The Man versus the State

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.

Herbert Spencer in “The Man versus the State” (1884)

7 thoughts on “The Man versus the State

  1. True, but it is the state which can hinder or support these developments. If your borders are not secure or the roads are not good, or if tariffs are exorbitant, none of these developments would take place as we have seen in much of post-Independence India.


  2. Girish – what you say does not invalidate Spencer at all.

    It’s not an either/or. The “state” has two jobs:

    1 – enforce the borders and keep the peace
    2 – enforce legal contracts so trade and commerce proceeds with actors who enter freely, without coercion nor fear of bias.

    Nations which enforce the rule of law and individual property rights prosper. Those that take shortcuts “for the good of the many” end up destroying the incentive system.


  3. Ideally, the role of the State stated simply is to –

    a. Provide a safe and comfortable infrastructure (that includes law and order) for productive economic and cultural activities

    b. Grow human capital by enabling education of the population

    c. Protect the environment (that includes all of the resources we need for economic and other life-sustaining activities)

    Now, that would be ideal. At the present moment we have the State handling some externalities since we are yet to organize ourselves to handle many of these on our own.

    What Spencer has stated is that all human innovation and creative output is the resultant of private actions which is not surprising.


  4. Don’t know the scenario in 1884. But virtually every significant advance in science and technology in the 20th and 21st centuries has come out of state funded research. This includes the internet, nuclear science, space travel to name a few. While the funding may be DARPA and the contractor general dynamics, its very much tax payers money channeled through the state. So what is the point of an old quote that is neither relevent nor true in today’s context ?


  5. In USSR the state funded all research. I dont know whether something useful to public ever came out of their efforts. Could anyone tell me one pharmaceutical drug invented by USSR. State may fund research but free private sectors are needed for further development.


  6. Hi Atanu!
    I felt “wow” after reading this quote!
    Everyone keeps talking about Soviet when they say state did everything, but they forget soviet failed!! And now some of them are quoting China for success of communism, oblivious of the fact that last year alone $60 billion FDI fuelled Chinese economy!!! How could it be called a communist nation? lollzzz
    Thanks for this quote Atanu!


  7. DARPA funding networking makes the old quote irrelevant in todays world

    The market adapted what was available.
    When only governmnet could afford computers only government decided to look into networking.
    Had a DARPA project concerning networking not have been funded Some thing resembling internet would have still come into being.


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