Tag: Herbert Spencer

“Charity Is in Its Nature Essentially Civilizing”: In Defense of Herbert Spencer

Ian Millhiser has responded to both my defense of Herbert Spencer and one from Reason’s Damon Root. Unwavering in his belief that Spencer was a monster, Millhiser has doubled down on his claim that Spencer advanced a kind of “genocidal libertarianism.” Millhiser has rightly retreated, however, from boldly claiming, without evidence, that Rand Paul is a fan of Herbert Spencer. I thank him for his response, and I offer a few more thoughts on Spencer here.

First, it’s clear that Millhiser is an active and vehement opponent of libertarianism. He seems to believe–although I don’t want to put words in his mouth–that libertarianism is inherently “genocidal,” regardless of whether it’s advocated by Spencer, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, or Milton Friedman. So, on one level, Millhiser’s reaction to Spencer is simply a reiteration of his distaste for libertarianism and, insofar as that is the source of Millhiser’s discontent, I’m not going to try to argue with him that libertarianism isn’t inherently a cold, heartless philosophy. The possibility of that debate being productive is long passed.

But is there something particularly odious about Spencer’s brand of libertarianism, as Millhiser seems to think? Spencer writes with the peculiar verve of a 19th-century British intellectual, coming from the same milieu as anthropologists who would blithely discuss the “savage and uncivilized mongoloid and negroid races.” Similarly, Spencer would insouciantly attack the lazy, shiftless, and incompetent.

Post-modern relativism makes us balk at these absolute terms. In modern politics we tend to think more about the conditions into which people are born rather than their personal responsibility. Discussions of the “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor” are now largely uncouth.

But to Spencer, as to most 19th-century political and social theorists, the distinction mattered. Like many modern libertarians and conservatives, Spencer was very concerned that profligate and indiscriminate assistance for the poor would incentivize bad behavior. Although many on the left loathe the idea that welfare can create bad behavior, most people understand that concern. To anyone who’s ever had to cut off ne’er-do-well friends or family from further charity in order to help them out, those concerns make sense.

Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?

In a hit piece on Rand Paul posted on ThinkProgress, Ian Millhiser has taken guilt by association to new heights, and, in the process, fundamentally misrepresented the views of Herbert Spencer.

In “Rand Paul’s Favorite Philosophers Think Poor People Are ‘Parasites,’” Millhiser attempts to connect Rand Paul to 19th-century classical liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer. He does this by constructing a stunningly attenuated chain of influences: Rand Paul to his father Ron Paul, who was unquestionably influential on his thinking; Ron Paul to Murray Rothbard, by whom Ron Paul was greatly influenced; and Murray Rothbard to Herbert Spencer, whose book Social Statics Rothbard called “the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.”

Millhiser offers no direct evidence that Rand Paul himself is a fan of Herbert Spencer, even though he implies so in his title. Despite this bit of journalistic malfeasance, Millhiser marches bravely forward with further misrepresentations about Spencer’s ideas, and, by implication, Senator Paul’s. Here Millhiser is joining a long, if not admirable, tradition of people misrepresenting Herbert Spencer’s ideas in order to attack proponents of capitalism. As usual, those critics are wrong about what Spencer himself actually wrote and believed.

Socialism and Social Darwinism

The arbiters of appropriate expression in America get very exercised when conservatives call Barack Obama a “socialist.” They treat the claim in the same way as calling Obama a Muslim, Kenyan, or “the anti-Christ.”

But headlines this week report that President Obama accused the Republicans of “social Darwinism,” and I don’t see anyone exercised about that. A New York Times editorial endorses the attack.

Is “social Darwinist” within some bound of propriety that “socialist” violates? I don’t think so. After all, plenty of people call themselves socialists – not President Obama, to be sure, but estimable figures such as Tony Blair and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Members of the British Labour Party have been known to sing the socialist anthem “The Red Flag” on the floor of Parliament.

But no one calls himself a social Darwinist. Not now, not ever. Not Herbert Spencer. The term is always used to label one’s opponents. In that sense it’s clearly a more abusive term than “socialist,” a term that millions of people have proudly claimed.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says that social Darwinism is

the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature. According to the theory, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weak were diminished and their cultures delimited, while the strong grew in power and in cultural influence over the weak….The poor were the “unfit” and should not be aided; in the struggle for existence, wealth was a sign of success. At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies, sustaining belief in Anglo-Saxon or Aryan cultural and biological superiority.

Not a pleasant idea. And a pretty nasty thing to accuse someone of. It’s always used as a smear of conservatives and libertarians – by the historian Richard Hofstadter, by the fabulist Robert Reich, and now even by the president of the United States. (Damon Root noted that the real eugenicists were not the laissez-faire advocates that Hofstadter accused but the “Progressive reformers” that he admired.)

As Dan Mitchell pointed out, Paul Ryan’s budget proposes to make the federal government substantially larger than it was under Bill Clinton. Does that make Clinton a social Darwinist?

Those who deploy the charge are, first, falsely implying that Republicans support radically smaller government, which neither Ryan’s budget nor any other Republican plan actually proposes. And second, they are accusing both Republicans and actual supporters of free markets of believing in “the survival of the fittest” and, as Wikipedia puts it, “the ideas of eugenicsscientific racismimperialismfascismNazism and struggle between national or racial groups.”  “Social Darwinism” is nothing more than a nasty smear.

The president should be embarrassed, and those who call for civility in public discourse should admonish him.