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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

In his major work on political philosophy, The Principles of Ethics (1879), Herbert Spencer brings together three strains of thought concerning how social structures are formed. One is the Scottish tradition enunciated by Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith which sees social orders emerging “spontaneously” through voluntary social and economic interaction among individuals, guided as it were by Smith’s “invisible hand” to create ordered structures which were not the express intent of the participants. A second tradition is a French one whose best known exponent is Frédéric Bastiat who argued that the selfish behaviour of profit seeking individuals produced a “harmonious” interlocking of buying and selling which was highly productive on the one hand and moral on the other hand in so far as coercion was not used in the transactions. Late in the 19th century Spencer adds a third strain which might be called “evolutionary”. In the post-Darwinian milieu Spencer argued that social and economic structures evolved “naturally” from the more simple to the more complex through a process of individual activity and “the spontaneous cooperations of men pursuing their private ends”. He contrasts this with the “artificial” and “manufactured” orders which politicians and legislators try to create, usually without much success.

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18 July, 2011

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Spencer on spontaneous order produced by “the beneficent working of social forces” (1879)

Read the full quote in context here.

The English radical individualist philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) believed that the legislator makes a serious mistake in thinking of society “as a manufacture” in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that it is the result of “the spontaneous cooperations of men pursuing their private ends” in spite of much “governmental obstruction”:

Which is the more misleading, belief without evidence, or refusal to believe in presence of overwhelming evidence? If there is an irrational faith which persists without any facts to support it, there is an irrational lack of faith which persists spite of the accumulation of facts which should produce it; and we may doubt whether the last does not lead to worse results than the first.

The average legislator, equally with the average citizen, has no faith whatever in the beneficent working of social forces, notwithstanding the almost infinite illustrations of this beneficent working. He persists in thinking of a society as a manufacture and not as a growth: blind to the fact that the vast and complex organization by which its life is carried on, has resulted from the spontaneous cooperations of men pursuing their private ends.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

  1. Which is the more misleading, belief without evidence, or refusal to believe in presence of overwhelming evidence? If there is an irrational faith which persists without any facts to support it, there is an irrational lack of faith which persists spite of the accumulation of facts which should produce it; and we may doubt whether the last does not lead to worse results than the first.

    The average legislator, equally with the average citizen, has no faith whatever in the beneficent working of social forces, notwithstanding the almost infinite illustrations of this beneficent working. He persists in thinking of a society as a manufacture and not as a growth: blind to the fact that the vast and complex organization by which its life is carried on, has resulted from the spontaneous cooperations of men pursuing their private ends. Though, when he asks how the surface of the earth has been cleared and made fertile, how towns have grown up, how manufactures of all kinds have arisen, how the arts have been developed, how knowledge has been accumulated, how literature has been produced, he is forced to recognize the fact that none of these are of governmental origin, but have many of them suffered from governmental obstruction; yet, ignoring all this, he assumes that if a good is to be achieved or an evil prevented, Parliament must be invoked. He has unlimited faith in the agency which has achieved multitudinous failures, and has no faith in the agency which has achieved multitudinous successes.

    Of the various feelings which move men to action, each class has its part in producing social structures and functions. There are first the egoistic feelings, most powerful and most active, the effects of which, as developing the arrangements for production and distribution, have been above adverted to, and which, whenever there is a new sphere to be profitably occupied, are quick to cause new growths. From the cutting of a Suez Canal and the building of a Forth Bridge, to the insurance of ships, houses, lives, crops, windows, the exploration of unknown regions, the conducting of travelers’ excursions, down to automatic supply boxes at railway stations and the loan of opera glasses at theaters, private enterprise is ubiquitous and infinitely varied in form; and when repressed by state agency in one direction buds out in another. Reminding us of the way in which, in Charles II’s time, there was commenced in London a local penny post, which was suppressed by the government, we have, in the Boy Messengers’ Company and its attempted suppression, illustrations of the efficiency of private enterprise and the obstructiveness of officialism. And then, if there needs to add a case showing the superiority of spontaneously formed agencies we have it in the American Express Companies, of which one has 7,000 agencies, has its own express trains, delivers 25,000,000 parcels annually. is employed by the government, has a moneyorder system which is replacing that of the Post Office, and has now extended its business to Europe, India, Africa, South America, and Polynesia. 

[More works by Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) and on 19th Century English Radical Individualists]