In this final essay on the pessimism of Herbert Spencer, I will discuss a major factor that I only touched on previously, namely, Spencer’s increasing disillusionment with democracy.
In his early years Spencer was a vigorous champion of “complete suffrage,” i.e., of extending the right to vote to all adults, including women. Social Statics (1851) includes a chapter on “The Rights of Women”—a magnificent defense of the moral and intellectual equality of women, and a demand for the recognition of their equal rights.
The extension of the law of equal freedom to both sexes will doubtless be objected to, on the ground that the political privileges exercised by men must thereby be ceded to women also. Of course they must; and why not?
After shooting down various arguments against women’s suffrage, Spencer concluded:
Thus it has been shown that the rights of women must stand or fall with those of men; derived as they are from the same authority; involved in the same axiom; demonstrated by the same argument. [The] law of equal freedom applies alike to both sexes….
Spencer’s defense of women went far beyond calling for equal political rights. Indeed, much of “The Rights of Women” is devoted to criticizing the domestic despotism that many husbands exercised over their wives in Victorian England. Husbands were legally permitted to beat their wives, for example—a policy that Spencer condemned as barbaric. Englishmen “sit over our tea-tables, and pass criticisms upon national character, or philosophize upon the development of civilized institutions, quietly taking it for granted that we are civilized,” while remaining blind to the remnants of barbarism in their treatment of women.
According to Spencer, the domestic institutions of a country are inextricably intertwined with its political institutions. “Despotism in the state is necessarily associated with despotism in the family.” A culture in which husbands dominate their wives can never serve as the foundation of a free society.
In a stirring passage that has been neglected by most historians of feminism, Spencer insisted that romantic love cannot coexist with coercion or in a superior-subordinate relationship. Love can subsist and flourish only between equals.
Command is a blight to the affections. Whatsoever of refinement—whatsoever of beauty—whatsoever of poetry, there is in the passion that unites the sexes, withers up and dies in the cold atmosphere of authority. Native as they are to such widely-separated regions of our nature, Love and Coercion cannot possibly flourish together. The one grows out of our best feelings: the other has its root in our worst. Love is sympathetic: Coercion is callous. Love is gentle: Coercion is harsh. Love is self-sacrificing: Coercion is selfish. How then can they co-exist? It is the property of the first to attract; whilst it is that of the last to repel: and, conflicting as they thus do, it is the constant tendency of each to destroy the other. Let whoever thinks the two compatible imagine himself acting the master over his betrothed. Does he believe that he could do this without any injury to the subsisting relationship? Does he not know rather that a bad effect would be produced upon the feelings of both parties by the assumption of such an attitude? And confessing this, as he must, is he superstitious enough to suppose that the going through a form of words will render harmless that use of command which was previously hurtful?
Of all the causes which conspire to produce the disappointment of those glowing hopes with which married life is usually entered upon, none is so potent as this supremacy of sex—this degradation of what should be a free and equal relationship into one of ruler and subject—this supplanting of the sway of affection by the sway of authority. Only as that condition of slavery to which women are condemned amongst barbarous nations is ameliorated, does ideal love become possible; and only when that condition of slavery shall have been wholly abolished, will ideal love attain fullness and permanence.
I have quoted this passage at length for a reason. Spencer later rescinded his call to extend voting rights to women—or, to be more precise, he argued that this reform should be postponed until sometime into the future. Extending the franchise to women should be an “ultimate” measure, not an “immediate” one. Spencer’s new position was based on his belief that most women of his day were likely to vote for statist policies, especially for laws that appeared to promote humanitarian causes.
Historians have had a field day with Spencer’s reversal. For example, Mark Francis, in Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (Cornell University Press, 2007, p. 77), attributes Spencer’s change of mind about women’s suffrage to “his personal fear of women.” (Francis’s cheesy psychoanalysis of Spencer is not unusual; this kind of blather has been a common tactic of Spencer “scholars” for decades.)
Whatever one may think about Spencer’s later position on voting rights, it is important to understand that he did not retreat from his other positions regarding women. In his drastically “abridged and revised” edition of Social Statics published in 1892, Spencer still included a chapter on the rights of women, and he still condemned “matrimonial servitude” (as discussed the passage quoted above) and other aspects of female inequality. The only significant change in this chapter is its omission of the argument for women’s suffrage.
Another thing we should keep in mind is Spencer’s belief that a free society should be the ultimate goal of political reforms, and that specific reforms should be evaluated according to the likelihood that they will further this goal.
In a fascinating letter to J.S. Mill (August 9, 1867) about women’s suffrage, Spencer explained that voting rights are “simply means to an end”—the end in this case being “the securing the greatest amount of individual freedom.” This is “real liberty in comparison with which right of voting is a nominal liberty.”
After giving two reasons why women’s suffrage would probably diminish real liberty, Spencer continued:
To put the right construction on these reasonings of mine, you must bear in mind that to me the limitation of the functions of the State is the question of questions, in comparison with which all other political questions are trivial; and that to me electoral changes and other changes in forms of government are of interest mainly as they promise to make men freer….
In An Autobiography, Spencer attributed his “juvenile radicalism” to the erroneous belief that it is only necessary “to establish a form of government theoretically more equitable, to remedy the evils under which society suffered.” An older Spencer came to believe that women’s suffrage, though theoretically equitable as an ideal, would decrease rather than increase the prospects for liberty in the short run.
Spencer’s later opposition to women’s suffrage should be viewed in the broader context of his extreme skepticism about voting in general. Although Spencer supported the Reform Act of 1867, which enfranchised 1,500,000 working class men (mainly skilled artisans), he later wondered why he had done so, given that he clearly understood, seven years earlier, the likely political outcome. In a remarkable exercise in critical self-analysis, which makes An Autobiography so fascinating to read, Spencer wrote:
I myself illustrated the truth that feeling rather than intellect guides; for, apparently forgetting these conclusions, I approved that wide extension of the franchise effected by the Reform Bill of 1867. The sentiment of early years, so strongly enlisted on behalf of the seemingly just principle of giving equal political powers to all men, proved too strong for the restraints of my calmer judgments. And then, beyond those recognized truths which feeling led me to ignore, there were other truths unrecognized which I ought not to have overlooked….
The earlier “conclusions” to which Spencer refers appeared in an article published in 1860, “Parliamentary Reform: The Dangers and the Safeguards.” Spencer dismissed the fears of “irrational alarmists” who opposed giving the vote to “artisans and others of their grade” on the grounds that the working classes would use their political power to expropriate property from others with more wealth. By this he meant that he did not expect the working classes to expropriate property outright, by direct means, such as by nationalizing industries. But Spencer did fear that newly enfranchised workers would use their political power to expropriate private property, especially the property of capitalists and employers, indirectly, so he spent much of this article analyzing the problem and searching for a solution.
We should not suppose that Spencer viewed the English upper class as morally superior to their supposed social inferiors. On the contrary, the current ruling class in England had used its political power to enrich itself by unjust means, and the resulting “evils” were “as great if not greater” than the potential consequences of extending the suffrage.
Spencer hoped that a broader distribution of political power would bring about a balance of interests, so that no one class could use the political machinery to expropriate wealth from other classes. But he had his doubts, even in 1860, just nine years after the publication of Social Statics. So long as there exists a coercive institution that enables some people to benefit at the expense of others, then there will always be some people who will use political rather than economic means to further their own interests.
Spencer maintained that extending the franchise would be desirable only if it were accompanied by a decrease in the powers of government. Only if the dangerous weapon of governmental power were placed beyond the reach of everyone could we be reasonably certain that no group or class would use political power to exploit others. Only, in other words, if government were reduced to its proper function of protecting and enforcing the equal rights of all citizens would the extension of voting rights bring about anything other than the replacement of “the old class-legislation by a new class-legislation.”
Of course, Spencer knew that his ideal limited government would not come about in the near future, so he proposed a stopgap measure: Those who vote for government programs should also be among those who are taxed to pay for them. Only if all voters feel the immediate financial burdens entailed by the policies they support will they learn, through experience, the consequences of their actions and come to understand that nothing is free. To exempt some voters from the financial consequences of their political actions merely provides them with an incentive to benefit themselves at the expense of others.
By the time he wrote An Autobiography, Spencer believed that the most disastrous effect of democracy in England was the growth of a powerful and potentially permanent bureaucracy. With each political reform that supposedly benefited the working classes came a new administrative agency, and this momentum toward bigger government would be virtually impossible to stop.
For the concomitant of that legislation which more and more advantages the employed classes at the expense of the employing classes, is the growth of an administrative system becoming ever more powerful and peremptory—a new governing agency which the emancipated people are unawares elaborating for themselves, while thinking only of gaining the promised benefits. Unceasing development of this, daily more rapid, has now become inevitable, for the reason that both electors and their representatives invoke with increasing urgency public help, public expenditure, and public regulation, which all imply a continually augmenting army of officials—an army which, by the restrictions and dictations its members enforce, gradually decreases the freedom of citizens, at the same time that it further decreases this freedom by demanding that more and more of their labour shall be devoted to maintaining it and paying for the work it superintends. The insidious growth of this organized and consolidated bureaucracy will go on, because the electorate cannot conceive the general but distant evils it must entail, in contrast with the special and immediate advantages to be gained by its action. For the masses can appreciate nothing but material boons—better homes, shorter hours, higher wages, more regular work.
Having devoted seven essays to the pessimism of Herbert Spencer, I may be expected by some readers to end this series on an optimistic note. But I cannot, so I must leave this Panglossian task to others.
I would, however, like to highlight a point that Spencer made repeatedly throughout his life, namely, that defenders of freedom should always stress and teach fundamental principles about individual rights and the proper functions of government, even when involved in political campaigns and other practical activities.
Although Spencer became a pessimist in later life, he did not abandon all hope for the future. He did not believe political improvements to be impossible in every case, even if the quest for political perfection is quixotic. But no lasting improvements will come about unless enough people embrace the basic principles of a free society. As Spencer put it:
If these [political] evils can be prevented at all, they can be prevented only by establishing in the public mind a profound conviction that there are certain definite limits to the functions of the State; and that these limits ought on no account to be transgressed.
George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith's fourth book, The System of Liberty, was recently published by Cambridge University Press.