A couple of weeks ago I was teaching my students about the fundamental theories of sociology. Of course, no such lesson is complete without mentioning British biologist and social philosopher Herbert Spencer.
Spencer was a founding father of the structural functionalist perspective in sociology. It was his belief that everything that happens in society happened for a reason, that it served some organic and evolutionary purpose. This was a valuable contribution to the social sciences, which was elaborated upon later by Emile Durkheim.
Unfortunately, Spencer’s philosophy did not stop there. Indeed, before Darwin’s Origin of Species Spencer was expostulating theories of evolution, and applying those ideas to the study of society. It was his belief that society was guided by a natural, evolutionary law, which would ultimately lead to a perfected equilibrium. To manifest this evolutionary outcome, Spencer advocated a radical concept of “freedom.” To Spencer, any government interventions on the function of society were a form of oppression and an obstacle for our progress toward some vaunted equilibrium. In fact, Spencer suggested that it was a matter of time before the state would be replaced by, in essence, a market based institution.
Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest” was absolute in this concept. ANY intervention on the part of the government stood in the way of social progress. Whereas he understood the rationale of human empathy and charity, he advocated against such activity. Humanitarian intervention for the poor, sick, mentally handicapped or other marginalized groups only perpetuated these groups into the next generation, prohibiting the “natural” progress toward our ultimate human destiny
a free market, one would say “libertarian,” society. He admonished 19th century liberal reformists for being so short sighted. His politics was to let the weak die! It was, according to Spencer, for the greater good.
Usually, the students are at this point stunned by this coarse and vile philosophy. It’s my belief that they should be. Sociologists are usually in their field because they want to contribute to society, and this contribution does not include letting large segments of the population die from hunger and disease, even if it does fulfill some evolutionary purpose. Spencer’s theory is known as Social Darwinism (though Darwin himself was not a proponent, and Spencer’s evolution drew more from Lamarck).
I tell my students that there remain subtle whispers of Spencer in the modern discourse. Grover Norquist’s goal to shrink government to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub would have met with Spencer’s approval. Ronald Reagan’s admonition that government is the problem, not the solution is the underlying argument against all government programs from Medicare to Welfare (but not the military for some reason). Milton Friedman’s extremist free market economics has, at its base, a Spencerian motif.
Then I heard this statement from South Carolina’s Lt. Governor Andrew Bauer with regard to government assistance, “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman but she taught me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem. If you give an animal or a person ample food supply they will reproduce
” I was reminded that sometimes the riffs of Spencerism are not so subtle.
It’s interesting, if not somewhat appalling that contemporary neo-conservatism draws from the inspiration of Herbert Spencer. Now I can’t say that neo-conservatives have read the works of Spencer, but Spencerism has long been a common element of conservative discourse. It has always been the justification for ignoring those in our society who are in need, for the exploitation of labor, for the exultation of the business elite. Whenever you hear the rhetoric behind privatization of those things held in the public trust, such as public schools and even defense contracting, know that you are hearing the whispers of Herbert Spencer.
Spencer and the conservative tradition, even today’s neo-conservatives, do have some legitimate criticisms and concerns about the dangers of state power. However, it never ceases to amaze me that their solutions are consistently at the expense of the marginalized, disempowered and dispossessed. It’s hard to justify philosophically why government intervention in people’s lives is oppressive, but corporate intervention in people’s lives is an extension of “liberty.” A government bureaucracy is just this side of Stalinism, but corporate bureaucracy is a free market ideal.
Of course, Spencer’s philosophy hinges on the idea that the actions of free individuals are the driving mechanisms of this fantastical social evolution, but the actions of institutions, composed of individuals, are interference in the natural order. Could it be that government and even corporations might, through checks against their propensity to consolidate power, actually be contributing members of our society?