“My freedom ends where yours begins” is the sort of truism most people happily relate to, when discussing politics and whatever idea of liberty they hold. It is based upon “the consciousness of limits which the presence of other men having like claims necessitates” (The Principles of Ethics,1 II, §267). Such consciousness brought Herbert Spencer to come up with his law of equal freedom: “Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man” (II, §272).

If for most today the idea of “equal” liberty is just cheap talk, for Spencer it was a central requirement for continuing to grasp the benefits of human cooperation which can be kept “only by conformity to certain requirements which association imposes” (II, §259).

Justice is thus “the ethics of social life.” Spencer maintains that it builds both on inequality and equality—and that the greatest mistake of other definitions of justice lies in going with one of these at the expense of the other.

The “inequalitarian” argument is founded in the law of conduct and consequence. This law is “expressed in the principle that each individual ought to receive the good and evil which arises from its own nature” and it is for Spencer “the primary law holding of all creatures.” Therefore “each shall receive the benefits and evils due to his own nature and consequent conduct.” As “men differ in their powers, there must be differences in the results of their conduct. Unequal amounts of benefit are implied.” It is important to note that this is not only about rewards. True, people (including businessmen) are entitled to the fruits of their toil. Yet they should also pay the price in the case of ill-considered choices: it is the latter concept that reinforces the first.

The “egalitarian” argument comes up with the law of equal freedom. The label “equal freedom” is suggestive, but today it can produce some confusion. Spencer did not aim to equalise the concrete conditions in which men and women lived, nor what they could actually make with their freedom. The equality he speaks of is that of mutual limitations. In a sense, it is equality of coercion, not of freedom: each of us need to be similarly bounded, so that quarrels and controversies do not unnecessarily multiply in that complex endeavour which is living together.

Here comes an idea of the free society as a space in which inequalities are indeed justified, but tempered by the principle of equal treatment under the law. In other words, inequalities are justified insofar as they are the result of voluntary interactions, and not of privileges distributed by someone at the expense of somebody else.

Other theories of justice are criticised by Spencer for not taking both elements into account. In particular, ancient views of justice overemphasise the inequality element, consistent with the context in which they were framed. Anachronism is, for Spencer, one of humanity’s most insidious enemies. We can do great damage by applying ideas that were conceived in simple societies based on a small scale division of labour and strict hierarchies to a world with a complex division of labour system. Likewise, a family can’t be ruled by the law of conduct and consequence. Younger members are at the same time disproportionately benefited and shielded from their own mistakes. But applying the ethics of the family to the government of a country would jeopardise it.

“In a world like ours, where ‘complexity’ is such a popular word, Spencer can be read as a cautionary tale: Be aware that complexity is fragile.”

Many a critic has seen this as proof of Spencer’s dreary “social Darwinism,” making him the caricature of a thinker who shows how cold blooded and deaf to need and distress classical liberalism may be. (Matt Zwolinski has elegantly opposed this view2). To realise why the ethics of the family ought not to be applied to a bigger group, one must indeed simply realise that a country is not a family. Assuming that government can be a discretionary caretaker in the same way that parents are means hypothesizing that it can distribute rewards and punishments with full knowledge of the consequences they will produce. This is not the case. The more complex the society, the more ubiquitous and surprising unintended consequences may be. In a world like ours, where “complexity” is such a popular word, Spencer can be read as a cautionary tale: Be aware that complexity is fragile.

Such a cautionary tale is consistent with the vaster, perhaps too vast, panoramic theory in which all of Spencer’s contributions are framed. He was a system-builder, engaged in a lifelong attempt to develop a “synthetic philosophy,” an all-encompassing theory which dealt with biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics. He thought he identified a pattern to trace how societies evolve. They move, Spencer argued, from the simple to the complex, from the undifferentiated to the specialized, from self-sufficient to interconnected. So ambitious a thinker aroused the enthusiasm of his contemporaries but, perhaps for the very same reasons, was less fortunate with posterity.

The Principles of Ethics is Spencer’s definitive work in this field. Its fourth part, “Justice,” is by and large a reworking of Social Statics (1850), where Spencer first came up with his “law of equal freedom.”

In his lifetime, Spencer produced four major works in political philosophy: The Proper Sphere of Government (1842), Social Statics (1850), The Man Versus the State (1884) and “Justice,” the fourth part of his Principles of Ethics (1891). The first was based upon the letters the young Spencer sent to The Nonconformist, where he sketched the contours of a Lockean liberalism [see John Locke.] Social Statics was a more ambitious attempt. The book was intended as a correction of utilitarian philosophy and as a restatement of the principles of classical liberalism in a tradition that was based on “moral sense.” These days, that work is best remembered for two chapters that Spencer grew dissatisfied with: one devoted to the issue of land and the other speaking of “the right to ignore the state.”

Both The Man Versus the State and “Justice” have been considered by some as awkward attempts by Spencer to recast his own ideas in a more conservative fashion. This was Henry George’s opinion, as he accused Spencer of joining the ranks of the great and powerful, thereby making his own philosophy more palatable to them.

In his Autobiography, Spencer explains that

  • In my first work, Social Statics, it was contended that alienation of the land from the people at large is inequitable; and that there should be a restoration of it to the state, or incorporated community, after making due compensation for existing landowners. In later years concluded that a resumption on such terms would be a losing transaction, and that individual ownership under State-suzerainty ought to continue (Autobiography, II, §459)

At the same time he himself acknowledged that there may be a “comparative conservatism of old age” (Autobiography, II, §463). “In what appeared wholly evil there are discovered elements of good below the surface; and what once seemed useless or superfluous is discovered to be in some way beneficial, if not essential.”

As his perspective matured, Spencer attributed changes to “wider observation and longer thought” (Autobiography, II, §464). He claimed he better understood that “institutions of every kind must be regarded as relative to the character of citizens and the conditions under which they exist; and the feelings enlisted on behalf of such institutions must be judged, not by their absolute fitness but by their relative fitness” (Autobiography, II, §465).

In the realm of human affairs, evolution takes place between two poles that are ideal types: “militant societies” and “industrial societies.” The first are hierarchies where social cooperation is compulsorily enforced. They are societies of “status,” in the sense that there is no social mobility and the scope of contractual, voluntarily relationships is limited. The second are the opposite: societies of cooperation, where social arrangements are shaped through contracts and agreements. “Absolute” ethics, for Spencer, belong to this latter, happily evolved realm. “Relative” ethics is adjusted for real-world societies, which are necessarily a mixture of the two ideal types.

While Spencer hoped to be providing us with a “natural history of societies,” and recognised the role of militancy, war, and subordination to strict hierarchies in producing cooperation on a vaster scale, he sympathised with industrial societies, where free institution grew and advanced.

Although he made them fit in a wider system, some of Spencer’s core ideas have a longer history in classical liberalism. “Militant” and “industrial” societies came under many a name before. They remind us of the freedom of the ancients and the freedom of the moderns, though Spencer had little nostalgia for the first.

Spencer’s thought is imbued with economic thinking, as his readers can easily detect. Incentives play a large role in it and, indeed, Spencerian evolution is in many ways a growth and expansion of the division of labour. In a sense, “industrial” societies may be characterised by the prominent role played by economic means, versus “militant” societies which can be seen as places where most social goals are accomplished by political means.

Yet Spencer sees the evolution towards industrial societies also a process of civilising and perfecting human sentiments. He despised nothing more than imperialism, the idea of subjugating and imposing a country’s command over others. He thought his own system brought together “sternness with kindness” and regretted that “thus far attention has been drawn almost wholly to the sternness.” This is perhaps inevitable, particularly for contemporary readers. Spencer’s own lexicon, beginning with the quintessential Victorian distinction between deserving and undeserving poor, is difficult to digest. He was not blind to the evils of poverty. He said Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell “tortured his feelings,” and yet he considered it “a very instructive book” that everybody should read (Autobiography, I, 350). He understood the feelings of those who aim to alleviate the evils of need, and saw that such people could flourish only in a reasonably industrial society, as they would have been swept away under a militant regime.

Particularly disturbing may be Spencer’s never being pleased with good intentions per se. He writes for example, that

    while the duty of caring for the injured is commonly recognized, as demanded even by the most ordinary beneficence, there is an ancillary duty which has only of late gained partial recognition—the duty of acquiring such knowledge and skill as shall make efficient the efforts to aid. Up to our own days, and even still in ninety-nine people out of a hundred, the wish to help the wounded or maimed is unaccompanied by instructed ability—nay, worse, is accompanied by an ignorance which leads to mischievous interferences. The anxiety to do something ends in doing harm; for there is commonly no adequate consciousness of the truth that there are many ways of going wrong to one way of going right. (II, §443).

This is true not only of the well-intentioned Samaritan, but of government itself. This is a lesson that is seldom learned. Calls for interventionism always build on good intentions and emphasise the intended results. They very rarely assess their results, nor consider that collateral damages may be produced even by the most well meaning of planners.

See “An Unavoidable Theory of the State,” by Pierre Lemieux. Library of Economics and Liberty, June 4, 2018.

To those preaching bigger and bigger government, Spencer opposes a catalog of individual rights—though he is fully aware of how malleable the very word “right” proved to be (in our times even more so, as the late Anthony de Jasay never grew tired of pointing out).

Both in Social Statics and in the Principles of Ethics, Spencer derived as corollaries from the law of equal freedom those rights that make for a free society—from free speech to free exchange and contract. Not differently than in our world, where “rights” are from time to time multiplied by political fiat, Spencer saw “rights” as a confusing word, which he tried to free from the reigning confusion. He maintained that “rights are but so many separate parts of a man’s general freedom to pursue the objects of life.” They indeed are specifications of the law of equal liberty, not products of political will.

It is the backdrop against which Spencer argued that “political rights,” the right to vote included, are not rights at all. “Those shares of political power which in the more advanced nations citizens have come to possess, and which experience has shown to be good guaranties for the maintenance of life, liberty and property, are spoken of as though the claims to them were of the same nature as the claims to life, liberty and property themselves. Yet there is no kinship between the two.” Spencer is not oblivious to the fact that a certain degree of political participation, in modern nations, went hand in hand with institutional arrangements closer to limited government than others. But such ability to take part in a country’s politics was not “freedom” per se: at best, the franchise “gives the citizens powers of checking trespasses upon their rights” (II, §343). But this is not necessarily the case. There are “extreme cases” in which “men use their so-called political rights to surrender their power of preserving their rights properly so called,” like when free elections open the door to autocracy (Spencer quotes Napoleon III, since the most appalling examples were yet to come), but also milder problems, with democratically ruled states growing their control over individuals’ lives. Thus, “the so-called political rights may be used for the maintenance of liberties, they may fail to be so used, and may even be used for the establishment of tyrannies.” In The Man Versus the State, the pamphlet Spencer is most remembered for, he deals at length with the dangers democracy can produce to liberty: especially insofar as liberalism becomes an ideology of democracy, that is: insofar as any collective choice is considered legitimate simply because it originated in the will of lawful majority.

In the Principles, he has some memorable pages on the matter too, which read prophetic in the world we live in. Dissociating benefits and contributions in the public sphere, he reasons, tend to be a bad idea. If people have the perception government is free—and that is typically the case, in our times, for all who do not pay income taxes—they would naturally demand more.

    Had each citizen to pay in a visible and tangible form his proportion of taxes, the sum would be so large that all would insist on economy in the performance of necessary functions and would resist the assumption of unnecessary functions; whereas at present, offered as each citizen is certain benefits for which he is unconscious of paying, he is tempted to approve of extravagance; and is prompted to take the course, unknowingly if not knowingly dishonest, of obtaining benefits at other men’s expense. (II, §354).
For more on the topics discussed in this article, see Ethics and Economics, by Stephen Hicks, and Unintended Consequences, by Rob Norton, in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

Spencer did not mince words when he said that not only “taxation without representation is robbery” but the “representation without taxation entails robbery” too. When thinking of liberal giants critical of democracy people tend to think either of John Stuart Mill or Alexis de Tocqueville. The problem of the tyranny of majority was clear to many. But Spencer’s evolutionism adds a sophisticated understanding of what we would call today social psychology.

People always tend to search for visible causes, and visible fixes, for whatever social problems emerge. Not a small part of Spencer’s lifetime work was emphasising that this is often not the case, that often institutions are positive externalities nobody designed and that society’s organism is not planned or designed.

Both the average legislator and the average citizen

    has no faith whatever in the beneficent working of social forces, notwithstanding the almost infinite illustrations of this beneficent working. He persists in thinking of a society as a manufacture and not as a growth: blind to the fact that the vast and complex organization by which its life is carried on, has resulted from the spontaneous cooperations of men pursuing their private ends. Though, when he asks how the surface of the earth has been cleared and made fertile, how towns have grown up, how manufactures of all kinds have arisen, how the arts have been developed, how knowledge has been accumulated, how literature has been produced, he is forced to recognize the fact that none of these are of governmental origin, but have many of them suffered from governmental obstruction; yet, ignoring all this, he assumes that if a good is to be achieved or an evil prevented, Parliament must be invoked. He has unlimited faith in the agency which has achieved multitudinous failures, and has no faith in the agency which has achieved multitudinous successes. (II, §378)

Were he with us today, no doubt Spencer would be astonished by the extent of economic and social progress, including the growing acceptance of once eccentric individual behaviour. But he would also despair at how political reasoning is still attuned to older and smaller societies and at how we continue to search for magic fixes for social evils, no matter how scientifically sophisticated we have become.


[1] Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics. Liberty Fund Books.

[2] Matt Zwolinski, “Social Darwinism and Social Justice: Herbert Spencer on Our Duties to the Poor”. In Distributive Justice Debates in Social and Political Thought: Perspectives on Finding A Fair Share. Camilla Boisen and Matthew Murray, eds., (Routledge, 2015).

*Alberto Mingardi is Director General of the Italian free-market think tank, Istituto Bruno Leoni. He is also assistant professor of the history of political thought at IULM University in Milan and a Presidential Scholar in Political Theory at Chapman University. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Cato Institute. He blogs at EconLog.