20 August 2015

Herbert Spencer on status and contract

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher and political theorist of the Victorian era. During his lifetime he achieved great authority, and was for some years one of the world’s best-known intellectuals. When I was about twelve, he was my favourite philosopher, although by then he had become far less well-known.

Spencer is now regarded by libertarians as a pioneer of free-market thought. Among contemporary academic philosophers, however, he is held in very low esteem, being seen ‘primarily as the enthusiast for extreme laissez-faire or Social Darwinism’ (Oxford Companion to Philosophy).

When I was working on my doctoral thesis at Oxford’s philosophy department (which was then located in Merton Street) I noted with interest that the department’s lecture room was called the ‘Herbert Spencer Lecture Room’, but that there appeared to be no books by Spencer on the shelves of the department library.

The department seems to have dropped Spencer’s name in referring to the lecture room. ‘Herbert Spencer Lecture Room’ produces no results in a Google search, the room being referred to as ‘the Lecture Room’ in the documents that come up. However, I distinctly remember seeing the name ‘Herbert Spencer’ prominently displayed above the entrance.

Spencer was opposed to state intervention. He was also against female suffrage, hypothesising that women would be too likely to support paternalistic (or interventionist) policies – perhaps another reason why he has become unfashionable.

One distinction which Spencer made, using terminology proposed by nineteenth-century jurist Henry Maine, is between relations based on status and those based on contract. In Spencer’s model, societies evolve from a condition in which roles are largely determined by status; to one in which primacy is given to contract, so that roles and relations become largely chosen.

The following is an extract from Spencer’s Autobiography, in which he appears to foresee the regression of British society towards something resembling the former condition, so that interactions and relationships are no longer freely chosen by individuals, and contract is interfered with in numerous ways. (See, for example, the story of my grandfather and his shop.)
... it was absurd to suppose that the great relaxation of restraints – political, social, commercial – which culminated in free-trade, would continue. A re-imposition of restraints, if not of the same kind then of other kinds, was inevitable ...

... it is now manifest that whereas during a long period there had been an advance from involuntary co-operation in social affairs to voluntary co-operation (or, to use Sir Henry Maine’s language, from status to contract), there has now commenced a reversal of the process. Contract is in all directions being weakened and broken ...

... we are on the way back to that involuntary co-operation, or system of status, consequent on the immense development of public administrations and the corresponding subordination of citizens ... a new tyranny ...

(Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, 1904, chapter 55*)
Spencer would no doubt have disapproved of many of the upcoming measures threatened by the current government, including enhancing the state’s powers of surveillance, banning speech which ‘undermines democracy’, and further distortion of the labour market by means of the minimum wage.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position.
I need people to provide moral support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

* Complete publication available at Online Library of Liberty.