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The Man Versus the State Paperback – January 1, 2010
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About the Author
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was an English philosopher, political theorist, sociological theorist, author, and editor. He served in the later capacity for the "Economist" from 1843 to 1853. He is perhaps best known for applying evolutionary theory to social development and coined the term "survival of the fittest." His best known works are "Man versus the State" and the multi-volume "System of Synthetic Philosophy".
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Even the foreword, written in 1939 is prescient.
These matters, however, are touched upon only briefly in this work, competently edited and provided with an erudite introduction. As the title indicates, the book expounds Spencer's views on politics and ethics rather than his contributions to sociological and anthropological theory; and the reader interested in the latter must look at his Principles of Sociology.
Spencer believed ethics ought to rest upon biology and sociology, which alone can reveal the goal of social evolution; and that the value of individual as well as collective practices can be assessed by ascertaining whether they subserve or impede the attainment of this goal. This view is based on a premise that the general direction of the march of mankind must be good.
Spencer favored laissez-faire in all matters (e.g., education policy, public health, etc.). His diatribes against the short-sightedness, inertia, pettiness and selfishness of politicians and bureaucrats retain their perennial topicality. For now, bureaucracy is the chief agent of oppression and exploitation, which endows Spencer's impassioned pleas for liberty, and his tirades against the bureaucratic octopus, with perhaps more merit today than they did when they were penned.
When Hayek said "We understand now that all enduring structures above the level of simplest atoms, and up to the brain and society, are the results of, and can be explained only in terms of, processes of selective evolution..." He was reiterating the insights that Spencer was already expounding over a century earlier. Given my current state of ignorance I believe that Herbert Spencer is the greatest intellectual of all time, with F.A. Hayek coming in a close second. It seems like the world is just beginning to catch up to Hayek. Who knows how much longer till we rediscover Spencer.
This book is a masterpiece. It has been a long time since I read it and the essay I remember most is "Over-legislation" where he does a great job criticizing government interventions into what he referred to as the social organism. He was right! We really are a social organism... or has Hayek would mention "extended order". I quote this wonderful essay often in my book.
No wonder Darwin himself said to him "Every one with eyes to see and ears to hear (the number, I fear, are not many) ought to bow their knee to you, and I for one do." and in another occasion referred to Spencer as "twenty times my superior."