Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Man versus The State

Another book that is on my must read list is Herbert Spencer's The Man versus The State. The Mises institute has a great commentary on this work, written back in 1884 but still full of relevant wisdom and accurate insight. Many of the gloomy predictions made by Spencer have come true due to his understanding of the role of government and its expansionary instincts. An interesting aspect to this classical liberal text was that it was written in 1884, and describes how British society was already heavily regulated, with many supporters of socialised rail, health, medicine and infrastructure.

A common misconception is that the 20th century saw the emergence (and fail) of socialism, but it seems that socialism is a slowly creeping phenomena and the 19th century had its share of supporters who insisted on an ever greater role for the state in providing welfare. The 20th century gave us more than a handful of examples of the blanket poverty that emerged from a socialist command economy. But once again, the classical liberal writers are spot on with their predictions.

Mises foresaw the inevitable doom and failure of communism, and Spencer clearly saw the endless expansion of the state at the expense of individual freedom and liberty.

But any open-minded person who takes the trouble today to read or reread The Man Versus The State will probably be startled by two things. The first is the uncanny clairvoyance with which Spencer foresaw what the future encroachments of the State were likely to be on individual liberty, above all in the economic realm. The second is the extent to which these encroachments had already occurred in 1884, the year in which he was writing.

The present generation has been brought up to believe that government concern for "social justice" and for the plight of the needy was something that did not even exist until the New Deal came along in 1933. The ages prior to that have been pictured as periods when no one "cared," when laissez faire was rampant, when everybody who did not succeed in the cutthroat competition that was euphemistically called free enterprise — but was simply a system of dog-eat-dog and the-devil-take-the-hindmost — was allowed to starve. And if the present generation thinks this is true even of the 1920s, it is absolutely convinced that this was so in the 1880s, which it would probably regard as the very peak of the prevalence of laissez faire.

Yet the new reader's initial astonishment when he starts Spencer's book may begin to wear off before he is halfway through, because one cause for surprise explains the other. All that Spencer was doing was to project or extrapolate the legislative tendencies existing in the 1880s into the future. It was because he was so clearsightedly appalled by these tendencies that he recognized them so much more sharply than his contemporaries, and saw so much more clearly where they would lead if left unchecked.

Spencer has some words that are astonishingly relevant to modern society, with western governments claiming credit for our advances and developments when they deserve no credit at all:
It is not to the State that we owe the multitudinous useful inventions from the spade to the telephone; it is not the State which made possible extended navigation by a developed astronomy; it was not the State which made the discoveries in physics, chemistry, and the rest, which guide modern manufacturers; it was not the State which devised the machinery for producing fabrics of every kind, for transferring men and things from place to place, and for ministering in a thousand ways to our comforts. The worldwide transactions conducted in merchants' offices, the rush of traffic filling our streets, the retail distributing system which brings everything within easy reach and delivers the necessaries of life daily at our doors, are not of governmental origin. All these are results of the spontaneous activities of citizens, separate or grouped.

And Spencer viewed income tax as nothing more than slavery:
No man has any claim to his property, not even to that which he has earned by the sweat of his brow, save by the permission of the community; and that the community may cancel the claim to any extent it thinks fit. No defense can be made for this appropriation of A's possessions for the benefit of B, save one which sets out with the postulate that society as a whole has an absolute right over the possessions of each member.