Herbert Spencer was a popular author during the nineteenth century who supported strict limits on the government and even opposed many forms of charity towards the poor. Nature, Spencer argued, “secures the growth” of the human race by “weeding out those of lowest development,” and he also believed that neither government nor private charity should interfere with this process of natural selection. Though Spencer was not a eugenicist — he actually argued that the poor should be treated much more harshly than nineteenth and twentieth century eugenicists did — he was both a social acquaintance of Sir Francis Galton, the father of the eugenics movement, and a significant influence on Galton’s thinking. Spencer also shaped many of the policies developed by some of the most powerful judges and lawmakers of his era.
Reading Spencer’s many works today is an uncomfortable experience — the man devotes hundreds of pages to establishing a philosophical justification for a kind of neglect that most Americans would now view as a moral atrocity. Yet Spencer is also one of the foundational thinkers in the development of the economically libertarian philosophy that drives politicians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
On Monday, ThinkProgress published a piece entitled “Rand Paul’s Favorite Philosophers Think Poor People Are ‘Parasites.’” The thrust of the piece is that, though Paul now claims that his policies would lift up poor people and minorities, the economic libertarianism that drives Paul is so inherently anti-poor and anti-civil rights that Paul’s efforts to offer himself up as the champion of the downtrodden are misguided at best and deeply cynical at worst. Over the course of the piece, we trace the intellectual roots of economic libertarianism through Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), as well as through thinkers such as Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand and Spencer.
This is, to say the least, a rogue’s gallery of philosophical influencers. Rothbard, a self-described “anarcho-capitalist” economist, called for “abolishing the welfare system” and accused “the entire ‘civil rights’ structure” of “trampl[ing] on the property rights of every American.” Ayn Rand labeled men and women who seek government assistance as “irrational,” “parasites,” “dishonest,” “thieving loafers,” “compromising knaves,” “sniveling neurotics,” and as “both a beggar and a sucker.” Spencer’s “own philosophy,” we conclude “can safely be described as genocidal libertarianism.”
Not long after we published this piece, two of the libertarian movement’s flagship institutions leaped to Spencer’s defense. Over at Reason, Damon Root does not contest our description of Spencer as one of the foundational thinkers in the development of Rand Paul’s economic libertarianism. He does, however, contest our description of Spencer as a genocidal libertarian. Though we quote Spencer’s 1851 book Social Statics, which opposes “[a]cts of parliament to save silly people” and argues that if a man or woman is “not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die,” Root claims that Spencer “never advocated anything remotely like letting the poor die in the streets.” Root concludes his piece with an oversimplified history of eugenics in the United States, claiming that Progressives, and not nineteenth century proto-libetarians like Spencer, are the real eugenicists. (Though Root throws around the capital “P” term “Progressive” throughout his piece, it is worth noting that this term is not synonymous with the lower-case “p” term “progressive,” which is often used to mean “liberal.”)
Shortly before Reason published Root’s piece, the Cato Institute — arguably the nation’s most influential and well-funded libertarian institution — published a similar piece purporting to rebut our description of Spencer.
The fact that Cato and Reason both reacted so swiftly is a testament to the central place Spencer holds in the development of libertarian thought. According to Rothbard, who the elder Paul describes as the “founder of the modern libertarian movement,” Spencer’s Social Statics is the “greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.” Yet this foundational libertarian text does not say what Root and Cato claim that it said. Indeed, if Social Statics is, indeed, the “greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written” then that is the most damning indictment of libertarianism imaginable.
The Real Herbert Spencer
Root’s claim that Spencer did not support allowing the least fortunate to die from neglect is simply wrong. Social Statics claims that “stupidity,” “vice,” and “idleness” are “nature’s failures,” that people who possess these traits “are recalled by her laws when found to be such.” These human “failures,” are the people Spencer casts aside with the dismissive conclusion “they die, and it is best they should die.”
To rebut this point, Root quotes a different passage of Social Statics, where Spencer writes that “in so far as” nature’s cruelty “is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.” To Root, this is proof that Spencer believed that private charity should reduce the suffering caused by a laissez-faire society.
Yet, while it is true that Spencer did believe that charity was appropriate under limited circumstances, Root would have done well to read the entire paragraph where Spencer talks about “the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other.” In that paragraph, Spencer also warns that charity sometimes “defeats its own end.” As Spencer writes,
Instead of diminishing suffering, it eventually increases it. It favours the multiplication of those worst fitted for existence, and, by consequence, hinders the multiplication of those best fitted for existence—leaving, as it does, less room for them. It tends to fill the world with those to whom life will bring most pain, and tends to keep out of it those to whom life will bring most pleasure. It inflicts positive misery, and prevents positive happiness.
Charity, in other words, risks extending the life of individuals who are unworthy of living.
Root, however, persists in his effort to rehabilitate Spencer. “Spencer devoted 10 chapters in his two-volume Principles of Ethics to spelling out the importance of “Positive Beneficience,” Root writes, “otherwise known as charity towards the impoverished and the unfortunate.”
Ten chapters is a whole lot of chapters! Only one of these chapters, however, focuses specifically on the issue of “Relief for the Poor.” And that chapter spends far more time discussing cases where charity is not appropriate than it does laying out the few cases where Spencer believed that private donors should improve conditions for the poor. Needless to say, Spencer called for a near-blanket prohibition on “relief of the poor from public funds raised by rates,” but he also objected to charity administered by “privately established and voluntary organizations.” When a donor gives to such an organization, Spencer reasoned, the “beneficiary is not brought in direct relation with the benefactor” and this increases the likelihood that the money will ultimately be spent on “idlers, spendthrifts, and drunkards” or someone else that Spencer viewed as “worthless.”
Indeed, the primary thrust of Spencer’s chapter on “Relief for the Poor” is that charity must be carefully tailored to “increas[e] the aid given to the worthy and restrict that given to the unworthy.” Those that Spencer deems “unworthy” of charity must be cleansed through suffering:
Having, by unwise institutions, brought into existence large numbers who are unadapted to the requirements of social life, and are consequently sources of misery to themselves and others, we cannot repress and gradually diminish this body of relatively worthless people without inflicting much pain. Evil has been done and the penalty must be paid. Cure can come only through affliction. The artificial assuaging of distress by state appliances, is a kind of social opium eating, yielding temporary mitigation at the eventual cost of intenser misery. Increase of the anodyne dose inevitably leads by and by to increase of the evil; and the only rational course is that of bearing the misery which must be entailed for a time by desistance. The transition from state beneficence to a healthy condition of self-help and private beneficence, must be like the transition from an opium-eating life to a normal life–painful but remedial.
Spencer’s views on charity, in other words, are entirely consistent with the vision he laid out in Social Statics calling for genocide by neglect.
The Birth of Eugenics
Having misstated Spencer’s views, Root then changes the subject to eugenics. Eugenics is a morally bankrupt philosophy which claims that undesirable traits ranging from “feeblemindedness,” to criminality to sexual promiscuity can essentially be bred out of the human race by preventing individuals who posses these traits from reproducing. As Root notes, many early twentieth century Progressives believed in eugenics, though this fact has far less relevance to modern politics than Root implies because, as we note above, the capital “P” term “Progressive” is not synonymous with modern day liberalism. Nor, as we explain below, was support for eugenics limited to Progressives.
The father of eugenics, like modern day libertarians, was influenced by Spencer. Sir Francis Galton was a contemporary of Spencer’s who also divided humanity into the worthy and the unworthy. A few years after Spencer’s death, Galton was invited to deliver the Herbert Spencer Lecture at the University of Oxford, where Galton acknowledged his “personal debt” to Spencer — the two men would often converse over games of billiards at London’s Athenaeum Club. Yet Galton’s vision for humanity differed from Spencer’s in several important ways. As I explain in my book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, Galton shared Spencer’s desire to build a stronger, more worthy race of humans, but he believed that this task should be accomplished differently than Spencer did:
While Spencer wrote that we should simply ignore the least fortunate and allow nature to kill them off, Galton preferred a more active approach. “What Nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly,” according to Galton, “man may do providently, quickly and kindly.”
In one sense, Galton offered a more moderate alternative to Spencer’s genocidal libertarianism, as he did not argue that the least fortunate should simply be allowed to die. “I do not,” Galton explained, “propose to neglect the sick, the feeble or the unfortunate.” To the contrary, he promised to do everything he could “for their comfort and happiness.” This charity, however, came at a steep price: “I would exact an equivalent for the charitable assistance they receive, namely, that by means of isolation, or some other drastic yet adequate measure, a stop should be put to the production of families of children likely to include degenerates.”
Galton named his method of preventing those he deemed unworthy from breeding “eugenics,” from the Greek words meaning “well” and “born.”
In his defense of Spencer, Root lays Galton’s methods at the feet of Progressives. “Spencer’s Progressive-minded contemporaries,” Root writes, “frequently did embrace eugenics and frequently did throw their explicit support behind eugenicist measures aimed restricting or eliminating ‘unfit’ groups from American society.” There’s some truth to this claim, but Root’s narrative oversimplifies history. Eugenics was an alternative to Spencer’s proposal to allow nature’s cruelty to deal with the unworthy, but Galton and Spencer shared many of the same goals. And support for eugenics was hardly limited to early twentieth century Progressives.
As Root notes, one of the most odious Supreme Court decisions in American history, Buck v. Bell, was authored by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Buck upheld a Virginia law permitting a woman falsely labeled an “imbecile” to be sterilized against her will. Holmes, who Root labels a “Progressive icon,” also played a significant role in shaping liberal notions of judicial restraint that came to dominate the Court in the late 1930s.
But Buck has hardly the work of Holmes alone, or even of the few Progressives who then served on the Supreme Court. Rather, Buck was an 8-1 decision, joined by the Court’s liberals and by nearly all of its conservatives (the sole dissenter, Justice Pierce Butler, did not explain his dissent, but he is widely believed to have dissented because he objected to eugenics on religious grounds). Several of the justices who upheld state-sanctioned eugenics, were staunch economic libertarians who later joined a dissenting opinion castigating the victims of the Great Depression in words that could have been written by Herbert Spencer. The “vital lesson” these victims failed to learn, according to the opinion by Justice George Sutherland, was that “expenditure beyond income begets poverty.” “Indiscretion or imprudence,” Sutherland added, “was not to be relieved by legislation.”
The Burden We Bear Today
It is facile to suggest that modern-day liberals must bear some kind of collective guilt because some of their intellectual influencers supported Buck v. Bell. It would be equally facile to assign that guilt to today’s libertarians because justices who shared many of their views also joined the Buck decision. As Americans, we bear the burden of a history riddled with morally tainted intellectuals. Both Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the primary author of the Bill of Rights, owned slaves. That does not mean that modern-day Americans who still cherish the Declaration and the Bill of Rights are akin to slaveholders.
But modern thinkers do have an obligation to confront their intellectual forebears honestly, rather than papering over the uncomfortable views held by their influencers or shifting attention to other, equally uncomfortable views held by their political opponents’ influencers. An honest examination of Spencer reveals him to be a moral monster. It is baffling that Cato or Reason would choose to align themselves with him.