Herbert Spencer, the misunderstood libertarian
By Alberto Mingardi
On our sister website, the Library of Law and Liberty, I have a review of “Herbert Spencer. Legacies”, a new collection of essays on Spencer. By the way, I’m most pleased with the title the editors used for the piece: “The Most Misunderstood Libertarian”, I think it fits Spencer well.
The reviewed book is edited by Mark Francis and Michael W. Taylor, two important contemporary Spencer scholars, and counts on several distinguished contributions.
I think it is an interesting work that evidences the growth in Spencer scholarship in recent years. I would like to take issue with just one point.
I’ve recently been translating into Italian Spencer’s “The Man vs the State“. By the way, this would be the third Italian translation. The book was translated twice: first in 1888, when the author was an intellectual celebrity in Italy, too, and then in the 1990s, in what turned out to be a semi-clandestine publication.
Translating is a great exercise, since it forces you to really immerse yourself in a book. I think “Man vs the State” cannot be dismissed as a “popular work.” It was popular in the sense that it was successful: that happens, sometimes, even to a classical liberal scholar. But it is a profound book. In a way, in this work Spencer is anticipating some of the challenges classical liberals will need to meet in the following century. Socialism, surely, but also democracy. Some issues that will become popular in the literature of public choice are clearly there. And so is the concern for the fatal conceits of planners, now most typically associated with F.A. Hayek.
I don’t propose to read Spencer as a prophet. But indeed, some of his prophesizing in “The Man vs the State” turned out to be rather accurate. Classical liberals should be more interested in Spencer, not least for this reason.