Thursday, April 16, 2015

No, Herbert Spencer did not advocate genocide

Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up? | Cato @ Liberty - Trevor Burrus:

April 13, 2015 - "In a hit piece on Rand Paul posted on ThinkProgress, Ian Millhiser has taken guilt by association to new heights, and, in the process, fundamentally misrepresented the views of Herbert Spencer.

"In 'Rand Paul’s Favorite Philosophers Think Poor People Are "Parasites,"' Millhiser attempts to connect Rand Paul to 19th-century classical liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer.... Millhiser offers no direct evidence that Rand Paul himself is a fan of Herbert Spencer.... Despite this bit of journalistic malfeasance, Millhiser marches bravely forward with further misrepresentations about Spencer’s ideas.... Millhiser is joining a long, if not admirable, tradition of people misrepresenting Herbert Spencer’s ideas in order to attack proponents of capitalism. As usual, those critics are wrong about what Spencer himself actually wrote and believed.

"Modern misrepresentations of Spencer can be largely traced back to Richard Hofstadter, famed historian and dogged opponent of capitalism.... In Social Darwinism in American Thought, Hofstadter, a one time member of the Communist Party, uses a type of warmed-over Marxism to argue that Americans embraced the idea of 'survival of the fittest' because 'dominant groups' were 'able to dramatize this vision of competition as a thing good in itself.' Herbert Spencer, Hofstadter argues, was at the heart of this transformation. Fast-forward seventy years and through countless misrepresentations by people like Millhiser, and Spencer is now nearly synonymous with the idea of 'social Darwinism,' that is, the idea that social programs and government actions to help the worst off should be rolled back in order to cleanse the race of undesirables....

"Millhiser calls Spencer’s philosophy 'genocidal libertarianism'.... Spencer’s most notorious statement, that if someone is 'not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die' is dutifully trotted out by Millhiser as an example of Spencer’s monstrous beliefs. As with most critics of Spencer, he ignores the opening sentence of the next paragraph: 'Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.'

"Like most libertarians, Spencer was a big believer in private charity. As George H. Smith wrote over at Cato’s
Spencer opposed coercive, state-enforced charity, but he favored charity that is voluntarily bestowed. As a matter of justice, one should not be forced to help others; but as a matter of personal or religious ethics, one may be obligated to help others ...  he observed that it was becoming more common for the rich to contribute money and time to the poor, and he praised this trend as “the latest and most hopeful fact in human history”....

One must read Spencer’s extensive treatments of poverty and the poor to appreciate fully the outrageous misrepresentations of his critics. That Spencer was offended by such lies is dramatically illustrated by the fact that he broke off a close friendship of some forty years with Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”), after Huxley had written that, according to the Spencerian individualist, a poor man should be left to starve because charity interferes with “survival of the fittest.”

In reply to this accusation of “reasoned savagery,” Spencer wrote: “For nearly fifty years I have contended that the pains attendant on the struggle for existence may fitly be qualified by the aid which private sympathy prompts.”
"Spencer also believed that beneficence was an essential element of an advanced and evolved society.... '[T]he highest form of life, individual and social,' he wrote, 'is not achievable under a reign of justice only; but … there must be joined with it a reign of beneficence.' To this end, he devoted large parts of his Principles of Ethics to arguing that a fully evolved society would need more than merely the 'avoidance of direct and indirect injuries to others,' it would need 'spontaneous efforts to further the welfare of others.'"

"This little post is only the latest attempt to correct the record on Herbert Spencer."

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