A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarian Thought – Herbert Spencer

Article by Matt Zwolinski.


If you’re like most people, then the one thing you probably think you know about Herbert Spencer is that he was a “Social Darwinist.”  And that one thing is wrong.

Libertarians like George Smith and Roderick Long (over and over again) have long defended Spencer against the unjust charge of Social Darwinism.  And the point is now, thankfully, generally recognized among serious scholars.

But if Spencer was no Social Darwinist, then what was he, and why have so many people misinterpreted his views?  Can contemporary libertarians find something of value in his work?  Can bleeding heart libertarians?

In my recent Reason TV interview, I said something that could quite reasonably be interpreted as implying that Spencer was a “cold-hearted beast.”  That’s certainly not what I intended to communicate, but alas, this was not my most articulate day.  So I think I owe it to Mr. Spencer to engage with his views more thoroughly.  And what better way, I thought, than by continuing the series I began so long ago: A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarian Thought.  I’ve been meaning to write another entry in it for quite some time.  And now seems an especially appropriate occasion, given that  John Tomasi and I have just begun writing A Brief History of Libertarianism for Princeton University Press.  So we’re hoping to use this forum to gather some useful feedback on a first draft of some of our ideas.

Let’s start, then, by examining the myth of Spencer’s Social Darwinism.


Spencer and Social Darwinism

To be a Social Darwinist, presumably, is to believe that human society ought to be governed by the principle of “survival of the fittest” (a term that Spencer famously coined).  The strong, the wealthy, the intelligent, should reproduce themselves and spread their good genetic material to future generations.  The weak and stupid – and the poor, for is not poverty sufficient evidence of weakness and stupidity? – should be allowed (encouraged?) to die off, so that they can do no further damage in retarding society’s evolutionary progress.

Much of the blame for the popular interpretation of Spencer as a Social Darwinist should probably go to Richard Hofstadter, whose influential Social Darwinism in American Thought devoted an entire chapter to Spencer’s work, and who radically transformed the way Spencer’s thought was perceived in British and American culture.

But part of the blame must go to Spencer himself, whose writings, at times, rather lent themselves toward this sort of misinterpretation.  Spencer did, after all, regard the evolution of human society and of human character as something of the utmost moral importance, believing that human nature was changeable, and (at least in the early parts of his life) that progress over time would inevitably lead to its perfection.  But human nature could evolve toward greater perfection only if its less-than-perfect traits were somehow eliminated.  And often the most effective way for this elimination to occur is simply to allow the bearers of those traits to suffer their natural consequences.  Spencer draws out the implications of this idea in characteristically blunt form in chapter 18 of Social Statics.

“Inconvenience, suffering, and death, are the penalties attached by nature to ignorance, as well as to incompetence—are also the means of remedying these… Partly by weeding out those of lowest development, and partly by subjecting those who remain to the never-ceasing discipline of experience, nature secures the growth of a race who shall both understand the conditions of existence, and be able to act up to them…Who, indeed, after pulling off the coloured glasses of prejudice, and thrusting out of sight his pet projects, can help seeing the folly of these endeavours to protect men against themselves?  A sad population of imbeciles would our schemers fill the world with, could their plans last.  A sorry kind of human constitution would they make for us—a constitution lacking the power to uphold itself, and requiring to be kept alive by superintendence from without—a constitution continually going wrong, and needing to be set right again—a constitution even tending to self-destruction. Why the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such—to clear the world of them, and make room for better. Nature demands that every being shall be self-sufficing.  He on whom his own stupidity, or vice, or idleness, entails loss of life, must, in the generalizations of philosophy, be classed with the victims of weak viscera or malformed limbs. In his case, as in the others, there exists a fatal non-adaptation; and it matters not in the abstract whether it be a moral, an intellectual, or a corporeal one. Beings thus imperfect are nature’s failures, and are recalled by her laws when found to be such. Along with the rest they are put upon trial. If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die. ” (emphasis added)

These last two lines in particular have been seized upon by critics of Spencer to demonstrate the repugnance of his view.  But do they show that Spencer was a Social Darwinist?  Three facts militate against this interpretation.  (For a further deconstruction, see Thomas Leonard’s paper on the “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism”)

First, a nitpick.  While evolutionary arguments certainly played an important role in Spencer’s social thought, Spencer was a Lamarckian, not a Darwinian, in his understanding of how evolution worked.  In other words, Spencer believed that acquired traits could be biologically inherited.  This belief had important implications for Spencer, insofar as it led him to a view of evolution as a progressive phenomenon moving society and the individuals who compose it to higher and better stages of existence.  Evolution, for Spencer, was largely a product of the “conscious, planned exertion” of individuals, and not merely of the “chance variation and natural selection that are at the heart of Darwinism” (Leonard, p. 41).

Second, and more significantly, Spencer was strongly and unequivocally opposed to the aggressive use of force.  ”Social Darwinism” suggests a struggle for existence in which might-makes-right and evolutionary fitness is demonstrated by, inter alia, an ability to beat out competitors for scarce resources by the skilled use of violence.  But Spencer was a vocal critic of slavery and military imperialism – two practices that would seem quite at home in the view typically attributed to Spencer.  More fundamentally, the core principle of Spencer’s ethics, his “law of equal freedom,” is explicitly interpreted by Spencer as entailing a prohibition on depriving others of their life or liberty.   For Spencer, ethical principles are the product of evolutionary forces, but also serve to put an independent “check” on those forces.  As Roderick Long puts it:

Spencer praises the “far-seeing benevolence” of evolutionary selection, not because he wants to see the unfit weeded out, but because past selection has led to the emergence of beings with a moral sense advanced enough to moderate the operation of evolutionary selection now. In Spencer’s eyes, charity (at least of the judicious and voluntary kind) represents not a transgression against evolution, but rather a transcendence of one form of evolution in favor of a higher form…

Which leads directly to the third point counting against the standard interpretation of Spencer: Spencer was not, in fact, opposed to charity.  Indeed, the very first lines of the paragraph following the (apparently damning) passage quoted above, Spencer writes that “in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.”  Spencer’s objection, he proceeds to clarify, is not to charity as such, but rather to charity that either a) involves a violation of the law of equal freedom, as does redistribution that is coercively obtained, or b) mitigates present suffering only at the cost of causing greater suffering in the future, as do policies which encourage carelessness by shielding people from the costs of their careless behavior.  The requirements of “positive beneficence,” Spencer held, cannot be specified as precisely as requirements of justice, but this does not make them any less serious or imperative as moral obligations.  Indeed, as Long and others have pointed out, Spencer devotes a full 10 chapters to their discussion in his Principles of Ethics.  I will consider later whether Spencer’s views go as far as they should in recognizing the existence of permissions or obligations to aid the poor.  But the claim that he was a Social Darwinist who rejected such aid entirely is clearly unfounded.


Spencer’s Political Ideology

If Spencer was not a Social Darwinist, then what was he?  According to Hofstadter, Spencer was an “ultra-conservative.”  Murray Rothbard, on the other hand, praised Social Statics as “the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.”  

As Long documents here, the interpretation of Spencer as political conservative is difficult to maintain.  Spencer was an early advocate of equal rights for children and for women (though his position on the latter changed later in life).  He was, this front page New York Times article to the contrary notwithstanding,  a supporter of labor unions, and an opponent of colonialism and imperialism.   [As but one example of the latter, he wrote that the English people cannot pretend to “justify our colonial aggressions by saying that the Creator intends the Anglo-Saxon race to rule the world;” rather, aggression stems from a “piratical spirit” that is happily on the decline as men come to recognize that “territorial aggression is as impolitic as it is unjust”Social Statics, p. 142, 342.]  He was, moreover, opposed to state censorship and the use of state revenues to support religion.  As for the conservative notion that we ought to “support the troops” in times of war, Spencer wrote that ”[w]hen men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves” (Facts and Comments, ch. 20).  None of this looks much like conservatism of a contemporary Republican sort.  But it doesn’t look much like conservatism of a Kirkian, Burkean, Stephensian, or any other sort either.

There is a much stronger case to be made for Spencer as a libertarian, though even here the case is not entirely unambiguous.  As mentioned above, Spencer’s fundamental ethical principle is the “law of equal freedom,” which holds that “every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man” (Social Statics, IV.3).   And we have already seen that Spencer thought that the (negative) rights to life and liberty could be derived from this principle.  He also thought that rights to private property (though see below), to free exchangefreedom of speechmovement, and a host of other rights could be derived from it.  And these rights, for Spencer, were very nearly absolute in character – not to be overridden in some particular case even if we believe the social gains to be had by doing so would be very great indeed.

But if we restrict our view to Spencer’s writings in Social Statics, and discount for the moment later works such as those contained in his 1884 book, The Man Versus the State, there is a plausible case to be made that Herbert Spencer was a left-libertarian, along the likes of contemporary theorists such as Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne, and Michael Otsuka, rather than a right-libertarian along the lines of Robert Nozick or Murray Rothbard.  The difference comes down to the question of land.  For Nozick and Rothbard, as for John Locke, human beings could legitimately acquire private property in land – where by “land” they meant both land itself and other raw natural resources like coal, wood, water, etc.  For left-libertarians, on the other hand, such acts of private appropriation are morally problematic.

For Spencer, they ran afoul of the law of equal freedom.  In chapter IX of Social Statics, Spencer argues that the law of equal freedom entails that all men have equal rights to the use of the world.  Private property in land, however, infringes upon this right:

For if one portion of the earth’s surface may justly become the possession of an individual, and may be held by him for his sole use and benefit, as a thing to which he has an exclusive right, then other portions of the earth’s surface may be so held; and eventually the whole of the earth’s surface may be so held; and our planet may thus lapse altogether into private hands.  Observe now the dilemma to which this leads. Supposing the entire habitable globe to be so enclosed, it follows that if the landowners have a valid right to its surface, all who are not landowners, have no right at all to its surface. Hence, such can exist on the earth by sufferance only. They are all trespassers. Save by the permission of the lords of the soil, they can have no room for the soles of their feet. Nay, should the others think fit to deny them a resting-place, these landless men might equitably be expelled from the earth altogether. If, then, the assumption that land can be held as property, involves that the whole globe may become the private domain of a part of its inhabitants; and if, by consequence, the rest of its inhabitants can then exercise their faculties—can then exist even—only by consent of the landowners; it is manifest, that an exclusive possession of the soil necessitates an infringement of the law of equal freedom. For, men who cannot “live and move and have their being” without the leave of others, cannot be equally free with those others.

The only just system, according to Spencer, was one in which private ownership in land would be abolished altogether, and replaced by a system in which the state would serve as the single landlord for society – a system that Hillel Steiner has written about admiringly here and here.  By the time of his Principles of Ethics,however, Spencer had abandoned this proposal – but also softened the rigidity of the right of property (at least in morally non-ideal societies such as ours) so as to allow for its infringement via “such equitably distributed taxation as is required for maintaining order and safety” (Principles of Ethics, ch. 12)

Still, there is a great deal in Spencer’s thought for non-left libertarians to admire.  As Alberto Mingardi argues at length in his recent treatment of Spencer, there are a great many themes in Spencer’s work relating to evolution and dispersed knowledge that anticipate ideas that would later be developed in greater detail by Friedrich Hayek.  His discussion in “The Coming Slavery” (section 2.31) of the relationship between taxation and slavery was the original source for Robert Nozick’s characteristically punchy-but-inconclusive “Tale of the Slave.”  And Spencer’s earliest published work, an essay on “The Proper Sphere of Government,” is an especially compelling and accessible presentation of the core libertarian position.  Among other gems from that piece is the passage in which Spencer explains that government is necessary

not to regulate commerce; not to educate people; not to teach religion; not to administer charity; not to make roads and railways; but simply 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.  This is the natural, the original, office of a government.  It was not intended to do less: it ought not to be allowed to do more (p. 185).


Herbert Spencer – Bleeding Heart?

Even if Spencer was no Social Darwinist, however, we still have good reason to question whether his political views – and his views, in particular, about our obligations to the poor – are defensible.  You don’t have to be a social Darwinist to be unjustifiably cold-hearted toward the fate of the worse-off.  So do libertarians today have any reason to take on board Spencer’s views about poverty poor relief?  Do bleeding-heart libertarians?

As we have seen above, Spencer’s view is that charitable aid to the poor is proper, so long as it is not coercive(i.e. so long as it does not violate the law of equal freedom), and so long as it is not ineffective (i.e. so long as it does not do more harm than good).  But aid to the poor, for Spencer, is a kind of charity, not a kind of justice.  It is not something that can be claimed by the poor as a matter of right.  Already, then, we see one way in which Spencer’s view might fall short by the standards of certain views about social justice.

Some of Spencer’s most controversial claims about the poor arise in his discussions of the ineffectiveness of certain kinds of charitable aid.  Spencer is especially concerned to avoid what we would today call moral hazard – situations in which attempts to shield individuals from the consequences of risky behavior encourage them to engage in more risky behavior.  Spencer often writes in a way that seems to express disdain for those who are driven by sympathy to help those whose risky behavior gets them into trouble:

Men who are so sympathetic that they cannot let the struggle for existence bring on the unworthy the sufferings consequent on their incapacity or misconduct, are so unsympathetic that they can, deliberately, make the struggle for existence harder for the worthy, and inflict on them and their children artificial evils in addition to the natural evils they have to bear! (“The Sins of Legislators,” in The Man Versus the State)

But while humane readers no doubt cringe at Spencer’s rhetoric, it’s not obvious that the principle to which Spencer appeals here is one to which bleeding hearts – libertarian or otherwise – should object.  In figuring out how to best help people, we ought to balance the short-term benefits against the possible long-term costs.  We might object to the way in which Spencer strikes that balance – thinking, for instance, that he gives too little weight to present suffering and too much weight to uncertain future suffering.  Or we might object, in certain particular instances, to the empirical claim that relieving suffering now will increase the likelihood of future carelessness.  But surely it is not incompatible with caring someone that you want and encourage them to learn to care for themselves.  After all, this seems precisely the attitude we take (and ought to take) to our children, and sometimes it means letting them suffer (in small ways) pains that we could have prevented.

Much depends, for Spencer – and properly so – on the source of the misfortune we are trying to relieve.  Men who suffer as a result of “accidents” and “unforeseen events, men who have failed for want of knowledge inaccessible to them, men ruined by the dishonesty of others, and men in whom hope long delayed has made the heart sick” ought to be helped.    And “even the prodigal, after severe hardship has branded his memory with the unbending conditions of social life to which he must submit, may properly have another trial afforded him” (Social Statics, Chapter XXV).

Persons who are in distress because of stable defects in their character are another story.  But even here, Spencer argues, we should be cautious about rushing to judgment – in assuming that because someone is poor his character must be worse than ours.  (Here Spencer anticipates certain ideas on “moral luck.”)

It is very easy for you, O respectable citizen, seated in your easy chair, with your feet on the fender, to hold forth on the misconduct of the people – very easy for you to censure their extravagant and vicious habits …. It is no honor to you that you do not spend your savings in sensual gratification; you have pleasures enough without. But what would you do if placed in the position of the laborer? How would these virtues of yours stand the wear and tear of poverty? Where would your prudence and self-denial be if you were deprived of all the hopes that now stimulate you …? Let us see you tied to an irksome employment from dawn till dusk; fed on meager food, and scarcely enough of that …. Suppose your savings had to be made, not, as now, out of surplus income, but out of wages already insufficient for necessaries; and then consider whether to be provident would be as easy as you at present find it. Conceive yourself one of a despised class contemptuously termed “the great unwashed”; stigmatized as brutish, stolid, vicious … and then say whether the desire to be respectable would be as practically operative on you as now. … How offensive it is to hear some pert, self-approving personage, who thanks God that he is not as other men are, passing harsh sentence on his poor, hard-worked, heavily burdened fellow countrymen …. (Social Statics, Chapter XX)

And those in positions of power and privilege in society should be especially reluctant to pass judgment on the poor given the fact that wealth and poverty are often the product of unjust social institutions, not of individual defects of character.  The desire to perpetuate such advantageous injustice, Spencer argued, underlies many of the arguments against the political enfranchisement of the masses.  Such arguments, at their core, really amounted to the claim

that the few must continue to trespass against the many, lest the many should trespass against the few.  The well fed, the luxuriously housed and clothed, the placemen and pensioners, may perhaps think it better that the masses should suffer for their benefit (as they do) than that they should suffer for the benefit of the masses (as they might). But would a just arbitrator say this? Would he not say, on the contrary, that even if their respective members were blessed with equal advantages, the minority ought to be sacrificed rather than the majority; but that as the most numerous are at the same time the least favoured, their claim becomes still more imperative. Surely, if one of the two parties must submit to injustice, it ought to be the rich hundreds, and not the poor thousands. (Social Statics, Chapter XX)

Those last two lines aren’t quite a libertarian endorsement of social justice, but it’s certainly in the ballpark.  But it’s important to note that even if Spencer were advocating a kind of social justice, this wouldn’t be incompatible with his opposition to certain kinds of poor relief.  After all, poor relief can sometimes be inconflict with social justice.  For such relief, according to Spencer, often subsidizes those who could support themselves but have chosen not to do so (or who have, by their own voluntary choices, put themselves in a position where they cannot support themselves), at the expense, not of the rich, but of the working poor.  (See “The Sins of Legislators” and also letters 3 and 4 of “The Proper Sphere of Government.”)



Part of the purpose of this series on the history of libertarian thought is to demonstrate that the ideas defended on this blog are not new.  Concern with poverty and with the poor is a central and constant theme in the libertarian intellectual tradition.  We on this blog might believe that those in the past have not gone far enough, or that they have not articulated the way in which libertarians ought to express their concern for the poor in quite the right way.  And so the idea of a Bleeding Heart Libertarianism is genuinely new in some ways.  But it does not constitute a radical break with libertarian tradition.  Indeed, we think, it represents the best extension and development of that tradition.

I don’t think that Herbert Spencer was a bleeding heart libertarian.  But it’s instructive to see how close he gets.  One who wanted to make the case that libertarianism is at root a cold-hearted doctrine would, with the possible exception of Ayn Rand, have a hard time finding a better case with which to prove his point than the work of Herbert Spencer.  If the case fails even here, then surely one has good reason to doubt the truth of its general claim.

That’s not to say that Spencer’s work is unassailable.  Many key moves in his argument for laissez-faire are questionable, and a fuller treatment of his work would need to probe more carefully: the uneasy relationship between his general utilitarian moral framework and his commitment to near-absolute principles of natural moral law; his derivation of the law of equal freedom; whether the law of equal freedom is meaningful; whether it really generates libertarian conclusions; etc.  My point in this post is not to claim that Spencer’s work is sound in all respects.  In this respect, I am acting like a defense attorney pressing for a guilty of “not guilty.”  My client might have his sins, and he might be guilty of some other serious breach of law; but he is certainly not guilty of the crime of which he has been accused.  At the very least, Herbert Spencer deserves a retrial.



As always in this series, the links below are to some resources that have proved especially useful to me in thinking about and understanding Spencer’s political thought.  It is far from exhaustive.  If there are books or articles I’ve omitted that you have found especially useful,  I encourage you to share them in the comments.

Where should newcomers to Spencer start?  Social Statics undoubtedly provides the best comprehensive introduction to Spencer’s moral and political thought.  If you have the time and energy to read a whole book, it’s certainly a good place to start.  Be warned, though.  Social Statics can be very misleading.  For in it, Spencer is engaged in highly idealized form of moral/political theory – essentially asking what moral rules and political institutions would be appropriate for a perfectly developed humanity, a humanity in which everyone always acts in accordance with the demands that morality places upon them.  He is explicit at several places that the conclusions he reaches in the book do not necessarily apply to humanity in its less-than-perfect state.  But these caveats are easy to overlook, and so it is easy to forget that, for instance, the chapter on “The Right to Ignore the State,” even before it was deleted, was never meant to apply to humanity in its current condition.

So, readers looking for a shorter and less abstract introduction might do well to look to the essays contained inThe Man Versus The State.  As mentioned above, Spencer’s essay on “The Proper Sphere of Government” is a wonderful summation of his (early) political thought.  But I suppose I’ll join with Roger Nisbet and Alberto Mingardi in recommending “Over-Legislation” as the one piece to read if you’re only going to read one piece from Spencer.  Read it and see why.


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

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