Barack Obama, Social Darwinism, and Survival of the Fittest, Part 3
George H. Smith concludes this series with a close look at Herbert Spencer’s views on charity and the poor.
In 1833, at age thirteen, Herbert Spencer was sent by his parents to live with his uncle and aunt. Herbert’s uncle, Rev. Thomas Spencer (1796–1853), assumed responsibility for his education over the next three years. Thomas’s knowledge of mathematics gave Herbert the foundation he would later need during his early career as a railway engineer.
Herbert described his uncle (a Cambridge graduate) as a leader of the evangelical movement within the Anglican Church, a movement that shared the “asceticism” of “the Wesleyan movement outside of it.” To illustrate his point, Herbert told the story of a party he attended as a boy, accompanied by his uncle. When the hostess asked Herbert why he did not join “some other young people who were waltzing,” his uncle answered for him: “No Spencer ever dances.”
Despite some occasional tension between nephew and uncle – the former had rebelled against authority for as long as anyone in his family could remember, and this future “agnostic” never showed much interest in religion – Herbert admired his uncle for his “philanthropy” and for his political views. Thomas Spencer had evolved from a typical Anglican Tory early in his career to a radical (classical) liberal who worked with the Anti‐Corn Law League on behalf of free trade, who championed universal suffrage and the separation of church and state, and who spoke out against state education, militarism, war, and British imperialism. As Thomas Spencer wrote in his pamphlet The People’s Rights: and How to Get Them:
The expenses … of a just government are very small; and the rights of property require that the least possible amount that is consistent with security, and a sense of security, shall be taken away. Taxation becomes unjust, when those to whom the power of taxing is entrusted use it for other purposes than for the preservation of order. Taxes raised for the teaching of religion, for the building of places of worship, for the undertaking for the people the education of their children, for the dispensing of their alms, for granting of pensions, for extending the boundaries of empire, for interfering with the affairs of other nations, for controlling commerce, and for standing armies and useless wars, are so many infringements of this right. Taxes for these purposes involve a principle of injustice….
Although this mix of causes, which Herbert Spencer himself would go on to defend for many years, may seem peculiar to the modern reader, it was fairly typical of classical liberals at the time. Many classical liberals, the forerunners of modern libertarianism, favored a government that is strictly limited to the protection of individual rights and equal freedom.
In the same pamphlet cited above, Thomas Spencer quoted the full text of the American Declaration of Independence, recommending it as a model that Britain should follow. And he went on to discuss two rights that he viewed as especially important for the people of Britain: “The right to earn a living with the fewest possible impediments,” and “The right to keep property when acquired, with the fewest possible demands on it.”
In later life Herbert Spencer remarked that he had been raised in “an essentially dissenting family; and dissent is an expression of antagonism to arbitrary control.” A “wish to limit State‐action is a natural concomitant” of this attitude.
Herbert Spencer published his first extended discussion of his libertarian political views in 1842, at age twenty‐two, in a series of twelve articles that appeared in Edward Miall’s periodical, The Nonconformist. (Spencer noted that he wasn’t paid anything for his articles, which goes to show that some things never change.)
In these articles on “The Proper Sphere of Government,” Spencer devoted considerable space to the issue of charity, and he summarized the position that he would defend throughout his life:
Can any individual, whose wickedness or improvidence has brought him to want, claim relief from his fellow men as an act of justice? Can even the industrious labourer, whose distresses have not resulted from his own misconduct, complain that his natural rights are infringed, unless the legislature compels his neighbours to subscribe for his relief? Certainly not. Injustice implies a positive act of oppression, and no man or men can be charged with it, when merely maintaining a negative position.
There can be little doubt that Spencer’s views on paupers and poverty were greatly influenced by his uncle. During the three years (from the ages of thirteen to sixteen) that Herbert lived with his uncle, he had the opportunity to observe the operation of England’s poor laws first‐hand.
In 1826, Thomas Spencer was appointed curate of Hinton Charterhouse, a small parish near Bath. Known as a friend to paupers who defended them against overseers under the old poor‐law system of outdoor relief, Thomas erected cottages and established a school for the poor, along with a clothing club, a village library, and field gardens. Through his efforts to teach marketable skills and habits of thrift to the poor in Hinton, Thomas Spencer eventually reduced local poor‐law taxes (known as “rates”) from 700 to 200 pounds per year.
Herbert Spencer discussed his uncle’s views in a number of books and essays (e.g., The Coming Slavery), so it surprising that most Spencer scholars have overlooked the striking similarity between their views. Indeed, the chapter on “Poor Laws” in Social Statics (1851), Spencer’s first book, is essentially an elaboration of the views of Thomas Spencer.
As I have said, a thirteen‐year‐old Herbert moved in with his uncle in 1833. A year later the New Poor Law was passed by Parliament. Technically known as the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, this measure was designed to remedy the abuses of the previous system of “outdoor relief” that had been in effect, in one form or another, since Elizabethan times.
The New Poor Law abolished the parish‐based system of poor relief, established larger “unions” with centralized administration, and attempted to shift poor relief to workhouses. Largely inspired by the writings of classical economists, such as Thomas Malthus, and implemented by various followers of Jeremy Bentham, the New Poor Law was based on the premise that the recipients of poor relief should not be better off than the “industrious” and “laboring” poor.
That the older policy of outdoor relief had resulted in a system with perverse incentives was beyond question and widely acknowledged. As the laboring poor were taxed to support the poor laws, many found it difficult to feed their families, and it became evident that one could do better as a pauper on poor relief than by working. The old system, moreover, incentivized the birth of illegitimate children. As poor‐rates skyrocketed, the demand for reform intensified, but the resulting workhouses were widely criticized as inhumane – most famously in the writings of Charles Dickens.
Thomas Spencer, with years of practical experience in assisting the poor, defended the New Poor Law as superior to the old system. He claimed that the English press had selectively focused on some abuses in workhouses – the unspeakable conditions in Andover, brought about by the criminal actions of an overseer, were especially notorious – but Thomas maintained that these abuses were not typical of the New Poor Law as a whole.
Both Spencers opposed state welfare in principle, while acknowledging that this centuries‐old policy could not and should not be abolished immediately. They deplored the older system of outdoor relief because it merely exacerbated the problem it was intended to solve by institutionalizing incentives to go on parish relief. A class of professional paupers had arisen – people who could work but who chose not to work, preferring instead to live off the labor of others. And as these people passed their values and habits to their children, often teaching them that they had a “right” to welfare, a permanent underclass became more firmly entrenched. Although neither Spencer supported the New Poor Law for its own sake, it at least made welfare less attractive than work and thereby restricted poor relief to the truly needy.
Thomas Spencer once observed that some paupers in his parish, who had lived off poor rates for years, were suddenly willing to work, and were able to find work, when their only other alternative was to move into a workhouse. He also noted that tavern owners were among the most vociferous critics of the New Poor Law, because many beneficiaries of outdoor relief spent most of their money on beer and gin. The notion that hard‐working Englishmen should be taxed to support the vices of the indolent deeply offended Thomas Spencer.
Like many of their Victorian contemporaries, Thomas and Herbert Spencer distinguished between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. By modern standards this distinction is as politically incorrect as it is possible to get. But both men understood the principle known to economists as the “disutility of labor”; both men knew that many people would rather not work than work, if the results of these options are roughly equal.
In my last essay I discussed how Herbert Spencer’s support of voluntary charity, and voluntary charity alone, caused some critics to attack him as an “enemy of the poor.” Spencer believed that charity should begin with one’s family and friends, and then extend to the deserving poor, who were in circumstances beyond their control.
I also discussed Spencer’s belief that voluntary assistance is an essential characteristic of the higher stages of civilization. We react negatively to being coerced, so Spencer believed that state charity would retard and even reverse this progress. State charity transforms the inner qualities of both benefactors and beneficiaries, corrupting our sympathetic sentiments and generating resentment and class conflict instead.
Spencer’s perceptive remarks on this subject in Social Statics, which were probably influenced by his uncle, deserve to be quoted at length:
Note again how this act‐of‐Parliament charity perpetually supersedes men’s better sentiments. Here is a respectable citizen with enough and time to spare: a man of some feeling; liberal, if there is need; generous even if his pity is excited. A beggar knocks at his door, or he is accosted in his walk by some wayworn tramp. What does he do? Does he listen, investigate, and, if proper, assist? No; he commonly cuts short the tale with, ‘I have nothing for you, my good man; you must go to your parish.’ And then he shuts the door or walks on, as the case may be, with evident unconcern. Should it strike him the next moment that there was something very woebegone in the petitioner’s look, this uncomfortable thought is met by the reflection that so long as there is a Poor Law, he cannot starve and that it will be time enough to consider his claims when he applies for relief. Thus does the consciousness that there exists a legal provision for the indigent act as an opiate for the yearnings of sympathy. Had there been no ready‐made excuse, the behavior would probably have been different. Commiseration, pleading for at least an inquiry into the case, would most likely have prevailed; and, in place of an application to the board of guardians, ending in a pittance coldly handed across the pay table to be thanklessly received, might have commenced a relationship good for both parties – a generosity humanizing to the one, and a succor made doubly valuable to the other by a few words of consolation and encouragement, followed, it may be, by a lift into some self‐supporting position.
In truth there could hardly be found a more efficient device for estranging men from each other and decreasing their fellow feeling than this system of state almsgiving. Being kind by proxy! Could anything be more blighting to the finer instincts?
Spencer was concerned about the dehumanizing effects of government bureaucracies, where people are treated as ciphers, as interchangeable units to be manipulated and controlled by government employees. By turning what should be matters of personal conscience over to bureaucratic machines, the finer sensibilities of human nature are warped into feelings that generate discord and animosity.
And thus we have the gentle, softening, elevating intercourse that should be habitually taking place between rich and poor superseded by a cold, hard, lifeless mechanism bound together by dry parchment acts and regulations, managed by commissioners, boards, clerks, and collectors, who perform their respective functions as tasks, and kept a‐going by money forcibly taken from all classes indiscriminately. In place of the music breathed by feeling attuned to kind deeds, we have the harsh creaking and jarring of a thing that cannot stir without creating discord – a thing whose every act, from the gathering of its funds to their final distribution, is prolific of grumblings, discontent, anger – a thing that breeds squabbles about authority, disputes as to claims, browbeatings, jealousies, litigations, corruption, trickery, lying, ingratitude -–a thing that supplants, and therefore makes dormant, men’s nobler feelings, while it stimulates their baser ones.
Spencer regarded these consequences as more than incidental byproducts of state charity – negative side‐effects that are outweighed, in the long run, by its benefits. Rather, government programs enmesh themselves into the social fabric, generate social conflict between haves and have‐nots, and thus not only exacerbate the problems they are intended to solve but create new problems as well.
Government does not create additional wealth but merely redistributes wealth that has been created through social cooperation. Government, therefore, cannot eliminate burdens that come from the struggle to survive. It merely redistributes those burdens, causing untold hardships among working people who are compelled to sacrifice their own welfare for the benefit of others, including the army of bureaucrats needed to run a vast administrative machinery.
This is not the Herbert Spencer of popular mythology.