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Herbert Spencer, Freedom, and Empire

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03/12/2014Bryan Cheang

Herbert Spencer was born into a nineteenth-century world where the traditional logic of imperialism interacted with new developments like the Industrial Revolution, and new ideas like free trade and liberalism that emerged out of the Enlightenment of the previous century. The key to understanding Spencer’s importance is to realize that he was a radical proponent of laissez faire, individualism, natural rights, and capitalism. His call for the limitation of state power was so extensive that it included an individual’s right to “ignore the state,” that is, to “drop connection with the state — to relinquish protection and refuse paying toward its support.” These views were strongly articulated in his book Social Statics, considered by Murray Rothbard to be "the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.1

This meant that while many developments, such as the burgeoning trade relations of the time, would fall in line with Spencer’s outlook, his radical and purist laissez-faire ideology put him at odds with the philosophy of imperialism that accompanied the perpetuation of overseas territorial expansion and militaristic activities of the British Empire.

At a time of great economic transformation brought about by the Industrial Revolution, nineteenth-century Britain saw an expansion of trade and commerce. This was in part due to the embracing of relatively free markets that arose in the decades following Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and which were radically propounded by Herbert Spencer. Spencer believed that human progress is best achieved through the spontaneous activities of individuals, since such free competition, absent excessive government regulation, provides powerful incentives for individuals to seek constant development.2

Spencer anticipated Friedrich Hayek’s concept of “spontaneous order,3 and explained that socio-political order depends not on deliberate design or a rational blueprint, but rather emerges spontaneously over years of evolution. Thus, industrial civilization, which was clearly taking form in Britain, emerged not due to the “devising of any one,” but rather through “the individual efforts of citizens to satisfy their own wants ... in spite of legislative hindrances.4 Even the famous steel entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie, who desired to know what propelled human development, was so inspired by Spencer particularly, that he was convinced his work served a grander purpose.

Thus, Spencer welcomed the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the unprecedented increase in the standard of living in Victorian Britain that accompanied rapid population growth and urbanization. He saw these developments as part of a long-run tendency of social evolution toward industrial society, and thus peace. This is related to his belief that there are two chief modes of social organization: the “militant” and the “voluntary.”5 The former is one of compulsory cooperation directed by the State, and oriented toward violent conflict, while the latter is one that is governed by his Law of Equal Freedom, that “every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”6

The selective pressures of social evolution would help mankind progress from the former mode to the latter mode, since “a society in which life, liberty, and property, are secure and all interests justly regarded, must prosper more than one in which they do not.7

At this point a tension arises. While Britain was traveling on the long-run path toward industrialism and peace, the traditional structure of empire and Britain’s short-run activities vitiated this potential for progress.

Accordingly, Spencer attacked the foreign military adventurism that Britain continued to engage in, since it ran counter to the spirit of liberal progress. Britain had engaged in overseas wars in India, Afghanistan, and South Africa (the Boer War), and elsewhere. He denounced the hypocrisy in imperial policy which often used euphemisms like “defensive war” to mask, what to him was the true nature of imperial aggrandizement.8 The following becomes clear: Spencer’s radical stance struck at the heart of the essence of empire, for it denounced the foreign occupation of colonial territories. At a time when the race for colonial lands was seen to be a prerequisite for the glory and prestige of empire, especially during the late 1800s, Spencer argued that such foreign expansionism fostered tyranny over the domestic people. Britain’s need to maintain overseas colonies would inescapably necessitate establishing increasing controls on the British citizens themselves, until the “army is simply the mobilized society and the society is the quiescent army.”9 Colonial empires subjugating other parts of the earth were unlikely to “have so tender a regard” for the rights of their own citizens.10

Spencer would ask: how could the pursuit of trade, which is in essence voluntary, and the concomitant drive toward industrialism, which brings peace, sit well with the practice of militarism that makes imperialism and colonialism possible? The uneasy relationship between the spirit of free commerce and the very essence of the imperial structure of Britain is thus brought to light. Free trade was desired for the twin purposes of imperial power and profit; yet, “free trade imperialism,” as Spencer contended, is a contradiction in terms, since free trade in essence need not require military action for its promotion. Thus, British naval and military expeditions to secure foreign trading opportunities obscured the hidden motive to “benefit powerful special interests” at the expense of “the poor, starved, overburdened people.”11 Spencer’s criticism of state-directed commerce provokes a question: might the new forces of trade undermine the traditional logic of imperialism itself?

In light of these considerations, it is then possible to understand Spencer’s pessimism and even despair during his later years. Though Spencer believed that modern civilization, which was taking shape in Britain, was headed toward peaceful industrial society after a long period of liberalization, there would be “temporary reverses and detours” along this upward path. Besides the continued persistence of overseas colonialism, Spencer was also disheartened by what seemed to be the rising tide of Fabian socialism.12 This movement was accompanied by state interventions into charity and education, which only provoked Spencer’s ire: at a time when liberal individualism should be consistently championed, these increasing regulations of society could result only in a “lapse of self-ownership into ownership by the community.”13 Examining Spencer’s intellectual radicalism highlights the ambivalence of empire at a time when vestiges of the old and forces of the new intersected in an uneasy relationship. It was a time when the new spirit of liberal trade and commerce sat tenuously with the use of state power to gain foreign markets; it was a time when the language of modern civilization was used to subjugate other nations for motivations that ran against civility itself, and it was a time when the individual was asserting his dominance against an imperial state that clung on for relevance.

  • 1. Murray Rothbard (1971). Recommended Reading. (M. Rothbard, Ed.) The Libertarian Forum, vol. II, p. 5.
  • 2. R.F Cooney (1973). ”Herbert Spencer: Apostle of Liberty.” Freeman 23.
  • 3. The idea of a “spontaneous order,” i.e., an order that emerges as result of the voluntary activities of individuals and not one which is created by a government, is a key idea in the classical-liberal and free-market tradition, of which Spencer is a part. The key contemporary figure is Austrian School economist and Nobel Prize winner F.A. Hayek, who described it as an extended order consisting of those institutions and practices that are the result of human action but not the result of some specific human intention.
  • 4. Herbert Spencer (2000). Illustrations of Universal Progress: A Series of Discussions. Chestnut Hill, MA: Elibron Classics, p. 320.
  • 5. Herbert Spencer (1992). The Principles of Ethics, Vol. II (T. R. Machan, Ed.) Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, p. 6.
  • 6. Herbert Spencer (1970). Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. p. 95.
  • 7. Herbert Spencer (1884). The Principles of Sociology, Vol. II. New York: D. Appleton, p. 608.
  • 8. Herbert Spencer, (1992). The Principles of Ethics Vol. II. (T. R. Machan, Ed.) Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, p. 67, and R. Long (2004, July). “Herbert Spencer: Libertarian Prophet,” The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, pp. 25-28.
  • 9. Herbert Spencer (1992). The Principles of Ethics (Vol. II). (T. R. Machan, Ed.) Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, p. 74
  • 10. Ibid., pp. 239-240.
  • 11. Ibid., p. 220.
  • 12. The late 19th century saw the rise of the “Social Gospel,” which called for government not to keep order in society but to transform society. The Fabian society operated on the principle that the people of England would not accept socialism under its own colors but would accept it under the guise of social programs claiming to help the poor and laborers. The Fabians thus committed themselves to achieving socialism in small steps. (McBriar, 1966) In many ways, it was Germany and Britain, in the waning years of the 19th century, that led the way in turning away from reliance on free markets and individual initiative toward governmental planning. (Veryser, 2012).
  • 13. Spencer, Social Statics, p. 605.

Contact Bryan Cheang

Bryan Cheang holds a PhD in Political Economy from King's College London, and is a specialist in state-market relations and economic policy matters. He is also the Founder of Adam Smith Center in Singapore.