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The Spencer Myth

Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

Jonah Goldberg rightly defends Herbert Spencer against the charge of being a heartless “social Darwinist” (“Top five cliches that liberals use to avoid real arguments,” April 28).  Spencer was, in fact, a profound and humane thinker who cherished individual liberty, celebrated the rich potential of voluntary action, championed women’s rights, vigorously opposed imperialism, and would never in a billion years have endorsed eugenics.  The myth that Spencer was a social Darwinist was created without basis by the historian Richard Hofstadter in the latter’s regrettably influential 1944 book, Social Darwinism in American Thought.

The persistence of Hofstadter’s myth was revealed in a telling way five years ago in the New York Times when reporter Patricia Cohen wrote “Victorian-era social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism, opposition to labor unions and the withdrawal of aid to the sick and needy” (“A Split Emerges as Conservatives Discuss Darwin,” May 5, 2007).  One week later the Times was obliged to offer this correction: “A front-page article last Saturday about a dispute among some conservatives over whether Darwinian theory undermines or supports conservative principles erroneously included one social Darwinist among Victorian-era social Darwinists who adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism.  Herbert Spencer opposed both” (“Correction,” May 12, 2007).

The Times should have added also that Spencer, while opposed to guild-like monopoly privileges for producers (including for labor) as well as to the welfare state, objected neither to voluntary organizations of workers nor to charitable aid to the sick and needy.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

Thomas C. Leonard’s 2009 paper in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization is a must-read on this matter.