|Survival of the Fittest Applied to Human Kind (1851)
by Herbert Spencer
Even before Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his work on evolution
and the struggle for survival in 1859, such concepts were known.
Indeed, one can argue that the basic tenets of liberalism were imbued
with the concept of survival of the fittest: those with greater
intelligence, will power, industriousness, etc., succeeded while those
without these qualities failed. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), a social
scientist, pushed this concept to its logical extension in his Social Statics (1851), arguing that charity for the
poor contradicted natural law. In many ways, Spencer was following in
the footsteps of Thomas Malthus's (1766-1834) demographic
pronouncements on working-class poverty and sexual profligacy. Spencer
was one of the leading figures in the pseudo-scientific movement known
as Social Darwinism, an intellectual trend that further justified the
widening gap between rich and poor, the racial superiority inherent in
European imperialism, and, ultimately, war.
Questions to Consider
Why should the state refrain from providing charity to the poor?
What, according to Spencer, was the cause of poverty?
common with its other assumptions of secondary offices, the assumption
by a government of the office of Reliever General to the Poor, is
necessarily forbidden by the principle that a government cannot rightly
do anything more than protect. In demanding from a citizen
contributions for the mitigation of distress--contributions not needed
for the due administration of men's rights--the state is, as we have
seen, reversing its function, and diminishing that liberty to exercise
the faculties which it was instituted to maintain. Possibly, some will
assert that by satisfying the wants of the pauper, a government is in
reality extending his liberty to exercise his faculties. But this
statement of the case implies a confounding of two widely different
things. To enforce the fundamental law--to take care that every man has
freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal
freedom of any other man--this is the special purpose for which the
civil power exists. Now insuring to each the right to pursue within the
specified limits the objects of his desires without let or hindrance,
is quite a separate thing from insuring him satisfaction.
Pervading all nature we may see at work a stern discipline, which is a
little cruel that it may be very kind. That state of universal warfare
maintained throughout the lower creation, to the great perplexity of
many worthy people, is at bottom the most merciful provision which the
circumstances admit of. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses
that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those
shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many "in
shallows and in miseries," are the decrees of a large, farseeing
benevolence. It seems hard that an unskilfulness which with all its
efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artisan. It
seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing
with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting
privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to
struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately,
but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh
fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence--the same
beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased
parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the
debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.
Source: Herbert Spencer, "Social Statics," in J. Salwyn Schapiro, ed., Liberalism: Its Meaning and History (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1958), 136-137.