Herbert Spencer – Social Statics

Herbert Spencer – Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and The First of Them Developed

Spencer was only about 30 when he wrote this 1851 book. Frankly, it shows. His thoughts on land and property rights are a muddled mess, which was common in those days, though his system stands out even among that disappointing lot. Spencer’s overall thought is much better. In a nutshell, it is classical liberalism heavily influenced by the natural sciences and especially evolution. It is full of nuances and subtleties that are easy to miss or misinterpret—something many of his critics almost seem to have done intentionally.

At this early point in his career, Spencer didn’t quite have the full command of the implications of his own philosophy, nor had he developed the ability to phrase them tactfully. He also shared some sloppy intellectual tendencies common to Victorian Britain, for example thinking of many nationalities or races as groups rather than individuals. All Native Americans, for example, apparently have hot tempers, according to Spencer. Though he rightly complained about being misunderstood, there are places where Spencer dug his own grave.

Despite these cringe-worthy moments, Spencer was a very much a liberal, especially by the stuffy standards of his time. He favored equal rights for all individuals of all races (even ones with hot tempers), and for all women. This consistent liberalism was as rare as it is consistent, even in the age of John Stuart Mill.

He opposed colonization and empire, was an ardent abolitionist, and believed deeply in poverty relief, even as he thought government incapable of handling the task competently or fairly. While Spencer distinguished between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, he still advocated helping even the people he tactlessly calls undeserving. They are individuals, and all individuals have the same rights. Spencer is nothing if not consistent and, in a weird and off-putting way, compassionate.

Despite his heavy reliance evolutionary thought, Spencer also opposed eugenics programs to improve the species. This means Spencer opposed the very thing he is most criticized for supporting. Eugenics would instead become popular among progressives a generation or so later. The idea would persist long enough that Gunnar Myrdal’s advocacy, for example, led to 60,000 of his fellow Swedes being sterilized, and he pushed for similar policies for African-Americans. Myrdal would co-win the economics Nobel—in 1974. Spencer’s reputation as a social Darwinist turns out to be untrue, something I was unsure of when I picked up the book, and was relieved to discover. Some of his ideological opponents turned out to be less innocent.

The confusion likely results in part from Spencer’s stated belief in evolutionary progress towards perfection, an idea that seems to me influenced by Condorcet’s exaggerated Enlightenment-style belief in progress leading inevitably to perfection, and a prefiguring of economic equilibrium theory along the lines of what Walras would popularize during Spencer’s lifetime. The fact that Social Statics pre-dates Darwin means that few people had a sophisticated understanding of how natural selection works, let alone the ability to apply it to social processes, such as customs and norms. Spencer would have greatly profited from having access to the works not just of Darwin and Huxley, but later thinkers such as Sagan, Dennett, or Dawkins.

Spencer also used the term “fitness” not as a positive or negative value judgment, but as a descriptor. An herbivore with flat teeth is more fit to its plant-based diet than one with sharp teeth. Regardless of one’s personal opinion on the matter, this will show in their survival rates. One type of business or person is not inherently better than another, according to Spencer. But a business with lower prices will attract more customers in world where that’s what customers prefer. A person who works hard is more fit to a society that rewards hard work, and poorly fitted to one that punishes it. This will be true regardless of whether one thinks this a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a little bit like how many people struggle to tell the difference between a fact an opinion.

Another is a confusion between thinking in terms of groups versus thinking in terms of individuals. Spencer does seem to have believed in inherent racial differences. Such groups share common characteristics. I do not share this belief, nor do most people today. Despite this group-thinking, Spencer’s entire system is based on individual rights. Regardless of what group a person comes from, an individual has the same rights as all other individuals, and deserves to have those rights respected. But even where Spencer is flat-out wrong in his group-thinking, he remains an individualist. Spencer could have avoided this trap by simply taking the modern view that every individual is different regardless of what socially constructed group they belong to. But at least he believed in everyone’s individual rights.

I’ve only read selections of Spencer’s later works. Time permitting, I look forward to finding out if his thought, ahem, evolved out of its immature aspects and Victorian conventions in Social Statics, or if I will continue to roll my eyes at some parts while being moved in others by his compassion and drive to make things better for as many people as possible, regardless of race or gender.

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