If you’ve heard of Herbert Spencer at all, you probably know him as the original social Darwinist, a radical libertarian avant la lettre. Now, thanks to Steven Shapin’s New Yorker review of a new biography, I know why today’s libertarians don’t like to talk about him. He understood their philosophy deeply and followed it to its logical conclusions:
“For Spencer, the ‘fundamental law’ governing social life could not be more obvious: ‘Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.’ Yet if the fundamental law was clear and coherent, its applications to the contingencies of social life were not, and this gap in Spencer’s scheme between principle and practice proved a fertile source of misunderstanding. For example, natural and moral law required that all people should compete on a level playing field, but in practice land and other property were inequitably distributed, as the result of ancient crimes. And so this supposedly laissez-faire writer advocated both a progressive death tax and the nationalization of land, projects that put him on the side of the socialists he so vigorously attacked. The role of the state was, ideally, supposed to be minimal, but the fundamental law also meant, for Spencer, that equal justice ought to be guaranteed, and this, in turn, underwrote proposals for a vast extension of systems of free legal aid, far in excess of anything we have today.”
Spencer isn’t inconsistent; his original principle cannot be consistently followed. His logic’s impeccable, it just doesn’t attract donations from greedbots.