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From Spencer's 1884 to Orwell's 1984

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08/17/2020Henry Hazlitt

In 1884, Herbert Spencer wrote what quickly became a celebrated book, The Man versus the State. The book is seldom referred to now, and gathers dust on library shelves—if, in fact, it is still stocked by many libraries. Spencer's political views are regarded by most present-day writers, who bother to mention him at all, as "extreme laissez faire," and hence "discredited."

But any open-minded person who takes the trouble today to read or reread The Man versus the State will probably be startled by two things. The first is the uncanny clairvoyance with which Spencer foresaw what the future encroachments of the State were likely to be on individual liberty, above all in the economic realm. The second is the extent to which these encroachments had already occurred in 1884, the year in which he was writing.

The present generation has been brought up to believe that government concern for "social justice" and for the plight of the needy was something that did not even exist until the New Deal came along in 1933. The ages prior to that have been pictured as periods when no one "cared," when laissez faire was rampant, when everybody who did not succeed in the cutthroat competition that was euphemistically called free enterprise—but was simply a system of dog-eat-dog and the-devil-take-the-hindmost—was allowed to starve. And if the present generation thinks this is true even of the 1920s, it is absolutely convinced that this was so in the 1880s, which it would probably regard as the very peak of the prevalence of laissez faire.

Yet the new reader's initial astonishment when he starts Spencer's book may begin to wear off before he is halfway through, because one cause for surprise explains the other. All that Spencer was doing was to project or extrapolate the legislative tendencies existing in the 1880s into the future. It was because he was so clearsightedly appalled by these tendencies that he recognized them so much more sharply than his contemporaries, and saw so much more clearly where they would lead if left unchecked.

Even in his Preface to The Man versus the State he pointed out how "increase of freedom in form" was being followed by "decrease of freedom in fact….

Regulations have been made in yearly growing numbers, restraining the citizen in directions where his actions were previously unchecked, and compelling actions which previously he might perform or not as he liked; and at the same time heavier public burdens…have further restricted his freedom, by lessening that portion of his earnings which he can spend as he pleases, and augmenting the portion taken from him to be spent as public agents please.

In his first chapter, "The New Toryism," Spencer contends that "most of those who now pass as Liberals, are Tories of a new type." The Liberals of his own day, he points out, had already "lost sight of the truth that in past times Liberalism habitually stood for individual freedom versus State-coercion."

So the complete Anglo-American switch of reference, by which a "liberal" today has come to mean primarily a State interventionist, had already begun in 1884. Already "plausible proposals" were being made "that there should be organized a system of compulsory insurance, by which men during their early lives shall be forced to provide for the time when they will be incapacitated." Here is already the seed of the American Social Security Act of 1935.

Spencer also pays his respects to the anti-libertarian implications of an increasing tax burden. Those who impose additional taxes are saying in effect: "Hitherto you have been free to spend this portion of your earnings in any way which pleased you; hereafter you shall not be free to spend it, but we will spend it for the general benefit."

Spencer next turns to the compulsions that unions were even then imposing on their members, and asks: "If men use their liberty in such a way as to surrender their liberty, are they thereafter any the less slaves?"

In his second chapter, "The Coming Slavery," Spencer calls attention to the existence of what he calls "political momentum"—the tendency of State interventions and similar political measures to increase and accelerate in the direction in which they have already been set going. Americans have become only too familiar with this momentum in the last few years.

Spencer illustrates: "The blank form of an inquiry daily made is—'We have already done this; why should we not do that?'" "The buying and working of telegraphs by the State" (which already operated them in England when he wrote), he continued, "is made a reason for urging that the State should buy and work the railways." And he went on to quote the demands of one group that the State should take possession of the railways, "with or without compensation."

The British State did not buy and work the railways until 65 years later, in 1948, but it did get around to it, precisely as Spencer feared.

It is not only precedent that prompts the constant spread of interventionist measures, Spencer points out,

but also the necessity which arises for supplementing ineffective measures, and for dealing with the artificial evils continually caused. Failure does not destroy faith in the agencies employed, but merely suggests more stringent use of such agencies or wider ramifications of them.

One illustration he gives is how "the evils produced by compulsory charity are now proposed to be met by compulsory insurance." Today, in America, one could point to scores of examples (from measures to cure "the deficit in the balance of payments" to the constant multiplication of measures to fight the government's "war on poverty") of interventions mainly designed to remove the artificial evils brought about by previous interventions.

Everywhere, Spencer goes on, the tacit assumption is that "government should step in whenever anything is not going right….The more numerous governmental interventions become…the more loud and perpetual the demands for interventions." Every additional relief measure raises hopes of further ones:

The more numerous public instrumentalities become, the more is there generated in citizens the notion that everything is to be done for them, and nothing by them. Every generation is made less familiar with the attainment of desired ends by individual actions or private agencies; until, eventually, governmental agencies come to be thought of as the only available agencies.

"All socialism," Spencer concludes, "involves slavery….That which fundamentally distinguishes the slave is that he labors under coercion to satisfy another's desires." The relation admits of many gradations. Oppressive taxation is a form of slavery of the individual to the community as a whole. "The essential question is—How much is he compelled to labor for other benefit than his own, and how much can he labor for his own benefit?"

Even Spencer would probably have regarded with incredulity a prediction that in less than two generations England would have rates of income tax rising above 90 percent, and that many an energetic and ambitious man, in England and the United States, would be forced to spend more than half his time and labor working for the support of the community, and allowed less than half his time and labor to provide for his own family and himself.

Today's progressive income tax provides a quantitative measurement of the relative extent of a man's economic liberty and servitude.

Those who think that public housing is an entirely new development will be startled to hear that the beginnings of it—as well as some of its harmful consequences—were already present in 1884:

Where municipal bodies turn house-builders [wrote Spencer], they inevitably lower the values of houses otherwise built, and check the supply of more….The multiplication of houses, and especially small houses, being increasingly checked, there must come an increasing demand upon the local authority to make up for the deficient supply….And then when in towns this process has gone so far as to make the local authority the chief owner of houses, there will be a good precedent for publicly providing houses for the rural population, as proposed in the Radical program, and as urged by the Democratic Federation [which insists on] the compulsory construction of healthy artisans' and agricultural laborers' dwellings in proportion to the population.

One State intervention Spencer did not foresee was the future imposition of rent controls, which make it unprofitable for private persons to own, repair, or renovate old rental housing or to put up new. The consequences of rent control provoke the indignant charge that "private enterprise is simply not doing the job" of providing enough housing. The conclusion is that therefore the government must step in and take over that job.

What Spencer did expressly fear, in another field, was that public education, providing gratis what private schools had to charge for, would in time destroy the private schools. But of course he did not foresee that eventually the government would provide free tuition even in tax-supported colleges and universities, thus more and more threatening the continuance of private colleges and universities—and so tending more and more to produce a uniform conformist education, with college faculties ultimately dependent for their jobs on the government, and so developing an economic interest in professing and teaching a statist, pro-government, and socialist ideology. The tendency of government-supported education must be finally to achieve a government monopoly of education.

As the "liberal" readers of 1970 may be shocked to learn that the recent State interventions that they regard as the latest expressions of advanced and compassionate thought were anticipated in 1884, so the statist readers of Spencer's day must have been shocked to learn from him how many of the latest State interventions of 1884 were anticipated in Roman times and in the Middle Ages. For Spencer reminded them, quoting an historian, that in Gaul, during the decline of the Roman Empire, "so numerous were the receivers in comparison with the payers, and so enormous the weight of taxation, that the laborer broke down, the plains became deserts, and woods grew where the plough had been."

Spencer reminded his readers also of the usury laws under Louis XV in France, which raised the rate of interest "from five to six when intending to reduce it to four."

He reminded them of the laws against "forestalling" (buying up goods in advance for later resale), also in early France. The effect of such laws was to prevent anyone from buying "more than two bushels of wheat at market," which prevented traders and dealers from equalizing supplies over time, thereby intensifying scarcities.

He reminded his readers also of the measure which, in 1315, to diminish the pressure of famine, prescribed the prices of foods, but which was later repealed after it had caused the entire disappearance of various foods from the markets.

He reminded them, again, of the many endeavors to fix wages, beginning with the Statute of Laborers under Edward III (1327–77).

And still again, of Statute 35 of Edward III, which aimed to keep down the price of herring (but was soon repealed because it raised the price).

And yet again, of the law of Edward III, under which innkeepers at seaports were sworn to search their guests "to prevent the exportation of money or plate."

This last example will remind Americans uneasily of the present prohibition of private gold holdings and gold export, and of the Johnson Administration's proposal to put a punitive tax on foreign travel, as well as the actual punitive tax that it did put on foreign investment. Let us add the still existing prohibitions even by allegedly advanced European nations against taking more than a tiny amount of their local paper currency out of the country!

I come to one last specific parallel between 1884 and the present. This concerns slum clearance and urban renewal. The British government of Spencer's day responded to the existence of wretched and overcrowded housing by enacting the Artisans' Dwellings Acts. These gave to local authorities powers to pull down bad houses and provide for the building of good ones:

What have been the results? A summary of the operations of the Metropolitan Board of Works, dated December 21, 1883, shows that up to last September it had, at a cost of a million and a quarter to ratepayers, unhoused 21,000 persons and provided houses for 12,000—the remaining 9,000 to be hereafter provided for, being, meanwhile, left houseless. This is not all….Those displaced…form a total of nearly 11,000 artificially made homeless, who have had to find corners for themselves in miserable places that were already overflowing.

Those who are interested in a thorough study of the present-day parallel to this are referred to Professor Martin Anderson's The Federal Bulldozer (1964). I quote just one short paragraph from his findings:

The Federal urban renewal program has actually aggravated the housing shortage for low-income groups. From 1950 to 1960, 126,000 dwelling units, most of them low-rent ones, were destroyed. This study estimates that the number of new dwelling units constructed is less than one-fourth of the number demolished, and that most of the new units are high-rent ones. Contrast the net addition of millions of standard dwelling units to the housing supply by private enterprise with the minute construction effort of the Federal urban renewal program. (p. 229)

There is an eloquent paragraph in Spencer's book reminding his readers of the 1880s of what they did not owe to the State:

It is not to the State that we owe the multitudinous useful inventions from the spade to the telephone; it is not the State which made possible extended navigation by a developed astronomy; it was not the State which made the discoveries in physics, chemistry, and the rest, which guide modern manufacturers; it was not the State which devised the machinery for producing fabrics of every kind, for transferring men and things from place to place, and for ministering in a thousand ways to our comforts. The worldwide transactions conducted in merchants' offices, the rush of traffic filling our streets, the retail distributing system which brings everything within easy reach and delivers the necessaries of life daily at our doors, are not of governmental origin. All these are results of the spontaneous activities of citizens, separate or grouped.

Our present-day statists are busily trying to change all this. They are seizing billions of additional dollars from the taxpayers to turn them over for "scientific research." By this compulsorily subsidized government competition they are discouraging and draining away the funds for private scientific research; and they threaten to make research, in time, a government monopoly. But whether this will result in more scientific progress in the long run is doubtful.

True, enormously more money is being spent on "research," but it is being diverted in questionable directions: in military research; in developing greater and greater super-bombs and other weapons of mass destruction and mass annihilation; in planning supersonic passenger airplanes developed on the assumption that civilians must get to their European or Caribbean vacation spots at 1,200 or 1,800 miles an hour, instead of a mere 600, no matter how many eardrums or windows of groundlings are shattered in the process; and finally, in such Buck Rogers stunts as landing men on the moon (however breathtaking that achievement) or even on Mars. It is not what scientists think is most important or urgent, but what politicians decide will most impress and astound the masses, that determines the direction of research.

It is fairly obvious that all this will involve enormous waste; that government bureaucrats will be able to dictate who gets the research funds and who doesn't, and that this choice will depend either upon fixed arbitrary qualifications like those determined by Civil Service examinations (hardly the way to find the most original minds), or upon the grantees keeping in the good graces of the particular government appointee in charge of the distribution of grants.

But our welfare statists seem determined to put us in a position where we will be dependent on government even for our future scientific and industrial progress—or in a position where they can at least plausibly argue that we are so dependent.

Spencer next goes on to show that the kind of State intervention he is deploring amounts not merely to an abridgment but a basic rejection of private property: a "confusion of ideas, caused by looking at one face only of the transaction, may be traced throughout all the legislation which forcibly takes the property of this man for the purpose of giving gratis benefits to that man."

The tacit assumption underlying all these acts of redistribution is that

No man has any claim to his property, not even to that which he has earned by the sweat of his brow, save by the permission of the community; and that the community may cancel the claim to any extent it thinks fit. No defense can be made for this appropriation of A's possessions for the benefit of B, save one which sets out with the postulate that society as a whole has an absolute right over the possessions of each member.

In the final chapter (just preceding a Postscript) Spencer concluded, "The function of Liberalism in the past was that of putting a limit to the powers of kings. The function of true Liberalism in the future will be that of putting a limit to the power of Parliaments."

In endorsing some of the arguments in Spencer's The Man versus the State, and in recognizing the penetration of many of his insights and the remarkable accuracy of his predictions of the political future, we need not necessarily subscribe to every position that he took. The very title of Spencer's book was in one respect unfortunate. To speak of "the man versus the state" is to imply that the State, as such, is unnecessary and evil. The State, of course, is absolutely indispensable to the preservation of law and order, and the promotion of peace and social cooperation. What is unnecessary and evil, what abridges the liberty and threatens the true welfare of the individual, is the State that has usurped excessive powers and grown beyond its legitimate functions—the super-State, the socialist State, the redistributive State, in brief, the ironically misnamed "Welfare State."

Again, we need not accept Spencer's own "first principle" (as laid down in his Social Statics in 1850) for determining the function of law and the limits of the State: "Every man has freedom to do all he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man."

Taken literally, this could be interpreted to mean that a thug has the right to stand at a corner with a club and beat over the head everybody who comes round it, provided he acknowledges the right of any of his victims to do the same.

At least, Spencer's principle seems to permit any amount of mutual annoyance except constraint. It is entirely true, as Locke pointed out, that "the end of the law is, not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom." But the only short formula we can use to describe the function of the law would be that it should maximize liberty, order, and happiness by minimizing constraint, violence, and harm.

The detailed application of any such simple formula presents many difficulties and problems. We need not go into them here, except to say that the Common Law, developed from ancient custom and a hundred thousand decisions of judges, has been solving these problems through the ages, and that in our age jurists and economists have been further refining these decisions.

But Spencer was certainly right in the main thrust of his argument, which was essentially that of Adam Smith and other classical liberals, that the two indispensable functions of government are first, to protect the nation against aggression from any other nation, and second, to protect the individual citizen from the aggression, injustice, or oppression of any other citizen—and that every extension of the functions of government beyond these two primary duties should be scrutinized with jealous vigilance.

Another issue on which we need not necessarily agree with Spencer was his complete rejection of State relief, based on an inflexible and doctrinaire application of his doctrine of "survival of the fittest." He was quite right in quoting approvingly from a report of the old Poor Law Commissioners: "We find, on the one hand, that there is scarcely one statute connected with the administration of public relief which has produced the effect designed by the legislature, and that the majority of them have created new evils, and aggravated those which they were intended to prevent." This judgment could be obviously applied with even greater force to the enormous proliferation, expansion, and amendments of relief measures today.

Yet though the problem of the relief of poverty and misfortune has not been solved, we cannot callously deny that the problem exists. Nor can we leave its solution entirely to private charity. To cite an extreme example, but unfortunately one of daily occurrence: If a child is run over in the street or if two cars crash, there ought to be the quickest possible provision for taking and admitting the victim or victims immediately to a hospital, if necessary, before there has been time to determine whether or not they can afford to pay for doctor or hospital service, and without depending on the offer of some private good Samaritan, who may or may not happen to be on the scene, to guarantee payment of the hospital bill. There should be governmental provision to meet all such emergencies.

The great problem is, of course, how to provide such emergency relief without allowing it to degenerate into permanent relief; how to relieve the extreme distress of those who are poor through little or no fault of their own, without supporting in idleness those who are poor mainly or entirely through fault of their own.

To state the problem in another way (as I have earlier done): How can we mitigate the penalties of failure and misfortune without undermining the incentives to effort and success? In what precise cases and to what precise extent is it the State's duty to play a role in the solution of this problem? And what exactly should that role be? Over three thousand years of history this problem has never been satisfactorily solved by any government anywhere. I do not pretend to know the precise solution. But the two-sidedness of the problem of relieving suffering without destroying incentive must be frankly recognized by both "conservatives" and "liberals," and there is at least a gain in stating it candidly and clearly.

Yet whatever reservations or qualifications we may have, we are deeply indebted to Herbert Spencer for recognizing with a sharper eye than any of his contemporaries, and warning them against, "the coming slavery" toward which the State of their own time was drifting, and toward which we are more swiftly drifting today.

It is more than a grim coincidence that Spencer was warning of the coming slavery in 1884, and that George Orwell, in our time, has predicted that the full consummation of this slavery will be reached in 1984, exactly one century later.

[This essay is taken from chapter 23 of Man vs. the Welfare State.]


Henry Hazlitt

Henry Hazlitt (1894–1993) was a well-known journalist who wrote on economic affairs for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek, among many other publications. He is perhaps best known as the author of the classic, Economics in One Lesson (1946).