Matt Zwolinski, a philosophy professor at University of San Diego and a “bleeding heart” libertarian, is engaged in a gallant but—I am afraid—hopeless conversation on Twitter with “Existential Comics.” The latest of such comics deals with Herbert Spencer‘s visit to the U.S. and builds on Spencer’s well-known disappointment in meeting the culture of rampant free entrepreneurs.
Spencer took an intense interest in mechanical devices, as Andrew Carnegie recorded, but he was also perplexed over Americans’ “persistent activity.” At the banquet held in his honor before leaving the States, he commented, “I have been struck by the number of faces which told in strong lines of the burdens that had to be borne… Immense injury is being done by this high-pressure life.” And again “we have had somewhat too much of the gospel of work. It is time to preach the gospel of relaxation.” He saw his own speech as “mainly devoted to a criticism of American life as characterized by over-devotion to work.”
Now you can see why the episode was used to prove that cutthroat competition could seem unbearable to the foremost theorist of unfettered competition itself. Let’s leave that aside. The story should simply suggest that Spencer was a less straightforwardly simple character than his critics have imagined. Perhaps thinking that reducing government intervention was needed to preserve liberty and protect the economic ecosystem from dangerous disruptions does not imply the idea that production is an end that justifies all means (a point critics of the free enterprise system have difficulty grasping even today).
Yet “Existential Comics”, particularly in the text under the comic itself, attacks Spencer as a “eugenicist,” due to the fact he employed the metaphor of a “purifying process” to mean that economic incentives should be preserved, in order to prevent “charity that dins up creating dependency and harm” (Matt’s words). Existential Comics cites examples from Spencer’s Social Statics and maintains these examples are about “removing people from the gene pool.” Matt very aptly replies with a quotation from “just two paragraphs after the passage you cite,” in which Spencer defends and endorses “charity which may be described as helping men to help themselves.” In another tweet, Matt points to Spencer’s vigorous anti-imperialism. Spencer, an anti-militarist to the bone, denounced “treachery’s, deeds of bold and rapine” as a consequence of “colonization under state-management.”
I’d like a mention, in this respect, a little anecdote. Spencer was rather frail, had a “greatly disordered nervous system,” and suffered from chronic insomnia and nervous breakdown. For him, organizing stuff was painful. Still, in 1881 (when he was 61), he tried to mobilize friends, including John Bright, for setting up an Anti-Aggression League as he felt indignant about “our [English] doings in Afghanistan, in Zululand, in the Transvaal,” all of which were a “scathing exposure of the contrast between our Christian creed and pagan doings, our professed philanthropy and our actual savagery.” As David Duncan wrote, “it would be difficult to say which feeling was stronger – that roused by the aggressions of the Government on weaker nationalities, or that roused by the aggressions of the State on the liberties of the citizens.” This doesn’t quite fit with the cliche of a thinker obsessed with the “survival of the fittest” as we typically consider it, does it?
Matt is right in pointing out that the “Existential Comics”’s position is quite paradoxical: he quotes Spencer out of context and he does so triumphantly claiming “he isn’t being obscure.” He is not, but Spencer was a man of his time, writing for his contemporaries, using words that we need to put in context and necessarily “interpret,” as our political vocabulary has changed. Harrying past thinkers because they use language we won’t use is quite popular (think of the fatwa against David Hume for a modest footnote) but doesn’t make much sense. And, at the same time, “Existential Comics” doesn’t see that Spencer was instead an outspoken critic of imperialism, with arguments and in a fashion that would be easily attuned to our own tastes. This is an interesting case of selective anachronism.
Plus, one point on eugenics: advocates of eugenics are typically arguing not so much about *that* single poor person who does not deserve our help; they are arguing about groups, about classes of people that share certain features, about races. The eugenicists want, in essence, population control aiming at “removing from the gene pool” particular kinds of people. For an individualist it is quite difficult to reason in this way.