Man versus the State

HerbertSpencer English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) wrote this in “The Man versus the State” (1884).

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.

The realization that the state hardly ever does anything creative is very old. Spencer wrote that over 130 years ago but he was just one of the scores of very smart people who had been saying that even before him. Has the majority of the world caught up to him or the other ancients? Not a chance.

Spencer, for example, understood Darwin’s idea of evolution through natural selection. Half the population of the US — in the 21st century CE — don’t understand it. I am certain that less than 10 percent of the world’s population understands what Hayek called “the extended market order” means and why it works while the centralized command and control fails. The astonishing (and fortunate) fact is that the Hayekian extended market order works regardless of whether people understand it or not.

2 thoughts on “Man versus the State

  1. Yes, but the classic liberal state does restrict people from competing in violent ways, which allows all of the above to happen, by channeling the effort of would-be empire builders into becoming Andrew Carnegie instead of Alexander.

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    1. Agreed that the classical liberal state — what has been called the night watchman state — is essential for mutually beneficial cooperative exchanges to take place. But while the watchman protects life and liberty, it is not the source of all that is good, true and beautiful around us. It serves a negative function, to prevent harm, rather than a positive function of producing the good. It’s when the state oversteps it boundary and attempts to do good that it produces harm by restricting liberty.

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