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Aug 13, 2013

Thomas Hodgskin Versus Herbert Spencer, Part 1

Smith discusses the common allegation that Spencer took many of his ideas from Hodgskin without acknowledging their source.

Since this essay—an introduction, in effect, to my discussion of Thomas Hodgskin’s defense of private property in land—is a significant departure from my series on “Herbert Spencer. Henry George, and the Land Question,” I decided to give it a separate title rather than add yet another part to the previous series. Readers unfamiliar with Thomas Hodgskin should consult my five essays (beginning here) on this remarkable libertarian.

Two of the greatest libertarian books ever written are The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832), by Thomas Hodgskin; and Social Statics (1850), by Herbert Spencer. The similar ideas presented in these books have generated a mini-controversy among some historians: To what extent, if any, did Spencer draw from Hodgskin while writing Social Statics? This question becomes especially intriguing in view of the fact that Spencer knew Hodgskin; indeed, the two men worked together during the time that Spencer wrote most of Social Statics, and they met frequently in Hodgskin’s home to discuss ideas. One of their gab sessions was described by Mary Hodgskin, Thomas’s daughter, as follows:

Once I remember I was in the room [Hodgskin’s study] some minutes. I must have gone in very probably to take an extra lamp for Herbert Spencer, for I recollect he sat at a side table alone, with writing materials and books about him (there was no room at my father’s table for anyone else to write) and I perfectly remember seeing my father point to the bookshelves saying, “You will find the book you want there, on such and such a shelf, Spencer.”…I think it likely that his coming to our house first came about this way: he probably put some question to my father at the office, and he answered “Come and look up what you want in my books,” and then discussions followed.

It was after Spencer joined the staff of The Economist in December 1848, where he worked as a sub-editor for a little over four years, that he met Thomas Hodgskin, the senior editor. In contrast to Hodgskin, who wrote many book reviews and lead articles for The Economist, Spencer’s duties were fairly light and afforded him ample time to work on Social Statics. He wrote only one article, “A Solution of the Water Question,” for The Economist (Dec. 1851); most of his time was spent screening books, compiling statistics, and doing other chores.

Although Spencer mentioned Hodgskin a few times in An Autobiography, these passing references give no indication that Hodgskin influenced his thinking. Spencer only noted that he spent “evenings now and then…with my coadjutor Mr. Hodgskin,” that he “occasionally dipped” into books before passing them on to Hodgskin for review, that he and Hodgskin occasionally swapped tasks so each could get more consecutive days off, and that Hodgskin encouraged him to drop the original title of his book, Demostatics, in favor of Social Statics.

In early 1851, when Spencer sent Hodgskin a copy of Social Statics to review in The Economist, he enclosed a note thanking Hodgskin “for the assistance you have so kindly rendered me—assistance which by saving me from sundry inaccuracies has increased my chance of passing muster with the critics.” It thus appears that Hodgskin read Social Statics in manuscript and suggested some changes, but, again, Spencer gave no indication of having been influenced by Hodgskin’s ideas.

When, in 1903 (the year of his death), Spencer was asked by Mary Hodgskin about the influence of her father, Spencer replied: “That he exercised any influence over my opinions I deny.” This denial was necessary because Mary had been consulted by the historian Élie Halévy while he was writing his book Thomas Hodgskin. (The French edition was published in 1904; an English translation was not published until 1956.) It is in this book that we find the first suggestion that Spencer, despite his persistent denials, was far more indebted to Hodgskin’s ideas than he was ever willing to acknowledge.

Halévy’s claim was picked up and elaborated upon by subsequent historians. For example, in 1915 Sir Ernest Barker (Political Thought in England, 1848-1914) argued that it was in his contact with Hodgskin that “Spencer found the primary and main source of the political creed which he always championed.” Barker, like many historians, based his claim primarily on the similarities between the ideas of Hodgskin and Spencer.

[A]fter the end of 1848 [Spencer] was, as sub-editor of the Economist, brought into contact with Thomas Hodgskin; and this contact probably influenced the development of Social Statics very vitally. Hodgskin was an anti-Benthamite radical. Like Godwin he believed in the natural rights of humanity, at which Bentham had scoffed. He extended to politics as well as to economics the doctrine of laissez-faire….Society, Hodgskin held, was a natural phenomenon with natural laws….The function of government was accordingly negative: it extended only to the securing of a free field for the operation of natural laws; and human laws were as prejudicial as natural laws were the reverse. The ultimate goal and Utopia of the future was thus a state of anarchy, in which government had disappeared and the sentiments of each were automatically adjusted in a spontaneous harmony with those of all.

An even stronger claim appears in The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer (1978), by David Wiltshire.

Almost the whole of Social Statics could be interpreted as an elaboration of the theories of Thomas Hodgskin, whose contribution nevertheless goes unacknowledged (Spencer’s Autobiography awards him one incidental mention). This is partly because of Spencer’s normal reticence on the subject of intellectual obligation, and partly because of Hodgskin’s later reputation as a socialist luminary.

Aside from the erroneous claim that Spencer’s Autobiography mentions Hodgskin only once—a minor error that curiously appears in numerous treatments of this controversy—Wiltshire’s allegations amount to little more than pure speculation. The claim that Spencer refused to acknowledge his intellectual debts, though common among Spencer’s detractors, is untrue. And Hodgskin’s reputation as a socialist was largely a myth perpetrated by later historians; Spencer and other libertarians of his time knew better. In any case, the interpretation of Barker and Wiltshire has pretty much become standard fare among those historians who have taken an interest in this controversy. A notable exception is the more reliable account in Nature and Artifice: The Life and Thought of Thomas Hodgskin, 1787-1869, by David Stack (published in 1998).

In my opinion, the allegation that Spencer lied in denying an intellectual debt to Hodgskin is completely unfounded. Some of the fundamental ideas they shared were quite common among middle-class dissenters and radicals. Spencer repeatedly noted that he wasn’t fond of reading books (other than fiction) and that he absorbed many of his political ideas in early life from listening to conversations between his father and various friends, and, later, from Herbert’s extensive conversations with one of his uncles, Thomas Spencer. That Spencer’s libertarian philosophy was developed years before he met Hodgskin is evident from “The Proper Sphere of Government” (1842), which Spencer, at age twenty-two, published as a series of letters in The Nonconformist, a leading dissenting periodical published by Edward Miall, a family friend. The similarities between the ideas found in these letters and in the many pamphlets written by his uncle (which Spencer proofread prior to publication) are unmistakable. Moreover, Spencer’s father, though officially a Methodist, inclined toward Quakerism in his later years, and he familiarized Spencer with the pacifistic writings of the English Quaker Jonathan Dymond. This may account for Spencer’s contention, in “The Proper Sphere of Government,” that “it is our duty as Christians to adopt all feasible means of putting an end” to war, and that, in pursuit of this goal, governments should be denied the right to maintain a military force. (Spencer had repudiated this radical tenet by the time he wrote Social Statics.)

We know that Spencer was familiar with The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted; he appears to have borrowed a copy from Hodgskin’s personal library. In a letter to Hodgskin (22 Oct 1849) Spencer said that he began reading the book with “some trepidation,” because he feared that Hodgskin may have anticipated some of the ideas that would be expressed in Social Statics, which Spencer was still writing. Spencer continued:

As far as I can judge however from the cursory glance I have given to the essay [i.e., book], I fancy that although we are quite at one in our conclusions we do not arrive at them by the same process. You have I see quoted some of the same passages from Locke that I have myself referred to although not exactly for the same purpose for I do not think that Locke’s arguments, though satisfactory as far as they go, go quite deep enough.

If anything, Spencer understated his disagreements with John Locke, which, as I discussed in an earlier essay, were substantial, especially in regard to the justification of property rights in general and the issue of private landownership in particular. Hodgskin, in stark contrast, was a thoroughgoing Lockean in both respects, and this difference is what fundamentally distinguishes his libertarian philosophy from that defended by Spencer.

With this background, we are now able to focus on Hodgskin’s criticisms of Spencer’s case against private property in land. One of these criticisms, which I mentioned in the conclusion of my last essay, focuses on Spencer’s claim that private landownership is inconsistent with the Law of Equal Freedom. According to Hodgskin, however, the premise used by Spencer to justify the Law of Equal Freedom, if applied consistently, will justify private property in land. Thus to understand what Hodgskin was getting at here, we need to outline Spencer’s justification.

Social Statics begins with a critique of the “expediency philosophy” of Jeremy Bentham and his many utilitarian followers, according to whom the greatest happiness of the greatest number should serve not only as a goal of governmental legislation but also as the standard. (See my earlier discussion here.) Spencer rejected the empirical utilitarianism of Bentham and defended what he later called “rational utilitarianism.” That is to say, Spencer agreed that the “greatest happiness” should be the ultimate (if rather vague) goal of legislation, while insisting that individual rights are the only proper standard. Only if governments respect individual rights can the greatest happiness be achieved.

According to Spencer, happiness is a “state of consciousness” that consists of the satisfaction of our desires, and desires are satisfied by certain pleasurable sensations that result from the exercise of our faculties. Here is how Spencer summarized these points:

A desire is the need for some species of sensation. A sensation is producible only by the exercise of a faculty. Hence no desire can be satisfied except through the exercise of a faculty. But happiness consists in the due satisfaction of all the desires; that is, happiness consists in the due exercise of all the faculties.

Since the need to exercise our faculties in order to attain happiness applies to all human beings, the freedom of each person to exercise his or her faculties must be “bounded by the similar freedom of all.” Thus does Spencer arrive at his first formulation of the Law of Equal Freedom: “Wherefore we arrive at the general proposition that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man.” The boundaries of individual freedom are formulated in terms of rights; and the protection of these rights, which is the only justification for government, will result in the greatest possible happiness.

In his review of Social Statics in The Economist (Feb. 1851), Hodgskin noted that, according to Spencer, “the free use of the earth by each man is necessary to supply his wants, supposing apparently that no individual can live without using the earth to gain the means of subsistence.” (It is interesting that Hodgskin inserted the qualifier “apparently” in this sentence; it may indicate that he was not quite certain about Spencer’s most fundamental argument, which is an uncertainly I share.) Hodgskin responded by claiming that “in the progress of society great numbers of persons can subsist without using the land to satisfy their wants.” He further pointed out that, in Spencer’s approach, the primary right is not the right to use land but the right “each to use his own faculties.” Thus, if it could be shown that private landownership would result in greater opportunities for people to exercise their faculties and thereby attain happiness, then Spencer’s basic premise—the selfsame premise that he used to justify the Law of Equal Freedom—would justify private property in land.

This is precisely what Hodgskin believed, but he gave little indication of his reasons in his review of Social Statics. We must therefore turn to Hodgskin’s more extensive discussion of land in Chapter 4 of The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832), a classic of libertarian thought that is better (and more radical) in some respects than Social Statics. It is unfortunate that Spencer did not actually draw his basic ideas from Hodgskin; if he had, this would have saved Spencer from committing some serious errors.

This is part of a series