Sunday, October 4, 2015

New book on 'the most misunderstood libertarian'

The Most Misunderstood Libertarian - Online Library of Law & Liberty - Alberto Mingardi:

September 28, 2015"To the surprise of many, scholarship on Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) has flourished in the last few years. A towering figure in Victorian Britain, Spencer was all but forgotten after his death. His works, which taken together form a 'Synthetic Philosophy,' seemed alien to 20th century academics in an age of meticulous specialization. Also his commitment to individual liberty and (seriously) limited government has not been too common in the discipline that he helped establish, sociology.... Spencer may be routinely included among the forerunners of modern libertarianism but it is rather uncommon to find a contemporary individualist thinker deliberately appealing to his insights....

"The paradox of one of the fiercest libertarians ever to be ignored by libertarians emerges vividly from Herbert Spencer: Legacies, edited by Mark Francis and Michael Taylor.... Spencer’s legacy is plural, as the title of this collection suggests, and may have come to us mediated by subsequent developments in different fields. The plural nature of the 'legacies' is stressed throughout, and has multiple dimensions: disciplinary, political, and even geographical...

"Taylor stresses how Spencer goes for voluntary and spontaneous arrangements, not necessarily for institutional settings based on the price system. But this won’t sound particularly controversial or new to libertarians, who, despite the caricature often made of them, understand that not everything in life is tradable at a money price. Their point is more subtle (and Spencerian): that is, top-down government intrusions may retard or altogether stop the spontaneous evolution (or adaptation to new circumstances) of human societies....

"One of the many take-aways of this book is that Spencer was a far more complex thinker than those who only know him as a diabolical 'social Darwinist.' Its essays might, for example, open the eyes of those who still have in mind the Herbert Spencer largely manufactured in the 1940s by Richard Hofstadter in a book that made history as a beautifully written and yet quite misleading tirade. Taylor explains that Spencer never thought that 'social existence involved an unrelenting struggle for survival in which the richest were the most successful and the poor should go to the wall.' He quotes Thomas Leonard’s important study on the Hofstadterian myth....

"Francis, who like his co-editor cites the Leonard monograph, also makes clear Spencer’s commitment to pacifism: 'Spencerians believed that imperial conquest might have been a natural phenomenon when employed by ancient states, but was an archaic activity in modern times' and a most immoral one. The thread running through all of Spencer’s works is the idea that society progresses toward the minimization of violence, which had been needed at earlier stages of civilization....

"This book may convey a sense of Spencer’s true understanding of complexity.... His magnificent The Study of Sociology (1873) would be a relevant work for those interested in the proper role of the social sciences and their limits, if only they read it....

"If I had any quibble about this impressive collection, it would be that the propensity to consider The Man Versus the State as 'just' a political pamphlet causes the contributors to overlook that this is perhaps the first work whose arguments are truly centered around the notion of unintended consequences. All in all, though, Herbert Spencer: Legacies may foster a better understanding of this seminal thinker and raise yet more interest in his underappreciated writings."

Read more: http://www.libertylawsite.org/book-review/the-most-misunderstood-libertarian/
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