A provocative take on politics and culture from a skeptical, libertarian point of view

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Herbert Spencer Misrepresented in NY Times Article

Patricia Cohen's article "A Split Emerges As Conservatives Discuss Darwin" New York Times 5/5/07 seriously misrepresents the views of Herbert Spencer when she wrote "It is true that political interpretations of Darwinism have turned out to be quite pliable. Victorian-era social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism, opposition to labor unions and the withdrawal of aid to the sick and needy."

In fact, Spencer was a vociferous opponent of colonialism and imperialism. In SOCIAL STATICS (1851), Spencer not only quotes with approval the American Declaration of Independence, but goes on to say "Great, however, as are the evils entailed by government colonization upon both parent stae and settlers, they look insignificant when compared with those it inflicts upon the aborigines of the conquered countries." He gives examples from the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. The same book has a chapter on "The Rights of Women" in which it is argued that women and men must have the same rights. In THE MAN VERSUS THE STATE (1884), Spencer does not justify colonialism and imperialism, but condemns them in the strongest terms. "Our colonial history, to our shame be it spoken, is full of the injustice and cruelty, to which the original possessors of the soil have been subjected." He refers to the American Indians, the Australian aborigines and the peoples of the East Indies. His objections to imperialism and other state interventions were not based solely on evolutionary theory, but on economic science and an elaborate natural rights based ethics, developed in the books mentioned before and in his book THE PRINCIPLES OF ETHICS.

When I learned of Abu Ghraib, I thought of what Spencer and his American colleague William Graham Sumner wrote. In Sumner's essay "The Conquest of the United States by Spain", he argued that as we emulated Spanish imperialism so too we would emulate its tyrannical methods. Spencer is often referred to by writers who seem not to bother to read him.

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