Spontaneous Progress: A Biography of Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer was a 19th century philosopher, sociologist, and biologist and a prominent advocate for laissez‐faire policies.
Fabled steel entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie hungered to know the secret of human progress. During the early 1880s, he found out after he joined a Manhattan discussion group. There he heard about British philosopher Herbert Spencer who had written volumes on the subject. Liberty, Spencer explained, is the key as free markets — without government intervention — provide powerful incentives for people to continuously improve life.
Apparently, Carnegie was overwhelmed to realize that his daily work served a larger purpose. He adopted as his motto: “All is well since all grows better.”
The more Carnegie read by Spencer, the more he wanted to meet the philosopher. “Few men have wished to know another man more strongly than I to know Herbert Spencer,” Carnegie recalled. Through a mutual acquaintance, the British libertarian John Morley, he got a letter of introduction and traveled with Spencer on a steamship from Liverpool to New York.
Carnegie discovered that Spencer ‑- whom he had imagined as a “great calm philosopher brooding, Buddha‐like, over all things” — was a human being. Spencer, then in his 60s, was about five feet, ten inches tall and reasonably thin. Although his hairline had receded, his hair remained brown, and it was fluffed out at the sides. He complained about his difficulty sleeping. He suffered from nervous ailments. He was quick to criticize the work of others, sensitive to criticism himself but honest enough to acknowledge his errors. He seemed unhappy living alone, as he lamented: “One who devotes himself to grave literature must be content to remain celibate; unless, indeed, he obtains a wife having adequate means for both…Even then, family cares and troubles are likely to prove fatal to his undertakings.”
In June 1891, Carnegie surprised Spencer by delivering a token of his appreciation. Spencer wrote Carnegie: “I was alike astonished and perplexed on entering my room yesterday evening to see placed against the wall a magnificent grand piano…I have all along sympathized in your view respecting the uses of wealth, but it never occurred to me that I should benefit by the carrying of your view into practice.”
Carnegie was among the millions inspired by Spencer then and now. He revived the revolutionary battle cry for natural rights which had been trashed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham and his followers, the Utilitarian’s. Spencer showed why the theory of evolution, which naturalist Charles Darwin documented, meant that human progress occurs spontaneously as long as people are free, and governments stay out of the way. He stood as the most passionate defender of liberty when socialism and militarism gathered momentum throughout Europe.
Spencer was a prolific writer who produced books and articles on biology, education, ethics, psychology, sociology and government policy, among other subjects. He had a gifted pen — coining, for example, the phrase “survival of the fittest.” From the 1860s till his death on December 8, 1903, authorized editions of Spencer’s books reportedly sold 368,755 copies in the United States alone — a remarkable number for a serious author. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes doubted that “any writer of English except Darwin has done so much to affect our whole way of thinking about the universe.”
Spencer was born in Derby, England, on April 27, 1820. His father George Spencer struggled for years to develop a career. He repeatedly tried manufacturing lace, then fashionable, but failed. He earned a little money teaching school. Friends suggested that he work at a tannery or become a clergyman. Spencer’s mother Harriet Holmes didn’t have it any easier: while she gave birth to five boys and four girls, only Herbert survived beyond age two.
He gained a fiercely independent mind from his parents who were Quakers. “Individuality was pronounced in all members of the family,” he recalled, “and pronounced individuality is necessarily more or less at variance with authority. A self‑dependent and self‐asserting nature resists all such government as it not expressive of equitable restraint.”
His formal education was quite limited — three years in one elementary school, then for an unknown (probably brief) time he attended his uncle William’s school and was intermittently tutored by his uncle Thomas, a clergyman. By age 11, he seemed to be on his own, reportedly attending a science lecture. When his father was teaching physics and chemistry, the lad helped prepare experiments. He taught himself about plants and animals. He became good at sketching things. He learned much by listening when friends of his parents visited to talk about politics, religion, science, right and wrong. His father belonged to the Derby Philosophical Society which had a modest library of science books and periodicals, and he browsed through those.
He was 15 when his first article — about boats — was published in a little magazine. “I found my article looking very pretty,” he noted at the time. “I began shouting and capering about the room…And now that I have started I intend to go on writing things.”
Meanwhile, Spencer needed steady pay. A railroad‐building boom was underway, and in November 1837, he got a job producing engineering drawings for the London and Birmingham Railway. Ever resourceful, he also invented several railroad‐related measuring devices and wrote seven articles for Civil Engineer’s and Architect’s Journal. After four years, he had saved some money and decided to take time off to pursue a writing career. He attended meetings of free trade, anti‑slavery and anti‐state church groups. He wrote a dozen articles about political philosophy for The Nonconformist, a radical journal. These were subsequently reprinted as a pamphlet, On the Proper Sphere of Government.
It was a work of tremendous insight. For example, Spencer attacked welfare by demonstrating that taxes needed to pay for it are regressive. He demolished the assumption “that public charity proceeds from the stores of the rich, when, as has been shown, the greater portion of it comes from the toils of the laboring classes. The very parties for whose benefit the fund is raised, are, in virtue of their productive industry, chiefly instrumental in raising it.” Thus did he anticipate the soak‐the‐rich appeal which would be made for communism, socialism and the welfare state during the 20th century.
Spencer was still a long way from being able to earn a livelihood writing, so he returned to railroad work as a draftsman for three years. He continued to read all kinds of books and keep himself informed about public affairs. In November 1848, he was offered an editorial position at the Economist, the free trade journal, where he worked for five years. One of the editors was Thomas Hodgskin, a philosophical anarchist who might have influenced him.
Spencer used spare time to write his first book, Social Statics, and it was published in 1851. He presented an inspiring moral and practical case for individual rights which he called “equal freedom.” Everyone should be free to do what they wish, he insisted, as long as they don’t infringe on somebody else’s equal freedom. Accordingly, he advocated abolishing all trade restrictions, taxpayer church subsidies, overseas colonies, medical licensing, legal tender laws, central banks, government schooling, government welfare, government postal monopolies and so‐called “public works.”
Spencer showed how self‐interest leads people not only to achieve prosperity — as Adam Smith had explained ‑- but to improve life in countless ways. For example, Spencer had this to say about sanitation: “Although everyone knows that the rate of mortality has been gradually decreasing and that the value of life is higher in England than elsewhere ‑- although everyone knows that the cleanliness of our towns is greater now than ever before and that our spontaneously grown sanitary arrangements are far better than those existing on the Continent, where the stinks of Cologne, the uncovered drains of Paris, the water tubs of Berlin, and the miserable footways of the German towns show what state management effects — although everyone knows these things, yet it is perversely assumed that by state management only can the remaining impediments to public health be removed.”
Anticipating the revelations of “public choice” economics which developed in the late 20th century and netted James Buchanan a Nobel Prize, Spencer made clear how government relentlessly pursues its own self‑interest at the expense of ordinary people. For example, Spencer told how governments in Greece, Rome, China, Russia, Austria, France and Britain used control over education to secure their own power. Government schools, he observed, “have an instinct of self‐preservation growing out of the selfishness of those connected with them.” He added that the self‐interest of government schools resists innovation — “they are among the last places to which anyone looks for improvement in the art of teaching.”
The most famous chapter was 19 — “The Right to Ignore the State.” Even during the heyday of classical liberalism, it was bold for Spencer to declare that “If every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state — to relinquish protection and to refuse paying toward its support. It is self‐evident that in so behaving he in no way trenches upon the liberty of others, for his position is a passive one, and while passive he cannot become an aggressor.”
Social Statics established Spencer as a rising star, and by July 1853, he had resigned from the Economist, determined to make it as an independent author. He sold articles to the Westminister Review, Edinburgh Review, Fortnightly Review, British Quarterly and other influential publications. He applied his ideas to science as well as ethics and government policy.
His work introduced him to leading lights of the era. He became friends with philosopher/economist John Stuart Mill, free trade crusader John Bright, Liberal statesman William Ewart Gladstone and zoologist Thomas H. Huxley, among others. In November 1858, Charles Darwin, who was writing The Origin of Species, acknowledged the importance of Spencer’s writings about evolution: “your argument could not have been improved on, and might have been quoted by me with great advantage.”
Financially, Spencer was hard‐pressed and for a while pursued a cushy government job which would allow him time to write, but fortunately he never became a bureaucrat. A proud man, he declined John Stuart Mill’s generous offer to cover his expenses. He resolved to earn his living in the marketplace. By 1860, Spencer conceived the idea of integrating ethics, biology, psychology and sociology into a multi‐volume work on philosophy — and making the venture pay by soliciting subscribers who would pay a half‑crown for each installment, several times a year. He asked his famous friends to offer testimonials, and some 450 people became subscribers. Among his early subscribers were respected American intellectuals like newspaperman Horace Greeley, historian George Bancroft, clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, botanist Asa Gray, political scientist Francis Lieber and abolitionist Charles Sumner. Spencer began working on First Principles, a book about the development of life.
Alas, Spencer experienced subscriber attrition like everyone else in the publishing business. When he no longer got enough income from the project, he announced he would discontinue it. But in 1865, Dr. Edward Youmans, a lecturer and founder of Popular Science magazine who had become a big fan of Spencer’s, helped raise about $7,000 from American friends. This was enough for Spencer to continue. He produced so many installments of different works during the 1860s and 1870s that it’s hard to keep track of them all, plus revised editions he issued along the way. He became a major name. John Stuart Mill wrote Spencer: “I have seldom been more thoroughly impressed by any scientific treatise than by your Biology; that it has greatly enhanced my sense of the importance of your philosophical enterprise as a whole.”
Again and again, Spencer emphasized how extraordinary human progress develops naturally when people are free. “The turning of the land into a food‑producing surface,” he wrote in Principles of Sociology, “cleared, fenced, drained, and covered with farming appliances, has been achieved by men working for individual profit not by legislative direction…villages, towns, cities, have insensibly grown up under the desires of men to satisfy their wants …by spontaneous cooperation of citizens have been formed canals, railways, telegraphs, and other means of communication and distribution…Knowledge developing into science, which has become so vast in mass that no one can grasp a tithe of it and which now guides productive activities at large, has resulted from the workings of individuals prompted not by the ruling agency but by their own inclinations…And supplementing these come the innumerable companies, associations, unions, societies, clubs, subserving enterprise, philanthropy, culture, art, amusement; as well as the multitudinous institutions annually receiving millions by endowments and subscriptions; all of them arising from the unforced cooperation’s of citizens. And yet so hypnotized are nearly all by fixedly contemplating the doings of ministers and parliaments, that they have no eyes for this marvelous organization which has been growing for thousands of years without governmental help — nay, indeed, in spite of governmental hindrances.” Spencer anticipated the work of Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek who explained how the essential institutions of a free society are the result of spontaneous human action.
Spencer had his greatest impact in America. By 1864, Atlantic Monthly reported: “Mr. Herbert Spencer…represents the scientific spirit of the age.” His principles, the magazine concluded, “will become the recognized basis of an improved society.” Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner emerged as the best‐known advocate of Spencer’s ideas.
Despite his heroics, public opinion increasingly favored government interference during the late 19th century. Perhaps this was because government had been cut back so much that it no longer seemed like a public menace. More people imagined government could do good. Spencer responded by writing four powerful articles which affirmed the bedrock principles of laissez faire and attacked government intervention, published in the Contemporary Review, 1884. They unleashed what he called “a hornet’s nest about my ears in the shape of criticisms from the liberal journals.” In July 1884, the articles were issued as a book, The Man Versus The State.
It was a magnificent performance as Spencer hammered his adversaries — socialists especially — with dramatic facts to show why laws tend to backfire. He told how government‐enforced interest‐rate ceilings, supposedly enacted to help people, made it more difficult to borrow money…how price controls turned regional crop failures into general famines…how well‑meaning London officials demolished homes for 21,000 people, built new homes for only 12,000 and left 9,000 homeless (the same kind of thing that U.S. “urban renewal” programs did more than a century later). Journalist Henry Hazlitt called this “one of the most powerful and influential arguments for limited government, laissez faire and individualism ever written.”
Spencer was apparently depressed by accusations that he was superficial and heartless, and in 1892 he approved a revised edition of Social Statics without the original chapter 19, “The Right to Ignore the State.” This compromise hardly satisfied critics. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, defending government regulation (of working hours), thought it necessary to denounce him by name: “The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.”
Spencer’s health declined for years. He died in his sleep around 4:40 in the morning, Tuesday, December 8, 1903, at his home, No. 5 Percival Terrace, in Brighton. He was eighty three. His ashes were buried at Highgate Cemeter.
The 20th century, bloodiest in history, has shown Spencer to be a phenomenal prophet who called the shots. More loudly and clearly than anyone during his lifetime, he warned that socialism must lead to slavery. He condemned militarism long before a European arms race exploded into the First World War. He anticipated the evils of welfare state policies which undermine incentives for poor people to achieve independence. He predicted the colossal failure of government schools. He affirmed that private individuals are responsible for human progress. He would be thrilled by the world‑wide resurgence of market economies today, vindicating his conviction that wherever governments interfere least, you will see decency and improvement in the lives of ordinary people.