Friday, October 22, 2010

Rehabilitating Herbert Spencer?

This is a curious but interesting sequence -- starting, approximately, with this post by Brian Tamanaha, "Racist Progressives, Meet Hard-Hearted Libertarians", which references, going back a further step, a couple of posts by libertarians asserting that the forebears of contemporary left-liberals or "progressives" were often bigoted and racist. Okay, says Tamanaha, but your forebears were often cold-hearted social Darwinists willing to let the poor starve in the streets, and he uses Herbert Spencer, apparently the originator of the phrase "survival of the fittest", as exhibit one -- e.g., taken from Spencer's Social Statics:
It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.
As Tamanaha says, "That's cold".

Now, as a tu quoque argument this is maybe a bit silly, but it does go to the way in which older and uglier predecessors continue to affect or influence contemporary inheritors. Ilya Somin, in a response post on Volokh, "Of 'Racist Progressives' And 'Hard-Hearted Libertarians'" largely agrees with Tamanaha about Spencer's social Darwinism, but argues that
Few modern libertarians even cite Spencer or other social Darwinists at all. By contrast, modern liberals do often cite early 20th century progressives as inspirations for their ideology. And until recently, few of them paid much attention to the more unsavory aspects of early 20th century Progressivism (though I should add that some far left radical scholars, such as Gabriel Kolko, were much more critical).
The other noteworthy point that Somin makes is that bigotry against whatever minority group is out of favor at the moment becomes much more dangerous when backed by an interventionist state, and along these lines he quotes his colleague David Bernstein:
“[a]s a matter of American history, activist government was often used to oppress minority groups. As a matter of world history, the record of “activist government” with regard to minorities is even worse. And as a matter of political theory, it’s not at all clear why one would expect public policy in a democracy to necessarily be helpful to minority groups.”
And then Damon Root steps in with a defence of Spencer himself, in a post on Reason's blog, "Battle of the 'Embarrassing Grandparents': Racist Progressives vs. Herbert Spencer" (that Somin referenced in an update):
As for the much-abused phrase “survival of the fittest,” Tamanaha seems ignorant of what Spencer actually wrote. By fit, Spencer most certainly did not mean brute force. In Spencer’s view, human society had evolved from a "militant" state, which was characterized by violence and force, to an "industrial" one, characterized by trade and voluntary cooperation. Thus any increase in private charity and “the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other” count as prime examples of the “survival of the fittest” as articulated by Spencer.

 So, I have a couple of responses myself to this little teacup tempest. First, I'll admit I've never read Spencer and never thought to do so, but I think Root makes an interesting case for him -- enough that I'm inclined now to look him up. But I also think that the extended passage Tamanaha quoted is indeed "cold", as he says, and what's worse, wrong. It's wrong in the same way that the cruder versions of contemporary evolutionary psychology are wrong, in overlooking or dismissing culture as the primary system for environmental adaptation, as opposed to the biological organism -- and cultural adaptations that build upon  compassion or a desire to help the weak may well make for a stronger or "fitter" social structure within which we all can thrive. What Root says about Spencer above mitigates this criticism, but doesn't eliminate it.

The second point, though, is just to point out that the state is by no means the only way we have of acting together, being social, exercising compassion, or helping the weak. Indeed, the state, because of its inescapable connection with force, will always have a tendency to devolve into either tyrannies large or small, or wasteful, dehumanizing, dependency-inducing bureaucracies, or both. This too Spencer apparently saw, and partially integrated into his case. And here is where we can really use some of that willingness to think outside of accustomed limits that we saw in the parable of the traffic lights, to find more creative and human approaches to providing for human needs than the state.


  1. The vegass-libertarians of ReasonCo suggest a kinder, gentler Social Darwinism via Spencer, in other words--we can still give to charity!

    Somin and his Volokh cronies are not completely off the mark, however: the early "progressives" often flirted with social darwinism. Then, the early progressives were typically Republicans--Winston Churchill, and Teddy Roosevelt for example, who quoted Darwin and Spencer at times (and hinted at eugenics..Churchill in fact justified the purges of Arabs and Palestinians via some cheap S-D-ism).

    The authentic, liberal progressives generally rejected social Darwinism early on--e.g., see Bertrand Russell's comments on the S-D-ism issue. Russell's not perfect but he saw through the BS of S-D-ism and opposed the Churchill sorts and the industrial-capitalists who often justified their greed and exploitation via S-D-ism.

  2. Perhaps you're thinking of Ward Churchill, not Winston -- neither of them were Republicans, of course, but at least the former is both American and a so-called "progressive". Similarly, Bertrand Russell was a British leftist, but not a "progressive". And Somin's point wasn't that the early "progressives" were social Darwinists, but that they were often rascists and bigots.

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  4. Nope. Google like US History 1o1. Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive at least ostensibly, as was the Bull Moose GOP.

    Russell was certainly a progressive, but of a different sort than the TR phony sort--he supported women's rights, opposed theocracy, robber baron capitalism and racism. And Winston Churchill was a Social Darwinist with a capital SD. Then, when yr a vegass-style libertarian, mendacity will serve your ends as well as historical accuracy.

    Ward's no progressive. He's an anarchist. I don't agree with him in all things, but I don't always disagree with him.


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