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September 1978

Spencer & Laissez-Faire

“His thinking on this issue was not static or monolithic but shifted over time and falls into three distinct stages.”

“Herbert Spencer and the Myth of Laissez-Faire.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39 (April-June 1978); 317–328.

History debunks the “myth” that nineteenth-century Britain was dominated by a pure laissez-faire ideology that uncompromisingly restricted government intervention to a minimum and championed the individual. History also corrects the misidentification of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) as a life-long extreme archetype of the laissez-faire movement.

Noninterventionism was not the regnant governmental principle during the mid-nineteenth century. In actuality, it came into prominence only at the close of the century. In mid-century laissez-faire “was not a theory opposed to government intervention; it was a mild catch phrase, expressing approval of free trade which was quite compatible with approval of government direction of most social functions.” Spencer, it is argued, mirrored this general evolution regarding laissez-faire. His thinking on this issue was not static or monolithic but shifted over time and falls into three distinct stages: (1) During the late 1840s and early 1850s Spencer’s thought was essentially anarchist and is best reflected in Social Statics (1851); (2) During the 1850s Spencer’s political thought became more orthodox and he drifted toward accepting government activity, until by 1860 his essay “Social Organism” argued for centralized government to direct the complexities of industrial society; (3) Spencer’s political thought underwent a final major change in the 1880s, and he eventually did become an advocate of laissez-faire in his book The Man Versus the State (1884). Only in his last stage can Spencer accurately be described as a laissez-faire theorist. His reason for embracing this doctrine seems to be a direct reaction to the inroads of socialism. Spencer then, for the first time, linked laissez-faire with the social Darwinism of “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection” through unfettered competition.

In his earlier two stages, Spencer adopted a belief in a natural harmony of interests in society, but not one that excluded a large measure of either social or (eventually) government action regarding individuals. In his first, or anarchist, stage Spencer expressed the radical desire of “a society which was naturally harmonious.” Written during this anarchist period when Spencer was 30, Social Statics contrasted “evil” government with “good” society. Despite his approval of the abstract principle of equal freedom (i.e., the stipulation that each man should have the greatest freedom compatible with the like freedom of others) Social Statics militates against individualism in favor of social unity. Furthermore, Spencer in the same work opposed hereditary rights to property and advocated nationalization of all private property, a policy that is anathema to laissez-faire individualism.

By the time of his second stage in 1871 Spencer could agree with Thomas Huxley that his “Social Organism” essay controverted the whole theory of laissez-faire and “administrative nihilism.” He further argued that the State should exercise its restraining power even more stringently against individuals than it had in the past.

Whatever the merits of the author’s contention that the natural harmony of social interests is incompatible with laissez-faire political theory, he has provided a valuable reassessment of the watered-down version of laissez-faire advocated by many nineteenth-century “radical theorists.” For a searching study of the early Spencer’s anarchist political and economic position, the reader can read Élie Halévy’s Thomas Hodgskin, translated by A.J. Taylor (1956).