“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.

Viewing society as something like an organism, Spencer thought broadly about how laws and policies could either encourage or discourage certain behaviors. As a Lamarckian–someone who believes acquired traits are heritable–he was concerned that those bad behaviors would be transmitted down through the generations. His end goal was an affluent society based on voluntary interaction in which sympathy for fellow men thrived. If the government did too much to encourage certain types of harmful behavior, then Spencer feared that, in the long run, the pain and suffering would be greater.

What types of harmful behavior? Spencer was surely against the cronyistic businessman who prefers to use government to extract from taxpayers rather than building an honest business that adds to the sum total of wealth in society. In a system that cultivated such people, the doctrine of “survival of the fittest” would mean that “the fittest” were cronies rather than honest businessmen. Under his view of social evolution, the cumulative effect of such crony-supporting policies would be a society in which innovative entrepreneurs are replaced by cronies who lack creativity and pluck and do business with an army of lobbyists. Laws that perpetuate such cronyism would be “acts of parliament to save silly people,” to use a Spencer quote cited by Millhiser.  

Similarly, Spencer would also oppose the person who resides on the dole without working, the kind of person the British press, in particular, loves to highlight. Spencer believed, not irrationally, that facilitating such behavior will only breed more of it. Most importantly, in the long run there will be great suffering in societies that massively facilitate such behavior, whether it is cronyism or welfare dependency.

Does this mean that Spencer wrote seemingly hard-hearted things like “widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life and death?” Yes. To Spencer, the laws that categorically try to prevent such suffering would only result in long-term suffering. For those who refuse to help themselves, and for those who persist in patterns of bad, self-destructive behavior, it is true that he thought many should be allowed to die. Again, however, this belief is not as radical as it sounds. Both law and charity can only do so much, and human beneficence can only be stretched so far for those who are unwilling to change their behavior. Ask a social worker how much patience he has for the clients who don’t even seem to be trying, whether they are heroin users or morbidly obese diabetic smokers. “I can only do so much,” the social worker would probably say. But for those willing to change their behavior, or at least to try, Spencer had great sympathy.

He also believed that laws that try to solve suffering merely reorganize the goods of society without solving the underlying problem, namely, the conditions that produce and exacerbate poverty. As he wrote, “If it gives enough to some who else would not have enough, it must inevitably reduce certain others to the condition of not having enough. And thus, to the extent that a poor-law mitigates distress in one place, it unavoidably produces distress in another.”

But Spencer didn’t oppose charity; he simply opposed the type of charity that produces bad behaviors, which gives “pity-inspiring babes the market value of 9d. per day.” Again, here he certainly has a point, and similar concerns led to the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Spencer was “only against injudicious charity.” In contrast, “to that charity which may be described as helping men help themselves,” he had no objection.

This too is not an uncommon attitude, and one that is certainly not original to Spencer. I imagine Millhiser finds such beliefs abhorrent, but, again, that is merely a disagreement over some aspects of conservatism and libertarianism, not a specific beef with Herbert Spencer. Nor is it strange for Spencer to argue, as Millhiser points out, that profligate and indiscriminate charity can actually increase suffering. Again, you need only to think of those people you have known who were clearly facilitated into self-destructive behavior by indiscriminate charity.

Finally, given that it was recently tax day, Spencer had poignant things to say about how government-provided charity actually diminishes the feelings of sympathy he thought necessary to an advanced society. He was also concerned that voluntary contributions to large, anonymous charitable organizations would also diminish beneficence, although he prefered such organizations to “poor laws.” The best charity, he thought, should be done face to face and not in situations where the “beneficiary is not brought in direct relation with the benefactor.” Millhiser quotes this portion as if it were self-refuting, but the extended passage is actually quite moving and is obviously not the musings of a “genocidal” monster:

In deciding how misery is best alleviated we have to consider, not only what is done for the afflicted, but what is the reactive effect upon those who do it. The relationship that springs up between benefactor and beneficiary is, for the present state of the world, a refining one. Having power to muzzle awhile those propensities of the savage which yet linger in us–corrective as it is of that cold, hard state of feeling in which the every-day business of life is pursued–and drawing closer as it does those links of mutual dependence which keep society together–charity is in its nature essentially civilizing. The emotion accompanying every generous act adds an atom to the fabric of the ideal man. As no cruel thing can be done without character being thrust a degree back toward barbarism, so no kind thing can be done without character being moved a degree forward toward perfection.

But government-enforced charity, wrote Spencer, has the opposite effect:

Watch a rate-payer [tax-payer] when the collector’s name is announced. You shall observe no kindling of the eye at some thought of happiness to be conferred–no relaxing of the mouth as though selfish cares had for the moment been forgotten–no softening of the voice to tell of compassionate emotion: no, none of these; but rather shall you see contracted features, a clouded brow, a sudden disappearance of what habitual kindliness of expression there may be: the tax-paper is glanced over half in fear and half in vexation; there are grumblings about the short time that has elapsed since the last rate; the purse comes slowly from the pocket; every coin is grudgingly parted with; and after the collector (who is treated with bare civility) has made his exit, some little time passes before the usual equanimity is regained. Is there any thing in this to remind us of the virtue which is “twice blessed”? Note again how this act-of-parliament charity perpetually supersedes men’s better sentiments.

After contributing taxes, the “benevolent” taxpayer can walk away with a clean conscience. He might walk past a pauper on the street, Spencer writes, telling him, “I have nothing for you my good man; you must go to your parish.” “Thus does the consciousness that there exists a legal provision for the indigent, act as an opiate to the yearnings of sympathy,” Spencer writes.

He continues:

Had there been no ready-made excuse, the behaviour would probably have been different. Commiseration, pleading for at least an inquiry into the case, would most likely have prevailed; and, in place of an application to the board of guardians, ending in a pittance coldly handed across the pay-table to be thanklessly received, might have commenced a relationship good for both parties–a generosity humanizing to the one, and a succour made doubly valuable to the other by a few words of consolation and encouragement, followed, it may be, by a lift into some self-supporting position.

In truth there could hardly be found a more efficient device for estranging men from each other, and decreasing their fellow-feeling, than this system of state-almsgiving. Being kind by proxy!–could any thing be more blighting to the finer instincts? Here is an institution through which, for a few shillings periodically paid, the citizen may compound for all kindness owing from him to his poorer brothers. Is he troubled with twinges of conscience? Here is an anodyne for him, to be had by subscribing so much in the pound on his rental. Is he indifferent as to the welfare of others? Why then in return for punctual payment of rates he shall have absolution for hardness of heart. Look; here is the advertisement. “Gentlemen’s benevolence done for them, in the most business-like manner, and on the lowest terms. Charity doled out by a patent apparatus, warranted to save all soiling of fingers and offence to the nose. Good works undertaken by contract. Infallible remedies for self-reproach always on hand. Tender feelings kept easy at per annum.”

And thus we have the gentle, softening, elevating intercourse that should be habitually taking place between rich and poor superseded by a cold, hard, lifeless mechanism bound together by dry parchment acts and regulations, managed by commissioners, boards, clerks, and collectors, who perform their respective functions as tasks, and kept a-going by money forcibly taken from all classes indiscriminately. In place of the music breathed by feeling attuned to kind deeds, we have the harsh creaking and jarring of a thing that cannot stir without creating discord–a thing whose every act, from the gathering of its funds to their final distribution, is prolific of grumblings, discontent, anger–a thing that breeds squabbles about authority, disputes as to claims, browbeatings, jealousies, litigations, corruption, trickery, lying, ingratitude–a thing that supplants, and therefore makes dormant, men’s nobler feelings, while it stimulates their baser ones.

Herbert Spencer was a lot of things, but he was not a monster.