Review of Austrian Economics, 12: 115–130 (1999)
1999 Kluwer Academic Publishers
The Coming Slavery: The Determinism
of Herbert Spencer
MARIO J. RIZZO email@example.com
New York University, Department of Economics, 269 Mercer St., NY, NY 10003
Abstract. Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) believed that Victorian Britain was moving toward a society of total
regimentation (“slavery”). This movement was part of a cosmic process of evolution and dissolution. While the
long-run (but not ultimate) destination of society was a “higher” form of social organization based on voluntary
and complex interpersonal relationships, the immediate tendency was retrograde—a movement away from the
liberation of mankind from the bondage of previous eras. This Article explores (1) the reasons for the retrograde
movement, (2) its “inevitability,” and (3) the role of ideas in the process. The general conclusion is that in an
effort to explain the general movement of social institutions and practices, Spencer develops a mechanical and
deterministic approach which undermines his ability to pass normative judgements on changes in society.
Herbert Spencer, who was more radical than any radical and, yet, more conservative than
any conservative, has asked me to give you three sets of messages this evening. The ﬁrst
is a happy one: “There is a good time coming!” But, less happily, “it is very far distant”
(Spencer 1904:436). Secondly, he also wants me to assure you that “the evolution of ...
society [to this good time] cannot in any essential way be diverted from its general course.”
But, on the other hand, “though the process of social evolution is in its general character so
... predetermined that its successive stages cannot be ante-dated ... yet it is quite possible
to perturb, to retard, or to disorder the process [by bad policies]” (Spencer 1886:401).
Finally, he is happy that “[m]en within these few generations have become emancipated
from the restraints which a strong social organization had over them” (Spencer 1908:vol. 2,
78–79). Yet, unhappily, there is a growth on the body-politic of “an administrative system
[that is] becoming ever more powerful and peremptory—a new governing agency which
the emancipated people are unawares elaborating for themselves, while thinking only of
gaining the promised beneﬁts.” “While the old coercive arrangements are being relaxed,
new coercive arrangements are being unobtrusively established” (Spencer 1904:434).
While the above quotations obviously refer to a different time and a different place—
nineteenth-centuryVictorianEngland—theyhave an eerie applicability to our ownplace and
time. They also exhibit an irrepressible optimism, a belief in the ultimate “perfectibility” of
human kind, assured not by a benevolent deity (for whether one exists belongs to the realm
of the “Unknowable”), but by a sometimes harsh process of social and moral evolution.
This process, unfortunately, is subject both to progressive and to retrograde movements.
This article is a thorough revision of my presidential address to the Society for the Development of Austrian
Economics, which met at the annual meeting of the Southern Economic Association in Baltimore, Maryland in