Was Herbert Spencer Reincarnated as Julian Simon?
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve come across an essay by Herbert Spencer that is eerily reminiscent of the work of the late great Julian Simon. Writing in the late 19th-century, Spencer proposes the following relationship between objective conditions and public opinion: “[T]he more things improve the louder become the exclamations about their badness.”
When life was poor, nasty, solitary, brutish, and short, no one wrote essays complaining about it. They just accepted barbarism as a fact of life. In the modern world, where we see progress all around us, complaining never stops (not even now – see, I’m complaining!). That’s what Simon said in the 20th-century, and given the great strides humanity made in the 19th, perhaps I should not be so surprised that Spencer said the same.
In days when the people were without any political power, their subjection was rarely complained of; but after free institutions had so far advanced in England that our political arrangements were envied by continental peoples, the denunciations of aristocratic rule grew gradually stronger, until there came a great widening of the franchise, soon followed by complaints that things were going wrong for want of still further widening.
2. Women’s rights.
If we trace up the treatment of women from the days of savagedom, when they bore all the burdens and after the men had eaten received such food as remained… to our own day when throughout our social arrangements the claims of women are always put first, we see that along with the worst treatment there went the least apparent consciousness that the treatment was bad; while now that they are better treated than ever before, the proclaiming of their grievances daily strengthens: the loudest outcries coming from ‘the paradise of women,’ America.
A century ago, when scarcely a man could be found who was not occasionally intoxicated, and when inability to take one or two bottles of wine brought contempt, no agitation arose against the vice of drunkenness; but now that, in the course of fifty years, the voluntary efforts of temperance societies, joined with more general causes, have produced comparative sobriety, there are vociferous demands for laws to prevent the ruinous effects of the liquor traffic.
A few generations back, ability to read and write was practically limited to the upper and middle classes, and the suggestion that the rudiments of culture should be given to labourers was never made, or, if made, ridiculed; but when, in the days of our grandfathers, the Sunday-school system, initiated by a few philanthropists, began to spread and was followed by the establishment of day-schools, with the result that among the masses those who could read and write were no longer the exceptions… there began the cry that the people were perishing for lack of knowledge, and that the State must not simply educate them but must force education upon them.
5. And of course, poverty.
Any one who can look back sixty years, when the amount of pauperism was far greater than now and beggars abundant, is struck by the comparative size and finish of the new houses occupied by operatives…Yet while elevation, mental and physical, of the masses is going on far more rapidly than ever before—while the lowering of the death-rate proves that the average life is less trying, there swells louder and louder the cry that the evils are so great that nothing short of a social revolution can cure them.
Spencer also adds a classic Simonian observation: Just because conditions are still less than perfect does not mean that they have not greatly improved.
Let no one suppose that, by emphasizing the above paradox, I wish to make light of the sufferings which most men have to bear. The fates of the great majority have ever been, and doubtless still are, so sad that it is painful to think of them… But it is not a question of absolute evils; it is a question of relative evils—whether the evils at present suffered are or are not less than the evils which would be suffered under another system—whether efforts for mitigation along the lines thus far followed are not more likely to succeed than efforts along utterly different lines.
One of my great regrets is that I never met Julian Simon, though he lived perhaps an hour away from me. Reading Spencer makes me realize that you really can miss a man you never met (especially if you’ve read his poignant autobiography). But it also makes me hopeful that the Julian Simon of the 21st century is out there… somewhere.
Afterward: For more discussion of Spencer’s law, see Steven Davies’ excellent essay. For a few more voices exploring the disconnect between objective progress and subjective pessimism, check out works by Easterbrook and Whitman.