social organism:-

Society is thus viewed as being essentially analogous to an organism, with its interdependent parts or organs making up the body of society.

Spencer observed some similarities between biological and social organism:-

1) Both society and organisms are distinguished from inorganic matter by visible growth, a child grows up to a man, a small community becomes a great city, a small state an empire.

2) Both grow in size and this growth is accomplished by increasing complexity of structure,

3) In the organism and in society there is an interdependence of parts. The progressive differentiation of structure in both is accompanied by progressive differentiation of functions.

In both, the differentiation of structure is followed by a similar differentiation of function. 5) The life of society, like the life of an organism is far larger than the life of any of the units of parts.


Having out lined these similarities, Spencer points out the ways in which societies and organism differ from each other. The differences are as follows,

1) The organism is a concrete, integrated whole whereas society is a whole composed of discrete and dispersed elements.

2) In an organism consciousness is concentrated in a small part of the aggregate, while in society consciousness is diffused.

3) Unlike organisms, societies have no specific external form, such as a physical body with limbs or face.

4) In an organism, the parts are fixed and bound together in close contact while, in a society parts are separated and dispersed.

5) In an organism the parts exist for the benefit of the whole. In a society, the whole exists merely for the benefit of the individual.

However, in spite of such elaborate description, Spencer points out that his analogy mainly serves the purpose of scaffolding which is removed when the building is completed and that the scaffolding itself has no value. Spencer has given much importance to the term organism that the scaffolding is usually mistaken for the real structure.


Spencer's theory suffers from certain drawbacks. Spencer used his organic analogies in a ridiculous manner. For example, he compared the king's council to the medulla oblongata, the House of Lords to the cerebellum, and the House of commons to the cerebrum. The organic analogy was used by thinkers in their discussions even prior to Spencer. If a society is an organism, it undergoes a cycle of birth, maturity and death. But the death of a society does not come with organic inevitableness. A society need not die also. Timasheff is of the view that merely on the ground of systematic similarity, society cannot be considered an organism.

But in spite of all these criticisms, his organism theory highly influenced the later sociologists like Paulvan, Ward, Sumner and Giddings.


The English sociologist and individualist political philosopher Herbert Spencer has been either completely neglected or badly misinterpreted by scholars for over one hundred years. In this discussion George Smith explores an important aspect of Spencer's thinking, namely his "sociology of the state". Although Smith considers Spencer to be "one of the most fascinating and complex figures in the history of classical liberalism" he is concerned that there is a tension in his thought between Spencer the radical individualist moral and political philosopher and Spencer "the sociologist." In other words, perhaps we have "Das Herbert Spencer Problem" which needs to be resolved. On the one hand, Spencer believes in "absolute ethics" in his political and moral theory (that violence and coercion is morally wrong), and yet on the other hand seems to give the state a free pass ("relative ethics") when it comes to the emergence of the state and the role war and violence played in this process. He is joined in this discussion by David M. Levy, Professor of Economics at George Mason University; Roderick T. Long, Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University; and Alberto Mingardi, the founder and General Director of the Istituto Bruno Leoni.

See the Archive of "Liberty Matters".




George H. Smith, "Herbert Spencer's Sociology of the State" [November 2014]



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The Debate

Lead Essay: George H. Smith, "Herbert Spencer's Sociology of the State" [1 November 2014]

Responses and Critiques

  1. Alberto Mingardi, "Why Do Classical Liberals Neglect Herbert Spencer" [Posted: Nov. 6, 2014]
  2. Roderick T. Long, "Herbert Spencer:  Homo Non-Œconomicus" [Posted: Nov. 10, 2014]
  3. David M. Levy, "It’s All There in Social Statics" [Posted: Nov. 11, 2014]

The Conversation [to come]

  1. George H. Smith, "A Preliminary Reply to Alberto Mingardi, Roderick Long, and David Levy" [Posted: Nov. 13, 2014]
  2. Alberto Mingardi, "Herbert Spencer: Still Unappreciated After All These Years" [Posted: Nov. 17, 2014
  3. George H. Smith, "Did Herbert Spencer Misrepresent Benthamite Utilitarianism?" [Posted: Nov. 21, 2014]
  4. David Levy, "Spencer and Necessary Truths" [Posted: Nov. 21, 2014]
  5. George H. Smith, "Spencer on Utilitarianism" [Posted: Nov. 24, 2014]
  6. Alberto Mingardi, "Spencer and the Evolution of Morality" [Posted: Nov. 24, 2014]
  7. Roderick T. Long, "Spencer: A Paterson-Rand Connection?" [Posted: Nov. 25, 2014]
  8. Alberto Mingardi, "Puzzles Aside, Spencer Is Worth Reading" [Posted: Nov. 25, 2014]
  9. Roderick T. Long, "Spencer on Poverty:  Wheat and Chaff" [Posted: Nov. 26, 2014]
  10. Roderick T. Long, "Spencer’s Defense of the Poor" [Posted: Nov. 26, 2014]
  11. David M. Levy, "When Reading Spencer, Remember Smith" [Posted: Nov. 26, 2014]
  12. Roderick T. Long, "Spencer’s Conservative Turn?" [Posted: Nov. 27, 2014]
  13. George H. Smith, "Herbert Spencer’s Two Greatest Contributions to Sociology" [Posted: Nov. 27, 2014]
  14. Roderick T. Long, "Spencer and Eugenic Legislation" [Posted: Nov. 27, 2014]
  15. Sheldon Richman, "Fold your flapping wings soaring Legislature" [Posted: Nov. 27, 2014]
  16. Roderick T. Long, "Spencer on Banking" [Posted: Nov. 28, 2014]
  17. Roderick T. Long, "Spencer’s Cosmology" [Posted: Nov. 28, 2014]
  18. Roderick Long, "Spencer and Mill" [Posted: Nov. 28, 2014]
  19. Alberto Mingardi, “Spencer and the Truths of Political Economy” [Posted: Nov. 29, 2014]
  20. George H. Smith, "Some Implications of Spencer’s Relative Ethics" [Posted: Nov. 29, 2014]
  21. Sheldon Richman, "The Spencerian Gilbert, Part 2" [Posted: Nov. 29, 2014]
  22. David M. Levy, "Albert Jay Nock and the Spencer-Hayek Connection" [Posted: Nov. 29, 2014]
  23. George H. Smith, "Spencer on Charity: A Personal Note" [Posted: Nov. 30, 2014]


About the Authors

George H. Smith is an independent scholar and a weekly columnist at the Cato Institute’s Libertarianism.org <http://www.libertarianism.org/people/george-h-smith>. He is the author of Atheism: The Case Against God (1974), Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies (1991), Why Atheism (2000). He is also the author of the audio series on “Great Political Thinkers,” “The Meaning of the Constitution,” and “The Ideas of Liberty.” He has articles and book reviews published in the New York Times, Newsday, Reason, Liberty, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Free Inquiry, and The Humanist. He wrote the lead essay for an earlier Liberty Matters discussion in September 2013 on his most recent book The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

David M. Levy is Professor of Economics at George Mason University. Levy’s publications include four scholarly books, ninety journal articles, dozens of book reviews and chapters in academic books. The 2005 Vanity of the Philosopher, written with Sandra J. Peart, was awarded a Choice Academic Honors. The 1991 Economic Ideas of Ordinary People was republished twenty years after the first publication. His long association with James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock helped with the Peart-Levy view of analytical egalitarianism as a claim in model space. His service on the American Statistical Association’s Professional Ethics Committee helped to develop the Levy-Peart model of sympathetic bias in estimation. Levy and Peart have co-directed the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economics for thirteen years. In 2012 Levy was made a Distinguished Fellow of the History of Economics Society.

Roderick T. Long is Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University, President of the Molinari Institute and Molinari Society, and a Senior Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He received his philosophical training at Harvard (A.B. 1985) and Cornell (Ph.D. 1992) and has taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan. Among his books are, Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand (2000) and Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics, and the Logic of Action (forthcoming from Routledge); he is the editor of The Industrial Radical, co-editor of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?. Roderick describes himself as an Aristotelean/Wittgensteinian in philosophy and a left-libertarian market anarchist in social theory. He blogs at Austro-Athenian Empire <http://aaeblog.com/> and Bleeding Heart Libertarians <http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/> amongst others. He wrote the lead essay for an earlier Liberty Matters discussion in May 2013) on “Gustave de Molinari’s Legacy for Liberty”.

Alberto Mingardi founded the Istituto Bruno Leoni <http://www.brunoleoni.it>, of which he is Director General. He is also an Adjunct Scholar with the Cato Institute and a Guest Blogger on EconLog <http://econlog.econlib.org/authoramingardi.html>. He writes frequently for newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal Europe and the Sunday supplement of the Italian Il Sole 24 Ore. His main area of interest is the history of political thought. He has authored a monograph on Herbert Spencer (Continuum, 2011) and translated Antonio Rosmini's The Constitution Under Social Justice (Lexington Books, 2006). He recently published a primer on libertarianism (L'intelligenza del denaro, 2013) and the first Italian translation of a couple of lectures by Thomas Hodgskin (Crimine e potere, 2014). He is currently working on a monograph on Hodgskin's thought. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Pavia.

Additional Reading


LEAD ESSAY: George H. Smith, "Herbert Spencer's Sociology of the State" [1 November 2014]↩

I have written this essay in the hope that I may learn some things from my commentators. Roderick Long has written some excellent articles on Spencer, and they are invariably on point. Alberto Mingardi’s book Herbert Spencer[1] is, in my judgment, the finest overview of Spencer’s political ideas ever published in book form; I cannot recommend it too highly. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the work of David Levy, but a little background research on the Internet leads me to believe that he, like the other two commentators and me, has been concerned with portraying Spencer in a fair light. 

Although I have studied Herbert Spencer for decades and written quite a bit on his life and theories,[2] I am still puzzled by some of his ideas, especially the tension that exists between Spencer qua libertarian moral/political philosopher and Spencer qua sociologist. And despite my substantive disagreements, I regard him as one of the most fascinating and complex figures in the history of classical liberalism. My respect for Spencer, both as an intellectual and as a man, runs deep, so I am inclined to interpret him sympathetically. There can be no doubt that Spencer invested considerable intellectual labor in his writings, as illustrated by his many revisions of manuscripts and later editions of articles and books.[3] So when I encounter an idea that seems exceedingly odd or inconsistent with his other ideas, I usually assume, as a working and defeasible hypothesis, that the fault lies in me, not in Spencer. More than once I have been puzzled by a remark by Spencer only to discover subsequently that he provided a more complete explanation elsewhere in his extensive writings. Attempting to understand the mind of Herbert Spencer is like engaging in a research project that never ends.

Nevertheless, there are clearly problems in Spencer’s sociological writings, including his ideas about the sociology of the state. I have focused on three topics that I find especially troublesome. Perhaps these problems will prove intractable, but if anyone will be able to help iron out the theoretical wrinkles or correct any mistakes I may have made, it is surely one or more of the three distinguished commentators.[4]

1) Any discussion of Herbert Spencer’s theory of the state must confront the problem that the state, according to Spencer, has no fixed nature. On the contrary, “the State has, in different places and times, essentially different natures.”[5] This remark flowed from Spencer’s refusal to draw a bright line between state and society—a position that set him apart from many of his liberal predecessors. The state is “society in its corporate capacity”;[6] and just as societies have existed with fundamentally different natures, so their corresponding states have existed with fundamentally different natures. We see this in Spencer’s celebrated distinction between two ideal types: the “militant” form of social organization (a “society of status” dominated by “compulsory cooperation” and a hierarchical system of command) versus the “industrial” form of social organization (a “society of contract” in which individuals with equal rights deal with one another through “voluntary cooperation.”)[7]

It bears mentioning that Spencer distinguished between the meanings of “state” and “government.” Spencer used the term “government” to denote any kind of regulative agency, as we see in his discussions of “political and ecclesiastical governments,” and even “industrial governments,” such as guilds and unions.[8]  Government is simply “a form of control,” and the specifically political form of government “is neither the earliest nor the most general.” Although we find no political mechanisms of control in some small societies, “there are none without that control which is exercised by established modes of behavior between man and man.” There are “peremptory rules” of social intercourse even in the most primitive societies.[9]

I think it is safe, given this information, to infer that the state, for Spencer, is the institutional form of political control. Although this formal similarity may not permit us to assign a specific nature, or essence, to the “state,” the family resemblance (as a follower of Wittgenstein might say ) among various states does permit us to identify them in specific cases.

In his first major work, The Proper Sphere of Government (1842), a young Spencer described a limited government devoted to the protection of individual rights as “a government springing naturally out of the requirements of the community.”[10] In his later sociological writings, however, Spencer came to view all governments as natural insofar as they are manifestations of “public sentiments.”

[E]ven now, there is no clear apprehension of the fact that governments are not themselves powerful, but are the instrumentalities of a power [public sentiments]. This power existed before governments arose; governments were themselves produced by it, and it ever continues to be that which, disguised more or less completely, works through them.[11]

In primitive communities “political power is the feeling of the community, acting through an agency which it has either informally or formally established.” This governing sentiment is mainly from the past, however, as manifested in customs that even political heads may not violate. This “control by inherited usages”—a kind of “invisible framework” for social order—is often more effective in controlling behavior than formal laws.[12] Thus the function of the primitive ruler “is mainly that of enforcing the inherited rules of conduct which embody ancestral sentiments and ideas.” And when law replaces custom, “the political head becomes still more clearly an agent through whom the feelings of the dead control the actions of the living.”[13]

According to Spencer, “the properties of the aggregate are determined by the properties of its units.” Thus “so long as the characters of citizens remain substantially unchanged, there can be no substantial changes in the political organization which has slowly been evolved by them.” Although human nature is not fixed, although it is “indefinitely modifiable”—here we need to keep Spencer’s Lamarckism in mind—it “can be modified but very slowly,” so attempts to bring about radical political changes in a short time “will inevitably fail.” Spencer therefore cautioned that “we must be on our guard against the two opposite prevailing errors respecting Man, and against the sociological errors flowing from them: we have to get rid of the two beliefs that human nature is unchangeable, and that it is easily changed; and we have, instead, to become familiar with the conception of human nature that is changed in the slow succession of generations by social discipline.”[14]

This conception of the state, according to which even the most despotic state reflects the average emotional characteristics of its citizens, again sets Spencer apart from those libertarian thinkers who viewed the state as a foreign element, in effect, that coercively imposes itself on society. There is another problem as well. Even savage states, Spencer maintained, are “ethically warranted” to some degree, because they arise necessarily from the social conditions at a given stage of social evolution and served a useful purpose of some kind. Here is one of Spencer’s many statements on this matter. 

In the first stage, death and injury of its members by external foes is that which the incorporated society has chiefly, though not wholly, to prevent; and it is ethically warranted in coercing its members to the extent required for this. In the last stage, death and injury of its members by internal trespasses is that which it has chiefly if not wholly to prevent; and the ethical warrant for coercion does not manifestly go beyond what is needful for preventing them.[15]

The problem of passing relative moral judgments that apply to the past but not to the present, while simultaneously upholding an objective theory of ethics, led to Spencer’s dichotomy between “absolute” and “relative” ethics.[16] This troublesome distinction served as a bridge that enabled Spencer to cross back and forth between his role as a value-free sociologist and his role as a value-laden moral philosopher. In my opinion, Spencer’s distinction between absolute and relative ethics caused more problems than it solved, but I cannot explore the matter here. Perhaps the commentators will shed some sympathetic light on this issue, for this is one area where my sympathetic inclinations toward Spencer are overridden by skepticism tinged with cynicism.

2) I am scarcely the first to complain about Spencer’s many references to a “social organism,” but I wish to discuss some features of this term. In referring to society as an “organism,” Spencer meant this only as a useful analogy. It is “a scaffolding to help in building up a coherent body of sociological inductions,” and if we take away this scaffolding, “the inductions will stand by themselves.”[17] A literal organism “is a physical aggregate forming an individual,” whereas the metaphorical social organism is “a physically incoherent aggregate of individuals distributed over a wide area.” The analogies involved here “cannot be analogies of a visible or sensible kind; but can only be analogies between the systems, or methods, of organization.” In both cases there is “a mutual dependence of parts. This is the origin of all organization; and determines what similarities there are between an individual organism and a social organism.” There are also essential differences. Most significantly, there is only one center of consciousness in an individual organism, whereas society consists of a multitude of conscious individuals—and this difference “entirely changes the ends to be pursued.”[18] In a living being the parts serve to sustain the life of the whole organism, whereas society exists to serve the ends of its individual parts. 

The organismic analogy was useful to Spencer because it reinforced his point that “society is a growth and not a manufacture.” The insight that “societies are not artificially put together, is a truth so manifest, that it seems wonderful men should ever have overlooked it.”[19] This spontaneous development of society is especially evident in the division of labor.

It is not by “the hero as king,” any more than by “collective wisdom,” that men have been segregated into producers, wholesale distributors, and retail distributors. Our industrial organization , from its main outlines down to its minutest details, has become what it is, not simply without legislative guidance, but, to a considerable extent, in spite of legislative hindrances. It has arisen under the pressure of human wants and resulting activities. While each citizen has been pursuing his individual welfare, and none taking thought about division of labour, or conscious of the need of it, division of labour has yet been ever becoming more complete. It has been doing this slowly and silently: few having observed it until quite modern times. By steps so small, that year after year the industrial arrangements have seemed just what they were before—by changes as insensible as those through which a seed passes into a tree; society has become the complex body of mutually-dependent workers which we now see.[20]

Given this perspective, it is understandable why Spencer used the organismic analogy. But analogies should serve to clarify the point one wishes to make, and Spencer’s innumerable “parallelisms” between organisms and societies rarely serve this purpose. Consider one of Spencer’s many discussions of the “community of structure” between physical organisms and society.

Differing from one another as the viscera of a living creature do in many respects, they have several traits in common. Each viscus contains appliances for conveying nutriment to its parts, for bringing it materials on which to operate, for carrying away the product, for draining off waste matter; as also for regulating its activity. Though liver and kidneys are unlike in their general appearances and minute structures, as well as in the offices they fulfill, the one as much as the other has a system of arteries, a system of veins, a system of lymphatics—has branched channels through which it excretions escape, and nerves for exciting and checking it….[21]

After elaborating along the same line, Spencer continued: “It is the same in a society”; and he concluded by emphasizing how similar an organism and a society truly are, given the “mutual dependence” found in each. But surely the point about the interdependence of individuals in a commercial society—a common theme in classical liberalism—could have been made without the paraphernalia of the organismic analogy. Indeed, in an effort to make his structural analogy more compelling, Spencer referred to a manufacturing district that “secretes certain goods” and to a seaport town that “absorbs” commodities (my italics).[22] Unfortunately, this kind of misleading biological language is strewn throughout Spencer’s writings on sociology, and it often detracts from his important ideas about social structures and functions.

Biology was a popular subject during the 19th century (many books for a general audience were published on the topic), and Spencer’s two-volume work The Principles of Biology was highly regarded by many “naturalists” of his era. It is therefore understandable if some contemporaries of Spencer reacted favorably to his seemingly endless organismic analogies. But the same is not generally true of modern readers, especially since many of Spencer’s biological details have become dated. This problem illustrates the danger of linking one’s philosophy, including social philosophy, to the latest trends in science. As science advances, and as older theories become revised or discarded, the philosophy associated with a given scientific theory may be regarded as outdated as well—even though the philosophic reasoning might stand on its own, without the scientific prop.[23]

3) Another problem with Spencer is one that has annoyed me since I began reading him in the mid-1970s. This concerns Spencer’s views about the indispensable role of war in furthering social progress. This was an odd position for a man who vigorously protested against the evils of war during his entire career, and who warned that the brutal, imperialistic adventures of his time were causing Britain and other countries to retrogress into the militant form of society—a process that was leading to the “re-barbarization” of Europe and that would inevitably end in disaster. Spencer’s forebodings about the immediate future caused the depression and pessimism that scarred his later years. Yet the same man who despised war as much as is humanly possible wrote many passages like the following:

We must recognize the truth that the struggles for existence between societies have been instrumental in their evolution…. Social cooperation is initiated by joint defence and offence; and from the cooperation thus initiated, all kinds of cooperations have arisen. Inconceivable as have been the horrors caused by this universal antagonism which, beginning with the chronic hostilities of small hordes tens of thousands of years ago, has ended in the occasional vast battles of immense nations, we must nevertheless admit that without it the world would still have been inhabited only by men of feeble types, sheltering in caves and living on wild food.[24]

Although Spencer would have agreed with Randolph Bourne that “war is the health of the state,” he would not have been troubled by this insight in all cases, especially as it applies to earlier stages of social evolution. “Everywhere the wars between societies originated governmental structures, and are causes of all such improvements in those structures as increase the efficiency of corporate action against environing societies.”[25] Although Spencer, strictly speaking, would not have agreed with the thesis of Franz Oppenheimer that states always originated in conquest, he did agree that “where there neither is, nor has been, any war there is no government.”[26] But Spencer did not regard this as necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, earlier wars and conquests were a necessary and valuable stage in social evolution. Indeed, even “[a]mong existing uncivilized and semi-civilized races, we everywhere find that union of small societies by a conquering society is a step in civilization.”[27] The social scientist, in his quest for objectivity, must put aside his hatred of war and understand that its social benefits were the unintended consequences of what we may personally regard as barbaric acts. And, once again, Spencer appealed to his distinction between relative and absolute ethics when dealing with the moral implications of his position.

If any thesis defended by Spencer deserves extended consideration, this one is surely it. But space considerations demand that I mention only the major reason why Spencer defended his thesis about war. He wrote: “Hence, unquestionably, that integration effected by war, has been a needful preliminary to industrial development, and consequently to developments of other kinds—Science, the Fine Arts, &c.”[28] Working from the premise that the extensive division of labor needed for economic productivity and most cultural achievements requires a large population, Spencer insisted that societies would never have attained the requisite size if not for conquests that merged small societies into greater societies through the subordination and assimilation of conquered peoples. This is a complex subject, granted, but I would very much like to know what the commentators think about this claim.


[1.] Alberto Mingardi, Herbert Spencer (New York: Continuum, 2011).

[2.] My first article, “Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?” (Libertarian Review, Dec. 1978), attempts to correct some common misunderstandings about Spencer, especially in regard to his “survival of the fittest” doctrine. My second and most technical article, "Herbert Spencer's Theory of Causation” (Journal of Libertarian Studies, Spring 1981), covers a broad range of topics, from Spencer’s epistemology to his metaethics. More recently, I published five series of articles about Spencer as part of my “Excursions into Libertarian Thought” for Libertarianism.org. See: "Barack Obama, Social Darwinism, and Survival of the Fittest" (3 parts); "From Optimism to Pessimism: The Case of Herbert Spencer" (7 parts); "Herbert Spencer, Henry George, and the Land Question" (6 parts); "Thomas Hodgskin Versus Herbert Spencer" (3 parts); and "A Gossipy Interlude: George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, and John Chapman" (3 parts). I also discuss Spencer in my latest book, The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[3.] Spencer wrote: “[S]o far from disliking the process of polishing, I had a partiality for it; and cannot let any piece of work pass so long as it seems to me possible to improve it.” Regarding The Study of Sociology in its various forms, both published and in proofs, Spencer said that “every sentence in the work had passed under my eye for correction five times; and each time there was rarely a page which did not bear some erasures and marginal marks.” An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904), II:423.

[4.] Of course, apparent inconsistencies in Spencer may be nothing of the kind; they may merely reflect his change of views as he got older. In other cases, the problem may lie in Spencer’s peculiar approach to some matters, as when he insists, in Social Statics (1850), that ethics, including the Law of Equal Freedom, applies only to the “ideal man,” i.e., to a future society populated by people with highly evolved moral sentiments. On these issues see my series, linked above, “From Optimism to Pessimism: The Case of Herbert Spencer.” (A note about the publication year of Social Statics: Although the first edition published by John Chapman says 1851, Spencer repeatedly stated that it was actually published in December 1850. This accounts for the discrepancy sometimes found in secondary sources that cite the book.)

[5.]The Principles of Ethics (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898), II:182 (§346). This two-volume work, like The Principles of Sociology and other titles in The Synthetic Philosophy, contains section numbers that run consecutively through all volumes of the same title. Since page numbers may vary in different editions of the same book, I have included section numbers, where appropriate, in parentheses to facilitate locating quoted passages.   

[6.]Principles of Ethics, II:186 (§347).

[7.] Spencer invoked his ideal types in many essays and books. For his most thorough discussions, see the following chapters in The Principles of Sociology: “Social Types and Constitutions” (Chapter X of the first volume), “The Militant Type of Society” (Chapter  XVII of the second volume), and “The Industrial Type of Society” (Chapter XVIII of the second volume).

[8.]The Principles of Sociology (New York: D. Appleton and Company), I:440 (§210).

[9.]An Autobiography, II:355.

[10.] Reprinted in The Man Versus the State: With Six Essays on Government Society, and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Classics, 1981), 185. The Proper Sphere of Government originally appeared as a series of eleven letters in the Nonconformist (1842), a dissenting periodical edited by Edward Miall, a major figure in the campaign to disestablish the Church of England. In August 1843, the 23-year-old Spencer revised his letters and published them as a booklet at his own expense. “Perhaps a hundred copies were sold and less than a tenth of the cost repaid.” Many were distributed “to friends and to men of note.” Later, in 1848, Spencer gave a copy to James Wilson, founder and proprietor of The Economist, and that complimentary copy helped to land Spencer a job as sub-editor. See Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904), I:264, 380. The reprint in the Liberty Classics anthology is from the pamphlet version.

[11.]The Principles of Sociology, II:318 (§466).

[12.] Ibid., II:321-22 (§467).

[13.] Ibid., II:323 (§468).

[14.]The Study of Sociology (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 111, 109, 132.

[15.]Principles of Ethics, I (§347)

[16.] See “Absolute Political Ethics,” in Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1899), III:217-28.

[17.]Principles of Sociology, II:592-93 (§270).

[18.] “Specialized Administration,” in Essays, III:411. 

[19.] “The Social Organism,” in ibid., I:269, 266.

[20.] Ibid., 266-67.

[21.]Principles of Sociology, I:477-78 (§231).

[22.] Ibid., 478.

[23.] It should be noted  that Spencer, in his three-volume The Principles of Sociology (and elsewhere), clearly segregated his analyses of organisms from his sociological reasoning, so the reader can easily and safely skip over the former without missing anything. I daresay that I am not the only modern reader who usually does this. And I heartily recommend this selective procedure to people who are beginning to become interested in Spencer’s sociology, lest they get mired down in boring and irrelevant biological details and give up, believing that the game is not worth the candle.

[24.]Principles of Sociology, II:241 (§438).

[25.] Ibid., I:520. (§250). 

[26.]Principles of Ethics, II:202 (§356).

[27.]Study of Sociology, 176.

[28.] Ibid., 177.



1. Alberto Mingardi, "Why Do Classical Liberals Neglect Herbert Spencer"[Posted: Nov. 6, 2014]↩

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a tremendously successful author in life, and a much forgotten one since his death. I think George H. Smith’s truly illuminating essay on Spencer’s “Sociology of the State” will help even the reader who is most alien to Spencer’s works to understand why.

Smith suggests that Spencer may be one of the most “complex figures in the history of classical liberalism.” Yet Spencer is ritually caricatured as a rather simple, linear, and almost naive proponent of laissez faire. Much irony has been made of the following episode, told by Spencer: His friend George Eliot (1819-1880) told him once that

considering how much thinking I must have done, she was surprised to see no lines on my forehead. “I suppose it is because I am never puzzled,” I said. [Autobiography, vol. 1, p. 462.]

Spencer meant that his thoughts matured more by means of accumulating data than by delving into the answer to any specific question.[29] But many thought Spencer was never puzzled because he had the solution to any problem: reliance on the forces of progress and, in political matters, strict adherence to the principle of laissez-faire.

If you compare him with his contemporary John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), for example, Spencer stands out clearly as an adamant proponent of libertarianism. For Albert J. Nock (1870-1945), Spencer’s Social Statics was “to the philosophy of individualism what the work of the German idealist philosophers is to the doctrine of Statism, what Das Kapital is to Statist economic theory, or what the Pauline Epistles are to the theology of Protestantism” [Nock, "Introduction", to Spencer, The Man versus the State.]

Of course, this might be a bit of an exaggeration. But it is indeed surprising that Nock is basically alone, among 20th-century classical liberals, in holding such a view. Take Spencer’s best known contributions, at least today -- the essays included in The Man Versus the State. They are prophetic, having anticipated some of the major problems classical liberals would have to wrestle with in the following century: welfare dependency, unintended consequences in law-making, the fact that one state intervention leads to another. He also exhibited classical liberalism’s skepticism over the idea that popular government per se legitimizes any government intervention.

Why, then, did 20th-century classical liberals not pick up on Spencer? “Hayek’s philosophy has many affinities with Spencer’s,” John Gray wrote,[30] but there is no evidence Hayek ever dug deep into Spencer’s essays. Neither have many Hayekians.

I suggest there might be two reasons for Spencer’s eclipse in 20th-century classical liberalism.

One I’ll trace back to the influence of Walter Lippmann’s (1889-1974) The Good Society.[31] Lippman read Spencer and borrowed some of his arguments. However, he considered him one of those “latter-day liberals” who “became the apologists for miseries and injustices that were intolerable to the conscience.”[32] Spencer was supposedly exposed as heartless,[33] whereas 20th-century liberals wanted to prove they were not. It is understandable: government intervention in, say, education is perhaps so embedded in the contemporary mind that calling for a little bit of competition (vouchers), instead of outright repeal of compulsory education, sounds revolutionary enough.

The second reason is what George Smith points out in his essay. Spencer’s thought is more complex than people commonly acknowledge. He was a remarkably consistent political thinker, but he evolved (pardon the pun) in constructing a global view of society that he hoped to be value-free and objective, in the positivist fashion. Spencer’s works are swamped with data collected from different sources: history, anthropology, and reports of geographical explorations and of encounters with “primitive” cultures. From all that, without being puzzled but building layer after layer of knowledge, he tried to deduce regularities and trends.

I am afraid this is the only meaningful comment I may add specifically on the important question George Smith raises—and it is hardly an original one. Spencer incurred in many way a fate similar to that of Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923). In his younger years, Pareto was the staunchest of classical liberals and, as a matter of fact, a great admirer of Spencer. But in later years, Pareto’s positivism grew over his libertarianism, and the latter was at least partially laid aside. (Pareto’s humanitarian pacifism certainly was.)

Now, what may be indeed puzzling in Spencer is that he did not sacrifice his youthful ideas to the altar of his science. I think his skepticism over state intervention is remarkably expressed in the following passage of his Autobiography:

[Again,] why should we hope so much from State-agency in new fields, when in the old fields it has bungled so miserably? Why, if the organisations for national defence and administration of justice work so ill that loud complaints are daily made, should we be anxious for other organisations of kindred type?

Similar words you may find in many of his works, regardless of the age at which he wrote them. His essay “Over-Legislation” (1853) is perhaps one of the most eloquent libertarian perorations ever written, besides being the singular article to read to acquire, in Robert Nisbet’s words, “an accurate and full appreciation of Spencer’s liberalism.”[34]

Indeed, sometimes Spencer considered that in The Proper Sphere of Government “the youthful enthusiasm of two-and-twenty naturally carried me too far”, for example, in arguing for the possibility of a stateless citizens’ self-organization in the event of a foreign aggression. However, as George Smith reminds us, Spencer “vigorously protested against the evils of war during his entire career.”

And yet he considered war as instrumental in consolidating social organization at some stage of society’s evolution. The development of organization in society was in itself instrumental for the advent of industrialism (e.g., factories relied on principles of organization first developed and tested with armies). Societies that grow complex and decentralized began as simple and hierarchical.

This tension within Spencer’s thought is not necessarily an inconsistency, but I think it reflects his struggle to develop a dispassionate view of societal development. His distinction between relative and absolute ethics was for me the source of several headaches. But I find it indeed admirable that Spencer succeeded, somehow, in securing an equilibrium between value-free sociologist and the classical-liberal theorist.

Of course, this doesn’t help the world to accept the truths of Spencer’s writings, even if now it has indeed “traveled a certain number of times from Bismarckism to communism, and back from communism to Bismarckism.”[35] Nor does it help us either to single out those very truths. But I consider it a testimony to the intellectual honesty and depth of thought of the man who was never puzzled.


[29.] As Spencer himself described it this way: “[My] mode of thinking did not involve that concentrated effort which is commonly accompanied by wrinkling of the brows. It has never been my way to set before myself a problem and puzzle out an answer. The conclusion at which I have from time to time arrived, have not been arrived at as solutions of questions raised; but have been arrived at unawares—each as the ultimate outcome of a body of thoughts which slowly grew from a germ” Autobiography, vol. 1, p. 463.

[30.] John Gray, Hayek on Liberty (London: Routledge, [1986] 1998), p. 103.

[31.] Walter Lippmann, The Good Society (New Brunswick: Transaction, [1937] 2004), p. 182.

[32.] Often liberals complained of Spencer’s alleged “drift to conservatism,” particularly because he revised some of the ideas expressed in his 1851 edition of Social Statics. But the very page on which Lippmann refers to Spencer as an apologist for the status quo, he footnotes Social Statics. Lippmann was convinced that  laissez faire was useful for removing old restrictions in the 18th century, but it became “grotesque” as it evolved into a dogma that some area of human life should be preserved from government regulation.

[33.] Spencer, as a matter of fact, wasn’t so heartless, as he maintained there was a role for charity in human affairs. (See Roderick Long’s admirable defense, “Herbert Spencer: The Defamation Continues” <http://www.lewrockwell.com/2003/08/roderick-t-long/herbert-spencer/>. But indeed sometimes, for example when he spoke of welfare dependence, he may sound awkward to the contemporary reader.

[34.] "Over Legislation" first appeared in The Westminster Review in July, 1853 and was reprinted in vol. 3 of Spencer’s Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative (London and New York, 1892, in three volumes) </titles/337#lf0620-03_head_007>. It can also be found in the Liberty Fund edition of The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, introduction by Albert Jay Nock (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981) </titles/330>. Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress, New Brunswick: Transaction, 1980), p. 231.

[35.] Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) wished the world could accept the truths of Spencer’s writings once it had traveled a certain number of times from Bismarckism to communism and back from communism to Bismarckism. See, "Essay Two: State Education: A Help or Hindrance?" (1880) in Auberon Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays, ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1978). </titles/591#Herbert_0146_60>.


2. Roderick T. Long, "Herbert Spencer:  Homo Non-Œconomicus" [Posted: November 10, 2014]↩

Herbert Spencer was not an economist.

This is not to say that he was uninterested in, or ignorant of, economics.  On the contrary, he had a keen understanding of economic principles and often invoked them in his writings.  Nevertheless, economics was not one of the primary lenses through which he viewed social phenomena.  His massive series of Synthetic Philosophy contains volumes on the principles of biology, of psychology, of sociology, and of ethics – but no Principles of Economics.

This fact, I suggest, is what ties together the aspects of Spencer’s thought that George Smith points to as puzzling in his lead essay.

1. Spencer and the State

One way of bringing the issue into focus is to ask: why isn’t Spencer an anarchist?  Given Spencer’s hostility to authority, his enthusiasm for spontaneous order and laissez faire, and his commitment to the law of equal freedom, why doesn’t he favor the abolition of the state’s monopoly on security?  What, in George’s words, “sets Spencer apart from those libertarian thinkers who viewed the state as a foreign element, in effect, that coercively imposes itself on society”?

Now this may seem an odd question; for after all, in one important sense Spencer is an anarchist, albeit of the long-run sort.  I refer not to his famous “right to ignore the state” , since this is only a right to withdraw affiliation from the monopoly provider of security, not a right to affiliate with a competing provider operating in the same territory.[36]  Rather, I have in mind a less well-known remark toward the beginning of Social Statics:

It is a mistake to assume that government must necessarily last for ever. The institution marks a certain stage of civilization – is natural to a particular phase of human development. It is not essential but incidental. As amongst the Bushmen we find a state antecedent to government; so may there be one in which it shall have become extinct.2[37]

In his later writings Spencer is less explicit in treating anarchy as the natural endpoint of social evolution, but the eventual non-necessity of government still seems to be implied by his doctrine that as human nature becomes progressively more adapted to social cooperation, “eventually sympathetic pleasures will be spontaneously pursued to the fullest extent advantageous to each and all,” and altruistic sentiment will “attain a level ... such that ministration to others’ happiness will become a daily need.”[38]  What need would there be for coercive institutions of social order in circumstances like these?

But if anarchy is the desideratum, it is a distant one; Spencer insists that it will take a very long time for human nature to evolve to the point at which egoistic conflicts can be absorbed into universal benevolence.  Spencer assumes that, absent government interference, benevolent motives are required to secure beneficent action – whereas economists are more likely to bear in mind Adam Smith’s dictum that it is “not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”[39]

Several of Spencer’s libertarian contemporaries – writers like Gustave de Molinari,[40] Benjamin Tucker,[41] and Francis Tandy[42] – were defending the free-market anarchist model of security providers competing on an open market.  This would not be the absence of government in Spencer’s sense of “government,” since institutions of social control would still exist; but it would mean the end of the asymmetry of rights involved in the state’s monopoly of the security industry – an asymmetry that a proponent of Spencer’s law of equal freedom might be expected to condemn.  Crucially, the free-market anarchist model does not require a transformation of human nature; it was not from the benevolence of the anarchist society’s inhabitants, but from their regard to their own interests – interests channeled by supply and demand – that Molinari, Tucker, and Tandy expected the provision of security.  Why was Spencer not among their ranks?

The clue, I think, lies in a line that George quotes from Spencer’s The Study of Sociology:  “so long as the characters of citizens remain substantially unchanged, there can be no substantial changes in the political organization.”[43]  By contrast, it would be natural for an economist to think that the same people with the same characters might behave very differently when confronted with different incentives – with those found in competitive rather than monopolistic systems, for example. 

Now Spencer is certainly capable in many contexts of noticing and pointing out how people respond to incentives.  And of course it’s also true that the social system that provides the better incentives will be stable only so long as it enjoys popular acquiescence; Immanuel Kant’s insistence that a good constitution will work even for a “race of devils”[44] surely puts too much emphasis on institutions and not enough on the culture that makes those institutions viable.  But Spencer seems to err in the opposite direction in implicitly denying that any significant alteration of political institutions and their attendant incentives can be achieved without a fundamental change in people’s basic motivations. My suggestion is that this relative overemphasis of the dependence of institutions on character both explains Spencer’s failure to regard anarchism as practicable for people as they are now and is explained by the fact that while the economic lens is one he knows how to use, and indeed uses quite well when he chooses to, it is not among the tools he reaches for first.

2. Society as Organism

Spencer’s organismic characterization of society can be off-putting to libertarians.  As Friedrich Hayek notes, “The interpretation of society as an organism has almost invariably been used in support of hierarchic and authoritarian views.”[45]  Spencer largely vindicates his organismic analogy by stressing the bottom-up, nonhierarchical character of an organism’s self-maintenance; according to Spencer, within an organism as within a society the “spontaneous activities of these vital organs subserve the wants of the body at large without direction from its higher governing centres”; and when these organs “follow their respective ‘interests’” the “general welfare will be tolerably well secured.”[46]

And other libertarian thinkers who could hardly be accused of lacking an economic turn of mind have followed Spencer in seeing the organismic analogy as reinforcing rather than undermining the case for laissez faire.  Ludwig von Mises, for example, embraces the organismic model of society, writing:

Organism and organization are as different from each other as life is from a machine, as a flower which is natural from one which is artificial. In the natural plant each cell lives its own life for itself while functioning reciprocally with the others.... In the artificial plant the separate parts are members of the whole only as far as the will of him, who united them, has been effective.... Each part occupies only the place given to it, and leaves that place, so to speak, only on instructions.... Organization is an association based on authority, organism is mutuality.[47]

And likewise, while anthills, beehives, and termite colonies are often seen as symbols of authoritarian collectivism, economist Don Lavoie makes a case for regarding them as bottom-up instances of spontaneous order as well:

The popular conception of an insect society is one of a centrally directed allocation of obedient insects to given tasks.... In fact, however, modern research has shown that insect societies are neither rigidly structured nor centrally directed.... [T]here is no need to postulate a central decision-maker – perhaps some kind of master termite issuing decrees to his followers – in order to explain the remarkably well-ordered functioning of a termite colony. The complex activities achievable by these lowly insects are made possible by what [Edward O.] Wilson calls “mass communication,” which he defines as “the transfer among groups of information that a single individual could not pass to another.” 

Some of the many examples Wilson provides of such ordered behavior attained through mass communication are the complex flanking maneuvers of ant swarms, the regulation of numbers of workers pursuing odor trails, and the precise thermoregulation of nests. In these tasks the action of each individual is never strictly controlled by any mechanism but “results from the competing stimuli impinging on it, including those produced by other members of the colony.”  In other words we have a primitive form of mutual coordination in which the actions of each participant both contribute a kind of pressure to the actions of other participants while simultaneously being guided in its own actions by similar pressures contributed by others....

If one observes insects at the level of the individual, one finds what Marx calls an “anarchy of production,” an ongoing rivalrous struggle among apparently uncoordinated insects, some feverishly attempting to achieve one purpose while others busily work at a contradictory goal.... “Although these various antagonistic actions seem chaotic when viewed at close range, [Wilson continued,] their final result is almost invariably a well-constructed nest that closely conforms to the plan exhibited throughout the species....”[48]

So the organismic model of society has its legitimate libertarian uses.[49]  All the same, when Spencer begins talking, as he does in the passages George cites, about towns “secreting” or “absorbing” commodities and so on, we rightly feel that something important is missing – namely, the fact that economic actors are driven by beliefs and preferences in a way that cells and organs are not, so that to understand their behavior we must take up their perspective (while cells and organs have no perspective to take up – and ants and termites a perspective only in a very limited sense).  This methodological subjectivism is the approach of economics (well, of economics done properly); as Hayek observes:

Take such things as tools, food, medicine, weapons, words, sentences, communications, and acts of production.... I believe these to be fair samples of the kind of objects of human activity which constantly occur in the social sciences. It is easily seen that all these concepts ... refer not to some objective properties possessed by the things, or which the observer can find out about them, but to views which some other person holds about the things. These objects cannot even be defined in physical terms, because there is no single physical property which any one member of a class must possess.... They are all instances of what are sometimes called “teleological concepts,” that is, they can be defined only by indicating relations between three terms: a purpose, somebody who holds that purpose, and an object which that person thinks to be a suitable means for that purpose. If we wish, we could say that all these objects are defined not in terms of their “real” properties but in terms of opinions people hold about them. In short, in the social sciences the things are what people think they are. Money is money, a word is a word, a cosmetic is a cosmetic, if and because somebody thinks they are.[50]

This economic perspective is the dimension that Spencer is missing when he views social phenomena through the lens of biology.  Circulation of the blood is circulation of the blood regardless of what anyone believes or wants, but trade is only trade because of the subjective perspective of the traders.

I don’t mean to deny that there are plenty of passages in which Spencer explains social phenomena by appealing to the beliefs, desires, and plans of the participants.  Of course there are.  I’m not saying he never uses his economic lens; I’m saying he sometimes forgets to use it.

3. War – What Is It Good For?

George’s third puzzle concerns Spencer’s conviction that warfare, while destined to wither away at the end of history (so to speak), is necessary and valuable in earlier eras. Now the idea of necessary stages of history, with unavoidable periods of conflict and domination preparing the way for a future of freedom and harmony, was extraordinarily common and influential in the 19th century; Charles Dunoyer, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Gustave de Molinari, and Karl Marx, for example, each held some version of this theory.[51]  And they were all in some sense economists, so I can’t place all the blame on an insufficiently frequent resort to the economic lens. 

All the same, I can’t help thinking that Spencer’s (admittedly intermittent) economic blind spot might play some role here.  From an economic standpoint, the nature of trade as a positive-sum game, and war as a zero-sum or negative-sum game, seems like a universal principle that should remain constant across eras; hence an economist would be likely to see wars as socially suboptimal whenever they occur.  But if one’s vision of historical development is based on the analogy of the growth of an organism, the idea of different principles applying at different stages will seem much more natural; after all, one wouldn’t try to hang a tire swing on a young sapling, or enter a newborn greyhound pup in a race. 

An organismic model of society tends to make suboptimal stages look natural.  Perhaps one root of Spencer’s distinction between relative and absolute ethics lies here?


[36.] Herbert Spencer, “The Right to Ignore the State”; in Social Statics: or, The Conditions Essential to Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (London: John Chapman 1850), pp. 206-216.  It is incidentally difficult to see how this right is to be reconciled with the right of the community, asserted by Spencer, to charge individuals for the use of land.  (“The Right to the Use of the Earth,” Social Statics, pp. 114-25.)  If each individual is free to refuse all association with the state, what agency is to collect the land-use fees?

[37.]Social Statics, p. 13.

[38.] Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1978). Vol. 1, I.14, §§ 92-95.

[39.] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London: Methuen & Co., 1904), Vol. 1, I, § 2.

[40.] Gustave de Molinari, “De la production de la sécurité,” Journal des Économistes (Feb. 1849), pp. 277-90; translation online:  <http://mises.org/books/production_of_security.pdf>.   See also Molinari, Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare: entretiens sur les lois économiques et défense de la propriété (Paris: Guillaumin, 1849); translation online:  </pages/molinari-s-evenings-on-saint-lazarus-street-1849>.

[41.] Benjamin R. Tucker, Instead Of A Book, By A Man Too Busy To Write One: A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism (Boston: self-pubished, 1893); online:  <http://fair-use.org/benjamin-tucker/instead-of-a-book>.

[42.] Francis Dashwood Tandy, Voluntary Socialism: A Sketch (Denver: self-published, 1896); online:  <http://praxeology.net/FDT-VS.htm>.

[43.] Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1873), p. 121.

[44.] Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay, trans. M. Campbell Smith (London: Allen and Unwin, [1795] 1917), pp. 153-54; online:  </titles/357>.

[45.] Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 51.

[46.] Herbert Spencer, “Specialized Administration,” pp. 458-59, in The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1981), pp. 435-86.

[47.] Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1981), p. 191.

[48.] Don Lavoie, National Economic Planning: What Is Left? (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1985), pp. 67-69; online:  <http://store.cato.org/free-ebooks/national-economic-planning-what-left>.

[49.] There’s a reason the Center for a Stateless Society’s blog <http://c4ss.org/content/category/stigmergy-c4ss-blog> is called Stigmergy <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigmergy>.

[50.] Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Facts of the Social Sciences,” in Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: Chicago Universityi Press, 1948), pp. 57-76; online:  <http://mises.org/document/4015/Individualism-and-Economic-Order>.

[51.] Marx’s views are, I take it, well known. For the others, see, e.g., Charles Dunoyer, L’Industrie et la morale considérées dans leurs rapports avec la liberté (Paris: A. Sautelet, 1825). Online: <http://davidmhart.com/liberty/FrenchClassicalLiberals/Dunoyer/Books/Dunoyer_1825IndustrieMorale.pdf>; Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, La Guerre et la Paix: recherches sur le principe et la constitution du droit des gens (Paris: E. Dentu, 1861); and Gustave de Molinari, Grandeur et Décadence de la Guerre (Paris, 1898). Online: <http://davidmhart.com/liberty/FrenchClassicalLiberals/Molinari/Books/Molinari_1898GrandeurDecadenceGuerre.pdf>.  An interesting exception is Frédéric Bastiat, who chides Proudhon for supposing that what is harmful today could be salutary in earlier eras; for discussion, see Roderick T. Long, “The Bastiat-Proudhon Debate on Interest: Commentary” (2008), online:    <http://praxeology.net/FB-PJP-DOI-Appx.htm>.


3. David M. Levy, "It’s All There in Social Statics" [Posted: Nov. 11, 2014]↩

George Smith challenges us to help solve, to use David Hart’s lovely phrase, Das Herbert Spencer Problem.  Coming from an authority of his stature, how could anyone resist!  I will urge that before we make Spencer coherent, we need to make his texts more complicated. By this I mean only that we ought to think of how his texts fit into the contemporary discussions of political economy and utilitarianism.  To make the argument, I’ll give some evidence that what Smith sees as a puzzle in Spencer’s life’s work, the relationship between sociology and morality, is all there in Social Statics but expressed in terms of utilitarianism and what we now see as collective-action problems.

Political economy.If there is one thing that the ordinary reader “knows,” it is Spencer’s role in the foundation of eugenics. This is, of course, only another illustration of Josh Billings’s dictum (often cited by Frank Knight) that it isn’t so much what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, but what we know that isn’t so.  In fact, Spencer did seem to have an important role to play in that Social Statics was credited by A. R. Wallace as influencing  his 1864 paper at the Anthropological Society that human sympathy for the less able turns off natural selection. As natural selection had attained a normative status, the response to Wallace’s argument was to deaden sympathy to allow natural selection to work its progressive magic on humanity. Hence, the “science” of eugenics.[52]

Spencer? Here’s what Wallace wrote in the final footnote on the 1864 paper:

The general idea and argument in this paper I believe to be new. It was, however, the perusal of Mr. Herbert Spencer’s works, especially Social Statics, that suggested it to me....[53]

Earlier that year (January 2, 1864) Wallace had written to Charles Darwin urging him to look into Spencer’s work on political economy:

I am utterly astonished that so few people seem to read Spencer, & the utter ignorance there seems to be among politicians & political economists of the grand views & logical stability of his works. He appears to me as far ahead of John Stuart Mill as J.S.M. is of the rest of the world, and I may add as Darwin is of Agassiz.[54]

So if we are looking for the foundations of evolutionary political economy, Social Statics needs to be considered.

Utilitarianism. Here’s is where we can directly address the question of the stability of Spencer’s philosophy. Did Spencer’s 1852 glance at natural selection or Darwin’s full-dress exposition in 1859 lead Spencer to abandon all his teachings in Social Statics?  Spencer’s argument in Social Statics is enormously important because it raises the question whether utilitarians haven’t implicitly assumed that all men have an equal right to happiness.[55]

But it is amusing when, after all, it turns out that the ground on which these philosophers have taken their stand, and from which with such self-complacency they shower their sarcasms, is nothing but an adversary’s mine, destined to blow the vast fabric of conclusions they have based on it into nonentity. This so solid-looking principle of “the greatest happiness to the greatest number,” needs but to have a light brought near it, and lo! it explodes into the astounding assertion, that all men have equal rights to happiness—an assertion far more sweeping and revolutionary than any of those which are assailed with so much scorn.

This drew a note in J.S. Mill’s 1861 Utilitarianism, which I quote from the Toronto – Liberty Fund edition that notes the changes in the 1863 printing:

This implication, in the first principle of the utilitarian scheme, of perfect impartiality between persons, is regarded by Mr. Herbert Spencer (in his Social Statics as a disproof of the pretensions of utility to be a sufficient guide to [61 be the foundation of] right; since (he says) the principle of utility presupposes the anterior principle, that everybody has an equal right to happiness. It may be more correctly described as supposing that equal amounts of happiness are equally desirable, whether felt by the same or by different persons. This, however, is not a presupposition [61, 63, 64 presupposition]; not a premise needful to support the principle of utility, but the very principle itself; for what is the principle of utility, if it be not that “happiness” and “desirable” are synonymous terms? If there is any anterior principle implied, it can be no other than this, that the truths [61 rules] of arithmetic are applicable to the valuation of happiness, as of all other measurable quantities

This prompted a letter to Mill from Spencer that is acknowledged in the 1863 printing of Utilitarianism.  I quote the first part of the note:

[63] Mr. Herbert Spencer, in a private communication on the subject of the preceding Note, objects to being considered an opponent of Utilitarianism, and states that he regards happiness as the ultimate end of morality; but deems that end only partially attainable by empirical generalizations from the observed results of conduct, and completely attainable only by deducing, from the laws of life and the conditions of existence, what kinds of action necessarily tend to produce happiness, and what kinds to produce unhappiness. With the exception of the word “necessarily,” I have no dissent to express from this doctrine; and (omitting that word) I am not aware that any modern advocate of utilitarianism is of a different opinion.

The Toronto Liberty Fund edition gives Spencer’s 1904 Autobiography as source of Spencer’s letter, but it doesn’t tell the reader what Spencer said about the letter.  Spencer seems not to have realized that Mill responded by taking back the substantial criticism!

Mr. J. S. Mill had just published his book on Utilitarianism. In it, to my surprise, I found myself classed as an Anti-utilitarian. Not liking to let pass a characterization which I regarded as erroneous, I wrote to him explaining my position—showing in what I agreed with the existing school of Utilitarians, and in what I differed from them. The essential part of this letter was published by Professor Bain in one of the closing chapters of his Mental and Moral Science; but it is not to be found anywhere in my own works. As it seems unfit that this anomalous distribution should be permanent, I decide to reprint it here; omitting the opening and closing paragraphs:— …

If nothing else this shows that memory needs to be controlled by manuscript even if the manuscript in question in the 1863 printing of Utilitarianism.

From this episode is it I think safe to read Spencer from Social Statics onward as a utilitarian. If he’d changed his mind, then why wouldn’t he tell this to Mill? Or mention the change in Autobiography?

Of course we are to deal with the “necessary” move, but that I consider in due course. Spencer described utilitarianism, seeking for the greatest happiness of an empirical basis, as a philosophy of expediency.

Das Adam Smith Problem. Spencer’s Social Statics ought to be famous in the Adam Smith literature as emphasizing the importance of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the sympathetic principle.[56] I quote the beginning of a long argument:

Seeing, however, that this instinct of personal rights is a purely selfish instinct, leading each man to assert and defend his own liberty of action, there remains the question—Whence comes our perception of the rights of others?

The way to a solution of this difficulty has been opened by Adam Smith in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” It is the aim of that work to show that the proper regulation of our conduct to one another, is secured by means of a faculty whose function it is to excite in each being the emotions displayed by surrounding ones—a faculty which awakens a like state of sentiment, or, as he terms it, “a fellow feeling with the passions of others”—the faculty, in short, which we commonly call Sympathy. As illustrations of the mode in which this agent acts, he quotes cases like these:—…

There is an argument in Social Statics that speaks to Spencer’s disagreement with Mill over the role of necessary truths. He cites as one necessary truth the proposition that humans are mortal and argues for another:[57]

Thus the ultimate development of the ideal man is logically certain—as certain as any conclusion in which we place the most implicit faith; for instance, that all men will die. For why do we infer that all men will die? Simply because, in an immense number of past experiences, death has uniformly occurred. Similarly then as the experiences of all people in all times—experiences that are embodied in maxims, proverbs, and moral precepts, and that are illustrated in biographies and histories, go to prove that organs, faculties, powers, capacities, or whatever else we call them, grow by use and diminish from disuse, it is inferred that they will continue to do so. And if this inference is unquestionable, then is the one above deduced from it—that humanity must in the end become completely adapted to its conditions—unquestionable also.

Spencer writes in Social Statics a good deal about the perfect man. The “straight man” about whom George Smith expresses reservations seems to be simply one in whom consideration of the rights of others has been fully internalized.  “Right,” Spencer defines in terms of “straight.”

I quote a passage in which the “absolute” is laid out in terms of geometry. Supposing that Spencer was thinking of geometry in terms of necessary truths, then his moral argument concerning the “straight man” is an exercise in modal logic.  Spencer’s “absolute” might be helpfully read as “necessary”

No conclusions can lay claim to absolute truth, but such as depend upon truths that are themselves absolute. Before there can be exactness in an inference, there must be exactness in the antecedent propositions. A geometrician requires that the straight lines with which he deals shall be veritably straight; and that his circles, and ellipses, and parabolas shall agree with precise definitions—shall perfectly and invariably answer to specified equations. If you put to him a question in which these conditions are not complied with, he tells you that it cannot be answered. So likewise is it with the philosophical moralist. He treats solely of the straight man. He determines the properties of the straight man; describes how the straight man comports himself; shows in what relationship he stands to other straight men; shows how a community of straight men is constituted. Any deviation from strict rectitude he is obliged wholly to ignore. It cannot be admitted into his premises without vitiating all his conclusions. A problem in which a crooked man forms one of the elements is insoluble by him. He may state what he thinks about it—may give an approximate solution; but anything more is impossible. His decision is no longer scientific and authoritative, but is now merely an opinion.

A real world problem. Where does utilitarianism fit into Spencer’s theme in Social Statics? It gives us a guide to government before we have (fully) adapted to the social state:

Although the adaptation of man to the social state has already made considerable progress—although the need for external restraint is less—and although consequently that reverence for authority which makes restraint possible, has greatly diminished—diminished to such an extent that the holders of power are daily caricatured, and men begin to listen to the National Anthem with their hats on—still the change is far from complete. The attributes of the aboriginal man have not yet died out. We still trench upon each other’s claims—still pursue happiness at each other’s expense. Our savage selfishness is seen in commerce, in legislation, in social arrangements, in amusements. The shopkeeper imposes on his lady customer; his lady customer beats down the shopkeeper Classes quarrel about their respective—interests;—and corruption is defended by those who profit from it. The spirit of caste morally tortures its victims with as much coolness as the Indian tortures his enemy. Gamblers pocket their gains with unconcern: and your share-speculator cares not who loses, so that he gets his premium. No matter what their rank, no matter in what they are engaged—whether in enacting a Corn Law, or in struggling with each other at the doors of a theatre—men show themselves as yet, little else than barbarians in broadcloth.

Hence we still require shackles; rulers to impose them; and power-worship to make those rulers obeyed. Just as much as the love of God’s law is deficient, must the fear of man’s law be called in to supply its place. And to the extent that man’s law is needful there must be reverence for it to ensure the necessary allegiance. Hence, as men are still under the influence of this sentiment, we must expect their customs, creeds, and philosophies to testify of its presence.

Here, then, we have a rationale of the expediency-idea of government.

Later in the text, he expands upon the theater-door reference:

And yet, whilst in some cases it is scarcely possible to trace the secret channels through which our misbehaviour to others returns upon us, there are other cases in which the reaction is palpable. An audience rushing out of a theatre on fire, and in their eagerness to get before each other jamming up the doorway so that no one can get through, offers a good example of unjust selfishness defeating itself. 

Collective-action problems plague the aboriginal man. As we develop regard for other’s rights, the chains of government fall away.  This seems a perfectly coherent argument in an economic utilitarian setup.  But that is all there in Social Statics.  


[52.] The first round of work on eugenics that Sandra Peart and I completed is brought together and published in The “Vanity of the Philosopher” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).  Over the next decade, we’ve published some specialized studies. “Charles Kingsley and the Theological Interpretation of Natural Selection,” Journal of Bioeconomics 8 (2006): 197-218; “Darwin’s Unpublished Letter at the Bradlaugh-Besant Trial: A Question of Divided Expert Judgment,” European Journal of Political Economy 24 (2008): 343-53; and “Sympathy, Evolution and The Economist,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 71 (June 2009): 29-36.  We’ve drawn out the critical role of sympathy in a chapter, “Sympathy Caught between Darwin and Eugenics,” in the 2015 Sympathy volume edited by Eric Schliesser for the Oxford Philosophical Concepts series.

[53.] Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of ‘Natural Selection,’” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 2 (1864):  clxx. As Peart and I point out in “Sympathy Caught,” the acknowledgement is removed in later reprints.

[54.]The Correspondence of Charles Darwin: 1870, ed. Frederick Burkhardt,  James A. Secord,  Sheila Ann Dean, Samantha Evans, Shelley Innes, Alison M. Pearn, Paul White (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010),  p. 5.  As we note in “Sympathy Caught” this letter is helpfully discussed in the Darwin literature. 

[55.] Peart and I discuss this episode in Vanity at some length because speaks to many themes in our book.

[56.] As it isn’t famous, Peart and I have stressed this both in “Vanity” and “Sympathy Caught.” Wallace’s enthusiasm for Social Statics speaks to the question of how the evolutionary biologists at mid-century were so well versed on The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

[57.] Sandra Peart and I have explored how this necessary truth of the finiteness of life fits into Adam Smith’s argument as well as those from whom Adam Smith learnt modal logic, in “Adam Smith and the State: Language and Reform,” Oxford Handbook on Adam Smith. Ed. Chris Berry, Craig Smith, and Maria Paganelli (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 372-92. 


1. George H. Smith, "A Preliminary Reply to Alberto Mingardi, Roderick Long, and David Levy" [Posted: Nov. 13, 2014]↩

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