The most extreme reflection of nineteenth-century individualism is to be found in the encyclopedic system of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Both his paternal and maternal ancestors were of a long English and French nonconformists, dissenters and rebels, and Spencer traces in his “Autobiography” his “conspicuous disregard” of political, religious, and social authority to the tradition of independence and dissent so long cherished by his family. Spencers education was informal, unconventional, and highly deficient in the more traditional studies of literature and history. His father encouraged his interest in the science and tecnology, and Spencer became an engineer. However, he practiced his profession for a few years, because he became increasingly interested in political economy, sociology, biology, and philosophy. He was a subeditor of The economist from 1848 to 1853, and then ventured into a full-time career as a free-lance author.
As early as 1842 Spencer contributed to the Nonconformist a series of letters called The Proper Sphere of Government, his first major publication. It contains his political philosophy of extreme individualism and Laissez Faire, which was not much modified in his writings in the following sixty years. Spencer expresses in The Proper Sphere of Government his belief that “everything in nature has its laws,” organic as well as inorganic matter. Man is subject to laws bot in his physical and spiritual essence, and “as with man individually, so with man socially.” Concerning the evils of society, Spencer postulates a “self-adjusting principle” under which evils rectify themselves, provided that no one interferes with the inherent law of society.
In discussing the functions of the state, Spencer is concerned with what the state should not do, rather than what it should do. Maintenance of order and administration of justice are the only two proper realms of government activity, and their purpose is “simply to defend the natural rights of man to protect person and property.” The state has no business to promote religion, regulate trade and commerce, encourage colonization, aid the poor, or enforce sanitary laws. Spencer went even so far as to deny the state the right to wage war; but as he says in his Autobiography, his “youthful enthusiasm of two-and twenty” had carried him too far in this respect.
Viewing the nature of the state in evolutionary terms, Spencer is little interested in forms of government, such as the traditional distinctions of monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies. The two main forms of the state and society, according to Spencer, are the military state and the industrial state. The military state is the early form of social organization, primitive, barbarian, and geared to permanent readiness for war. The individual is no more than a means to an end set by the state: victory in war. Society is firmly organized, and every individual occupies the place assigned to him by the exigencies of militarism and authoritarian government. Status is the characteristic principle of the military society, and there is little mobility between classes and groups. Spencer defines the military state as one in which the army is the nation mobilized while the nation is the quiescent army.
Showing unusual foresight long before total war was a reality, Spencer understood the impact of war on society as a whole, although his analysis of the military state refers to an early stage of society, it anticipates with remarkable accuracy the developments of the twentieth century. In the military state, Spencer says, the military chief is likely to be the political leader, and the economic activities of the industrial classes are oriented to the military needs of the state. There is massive corporation in a military state, but it is enforced and involuntary. Because the security of the state is the primary objective of all public actions.
As the military state expands its territory and achieves stability over a long period of time, it gradually evolves into the industrial type of state and society. The way of life in the industrial state and society is based on voluntary cooperation, and the tendency is toward gradual elimination of elimination of coercion in all forms. Diversity, variety, and nonconformity characterize the industrial society with its emphasis on the value of the individual as the supreme end of government. The purpose of the industrial society is to assure the maximum liberty and happiness of its members, whereas the purpose of the military society is to increase its power by “rigid regimentation at home and imperialists conquest abroad.” In relation with other nations, the industrial society is pacific, eager to exchange the products of labor rather than to acquire wealth by force. As Spencer explains the members of the industrial society are therefore antimilitarist, anti-imperialist, cosmopolitan, and humanitarian. Free trade within and between nations is the formula of the industrial society, whereas economic nationalism is the ideal of the military state.
In 1884 Spencer published four essays in the Contemporary Review, which were assembled in a book under the title, The Man Versus the State. It is his most famous work on politics and it is still the most influential statement of the Laissez Faire.
In the first essay, “The New Tories,” Spencer attacks the English Liberals for abandoning their historical individualism in favor of social reform and the welfare state. According to Spencer, English Conservatives, like any conservative party, are the historical descendants of the principles of the military state, whereas the English Liberals, like liberals generally are the descendants of the industrial society. Moreover, Spencer also noticed that economic individualism, abandoned by Liberals, was more and more adopted by Conservatives, so that the roles of both parties came to be the opposite of what they had originally been. Therefore, the English Conservative would become the party of economic individualism and free enterprise, whereas the Liberals would accept public control of the economy.
The second essay is “The Coming Slavery.” In it, Spencer refocus on the necessity that the laws of the society must not be interfered with the beneficent process of the survival of the fittest, and that interference with natural selection lowers the standards of society as a whole. Spencer stresses “on the official regulations to increase in a geometrical ratio to the power of resistance of the regulated citizens.” People get more and more accustomed to the idea that the state will take care of them, and therefore, they lose the spirit of initiative and enterprise. Spencer predicted that social-welfare programs would lead to socialization of the means of production, and “all socialism is slavery.” Spencer defines a slave as a person who “labors under coercion to satisfy anothers desires.” Under socialism or communism the individual would be enslaved to the whole community rather than to a single master.
In his third essay, “The Sins of Legislators,” Spencer rejects the spread of government activity in social and economic areas. Progress is the result of the desire to increase personal welfare, and not the product of governmental regulation: “It is not the state that owe the multitudinous useful inventions from the spade to the telephone; it was not the state which made the discoveries in physics, chemistry, and the rest, which guide modern manufactures; 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.”
Spencer charges legislators with confusing “family ethics” with “state ethics.” In the family, benefits received have little or no relation to merit. In the state, the ruling principle ought to be justice; therefore the relation between benefits and merits should be proportional. Spencer explains that the intrusion of family ethics into state ethics is a dangerous interference with the laws of nature and society, and slowly followed by fatal results.
The last essay is “the Great Political Superstition.” In which Spencer says that the great political superstition of the past, was the divine right of kings. Whereas, in the present it is the divine right of parliaments. He attacks the doctrine of sovereignty as propounded by Hobbes and rejects the claim of “popular majorities for unlimited authority as being inconsistent with the inalienable rights of the individual.” Spencer concludes his book with the final reminder that government is not a divine institution but a committee of management, and that it has no intrinsic authority beyond the ethical sanction bestowed on it by the free consent of the citizens: ” The function of Liberalism in the past was that of putting a limit to the powers of the king. The functions of true Liberalism in the future will be that of putting a limit to the powers of parliaments.”
Spencers political ideas hardly changed between 1842, when he published his Proper Sphere of Government, and 1903, the year of his death. The constancy of his political thought in the face of rapidly changing social and economic scene explains why the same ideas that were the last word in radical individualism in the eighteen-forties had become the orthodox conservatism by 1900. And Spencers appeal to the English Liberals to return to their original individualism remained unheard, but he correctly foresaw that Conservatives would become the defenders of economic individualism. Spencer failed to see that the issue of the state intervention in the economy was essentially one of means and not of objectives, and that Laissez Faire could be progressive, dynamic, and revolutionary at one time early 19 century-, and conservative, stagnant, and sterile at another time late 19 century-.