The star of Social Darwinism was Herbert Spencer. The British writer authored The Man versus The State (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1981 — ISBN 0–913966–98–3) and The Principles of Ethics (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1978 — ISBN 0–913966–34–7). The works are turgid. When Spencer wrote about man, the state and freedom, he was not universally inclusive. As with Burckhardt, his concept of freedom is exclusive to the man he believed to be superior.
Spencer derived a simple Darwinian proposition:
“…each individual shall reap the benefits brought to him by his own powers, inherited and acquired, is to enunciate egoism as an ultimate principle of conduct. It is to say that egoistic claims must take precedence of altruistic claims.”
He justified this view based on his perception of biology. And, this is surely the underpinning of Ayn Rand’s sophistry.
Spencer grated at Hobbes. For Hobbes a sovereign is humanity’s protection from a perpetual state of war. Spencer seemed to like the idea that the weak are left to perish. He railed against majoritarian rule because it holds back the fittest, read “superior” men. Spencer carried on to complain that in France, equality subordinated liberty, leading to what Spencer called “despotism”. One imagines that Peter Thiele had memorized Spencer when he said, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible”.
One can easily understand why Spencer wished to limit to the powers of parliaments. This is not illogical in a UK with no written constitution. It is less comprehensible in republics with well devised constitutions balancing powers between the executive, the parliament and the judiciary. Labor, parliaments, seem unqualified in Spencers’ view to define justice. Who then? Of course, Spencer and the superior individuals.
Lest you wonder who is superior, Spencer answered repeatedly across his writing. Racist thoughts about how civilized nations “exceed savage tribes” trickle through his work. Negative stereotypes impugn the character of “lesser” peoples from Native Americans to Fijians, from Ugandans to Kyrgyz. If you do not like the racism, there is the sexism:
“…the average physical powers of women are less than the average physical powers of men, so too are their average mental powers.”
From this, he argued against equal citizenship rights for women. And, consequently, he rejected female suffrage.
Why did Spencer take these views?
“In past times the arrangements made were such that the few superior profited at the expense of the many inferior. It is now proposed to make arrangements such that the many inferior shall profit at the expense of the few superior. … If the average superior man will not voluntarily surrender the excess of benefit gained by his superiority, the implication is that he must be obliged to do this, and that the use of force to oblige him is justifiable.” the “inferior” use the law to coerce the “superior”.
This he links to the right of property, which he views as nearly absolute.
Spencer provides a road map to the modern Republican ideology. Unions are bad because a “free” working man is obliged to accept the conditions agreed by a union. He suggests that the superior laborer is denied the highest wage. But, in Spencer’s life and again since Reagan & Thatcher, union busting has only lead in one direction: lower wages for all. The reality has been proven that without union representation, the coercive power of employers prevails whether in the times of Frick or Amazon. In Spencer’s view, trade unions are coercive, not management.
Spencer was certain that those who are out of work are lazy, refusing work, unwilling to work steadily, or incapable. His views are crafted within an unusual form of Christianity “if any would not work neither should he eat”, Man is seen to compete within the species and the most competitive deserves whatever he takes, and the least competitive should be allowed to fall behind.
Spencer argues that an “… unconditional right to a maintenance out of the soil, is inconsistent with one of the fundamental principles of our religion.” As for those in distress,
“it must not be inferred that there needs any public provision for them. In nine cases out of ten, such miseries result from the transgressions of the individual or his parents: and are we to take away the just punishment of those transgressions? We are told that the sins of the wicked shall be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”
An Old Testament view from a New Testament “ethicist”.
Curiously, Spencer anticipates that charity will resolve the needs of those in need: no need for the Poor Law of his time or any other state intervention. Yet, in our current world, we have more than 2,000 billionaires. Money.com ran a headline “Billionaires made so much money last year that they could end extreme poverty seven times.” This has always been the case: the wealthy have capacity, but not the will to act. The Spencerian prescription of charity fails from the lack of will. Whether in his age or ours, too few of rich wish to help others. One is reminded of Jeff Bezos’ maladroit move to set up a foundation to help his workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Paying them a living wage, offering health benefits and providing safe work conditions would have been the better moves.
The United States was built and largely prospered due to public education. Horace Mann argued that public education would be the foundation of good citizenship and an industrious, prosperous society. Spencer in contrast objected to national education as destructive of morality and creating both uniformity as well as a corrupt “national religion”. The modern Republican Party undermines public eduction and with it citizenship and national economic capacity. Promotion of private schools, charter schools and religious schools by the state harms public education, particularly for the poor.
Reading Spencer in the time of pandemic, his rantings against a government role in public health are deeply disturbing.
And finally, Spencer argued that all commercial restrictions “have been proved” to be inimical to social prosperity. Absolute free trade with “proper limitation of state power” is the only way to prosper. As we hope to close our fifty year experiment with libertarian idealism, we find that most people are now worse off.
Nonetheless, Spencer, like Burckhart, warned that when businesses become too big, they make it their business to have the state protect their interests over those of the citizens. The Liberty Press is the fellow traveller of the Law and Economics movement. The two 19th century writers give structure to a simple didactic chain:
Commerce should not be impeded.
Those who gain wealth are superior, and those who garner vast wealth are vastly superior.
Those who are unfortunate deserve to be so.
The state has no role in human welfare: biology and charity sort that out.
Economic efficiency is the best basis for law.
Liberty is diminished by legal equality.
In my next and final discussion of Social Darwinism and its perverted assault on democracy, I will discuss the most dangerous man in America, Judge Richard A. Posner. Why is he so dangerous? He is the man who made these ideas legal reality.