The Man Versus The State

The Man Versus The State

With the Reform Acts (1832, 1867, and 1884), the Parliament in England underwent a dramatic change. The reform of the franchise and the redistribution of seats in the House of Commons expanded the electorate and eliminated certain inequalities in representation.

While these measures may appear perfectly legitimate and, if you wish, liberal, Herbert Spencer expressed concerns about how the British population would react. In light of the redistribution of parliamentary seats, Spencer noticed something that J.S. Mill had already observed when he published On Liberty in 1859.

Mill realized (see the very beginning of Ch. 1) that now, with the extension of the franchise and representation in the House of Commons for urban areas that were previously excluded, people would identify themselves as "the government." Consequently, they would be more willing to reject any limitations on the use of power. Previously, limitations on power were necessary because the government was in the hands of "monarchs" or "aristocrats" who clearly had different interests from the overall population.

The Book in 1'

Spencer observed a proliferation of "Acts" (the list of new acts introduced seemed endless) by the government in the wake of the "Reform Acts." All these acts resulted in over-legislation and increased taxation. The consequence, probably not originally foreseen by politicians, was the expansion of "formal rights" at the expense of individual rights. He believed that the justification for this over-legislation and higher taxes lay in the fact that people now perceived themselves as the lawmakers and the actual rulers. However, this shall not be the case as

“These multitudinous restraining acts are not defensible on the ground that they proceed from a popularly-chosen body; for that the authority of a popularly-chosen body is no more to be regarded as an unlimited authority than the authority of a monarch.”

The essay presents a sharp critique of Liberals in government who not only permitted excessive legislation and increased taxes but actively encouraged them.

Why? Spencer believed Liberals had misunderstood the essence of freedom, how to pursue it, and its true significance.

Throughout the entire book, you can sense the soul of a man who rejects coercion and feels oppressed by stupid and unnecessary laws. As he couldn't quite comprehend why people would genuinely tolerate these, he attempts to trace the story of this new subjugation that has actually taken hold, yet so many haven't fully grasped. Unfortunately, we will discover that everything seems to have occurred naturally.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

Let's dig into these stages.

1. Liberalization of Society

Spencer begins his analysis somewhat historically and develops it logically.

The liberalization of society (i.e., where more people can vote and be represented, there is no super-powerful king, and individuals are citizens instead of subjects or slaves) has always been (mis)understood, according to Spencer, as the result of fights for the “abolition of grievances suffered by the people, or by portions of them.”

2. Misleading Perceptions

The result was a perception in people's hearts of an increased "popular good" that was sought and achieved through positive means, rather than just by abolishing state hindrances to individual happiness and restraining the sphere of the government.

3. The Liberal Program

From this point, Liberals in government began to think that their greatest past achievement in history was the promotion of that popular good, and their current and future goal was to continue in that direction; to further enhance this popular good. Their aim shifted towards seeking welfare through positive means, rather than merely removing government interference from the individual sphere.

The initial battle against grievances soon transformed into a struggle for positive benefits. Believing that the key to freedom was not indirectly gained through the relaxation of restraints, “they have used methods intrinsically opposed to those originally used.” Essentially, over-legislation and increased taxes were used to promote positive liberties, whereas the essence of Liberalism lies in the pursuit of negative liberties by eliminating state interference.

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The Poor Laws: One major example of positive liberty is found in the Poor Laws. We believe that no one should suffer, and if they do suffer, it should not be due to individual responsibilities but rather because of societal factors. Consequently, it becomes society's responsibility to assist the poor.

4. Over-Legislation and More Taxes

As Liberals now believed that the popular good had to be pursued through positive means, they engaged in a wide range of public expenditure programs to improve the conditions of citizens. From building schools to implementing regulations on workplace conditions and the employment of children and women, legislators often overlooked (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the long-term consequences of these measures.

With the expansion of the government's sphere, the introduction of more laws, and the inclusion of an increasing number of businesses (we are protecting and increasing the popular good, stupid!) politicians felt no restraint on their actions. They were merely wondering, “We have already done this; why should we not do that?”

5. The Effects

Laws do not solely have "legal" effects; unfortunately, they also have moral and behavioral consequences. Spencer suggests that people began to rely more and more on the state. If an individual has a problem or society faces an issue, the immediate response is to turn to the state for a solution. Individual responsibilities diminish as the state is increasingly called upon to provide answers.

Consequently, when someone cannot find a job, citizens believe it is the state's responsibility to secure one. Therefore, the state will “create” public employments and will enlarge its bureaucracy in order to employ more and more citizens. Since this offers a quick solution to finding employment, citizens will support the "creation" of more public sector jobs. As a result,

“Each generation is made less familiar with the attainment of desired ends by individual actions or private combinations, and more familiar with the attainment of them by governmental agencies; until, eventually, governmental agencies come to be thought of as the only available agencies.”

6. Public means For Free

This is perhaps the most frustrating consequence of state intervention, and it's also one of the most challenging to make people realize. When you receive more services than your labor enables you to purchase (which means you are a tax-consumer), you start to believe that these public services are free (wrong! There are taxpayers on the other side footing the bill). When you secure a job in the public sector, you may think the State (mysteriously) "created" that job. In reality, that job was funded by private money, namely the taxes collected from private citizens. However, this can be difficult to grasp, as you don't directly see private citizens employing you through their taxes, but you do see the state providing you with an income seemingly without any apparent cost.

As a result, the cry becomes: More public services, more public schools, more public employment, more welfare for all! The more, the better. As long as it's seemingly for free.

7. Towards Socialism

The path towards socialism, which Hayek would later call The Road to Serfdom, consists of a series of natural predispositions, according to Spencer. Liberals, in his view, are being deceived. The difference with socialism, therefore, lies not in the outcome but in the means. Socialism aimed for universal welfare through the socialist revolution, which implied violence, subversion of the government, and the persecution and oppression of capitalists. Liberals, on the other hand, would lead us towards socialism gently and gradually through over-legislation and increased taxation. There is no room for violence in their agenda.

Viktor Karrus and Roman Treuman: Call to Socialist Competition for the Republic’s Tractorists, (1951)

My Take Today

It is bizarre that Nock who used a completely different approach to study the State, wrote the preface to The Man Versus The State 1939 edition.

The fact that Spencer openly draws influence from social Darwinism makes his theory about the rise of government intervention more understandable. What he appears to be reluctant to do is provide a recipe for escaping this Nozickian "invisible hand" mechanism that inexorably leads us toward socialism. In essence, Spencer portrays the paths toward socialism as natural, almost like an inescapable force. He views it as reasonable for people to increasingly rely on the state and shirk individual responsibilities.

IMHO, this analysis is misleading. Spencer appears to portray the outcome as being in the people's interest, which can lead to a fallacy known as the naturalistic fallacy. It seems as though he believes that all societies must eventually tend towards socialism and that relying on the State is a natural course of action.

He overlooks a point that Nock makes quite clear – namely, the violence exercised by a portion of the population over the minority. He fails to highlight that the majority (tax-consumers) exploit the minority (taxpayers) through the state. He overlooks the fact that there is nothing inherently natural or necessary in this mechanism. As one of my professors, Jack Knight, says, institutions are always the result of some relations of power.

It's no coincidence that Spencer faced strong criticism from Rothbard for overlooking this underlying relationship of violence within the State. The "naturalistic fallacy" played a significant role in the decline of Liberalism. In Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, Rothbard wrote:

“The second great philosophical influence on the decline of liberalism was evolutionism, or Social Darwinism, which put the finishing touches to liberalism as a radical force in society. For the Social Darwinist erroneously saw history and society through the peaceful, rose-colored glasses of infinitely slow, infinitely gradual social evolution. Ignoring the prime fact that no ruling caste in history has ever voluntarily surrendered its power, and that, therefore, liberalism had to break through by means of a series of revolutions, the Social Darwinists looked forward peacefully and cheerfully to thou- sands of years of infinitely gradual evolution to the next supposedly inevitable stage of individualism. An interesting illustration of a thinker who embodies within himself the decline of liberalism in the nineteenth century is Herbert Spencer.”