quality versus quantity

LI is pleased to see that Liberty Library has been putting up a pretty extensive Herbert Spencer collection.

We’ve been reading The Man versus the State. We do not find Spencer a particularly pleasant author to read. Unlike James Fitzjames Stephen, who cast his ideas into the sort of Victorian hulking prose we can imagine Doctor Moriarity indulging in whilst planning to overthrow obscure monarchies, Spencer has a tendency to fall into that dulcet tone of dyspepetic conservative indignation Dickens satirized in Scrooge. His melancholy for the tragic loss of liberty in civilization is the kind of thing that later became a specialty of the National Review. It is one thing for Burke to wax tragical at the death of Queens; it is another to wax tragical at having to pay a shilling in property tax to keep up a public library. Here is Spenser in full cry, listing the terrible regulatory intrusions of the State:

“Then, under the Ministry of Lord John Russell, in 1866, have to be named an Act to regulate cattle-sheds, etc., in Scotland, giving local authorities powers to inspect sanitary conditions and fix the numbers of cattle; an Act forcing hop- growers to label their bags with the year and place of growth and the true weight, and giving police powers of search; an Act to facilitate the building of lodging- houses in Ireland, and providing for regulation of the inmates; a Public Health Act, under which there is registration of lodging-houses and limitation of occupants, with inspection and directions for lime-washing, etc., and a Public Libraries Act, giving local powers by which a majority can tax a minority for their books.”

Since Spencer harps on themes that have since become the boilerplate of American conservative politics (the baleful influence of the interfering state, the abridgment of freedom by said state, especially in regulatin’ and taxin,’ and so on), he is well worth reading, both for what passed into the conservative temperament and what did not. What did not was the ur-Liberal strain of anti-militarism. In this, he is more ancient than Fitzjames Stephens, who is both a convinced imperialist and an upholder of the theory that the state’s allowance of the greatest possible economic liberty should be coupled with the state’s role as the coercive guardian of society’s official morality.

Spencer starts out by positing a simple duality between Liberalism and Toryism.

“Dating back to an earlier period than their names, the two political parties at first stood respectively for two opposed types of social organization, broadly distinguishable as the militant and the industrial—types which are characterized, the one by the régime of status, almost universal in ancient days, and the other by the régime of contract, which has become general in modern days, chiefly among the Western nations, and especially among ourselves and the Americans. If, instead of using the word “cooperation” in a limited sense, we use it in its widest sense, as signifying the combined activities of citizens under whatever system of regulation; then these two are definable as the system of compulsory cooperation and the system of voluntary cooperation. The typical structure of the one we see in an army formed of conscripts, in which the units in their several grades have to fulfil commands under pain of death, and receive food and clothing and pay, arbitrarily apportioned; while the typical structure of the other we see in a body of producers or distributors, who severally agree to specified payments in return for specified services, and may at will, after due notice, leave the organization if they do not like it.”
One notices at once the class peculiarity in the last sentence, with its vision of healthy men, grit and determination in their eyes, giving due notice and leaving their jobs to strike out on their own, instead of doing something distasteful, like banding together in a union, sitting down in the factory, and forcing the owners, in violation of God’s law and contract, to negotiate with them. And it goes without saying that the producers and distributors can fire at will. All of which lends to the term ‘voluntary cooperation” more than a touch of the tendentious. Further, one notices that the system of “compulsory cooperation” involved fixed protections for the users of public lands, for instance – a system that was overturned by the system of enclosures coordinate with the advance of “voluntary cooperation.” In fact, “liberty”, a term that Spencer narrows to his purpose, was used, in the time of status, to denote obligations that the liberal era abolished, in favor of those property arrangements that enriched the bourgeoisie.
Spencer has two theories that provide the background for much of what he wants to say in MvG. One theory is evolutionary. It has recently been revived in certain circles, most notably by Robert Wright in Non Zero. Spencer’s idea was that progress is synonymous with the emergence of complexity. Evolution is the advance from the simple to the more complex in the living world. The same process is at work in that subset of the living world, human civilization. The other idea is about liberty and property. The political meaning of liberty is of crucial important to Spencer, and he identifies it with one’s willing control over one’s goods. Consequently, the state’s taxation of those goods is an encroachment on liberty:
“Nothing more than cursory allusion has yet been made to that accompanying compulsion which takes the form of increased taxation, general and local. Partly for defraying the costs of carrying out these ever-multiplying sets of regulations, each of which requires an additional staff of officers, and partly to meet the outlay for new public institutions, such as board-schools, free libraries, public museums, baths and washhouses, recreation grounds, etc., local rates are year after year increased; as the general taxation is increased by grants for education and to the departments of science and art, etc. Every one of these involves further coercion—restricts still more the freedom of the citizen. For the implied address accompanying every additional exaction is—“Hitherto you have been free to spend this portion of your earnings in any way which pleased you; hereafter you shall not be free so to spend it, but we will spend it for the general benefit.”
This is a passage that has gone directly into the bloodstream of American conservatism. But there is something odd about it from the liberal perspective, since underneath the claim about taxation is a classic Hegelian conflict between quantity and quality. On the one hand, if money is the index of the freedom of purchase, then Spencer must be right: the state’s taking is an encroachment on liberty. On the other hand, if the state’s taking leads to economic growth, than the index of liberty – money, or the amount of productivity within the economy – will also grow. This quantitative growth will lead to a greater ability for a greater number to spend. This is the liberal assertion that leads us from Mill to Keynes. Spencer’s categories are such that he has put himself in a conceptual bind: he simply can’t confront the liberal assertion. His defense of liberty on the dimension of the political economy ignores the macro nature of the political economy. That blindness has a sociological result: in a society in which, in reality, a greater number of people are free in the practical sense (free to travel, free to advance socially, free to express themselves) due to acts of the liberal state (with its taxes, its compulsory education, its sanctioning of unions, etc.), the classical liberal of the Spencerian type can only see a loss of freedom. This is exactly how Hayek ended up.

That sociological blindness to practical freedom has other consequences for Spencer. Which we will enumerate in another post.


Rory said…
Just thought I'd stand up for Spencer's style and say I thoroughly enjoy reading the vast majority of his work. That said, his autobiography can be dull in places!