Herbert Spencer on Exit and Voice

In 1850 or 1851, he wrote,

If every man has equal freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state–to relinquish its protection, and to refuse to pay toward its support…

Let men learn that a legislature is not “our God upon earth,” though, by the authority they ascribe to it , and the things they expect from it, they would seem to think it is.

These are selections from chapter 19 of Social Statics, reprinted in a new volume of readings from the Adam Smith Society, edited by James R. Otteson. The title of the volume is What Adam Smith Knew: Moral Lessons on Capitalism from Its Greatest Champions and Fiercest Opponents. This looks like an excellent collection of readings for a course in social and political philosophy.

What strikes me about Spencer’s chapter is how clearly he makes the case that exit is more legitimate than voice.

I think that my counter to Spencer would be this:

1. In modern society, we must interact, both directly and indirectly, with many strangers.

2. If we had competitive government, in which each person could choose which set of rules to obey, the cost of interacting with strangers might increase. When you sell me food, how do I know that you submit to a quality-assurance regime that gives me confidence that you are not cheating or poisoning me? Today, I can assume that the simple fact that you live in the United States makes you automatically subject to its rules. With competitive government, I would need some sort of signal.

3. As we expand the list of interactions, the signaling costs may mount up.

I do not think that this signaling-cost story is sufficient to explain and to justify the existence of government. I do not think that government emerged because people got together and said, “Sigh. Yes, government is a really problematic institution, but without it we would have to waste a lot of resources on signaling that we are going to treat strangers decently.”

I do think that there is something to a Hansonian view that we tend to want to affiliate with high-status people, and that certainly includes people with power. And I think that this view accounts for a lot of the support that the state receives. Spencer strikes me as anticipating this view, or coming close to anticipating it, for he complains of

that sentiment of power-worship which still misleads us by magnifying the prerogatives of constitutional governments as it once did those monarchs.

George H. Smith gives a quite different Spencer. In a footnote, Smith writes,

he insists, in Social Statics (1850), that ethics, including the Law of Equal Freedom, applies only to the “ideal man,” i.e., to a future society populated by people with highly evolved moral sentiments.

Pointer from Alberto Mingardi, who himself has written a book on Spencer.

In another essay, Smith writes,

When this remarkable man moved from an early optimism (during the 1840s and 50s) to an extreme pessimism (beginning roughly in the 1880s) about the prospects for individual liberty, when he predicted the rise of militarism and total war in the twentieth century and the political centralization and regimentation that such militarism would bring in its wake, he let it be known that classical liberalism was dead for the foreseeable future. And he was right.

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2 Responses to Herbert Spencer on Exit and Voice

  1. Arnold,

    Have you ever read the memoirs of Napoleon Chagnon?

    I thought it was interesting because I thought his insights gave credence to the idea that government itself is an emergent social phenomenon. It bubbled up as a way to squelch intra-group tension and allowed for bigger social groups.

    Typically the larger the yanomamo group, the larger, more pervasive, and more despotic the leader/state apparatus.

    You might think this proves your point instead of disproves it, but it’s changed my priors to the point where I think the default outcome is for some government to emerge out of social interaction. What government you get is another issue entirely.

  2. Georg Thomas says:

    As for explaining and justifying government, I find it useful to consider:

    Violence is the fundamental problem of human association.

    Once a community is wealthy enough to sustain specialists, there will emerge, within the unfolding division of labour, specialists in violence and governance.

    There will always be a competition for “structures of maximal power”, which will tend to create oligopolistic (coalition of rulers) or monopolistic outcomes (state monopoly on violence) which reduce inefficient levels of violence, at least in the long run.

    Probably, the biggest plus of government (there are many others) is the immeasurably large difference between a state of anarchy and a state of being protected from anarchy – the transition from roving bandits (anarchy) to stationary bandits (state), in Olson’s terminology.

    Also, a state can not be arbitrarily destructive; if state structures are to face good chances of survival they will evolve to enhance the state’s own material substratum, foster productivity, and as precondition of this, peace and other expedients supporting productivity in the populace.

    Anarchy remains on a retarded level of development, where violence and personal security have not yet reached the stage of being dealt with within an extended division of labour.

    In an anarchic environment, violence, trust-building, and governance are still left to inefficient producers. Anarchy is unsustainable because it is brutally inefficient, and fortunately humankind has worked out more efficient social technologies: such as the modern state, or more generally “structures of maximal power”, in my terminology.

    Structures of maximal power are growths of long-standing, they are fundamentally ambiguous and capable of severe regression – but they are the best we have.

    The founding fathers understood wisely that it is the liberal’s task to understand and improve these structures by “reflection and choice”.

    The state is an indispensable precondition of freedom, and endeavouring to improve its structure by “reflection and choice”, that is by conscious design is not necessarily the same as statist ambitions at building and micromanaging the system as a whole and in any conceivable detail.

    The big tragedy of the forces of liberty is that they have given up the battle for the state.

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