Review (1851) of Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics (1851)

[by Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869)]

SOCIAL STATICS; or, the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of them Developed. By HERBERT SPENCER. John Chapman, 142 Strand.

HS-SS.1 There can be no doubt, from the conflicting claims of rules and subjects, of landlords, capitalists, and labourers, and from the many conflicting theories now prevalent of the rights an duties of different classes, that the science of morality is at present in a sad state of confusion. But as astronomy long ago worked itself clear of crystalline heavens and vortices, and as chemistry, at a much later period, shook off the rubbish of alchemy and came forth a clear and beautiful exposition of the natural affinities of bodies; so the turn of social morality is now probably come, when it is destined to emerge from the superstitions of antiquity a series of definite, precise, general, and unswerving rules for human conduct. Just now, that is much wanted and much hoped for; and every one who earnestly, patiently, and with a due sense of its importance, engages in the work of refining and purifying moral knowledge, and in deciding rules for conduct from universally recognised principles of man’s nature, and from the circumstances in which he is placed, performs a meritorious service to the public, and deserves hearty commendation. The author of the present work is no ordinary thinker, and no ordinary writer; and he gives us, in language that sparkles with beauties, and in reasoning at once novel and elaborate, precise and logical, a very comprehensive and complete exposition of the rights of men in society – those rights that now everywhere engage attention, and are almost everywhere, from being ill understood, the occasion of strife, and, in some societies, the causes of very ruinous convulsions.
HS-SS.2 The volume commences by a refutation of the doctrine of expediency, as assumed by Bentham, to be the rule of conduct for individuals and of states; the existence of a moral sense, or a sense as well adapted to impel men to a proper line of conduct towards one another, as appetite is adapted to impel them to the preservation of the body is shown; the truth is made manifest, that humanity is indefinitely variable, and cannot be made the test of a perfect law; but such a perfect law exists, and can be ascertained, and by that, and that alone, can man successfully steer his course. Morality is accordingly defined “the law of the perfect man;” and the book, limited to the discussion and explanation of that law, enters not into the question what should be done when that law has been violated. A system of pure ethics ignores wrong, injustice, and crime. As physiology explains the phenomena of the body, not recognising disease, which belongs to pathology or therapeutics, so morality expounds the principles of moral health; it deals only with the laws of a normal humanity, and cannot recognise a wrong, a depraved, or a disordered condition. When right has been departed from, it gives no directions for returning to it. A system of pure ethics is independent of moral pathology and moral therapeutics, and is alone considered by this writer. All evil – of course including the moral evil resulting from crime – is evanescent, the consequence of non-adaptation of the constitution of man to conditions, and the constitution is continually changing to adapt it to conditions. Civilisation is the adaptation that has already taken place, and progress means the successive steps of the transition. Progress is not an accident, but a necessity; and civilisation is a part of nature, not artificial. Admitting that the greatest happiness of mankind is the creative purpose; to know how to achieve this purpose, we have to determine the essential conditions on which it depends, and submit ourselves to them. The first step, therefore, in all moral inquiries, is to ascertain these necessary conditions. At the head of them stands the social state. This is a necessity; man lives in society, and every individual is a part of it. It is the business of scientific morality to ascertain these conditions and state them, so that life may be made to conform to them. Individual or private morality, as distinguished from social or public morality, is not at present discussed; the one object being to unfold that primary condition to the greatest happiness, the observance of justice, into a system of equity; to mark out those limits put to each man’s sphere of activity by the like spheres of other men; and to delineate the relationships that are necessitated by a recognition of those limits. This is to develop the principles of social statics.
HS-SS.3 In the second part, the author lays down as the first principle of social statics, or as the basis of all justice, that the exercise of man’s faculties is God’s will, and man’s duty. What is his duty, he has a right to the means of performing, and liberty is, therefore, the right of one and all. All being equally bound to exercise their faculties, all must have like freedom, and the freedom of each is only limited or bounded by the similar or equal freedom of all. Every man has by nature freedom to do all what he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man. This great principle is elaborated and confirmed from a variety of sources and by a variety of reasons, and is the main pillar of the whole moral or ethical system of social man. It is combined with very decisive proofs drawn from facts and from reasoning, and it is shown that the expediency scheme – which proceeds on the supposition, that man can do something better than observe this principle and its consequences, or something better than obey the orders of his Creator, or comply with the condition of his existence – is true atheism. Let us quote the passage: –


What does a man really mean by saying of a thing that it is “theoretically just,” or “true in principle,” or “abstractedly right”? Simply that it accords with what he, in some way or other, perceives to be the established arrangements of Divine rule. When he admits that an act is “theoretically just,” he admits it to be that which, in strict duty, should be done. By “true in principle,” he means in harmony with the conduct decreed for us. The course which he calls “abstractedly right,” he believes to be the appointed way to human happiness. There is no escape. The expressions mean this, or they mean nothing. Practically, therefore, when he proposes to disobey, he does so in the hope of improving on this guidance! Though told that such and such are the true roads to happiness, he opines that he knows shorter ones! To the Creator’s silent command – “Do this;” he replies that, all things considered, he thinks he can do better! This is the real Infidelity; the true Atheism: to doubt the foresight and efficiency of the Divine arrangements, and with infinite presumption to suppose a human judgment less fallible! When will man “cease his frantic pretension of scanning this great God’s World in his small fraction of a brain; and know that it has verily, though deep beyond his soundings, a Just Law; that the soul of it is good; – that his part in it is to conform to the Law of the Whole, and in devout silence follow that, not questioning it, obeying it as unquestionable.”
HS-SS.6 All these subjects are discussed in a manner at once novel and masterly. The results may be in a great measure pre-anticipated by the reader from the general principle, of equal rights and equal freedom for all; but the logical manner in which they are wrought out, and the graphic language in which they are clothed, will surprise and please him. The author is one of many who, now discussing these great questions of right by first principles, have come to conclusions that are much at variance with popular belief. We will quote for example a part of what he says about the


Of the innumerable fields of action lying open to an uncontrolled legislature, which shall it occupy? Shall it extend its interference to the fixing of creeds, as in the old times; or to overlooking modes of manufacture, farming operations, and domestic affairs, as it once did; or to commerce, as of late – to education, as now – to public health, as some wish – to dress, as in China – to literature, as in Austria – to charity, to manners, to amusements? If not to all of them, to which of them? Should the perplexed inquirer seek refuge in authority, he will find precedents not only for these but for many more such interferences.
HS-SS.8 Then he gives an amusing selection of instances of profitless interference by law with sale at fairs, with sowing of hemp and flax, with the fitness of factors to execute their work, &c. –
There is this education question: having satisfied the prevalent wish for government schools with tax-paid teachers, and adopted Mr. Ewart’s plan for town-libraries and museums, should we not canvass the supplementary proposal to have national lecturers? and if this proposal is assented to, would it not be well to carry out the scheme of Sir David Brewster, who desires to have “men ordained by the State to the undivided functions of science” – “an intellectual priesthood,” “to develop the glorious truths which time and space embosom”? Then having established “an intellectual priesthood” to keep company with our religious one, a priesthood of physic such as is advocated by certain feeless medical men, and of which we have already the germ in our union doctors, would nicely complete the trio. And when it had been agreed to put the sick under the care of public officials, consistency would of course demand the adoption of Mr. G. A. Walker’s system of government funerals, under which “those in authority” are “to take especial care” that “the poorest of our brethren” shall have “an appropriate and solemn transmission” to the grave, and are to grant in certain cases “gratuitous means of interment.” Having carried out thus far the communist plan of doing everything for everybody, should we not consider the people’s amusements, and, taking example from the opera-subsidy in France, establish public ball-rooms, and gratis concerts, and cheap theatres, with state-paid actors, musicians and masters of the ceremonies; using care at the same time duly to regulate the popular taste, as indeed in the case of the Art-Union subscribers our present Government proposed to do?
HS-SS.10 After giving more such instances, he says: –
Multiply these questions into a volume full; add to them the endless subordinate ones to which in practice they must give rise; and some idea may be formed of the maze through which the expediency-philosopher has to find his way. Where now is his clue? Again comes the inquiry – how does he propose to determine between what should be attempted and what should not? which is his definition? If he would escape the charge of political empiricism, he must show us some scientific test by which he can in each case determine whether or not state-superintendence is desirable. Between the one extreme of entire non-interference, and the other extreme in which every citizen is to be transformed into a grown-up baby, “with bib and pap-spoon,” there lie innumerable stopping places; and he who would have the state do more than protect is required to say where he means to draw the line, and to give us substantial reasons why it must be just there and nowhere else.
After the difficulty of finding out the thing to be done, there comes the other difficulty of finding out the way to do it. Let us excuse the expediency-philosopher one half of his task – let us for the occasion assume something to be unanimously agreed to as a proper undertaking; and now suppose we enquire of him – How about your means of accomplishing it? Are you quite sure they will answer? Are you quite sure that your apparatus will not break down under its work? quite sure that it will produce the result you wish? quite sure that it will not produce some very different result? quite sure that you will not get into one of those imbroglios that so many have lost themselves in? There is no lack of warnings.
HS-SS.13 After many specimens of failure, he says toward the conclusion of the chapter: –
Always towards perfection is the mighty movement – towards a complete development and a more unmixed good; subordinating in its universality all petty irregularities and fallings back, as the curvature of the earth subordinates mountains and valleys. Even in evils, the student learns to recognise only a struggling beneficence. But, above all, he is struck with the inherent sufficingness of things, and with the complex simplicity of those principles by which every defect is being remedied – principles that show themselves alike in the self-adjustment of planetary perturbations, and in the healing of a scratched finger – in the balancing of social systems, and in the increased sensitiveness of a blind man’s ear – in the adaptation of prices to produce, and in the acclimatization of a plant. Day by day he sees a further beauty. Each new fact illustrates more clearly some recognised law, or discloses some inconceived completeness: contemplation thus perpetually discovering to him a higher harmony, and cherishing in him a deeper faith.
And now, in the midst of his admiration and his awe, the student shall suddenly see some flippant red-tapist get upon his legs and tell the world how he is going to put a patch upon nature! Here is a man who, in the presence of all the wonders that encompass him, dares to announce that he and certain of his colleagues have laid their heads together and found out a way to improve upon the Divine arrangements! Scarcely an idea have these meddlers got of what underlies the facts with which they propose to deal; as you shall soon find on sounding their philosophy: and yet, could they carry out their pretensions, we should see them self-appointed nurses to the universe! They have so little faith in the laws of things, and so much faith in themselves, that, were it possible, they would chain earth and sun together, lest centripetal force should fail! Nothing but a parliament-made agency can be depended upon; and only when this infinitely-complex humanity of ours has been put under their ingenious regulations, and provided for by their supreme intelligence, will the world become what it ought to be! Such, in essence, is the astounding creed of these creation-menders.
Consider it then in what light we may – morally or scientifically, with reference to its practicableness, or as a question of political prudence, or even in its bearings upon religious faith – we find this theory, that a government ought to undertake other offices besides that of protector, to be an untenable theory.
HS-SS.17 We would willingly quote much of what he says of national education as very appropriate to some modern schemes, not yet embodied into legislation, but must content ourselves with taking one graphic passage, and must then unwillingly close the book: –
Did the reader ever watch a boy in the first heat of a gardening fit? The sight is an amusing, and not uninstructive one. Probably a slice of a border – some couple of square yards or so – has been made over to him for his exclusive use. No small accession of dignity, and not a little pride of proprietorship, does he exhibit. So long as the enthusiasm lasts, he never tires of contemplating his territory; and every companion, and every visitor with whom the liberty can be taken, is pretty sure to be met with the request – “Come and see my garden.” Note chiefly, however, with what anxiety the growth of a few scrubby plants is regarded. Three or four times a day will the little urchin rush out to look at them. How provokingly slow their progress seems to him. Each morning on getting up he hopes to find some marked change; and lo, everything appears just as it did the day before. When will the blossoms come out! For nearly a week has some forward bud been promising him the triumph of a first flower, and still it remains closed. Surely there must be something wrong! Perhaps the leaves have stuck fast. Ah! that is the reason, no doubt. And so ten to one you shall some day catch our young florist very busily engaged in pulling open the calyx, and, it may be, trying to unfold a few of the petals.
Somewhat like this childish impatience is the feeling exhibited by not a few state-educationists. Both they and their type show a lack of faith in natural forces – almost an ignorance that there are such forces. In both there is the same dissatisfaction with the ordained rate of progress. And by both, artificial means are used to remedy what are conceived to be nature’s failures. Within these few years men have all at once been awakened to the importance of instructing the people. That to which they were awhile since indifferent or even hostile has suddenly become an object of enthusiasm. With all the ardour of recent converts – with all a novice’s inordinate expectations – with all the eagerness of a lately-aroused desire – do they await the hoped- for result; and, with the unreasonableness ever attendant upon such a state of mind, are dissatisfied, because the progress from general ignorance to universal enlightenment has not been completed in a generation. One would have thought it sufficiently clear to everybody that the great changes taking place in this world of ours are uniformly slow. Continents are upheaved at the rate of a foot or two in a century. The deposition of a delta is the work of tens of thousands of years. The transformation of barren rock into life-supporring [Online editor’s note: sic, for “life-supporting.” – RTL.] soil takes countless ages. If any think society advances under a different law, let them read. Has it not required the whole Christian era to abolish slavery in Europe? as far at least as it is abolished. Did not a hundred generations live and die while picture-writing grew into printing? Have not science and commerce and mechanical skill increased at a similarly tardy pace? Yet are men disappointed that a pitiful fifty years has not sufficed for thorough popular enlightenment! Although within this period an advance has been made far beyond what the calm thinker would have expected – far beyond what the past rate of progress in human affairs seemed to prophesy – yet do these so impatient people summarily condemn the voluntary system as a failure! A natural process – a process spontaneously set up – a process of self-unfolding which the national mind had commenced, is pooh-poohed because it has not wrought a total transformation in the course of what constitutes but a day in the life of humanity! And then, to make up for nature’s incompetency, the unfolding must be hastened by legislative fingerings!
HS-SS.20 For a book embracing so many subjects, there are very few conclusions or remarks to which we are disposed to object. We must, however, say that the author’s chapter on the “Right to the Use of the Earth” is by no means satisfactory. His conclusion is, that “equity does not permit property in land.” “Each person (he states) is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants, provided he allows all others the same liberty.” “If one portion of the earth’s surface,” he argues, “may justly become the possession of an individual, and may be held by him for his sole use and benefit as a thing to which he has an exclusive right, then other portions of the earth’s surface may be so held, and eventually the whole of the earth’s surface may be so held, and our planet may thus lapse altogether into private hands. Observe now, the dilemma to which this leads. Suppose the entire habitable globe to be so enclosed, it follows that if the landowners have a valid right to its surface, all who are not landowners have no right at all to its surface. Hence, such can exist on the earth by sufferance only.” The author obviously implies that the free use of the earth by each man is necessary to supply his wants, supposing apparently that no individual can live without using the earth to gain the means of subsistence. But fishermen obtain subsistence from the sea; and of what use is possession of the land to seamen, locomotive carriage drivers, and waggoners? The right of individuals is not each to use the land, according to the author’s own doctrines, but each to use his own faculties; and if in the progress of society great numbers of persons can subsist without using the land to satisfy their wants – if experience has taught us that a much greater number of human beings can subsist and have their wants satisfied by the land becoming property than otherwise – if it be also a fact that more faculties are called into play, such as those of the men engaged in all the trades not connected with the land, then it follows, on the author’s own principles, that the land should be appropriated, in order to promote the exercise of faculties and engender the greatest happiness. In fact, which appears to us an inconsequence rather extraordinary in so logical a writer, he claims the land for the public, gives it into the joint-stock ownership of communities, and makes it a monopoly by nations. If we do not misunderstand him, he would constitute the English and French nations owners of England and France, but he would not allow any single Englishman or Frenchman to own a single acre of either. But societies have no other rights than the aggregates of the rights of individuals, and if no individual, Englishman or Frenchman, have a right to a single foot of the soil of England or France, the English and French nations can have no such rights. We are afraid that the author is led, by just indignation at the abuse of the right of property in land which has taken place throughout Europe, to conclude erroneously against the use of such a right. He is unnecessarily alarmed, too, at his own logic. All rights exist only by sufferance; that is, other men tolerate them. The law itself, particularly every old law, exists by the sufferance or permission of the living generation. The landlord owns the earth only because other men permit him, and they permit him because they believe that the possession of the land in property is for the benefit of all. Such a belief is not erroneous, and where the land is held in strictest property, as in England or Belgium, more human beings exist, more faculties are exercised, more happiness prevails, the will of God is more effectually complied with, than in the prairies and hills of America, where the Indian yet roams in search of game, and the hunting grounds are not individual property, but the property of the tribe or the nation. The author’s mistake may in part arise from his confounding the free use of the faculties of each individual with the free use of the soil.
HS-SS.21 There is another and a more important objection to his views. His plan of giving the land to the public, and making those who cultivate it pay for its use, would be in fact to take away from the cultivators a part of the produce of their labour – for it is an error to suppose the land produces anything – and would be to bestow that on other men, alias the public. It would be a violation of property, and a terrible check to industry. Some attachment, perhaps, to yet lingering prejudices derived from landlordism, may lead the writer in this instance into error. He adopts, we believe unconsciously, the notion that the rent now paid for land is the representation of, and is equivalent to, the value of its produce, instead of being, as it now actually is, the representative of, and equivalent to, the capital invested in the land by successive generations, combined with an unjust conquest of its original owners. All the land of England has been bought over and over again. Land, we repeat, produces nothing to satisfy human wants more than the ocean and the air. In general it must be cleared before it can be used. What is usually called the produce of land, is the produce of labour applied to the land; and to take away the produce of individual labour applied to the land, or any part of it, and give it to the public, is a violation of the right of property in labour and in its products.
HS-SS.22 We are far too well pleased with the book to cavil at trifles, but this great divergence from a principle that has received the sanction of all men in all ages, obviously caused by departing from the subject matter of his treatise – man and man in his moral relations – to treat of the soil and the mode of partitioning it, which must vary with population, we could not pass by without expressing our dissent. On other points of difference we shall be silent. The book is calculated to give an impulse to thought, and to interest the public mind on subjects of the very highest importance, and the most abstract nature. It is distinguished by good feeling and close reasoning, and will mark an epoch in the literature of scientific morality.

The Economist, vol. IX, no. 389 (8 February 1851), pp. 149-151.

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