Although Herbert Spencer has been rightly regarded as the most influential libertarian theoretician of the 19th century, he was much more than that. He also was a founding father of modern sociology, a pioneer in the theory of evolution—his theories were developed prior to those of Charles Darwin—an important figure in progressive education—his name still adorns the education building at Stanford University—and a philosopher of distinction whose work in ethics and epistemology gained the respect of J. S. Mill and other notable contemporaries. He was, moreover, an early proponent of the rights of children, of equal rights for women, and of other civil liberties that have since gained widespread acceptance in Western democracies.

Spencer lived during a period that coincided with the rise and fall of political liberalism—or what Spencer called true liberalism, what today is known as classical liberalism. This political philosophy, which had made great strides in bringing about greater individual freedom in religion, commerce, speech, and other areas, had suffered a setback during the Napoleonic Wars. After this conflict ended in 1815, England experienced a revival of liberal ideas. Peace brought with it not only a resurgence of these views, but also the development of a form of social organization, “voluntary cooperation” founded on a “regime of contract,” that supplanted much of an older form of social organization based on “compulsory cooperation” that characterized a “regime of status.”

Unfortunately, things had changed for the worse by the time Spencer published The Man versus the State in 1884. In the first of four essays that comprise this work, “The New Toryism,” Spencer noted that “most of those who now pass themselves off as Liberals are Tories of a new type.” This new liberalism had abandoned its original central principle that “habitually stood for individual freedom versus State‐​coercion.” Instead, it embraced the Tory principle of unlimited state authority with a slight difference: Whereas the Tories prior to the Glorious Revolution had vested unconditional authority in the monarch, a theory that was opposed to the Whig doctrine of conditional authority, modern liberalism, riding the wave of democratic sentiments, vested unconditional authority in “the people.” Spencer viewed this disagreement as a distinction without an essential difference: “the real issue is whether the lives of citizens are more interfered with than they were; not the nature of the agency which interferes with them.” A person is no less coerced and his rights are no less violated merely because unjust restrictions on his liberties are imposed by a majority, rather than by a single ruler.

Spencer offered several reasons for the transformation of what had been a philosophy of individual liberty into a new type of statism. The most interesting of these reasons, from a philosophical point of view, is one that he had cautioned against decades earlier. While in his early 20s, Spencer published a series of 12 letters (1842–1843) in Edward Miall’s periodical, The Nonconformist. Collectively titled “The Proper Sphere of Government,” these articles address a central problem of political philosophy, viz: “Is there any boundary to the interference of government? and, if so, what is that boundary?”

Spencer responded with the classical Lockean doctrine that the fundamental purpose of government was “to defend the natural rights of man—to protect person and property—to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak—in a word, to administer justice.” He contrasts this conception with the common belief that the purpose of government is to promote the “general good.” The “general good,” Spencer noted, lacks a determinate meaning, so it cannot serve as a standard, or criterion, of legislation. Its vagueness gives to government a blank check on power. Has not every law, no matter how tyrannical, been justified by appealing to the general good? Spencer concluded that the “general good” cannot serve to define the duties of government because the purpose of any definition is “to mark out the boundaries of the thing defined,” and “that cannot be a definition of the duty of a government, which will allow it to do anything and everything.”

Spencer expanded on this theme in his first book, Social Statics (1851). Here he focuses his criticism on the principle of utility defended by Jeremy Bentham and his followers. He there stated that a government should promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Spencer noted that standards of happiness are “infinitely variable,” so the principle of utility, although it may serve as a general formulation of the purpose of government, cannot serve as a determinate standard of legislation; an appeal to social utility does not tell us which measures a government should, and should not, enact. Hence, doctrines of expediency—whether expressed in terms of utility or the general good—“afford not a solitary command of a practical character. Let but rulers think, or profess to think, that their measures will benefit the community, and your philosophy stands mute in the presence of the most egregious folly, or the blackest misconduct.” Social Statics contained Spencer’s first extended justification of his celebrated “law of equal freedom,” according to which “every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man.” The young Spencer, having been raised in a tradition of Protestant dissent, which he once described as “an expression of antagonism to arbitrary control,” grounded this principle in a divinely ordained duty to pursue happiness, which in turn requires the freedom to exercise one’s faculties according to one’s own judgments. He further defends a version of the moral sense theory that had been developed by Francis Hutcheson and other luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Spencer later abandoned these doctrines, replacing them with an ethical theory that was thoroughly positivistic and more attuned to his theory of evolution. The “establishment of rules of right conduct on a scientific basis is a pressing need,” wrote Spencer in 1879, and he published his two‐​volume Principles of Ethics to fill this need. These volumes constitute the final volumes of his massive Synthetic Philosophy, a project that took 38 years to complete. Spencer’s efforts to deduce moral rules, including the law of equal freedom, from the “laws of life” and thereby achieve “results which follow … in the same necessary way as does the trajectory of a cannon‐​shot from the laws of motion and atmospheric resistance” had mixed results. Some critics, including those who were otherwise sympathetic to Spencer’s ideas, have claimed that this scientistic approach to ethics undermined the earlier humanistic tradition of natural rights. However one may appraise Spencer’s “scientific” system of ethics, there can be little doubt it later became discredited as the Larmarckian theory of evolution on which it was based (which upheld the inheritability of acquired characteristics) fell into disfavor.

Spencer’s sociological insights almost certainly were to influence later libertarian thinkers such as Albert J. Nock more than did his ethical theories. In The Study of Sociology, Spencer pointed to instances of short‐​sighted political thinking by persons who have but a rudimentary grasp of social causation and who accordingly propose simplistic political solutions for complex social problems. Many people are ignorant of physical causation, he observed, so it is perhaps no surprise that many more are ignorant of social causation, “which is so much more subtle and complex.” Where there is little or no appreciation of social causation, “political superstitions” flourish. Among these false notions is the belief that government has a special efficacy “beyond that naturally possessed by a certain group of citizens subsidized by the rest of the citizens.” In addition, the “ordinary political schemer is convinced that out of a legislative apparatus, properly devised and worked with due dexterity, may be had beneficial State‐​action, without any detrimental reaction.”

In addition to his other contributions to libertarian theory, such as his detailed typology of the militant and industrial forms of social organization, Spencer made seminal contributions to the theory of spontaneous order. In The Principles of Sociology, Spencer likened social development to a “rolling snowball or a spreading fire” where there is “compound accumulation and acceleration.” An intricate social network evolves as in a market economy that is so interdependent that any considerable change in one activity “sends reverberating changes among all the rest.” Society, in other words, is an unplanned spontaneous order, one that “grows” rather than is “made.” A major function of sociology—which in Spencer’s conception subsumed economics—is to explain the evolution of this order that is the result of human action, but not of human design. The difficulty of this task is why Spencer displayed such contempt for social planners: “A fly seated on the surface of the body has about as good a conception of its internal structure, as one of the schemers has of the social organization in which he is embedded.”

Further Readings

Caneiro, Robert L. “Herbert Spencer as an Anthropologist.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 5 no 2 (Spring 1981): 153–210.

Francis, Mark. Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Smith, George H. “Herbert Spencer’s Theory of Causation.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 5 no. 2 (Spring 1981): 113–153.

Spencer, Herbert. The Man versus the State; with Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1981.

———. “The Proper Sphere of Government.” Political Writings. John Offer, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

———. Social Statics. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1954.

George H. Smith
Originally published