April 17, 2012 essays

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Barack Obama, Social Darwinism, and Survival of the Fittest, Part 2

When Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner applied their survival of the fittest doctrine to a free society, they reached conclusions that differed radically from the position attributed to social Darwinists. True, the sacrifice of one individual for the benefit of another is the general rule for lower life forms. And this may also be true of the lower forms of human society – militaristic, authoritarian societies that Spencer and Sumner (following the legal historian Henry S. Maine) called “regimes of status.” But in the course of social evolution, as regimes of status gradually gave way to regimes of contract, as voluntary cooperation replaced coercion as the dominant mode of social interaction, a fundamental transformation occurred in the conditions of social existence and in the corresponding standard of “fitness.”

In a free society people are able to pursue their own interests as they see fit, provided they respect the equal rights of others. As cooperation in a regime of contract replaces exploitation in a regime of status, the fittest prosper not by coercing others but by assisting them through voluntary exchanges. (Adam Smith had previously dubbed this process the “invisible hand.”) Here as elsewhere survival of the fittest is an iron law of social existence, but this standard of fitness is far removed from that invoked by the specter of social Darwinism. Voluntary cooperation, not coercive exploitation, is the standard of fitness in a free society.

Spencer and Sumner emphasized that market competition differs dramatically from biological competition. Market competition, unlike biological competition, produces immense wealth, thereby making it possible for many people to survive and prosper who otherwise could not. Moreover, the sophisticated division of labor that develops in a market economy generates specialization, and this specialization generates social interdependence — a condition in which every person must rely on the cooperation and assistance of others for necessary goods and services. The solitary individual cannot produce everything he needs or wants in a market economy, so he must persuade many others to assist him. This condition of survival cultivates the character traits (or virtues) necessary for peaceful interaction – those civilizing mores, as Sumner called them, that make social interaction not only productive and mutually beneficial but pleasant as well.

To associate market competition with biological competition is to misunderstand how Spencer and Sumner (and other classical liberals) viewed the market. Biological competition, in which one individual survives at the expense of other individuals, is a zero-sum game, whereas market competition is a positive-sum game in which all participants gain from voluntary cooperation. Therefore, it is precisely in a free society that social Darwinism does not apply. In a society with an advanced division of labor and where we must give others what they want in order to get what we want, the “fit” are those who can enlist the voluntary cooperation of others. When success depends upon persuasion rather than coercion, social fitness is measured by one’s ability to influence others by offering them something of value, i.e., by benefiting them.

But what about the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged? Popular mythology about laissez-faire liberals, propagated in one textbook account after another, depicts them as implacable enemies of charity and other efforts to help those who cannot help themselves.

If we are to understand the views of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner on charity and related matters, we must first understand their roles as pioneers in sociology. Spencer is widely acknowledged as a founder of the “functionalist” school of sociology; and Sumner, during his many years as a Yale professor, did much to establish sociology as a legitimate discipline in American universities.

Spencer and Sumner believed that natural laws (i.e., laws of cause and effect) operate in the social world as surely as they do in physics, biology, and other natural sciences; and they believed that a basic purpose of sociology (the “science of society”) is to discover and formulate these causal laws. They also believed that social causation is extremely complex, and that ignorance of this fact has led to many ill-conceived political measures. In The Study of Sociology, Spencer had this to say about those who offer simplistic political solutions for complex social problems:

Proximate causes and proximate results are alone contemplated. There is scarcely any consciousness that the original causes are often numerous and widely different from the apparent cause; and that beyond each immediate result there will be multitudinous remote results, most of them quite incalculable.

Many people are ignorant of physical causation, so it no surprise that even more people are ignorant of social causation, which is “so much more subtle and complex.” Where there is little or no awareness of social causation, “political superstitions” abound, including the belief that government has a special power, transcending that of mere individuals, to eradicate social problems.

The ordinary political schemer is convinced that out of a legislative apparatus, properly devised and worked with due dexterity, may be had beneficial State-action without any detrimental reaction.

William Graham Sumner made the same point in a number of his essays. Three facts, he said, are essential to an understanding of social causation. First, social phenomena always present themselves to us in complex combinations. Second, it is by no means easy to interpret these phenomena. Third, we cannot conduct controlled social experiments of the sort used in the physical sciences. Sociology is therefore an extremely difficult discipline, one that requires years of study and observation.

Nevertheless, virtually everyone has opinions about social problems and what is needed to solve them. This generates the dangerous notion that people, acting through a government, can eradicate any social problems they wish, if only they have good intentions and sufficient determination. As Sumner put it:

The assumption which underlies almost all discussion of social topics is that we men need only to make up our minds what kind of society we want, and that then we can devise means for calling that society into existence.

This is the basic fallacy in socialism and other utopian schemes to remodel society according to preconceived ideals. For instance, if we believe that everyone has a right to the good things in life or to equal wealth, then we need only empower and instruct government to implement these moral ideals. Such fallacies flow from what Sumner called a “sentimental philosophy.”

The sentimental philosophy starts from the first principle that nothing is true which is disagreeable, and that we must not believe anything which is ‘shocking,’ no matter what the evidence may be. It touches on one side the intuitional philosophy which proves that certain things must exist by proving that man needs them, and it touches on the other side the vulgar socialism which affirms that the individual has a right to whatever he needs, and that this right is good against his fellow men.

Sumner and Spencer criticized this way of thinking in a manner similar to that of F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Murray Rothbard, and other modern free-market economists. Central to their analysis is the doctrine of unintended consequences, a theory that was developed in considerable detail by Herbert Spencer, who called it the “multiplication of effects.”

In social affairs, according to Spencer, “the effect is more complex than the cause.” A single cause, such as an economic regulation, will generate a complex network of effects, and each of these effects, in turn, will cause innumerable other effects, as purposeful human beings adjust and adapt themselves to the new conditions. This is why social legislation, despite the best intentions of legislators, typically generates unintended and detrimental long-term consequences. Spencer, throughout his many books and essays, discussed hundreds of legislative measures that exacerbated the problems they were intended to solve.

Spencer and Sumner opposed state charity – i.e., charity that is coercively financed through taxation – but both favored voluntary charity. This was a crucial distinction, since they believed that coercion changes the essential nature of an act and alters its impact on society in general. Nevertheless, even in their own day the positions of both men were frequently misrepresented.

Spencer opposed coercive, state-enforced charity, but he favored charity that is voluntarily bestowed. As a matter of justice, one should not be forced to help others; but as a matter of personal or religious ethics, one may be obligated to help others. Spencer noted with consternation that his views brought on him “condemnation as an enemy of the poor.” In one essay he observed that it was becoming more common for the rich to contribute money and time to the poor, and he praised this trend as “the latest and most hopeful fact in human history.” Moreover, the final chapters in Spencer’s The Principles of Ethics are devoted to the subject of “positive beneficence,” the highest form of society in which people voluntarily help those in need.

These and many similar facts scarcely fit the common picture of a Herbert Spencer devoid of humanitarian sentiments. One must read Spencer’s extensive treatments of poverty and the poor to appreciate fully the outrageous misrepresentations of his critics. That Spencer was offended by such lies is dramatically illustrated by the fact that he broke off a close friendship of some forty years with Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”), after Huxley had written that, according to the Spencerian individualist, a poor man should be left to starve because charity interferes with “survival of the fittest.”

In reply to this accusation of “reasoned savagery,” Spencer wrote: “For nearly fifty years I have contended that the pains attendant on the struggle for existence may fitly be qualified by the aid which private sympathy prompts.” Even after Huxley apologized, it took several years for the friendship to heal.

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