Herbert Spencer, liberty’s forgotten hero.


AMONG THE MANY books possessed by my father, and which I eagerly tried to read, even though their content was often way beyond my youthful comprehension, was a small, fat hardback called First Principles, by a fellow called Herbert Spencer. I tried a number of times to get further than a couple of chapters into it and failed, and, to be quite honest, I won’t bother with it again.

Luckily, however, I didn’t abandon Spencer completely, even if it is only recently that I began to read other parts of his vast output. It’s not the work about social evolution and the survival of the fittest (the phrase coined by Spencer and mistakenly attributed to Darwin) that inspires me but the straightforward classical liberal, laissez-faire analysis of the politics of state and society. In particular I’m thinking of The Man Versus The State, both the essay of that title and the collection to which it gives its name, published in 1884.

I have yet to read a more clear and cogent description of the threats to individual liberty contained in what Spencer called “militant” society, ie, the closed, socialistic society advocated by the bien pensants of the current liberal left, in which the power of the state is remorselessly advanced as the only answer to any problem – as well as to problems that don’t exist.

Read the whole article at The Fortnightly Review.

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