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Men versus the State: Herbert Spencer and Late Victorian Individualism.

The author tells us that it had been his intention "to trace the intellectual origins of |the New Right' " but discovered that "although the Individualists were the precursors of the free marketeers of the 1970s and 1980s, they did not provide the inspiration for New Right theorists." This somewhat limits the interest for some readers yet interest enough remains even for those who are not primarily political economists. The volume is mainly concerned with tracing the process through which the radicalism of the mid-Victorian liberals was transformed by the late Victorian Individualists, a group whose leading light was the later Herbert Spencer, into a conservative doctrine.

The author sets the stage in the Introduction by telling us about "the fin de siecle crisis of liberalism caused by a society experiencing profound social, economic, and political dislocation." The problems of the era caused liberals to divide into two groups neither of which were faithful disciples of the old liberal creed. The New Radicals felt that changing conditions made it necessary for the government to play a much greater role than had been allowed by traditional liberal doctrine and to defend this position required a theoretical reorientation. What resulted was a literature with which most of us are familiar. But at the same time, argues the author, while the Individualists continued to champion government non-interference, the defence of Individualism no less required theoretical innovation since it involved transforming "a political theory which had once condemned the injustice of the Victorian social order" into one which could be used "in defence of the very privileges and inequalities it had previously condemned"; this other literature is not well known, according to the author, and he sets out to show in some detail how this transformation was brought about. Taylor uses the positions taken by the classical liberals on various points of doctrine as point of departure and shows how these positions were changed by Individualism, in the process transforming a radical philosophy into a very conservative one.

Some readers might question why a whole volume is needed to show how the radicalism of the earlier liberals became the conservativism of the Individualists. After all, it is well known even by those who are not expert in this field that there was a tension in mid-century liberal doctrine which could be used to support conservative ideology as it could the radical kind. Both, while claiming descent, had to reject one pail of this supposed ancestry. As the author points out in the Introduction: "While continuing to share the Philosophical Radicals' enthusiasm for the free market and minimal State, the Individualists had abandoned their faith in human reason being able to construct a more humane social order." But the Individualists did more than merely reject one part of the foundations on which the earlier liberals had built. They also tried to fashion a complete new philosophy which to a large extent used the same concepts as had its predecessor but managed by introducing changes in a number of areas to come out with conclusions which differed radically from those of their predecessors. This book concerns itself with these changes.

In one chapter the author show how "[t]he theory of evolution enabled the Individualists to contend that the defence of existing institutions was itself a means to the end of progress". "The individualists had not," the author shows, "abandoned the belief in progress characteristic of earlier liberals, but contrary to the views of the latter, they believed that it was to be achieved by a |natural' process rather by means of conscious human intervention." In subsequent chapters the author shows how the theory of evolutionary associationism, held by the Individualists, represented a big change from associationist psychology; how sociology in the hands of the Individualists changed from a tool for social engineering to a means for showing that such attempts to bring on desirable change were bound to fail; how the Individualists' theory of history "enabled them to present institutional conservatism as the truly progressive creed". Particularly interesting is the chapter where the author shows how the Individualists reworked Utilitarianism by setting up the Law of Equal Freedom as a middle axiom, by distinguishing between absolute and relative ethics, and by making the principle of utility one which accounted for what is and not what ought to be. In the penultimate chapter on how the Individualists tried to bend the liberal conception of justice to their ends the author concludes: "They might have appealed to principles of justice in order to condemn government interference which aimed at rectifying extremes of inequality, but often the best defence of the policies they abhorred were the principles they espoused." In the final chapter the author shows why, though the Individualists were conservative in that they presented arguments for the defense of the late Victorian social order, they never became part of the Conservative mainstream.

Taylor concludes that Individualist doctrine "remained the exclusive province of a particular generation of disillused Liberal theorists, for whom the 1860s were forever a paradise lost." This statement may be literally correct but it can easily give a wrong impression which goes against the author's interest. The Individualists may not have inspired present-day conservatives but some of their arguments are very current. Also, a knowledge of the arguments of Individualism shows the questions that must be addressed in dealing with policy issues today by those whose orientation is essentially liberal. Thus, not only does the author make a contribution to the history of political thought; his work should be helpful to those trying to understand issues in the debate between liberals of the right and those on the left today.


[1.] Razin, Assaf and Joel Slemrod, editors. Taxation in the Global Economy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.
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Author:Hirsch, Abraham
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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