How Can Herbert Spencer’s 1892 Revisions to his Social Statics Help Us Understand Conservative Opposition to the Individual Mandate?

[I’m moving blogs – check out the Next New Deal Rortybomb blog, here is the new rss feed, and here is this post over at the new site. I move over entirely Wednesday, and will cross post until then.]

What should liberal wonks make of the conservative movement’s abandonment of center-right policy innovations like the individual mandate and cap-and-trade once President Obama took them up? To answer this, it might be useful to look at revisions made to the 1892 edition of Herbert Spencer’s classic 19th century handbook of laissez-faire, Social Statics or The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed.  That’s the book Oliver Wendell Holmes alluded to when dissenting in Lochner, famously saying, “The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.”


Herbert Spencer’s name bounced around the internet while I was on vacation after President Obama referred to Paul Ryan’s budget as “thinly-veiled Social Darwinism.” Damon Root at Reason wrote that that it’s unfortunate that Spencer is smeared as a monster when he was a proponent of free markets, a defender of private charity, and had “pioneering support for feminism and women’s equality.”

The feminism, women’s equality, and women’s suffrage points are correct. In his book Social Statics, originally written in 1851 and with the following taken from the 1888 reprint, Spencer had chapter 16 titled “The Rights of Women,” which opens, “Equity knows no difference of sex.” Spencer thought dominion of man over women in the household was a form of feudalism, something he believed his evolutionary thought was there to bury: “in as far as our laws and customs violate the rights of humanity by giving the richer classes power over the poorer, in so far do they similarly violate those rights by giving the stronger sex power over the weaker.”

Spencer embraced the worry of critics that giving women some rights would inevitably lead to demands for suffrage: “The extension of the law of equal freedom to both sexes will doubtless be objected to, on the ground that the political privileges exercised by men must thereby be ceded to women also. Of course they must; and why not?” He concludes, “it has been shown that the rights of women must stand or fall with those of men; derived as they are from the same authority; involved in the same axiom; demonstrated by the same argument.”

He was a serious defender of women’s rights… until it looked like women might actually start getting rights. He then suddenly became very concerned about equality between the genders. The revolutionary language and political equality above was removed from the 1892 edition of Social Statics.

And Spencer had changed his position much earlier. In August 1867, when John Stuart Mill asked Spencer to join the Women’s Suffrage Society, he declined, saying that there had been a “modification” of his views. The same year, Spencer also declined Mill’s request, on behalf of his step-daughter Helen Taylor, that “The Rights of Women” from Social Statics (the essay that Root linked to in his post) be included in a collection of essays she was putting together. When Mill sent him a copy of The Subjection of Women, Spencer replied that someone should write an essay called The Supremacy of Women, about how women nag men and that gives them a lot of hidden power. (Mill responded, “two contradictory tyrannies do not make liberty.”)

People change their minds all the time. But the reasons Spencer gave weren’t impressive. One argument was that women don’t share in military service, thus they shouldn’t share political rights. Given how important it was to Spencer that his arguments be rigorous and hang together logically from his system of authority, axioms, and arguments, this reversal is so underdeveloped many argue it resulted from his lack of luck with romance and women.

But I think it’s clear what his real objection was: universal suffrage has the potential to advance socialistic causes, interfering with his laissez-faire project. From his autobiography: “Another extension of the franchise since made…will inevitably be followed by a still more rapid growth of socialistic legislation.” When he realized women’s equality could potentially interfere with laissez-faire economics, it was time for women’s equality to get cut from his overall theory of a better world. He would rather mutilate his intellectual project instead of allowing his enemies to continue to build their governance project.


Because Spencer was an ardent defender of laissez-faire. He thought evolution would bring about less government, he attacked the idea that government regulations “will work as it is intended to work, which it never does,” he believed in a Right To Ignore The State, and, of course, he believed that private property in land was a joke and that all land should be nationalized and run like “a joint-stock company” by the State. His belief that the injustice of private property in land fell so naturally out of his rigorous theory of laissez-faire that he titled Chapter 9 of Social Statics “The Right To Uses of the Earth,” which argued that “to deprive others of their rights to the use of the earth, is to commit a crime inferior only in wickedness to the crime of taking away their lives or personal liberties.”

What’s that you say? How could a laissez-faire person like Spencer be against private property in land? Spencer:

For if each of them “has freedom to do all that he wills provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other,” then each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants, provided he allows all others the same liberty… Equity, therefore, does not permit property in land…

For if one portion of the earth’s surface may justly become the possession of an individual…eventually the whole of the earth’s surface may be so held…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.

Separate ownerships would merge into the joint-stock ownership of the public. Instead of being in the possession of individuals, the country would be he held by the great corporate body—Society. Instead of leasing his acres from an isolated proprietor, the farmer would lease them from the nation… A state of things so ordered would be in perfect harmony with the moral law.

This was a crucial part of Spencer’s thinking… until it wasn’t. In the 1892 edition of Social Statics, the entire chapter on land reform is gone. Spencer suddenly thought that his policy had some serious problems right around the time land reformers were making progress.

The equivalent of the late 19th century wonk blogosphere sprang into action to figure this out. Alfred Wallace, who you may know as the person who discovered evolution by natural selection separately from Darwin, was the president and founder of the Land Nationalization Society. He dedicated his 1892 presidential address to Spencer, noting that reading Social Statics in 1853 made him found the Society, and tried to clarify why Spencer’s new policy was incorrect, both as they related to his overall theory and the practical reality of the policy itself. Clearly he just made a mistake.

Henry George wrote A Perplexed Philosopher, a large critique of Spencer’s new opinion. George noted that Spencer took the brave and daring step of siding with the wealthy, landed aristocracy in his new policy. In the conclusion, George refers to the about-face as an act of “intellectual prostitution.” Clearly he was bought off.

Spencer had always been under attack for that chapter of his book. The Economist magazine, god bless ’em, praised the laissez-faire parts of the original Social Statics but went after the land reform parts at length in its 1851 review. The conservative press, and well as laissez-faire organizational groups like the “Liberty and Property Defence League,” were constantly attacking Spencer on the land question because they saw reformers do the “even Herbert Spencer agrees….” thing. Clearly he realized what the correct argument was all along.

But what if it is the same situation as women’s suffrage? What if he saw, correctly, that this piece of his theory was emboldening his enemies in the progressive, socialist, and reform movements? Even though he agreed with them in principle, to see democratic challenges from below succeed would both show that the other side can deliver on its projects and would threaten the laissez-faire economy he wanted to build.

What’s both fascinating and sad about the process is that, in order to defeat even the potential of his enemies gaining a policy priority he believed in, he was willing to butcher his elaborate theory of the world so that it could protect the thing – the regressive, anti-evolutionary, feudal, unproductive, landed British aristocracy – he was hoping it would bury.

Two quick endnotes:

1. Here’s a thought:  All property in land exists through the might of a barrel of a gun and the subsequent property documents are dripping with the blood from a sword. To try and cynically create a calculus that x years wipes y amount of the blood off the documents makes you as cupable as the person who pulled the trigger. The thought of a radical, Kenyan, anti-colonialist thinker? Nope, just Herbert Spencer in Social Statics, Chapter 9, Part 3:

It can never be pretended that the existing titles to such property are legitimate. Should any one think so, let him look in the chronicles. Violence, fraud, the prerogative of force, the claims of superior cunning—these are the sources to which those titles may be traced. The original deeds were written with the sword, rather than with the pen: not lawyers, but soldiers, were the conveyancers: blows were the current coin given in payment; and for seals, blood was used in preference to wax…

“But Time,” say some, “is a great legaliser. Immemorial possession must be taken to constitute a legitimate claim”…To do this, however, they must find satisfactory answers to such questions as—How long does it take for what was originally a wrong to grow into a right? At what rate per annum do invalid claims become valid?

2.  I’m currently reading Free Market Fairness by John Tomasi; here they are debating the theory at Cato Unbound. In order to explain the difference between classical liberals and high liberals like Rawls, Tomasi uses the thought experiment of how each would set the rules for a game of Monopoly. He does it in the book and he does it in this blog post. Classical liberals want equal rules for everyone in Monopoly and are okay with unequal starting money; High Liberals are concerned about inequalities in wealth, even after the game begins. And so on.

How would Herbert Spencer approach Monopoly, a game entirely about private property in land? The crucial part of the game isn’t the issue of fairness between players on turn one, it’s how fair the game is to people who start on turn 30. At that point, the productive capital (all the land cards) have been purchased. The turn 30 players would run around the board hoping not to be bankrupted. Maybe they’d pass go enough times to build enough wealth to buy some land, but most likely all their income would be siphoned off in rents by the turn one players. To use Spencer’s phrase, the turn 30 players cannot “’live and move and have their being’ without the leave of others” and thus “cannot be equally free with those others.”

Spencer answered Tomasi’s rules question when he anticipated the incrementalist types in the land reform movement who thought redistributing the land once and setting up some side rules would suffice (i.e. restart the Monopoly game) by noting “what becomes of all who are to be born next year? And what will be the fate of those whose fathers sell their estates and squander the proceeds? These portionless ones must constitute a class already described as having no right to a resting-place on earth—as living by the sufferance of their fellow men—as being practically serfs. And the existence of such a class is wholly at variance with the law of equal freedom.”

So if you asked the young Herbert Spencer how to fairly set up the rules of Monopoly, he’d probably say “there are no fair rules to this game,” flip the board over and walk away. Like a boss.

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