Roderick T. Long  BUY MY BOOK OR ELSE!

Archives: August 2005

Back to archive list       Back to current page



Once More Unto the Breach

[cross-posted on Liberty & Power]

Probably no intellectual has suffered more distortion and abuse than Spencer.
He is continually condemned for things he never said –
indeed, he is taken to task for things he explicitly denied.

– George H. Smith

As my regular readers know (see the links to my previous discussions on this topic here), I’ve taken upon myself something like the role of one-man Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League. Today my concern is with a recent article by Eric Roark (no relation to Howard, I presume) titled Herbert Spencer’s Evolutionary Individualism. Let me immediately stress that Roark’s article expresses a nuanced and valuable appreciation of Spencer, and is in no way comparable to some of the hatchet jobs I’ve dissected here before. Nevertheless, Roark does unwittingly recycle some of the same old myths about Spencer, and I am sworn to hunt those myths down and kill kill kill whenever they appear, so here goes.

Roark follows mainstream mythology in calling Spencer a “conservative,” noting that he means the term in its modern rather than its classical sense. But I find it difficult to apply the term in any sense to a thinker who rejected private ownership of land; denounced state support for religion; condemned militarism and male supremacy as mutually reinforcing evils; regarded colonialism as a scheme to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor; and sought to replace the wage system with workers’ cooperatives.

Roark also follows mainstream mythology in presenting Spencer as a defender of the wealthy. For example, Roark writes:

“Spencer did not dislike the poor per se, only the ‘idle poor’ who refused to work. (Spencer reserves comment on persons unable to work because of disability.) Interestingly, this condemnation did not extend to a critique of the ‘idle rich,’ a group that if they knew the meaning of industriousness had practiced such an art only once at birth.”
There are two problems with this. First, Spencer certainly did not “reserve comment” on those unable to work; he wrote about them frequently, and advocated assisting them:

“Accidents will still supply victims on whom generosity may be legitimately expended. Men thrown upon their backs by unforeseen events, men who have failed for want of knowledge inaccessible to them, men ruined by the dishonesty of others, and men in whom hope long delayed has made the heart sick may, with advantage to all parties, be assisted.”
Second, Spencer had plenty to say against the idle rich, as for example in the famous passage from Social Statics (and it’s Statics, not Statistics!) where he writes:

“It is very easy for you, O respectable citizen, seated in your easy chair, with your feet on the fender, to hold forth on the misconduct of the people – very easy for you to censure their extravagant and vicious habits .... It is no honor to you that you do not spend your savings in sensual gratification; you have pleasures enough without. But what would you do if placed in the position of the laborer? How would these virtues of yours stand the wear and tear of poverty? Where would your prudence and self-denial be if you were deprived of all the hopes that now stimulate you ...? Let us see you tied to an irksome employment from dawn till dusk; fed on meager food, and scarcely enough of that .... Suppose your savings had to be made, not, as now, out of surplus income, but out of wages already insufficient for necessaries; and then consider whether to be provident would be as easy as you at present find it. Conceive yourself one of a despised class contemptuously termed ‘the great unwashed’; stigmatized as brutish, stolid, vicious ... and then say whether the desire to be respectable would be as practically operative on you as now. ... How offensive it is to hear some pert, self-approving personage, who thanks God that he is not as other men are, passing harsh sentence on his poor, hard-worked, heavily burdened fellow countrymen ....”
Roark also follows mainstream mythology in presenting Spencer as favouring competition over cooperation. “Does social evolution occur because individuals cooperate with one another,” Roark asks, “or because they compete against one another?” And he describes Spencer and Kropotkin as “polarized extremes” on this question. But it is a serious mistake to depict Spencer as occupying one extreme of the cooperation-competition pole; Spencer’s view, on the contrary, was that as human beings grow more and more adapted to the social state, competition gives way more and more to cooperation.

Roark’s suggestion that “survival of the fittest” tells in favour of competition and against cooperation neglects Spencer’s doctrine that cooperative modes of social interaction are precisely those that are fitter and so tend to displace competitive modes. In addition, Spencer was in favour of, not opposed to, present-day efforts to moderate the competitive aspects of society (so long as such efforts were voluntary); “the struggle for life,” Spencer wrote, “needs to be qualified when the gregarious state is entered,” so that “the weak shall be guarded against the strong.” The popular notion, first concocted by Spencer’s political enemies, that Spencer was opposed to “assisting the unfit” was one he insistently denied, over and over.

This brings us to the worst, and most often repeated, of the mainstream mythology’s calumnies against Spencer: Roark quotes the passage that Spencer’s critics always quote to show that Spencer favoured letting the poor die off: “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.” And like those critics Roark disastrously neglects to include the first sentence of the immediately following paragraph: “Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.” Spencer goes on to explain that although charity can have negative effects, “the drawbacks hence arising are nothing like commensurate with the benefits otherwise conferred.” In other words, in context the quoted passage says precisely the opposite of what it is always interpreted to mean. Once the passage is read in context, Roark’s inference that Spencer “leaves no acceptable social space for those who cannot sustain self-sufficiency” is simply indefensible – and ignores the literally hundreds of pages Spencer wrote about the duties of charity and positive beneficence.

Roark recycles the usual charge that Spencer inconsistently attempts to combine social organicism with ethical individualism. Actually this combination was the standard approach among 19th-century libertarians, as among many more recent libertarian thinkers such as Hayek; the view that individuality is socially constituted is traditionally a libertarian idea. But Roark never says what is inconsistent about such a combination.

In any case he seems to have an odd view of what Spencerian individualism comes to, since he contrasts Marx’s view that “cooperative and interdependent social relations [are] the apex of social evolutionism” with Spencer’s supposed view of social evolution as “paving the way for the solitary, free, and independent individual.” This is an odd thing to say of a thinker who hoped that the progress of social evolution would “so mold human nature” that in due course the “likeness between the feelings of the sympathizer and those of the sympathized with” would come “near to identity,” so that “ministration to others’ happiness will become a daily need” and “sympathetic pleasures will be spontaneously pursued to the fullest extent advantageous to each and all.”

A few more minor points:

I must dissent from Roark’s suggestion that “Spencer’s ‘law of equal freedom’ is almost identical in substance with John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle.’” There are many ways of harming a person (i.e., making the person worse off) that are not violations of the person’s liberty, and so Mill’s principle licenses far more in the way of state intervention that Spencer’s does. (Roark also, strangely, seems to think that in Spencer’s view only it is only governments, never individuals, that violate the law of equal freedom; but Spencer said nothing of the kind.)

Roark criticises Spencer as inconsistent for opposing governmental intervention when his own policies constitute “politically interfering in the decision of a community to construct a system of poverty welfare.” But of course from Spencer’s point of view the difference here is between initiatory and defensive uses of force; if A tries to whack B with an axe, and C intervenes to save B, both A and C are “interfering,” but hardly in the same sense. (And moreover Spencer looked forward to the day when both forms of force would have withered away.)

Roark notes that Spencer’s approach was “grounded in British empiricism rather than German idealism.” But I think Spencer is better seen as trying to synthesise, or transcend the dichotomy between, British empiricism and German idealism, rather than picking a side. He explicitly said, after all, that his aim was to reconcile Locke and Kant. Spencer’s doctrines of “transfigured realism” and “the unknowable” – his proto-Hayekian notion that we can have knowledge of the patterns and relations among real things despite our ignorance of the inherent natures of those things themselves – is meant to split the difference between empiricism and idealism metaphysically, while his theory that our innate ideas are the product of our ancestors’ experiences is meant to split the difference epistemologically. (While Spencer did regard some of Kant’s views as “rubbish,” contrary to Roark’s suggestion he certainly did not dismiss Kant as unworthy of serious consideration, but on the contrary wrestles with Kantian themes throughout his writings.)

Finally, Roark’s article contains the following baffling remark: “Even the staunchest political libertarian accepts some very limited minimal state.” In light of the enormous number of free-market libertarian anarchists I simply have no idea what to make of this statement.

Having said all that, let me reiterate my opening remark, which the reader is now very likely to have forgotten: these errors are not the centerpiece of Roark’s article, and the article is not a typical piece of Spencer-bashing like some of the screeds I've inveighed against before. On the contrary, it is in many ways sympathetic toward Spencer, and critical of various aspects of the mainstream mythology about him. All the same, Roark’s article lends more support to the standard defamatory line than it should, and so called forth my wakeful sword.

Posted August 30th, 2005



The Left Lane of Liberty

Scroll to the bottom of the page and you’ll see a newly added graphic for the Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left, of which this blog is the latest member.

What makes someone a left-libertarian? I can’t answer that question: surf through the other member blogs and you’ll soon see that there’s not much in the way of a common essence.

A question I can answer is: why do I call myself a left-libertarian?

First, on many of the issues over which mainstream libertarians are divided, I end up on what would generally be perceived as the “left” side of the issue: anarchist, anti-militarist, anti-intellectual-property, anti-punishment (so a fortiori anti-death-penalty), anti-big-business, pro-immigration, pro-abortion, pro-secularism, pro-gay-rights, etc.

But beyond that, I share a lot of “left-ish” cultural concerns that are usually not thought of nowadays as libertarian issues (though historically they were), such as a concern for worker empowerment (see Beyond the Boss and Platonic Productivity) and an opposition to male supremacy (see Beyond Patriarchy, Separate But Equal?, To Serve Man, and Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved?).

Plus, I think race and gender are largely social constructs; I recognise the existence of non-state forms of oppression (though I don’t advocate statism as the solution); I favour a Sciabarra-style “dialectical” methodology; I’ve had some kind words for multiculturalism, postmodernism, political correctness, environmentalism, and collective ownership; and I regard libertarianism as properly rooted in egalitarianism.

Yet for all that I’m probably a 90% orthodox Rothbardian, both about rights theory and about economics. (Indeed I sometimes call myself a “left-Rothbardian,” though not specifically in Sam Konkin’s sense of that phrase.) While I draw a lot of inspiration from so-called “voluntary socialists” like Benjamin Tucker, I’m not at all attracted to Tuckerite limitations on private land ownership (let alone Georgist ones); I don’t seek the elimination of wage labour (though I’d like to see more worker cooperatives available as a competitive alternative); I don’t accept animal rights (though I do think we have serious moral obligations to animals); and I have no patience with the philosophic relativism and/or materialism one sometimes finds among the academic left.

So that’s roughly what my “left-libertarianism” amounts to. In case you were wondering. Or even if you weren’t.

Posted August 25th, 2005



 Santa Fe

Hip Hip Ouray

 Ouray Over on Liberty & Power, Gus diZerega and I have been debating the merits of zoning laws in such places as Ouray, Colorado (ironically the original model for Galt’s Gulch) and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Gus argues, in effect, that since most residents move to those cities precisely because they value the zoning restrictions, the restrictions should count as voluntary by libertarian lights. I demur.

Check out the rock-em-sock-em left-Rothbardian-versus-left-Hayekian action here.

Posted August 22nd, 2005



The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

If you’re not a Galactica fan you might as well skip this post.

I’d been thinking that President Laura Roslin was one of the characters in the new Galactica that had no counterpart on the original series. But it’s recently occurred to me that Roslin’s counterpart is Count Iblis. They’re both messianic figures with mystical powers, they both challenge Adama’s leadership, and they both claim that they can guide the fleet to Earth.

Does that mean that Roslin should be viewed as a villain? (After all, Iblis is a Satan figure.) No, I don’t think so. The characters in the new series don’t necessarily have the same moral status as their counterparts in the original series; some are worse (Tigh wasn’t originally either an alcoholic or an asshole, and Boomer wasn’t originally a Cylon spy) and some are better (as despicable as the new Baltar is, he’s not a deliberate traitor – yet). The Adama-Roslin conflict is clearly meant to involve shades of grey on both sides.

In addition, Number Six has some parallels with the original series’ Lucifer; and Galactica 1980’s Andromus and Doctor Zee – however much we may wince at their memory – were the prototypes of the new series’ humanoid Cylons and Cylon-human hybrids respectively. The new Baltar’s bafflement at being declared the father of the baby that Six shows him also seems an obvious echo of the situation with Starbuck and the angel-woman in “The Return of Starbuck.”

What all these parallels imply in combination is that the new Cylons represent a merging of two groups that were presented as opposites in the original show: the Cylons and the glowing-light-angel-beings introduced in “War of the Gods.”

Posted August 18th, 2005



Laying It On Thick, Part 2

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Date and time information are now available for the Molinari Society’s second symposium, meeting in conjunction with the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in New York City, December 27-30, 2005. The topic is the relation between “thin” libertarianism (i.e., libertarianism understood as a narrowly political doctrine) and “thick” libertarianism (i.e., libertarianism understood as essentially integrated into some broader set of social or cultural values).

GIII-8. Wednesday, 28 December 2005, 11:15 a.m.-1:15 p.m.
Molinari Society symposium: “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin”
Morgan Suite (Second Floor), Hilton New York, 1335 Avenue of the Americas

Session 1, 11:15-12:15:
chair: Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)
speaker: Jan Narveson (University of Waterloo)
title: “Libertarianism: The Thick and the Thin”
commentator: Charles W. Johnson (Molinari Institute)

Session 2, 12:15-1:15:
chair: Jennifer McKitrick (University of Nebraska - Lincoln)
speaker: Jack Ross (National Labor College)
title: “Labor and Liberty: A Lost Ideal and an Unlikely New Alliance”
commentator: Charles W. Johnson (Molinari Institute)

Posted August 16th, 2005



Just War Conundrum

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

According to traditional just war theory, one of the prerequisites for a war’s being just is that it have a legitimate aim; that’s not sufficient, but it is necessary.

But what about cases where the decision to go to war has several aims, some just and some unjust? For example, in the war of 1812 the United States arguably had both a just aim (resisting British impressments of American citizens at sea) and an unjust aim (a land grab in Canada); likewise in the U.S. Civil War the Confederacy had both a just aim (resisting tariffs and centralised power) and an unjust aim (preserving and extending slavery).

I presume that just war theorists have addressed this question, but I couldn’t find a discussion of it in my (admittedly cursory) online search; but here’s my suggestion as to how this problem should be handled.

What we need to know, in order to apply the just cause criterion, is how central the unjust aim is to the war’s objectives. It seems to me that there are four possibilities, depending on the necessity and/or sufficiency of the unjust aim. (I should add that when I talk of necessity and sufficiency here I am talking about the logical necessity or sufficiency of an aim for the action of which it is a part, not the causal necessity or sufficiency of an aim for a temporally subsequent action; I am thus not assuming any sort of causal determinism. In Kantian terms, I’m talking about what’s part of the maxim.)

I think the first and second possibilities are clearly cases where the war fails the just cause requirement. If the war wouldn’t have occurred without the unjust motive, mustn’t the war be unjust? The third possibility is trickier, since in this case the unjust motive is superfluous; but in this case the just motive is superfluous too. The decision to wage war thus expresses a kind of indifference to the war’s justice which for me inclines the balance toward saying it’s unjust. In the case of the fourth possibility, however, the unjust motive really is merely along for the ride while the just motive is doing all the work, so I’d say in this case the war passes the just cause criterion.

Posted August 14th, 2005



 He's going to shoot you

Vipers and Fireflies, Part 2

 She thinks you're an idiot More Galactica and Serenity news!

A new trailer for Serenity is up.

The first-season DVD for the new Galactica is now available for pre-order at Amazon. (Best Buy is also selling a version available now, but while that version does contain a Serenity preview, it lacks the miniseries and many of the extra features, plus it uses the British version of the opening, with the (in my opinion) inferior music; so I’m waiting for the more complete version from Amazon, which anyway is cheaper and will be out in just over a month.)

Posted August 9th, 2005



Philosophy on the Beach

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Information on the Fall 2005 meeting of the Alabama Philosophical Society is now online; details here.

Posted August 9th, 2005



Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left
Ring Owner: Thomas Knapp Site: Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
Site Ring from Bravenet

Back to archive list      Back to current page