Herbert Spencer: Nonintervention and the Survival of the Fittest
Nonintervention and the Survival of the Fittest
Spencer was at one with Comte in firmly believing in the operation of social laws, which are as deterministic as those governing nature. "There is no alternative. Either society has laws, or it has not. If it has not, there can be no order, no certainty, no system in its phenomena. If it has, then they are like the other laws of the universe--sure, inflexible, ever active, and having no exception." But while Comte stressed that men should aim at discovering the laws of society in order to act collectively in the social world, Spencer argued with equal conviction that we should study them in order not to act collectively. In contrast to Comte, who wanted to direct society through the spiritual power of his sociologist-priests, Spencer argued passionately that sociologists should convince the public that society must be free from the meddling of governments and reformers. "As I heard remarked by a distinguished professor," Spencer wrote, " 'When once you begin to interfere with the order of Nature there is no knowing where the result will end.' And if this is true of that sub-human order of Nature to which he referred, still more is it true of that order of Nature existing in the social arrangements of human beings." Given the complexity of causes operating in society and the fact that human actions are likely to result in consequences that can not be anticipated, Spencer urges us to let things well enough alone.
The only power Spencer was willing to grant the state was protection of the rights of the individual and collective protection against outside enemies. The state had "the duty not only of shielding each citizen from the trespasses of his neighbors, but of defending him, in common with the community at large, against foreign aggression." Everything else was to be left to the free initiative of individuals making contracts and agreements with one another.
For the healthful activity and due proportioning of those industries, occupations, and professions, which maintain and aid the life of a society, there must, in the first place, be few restrictions on men's liberties to make agreements with one another, and there must, in the second place, be an enforcement of the agreements which they do make . . . . The checks naturally arising to each man's actions when men become associated are those only which result from mutual limitations; and there consequently can be no resulting check to the contracts they voluntarily make.
A good society, in Spencer's view, is based on contracts between individuals pursuing their respective interests. Whenever the state intervenes in these contractual arrangements, whether for reasons of social welfare or any other, it either distorts the social order or leads to a retrogression from the benefits of industrial society to early forms of tyrannical and militant social order.
Although Spencer's extremely anticollectivist views can be traced to a number of extrascientific influences, it is also grounded in the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, which he, like Darwin, derived from Malthus. His own theory of population was somewhat more optimistic than that of the dismal parson. He argued that an excess of fertility stimulates greater activity because the more people there are, the more ingenuity is required to stay alive. The least intelligent groups and individuals die off; hence, the general level of intelligence is bound to rise gradually. "Those whom this increasing difficulty of getting a living, which excess of fertility entails, does not stimulate to improvements in production--that is, to greater mental activity--are on the high road to extinction; and must ultimately be supplanted by those whom the pressure does so stimulate."
Spencer argued that the general level of intelligence will rise to the extent that only those with superior intelligence survive in the battle for existence. But this beneficial evolutionary mechanism will be fatally upset, he contended, once governmental intervention in the form of poor laws or other measures of social welfare is allowed to distort the beneficial processes of natural selection.
That rigorous necessity which, when allowed to operate, becomes so sharp a spur to the lazy and so strong a bridle to the random, these paupers' friends would repeal . . . . Blind to the fact that under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation-- absolutely encourages the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent by offering them an unfailing provision, and discourages the multiplication of the competent and provident by heightening the difficulty of maintaining a family.
The intervention of government in social affairs, Spencer argued, must distort the necessary adaptation of society to its environment. Once government intervenes, the beneficent processes that would naturally lead to man's more efficient and more intelligent control over nature will be distorted and give rise to a reverse maleficent process that can only lead to the progressive deterioration of the human race.
From Coser, 1977:99-101.