Classical Liberals Who Weren’t Right About Everything

Many classical liberals and their ideas have been maligned by their interpreters. We must set the record straight. Professor Ross Emmett, in “What’s Right with Malthus,” from The Freeman, champions the cause of Thomas Robert Malthus, who, contrary to what one might think after encountering Malthus’ followers and critics,

argued that private property rights, free markets, and…marriage were essential features of an advanced civilization.

Some disciples of Malthus took his erroneous population theory as evidence of the need for eugenics, population control, and environmental “regulation.” They ignored Malthus’ arguments favoring institutions more capable of (and more compassionate in) achieving their desired ends; institutions that first came about not by design, but by convention. The eugenicists Francis Galton and Julian Huxley (both related to Darwin), and eco-catastrophist Paul Ehrlich come to mind.

But there were also critics, who, preferring utopian visions of the perfectibility of mankind, denounced Malthus’ pessimistic views. Anarchists William Godwin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon are most notable in this regard. Godwin and Malthus had exchanged criticisms (noted by Emmett) in some of their essays. Malthus attacked Godwin’s utopianism. Godwin assailed Malthus’ assumption of arithmetical increase in agricultural output, as compared to geometrical increase of population. And Proudhon targeted the overzealous Malthusians of his day, citing as grievances the former’s antagonism toward the lower classes. While neither Godwin nor Proudhon did terrible injustice to Malthus himself, they unintentionally contributed to the myth that the worst variety of population catastrophists were the most orthodox.

Notice the themes that Professor Emmett brings to our attention. First, that even in their controversial and disputable contributions, great theorists illuminate the path for later philosophers. Second, that human institutions can mitigate human nature’s undesirable effects.

In light of these, consider two other social theorists whose ideas have been abused by overenthusiastic students and overreactive peers alike: Herbert Spencer (insightful Malthus adherent), and the aforementioned Mr. Proudhon (noteworthy Malthus critic).

Leading “social Darwinist” (a pejorative used to link eugenics and capitalism), Herbert Spencer (considered a conservative anarchist by Georgi Plekhanov) was, like Darwin, influenced by Malthus’ idea that the fittest tend to survive overpopulation-induced catastrophes. He is known for having coined “survival of the fittest,” a term later used by Darwin in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species (1859). Spencer originally used it to convey Darwin’s concept of natural selection, and drew parallels between biological evolution through natural selection and social evolution through market competition. But he never implied that they were identical or that marketplace competition was necessarily an outgrowth of natural selection.

If anything, it should be thought of as an alternative to natural selection. Humans, to survive as a species, might practice natural selection as a matter of biological fact. And without the ability to reason this might eventually lead to a Hobbesian jungle. But since man is rational, natural selection’s role in social evolution is significantly lessened. Society arises from the natural order of things. There is no need for the Commonwealth or the General Will to step in and provide it.

Friedrich Engels saw things differently when he wrote in the introduction to his Dialectics of Nature (1872/1883):

Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind…when he showed that free competition…is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only…production and distribution…carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world…

Competition exists in both the natural world and free markets, so the connection between natural selection and marketplace competition, though spurious, seems all too obvious for critics of one or the other. They wrongfully project the cold, deterministic properties of nature onto economic freedom. But marketplace competition is an outgrowth of the ability to reason, not base survival instincts. The will to survive is certainly a factor of social progress, but taken on its own would tend toward more similarities with nature, such that the life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Man has the faculties to escape the jungle, to leave the animal kingdom, to better his life without worsening others’.

Communist anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (influenced by Godwin) juxtaposed social Darwinism, evolution requiring competition, with his own take, evolution requiring cooperation, in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). In so doing, he disagreed with Engels on Darwin, by describing how natural selection depended at least as much upon cooperation as it did biological competition. But unfortunately he conformed to Engels on the false dichotomy between rational competition (free markets) and cooperation (mutual aid).

Our second subject, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a mutualist, an anarchist and a socialist. Yet some of his ideas are more in line with libertarianism than with contemporary socialism. They were often based on a fairly consistent concept of natural rights, but understood in light of fallacious economic principles, especially the labor theory of value (held by Locke, Smith, Ricardo, and Marx).

But utility-based theories are in vogue among today’s classical liberals and much of Proudhon’s economics has been rightly tossed aside. But his theory of spontaneous order and support for free markets should not be so readily discarded. Leave that to conservatives fearful of anything tainted by the socialist label, and to leftists whose only alternative would be to admit that the labor theory is passé.

Proudhon (General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, 1851) was also opposed to Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s social contract theories, having his own:

What really is the Social Contract? An agreement of the citizen with the government? No…The social contract is an agreement of man with man…from which must result what we call society…Commerce…the act by which man and man declare themselves essentially producers, and abdicate all pretension to govern each other.

Organic institutions, neither designed nor imposed!

It seems there’s much knowledge and inspiration to be gained by examining the forgotten words of discredited intellectuals. Warts and all.

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8 thoughts on “Classical Liberals Who Weren’t Right About Everything”

  1. Spencer had no “warts” other than those stuck on him by dishonest so-called “intellectuals.” Spencer was intellectually mugged and dropped down the memory hole because his ideas were and are extremely threatening to the political class.

    Most all we ever hear or read about Spencer is nonsense and myth. The treatment he’s gotten from the establishment has been similar to the treatment Darwin has from religionists. Darwin was and is promoted by the establishment because natural selection undermines the influence of the church. Spencer threatened them, so he had to be disappeared.

    >> Herbert Spencer (insightful Malthus adherent)…

    Spencer was no Malthusian and Malthus didn’t influence him. Malthus believed that increasing populations would lead to starvation and suffering but not Spencer. Spencer believed that population growth was natural and necessary to progress and would stop by itself once equilibrium is reached. And we see today that he was right with respect to the freer nations where population has slowed and even stopped for some.

    From Spencer’s A Theory of Population, “From the beginning, pressure of population has been the proximate cause of progress. It produced the original diffusion of the race. It compelled men to abandon predatory habits and take to agriculture. It led to the clearing of the earth’s surface. It forced men into the social state; made social organization inevitable; and has developed the social sentiments. It has stimulated to progressive improvements in production, and to increased skill and intelligence. It is daily pressing us into closer contact and more mutually-dependent relationships. And after having caused, as it ultimately must, the due peopling of the globe, and the bringing of all its habitable parts into the highest state of culture—after having brought all processes for the satisfaction of human wants to the greatest perfection—after having, at the same time, developed the intellect into complete competence for its work, and the feelings into complete fitness for social life—after having done all this, we see that the pressure of population, as it gradually finishes its work, must gradually bring itself to an end.”

    >> Leading “social Darwinist” (a pejorative used to link eugenics and capitalism), Herbert Spencer…

    Neither was Spencer a so-called “social Darwinist” or a eugenicist. Quite the opposite. The term “social Darwinism” was invented by Marxist “intellectual” Richard Hofstadter in 1944 to discredit Spencer. Even 40 years after his death, collectivists were still frightened by the specter of Spencer.

    >> Spencer originally used it to convey Darwin’s concept of natural selection, and drew parallels between biological evolution through natural selection and social evolution through market competition.

    So that’s actually not true at all. What is called (wrongly) “social Darwinism” is as I said 180-deg opposite to social Spencerism. Social Darwinism can be described as “nature over nurture” and social Spencerism as “nurture over nature.”

    Survival of the fittest as Spencer intended applies to both organic and inorganic systems in nature and simply means that so long as a system is fit for its conditions, it will continue to exist. He proposed this because he believed that Lamarckian use-inheritance was still a mechanism of organic development even after reading Darwin and accepting natural selection. He was trying to convey to people that nature is complex and something like evolution can’t be reduced to one simple cause-and-effect explanation.

    >> But he never implied that they were identical or that marketplace competition was necessarily an outgrowth of natural selection.

    Spencer didn’t mention Darwin or natural selection at all with respect to human social progress. Spencer’s ideas were his own though he drew upon Lamarckian use-inheritance.

    From Spencer’s autobiography, “In the earliest of them—“Letters on the Proper Sphere of Government”—published in 1842, and republished as a pamphlet in 1843, the only point of community with the general doctrine of evolution is a belief in the modifiability of human nature through adaptation to conditions (which I held as a corollary from the theory of Lamarck) and a consequent belief in human progression.”

    >> Communist anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (influenced by Godwin) juxtaposed social Darwinism, evolution requiring competition…

    Evolution through cooperation was first proposed by Spencer which I call “social Spencerism” and define it as follows:

    “Individual ideation followed by action followed by evaluation and communication multiplied across society and subsequent generations.”

    This is the basic mechanism of all human progress as Spencer saw it. Which is why he proposed his principle of equal freedom as the best means of maximizing it. Through equal freedom, people have the greatest opportunity to think, dream, imagine, then act, evaluate and communicate. And both success *and* failure are equally important in teaching society what works and what doesn’t. That people then must be free to take risks and experiment for society to advance. This is why he saw the government as an impediment to progress. It is through equal freedom that he believed would make for the most fit societies over time.


    1. Okay, Spencer had no warts. I find it hard to believe that he was in every way perfect, but I grant you that he has been greatly mistreated and misunderstood.

      I agree with you that Spencer probably needed to be discredited by the establishment because he knew, and was willing to say, more than they wanted the average, ordinary person to hear or understand. Is it true that he was popular, even among the establishment until he voiced his opinion against British imperialism? That sounds about right.

      I didn’t say Spencer was a Malthusian, which unfortunately is a pejorative and has less to do with being influenced by Malthus and more to do with taking just ONE of his theories to an extreme. The areas where Spencer was a Malthus adherent may not have been what Malthus was infamous for, but they stemmed from Malthus’ observations (which seem pretty obvious; I doubt he was the first one to state these, but he is perhaps one of the most well known people to state them clearly; both are related to his theory of population catastrophe, but neither is dependent upon it) that POPULATION GROWTH PUTS PRESSURE ON FOOD SUPPLIES and THE FIT WOULD TEND TO SURVIVE CATASTROPHIC EPISODES. Spencer and Darwin both took these observations and used them in their independent theories, Spencer in sociology, Darwin in biology. I made no mention of Herbert believing that catastrophes necessarily arise from population growth, which is something Malthus got wrong (another thing being his support for the Corn Laws), and something others used to justify policies that have been labeled “social Darwinist.”

      I know about the origin of the term “social Darwinist”. It is older than Hofstadter, though he was the first person to use it to describe Herbert Spencer. I put it in quote marks for a reason, because I realize it is a mislabel and an anachronism and intended to disinform. When I said “eugenics and capitalism” I meant to imply that Spencer was, broadly speaking, a capitalist, and NOT a eugenicist.

      Spencer used the term “survival of the fittest” (it seems like you mistakenly think I am referring to the term “social darwinist”, which I am not, go back and read the relevant passage), for the very first time, to describe what he and Darwin (and Malthus) had in common: a belief that the fitter (not just meaning “stronger”, but could also mean “most cooperative”, “most intelligent”, “most able to adapt”, etc.), even though they were talking about different things, Spencer sociology, and Darwin biology.

      As for Kropotkin, what you write could very well be correct. In fact, I don’t doubt it. I was not using Kropotkin to discredit Spencer, I was merely trying to show that Kropotkin misinterpreted Spencer, but still managed to come up with the idea (that you say Spencer discovered earlier) of cooperation a a factor of evolution. You elsewhere state that social Darwinism is about nature over nurture, and social Spencerianism is about nurture over nature. It seems, from what I have read about Kropotkin and how he established his theories, that he may have tried the more “Darwinian” approach but come up with more “Spencerian” conclusions.

      On everything else you wrote I find no reason to disagree or to clarify, though you still seem to be operating under the assumption that I think Herbert Spencer was a social Darwinist and a student of Darwin. I am well aware of the facts that he had his own insights, and that Darwin only had a slight influence on his much later writings, but that otherwise he was decidedly Darwin’s equal or better, particularly in his own field of study, sociology.

      Again, thanks for commenting.

      1. Sorry if I misunderstood your post. My default position has become that anyone commenting on Spencer is likely doing so from either ignorance or to attack caricatures and not his actual ideas. The Internet is awash with Spencer as the godfather of social Darwinism and eugenics and SotF as Spencer justifying predatory capitalism, imperialism and genocide… *sigh* Contemporary understanding of Spencer is mostly based on myth and misrepresentations.

        It’s tragic really that humanity for the past 150 years has turned its back on him. Even worse are people like Hofstadter who turned Spencer’s ideas into straw men to prop up his own corrupted thinking.

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