Herbert Spencer’s ten-volume Synthetic Philosophy.

What are the sociological arguments against socialism? (Not economic) I guess one of the stereotypical ones is ‘makes people lazy and unwilling to work.’ ‘Infantilises people.’ What others can you think of?

The question was asked of libertarians in a private group on Facebook. Many interesting answers were given. But I see a lot of talk but no mention of actual sociologists.

Two should immediately come to mind, for at classical liberal theory’s last gasp stands two pioneering sociologists who could very much be called libertarians: Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Both argued against the rising intellectual and political movement in their day, and both brought a lot of intelligence to the debate. I can imagine Sumner being a favorite, in part because of his more vigorous prose, but I just want to sketch Spencer’s arguments as they appear in the latter chapters of The Principles of Sociology: Part VIII, Industrial Institutions.

In the 22nd chapter, titled “Socialism,” Spencer began, ‘Some socialists, though probably not many, know that their ideal modes of associated living are akin to modes which have prevailed widely during early stages of civilization, and prevail still among many of the uncivilized, as well as among some of the civilized who have lagged behind.’ After giving a number of examples of primitive societies in then-recent history — citing the ‘aborigines of North America’ and their system’s brake on thrift and industry; the affable and easygoing ‘Croatian house-communities’ whose high rates of child mortality and lack of education (with the ‘children unkempt and neglected’) and industry still-born because of the share-out ‘sub-divisions’ of communal work but whose group orientation was spurred by the rigors of defense and warfare — Spencer concluded like this: ‘Hence the socialist theory and practice are normal in the militant type of society, and cease to be normal as fast as the society becomes predominantly industrial in its type.’

He of course admitted that a ‘state of universal brotherhood is so tempting an imagination, and the existing state of competitive strife is so full of miseries, that endeavours to escape from the last and enter into the first are quite natural — inevitable even. Prompted by consciousness of the grievous inequalities of condition around, those who suffer and those who sympathize with them, seek to found what they think an equitable social system.’ But then Spencer turned his attention to the many attempts to set up better systems, the utopian community movement — the ‘experiments in living,’ as J.S. Mill characterized them, the movement with which I started my own political inquiries over four decades ago. There he found failure after failure. Problems identified by the sources he cited include

  • too much ‘diversity’ of opinion to make coördination of labor anything like efficient
  • grumbling and frowardness
  • recognition that lack of rewards for extra work must entail general low performance
  • fights on the job, sans punishment; violent discord

Utopian communities rarely sported any kind of success. Spencer regarded it a plain fact that ‘human beings as now constituted cannot work together efficiently and harmoniously’ in the ways proposed by socialist reformers. And he noted that socialists rarely admit this obvious truth — or, ‘if by some admitted, then it is held that the mischiefs arising from defective natures may be prevented by a sufficiently powerful authority—that is, if for these separate groups one great organization centrally controlled is substituted.’

But such resort to force, Spencer argued, would not be sustainable.

He rested quite a lot on what he calls ‘the general law of species-life’ which has it ‘that during immature life benefit received must be great in proportion as worth is small, while during mature life benefit and worth must vary together.’ But ‘collectivists, socialists, and communists,’ ignore this ‘distinction between the ethics of family-life and the ethics of life outside the family. Entirely under some forms, and in chief measure under others, it proposes to extend the régime of the family to the whole community.’ Spencer here pushed a theme we encounter later in F.A. Hayek, who, incidentally, pointedly never read Spencer’s work.

‘The socialist does not ask what must happen if, generation after generation, the material well-being of the inferior is raised at the cost of lowering that of the superior. Even when it is pointed out, he refuses to see that if the superior, persistently burdened by the inferior, are hindered in rearing their own better offspring, that the offspring of the inferior may be as efficiently cared for, a gradual deterioration of the race must follow. The hope of curing present evils so fills his consciousness that it cannot take in the thought of the still greater future evils his proposed system would produce.’

Spencer went on to argue that ‘people who, in their corporate capacity, abolish the natural relation between merits and benefits, will presently be abolished themselves. Either they will have to go through the miseries of a slow decay, consequent on the increase of those unfit for the business of life, or they will be overrun by some people who have not pursued the foolish policy of fostering the worst at the expense of the best.’

We see that today, even in our own semi-socialist Euro-American context. I just finished reading Edward Dutton’s book Why Islam Makes You Stupid … But Also Means You’ll Conquer the World, and his careful speculations add to Spencer’s sociological argument. Dutton follows Spencer, by the way, in advancing a kind of theory that is a no-no among academic neo-Darwinists: group selection theory.

Calling the ‘doctrine of the socialists … psychologically absurd,’ Spencer argued that it ‘implies an impossible mental structure.’

The socialist society ‘must be composed of men having sympathies so strong that those who, by their greater powers, achieve greater benefits, willingly surrender the excess to others.’ Spencer queried the nature of this altruism: ‘The intensity of fellow feeling is to be such as to cause life-long self-sacrifice.’ But what of the beneficiaries? What must be the attitudes of those be? They gain at their betters’ expense. How can they share the same moral attitudes, then, under such circumstances?

Spencer calls this ‘contradictory,’ and the ‘implied mental constitution … an impossible one.’

Then the rubber really sticks to the pavement ‘when we recognize a further factor in the problem — love of offspring. Within the family parental affection joins sympathy in prompting self-sacrifice, and makes it easy, and indeed pleasurable, to surrender to others a large part of the products of labour. But such surrender made to those within the family-group is at variance with a like surrender made to those outside the family-group.’

You see what is coming, though, don’t you? A ready and old communist solution: ‘Parental relations are to be superseded, and children are to be taken care of by the State. The method of Nature is to be replaced by a better method.’ Spencer was obviously not impressed with this, and related it to the aforementioned ‘general law of species-life’: just as ‘socialists would suspend the natural relation between effort and benefit, so would they suspend the natural relation between the instinctive actions of parents and the welfare of progeny. The two great laws in the absence of either of which organic evolution would have been impossible, are both to be repealed!’

So you see that Spencer is — in addition to be a structuralist, functionalist, and a general systems theorist (see Jonathan Turner’s terrific little book on Spencer’s sociology) — an evolutionist. He has thus been attacked as a dread ‘Social Darwinist,’ but see that he is not talking about letting people starve. He was a forerunner to sociobiology, and the likes of that “Jolly Heretic,” Edward Dutton, whose works are certainly thought-provoking.

Now, Spencer readily conceded that something like socialist arrangements might work in some simple societies. ‘It would not be altogether irrational to expect that some of the peaceful Indian hill-tribes, who display the virtue of forgiveness without professing it, or those Papuan Islanders among whom the man chosen as chief uses his property to help poorer men out of their difficulties, might live harmoniously under socialistic arrangements; but can we reasonably expect this of men who, pretending to believe that they should love their neighbours as themselves, here rob their fellows and there shoot them, while hoping to slay wholesale men of other blood?’ Spencer thought that character is an important aspect of social evolution, and that character changes according to circumstance. Most importantly, above the tribal level, and that of chiefdoms, the militant mindset predominates before we ever really get to the industrial mindset, and that the attitudes of militancy that might spur some to dream the socialist dream themselves militate against such a dream.

Now, what is really ‘at issue between socialists and anti-socialists … concerns the mode of regulating labour.’ Earlier in his big book he ‘illustrated in detail the truth, emphasized at the outset, that political, ecclesiastical, and industrial regulations simultaneously decrease in coerciveness as we ascend from lower to higher types of societies: the modern industrial system being one under which coerciveness approaches a minimum. Though now the worker is often mercilessly coerced by circumstances, and has nothing before him but hard terms, yet he is not coerced by a master into acceptance of these terms.’ That is, the general condition of hardship remains from difficult, pre-capitalist times, specific terms of hardship are not, in a mostly free society, themselves coerced.

This is, of course, a distinction modern leftists refuse to acknowledge.

Spencer saw a parallax view problem, here: ‘while the evils which resulted from the old modes of regulating labour, not experienced by present or recent generations, have been forgotten, the evils accompanying the new mode are keenly felt, and have aroused the desire for a mode which is in reality a modified form of the old mode. There is to be a re-institution of status not under individual masters but under the community as master.’

Spencer also insisted that a ‘complete parallelism exists between such a social structure and the structure of an army. It is simply a civil regimentation parallel to the military regimentation; and it establishes an industrial subordination parallel to the military subordination. In either case the rule is — Do your task and take your rations. In the working organization as in the fighting organization, obedience is requisite for maintenance of order, as well as for efficiency, and must be enforced with whatever rigour is found needful.’

So, the socialists’ perennial recourse to force upon the failure of their schemes entails quite a lots of regimentation. And with regimentation ‘must arise a new aristocracy for the support of which the masses would toil; and which, being consolidated, would wield a power far beyond that of any past aristocracy.’

But that specter of what was later called totalitarianism, along with its necessary inequalities, does not faze socialists. ‘Just as the zealous adherent of a religious creed, met by some fatal objection, feels certain that though he does not see the answer yet a good answer is to be found,’ Spencer explained, ‘or just as the lover to whom defects of his mistress are pointed out, cannot be made calmly to consider what will result from them in married life; so the socialist, in love with his scheme, will not entertain adverse criticisms, or gives no weight to them if he does.’

The dream must go on for the besotted. ‘He will continue to hope that selfish men may be so manipulated that they will behave unselfishly — that the effects of goodness may be had without the goodness. He has unwavering faith in a social alchemy which out of ignoble natures will get noble actions.’

In the next chapter, Spencer turned to the problem of individual ownership … self-ownership … the individual’s ownership of himself (or herself). But Spencer is a sociologist here, not a radical libertarian, and his point is to explore such issues to understand the ebb and flow of social change.

‘There is small objection to coercion if all are equally coerced; and hence the tendency to regimentation reappears in one or other form continually.’ Equality thus can breed not only liberty, but illiberal suppression, as well. This is a key observation, and helps us understand not only tyrannical systems but liberated ones. ‘Along with increases in that direct State-ownership of the individual which is implied by use of him as a soldier,’ Spencer explained, carrying the thought over to ‘observe the increase in that indirect State-ownership which is implied by multiplication of dictations and restraints, and by growth of general and local taxation.’ 

In the late 19th century, when Spencer was writing these final chapters to the final segment of his magnum opus, France and Germany were militarizing heavily. This led, a decade after Spencer’s demise, to a continental war, the First World War. And ‘with extensive ownership of the individual by the State in military and civil organizations, there has widely coexisted advocacy of that ownership by the State to which socialism gives another shape,’ Spencer recognized. But in his somewhat more liberal England, ‘with approximation to the continental type in the one respect, there has gone a growing acceptance of the continental conception in the other respect.’

What began as a middle-class Fabian movement grew enormously. 

It is worth mentioning, though, that during this same period the ranks of self-identified ‘individualists’ also grew, according to Wordsworth Donisthorpe in Law in a Free State, published within the year of the edition of Principles of Sociology that sits by my side. Apparently the fin de siècle was a time, like now, of ideological polarization. And the result was war, from which the individualists did not recover, but the statists did, in several forms: fascism, social democracy, progressivism, and socialism.

But that was a few decades later. Towards the end of Spencer’s life, socialists were urging the ‘ultimate absorption of all kinds of fixed property’  and advocating general strikes ‘against rents as an immediate method of procedure’ as well as showing ‘an absolute disregard of all existing contracts, and, by implication, a proposed abolition of contract for the future’ — all of which Spencer saw as a ‘return to the old system of status under a new form.’

Like Hayek after him, Spencer regarded socialism as atavistic.

‘For in the absence of that voluntary cooperation which contract implies,’ Spencer explained, ‘there is no possible alternative but compulsory cooperation. Self-ownership entirely disappears and ownership by others universally replaces it.’

And the political incentives towards this end sound eerily similar to today’s partisan/bipartisan lurch towards ever-bigger government. ‘Naturally the member of parliament who submits to coercion by his party, contemplates legal coercions of others without repugnance. . . [B]eing the creature of his party and the creature of his constituents, he does not hesitate in making each citizen the creature of the community.’

And socialists, in this kind of environment, have a field day, gaining converts. I mean, the promises! But, as Spencer observed, the new convert ‘is not told that if he is to be fed he must also be driven.’

Spencer did not predict revolution, though, despite how often it was advocated: ‘A sudden substitution of the régime proposed for the régime which exists, as intended by bearers of the red flag, seems less likely than a progressive metamorphosis.’

But the end-game seemed obvious: ‘a state in which no man can do what he likes but every man must do what he is told.’

Spencer lets bitterness creep into his treatise: ‘An entire loss of freedom will thus be the fate of those who do not deserve the freedom they possess.’

But how long would the new, collectivist social state last? Spencer did not predict. But he did guess, in his last chapter, how the new socialist order might end. Such orders end, sometimes, with a ‘sudden bursting of bonds which have become intolerable may in some cases happen: bringing on a military despotism. In other cases practical extinction may follow a gradual decay, arising from abolition of the normal relation between merit and benefit, by which alone the vigour of a race can be maintained. And in yet further cases may come conquest by peoples who have not been emasculated by fostering their feebles — peoples before whom the socialistic organization will go down like a house of cards, as did that of the ancient Peruvians before a handful of Spaniards.’

Now, Spencer is often castigated as an advocate of necessary unilinear progress, yet he was, at the end of his sociological work, explaining ‘retrogression.’ 

He tried to paint in landscape, not minute portraiture: ‘if the process of evolution which, unceasing throughout past time, has brought life to its present height, continues throughout the future, as we cannot but anticipate, then, amid all the rhythmical changes in each society, amid all the lives and deaths of nations, amid all the supplantings of race by race, there will go on that adaptation of human nature to the social state which began when savages first gathered together into hordes for mutual defence—an adaptation finally complete.’ He understood that his basic perspective is, to most people, ‘a wild imagination.’ But evolution was not the whole of his Synthetic Philosophy, not the whole of his famous schema, for he insisted that the ‘cosmic process brings about retrogression as well as progression, where the conditions favour it.’ Contra his critics, he asserted an obvious point: ‘Evolution does not imply a latent tendency to improve, everywhere in operation. There is no uniform ascent from lower to higher, but only an occasional production of a form which, in virtue of greater fitness for more complex conditions, becomes capable of a longer life of a more varied kind.’

But he did insist that there are indeed higher forms that can be distinguished from lower forms, the higher ones corresponding to ‘greater fitness for more complex conditions.’

And socialism is not that highest form.

Liberty is.