The Pathos of Politics (57) Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

Society exists for the benefit of its members, not the members for the benefit of society. ~ Herbert Spencer

Individualism is a political philosophy that emphasizes the moral value of individuals, advocating that their interests take precedence over the state, or the well-being of society as a whole. Individualism is antithetical to Hegel’s statism, and antipodal to collectivism, which highlights the interdependence of people.

The spirit of individualism imbues several related streams of political theory: liberalism, libertarianism, laissez-faire economics, and utilitarianism, which is ultimately individualistic, albeit from a collective perspective.

Locke’s classical liberalism stressed individual liberty (libertarianism), while later social liberalism sought a balance between liberty and social justice.

Neoliberalism is a term applied to a strain of laissez-faire economic liberalism that arose in Europe in the 1930s, in an attempt to find a middle ground between classical liberalism and collectivist central planning. A recasting of neoliberalism appeared in the 1970s, its prime thrust an advocacy of a reduced role for government in political economy. This neoliberalism is associated with the regimes of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1975–1990), American President Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973–1990).

Neoliberalism is the defining political-economic paradigm of our time. It refers to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit. ~ Noam Chomsky

The spectral extreme of individualism is exemplified by English political theorist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who took a Darwinist view of society.

In days when the people were without any political power, their subjection was rarely complained of; but after free institutions had so far advanced in England that our political arrangements were envied by Continental peoples, the denunciations of aristocratic rule grew gradually stronger, until there came a great widening of the franchise, soon followed by complaints that things were going wrong for want of still further widening. ~ Herbert Spencer

Though essentially agreeing with Marx about class struggles propelling human societies, Spencer was antithetical to Marx about their amelioration.

All socialism involves slavery. That which fundamentally distinguishes the slave is that he labours under coercion to satisfy anothers’ desires. ~ Herbert Spencer

To Spencer, social Darwinism justified the ruling class as having won their position via societal “survival of the fittest,” a phrase coined by Spencer in 1864 after reading Darwin’s 1859 book about biological speciation.

Government is essentially immoral. ~ Herbert Spencer

Spencer was more concerned with what the state should not do than what it should. The state had no business regulating trade and commerce, enforcing sanitation, promoting morality, aiding the needy, or providing education.

That popular education results in an extensive reading of publications which foster pleasant illusions rather than of those which insist on hard realities, is beyond question. ~ Herbert Spencer

Spencer saw government granting social welfare as a slippery slope that ultimately led to a degenerate society with an entitlement mind-set.

The more numerous governmental interventions become, the more confirmed does this habit of thought grow, and the more loud and perpetual the demands for intervention. Every additional State-interference strengthens the tacit assumption that it is the duty of the State to deal with all evils and secure all benefits.

Each generation is made less familiar with the attainment of desired ends by individual actions or private combinations, and more familiar with the attainment of them by governmental agencies; until, eventually, governmental agencies come to be thought of as the only available agencies. ~ Herbert Spencer

For Spencer, the only proper purpose of the state is “simply to defend the natural rights of man – to protect person and property.”

Spencer’s advocacy of unfettered competition was warmly received by capitalists. In linking laissez-faire with progress, Spencer assured the upper crust that capitalism was not only harmonious with natural law, it was also in the interest of societal welfare.

Let no one suppose that I wish to make light of the sufferings which most men have to bear. The fates of the great majority have ever been, and doubtless still are, so sad that it is painful to think of them. ~ Herbert Spencer

Spencer was not blind to the ruthless exploitation of 19th-century capitalism. He simply saw it fitting that most people suffered.

The belief of the socialists and so-called liberals is that by due skill an ill-working humanity may be framed into well-working institutions. It is a delusion.

The defective natures of citizens will show themselves in the bad acting of whatever social structure they are arranged into. There is no political alchemy by which you can get golden conduct out of leaden instincts. ~ Herbert Spencer

Spencerism as a vitalizing philosophy died in the US at the turn of the 20th century, as it had in England a generation earlier. As the economic brutality of robber-baron capitalism seeped into public consciousness, naïve faith in free enterprise wilted.

In his later years, Spencer mellowed, with misgivings about industrialism given its human cost. Even to Spencer, “survival of the fittest” seemed ill fitting for societal well-being.