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Aug 7, 2012

From Optimism to Pessimism: The Case of Herbert Spencer, Part 5

George H. Smith discusses some of Spencer’s concerns about the intellectual and moral obstacles to achieving a free society.

In my last essay I noted the stress that Herbert Spencer placed on sentiments, or moral feelings, and how he regarded sentiments as more fundamental than ideas in achieving a free society. This does not mean, however, that Spencer failed to appreciate the importance of ideas. In this essay I will explore some of these intellectual factors, as presented by Spencer in a wide range of books, articles, and letters.

In a letter (Dec. 12, 1893) to the American Moncure D. Conway – a fellow libertarian, a former abolitionist, and the author of an important biography of Thomas Paine – Spencer wrote: “As you rightly point out, people do not at all understand the principles of liberty.” But after expressing this measure of agreement with Conway, Spencer continued:

But here there is, I think, a shortcoming in your conception. They have no true idea of liberty because they have no true sentiment of liberty. No theory is of much service in the matter without a character responding to the theory – without a feeling which prompts the assertion of individual freedom and is indignant against aggressions upon that freedom, whether against self or others. Men care nothing about a principle, even if they understand it, unless they have emotions responding to it. When adequately strong the appropriate emotion prompts resistance to interference with individual action, whether by an individual tyrant or by a tyrant majority; but, at present, in the absence of the proper emotion, there exists almost everywhere the miserable superstition that the majority has a right to dictate to the individual about everything whatever….To dissipate the superstition that the majority has unlimited powers is of more importance than anything else in the field of politics.

Spencer’s belief that few of his contemporaries fully possessed the sentiment of justice was the foundation for much of his later pessimism. As he said in a letter to J. A. Skilton (Jan. 10, 1895):

You have faith in teaching, which I have not – you believe men are going to be changed in their conduct by being shown what line of conduct is rational. I believe no such thing. Men are not rational beings, as commonly supposed.

Despite his bleak assessment of human rationality, Spencer did allow some role – indeed, a very important role — for ideas. As he indicated in his letter to Skilton, although teaching ideas about liberty will not bring about a free society unless those ideas are accompanied by the appropriate sentiments – a process that will take a long time, even under the most favorable circumstances – such teaching can check “retrograde action.” In other words, teaching ideas about liberty can retard the descent of a society into statism and thereby create some breathing room for the sentiment of liberty to become more widespread.  

To appreciate what Spencer was getting at here, we need to understand that he viewed the sentiment of justice as having two aspects. The first aspect, which he called “egoistic” (self-regarding), is the natural resentment we feel when an injustice is committed against ourselves. The second aspect, which he called “altruistic” (other-regarding), is the resentment we feel when an injustice is committed against someone else.

Beatrice Potter once observed that Spencer rarely got angry, except when he learned of an injustice committed by government. Spencer could become livid when this happened, and the intensity of his reaction increased when others did not share his outrage.  

This was the “altruistic” aspect of the sentiment of justice that was lacking in most people, according to Spencer, and a free society would be impossible until this sentiment became widespread. Why? Because however much people understand, on an intellectual level, the injustices committed by government, they will not be motivated to rectify those injustices until and unless their emotions follow suit.

It is easy, because it is natural, to become indignant when we are personally victimized by government. But it is equally easy to dismiss or overlook other victims of injustice, especially if we disagree with their beliefs or lifestyles, when the unjust acts do not affect us personally.

Spencer was convinced that a purely self-regarding reaction to injustice could never provide the foundation for a free society. Not until a sufficient number of people empathize with other victims of governmental injustice – whether those victims are rich or poor, strong or weak, morally admirable or morally contemptible, and regardless of the race or religion of those victims – would the impartial principle of justice, as expressed in the Law of Equal Freedom, be able to take root and thrive. And this moral progress, Spencer concluded, would take a long time.

Meanwhile, every effort should be made to teach the principles of liberty. Such ideas, even if they cannot, by themselves, bring about a free society, might alert enough people to the dangers of government so as to slow its growth. This is something, even if it is not everything.

I shall postpone a discussion of the sentiment of justice until a later essay in this series. The remainder of this essay is devoted to exploring some of Spencer’s ideas about the intellectual obstacles that make teaching and explaining ideas about liberty especially difficult. I cannot think of a libertarian, past or present, who discussed these problems as thoroughly, or who confronted them as candidly, as did Herbert Spencer.

Modern libertarians, including those who disagree with his pessimistic outlook, will readily identify with the problems discussed by Spencer. Although the political conditions in Victorian England obviously differed from those of the modern era, Spencer was never satisfied with focusing on concrete particulars. Endowed with a remarkable ability to isolate fundamental problems and principles that transcend time and place, Spencer discussed a number of key issues that apply as much to our own time as they did to his own.

Let’s begin with this passage from “The New Toryism” (1884):

You cannot touch or see a political institution: it can be known only by an effort of constructive imagination. Neither can you apprehend by physical perception a political measure: this no less requires a process of mental representation by which its elements are put together in thought, and the essential nature of the combination conceived.  

This observation about the abstract nature of institutions, which is remarkably similar to some points that F.A. Hayek made in The Counter-Revolution of Science, was the foundation of Spencer’s argument that most people simply do not understand the long-term causal effects of political intervention in social and economic affairs. And this led Spencer to a number of corollary observations about the obstacles to achieving a free society.  

Consider Spencer’s article “Political Fetichism” (1865). Spencer begins by noting a primitive religious practice that was scoffed at by Europeans, namely, molding a god out of clay and then expecting this idol to have magical powers not possessed by the clay itself.

However much sophisticated Europeans prided themselves on their superiority to primitive cultures, they entertained similar superstitions in the realm of politics. Why should supposedly enlightened people wonder at the superstitions of primitive minds, Spencer asked, when they hold beliefs that are equally superstitious, if not quite as crude?  After all, many people invest the institution known as “government” with wondrous powers.  Like the molders of clay gods, they expect government to possess “powers or properties quite different from those it had before it was molded.” Spencer continues by calling attention to a problem that has surely frustrated every modern libertarian:

The parallelism is still more conspicuous between the persistency of faith in the two cases, notwithstanding perpetual disappointments. It is difficult to perceive how graven images, that have been thrashed for not responding to their worshipper’s desires, should still be reverenced and petitioned; but the difficulty of conceiving this is diminished when we remember how, in their turns, all the idols in our political pantheon undergo castigations for failing to do what was expected of them, and are nevertheless daily looked up to in the trustful hope that future prayers will be answered. The stupidity, the slowness, the perversity, the dishonesty of officialism, in one or other of its embodiments, are demonstrated afresh in almost every newspaper that issues. Probably half the leading articles written have for texts some absurd official blunder, some exasperating official delay, some astounding official corruption, some gross official injustice, some incredible official extravagance. And yet these whippings, in which balked expectation continually vents itself, are immediately followed by renewed faith: the benefits that have not come are still hoped for, and prayers for others are put up…. [T]here are continually proposed new State-machines of the same type as the old. This inexhaustible credulity is counted on by men of the widest political experience.

Political superstitions were a recurring theme in Spencer’s writings. For example, his essay “The Great Political Superstition” (1884) begins:

The great political superstition of the past was the divine right of kings. The great political superstition of the present is the divine right of parliaments. The oil of anointing seems unawares to have dripped from the head of the one on to the heads of the many, and given sacredness to them also and to their decrees.

Spencer continues:

It is curious how commonly men continue to hold in fact, doctrines which they have rejected in name – retaining the substance after they have abandoned the form….The tacitly-asserted doctrine, common to Tories, Whigs, and Radicals, that governmental authority is unlimited, dates back to times when the law-giver was supposed to have a warrant from God; and it survives still, though the belief that the law-giver has God’s warrant has died out. “Oh, an Act of Parliament can do anything,” is the reply made to a citizen who questions the legitimacy of some arbitrary State-interference; and the citizen stands paralysed. It does not occur to him to ask the how, and the when, and the whence, of this asserted omnipotence bounded only by physical impossibilities.

We see, in the passages quoted above, two features of Spencer’s interest in political superstitions. The first is the irrational belief in the competence of governments; the second is the irrational belief in the moral authority of governments.

Spencer dissected both of these superstitions ruthlessly and in detail. But despite his best efforts, he seems never to have believed that these fictitious beliefs could be defeated in the foreseeable future.

According to Spencer, most people are too ignorant to understand the detrimental long-term consequences of government intervention, so they will continue to embrace the superstition that a government can accomplish virtually anything, given the requisite political will and despite one failure after another. Experience counts for nothing here, because to understand the abstract nature of political institutions and their causal effects on social and economic interaction requires a level of conceptual ability that exceeds the intellectual powers of most people.

In addition, most people, lacking a sense of justice and hoping to gain from the system of political coercion known as “government,” will gladly surrender their moral autonomy and submit to a political authority in exchange for a mess of porridge.

This pessimistic outlook on both intellectual and moral fronts led to one of the most significant and controversial changes in Spencer’s political beliefs. From a champion of complete suffrage, including female suffrage, early in his career, Spencer became so disillusioned with political reforms that he came to view democracy itself as a serious threat to a free society.

Spencer even criticized American democracy, because many Americans believed that “smart people” in government can do whatever they set out to do. Spencer, who was blunt if he was anything, was not reluctant to use words like “stupidity” when describing these and similar beliefs.

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