The Man Versus The State, with Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom
By Herbert Spencer
The Man Versus The State by Herbert Spencer was originally published in 1884 by Williams and Norgate, London and Edinburgh. The book consisted of four articles which had been published in
Contemporary Review for February, April, May, June, and July of 1884. For collection in book form, Spencer added a Preface and a Postscript. In 1892 the book was reissued with the addition of a few notes in reply to criticism of the first edition…. [From the Publisher’s Note]
First Pub. Date
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Foreword by Eric Mack. Introduction by Albert Jay Nock is not available online. Essays published 1843-1891.
Portions of this edited edition are under copyright. Picture of Herbert Spencer courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
- Publishers Note
- Foreword, by Eric Mack
- Introduction, by Alfred Jay Nock
- Authors Preface
- The New Toryism
- The Coming Slavery
- The Sins of Legislators
- The Great Political Superstition
- Essay: The Proper Sphere of Government
- Essay: Over-Legislation
- Essay: Representative Government--What is it Good For
- Essay: The Social Organism
- Essay: Specialized Administration
- Essay: From Freedom to Bondage
FOREWORD by Eric Mack
The Proper Sphere of Government (1842) is the least well-known. The second is Spencer’s most famous systemic treatise in this area,
Social Statics (1851).
The Man Versus The State (1884), which is the centerpiece of this volume, is the third major political work. This is a more polemical and quasi-sociological work than either the first two or Spencer’s fourth major political study, “Justice,” Part IV of
The Principles of Ethics (1891).
The Man Versus The State.
*1 He entered a family of dissenting clergymen and teachers in which a long opposition to State-Church ties and solid identification with the rising commercial classes had bred a strong anti-statist individualism. Both his father, George Spencer, and his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Spencer, were supporters of Church disestablishment, the anti-Corn Law Movement and the extention of the franchise. As autodidacts and teachers, Spencer’s father and uncles looked to the sciences and their practical applications rather than to the classical tradition. Their anti-statist individualism and their scientifically oriented rationalism were passed on to Herbert Spencer. Spencer himself points to the possible Hussite and Hugenot origins of family as a partial explanation of his own individualism and disregard for authority. And he often recounts how his belief in a universe entirely governed by natural causal law grew out of his father’s scientific interests and curiosity about the causes of natural phenomena.
Civil Engineer’s and Architect’s Journal. Only his greater interest in a literary career and, perhaps, the difficulty that this sober and intense young man had in forming warm relations with his colleagues precluded a full-term career in civil engineering. In later years this spectacular growth of the British rail system was continually to serve Spencer as an example of progressive, non-governmental social co-ordination. And just as continually, he used the failure of municipal governments to restrict the noise of trains as an example of the failure of governments to carry out their proper negative functions.
Nonconformist. Reprinted in pamphlet form
The Proper Sphere of Government is in some respects his most radical political essay. Spencer maintains that justice construed as respect for natural rights and not any direct pursuit of the “general good” should be the guide for determining the sphere of governmental action. This standard requires of individuals only that they not engage in positive acts of oppression while it requires that the government act only to intervene against such positively oppressive actions.
The Proper Sphere of Government coincided with Spencer’s only intense and sustained period of practical political involvement. He served as the secretary of the Derby branch of the Complete Suffrage Union and wrote numerous short tracts for this group as well as for the Anti-State-Church Association. The non-remunerative character of his literary activities during this period explains his return to railway engineering in 1845. In 1848, however, Spencer secured a post as a sub-editor of
The Economist. At this time
The Economist was the premier organ for free trade and laissez-faire, and Spencer’s submission of a copy of
The Proper Sphere of Government can hardly have prejudiced his application.
The Economist were spent at essentially non-ideological ordering of news items, but in
Social Statics published during the third year, he deepened and systematized the doctrine of
The Proper Sphere of Government.
Social Statics was devoted to the composition of a number of crucial papers developing Spencer’s Lamarckian-oriented evolutionary perspective and also of a series of important political and sociological essays. Though Spencer’s health and finances continued to be in precarious condition, during this period he entered into friendships with many of England’s most notable intellectual figures, including George Eliot, Thomas Huxley, George Lewes and John Stuart Mill. Spencer’s status as a political heretic during this and succeeding decades should not obscure his broader role as a valued member of the scientific secularist intellectual community. In 1858 Spencer formulated the ambitious outline for his Synthetic Philosophy, on which he was to work, in the face of competing projects and recurring ill-health, for the next thirty-eight years. This scheme included his
First Principles plus multi-volume works in the Principles of Biology, Psychology, Sociology and Ethics. To fund this project Spencer at first sought the income of some undemanding governmental post in the India administration, as a prison governor, as a postal official or even as a member of the consular service. No suitable posts were available; and, instead, Spencer developed a subscription arrangement to finance his great project. Crucial to this arrangement, as it developed, were the American subscriptions gathered by Spencer’s greatest promoter, Edward L. Youmans. When in the mid-sixties this financial construction collapsed due to subscriber’s non-payments and Spencer’s delays in issuing sections of the Synthetic Philosophy, Mill offered to cover Spencer’s immediate losses and to organize a subvention for Spencer’s continued work. Spencer refused this charitable aid. However, when Youmans organized a fund among American admirers which would either be paid to Spencer or revert to his American publishers, Spencer “who detested publishers more than he disliked charity, could not refuse.”
Social Statics which are reprinted here, “Over-Legislation” and “Representative Government,” can easily be read as elaborations upon the doctrine of
Social Statics. We find a thoroughly general attack on the efficacy of governmental action and a faith that progress will bring the demise of superstitious belief in government omnipotence—albeit, this belief will “die hard.” We find a continued expectation that only general suffrage will block class legislation—”only in a general diffusion of political power, is there a safeguard for the general welfare.” But effective voter vigilance is possible only when representative government is confined to enforcing the simple and permanent “principles of equity” and not when that government attempts “the complex business of regulating the entire national life.”
The Man Versus The State as the “finished form” toward which he had been working for forty-two years and as “a positive creed for an advanced party in politics,”
*3 for the most part he was deeply pessimistic about stopping the drift to “Communism.” By the time this work was composed Spencer no longer saw his task to be charting the course of progress which mankind would be following. Rather it was his duty to oppose the process of “re-barbarization.” The essays of
The Man Versus The State are Spencer’s most sustained, brilliant and bitter act of resistance.
Social Statics. Spencer’s angry response was that, in principle, his views had never changed. He continued to believe in the societal ownership of land
and in just compensation to current landholders—at least for the costs of improvements. Since, however, he had come to realize (on the basis of reasoning that can only be classified as suspect) that society could not afford to pay this just compensation and since the current rampant officialism would translate social ownership into socialism, he rejected explicit social reappropriation under the existing circumstances. And further he declared that the whole issue was moot because everyone, including the author of “The Great Political Superstition,” acknowledged Parliament’s ultimate sovereignty over the land. The land question controversy has become one of the test cases for all theories about Spencer’s purported drift to conservatism. Satisfying answers to questions about whether or in what sense there was such a drift and about how such a drift might be explained are crucial to a full understanding of Spencer and are yet to be provided.
*4 Spencer remained clearly and adamantly non-conservative in his opposition to militarism and imperialism. In the early 1880s Spencer returned to active politics in an unsuccessful attempt to build an influential Anti-Aggression League. It was to these futile efforts plus the demands of his American tour in the Summer and Fall of 1882 that Spencer ascribed a further breakdown in his health. Nevertheless, throughout the 1880s and 1890s Spencer attacked and tried to organize public opinion against aggressive British involvement abroad. In “The Sins of Legislators” his greatest ire is directed at those alleged liberal imperialists who, “though they cannot bear to think of the evils accompanying the struggle for existence as it is carried on without violence among individuals in their own society, contemplate with equanimity such evils in their intense and wholesale forms, when inflicted by fire and sword on entire communities.” For Spencer it was the growth of explicit militarism which, through numerous channels, was the underlying cause of the social regression of the last decades of the nineteenth century. As he concludes in “From Freedom to Bondage,” “Everywhere, and at all times, chronic war generates the militant type of structure, not in the body of soldiers only but throughout the community at large.” The vision of a nation which had forfeited its historical opportunity and had thereby defeated Spencer’s youthful hopes and prophesies dominated Spencer’s declining years. The bitterness and the sadness of this vision show through in Spencer’s final acts of resistance—his essays on “Regimentation,” “Re-Barbarization,” and “Imperialism and Slavery” published in 1902. When Herbert Spencer died on December 8, 1903 it was with the conviction that, at least as a political thinker and writer, his life had been in vain.
An Autobiography of Herbert Spencer 2 volumes (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1904); and D. Duncan’s
Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer 2 volumes (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1908). D. Wiltshire’s
The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978) is the most systematic on the topic. It is personally sympathetic, highly informative, but too conventional in its own theoretical perspective and evaluation.
The Principles of Ethics (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1978) ii p. 87. Yet in 1888 Spencer was still attacking conscription as the natural product of militarism and as an unjust imposition on the “working classes.” Duncan, i, pp. 380-391.
The Man Versus the State: The Coming Slavery