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.

Modern misrepresentations of Spencer can be largely traced back to Richard Hofstadter, famed historian and dogged opponent of capitalism. Many of his books, such as The Paranoid Style in American Politics, were attempts to pathologize the American right. Such political pathologies are usually just products of the author’s own biases–“It can’t be that people actually believe this absurd stuff because they find it convincing,” thinks the author, “so people must believe it as a manifestation of deep-seated neuroses, psychoses, and hatreds.” For an example of a political pathology from the right, see Dinesh D’Souza’s The Roots of Obama’s Rage.

In Social Darwinism in American Thought, Hofstadter, a one time member of the Communist Party, uses a type of warmed-over Marxism to argue that Americans embraced the idea of “survival of the fittest” because “dominant groups” were “able to dramatize this vision of competition as a thing good in itself.” Herbert Spencer, Hofstadter argues, was at the heart of this transformation. Fast-forward seventy years and through countless misrepresentations by people like Millhiser, and Spencer is now nearly synonymous with the idea of “social Darwinism,” that is, the idea that social programs and government actions to help the worst off should be rolled back in order to cleanse the race of undesirables.   

Never one to shy away from a acerbic jab, Millhiser calls Spencer’s philosophy “genocidal libertarianism.” Millhiser’s distaste for libertarianism is well known, but he would be better served attacking what people actually said than what he’s been told they said. Libertarians have plenty of skeletons in our closets, but Herbert Spencer isn’t one of them.

Spencer’s most notorious statement, that if someone is “not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die” is dutifully trotted out by Millhiser as an example of Spencer’s monstrous beliefs. As with most critics of Spencer, he ignores the opening sentence of the next paragraph: “Of course, 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.”

Like most libertarians, Spencer was a big believer in private charity. As George H. Smith wrote over at Cato’s Libertarianism.org:

Spencer opposed coercive, state-enforced charity, but he favored charity that is voluntarily bestowed. As a matter of justice, one should not be forced to help others; but as a matter of personal or religious ethics, one may be obligated to help others. Spencer noted with consternation that his views brought on him “condemnation as an enemy of the poor.” In one essay he observed that it was becoming more common for the rich to contribute money and time to the poor, and he praised this trend as “the latest and most hopeful fact in human history.” Moreover, the final chapters in Spencer’s The Principles of Ethics are devoted to the subject of “positive beneficence,” the highest form of society in which people voluntarily help those in need.

These and many similar facts scarcely fit the common picture of a Herbert Spencer devoid of humanitarian sentiments. One must read Spencer’s extensive treatments of poverty and the poor to appreciate fully the outrageous misrepresentations of his critics. That Spencer was offended by such lies is dramatically illustrated by the fact that he broke off a close friendship of some forty years with Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”), after Huxley had written that, according to the Spencerian individualist, a poor man should be left to starve because charity interferes with “survival of the fittest.”

In reply to this accusation of “reasoned savagery,” Spencer wrote: “For nearly fifty years I have contended that the pains attendant on the struggle for existence may fitly be qualified by the aid which private sympathy prompts.” Even after Huxley apologized, it took several years for the friendship to heal.

To people like Millhiser, it may be laughable to believe that private charity could be sufficient to relieve the problems of the poor, and that may be true. But this would be factual disagreement about the effects and possibilities of private charity, not a disagreement about whether the poor should be helped. Like so many opponents of libertarianism, Millhiser seems to believe that opposing the government doing something is the same as opposing it being done at all.

As a Lamarckian, someone who believes that acquired traits can be inherited, Spencer’s views of evolution were in opposition to Darwinism. Spencer believed that societies would evolve through a process of “survival of the fittest” (a term coined by Spencer and later co-opted by Darwin), but this did not mean “survival of the best.” Who survives depends on who is “constitutionally fittest to thrive under the conditions in which they are placed,” but “survival of the fittest is not always the survival of the best.” 

As Smith notes, Spencer also believed that beneficence was an essential element of an advanced and evolved society. “[T]he highest form of life, individual and social,” he wrote, “is not achievable under a reign of justice only; but … there must be joined with it a reign of beneficence.” To this end, he devoted large parts of his Principles of Ethics to arguing that a fully evolved society would need more than merely the “avoidance of direct and indirect injuries to others,” it would need “spontaneous efforts to further the welfare of others.”

This little post is only the latest attempt to correct the record on Herbert Spencer. For more see George H. Smith, Damon Root, and Thomas C. Leonard, just to name a few. I’m sure it will have no effect on how Spencer is used by people like Millhiser to attack proponents of capitalism, or to even attack those, like Rand Paul, who can be spuriously connected to Spencer through three degrees of separation.