There are people who hate anything in the shape of exact conclusions; and these are of them. According to such, the right is never in either extreme, but always half-way between the extremes. They are continually trying to reconcile Yes and No. Ifs and buts, and excepts, are their delight. They have so great a faith in “the judicious mean” that they would scarcely believe an oracle, if it uttered a full-length principle. Were you to inquire of them whether the earth turns on its axis from East to West, or from West to East, you might almost expect the reply—”A little of both,” or “Not exactly either.” It is doubtful whether they would assent to the axiom that the whole is greater than its part, without making some qualification.—
Herbert Spencer, 1850.
Chapter I— Letter To The St. James’s Gazette.
Chapter II— The Man Versus The State
Chapter III— Letter To The Times
Chapter IV— This Apology Examined.
Chapter V— Second Letter To The Times.
Chapter VI— More Letters
Letter To The St. James’s Gazette.
WITH the early years of the last decade a marked change in common thought began to show itself; and the doctrine of natural, inalienable and equal rights to land, which Mr. Spencer had avowed as it were in academic groves, began to stir in the hearts and minds of common men, and to make way among the great disinherited. Vaguely and blindly, the land question had come to the front in Ireland, and in this form forced its way into British politics. And Progress and Poverty, first published in the United States in 1879, had begun, by the close of 1882, to circulate in Great Britain as no economic work had ever circulated before, reinforcing what Herbert Spencer had said of the ethical injustice of private property in land with the weight of political economy and the proposal of a practical measure for restoring equal rights. Everywhere, in short, that the English language is spoken, the idea of natural rights to the use of land, that in 1850 seemed dead, was beginning to revive with a power and in a form that showed that the struggle for its recognition had at last begun.
Believing in Mr. Spencer’s good faith, deeming him not a mere prater about justice, but one who ardently desired to carry it into practice, we who sought to promote what he himself had said that equity sternly commanded naturally looked for some word of sympathy and aid from him, the more so as the years had brought him position and influence, the ability to command attention, and the power to affect a large body of admirers who regard him as their intellectual leader.
But we looked in vain. When the Justice that in the academic cloister he had so boldly invoked came forth into the streets and market-places, to raise her standard and call her lovers, Mr. Spencer, instead of hastening to greet her, did his best to get out of her way, like the young wife in the old story, who charmed the bystanders with her invocations to Death to take her rather than her elderly husband, but who, when Death rapped at the door and asked, “Who calls me?” quickly replied, “The gentleman in the next room!”
In March, 1882, when Mr. Spencer issued “Political Institutions,” and even in August of the same year, when he left England for a visit to the United States, there was on the surface of English society nothing to indicate that such views as he had expressed in Social Statics were any nearer attracting popular attention and arousing feeling than in 1850, for the Irish land movement was considered what it indeed was in the main,—not an attack on private property in land, but an effort of Irish tenants to become landowners or to get better terms. But when Mr. Spencer returned, toward the close of November, it was to find that the days of contemptuous tolerance on the part of Sir John and his Grace had gone, and that all that was deemed “respectable” in English society had become roused to the wickedness of those who denied the validity of private property in land.
To explain the change that had taken place in this brief interval I must refer to my own books.
Progress and Poverty was received by the English press, as all such books are at first, in silence or with brief derision. Messrs. Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., who first published it in England, in sheets brought from the United States, were on publication able to sell only twenty copies in all the three kingdoms. But ere long it began to make its way, and when, toward the close of August, 1882, a sixpenny edition was issued, it began to sell in tens and scores of thousands, “in the alleys and back streets of England,” the Quarterly Review said “audibly welcomed there as a glorious gospel of justice.”
Hardly was this cheap edition out and beginning to circulate, when, conjoining with it my pamphlet on The Irish Land Question,which had also been published in England in cheap form, the Times, on September 11, 1882, gave to Progress and Povertya long and fair review. At once the silence of the press was broken, and from the quarterlies to the comic papers the British journals began to teem with notices and references, most of them naturally of a kind that made the Duke of Argyll seem mild when he called me “such a preacher of unrighteousness as the world has never seen,” and spoke of my “immoral doctrines” and “profligate conclusions,” the “unutterable meanness of the gigantic villainy” I advocated, and so on.
And from being regarded in this way in the very society in which as a great philosopher he had come to be an honored member, it was evident that Mr. Spencer could not escape if he adhered to his views. For although Social Statics was little known in England, the quotations I had made from it, both in Progress and Povertyand in The Irish Land Question, were bringing those views into sharp prominence.
This was the situation as Mr. Spencer found it on his return from the United States. The burning question—a question beside which that of chattel slavery was almost small—had been raised in England. And he must either stand for the truth he had seen, and endure social ostracism for it, or he must deny it.
“Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you!” For this to the man who has striven to uproot a great wrong—a wrong that by the fact of its hitherto unquestioned existence has necessarily enlisted on its side all the powerful influences that dominate the organs of opinion and rule society—is the sure sign that the day he has hoped for is at hand.
When, in 1850, Mr. Spencer had said that the rent of land could be collected by an agent or deputy agent of the community, quite as well as by an agent of Sir John or his Grace, he must have known that if ever his proposition attracted the attention of the interests he thus personified he would be denounced in all the established organs of opinion, and in “polite society” regarded as a robber. Then, I am inclined to think he would have hailed with joy such indications of the progress of thought. But in 1882, he no sooner found that Sir John and his Grace had been aroused by such a proposition and were likely to hear that he had made it, than he hastened to get the evidence out of their sight, and as far as he could to deny it. At once, it seems from what he tells us in 1892, he, “resolved not again to import a supply” of Social Statics, and took the first opportunity to write a letter.
The Edinburgh Review, for January, 1883, in an article entitled “The Nationalization of the Land,” reviewed Progress and Poverty—as fairly, it seemed to me, as could be expected, but of course adversely. In doing so it referred to what Mr. Spencer had said on the land question in Social Statics, giving him credit for proposing to indemnify landowners, and quoting with that interpretation the incongruous sentences in Section 9. In concluding it said:
Writers like Mr. George and Mr. Herbert Spencer are at war not only with the first principles of political economy and of law, of social order and domestic life, but with the elements of human nature. … To attack the rights of private property in land is to attack property in its most concrete form. If landed property is not secure, no property can be protected by law, and the transmission of wealth, be it large or small, is extinguished. With it expires the perpetuity of family life, and that future which cheers and ennobles the labor of the present with the hopes of the future. These are the doctrines of communism, fatal alike to the welfare of society and to the moral character of man.
This brought out from Mr. Spencer a letter to the St. James’s Gazette of London, an able Tory journal. Since he was writing on the subject, here was an opportunity for Mr. Spencer to correct the misapprehension (as I now think it to be) that he had in Social Statics proposed to compensate landowners for their land. And, if he wished to defend himself against the charge of attacking property rights and upholding the doctrines of communism, here was an opportunity for him to show, for all of us as well as for himself, that the denial of the justice of private property in land involves no denial of true property rights. Or if he chose to do so, here was a chance for him straightforwardly to recant, to apologize to landowners, and to plead that he was young and foolish when he asserted, as quoted by the Edinburgh, that “equity does not permit property in land, and that the right of mankind to the earth’s surface is still valid, all deeds, customs, and laws notwithstanding.”
But, instead of manfully defending the truth he had uttered, or straightforwardly recanting it, Mr. Spencer sought to shelter himself behind ifs and buts, perhapses and it-may-bes, and the implication of untruths. Here is his letter:
- To the Editor of the St. James’s Gazette:
During my absence in America, there appeared in the St. James’s Gazette (27th of October, 1882) an article entitled “Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Political Theories.” Though, when it was pointed out to me after my return, I felt prompted to say something in explanation of my views, I should probably have let the matter pass had I not found that elsewhere such serious misapprehensions of them are being diffused that rectification seems imperative.
Before commenting on the statements of your contributor, I must devote a paragraph to certain more recent statements which have far less justification. In old days among the Persians, the subordination of subject to ruler was so extreme that, even when punished, the subject thanked the ruler for taking notice of him. With like humility I suppose that now, when after I have been publishing books for a third of a century “the leading critical organ” has recognized my existence, I ought to feel thankful, even though the recognition draws forth nothing save blame. But such elation as I might otherwise be expected to feel is checked by two facts. One is that the Edinburgh Review has not itself discovered me, but has had its attention drawn to me by quotations in the work of Mr. Henry George—a work which I closed after a few minutes on finding how visionary were its ideas. The other is that, though there has been thus made known to the reviewer a book of mine published thirty-two years ago, which I have withdrawn from circulation in England, and of which I have interdicted translations, he is apparently unconscious that I have written other books, sundry of them political; and especially he seems not to know that the last of them, “Political Institutions,” contains passages concerning the question he discusses. Writers in critical journals which have reputations to lose usually seek out the latest version of an author’s views; and the more conscientious among them take the trouble to ascertain whether the constructions they put on detached passages are warranted or not by other passages. Had the Edinburgh reviewer read even the next chapter to the one from which he quotes, he would have seen that, so far from attacking the right of private property, as he represents, my aim is to put that right upon an unquestionable basis, the basis alleged by Locke being unsatisfactory. He would have further seen that, so far from giving any countenance to communistic doctrines, I have devoted four sections of that chapter to the refutation of them. Had he dipped into the latter part of the work, or had he consulted the more recently published “Study of Sociology” and “Political Institutions,” he would not have recklessly coupled me with Mr. George as upholding “the doctrines of communism, fatal alike to the welfare of society and to the moral character of man;” for he would have discovered the fact (familiar to many, though unknown to him) that much current legislation is regarded by me as communistic, and is for this reason condemned as socially injurious and individually degrading.
The writer of the article in the St. James’s Gazette does not represent the facts correctly when he says that the view concerning ownership of land in Social Statics is again expounded in “Political Institutions”—”not so fully, but with as much confidence as ever.” In this last work I have said that, “though industrialism has thus far tended to individualize possession of land, while individualizing all other possession, it may be doubted whether the final stage is at present reached.” Further on I have said that “at a stage still more advanced, it may be that private ownership of land will disappear;” and that “it seems possible that the primitive ownership of land by the community … will be revived.” And yet again I have said that “perhaps the right of the community to the land, thus tacitly asserted, will, in time to come, be overtly asserted.” Now it seems to me that the words I have italicized imply no great “confidence.” Contrariwise, I think they show quite clearly that the opinion conveyed is a tentative one. The fact is, that I have here expressed myself in a way much more qualified than is usual with me; because I do not see how certain tendencies, which are apparently conflicting, will eventually work out. The purely ethical view of the matter does not obviously harmonize with the political and the politico-economical views; some of the apparent incongruities being of the kind indicated by your contributor. This is not the place to repeat my reasons for thinking that the present system will not be the ultimate system. Nor do I propose to consider the obstacles, doubtless great, which stand in the way of change. All which I wish here to point out is that my opinion is by no means a positive one; and, further, that I regard the question as one to be dealt with in the future rather than at present. These two things the quotations I have given above prove conclusively. I am, etc.,
Mr. Spencer has had much to say of the unfairness of his critics. But this reply is not merely unfair; it is dishonest, and that in a way that makes flat falsehood seem manly.
From this letter the casual reader would understand that the Edinburgh reviewer, on the strength of detached passages, had charged Mr. Spencer with attacking the right of private property and upholding socialism, in a sense unwarranted by the context and disproved by the next chapter; and that the passage quoted from “Political Institutions” covers the same ground and disproves the constructions put on Social Statics.
The fact is, that the Edinburgh Review had not charged either Mr. Spencer or myself with more than attacking private property in land. This we had both unquestionably done, not, only in the passages it had quoted but in many others. It had made no misconstruction whatever. What it had said of “attacking the right of private property” and “upholding the doctrines of communism” was a mere rhetorical flourish, made as an inference from, and by way of reply to, our denial of the right of private property in land. Mr. Spencer ignores the real charge and assumes the mere inference to be the charge. Thus, changing the issue, he cites the next chapter as if it disproved the Edinburgh’s charge. This chapter (Chapter X., “The Right of Property”), which has been given in full, contains nothing to lessen the force of the attack on private property in land made in the preceding chapter. On the contrary, in this chapter he reiterates his attack on private property in land, and seeks a basis for property by carrying the idea that the community should control land to the length of absurdity.
Nor was the writer in the St. James’s unjustified in taking the reference to land in “Political Institutions” to be a briefer indorsement of the views more fully set forth in Social Statics; for “Political Institutions” refers to private property in land as established by force, says that it does not stand on the same basis as ownership established by contract, likens it to slavery and predicts its abolition—expressions which, in the absence of any modification of the views elaborately asserted in Social Statics, could be taken in no other way than as indorsing them. The passages Mr. Spencer quotes no more modify the view of landownership set forth in Social Statics than Lord Lytton’s Coming Racecontroverts Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In Social Statics Mr. Spencer declares what ought to be done; in the passage he quotes from “Political Institutions” he is prognosticating as to what it is likely will be done. By now substituting prognostication for declaration of right, Mr. Spencer seeks to convey the false impression that the Edinburgh reviewer has been guilty of carelessness, and the writer in the St. James’s of misrepresentation, and that he himself has never gone further than to express the guarded opinion that at some time, a great way off, men may substitute a common ownership of land for private ownership.
Mr. Spencer is more than unfair, too, in assuming that the charge of upholding communism, etc., is applicable to me, though not to him. For, although my book was too visionary for him to read, he had at least read the Edinburgh’s article, and knew that the charge against me had no other ground than that against him—the denial of the moral validity of private property in land.
Even what he says about such a plain matter of fact as the withdrawal of Social Statics from circulation in England conveys untruth.
The grievance that Mr. Spencer here alleges is that the Edinburgh Review had commented on a book “published thirty-two years ago, which I have withdrawn from circulation in England, and of which I have interdicted translations.” What is to be understood from this, and what Mr. Spencer evidently intended to have understood, is that he had, presumably years before, withdrawn Social Statics from circulation—not in the mere territory of England, as distinguished from Scotland, Ireland or the United States, but—in English. To make sure of this understanding, he adds that he has interdicted translations—which means, not in other places, but in other languages than English. Now the truth is, that at the time he thus wrote, that book was being published by his arrangement in the United States’, as it had been for years before, and continued to be for years afterwards; and that up to this very time he had been importing it into England, and circulating it there. The only filament of truth in this statement, which though made incidentally is of prime importance to his purpose, is, as we now discover from his own utterance in 1892, that at this very time, or possibly a few weeks previous, he had resolved not again to import any more copies of Social Statics into England from the United States, though still keeping the book in circulation there, to be bought by whomsoever would buy!
As for the rest of this letter, the admirers of Mr. Spencer may decide for themselves what kind of ethical views they are that will not harmonize with political economy, and what kind of political economy it is that will not harmonize with ethics, and what they think of an ethical teacher who, on a question that involves the health and happiness, nay, the very life and death of great bodies of men, shelters himself behind such phrases as, “it may be doubted,” “it may be,” “it seems possible,” and so on, and endeavors to make them show that he regards the matter of right as one to deal with in the future and not at present.
This letter is not a withdrawal or a recantation of what Mr. Spencer had said against private property in land. It does not rise to that dignity. It is merely an attempt to avoid responsibility and to placate by subterfuge the powerful landed interests now aroused to anger. But it does indicate that a moral change had come over Mr. Spencer since he wrote Social Statics.
In several places in that book occurs the strong, idiomatic phrase, “a straight man.” This letter to the St. James’s is not the letter of a straight man.
But as hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, so the very crookedness of this letter indicates Mr. Spencer’s reluctance flatly to deny the truth to which he had borne witness. He no more wanted to deny it than Simon Peter to deny his Lord. But the times had changed since he wrote Social Statics. From an unknown man, printing with difficulty an unsalable book, he had become a popular philosopher, to whom all gratifications of sense, as of intellect, were open.He had tasted the sweets of London society, and in the United States, from which he had just returned, had been hailed as a thinker beside whom Newton and Aristotle were to be mentioned only to point his superiority. And, while the fire in the hall of the High Priest was warm and pleasant, “society” had become suddenly aroused to rage against those who questioned private property in land. So when the St. James’s and the Edinburgh, both of them chosen organs of Sir John and his Grace, accused Herbert Spencer of being one of these, it was to him like the voices of the accusing damsels to Peter. Fearing, too, that he might be thrust out in the cold, he, too, sought refuge in an alibi.
The ManVersus The State
MR. SPENCER’S letter to the St. James’s Gazette seems to have produced the effect he intended, and though in the United States, D. Appleton & Co. continued to advertise and sell Social Statics,and to send to Mr. Spencer his royalties upon it; in England, Sir John and His Grace were satisfied that he had been much maligned by garbled extracts from an early work that he had since suppressed.
But Mr. Spencer himself seems to have felt that to make his position among the adherents of the House of Have quite comfortable, he must do something positive as well as negative. So we find his next work to be one which the Liberty and Property Defense League, a society formed in London for defending private property in land, have ever since been active in pushing.
In 1884 Mr. Spencer issued four magazine articles, The New Toryism, The Coming Slavery, The Sins of Legislators, and The Great Political which were then published in a volume entitled The Man versus the State, and have since been used (1892) to fill out the revised edition of Social Statics.
These essays are strongly individualistic, condemning even bitterly any use of governmental powers or funds to regulate the conditions of labor or alleviate the evils of poverty. In this Mr. Spencer was continuing and accentuating a line begun in Social Statics, and, in the view of those who think as I do, was in the main right; for governmental interferences and regulations and bonuses are in their nature restrictions on freedom, and cannot cure evils that primarily flow from denials of freedom.
But what in these essays marks a new departure, what makes their individualism as short-sighted as socialism, and brutal as well, is that they assume that nothing at all is needed, in the nature either of palliative or remedy; that they utterly ignore the primary wrong from which proceed the evils that socialism blindly protests against. In them Mr. Spencer is like one who might insist that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and others artificially loaded with lead. He is like the preachers who thundered to slaves, “Thou shalt not steal!” but had no whisper against the theft involved in their enslavement.
The burden of these essays is, “If any would not work, neither should he eat!” This is declared to be a tenet of the Christian religion, justified by science, as indeed, though much ignored by Christians and by scientists, it is.
To whom does Mr. Spencer refer as the idlers who yet eat?
“Why, of course,” the reader of Social Statics would say, “he refers to Sir John and his Grace, and to the landholding dukes to whom in Social Staticshe refers by name—to them and their class, pre-eminently. For they never work, and take pride that their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers never worked. Yet they eat, whoever else goes hungry, and that of the best.”
But the reader of Social Statics would be wrong. Mr. Spencer does not refer to them, nor allude to them, nor seem to think of them. The people on whom he would enforce the command “If any would not work, neither should he eat!” are not the fashionable idlers, whose only occupation is to kill time and “get an appetite,” but the poor idlers who say they have no work. “Say, rather, that they either refuse work or quickly turn themselves out of it!” cries the indignant philosopher, regardless now of what he once insisted on—that these men are disinherited; robbed by unjust law of their birthright, of their rightful share in the element without which no man can work; dependent, therefore, on others for leave to work, and often not getting that leave.
In 1850, while condemning the socialistic palliatives for poverty, Mr. Spencer at the same time recognized the truth that prompts them. He was not content to show the futility of such attempts to assuage the evils of undeserved poverty without pointing out the giant wrong from which undeserved poverty springs. He began his enumeration of the evils of over-government, not as now, by merely denouncing what is done in kindly though misplaced efforts to help the downtrodden, but by recognizing the primary wrong. Beginning this enumeration (page 293, Social Statics) he says:
As the first item on the list there stands that gigantic injustice inflicted on nineteen-twentieths of the community by the usurpation of the soil—by the breach of their rights to the use of the earth. For this the civil power is responsible—has itself been a party to the aggression—has made it legal, and still defends it as right.
And of the moral truth involved in theories that in “The Man versus the State” he unreservedly denounces, he says (Social Statics, pp. 345-346):
- Erroneous as are these poor-law and communist theories—these assertions of a man’s right to a maintenance and of his right to have work provided for him—they are, nevertheless, nearly related to a truth. They are unsuccessful efforts to express the fact, that whoso is born on this planet of ours thereby obtains some interest in it— may not be summarily dismissed again—may not have his existence ignored by those in possession. In other words, they are attempts to embody that thought which finds its legitimate utterance in the law—all men have equal rights to the use of the Earth. The prevalence of these crude ideas is natural enough. A vague perception that there is something wrong about the relationship in which the great mass of mankind stand to the soil and to life, was sure eventually to grow up. After getting from under the grosser injustice of slavery men could not help beginning, in course of time, to feel what a monstrous thing it was that nine people out of ten should live in the world on sufferance, not having even standing room, save by allowance of those who claimed the earth’s surface Could it be right that all these human beings should not only be without claim to the necessaries of life—should not only be denied the use of those elements from which such necessaries are obtainable—but should further be unable to exchange their labor for such necessaries, except by leave of their more fortunate fellows? Could it be that the majority had thus no better title to existence than one based upon the good will or convenience of the minority? Could it be that these landless men had “been mis-sent to this earth, where all the seats were already taken”? Surely not. And if not, how ought matters to stand? To all which questions, now forced upon men’s minds in more or less definite shapes, there come, amongst other answers, these theories of a right to a maintenance and a right of labor. Whilst, therefore, they must be rejected as untenable, we may still recognize in them the imperfect utterance of the moral sense in its efforts to express equity.
The wrong done to the people at large, by robbing them of their birthright—their heritage in the earth—is, indeed, thought by some a sufficient excuse for a poor-law, which is regarded by such as an instrumentality for distributing compensation. There is much plausibility in this construction of the matter. But … why organize a diseased state? Sometime or other this morbid constitution of things, under which the greater part of the body politic is cut off from direct access to the source of life, must be changed.
Of anything like this there is in The Man versus the State no word. Mr. Spencer again takes up his parable against government interference; but he takes it up with every reference to the gigantic injustice inflicted upon nineteen-twentieths of his countrymen omitted; with everything excluded that might be offensive to the rich and powerful.
Nor does he shrink from misrepresenting those who stand for the truth he has now virtually, though not openly, abandoned. In his letter to the St. James’s Gazette he declared that he had not read my work; but in The Coming Slavery occurs this:
- Communistic theories, partially indorsed by one Act of Parliament after another, and tacitly if not avowedly favored by numerous public men seeking supporters, are being advocated more and more vociferously by popular leaders, and urged on by organized societies. There is the movement for land nationalization which, aiming at a system of land tenure, equitable in the abstract, is, as all the world knows, pressed by Mr. George and his friends with avowed disregard for the just claims of existing owners, and as the basis of a scheme going more than half-way to state socialism.
And in The Sins of Legislators this:
- And now this doctrine (that society as a whole has an absolute right over the possessions of each member), which has been tacitly assumed, is being openly proclaimed. Mr. George and his friends, Mr. Hyndman and his supporters, are pushing the theory to its logical issue. They have been instructed by examples, yearly increasing in number, that the individual has no rights but what the community may equitably override; and they are now saying—”It shall go hard, but we will better the instruction, and abolish individual rights altogether.”
Charity requires the assumption that when Mr. Spencer wrote these passages he had not read anything I had written; and that up to the present time when he has again reprinted them he has not done so.
For in nothing I have ever written or spoken is there any justification for such a characterization. I am not even a land nationalizationist, as the English and German and Australian land nationalizationists well know. I have never advocated the taking of land by the state or the holding of land by the state, further than needed for public use; still less the working of land by the state. From my first word on the subject I have advocated what has come to be widely known as “the single tax;” i.e., the raising of public revenues by taxation on the value of land irrespective of the improvements on it—taxation which, as fast as possible and as far as practicable, should be made to absorb economic rent and take the place of all other taxes. And among the reasons I have always urged for this has been the simplification of government and the doing away of the injustice of which governments are guilty in taking from individuals property that rightfully belongs to the individual. I have not gone so far as Mr. Spencer in limiting the functions of government, for I believe that whatever becomes a necessary monopoly becomes a function of the state; and that the sphere of government begins where the freedom of competition ends, since in no other way can equal liberty be assured. But within this line I have always opposed governmental interference. I have been an active, consistent and absolute free trader, and an opponent of all schemes that would limit the freedom of the individual. I have been a stancher denier of the assumption of the right of society to the possessions of each member, and a clearer and more resolute upholder of the rights of property than has Mr. Spencer. I have opposed every proposition to help the poor at the expense of the rich. I have always insisted that no man should be taxed because of his wealthy and that no matter how many millions a man might rightfully get, society should leave to him every penny of them.
All this would have been evident to Mr. Spencer if he had read any one of my books before writing about me. But he evidently prefers the easier method which Parson Wilbur, in Lowell’s “Biglow Papers,” was accustomed to take with “a print called the Liberator, whose heresies,” he said, “I take every proper opportunity of combating, and of which, I thank God, I have never read a single line.”
To do him justice, I do not think Mr. Spencer had any desire to misrepresent me. He was prompted to it by the impulse that always drives men to abuse those who adhere to a cause they have betrayed, as the readiest way of assuring Sir John and his Grace that no proposal to disturb their rentals would in the future come from him.
Another thing, however, is to be noticed here—the admission that the movement for land nationalization is “aiming at a system of land tenure equitable in the abstract.” Mr. Spencer has not reached the point of utterly denying the truth he had seen. The abolition of private property in land he still admits is equitable in the abstract.
Now, what is meant by equitable in the abstract? Let Social Statics,page 64, tell us:
For what does a man really mean by saying of a thing that it is “theoretically just,” or “true in principle,” or “abstractedly right”? Simply that it accords with what he, in some way or other, perceives to be the established arrangements of Divine rule. When he admits that an act is “theoretically just,” he admits it to be that which, in strict duty, should be done. By “true in principle,” he means in harmony with the conduct decreed for us. The course which he calls “abstractedly right,” he believes to be the appointed way to human happiness. There is no escape. The expressions mean this, or they mean nothing.
Letter To The Times
No one can boldly utter a great truth, and then, when the times have become ripe for it, and his utterance voices what is burning in hearts and consciences, whisper it away. So despite his apology to landlords in the St. James’s Gazette, and the pains he had taken to make his peace with them in The Man versus the State, what he had said on the land question in Social Staticscame up again to trouble Mr. Spencer.
But for a long time his position on the land question was almost as dual as that of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In his personal circle it was doubtless assumed that he was a stanch supporter of private property in land, and if his earlier opinions were known there it was understood that he was sorry for them. And he had become, if not an active member, at least a valued ally of the Liberty and Property Defence League. But in a wider circle what he had written against private property in land was telling with increasing force. For to this wider circle his St. James’s apology had hardly reached, and even when known was not deemed a recantation of the opinions deliberately expressed in Social Statics, which he still, through D. Appleton & Co., continued to publish, without any modification whatever. The steady growth of the movement that began with the publication of Progress and Poverty everywhere enlisted active men in the propagation of the idea of the equality of rights to land and called wide attention to what he had said on that subject. They naturally seized on the argument against the justice of private property in land in Chapter IX of Social Statics, and spread it broadcast, as the utterance of one now widely esteemed the greatest of philosophers. Of all else that Mr. Spencer has written, there is nothing that has had such a circulation as has thus been given to this chapter. It was printed and is still being printed by many American newspapers, and was issued in tract form for free distribution in the United States, Canada and Australia; editions of hundreds of thousands being issued at a time, many of which must have reached Great Britain, even if it was not reprinted there.
This wide circulation of his condemnation of private property in land did not, it is probable, much trouble Mr.. Spencer, since it did not reach his London circle. But in November, 1889—six years after his letter to the St. James’s Gazette—some echoes of it made their way into The Times, the very journalistic center of high English respectability.
The matter thus got into the Times: Mr.. John Morley, Member of Parliament for Newcastle, being in that city, was interviewed by some of his constituents, representing a labor organization. Among other questions land nationalization was brought up; Mr. John Laidler, a bricklayer, speaking for it. Mr. Morley expressing dissent, Mr. Laidler cited the authority of Mr. Spencer in support of the ideas that land had been made private property by force and fraud, and should be appropriated by the community for the benefit of all. The Times of November 5, contained a report of this interview.
This report in the Timesaroused Mr. Spencer at once. For although he had no objection to the circulation of his radical utterances in America, where through D. Appleton & Co. he was still publishing and advertising Social Statics, it was evidently quite a different matter to him that they should be known in the pleasant circle wherein with Sir John and his Grace and the peers and judges of the Liberty and Property Defence League he was personally dwelling. He promptly sent this letter to the Times. It appeared on the 7th.
- To the Editor of The Times.
Sir: During the interview between Mr. Morley and some of his constituents, reported in your issue of the 5th inst., I was referred to as having set forth certain opinions respecting landownership. Fearing that, if I remain silent, many will suppose I have said things which I have not said, I find it needful to say something in explanation.
Already within these few years I have twice pointed out that these opinions (made to appear by those who have circulated them widely different from what they really are, by the omission of accompanying opinions) were set forth in my first work, published forty years ago; and that, for the last twelve or fifteen years, I have refrained from issuing new editions of that work and have interdicted translations, because, though I still adhere to its general principles, I dissent from some of the deductions.
The work referred to—Social Statics—was intended to be a system of political ethics—absolute political ethics, or that which ought to be, as distinguished from relative political ethics, or that which is at present the nearest practicable approach to it. The conclusion reached concerning landownership was reached while seeking a valid basis for the right of property, the basis assigned by Locke appearing to me invalid. It was argued that a satisfactory ethical warrant for private ownership could arise only by contract between the community, as original owner of the inhabited area, and individual members, who became tenants, agreeing to pay certain portions of the produce, or its equivalent in money, in consideration of recognized claims to the rest. And in the course of the argument it was pointed out that such a view of landownership is congruous with existing legal theory and practice; since in law every landowner is held to be a tenant of the Crown—that is, of the community, and since, in practice, the supreme right of the community is asserted by every Act of Parliament which, with a view to public advantage, directly or by proxy takes possession of land after making due compensation.
All this was said in the belief that the questions raised were not likely to come to the front in our time or for many generations; but, assuming that they would sometime come to the front, it was said that, supposing the community should assert overtly the supreme right which is now tacitly asserted, the business of compensation of landowners would be a complicated one—
“One that perhaps cannot be settled in a strictly equitable manner. … Most of our present landowners are men who have, either mediately or immediately, either by their own acts or by the acts of their ancestors, given for their estates equivalents of honestly earned wealth, believing that they were investing their savings in a legitimate manner. To justly estimate and liquidate the claims of such is one of the most intricate problems society will one day have to solve.”
To make the position I then took quite clear, it is needful to add that, as shown in a succeeding chapter, the insistence on this doctrine, in virtue of which “the right of property obtains a legitimate foundation,” had for one of its motives the exclusion of Socialism and Communism, to which I was then as profoundly averse as I am now.
Investigations made during recent years into the various forms of social organization, while writing the Principles of Sociology, have in part confirmed and in part changed the views published in 1850. Perhaps I may be allowed space for quoting from Political Institutions a paragraph showing the revised conclusions arrived at:
“At first sight it seems fairly inferable that the absolute ownership of land by private persons must be the ultimate state which industrialism brings about. But though industrialism has thus far tended to individualise possession of land while individualising all other possession, it may be doubted whether the final stage is at present reached. Ownership established by force does not stand on the same footing as ownership established by contract; and though multiplied sales and purchases, treating the two ownerships in the same way, have tacitly assimilated them, the assimilation may eventually be denied. The analogy furnished by assumed rights of possession over human beings helps us to recognize this possibility. For, while prisoners of war, taken by force and held as property in a vague way (being at first much on a footing with other members of a household), were reduced more definitely to the form of property when the buying and selling of slaves became general; and, while it might centuries ago have been thence inferred that the ownership of man by man was an ownership in course of being permanently established, yet we see that a later stage of civilization, reversing this process, has destroyed ownership of man by man. Similarly, at a stage still more advanced, it may be that private ownership of land will disappear. As that primitive freedom of the individual which existed before war established coercive institutions and personal slavery comes to be reestablished as militancy declines, so it seems possible that the primitive ownership of land by the community, which, with the development of coercive institutions, lapsed in large measure or wholly into private ownership. will be revived as industrialism further develops. The regime of contract, at present so far extended that the right of property in movables is recognized only as having arisen by exchange of services or products under agreements, or by gift from those who had acquired it under such agreements, may be further extended so far that the products of the soil will be recognized as property only by virtue of agreements between individuals as tenants and the community as landowner. Even now, among ourselves, private ownership of land is not absolute. In legal theory landowners are directly or indirectly tenants of the Crown (which in our day is equivalent to the state, or, in other words, the community); and the community from time to time resumes possession after making due compensation. Perhaps the right of the community to the land, thus tacitly asserted, will in time to come be overtly asserted and acted upon after making full allowance for the accumulated value artificially given. … There is reason to suspect that, while private possession of things produced by labor will grow even more definite and sacred than at present, the inhabited area, which cannot be produced by labor, will eventually be distinguished as something which may not be privately possessed. As the individual, primitively owner of himself, partially or wholly loses ownership of himself during the militant regime, but gradually resumes it as the industrial regime develops, so possibly the communal proprietorship of land, partially or wholly merged in the ownership of dominant men during evolution of the militant type, will be resumed as the industrial type becomes fully evolved” (pp. 643-646).
The use of the words “possible … … possibly,” and “perhaps,” in the above extracts shows that I have no positive opinion as to what may hereafter take place. The reason for this state of hesitancy is that I cannot see my way toward reconciliation of the ethical requirements with the politico-economical requirements. On the one hand, a condition of things under which the owner of, say, the Scilly Isles might make tenancy of his land conditional upon professing a certain creed or adopting prescribed habits of life, giving notice to quit to any who did not submit, is ethically indefensible. On the other hand, “nationalization of the land,” effected after compensation for the artificial value given by cultivation, amounting to the greater part of its value, would entail, in the shape of interest on the required purchase money, as great a sum as is now paid in rent, and indeed a greater, considering the respective rates of interest on landed property and other property. Add to which, there is no reason to think that the substituted form of administration would be better than the existing form of administration. The belief that land would be better managed by public officials than it is by private owners is a very wild belief.
What the remote future may bring forth there is no saying; but with a humanity anything like that we now know, the implied reorganization would be disastrous.
I am, etc.
ATHENÆUM CLUB, Nov. 6.
This Apology Examined.
To drop into one of Mr. Spencer’s favorite methods of illustration:
“I am told,” said the respectable grandmother, with a big stick in her hand, “that you are the boy who broke down my fence and told all the other boys that they were at liberty to go into my orchard and take my apples.”
“It is not true,” replied the trembling small boy; “I didn’t do it. And I didn’t mean to do it. And when I did it I was only trying to mend your fence, which I found was weak. And the reason I did it was to keep bad boys out. And I have always said you ought to be paid for your apples. And I won’t do it again! And I am certain your apples would give boys stomach-ache.”
This letter to The Times repeats the same line of excuse made six years before in the St. James’s Gazette. Emboldened by the success of that apology, for no one seems to have thought it worth while to point out its misstatements, Mr. Spencer undertakes to face down the Newcastle bricklayer in the same way, and with even bolder crookedness.
The question in issue is a question of fact—whether, as asserted by Mr. Laidler, Mr. Spencer had in Social Statics advocated land nationalization, and incidentally, whether he had declared that the land had been made private property by force and fraud. Without venturing specifically to deny this, Mr. Spencer denies it by implication, and gives an impression thus expressed editorially by The Timeson the 9th of November:
So without denying that he did once say something of the sort, he [Mr. Spencer] explains that it was forty years ago, and that for the last fifteen years he has been doing all that he can to suppress the book in which he said it, and that he never meant his words to have any bearing upon practical questions.
Put into straightforward English, what Mr. Spencer says in this letter to The Timesis—
That he had not favored land nationalization.
That he had been made to appear to have done so by quotations from Social Statics divested of their qualifying context.
That for the last twelve or fifteen years he had stopped the publication of that work.
That Social Statics was not intended to suggest practical political action.
That what was said therein of landownership was said in the effort to find a valid basis for the right of property, and to exclude socialism and communism; that it involved no departure from the existing legal theory and practice; was said in the belief that the land question would not come to the front for many generations, and admitted the right of the landowners to compensation.
That his present conclusions are, that while possibly the community may sometime resume land after due compensation to landowners, he has no positive opinion as to whether it will or not.
That as to this he cannot harmonize ethics with political economy, for while a condition may be imagined under which private landownership might be injurious, its abolition would require the payment to landowners of as great and indeed a greater sum than is now paid in rent; would involve the management of land by public officials, and that with humanity anything like that we now know, this would be disastrous.
All this, so far as it relates to the question in issue, is simply not true.
Mr. Spencer, in Social Statics, did condemn private property in land, did advocate the resumption of land by the community, did unequivocally and unreservedly, and with all his force, declare for what is now called land nationalization. That he did so does not rest on any forcing of words, any wresting of sentences from their context. It is the burden of all he says on the subject, and of the most vital part of the book. In the whole volume there is no word in modification of the opinions so strongly and clearly expressed in the full quotations I have made.
Nor is it true that the conclusion of Social Statics concerning landownership “was reached while seeking a valid basis for the right of property.” It was reached as a primary corollary of the first principle: the freedom of every man to do all that he wills provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, and was deduced directly from the facts of human existence:
Given a race of beings having like claims to pursue the objects of their desires—given a world adapted to the gratification of those desires—a world into which such beings are similarly born, and it unavoidably follows that they have equal rights to the use of this world.
Mr. Spencer’s questioning of Locke’s derivation of the right of property, so far from being the cause of his denial of the validity of private property in land, grows, as we have seen, out of his idea that the only right to land is that of the community. What he has to say against socialism and communism, instead of being a motive for his advocacy of land nationalization, is brought in to strengthen land nationalization by showing that it does not involve either. And so, what Mr. Spencer gives The Timesto understand as to the congruity of the view of landownership taken in Social Statics with existing legal theory and practice, is so flagrantly untrue that one wonders at its audacity.
As to what Mr. Spencer says of the intent of Social Statics, the only intelligible meaning that can be put on it is that which the editor of The Timesput, “That he never meant his words to have any bearing upon practical questions.”
The exact phraseology is—
The work referred to—Social Statics—was intended to be a system of political ethics—absolute political ethics, or that which ought to be, as distinguished from relative political ethics, or that which is at present the nearest practicable approach to it.
If this means anything, it means that Social Staticswas written to set forth a system of political ethics that cannot be carried into conduct now, and that no one is under any obligation to try to carry into conduct.
The applications of ethics, like the applications of mechanics, or chemistry, or any other science or body of laws, must always be relative, in the sense that one principle or law is to be taken in consideration with other principles or laws: so that conduct that would have the sanction of ethics where one is beset by robbers or murderers might be very different from the conduct that ethics would sanction under normal and peaceful conditions. In The Data of Ethics, one of the more recent of the works which set forth the Spencerian philosophy, written long after Social Statics, this distinction between pure ethics and applied ethics is, by one of the confusions that in that philosophy pass for definitions, converted into a distinction between absolute ethics and relative ethics. Yet, if there be any sort of ethics that has no relation to conduct here and now, the best term for it is Pickwickian ethics.
But the question here is not a question of definition. It is a question of fact.
Now, however Mr. Spencer’s opinions and wishes may have changed since Social Statics was written, that book still shows that, when he wrote it, his intention in exposing the iniquity of private property in land was to arouse public opinion to demand its abolition. In Social Static she denounced not only private property in land: he denounced slavery, then in the United States and other countries, a still-living thing; he denounced protection; he denounced restrictions on the right of free speech, the denial to women of equal rights, the coercive education of children, the then existing restrictions on the franchise, the cost and delays of legal proceedings, the maintenance of poor laws, the establishment of state schools, government colonization, etc. Were all these pleas for reforms, some of which Mr. Spencer has lived to see accomplished, and others of which he is still advocating, Pickwickian also?
If Mr. Spencer, in what he had to say on the land question in Social Statics, was talking mere abstract political ethics—something totally different from practical ethics—what did he mean by declaring that “Equity does not permit property in land”? What did he mean by saying that pure equity enjoins a protest against every existing pretension to the individual possession of the soil, and dictates the assertion that the right of mankind at large to the earth’s surface is still valid—”all deeds, customs, and laws notwithstanding”? What did he mean by scornfully sneering at those who “are continually trying to reconcile yes and no,” and who delight “in ifs, buts, and excepts”? What did he mean by saying, “In this matter of land tenure the verdict of morality must be either yea or nay. Either men have a right to make the soil private property or they have not. There is no medium”? What did he mean in pointing out that what is now called land nationalization “need cause no very serious revolution in existing arrangements,” and that “Equity sternly commands it to be done”? What did he mean by putting, “as the first item on the list of the injuries which government at the time he wrote was doing, that gigantic injustice inflicted on nineteen-twentieths of the community by the usurpation of the soil by the breach of their rights to the use of the earth”? What did he mean by saying that the only plausible defense of the poor laws was the wrong done to people at large by robbing them of their birthright—their heritage in the earth—by asking, “Why organize a diseased state?”—by declaring, “Sometime or other this morbid constitution of things, under which the greater part of the body politic is cut off from direct access to the source of life, must be changed.”
Did it all relate to the sort of ethics that has no bearing on practical questions?
Whatever may be the ethical views of Mr. Spencer now that his eyes have been put out, and he has been set to grind in the house of the lords of the Philistines, the young Samson of Social Statics with locks as yet unshorn by the social Delilah knew nothing of any such ethics. Not merely in what I have quoted, but throughout the book, from first page to last, the burden of Social Statics is the necessity, the sacred duty of destroying abuses that fetter the equal liberty of men. He sees, indeed—as who does not?—that before liberty can truly reign men must be fit for liberty; and he realizes that there may be social conditions in which liberty might temporarily work ill; but he insists again and again that wherever there is any yearning for liberty, any perception of the wrong done by its denial, there the time has come for the struggle against injustice to be made, and that the way to fit men for the enjoyment of rights is to destroy wrongs. The central thought of the book, that permeates all its parts, is that of a divinely appointed order, which men are bound to obey—a God-given law, as true in the social sphere as the laws of physics are true in the physical sphere, to which all human regulations must be made to conform; and that this law is the law of equal freedom—the law from which is deduced the condemnation of private property in land. For those who palter with expediency; for those who would dally with wrong; for those who say that a thing is right in the abstract, but that practical considerations forbid its being carried into effect—Mr. Spencer, from the first page of Social Statics to the last, has nothing but the utmost contempt and scorn.
Here is one extract from the close of the introduction to Social Statics (pp. 51, 56, 60-65) which will show how widely different were the ethics taught in Social Statics from what the author of the Spencerian philosophy, in 1889, told The Times they were:
- And yet, unable as the imperfect man may be to fulfil the perfect law, there is no other law for him. One right course only is open; and he must either follow that or take the consequences. The conditions of existence will not bend before his perversity; nor relax in consideration of his weakness. Neither, when they are broken, may any exception from penalties be hoped for. “Obey or suffer,” are the ever-repeated alternatives. Disobedience is sure to be convicted. And there are no reprieves. …
Our social edifice may be constructed with all possible labor and ingenuity, and be strongly cramped together with cunningly devised enactments, but if there be no rectitude in its component parts, if it is not built on upright principles, it will assuredly tumble to pieces. As well might we seek to light a fire with ice, feed cattle with stones, hang our hats on cobwebs, or otherwise disregard the physical laws of the world, as go contrary to its equally imperative ethical laws.
Yes, but there are exceptions, say you. We cannot always be strictly guided by abstract principles. Prudential considerations must have some weight. It is necessary to use a little policy.
Very specious, no doubt, are your reasons for advocating this or the other exception. But if there be any truth in the foregoing argument, no infraction of the law can be made with impunity. Those cherished schemes by which you propose to attain some desired good by a little politic disobedience, are all delusive. …
The reasons for thus specially insisting on implicit obedience will become apparent as the reader proceeds. Amongst the conclusions inevitably following from an admitted principle, he will most likely find several for which he is hardly prepared. Some of these will seem strange; others impracticable; and it maybe one or two wholly at variance with his ideas of duty. Nevertheless, should he find them logically derived from a fundamental truth, he will have no alternative but to adopt them as rules of conduct, which ought to be followed without exception. If there be any weight in the considerations above set forth, then, no matter how seemingly inexpedient, dangerous, injurious even, may be the course which morality points out as “abstractedly right,” the highest wisdom is in perfect and fearless submission.
And these are the paragraphs with which (pp. 517, 518) Social Staticscloses:
- Not as adventitious, therefore, will the wise man regard the faith that is in him, not as something which may be slighted, and made subordinate to calculations of policy; but as the supreme authority to which all his actions should bend. The highest truth conceivable by him he will fearlessly utter; and will endeavor to vet embodied in fact his purest idealisms: knowing that, let what may come of it, he is thus playing his appointed part in the world knowing that, if he can get done the thing he aims at—well: if not—well also; though not so well.
And thus, in teaching a uniform, unquestioning obedience, does an entirely abstract philosophy become one with all true religion. Fidelity to conscience—this is the essential precept inculcated by both. No hesitation, no paltering about probable results, but an implicit submission to what is believed to be the law laid down for us. We are not to pay lip-homage to principles which our conduct willfully transgresses. We are not to follow the example of those who, taking “Domine dirige nos” for their motto, yet disregard the directions given, and prefer to direct themselves. We are not to be guilty of that practical atheism, which, seeing no guidance for human affairs but its own limited foresight, endeavors itself to play the god, and decide what will be good for mankind, and what bad. But, on the contrary, we are to search out with a genuine humility the rules ordained for us—are to do unfalteringly, without speculating as to consequences, whatsoever these require; and we are to do this in the belief that then, when there is perfect sincerity when each man is true to himself—when everyone strives to realize what he thinks the highest rectitude—then must all things prosper.
Could there be any sadder commentary upon the Herbert Spencer who in 1889 wrote this letter to The Times?
I am not objecting that Mr. Spencer has changed his opinions. Such change might be for the better or might be for the worse, but it would at least be within his right. What I point out is that in this letter to The Times, as in his previous letter to the St. James’s Gazette, Mr. Spencer does what is not within his right, what a straight man could not do—misstates what he previously did say.
And while Mr. Spencer, in this letter to The Times, is thus untruthful in regard to what he had taught in Social Statics, he is equally untruthful in regard to his suppression of that book. His words are—
- For the last twelve or fifteen years I have refrained from issuing new editions of that work, and have interdicted translations.
The plain meaning of this is, that for twelve or fifteen years prior to 1889 Mr. Spencer had stopped the publication of Social Statics. There is no other honest construction. And this is the way in which it was understood. The Times, in its editorial comment on Mr. Spencer’s letter, taking it to mean that “for the last fifteen years he had been doing all he could to suppress the book;” and Mr. Frederick Greenwood, who also commented on the letter, taking it to mean that “for the last fifteen years he had not allowed it to appear in any language.”
As a matter of fact, this is not true. Social Statics was still being printed by Mr. Spencer’s authorized publishers, D. Appleton & Co. of New York. The only scintilla of truth in this denial is that, as he has since (in 1892) stated, he had seven years before this resolved that he would import no more copies into England. As for the “interdiction of translations,” I suppose this means that the book bore originally the usual English formula “Rights of translation reserved;” for, judging from its going out of print in England, and its never having been pirated in the United States, it is not likely that any further interdiction was needed to prevent its translation.
That Mr. Spencer should have continued the publication of Social Statics for years after he had told the readers of the St. James‘s and The Times that he had suppressed it, I can only account for on the ground that he did not care to deprive himself of what revenue he was drawing from its sale, and had really no objection to the circulation of his attacks on landlordism, so long as his London friends did not hear of it. Certain it is, that he could have withdrawn it at any time. D. Appleton & Co. are not book pirates, but honorable gentlemen, who publish Mr. Spencer’s works under arrangement with their author, and even in the absence of a copyright law would certainly have ceased printing Social Statics, if he had requested. To any one who knows them this needs no proof. But as a matter of fact, in 1885, when the controversy between Mr. Spencer and Mr. Frederic Harrison appeared in the Nineteenth Century, the Messrs. Appleton, thinking there would be a large American sale for it in book form, made plates and printed an edition.They had barely published this when they suppressed it, as was understood, on a cabled request from Mr. Spencer. Not another copy went out. The copies printed were destroyed and the plates melted, although a rival firm did publish the controversy, and sell a considerable number. Or, if he had preferred that, D. Appleton & Co. would at any time have printed in Social Statics any retraction or modification of its expressions on the land question he had wished. But, while the preface prefixed to the book in 1864, and the note to Chapter IV.—a reply to Professor Sidgwick, inserted in 1875—and the additional preface added in 1877, did set forth the modifications of Mr. Spencer’s opinions about various other matters, they contain nothing to show any change of his opinions on the land question; and the book has continued to be published up to 1892 without any such modification.
It is, of course, not for me to object that Mr. Spencer did not withdraw Social Statics in the only place where it was being published, or that he did not insert a retraction or modification of its utterances on the land question—although to me the wonder is that when, on his return to England in 1882, he seems to have definitely made up his mind to take the side of landlordism if pressed to it, he did not melt every plate and buy up every copy he could. I am only comparing Mr. Spencer’s statements in The Timeswith the facts, because of the evidence the comparison gives of the character of the man, and because of the light it throws on the change in his opinions on the land question.
For this letter to The Timesnot only shows Mr. Spencer’s intense desire to be counted on the side of “vested interests” in the struggle over the land question that was beginning, but it also shows how he was intending to join formally the ranks of the defenders of private property in land without the humiliation of an open recantation of what he had said in Social Statics. By aid of double-barreled ethics and philosophic legerdemain Mr. Spencer evidently hopes to keep some reputation for consistency and yet uphold private property in land. As compared with the apology in the St. James’s Gazette, the new matter in this apology in The Timesconsists in the conversion of what he said in Social Statics (Section 7, Chapter IX) as illustrating that “after all nobody does implicitly believe in landlordism,” into a conformity with “existing legal theory and practice;” in the assumption that the compensation of which he had spoken (Section 9) meant compensation satisfactory to landlords; and boldest of all (for this in Chapter X., Section 3, he had expressly denied), in the assumption that the recognition of equal rights to land means the administration and management of land by public officials.
I should like also to call the attention of those who put faith in Mr. Spencer’s philosophic acumen to the manner in which in this letter he withdraws to the Scilly Isles, and to the conditioning of the tenancy of land upon “professing a certain creed or adopting prescribed habits of life,” his condemnation of private property in land, as ethically indefensible. They have their choice between intellectual incapacity and intellectual dishonesty. What local difference is there between a small island and a large island? between the exaction of rent in personal services and the exaction of rent in money? Is it ethically defensible to deny to men their birthright, to permit them to live on the earth only on condition that they shall give up for the privilege all that their labor can produce save the barest living, to reduce them to straits that compel their children to grow up in squalor and vice and degradation worse than any heathenism, and to pass out of life in thousands before they are fairly in it; yet ethically indefensible to compel them to profess a certain creed or adopt prescribed habits of living? Ought it not be clear even to a philosopher’s apprentice that if English landlords to-day do not prescribe the creed or habits of their tenants, it is only because they do not care to, but prefer generally to exercise their power in taking money rent? If the Duke of Westminster wanted to have a thousand retainers, clad in his livery, follow him to St. James’s; if the Duke of Norfolk cared to permit no one but Catholics to live on his estates; if the Duke of Argyll chose to have a buffoon at his elbow in cap and bells, they could have any of these things as readily, in fact even more readily, than could any Earl or Duke of the olden time. And so indeed could any of our great American landowners. Did Mr. Spencer never see in London newspapers offers of employment, conditioned on the profession of a certain creed? Did he never, in passing to and from the Athenæum Club, see coachmen and footmen dressed in fantastic liveries and “sandwich men” clad ridiculously and shamefully? Does he not know that in the British Isles in his own time men are driven off the land to give place to wild beasts or cattle? And does he not know that the power of forbidding the use of his land gives to every landowner the same powers of prescribing the conditions under which he will permit its use as any owner of the Scilly Isles possibly could have?
The view we thus get of Mr. Spencer’s mental progress and processes is interesting both philosophically and psychologically. As, however, we shall find the lines of escape thus indicated amplified in Justice, there is no need of examining them now. But what he here says on the matter of compensation has a special interest, as throwing light on what he really meant in that incongruous passage in Section 9, Chapter IX., of Social Statics, of which I have spoken. In this letter to The Timesthe only passage from Social Statics that is quoted, or indeed more than vaguely alluded to, is this, That Mr. Spencer intends The Timesand its readers to understand this as a recognition in Social Statics of the justice of the claim of landowners to compensation for their land is clear, for he carefully leaves out all mention of the closely linked sentences that immediately follow the passage he quotes:
- But with this perplexity and our extrication from it, abstract morality has no concern. Men having got themselves into the dilemma by disobedience to the law, must get out of it as well as they can; and with as little injury to the landed class as may be.
Meanwhile, we shall do well to recollect, that there are others besides the landed class to be considered. In our tender regard for the vested interests of the few, let us not forget that the rights of the many are in abeyance; and must remain so, as long as the earth is monopolized by individuals. Let us remember, too, that the injustice thus inflicted on the mass of mankind, is an injustice of the gravest in nature … inferior only in wickedness to the crime of taking away their lives or personal liberties.
But while it is clear that Mr. Spencer wishes The Times and its readers to understand that he not only is, but always was, as good a compensationist as landlords could desire, he falls later on into an expression that again shows, as does the passage in Political Institutions, that the explanation I have put upon that seemingly incongruous passage in Social Statics is the one really intended. In the last part of the letter he speaks of “compensation for the artificial value given by cultivation amounting to the greater part of its value.” Not compensation for land, but compensation only for improvements. But this would never satisfy landowners, and so, without respect for the axiom that the whole is greater than its part, he proceeds to assert that compensation for this part will equal, and indeed exceed, the value of all they now get.
Thus we see both what the question of compensation had really been in Mr. Spencer’s own mind, and how he now proposes to settle it, so that he may henceforward take the side of existing landlordism.
Second Letter To The Times.
In his letter to The Times Mr. Spencer had surely abased himself enough to have been let alone by those whose favor he had so dearly sought. But even those who profit by apostasy often like to show their contempt for the apostate. Though The Timesitself accepted his apology, it added some contemptuous reproof, and gave place to letters from Mr. Greenwood, Professor Huxley and Sir Louis Mallet that must have been extremely galling to a renowned philosopher.
Here is the pertinent part of what The Times said.
- So, without denying that he did once say something of the sort, be explains that it was forty years ago, that for the last fifteen years he has been doing all he can to suppress the book in which he said it, and that he never meant his words to have any bearing upon practical questions. He was in fact engaged in constructing a system of “absolute political ethics, or that which ought to be,” and he feels distinctly aggrieved by the transfer of his opinions from that transcendental sphere to the very different one in which Mr. Laidler and his friends are accustomed to dwell. … What Mr. Spencer said in his youth and inexperience he has unsaid in his maturer years and with more deliberate judgment …
Were we asked to point a moral for philosophers, we should bid them beware of meddling with the absolute. Forty years ago Mr. Spencer set forth in search of “absolute political ethics,” and constructed his system to his own satisfaction. But it turns out to have been the most relative of things after all, since for the last fifteen years it has ceased to be absolute even to the mind that conceived it … Mr. Spencer settled that which ought to be, as regards landownership, but a quarter of a century later we find him endeavoring, much to the credit of his modesty and candor, to suppress his own version of the absolute. He does not seem, however, to have abandoned the original quest, for he gives us ha revised conclusions as to the absolute ethics of land tenure, which appear to us to contain some of the original identical flaws which were to be found in the older version.
The communication from Mr. Frederick Greenwood, an able high-Tory journalist, was published by The Timeson the 9th, under the heading “A Caution to Social Philosophers.” Characterizing Mr. Spencer’s letter to The Timesas “a heavy lesson to political philosophers,” Mr. Greenwood points out that “no matter how sorry Mr. Spencer may be for having misled so many poor men who habitually hang on the authority of great men like himself,” yet the very quotation he makes from his Political Institutions contains the same seeds of error in its admission that “ownership established by force does not stand on the same footing as ownership established by contract,” and in its admission that “the assimilation of the two ownerships may eventually be denied.”
Sir Louis Mallet’s letter, published on November 11 was to similar effect. He pointed out that Mr. Spencer still admitted an analogy between private property in land and slavery, which, of course, to Sir Louis seemed dangerous and wicked.
Professor Huxley came at the philosopher in a bullheaded way that must have seemed very unkind. Speaking in the name of those “to whom absolute political ethics and a priori politics are alike stumbling-blocks,” and expressing the certainty that his friend, Mr. Spencer, would be the last person willingly to abet the tendency to sanction popular acts of injustice by antiquarian or speculative arguments, he asked him for a categorical answer to the question whether according to “absolute political ethics” A. B., who has bought a piece of land in England, as he might buy a cabbage, has a moral as well as a legal right to his land or not?
And he follows with these pertinent questions:
- If he does not, how does “absolute political ethics” deduce his right to compensation?
If he does, how does “absolute political ethics” deduce the state’s right to disturb him?
By this time Mr. Spencer must have wished he had not written to The Times, though it is a striking evidence of the little knowledge of Social Statics in England (a fact on which Mr. Spencer had evidently calculated), that in none of these letters, or in those that followed, do any of the “hecklers,” with the one exception of Mr. Laidler, seem to have any knowledge of what Mr. Spencer had really said in that book—a knowledge that would have roused their ire to a far higher pitch, and enabled them to ask still harder questions.
The reader may wonder why in an attempt to deny his utterances in Social Statics, Mr. Spencer should have printed the passage from Political Institutions, which is in reality a reaffirmation of them. The only explanation I can offer is that he felt that he must print something, and had absolutely nothing else to print. For there is no word in all his works up to this time (Justicebeing yet to come) that gives the slightest evidence of any modification of the views set forth in Social Statics. And since he had six years before successfully referred to this passage, as though it indicated a modification of his views, he probably felt safe in so using it a second time. Thinking that it would suffice to settle Mr. Laidler, he evidently did not calculate on its provoking a “fire in the rear,” from his own friends, the adherents of landlordism, when he was giving up everything real, and only striving to save a semblance of consistency.
Mr. Spencer conveniently ignored the letters of Mr. Greenwood and Sir Louis Mallet, but he did make a pretense of answering Professor Huxley, in a letter published in The Times, November 15.
Here is the letter, which, although the first paragraph only is pertinent to the task I have in mind, I give in full, in order to guard against Mr. Spencer’s controversial habit of saying that his utterances have been garbled:
To the Editor of The Times.
- SIR: As Professor Huxley admits that his friend A. B.’s title to his plot of land is qualified by the right of the state to dispossess him if it sees well—as, by implication, he admits that all landowners hold their land subject to the supreme ownership of the state, that is, the community—as he contends that any force or fraud by which land was taken in early days does not affect the titles of existing owners, and a fortiori does not affect the superior title of the community—and as, consequently, he admits that the community, as supreme owner with a still valid title, may resume possession if it thinks well, he seems to me to leave the question standing very much where it stood; and since he, as I suppose, agrees with me that any such resumption, should a misjudgment lead to it, ought to be accompanied by due compensation for all artificial value given to land, I do not see in what respect we disagree on the land question. I pass, therefore, to his comments on absolute political ethics.
“Your treatment is quite at variance with physiological principles” would probably be the criticism passed by a modern practitioner on the doings of a Sangrado, if we suppose one to have survived. “Oh, bother your physiological principles,” might be the reply. “I have got to cure this disease, and my experience tells me that bleeding and frequent draughts of hot water are needed.” “Well,” would be the rejoinder, “if you do not kill your patient, you will at any rate greatly retard his recovery, as you would probably be aware had you read Professor Huxley’s Lessons on Elementary Physiology, and the more elaborate books on the subject which medical students have to master.”
This imaginary conversation will sufficiently suggest that, before there can be rational treatment of a disordered state of the bodily functions, there must be a conception of what constitutes their ordered state: knowing what is abnormal implies knowing what is normal. That Professor Huxley recognizes this truth is, I suppose, proved by the inclusion of physiology in that course of medical education which he advocates. If he says that abandonment of the Sangrado treatment was due, not to the teachings of physiology, but to knowledge empirically gained, then I reply that if he expands this statement so as to cover all improvements in medical treatment he suicidally rejects the teaching of physiological principles as useless.
Without insisting upon that analogy between a society and an organism which results from the interdependence of parts performing different functions—though I believe he recognizes this—I think he will admit that conception of a social state as disordered implies conception of an ordered social state. We may fairly assume that, in these modern days at least, all legislation aims at a better; and the conception of a better is not possible without conception of a best. If there is rejoicing because certain diseases have been diminished by precautions enforced, the implied ideal is a state in which these diseases have been extinguished. If particular measures are applauded because they have decreased criminality, the implication is that the absence of all crime is a desideratum. Hence, however much a politician may pooh-pooh social ideals, he cannot take steps toward bettering the social state without tacitly entertaining them. And though he may regard absolute political ethics as an airy vision, he makes bit by bit reference to it in everything he does. I simply differ from him in contending for a consistent and avowed reference, instead of an inconsistent and unacknowledged reference.
Even without any such strain on the imagination as may be required to conceive a community consisting entirely of honest and honorable men—even without asking whether there is riot a set of definite limits to individual actions which such men would severally insist upon and respect—even without asserting that these limits must, in the nature of things, result when men have severally to carry on their lives in proximity with one another, I should have thought it sufficiently clear that our system of justice, by interdicting, murder, assault, theft, libel, etc., recognizes the existence of such limits and the necessity for maintaining them; and I should have thought it manifest enough that there must exist an elaborate system of limits or restraints on conduct, by conformity to which citizens may cooperate without dissension. Such a system, deduced as it may be from the primary conditions to be fulfilled, is what I mean by absolute political ethics. The complaint of Professor Huxley that absolute political ethics does not show us what to do in each concrete case seems to be much like the complaint of a medical practitioner who should speak slightingly of physiological generalizations, because they did not tell him the right dressing for a wound or how best to deal with varicose veins. I cannot here explain further, but any one who does not understand me may find the matter discussed at length in a chapter on Absolute and Relative Ethics contained in The Data of Ethics.
It appears to me somewhat anomalous that Professor Huxley, who is not simply a biologist but is familiar with science at large, and who must recognize the reign of law on every hand, should tacitly assume that there exists one group of lawless phenomena—social phenomena. For if they are not lawless—if there are any natural laws traceable throughout them, then our aim should be to ascertain these and conform to them, well knowing that nonconformity will inevitably bring penalties. Not taking this view, however, it would seem as though Professor Huxley agrees with the mass of “practical” politicians, who think that every legislative measure is to be decided by estimation of probabilities unguided by a priori conclusions. Well, had they habitually succeeded, one might not wonder that they should habitually ridicule abstract principles; but the astounding accumulation of failures might have been expected to cause less confidence in empirical methods. Of the 18,110 public Acts passed between 20 Henry III. and the end of 1872, Mr. Janson, Vice-President of the Law Society, estimates that four-fifths have been wholly or partially repealed, and that in the years 1870-72 there were repealed 3532 Acts, of which 2759 were totally repealed. Further, I myself found, on examining the books for 1881-83, that in those years there had been repealed 650 Acts belonging to the present reign, besides many of preceding reigns. Remembering that Acts which are repealed have been doing mischief, which means loss, trouble, pain to great numbers—remembering, thus, the enormous amount of suffering which this helter-skelter legislation has inflicted for generations and for centuries, I think it would not be amiss to ask whether better guidance may not be had, oven though it should come from absolute political ethics.
I regret that neither space nor health will permit me to discuss any of the questions raised by Sir Louis Mallet. And here, indeed, I find myself compelled to desist altogether. In so far as I am concerned, the controversy must end with this letter. I am, etc.,
ATHENÆUM CLUB, Nov. 13.
Really, this “Answer to Professor Huxley” is no answer at all. What Mr. Spencer virtually says is. “I admit all that the landowners may want me to admit. Let us change the subject.”
Yet even in thus changing the subject, he is obliged to give up the distinction he had made between absolute political ethics and relative political ethics, for his longdrawn explanation to Professor Huxley means, if it means anything at all, that absolute political ethics do have a bearing on practical political conduct.
WITH this Mr. Spencer endeavoured to withdraw, and no wonder. But letters from Mr. Greenwood, Professor Huxley, and a number of new participants, including Auberon Herbert for the defence, continued to appear in The Timesfor some time longer, and Messrs. Greenwood and Huxley succeeded in dragging from him another brief confession.
Professor Huxley made him give up his illustration from physiological principles, and Mr. Greenwood, pressing him as to whether, as averred by Mr. Laidler, he had ever said that to right one wrong it takes another, first made him declare that he did not remember to have said it, and then, pressing him still further, made him declare he had not said it and to repudiate it if he had.
Although this is a mere side-issue, perhaps it may be worthwhile, even at this late date, to vindicate Mr. Laidler and refresh Mr. Spencer’s memory. In Social Statics, Chapter XXI, ‘The Duty of the State,’ Section 8, may be found the doctrine which Mr. Laidler referred to, when, in citing Mr. Spencer against Mr. Morley’s objection to land nationalization, he said, as reported by The Times—
Mr. Spencer has said that the land had been taken by force and fraud. That gentleman had also said that to right one wrong it takes another.
This in effect, if not in exact words, Mr. Spencer certainly does say in Chapter XXI, Section 8, in combating the doctrine of non-resistance. He declares all coercion immoral in itself, but (using the same terms in the same sense as Mr. Laidler) justifies government when “it uses wrong to put down wrong.” He adds:
The principle of non-resistance is not ethically true, but only that of non-aggression…. We may not carelessly abandon our rights. We may not give away our birthright for the sake of peace. … We may not be passive under aggression. In due maintenance of our claim is involved the practicability of all our duties. … If we allow ourselves to be deprived of that without which we cannot fulfil the Divine will, we virtually negative that will.
I thus take the trouble to refresh Mr. Spencer’s memory and vindicate Mr. Laidler, for, although the latter gentleman was allowed one letter in The Times, it was afterwards that the question was raised by Mr. Greenwood, and I do not suppose that Mr. Laidler got another chance, The Timesspeaking of him contemptuously, as a Mr. Laidler, and printing his letter in smaller type, although it was he who first brought out Mr. Spencer, and provoked the whole discussion.
Mr. Laidler’s letter, of which neither party to the controversy seemed to care to take notice, was published by The Timeson the same day as Mr. Spencer’s second letter. He said—
To the Editor of The Times.
- SIR: As one of the deputation of members of the Newcastle Labor Electoral Organization who recently waited upon Mr. John Morley, M.P., to ascertain his opinion on certain political and social topics, I was entrusted by my fellow-members of the deputation with the question of the nationalization of the land, and this subject I discussed with Mr. Morley. In doing so, I sought to back up my position by quoting the ninth chapter of Social Statics, by Mr. Herbert Spencer, and I certainly thought I had a good case when I found on my side the most distinguished authority of our time. To my great surprise, I now find that in the letters which he has addressed to you, Mr. Herbert Spencer appears to be very anxious to repudiate the doctrines which he preached so eloquently in 1850. Now, although it is a common thing for the politician of to-day to repudiate principles and deductions which he formerly warmly espoused and to adopt others which he once energetically condemned, one does not expect the same vacillation on the part of a distinguished philosopher like Mr. Herbert Spencer. I find it difficult to understand his position, which seems to be this—that while adhering to his general principles he abandons certain deductions therefrom. Now, to my mind, the ninth chapter of Social Statics, which deals with ‘The Right to the Use of the Earth,’ seems as true, as logical, and as unanswerable an argument in favour of the nationalization of the land as it doubtless appeared to Mr. Herbert Spencer on the day it was written. Let us trace the course of his argument through the ten sections of which the chapter is composed.
Giving a short abstract of these ten sections of Chapter IX Mr. Laidler continued—
In the foregoing digest, beyond one or two connecting words, the language is that of Mr. Herbert Spencer himself. Does it not constitute an unanswerable argument in favour of the nationalization of the land? If the author would permit it to be reprinted, what an admirable tract the ninth chapter of Social Statics would be for the propagation of socialisticprinciples! But he now seems to repudiate the offspring of his own genius! We have, however, a right to ask that, instead of a vague repudiation in general terms, Mr. Herbert Spencer should tell us specifically what deductions he has abandoned and why he has abandoned them. We might then endeavour to answer his answers to his own propositions. Yours,
JOHN LAIDLER, Bricklayer.
How far Mr. Spencer has tried to answer his own propositions, we shall see in Justice.
 Now published under the name of The Land Question, since its effort is to show that the Irish Land Question is simply the universal land question
 “Ten years ago, after all copies of the third edition had been sold, I resolved not again to import a supply to meet the still continued demand—Preface to “Social Statics, Abridged and Revised”, 1892.
 “His recreations have been systematic—concerts, operas, theaters, billiards, salmon-fishing, yachting, city rambles, and country excursions; and it has been his fixed rule, when work grew burdensome, to strike his tasks abruptly and go away for pleasure and amuse himself till work itself again became attractive and enjoyable. —”Preface, by Professor E. L. Youmans, to “Herbert Spencer on the Americans and the Americans on Herbert Spencer, being a full report of his interview and of the proceedings at the Farewell Banquet of Nov. 9, 1882.” New York: D. Appleton & Co
 “The American people have returned the compliment by purchasing more than a hundred thousand of his books reprinted in this country, and upon every volume of which he has been paid as if he had been an American author.”—Professor E. L. Youmans, Herbert Spencer on the Americans and the Americans on Herbert Spencer.
 Even as I write I am constantly receiving, especially from the West, copies of papers which contain Chapter IX of Social Statics, and which in ignorance of all he has since said, continue to speak of Mr. Spencer as an advocate of equal rights to land.
 About the time I ran for Mayor of New York (1886) on a platform which attracted great attention to the idea of equal rights to land, one enthusiastic advocate of the idea, Mr. W. J. Atkinson, himself printed some 500,000 copies.
 “The Nature and Reality of Religion. Controversy between Frederic Harrison and Herbert Spencer. With an Introduction, Notes, and an Appendix on the Religious Value of the Unknowable, by Count D’Alviella.” New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1, 3 and 5 Bond Street. 1885.
 Mr. Laidler uses the term “socialistic” in the vague way in which it is so commonly used in England, and doubtless means land nationalization principles.
Continued: Part III. Recantation