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Herbert Spencer and the relation between economic and political liberty

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Herbert Spencer's view of the relation between economic and political liberty changes as he loses his early enthusiasm for universal suffrage, and seeks to protect economic freedoms from majoritarianism. During his lifetime he was much criticized for this volte-face over the vote, but two recent writers have rightly shown that the change is not inconsistent with the main body of his thought. Miller points out that Spencer does not abandon his commitment to individual freedom, but only changes his mind on whether universal suffrage promotes that end. ‘He simply becomes convinced that extending the electorate . . . will enlarge, not prevent growth of, the government control.’ Wiltshire adds a relativistic dimension to this explanation, stating that Spencer's later suffrage restrictions ‘stemmed from the two main sources of Spencerian theory; an evolutionary imperative of the appropriateness of political institutions to national character, and the individualist imperative which made reform conditional on the continued passivity of the state’.

In our analysis of Spencer's about-turn on the suffrage, we wish to elaborate and supplement the accounts presented by Miller and Wiltshire, by showing how Spencer's later views reflect not only his individualism and his relativism, but also his conceptualizations of politics and liberty, and his dynamic theory of history. It should be noted that our article is not a historical explanation of why Spencer changed his mind, but an analytical study of the relationship between economic and political freedom in Spencer's writings.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Publication date: 1993-03-01

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