Nonintervention and the Survival of the Fittest

Spencer was at onewith Comte in firmly believing in the operation of social laws, whichare as deterministic as those governing nature. "There is noalternative. Either society has laws, or it has not. If it has not,there can be no order, no certainty, no system in its phenomena. If ithas, then they are like the other laws of the universe--sure,inflexible, ever active, and having no exception." But while Comtestressed that men should aim at discovering the laws of society in orderto act collectively in the social world, Spencer argued with equalconviction that we should study them in order not to actcollectively. In contrast to Comte, who wanted to direct societythrough the spiritual power of his sociologist-priests, Spencer arguedpassionately that sociologists should convince the public that societymust be free from the meddling of governments and reformers. "As Iheard remarked by a distinguished professor," Spencer wrote, " 'Whenonce you begin to interfere with the order of Nature there is no knowingwhere the result will end.' And if this is true of that sub-human orderof Nature to which he referred, still more is it true of that order ofNature existing in the social arrangements of human beings." Given thecomplexity of causes operating in society and the fact that humanactions are likely to result in consequences that can not beanticipated, Spencer urges us to let things well enough alone.

Theonly power Spencer was willing to grant the state was protection of therights of the individual and collective protection against outsideenemies. The state had "the duty not only of shielding each citizenfrom the trespasses of his neighbors, but of defending him, in commonwith the community at large, against foreign aggression." Everythingelse was to be left to the free initiative of individuals makingcontracts and agreements with one another.

For thehealthful activity and due proportioning of those industries,occupations, and professions, which maintain and aid the life of asociety, there must, in the first place, be few restrictions on men'sliberties to make agreements with one another, and there must, in thesecond place, be an enforcement of the agreements which they do make . .. . The checks naturally arising to each man's actions when men becomeassociated are those only which result from mutual limitations; andthere consequently can be no resulting check to the contracts theyvoluntarily make.

A good society, in Spencer's view, isbased on contracts between individuals pursuing their respectiveinterests. Whenever the state intervenes in these contractualarrangements, whether for reasons of social welfare or any other, iteither distorts the social order or leads to a retrogression from thebenefits of industrial society to early forms of tyrannical and militantsocial order.

Although Spencer's extremely anticollectivist viewscan be traced to a number of extrascientific influences, it is alsogrounded in the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, which he, likeDarwin, derived from Malthus. His own theory of population was somewhatmore optimistic than that of the dismal parson. He argued that anexcess of fertility stimulates greater activity because the more peoplethere are, the more ingenuity is required to stay alive. The leastintelligent groups and individuals die off; hence, the general level ofintelligence is bound to rise gradually. "Those whom this increasingdifficulty of getting a living, which excess of fertility entails, doesnot stimulate to improvements in production--that is, to greater mentalactivity--are on the high road to extinction; and must ultimately besupplanted by those whom the pressure does so stimulate."

Spencerargued that the general level of intelligence will rise to the extentthat only those with superior intelligence survive in the battle forexistence. But this beneficial evolutionary mechanism will be fatallyupset, he contended, once governmental intervention in the form of poorlaws or other measures of social welfare is allowed to distort thebeneficial processes of natural selection.

That rigorousnecessity which, when allowed to operate, becomes so sharp a spur to thelazy and so strong a bridle to the random, these paupers' friends wouldrepeal . . . . Blind to the fact that under the natural order of thingssociety is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow,vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning,men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process,but even increases the vitiation-- absolutely encourages themultiplication of the reckless and incompetent by offering them anunfailing provision, and discourages the multiplication of the competentand provident by heightening the difficulty of maintaining a family.

The intervention of government in social affairs, Spencer argued, mustdistort the necessary adaptation of society to its environment. Oncegovernment intervenes, the beneficent processes that would naturallylead to man's more efficient and more intelligent control over naturewill be distorted and give rise to a reverse maleficent process that canonly lead to the progressive deterioration of the human race.

From Coser, 1977:99-101.

Forward to "Obstacles to Objectivity"
Back to "Individualism Versus Organicism"
Back to the Index