Sunday, January 21, 2007

Herbert Spencer's Utopian Anarchism

Having just participated in a Liberty Fund conference on Herbert Spencer, I am prompted to comment on how Spencer's evolutionary ethics and politics compares with Darwinian conservatism.

One of the most common complaints about my conception of Darwinian conservatism is that it's only a restatement of Spencer's social Darwinism, which has been generally discredited as morally repugnant.

Spencer's classical liberalism contributes to libertarian conservatism through his defense of the principle of equal liberty--that each individual is entitled to the fullest liberty compatible with the same liberty for every other individual. Spencer supports that principle as the fulfillment of human evolutionary nature. And so, Spencer's evolutionary liberty looks a lot like the Darwinian conservatism that I have proposed.

The crucial difference from Darwinian conservatism, however, is that Spencer is a utopian anarchist, because he assumes that human nature is perfectible and that the evolutionary changes in human nature will inevitably bring about an anarchistic society with perpetual peace where human beings can cooperate without any need for government. By contrast, my Darwinian conservatism assumes that the evolutionary nature of human beings is imperfectible in ways that dictate limited government to secure individual liberty.

Spencer's evolutionary theory is orthogenetic or teleological in that he assumes that evolutionary history is the unfolding of a cosmic pattern of progress that is inevitable. This teleological evolutionary history moves through four stages. In the first stage, human beings lived as savage foragers in anarchic societies without government. In the second stage, the predatory warfare of human beings drove them into militant statism, in which order was based upon "status." Most recently, human beings have evolved into a third stage of industrial statism, in which order is based on "contract" or voluntary association. In modern free market societies, individuals are largely free to associate with one another on the basis of voluntary exchange. To secure the conditions for such freedom, government is needed to secure domestic peace, enforce contracts, and defend society against external threats. The need for military defense requires severe restrictions on individual liberty.

Eventually, human beings will become so cooperative that they will enter a state of perfect and permanent peace. And without the threat of war, they can enter the final stage of evolutionary history--a civilized anarchy in which human beings can organize their societies spontaneously without government.

Spencer's naive utopianism turns on his assumption that human nature can be radically transformed by the conditions of evolution so that human beings become perfect in their cooperative sociality. As he says in The Study of Society (chap. 14), "human nature will slowly adapt itself" to the conditions of harmonious life."

A Darwinian conception of evolution would agree that human nature has changed in evolutionary time, but this change has occurred very "slowly." So the present nature of human beings will be stable for tens of thousands of years. By contrast, Spencer's Lamarckian understanding of evolution presumes that human nature can change quickly and radically in response to changing social conditions. In this respect, Spencer is close to the utopian historicism of Marx. And like Marx, he forsees an evolutionary transformation of the human condition with the achievement of a stateless society.

Some libertarians--like Murrary Rothbard--have shown a similar utopianism in arguing for anarchy and the complete abolition of the state.

Darwinian conservatism assumes a realist conception of human nature in which government will always be required to restrain human imperfection. But that very imperfection dictates a limited government based on the principle that power corrupts and therefore we need a government of limited and balanced powers to minimize the dangers of absolute power.


Anonymous said...

Murray Rothbard didn't base his anarchism on the view that human nature can be changed for the better. He thought that the state violates rights and that protection and justice can be provided better by the market. You think that anarchism presupposes a utopian view of human nature, but this position shouldn't be imputed to Rothbard.

Larry Arnhart said...


Yes, I see your point. Although Rothbard agreed with Spencer's anarchism, Rothbard did not think that anarchy could be based on "permanent peace," as claimed by Spencer. In Rothbard's anarchy, people would still be inclined to war, but their military protection would come from private, voluntary agencies rather than the state.

And yet, it seems to me that Rothbard's dream of an anarchist society without coercion would require a utopian transformation in human nature.

Kent Guida said...

While I appreciate David Gordon's defense of Rothbard, I think you are basically correct about the utopian nature of Rothbardian anarchism. But his utopianism does not have the quite the evolutionary angle of Spencer's.

In the final section of FOR A NEW LIBERTY, "Why Liberty Will Win", he outlines his theory of concentric circles: liberty will win because it alone is compatible with human nature, it alone is compatible with industrial society, and because statism entered a permanent crisis in 1973.

As someone said in another connection, "Maybe, maybe not."

Rothbard's view seems strikingly similar to Fukuyama's. It is a true "end of history" thesis -- without any element of the Last Man. The coming of liberty will mean the end of political life as we know it and political history as we know it. The Unitversal Homogeneous Non-State.

If I understand DNR and Darwinian Conservatism, this could be considered utopian because it goes against certain features of man's evolved nature, mostly having to do with thumos. Political life will always be pretty much what we have seen before -- states, political hierarchy, imperfect peace, the pursuit of glory and the rest of it.

Despite the advantages of liberty so convincingly described by classical liberals, it is utopian to think the triumph of even pre-Rothbardian liberty is inevitable, much less imminent. Not to mention the triumph of Rothbardian anarchism.

The DNR view is more like Aristotle -- any regime can change into any other regime if the conditions are right. Cultures can change, and could change toward liberty, free markets, consent of the governed, and more peace. But political life will always be pretty much what it has always been. To think otherwise is utopian.

Best regards,
Kent Guida