Blogs > Liberty and Power > Herbert Spencer: Big in Japan

Jun 29, 2006 2:19 am

Herbert Spencer: Big in Japan

[cross-posted on Austro-Athenian Empire]

In a comment on my recent post on Spencer, Sudha Shenoy quotes from Spencer's 1892 correspondence with Japanese official Kaneko Kentaro (excerpted by Lafcadio Hearn in Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation), advising the Japanese government to forbid foreigners to buy land, to enter certain professions, or -- lest"bad hybrids" ensue -- to intermarry with Japanese. Shenoy asks:"was Spencer a racist, as we now understand the term?"

Well, yes -- like most of his contemporaries Spencer had some racist assumptions. But there's less racism here than meets the eye. I have just placed Spencer's correspondence with Kaneko, warts and all, online so that readers may judge for themselves.

Let's take the economic prohibitions and the marriage prohibitions separately. The economic prohibitions are clearly not racially motivated; Spencer is advising Japan not to allow Europeans to buy land or enter certain professions, and he presumably has no racial prejuice against Europeans. His motivation is rather to protect Japan from Western imperialism:

Respecting the further questions you ask, let me, in the first place, answer generally that the Japanese policy should, I think, be that of keeping Americans and Europeans as much as possible at arm’s length. In presence of the more powerful races your position is one of chronic danger, and you should take every precaution to give as little foothold as possible to foreigners. ... If you wish to see what is likely to happen [otherwise], study the history of India. Once let one of the more powerful races gain a point d'appui and there will inevitably in course of time grow up an aggressive policy which will lead to collisions with the Japanese; these collisions will be represented as attacks by the Japanese which must be avenged; forces will be sent from America or Europe, as the case may be; a portion of territory will be seized and required to be made over as a foreign settlement; and from this there will grow eventually subjugation of the entire Japanese Empire. I believe that you will have great difficulty in avoiding this fate in any case, but you will make the process easy if you allow any privileges to foreigners beyond those which I have indicated.

While Spencer's restrictions may not be racist, they are certainly un-libertarian; laws discriminating against foreigners are clear violations of Spencer's own Law of Equal Freedom. But as Spencer explains his position, it is"impossible that the Japanese, hitherto accustomed to despotic rule, should, all at once, become capable of constitutional government"; hence any"proposed new institutions should be as much as possible grafted upon the existing institutions," so as to ensure"not ... a replacing of old forms by new, but a modification of old forms to a gradually increasing extent." (One suspects that Spencer would have little enthusiasm for contemporary attempts to spread democracy at swordpoint in the Middle East.) Hence the Japanese constitution should not be entirely libertarian in its treatment either of citizens or of foreigners; libertarian policies must be phased in over a period of many generations. In particular, in the interests of national security Spencer thought Japan would be justified in departing from strict libertarian principle in order to guard against Western hegemony; with cynicism born of long experience Spencer viewed his own country as likely to exploit any pretext to extend its imperial rule over Japan -- an opinion he asked Kaneko to keep quiet so as to avoid provoking"the animosity of [Spencer’s] fellow-countrymen." While I think Spencer may be too ready to sacrifice principle here, I don't see anything racist about his argument.

Spencer's assumption that the application of libertarian principle must be qualified in the case of societies with no tradition of self-governance is shared by John Stuart Mill, who states the point, in On Liberty, with overtones actually more racist than Spencer's:

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine [of liberty] is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.

Mill is generally forgiven for saying things like this, whereas when Spencer says similar things he is consigned to outer darkness. Yet on this point Mill is surely worse than Spencer, since from the alleged"nonage" of non-European peoples Mill inferred the legitimacy of British colonial rule, in India for example (see his Of the Government of Dependencies by a Free State), whereas Spencer remained a lifelong opponent of imperialism and Britain's India policy. From the assumption (be it true or false) that Japan was not ready for freedom, Mill would have been ready to infer that Japan should be subjected to British rule; Spencer on the contrary infers that Japan should do everything in its power to prevent being so subjected.

On the intermarriage question: at the start of the Meiji period many pro-Western Japanese thinkers felt themselves to be genetically inferior to the West and so advocated intermarriage with Europeans as a means of improving the stock -- a kind of self-hating racism. This was the context in which Kaneko inquired what Spencer's opinion was on the matter. Spencer advised against intermarriage, on the grounds that"if you mix the constitutions of two widely divergent varieties which have severally become adapted to widely divergent modes of life, you get a constitution which is adapted to the mode of life of neither." That was perhaps not a crazy hypothesis (and it was widely shared by Spencer’s contemporaries, including even my beloved Molinari), but it was only a hypothesis (a false one, as it turns out), and Spencer's willingness to accept popular prejudices against"the Eurasians in India, and the half-breeds in America" as confirmation of this hypothesis does suggest unwitting racism on his part, as does his assumption that Chinese immigrants to America must form a"subject race" if they do not intermarry, and must contribute to"social disorganization" in any case.

Still further evidence of unwitting racism on Spencer's part is his readiness to use these genetic considerations as grounds for imposing legal restrictions on intermarriage. After all, by his own Law of Equal Freedom consenting adults should presumably be entitled to marry regardless of whether their interbreeding would be best for the racial stock (a purely collectivist consideration). Indeed, in his Principles of Ethics, the writing of which was roughly contemporaneous with the Kentaro correspondence, Spencer describes the"authority ... assigned to the legislator to regulate marriage and the begetting of children" as a" conception of governmental functions developed by militancy, and appropriate to a fighting body," and thus as an example of"ideas, sentiments, and habits appropriate to early stages of development" which"survive throughout later stages, to which they are no longer appropriate; and pervert the prevailing beliefs and actions."

Here Spencer invokes his distinction between militant society (characterised by collectivism, authoritarian hierarchy, and war) and industrial society (characterised by peace, freedom, and commerce), and relegates state control of marriage and breeding to the waning militant phase of civilisation, implying that it is inappropriate to the newly dawning industrial phase. (Indeed, he had at one time opposed state-sanctioned marriage entirely.) But he immediately goes on to add:

There is indeed the excuse that to some extent among ourselves, and to a much larger extent among Continental peoples, the militant life, potential when not actual, still forms so considerable, and in many cases so great, a part of the social life as to render these traditional doctrines appropriate.

Compromise between old and new, which has perpetually to be made in practice, has to be made also in theory; for this must, on the average, conform itself to practice. It is therefore out of the question that there can be generally entertained the belief that governmental action should be subject to certain imperative restraints. The doctrine that there is a limited sphere within which only state control may rightly be exercised, is a doctrine natural to the peaceful and industrial type of society when fully developed; and is not natural either to the militant type or to types transitional between militancy and industrialism.

While this distinction between the principles appropriate to a fully libertarian society and the principles appropriate to a society in transition is already present in Spencer’s earliest work, the amount of liberty for which Spencer felt present-day society was ready steadily diminished as he grew older and more pessimistic. The Justice volume (1891) of Principles of Ethics thus partly retreats from, for example, the pro-feminist, anti-conscription, and quasi-anarchist positions Spencer had defended in Social Statics forty years earlier -- while still remaining far more libertarian than most of his contemporaries. (On the other hand, on some issues, like land ownership and the labour movement, he actually improved over time, at least from my perspective.) Spencer's advice to Kaneko is certainly not his finest hour, representing as it does both a degree of implicit racism and the watering-down of his former libertarian radicalism. In context, though, I think Spencer comes off a bit better than Hearn's excerpt makes his sound -- and his harshest words are for the Europeans and Americans.

Anyway, as I said, you can now read it for yourself.

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More Comments:

Dan Klein - 9/1/2005

Thanks, Rod, the stuff on Spencer is great. I too am a big fan of his. Has anyone ever addressed the following question: As he was so busy writing "The Principles of This" and "The Principles of That," why didn't he ever write "The Principle of Political Economy"? I half wonder if it was because his proto-Hayekian sensibility actually put him at such odds with Ricardian economics that there was no way for him to do it without mounting an encompassing critique of dominant economics. Thoughts anyone?