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Social Statics is Spencer's great work on sociology and ethics. First, A word about the title: "social statics" is Spencer's term for "equilibrium analysis." Hence, this book is about long-term responses to incentives and the final results of different kinds of policies. Spencer had planned to write another book going beyond equilibrium analysis, which would have been called "Social Dynamics", but he never got around to it. This book is written in a provocative style full of wit and satire, and I would absolutely recommend it to everyone with an interest in political philosophy.
Social Statics is a powerful defense of political libertarianism, which is a political philosophy founded on the principle that the initiation of aggression is always wrong, whether by private individuals or the government. Spencer develops this principle, which he calls the "divine idea", by emphasizing that people pursue happiness by controlling their environment--by maintaining relationships with people they like, and by acquiring the material things that enable them to enjoy life--and in order for this to be possible for everyone, people must respect one another and allow them the liberty to arrange their own property as they see fit. He then goes on, through the rest of the book a social policy which violates it produces adverse incentives that inhibit human happiness, especially in the long-term.
One of the outstanding sections in this book is the one on colonialism. Spencer takes an extremely harsh stance against it and demonstrates in numerous ways how colonialism is harmful both to the oppressors and the oppressed. He first discusses a justification of colonialism provided by contemporary theories which held, absurdly, that the British economy was somehow too productive and would collapse if the government did not aggressively establish new markets abroad. Spencer shows that these doctrines are simply the cover story of special interests that benefit from the subjugation of foreign people.
Another section I greatly enjoyed was that concerning women. Spencer is adamant that women have precisely the same rights as men and he argues this thesis along two fronts: he first disputes evidence given by other contemporary writers that women are mentally inferior to men. This is where Spencer's satire comes out most strongly. He then argues that the divine idea apples to all people regardless of whether a difference of intelligence can be found between two groups. Spencer also argues strongly for the rights of children, who still even today are in many ways treated as slaves. He therefore supports the right of children to run away from home and attempt to make their own way in the world, and he opposes mandatory school attendance laws.
The biggest flaw in this book is Spencer's adoption of Henry George's theory of land-ownership. Spencer believes that it is impossible to homestead land. He argues that no amount of labor is able to remove land from nature, and anyone who uses land exclusively does so at the consent of the community as a whole. He even goes so far as to advocate George's 100% tax on the unimproved value of land! Economically, such a tax would have disastrous consequences: since no profit could be obtained from land, no land owner has the incentive to apportion land to its most productive, most profitable uses. Land, then, would tend to be used for totally inappropriate uneconomical purposes. One other inconsistency in Spencer's program is that he believes reputations can be owned and therefore that anti-slander laws are acceptable.
Let me conclude with a few words concerning Spencer's relationship to social Darwinism. Although Spencer is considered to be the founder of social Darwinism, his views are very different from how social Darwinism is generally understood. First, it is generally understood today that Spencer's ideas of evolution were not strongly influenced by Darwin and, although rather idiosyncratic, are more closely related to Lamarckianism. Spencer does not properly distinguish between people who respond to incentives because they learn to change their behavior and people who respond to incentives because new generations are born with different innate behaviors. For example, Spencer would say that a free market encourages people to become more entrepreneurial, creative, and self-reliant; many modern economists would agree with him, but whereas a modern economist would say that people change simply because they tend to learn which behaviors are more effective, Spencer would say that people change, at least in part, because their struggles result in children who are innately more attuned to overcome those same struggles. Spencer's evolutionism can be happily disgarded without altering most of his conclusions--in fact they would be much stronger without them. It is a general fact of economics that people respond to incentives, and there is no need to assume that this happens for hereditary reasons.
Second, despite having coined the phrase "survival of the fittest", Spencer does not advocate the extermination of poor people or that poor people should be ignored while they die of starvation. Rather, he believes that evolutionary considerations show that charity--both public and private--ultimately is harmful to poor people. A system of charity, he believed, necessarily would lead to a class of dependent poor incapable of surviving on their own. On the other hand, in a society that restrains itself from too much charity, the poor would soon learn how to become wealthy on their own. The result would be a happier and wealthier society. This does not require that poor people die off, only that their behaviors improve with successive generations. Thus, Spencer's views on charity should be seen as more like modern objectivists than what today we call social Darwinism.
Spencer advocated no caste system, no systematic discrimination against any group, and no restrictions on intermarriage. He believed that all people could improve no matter what their ancestry and a system which encouraged improvement--the free market--would bring about that improvement. It was not until Spencer's ideas were selectively appropriated by the statists of his day that the horrors we now associate with social Darwinism--Naziism and the eugenics movement of the American and British progressives--came about. Spencer has been unfairly lumped together with these groups.
I conclude by pointing out that although a large part of this review discusses Spencer's views on race and charity, these topics only occupy a small fraction of the book. For the most part, Social Statics is a consistent and humanitarian defense of libertarian ethics.