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August 2012

From Optimism to Pessimism: The Case of Herbert Spencer, Part 6

George H. Smith discusses how Herbert Spencer’s analyses of nineteenth-century Germany and France contributed to his pessimistic outlook on the future of freedom.

It was early in 1858 that Herbert Spencer, then thirty-seven, sketched the first outline of what would become his ten-volume Synthetic Philosophy—one of the most ambitious intellectual projects of the nineteenth century. As Spencer later observed, this was “the inception of the undertaking to which the rest of my life was to be devoted.”

It took nearly forty years for Spencer to complete his masterpiece. Walter Troughton, Spencer’s secretary at the time, described the final moments of this vast project:

Mr. Spencer was seventy-six years of age when he dictated to me the last words of “Industrial Institutions,” with the completion of which the Synthetic Philosophy was finished—to be precise it was on the 13 August, 1896. Rising slowly from his seat in the study at 64, Avenue Road, his face beaming with joy, he extended his hand across the table, and we shook hands on the auspicious event. “I have finished the task I have lived for,” was all he said, and then resumed his seat. The elation was only momentary and his features quickly resumed their customary composure.

Spencer completed his Synthetic Philosophy by adding two chapters to The Principles of Sociology. These chapters (“The Near Future” and “Conclusion”) discuss the future of freedom in Europe and are therefore indispensable to understanding Spencer’s later pessimism.

Spencer began by noting that sociology—a generic label he used to encompass all social sciences, including economics—should be able to tell us something about the future, based on current trends. But Spencer was cautious about making predictions, owing to the many variables involved.

Existing factors are so numerous and conflicting, and the emergence of new factors, not in any way to be anticipated, so probable, as to make all speculations hazardous, and to make valueless all conclusions save those of the most general kind.

When writing as a social scientist, Spencer was somewhat more circumspect in his pessimism than we find in his letters and popular essays. He acknowledged that the social indicators for the future of freedom were mixed:

The baser instincts, which dominated during the long ages of savage warfare, are being invigorated by revived militancy; while the many beneficent activities distinguishing our age, imply a fostering of the higher sentiments. There is a moral struggle of which the average effect cannot be estimated.

Despite this difficulty, Spencer argued that we can use the principle of self-ownership to ascertain whether a society is progressing toward greater freedom or regressing into greater statism.

[T]o be rightly drawn, our conclusions about impending social changes must be guided by observing whether the movement is towards ownership of each man by others or towards ownership of each man by himself, and towards the corresponding emotions and thoughts. Practically it matters little what is the character of the ownership by others—whether it is ownership by a monarch, by an oligarchy, by a democratic majority, or by a communistic organization. The question for each is how far he is prevented from using his faculties for his own advantage and compelled to use them for others’ advantage, not what is the power which compels him or prevents him.

Using self-ownership as a gauge, Spencer analyzed the political condition of three countries during the late nineteenth century: Germany, France, and England. His treatments are fascinating examples of how a founding father of sociology used the moral standard of self-ownership in his work, and how he applied his abstract principles to some concrete particulars of his own day.

Germany had a long tradition of militarism, according to Spencer, and this militarism inevitably generated a great deal of governmental control over the personal, social, and economic activities of the German people. From old age pensions to compulsory trade unions, these “and many other regulations, alike of employers and employed, make them in so far creatures of the State, not having the unrestrained use of their own faculties.”

Before proceeding, I need to clarify a point about Spencer’s use of the terms “militant” and “industrial” as tags for polar types of social organization. Spencer’s use of “industrial” to describe the social form dominated by “voluntary co-operation” was an unfortunate label in some ways, because it misled later commentators. According to some of his critics, Spencer failed to appreciate how highly industrialized societies could be organized along “militant” lines, i.e., how industrial societies could be coercively regimented and dominated by government.

In fact, Spencer was well aware of this possibility, and he frequently discussed the development of regimented industrial societies. Specifically, he called attention to the development of entrenched bureaucracies that take on a life of their own, become politically autonomous, and control vast areas of social and economic activities. (Although Spencer generally referred to such societies as “socialistic” or “communistic,” some of his portrayals come eerily close to describing what would later be called “fascism.”)

As Spencer wrote, after noting the widespread appeal of “the socialistic movement” in Germany:

[T]he socialistic régime is simply another form of the bureaucratic régime. Military regimentation, civil regimentation, and industrial regimentation are in their natures essentially the same….

Spencer obviously had no hope for the “near future” of Germany.

And when we remember how lately feudalism has died out in Germany—how little Germans have been accustomed to self-ownership and how much to ownership by others—we may understand how unobjectionable to them seems that system of ownership by others which State-socialism implies.

Turning to France, Spencer called attention to “the competition between Germany and France in their military developments.” The French military had expanded dramatically in recent years, as the French government attempted to compete with Germany and other European powers for the acquisition of colonies—or what Spencer called “political burglaries.”

Spencer never tired of pointing out that a society focused on war and conquest will invariably develop a corresponding “militant” social structure. As more national resources are demanded for military adventures, citizens will suffer heavy taxes and find that their personal lives are increasingly regimented by a bureaucratic State. Consider this remark about the French military:

To support this non-productive class owned by the State as fighters, the State makes the workers surrender a proportionate part of their earnings, and owns them to the extent of that part—to a much larger extent, as we shall presently see. Militant activity accompanies this militant organization.

Like Alexis de Tocqueville before him, Spencer understood that France had been trending toward political centralization for centuries during the Ancien Régime, that the French Revolution accelerated this trend, and that the process continued apace after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The results were a bureaucratic régime, a “rage for uniformity” enforced by a system of state education, and a society “which values equality much more than liberty,” in which people do not object to coercion provided “all are equally coerced.”

By English standards, French taxes were excessive. According to some French economists cited by Spencer, the civil and military expenditures of the French government absorbed 30 percent of “the annual exchangeable produce” of the country. Spencer compared this to the feudal corvée, according to which medieval serfs were required to devote one-third of their labor to working the lands of their overlords. The fact that serfdom demanded unpaid labor directly, whereas the French government confiscated an equal amount in money, was, for Spencer, a distinction without a difference.

In feudal days the serf did corvées for his lord, working on his estate during so many days in the year; and now, during over 90 days in the year, a modern Frenchman does corvées for his government. To that extent he is a serf of the community; for it matters not whether he gives so much work or whether he gives an equivalent in money.

This political situation led Spencer to reach the same pessimistic conclusion about most French citizens that he had reached about most German citizens.

Inheriting military traditions in which he glories, and subject at school to a discipline of military strictness, he, without repugnance, accepts the idea of industrial regimentation; and does not resent the suggestion that for the sake of being taken care of he should put himself under a universal directive organization. Indeed he has in large measure done this already.

Before proceeding, it is essential that we understand the line of reasoning that Spencer used in analyzing the future of freedom in Germany and France.

In my last essay I discussed what Spencer variously called the “sentiment of liberty” and the “sentiment of justice.” This sentiment, without which a free society cannot develop, is the moral feeling that causes us to resent governmental activities that violate the Law of Equal Freedom, according to which every person should be free to act on his own judgment, so long as he does not violate the equal freedom of others.

According to Spencer, the sentiment of liberty cannot develop without a prolonged state of peace—or “permanent peace,” as he sometimes called it — for it is only during peacetime that people can pursue their own interests as they see fit, while respecting the equal rights of others. As individuals become accustomed to the “voluntary co-operation” that characterizes “régimes of contract,” they adapt to their social environment by developing the appropriate moral sentiments—most notably, the sentiment of liberty.

When Spencer analyzed the evil consequences of war and aggressive governments, he did much more than discuss the injustices committed against the immediate victims of war. As a sociologist, he also analyzed the effects of the external activities of a warlike government on the internal organization of the society which it governs. He insisted that what the historian Harry Elmer Barnes called “perpetual war for perpetual peace” will invariably lead to the loss of civil and economic liberties and thereby generate a “militant” form of social organization—a hierarchical, bureaucratic structure in which individuals surrender their self-ownership in favor of ownership by the State or “society.”

Why is this inevitable? Because in wartime all individual purposes are subordinated to the single, overarching goal of defeating an enemy, whether real or imagined. As this situation continues, people will adapt to their militant social environment and develop the sentiments associated with obedience to the State instead of the sentiments associated with self-ownership.

Thus, if Spencer was pessimistic about the future of Germany and France, his outlook was based on far more than the current political conditions of those countries. Rather, he focused on the moral sentiments prevalent in those countries—sentiments that had developed over a long period of time, as the inhabitants of Germany and France adapted to their militant social environments.

As Spencer saw the matter, alterations in the form of a government, the replacement of one ruling clique by another, and similar changes were usually superficial. What ultimately matters is the degree of self-ownership present in a given society, and this will be determined not by changes in form or personnel but by the characters of most people in that society. When the sentiment of liberty is not deeply rooted and widely diffused, freedom has little chance.

In the next (and probably last) essay in this series, I will consider Spencer’s analysis of political and cultural developments in England, including his critical assessment of democracy.

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