The Man Versus the State

The Man Versus the State (1884) by Herbert Spencer

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What can be sadder than a man who lives his life as an ebullient optimist, and ends up a bitter and dispirited misanthrope?  This appears to have been the fate of Herbert Spencer who rose from relatively obscurity, shone for many years in the full glare of public acclaim, and then slowly fell from grace. A man with enormous innate talent, he didn’t go to university, partly because his parents couldn’t afford the fees and also because he refused to describe himself as an Anglican, which was then a necessary qualification for university entry. He was an autodidact, who studied the writings of the great philosophers while working, first as a school master and then as a railway

engineer. His genius lay in his ability to mix and match the teaching of men like Erasmus Darwin, John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte. Most people regard him as the father of sociology, and there seems little doubt that he developed what is now referred to as Social Darwinism, coining the term ‘the survival of the fittest’ to describe man’s permanent struggle to pursue his personal interests. By following a course of carefully orchestrated research he gained recognition as a leading authority on biology, psychology, economics, religion, ethics, politics and anthropology. Some held him to be on a par with Aristotle, and T. H. Huxley judged him to be “one of the profoundest of living English philosophers.”

As his influence grew, Spencer found himself in increasing demand as a writer and lecturer. His outlook was inspiring, because he adopted at optimistic, positivist stance. The natural laws of evolution led to inexorable progress. Adopting Hippocrates” Law of Use, he proclaimed that we could be masters of our destiny. “That which is used will develop, that which is not used will wither away.”  He carried that concept into the social arena, promising that once people have developed the skill of working together in a community, the need for a state would wither away. He campaigned for democracy, aiming to distribute power to the people, giving votes to women and nationalizing land to break the power of the ruling aristocracy. His books bearing this message of hope and liberation were widely read, being translated into Russian, Japanese and Chinese as well as all the major European languages. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize for literature, and was now so successful as an author that he could live in comfort on his royalties.

All these views are expressed in his most famous work The Man Versus the State, which was compiled from four essays originally published in the ‘Contemporary Review.’ The book came at an opportune time, since it offered a substitute for orthodox religious beliefs, which were ceasing to be the lynch pin of society. His message of individual self-advancement found a ready audience among the working classes, and also with tradesmen who wanted to be masters of their own fate and free from meddlesome state intervention. He spoke with a brutal frankness which was far removed from the measured political correctness that politicians feel obliged to use today. Individuals had the right to ignore the state, he protested, since collectivism involved slavery and promoted the weak rather than those who were fittest to survive. The rates raised to support the parish poor had quadrupled in the last fifty years, on the assumption that there should be no suffering, and that society was to blame if any existed.  Spencer held a diametrically opposite view. ‘If any would not work, neither should he eat’. This, he said, was simply a Christian enunciation of the basic law of Nature. To emphasise the point, he cited the injustice of single ‘women with many bastards’ receiving more parish relief than deserving married women.

His views were harsh and uncompromising, but they found a ready audience and exposed the dangers of excessive state intervention. By doing so he was almost certainly the first, and most probably the last, philosopher to sell a million copies of his book during his lifetime. Its influence continues to spread, through the writing of men like William James, Emil Durkheim and Friedrich Hayek. Many now accept that the regime which governs least governs best, and that the power of the majority often stands as the greatest enemy of democracy. We now realise that all acts have unintended consequences, and that those committed by the state invariably cause more widespread harm than those committed by individuals.

But Spencer ended up a lonely, disappointed man. He’d always been a trifle eccentric, which didn’t make him the easiest of companions. When people bored him he’d wear ‘ear-stoppers’. He sat on chairs carved to fit his buttocks, and would readily quit a boarding house if he had reason to believe that his landlady had been divorced. His dream, and what he considered the natural end point of the evolutionary process, was ‘the perfect man in the perfect society.’ He was saddened that this utopian state didn’t arrive during his life time. The country he loved was still beset by wars, violence, corruption, injustice and poverty. Maybe he would have been happier had he married the novelist George Eliot, with whom he once had a serious romance. Nevertheless the case the book makes for minimal government is still valid, and its final line might act as a handy mission statement for Liberal Democrats: ‘The function of Liberalism in the past was that of putting a limit on the powers of kings. The function of true Liberalism in the future will be that of putting a limit to the powers of Parliaments’

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