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Variations: Expected results versus actual results

IN the Victorian era, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was one of Great Britain’s towering intellects.

A civil engineer for railways before switching to journalism and book-writing, he was also a philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist and political theorist. He could claim to know “everything” worth knowing. He probably did. But in his 1884 book, “The Man Versus the State,” Spencer urged, above all, humility, especially among those who wanted to “change” the world “for the better.”

“Iron and brass,” he wrote, “are simpler things than flesh and blood…; and a machine constructed of the one works in more definite ways than an organism constructed of the other…. Manifestly, then, the ways in which the machine will work are much more readily calculable than the ways in which the organism will work. Yet in how few cases does the inventor foresee rightly the actions of his new apparatus! ... Plausible as his scheme seemed to the inventor, one or other hitch prevents the intended operation, and brings out a widely different result from that which he wished.”

What, then, he added, “shall we say of these schemes which have to do not with dead matter and forces, but with complex living organisms working in ways less readily foreseen, and which involve the co-operation of multitudes of such organisms? Even the units out of which this rearranged body politic is to be formed are often incomprehensible. Every one is from time to time surprised by others’ behavior, and even by the deeds of relatives who are best known to him. Seeing, then, how uncertainly any one can foresee the actions of an individual, how can he with any certainty foresee the operation of a social structure? He proceeds on the assumption that all concerned will judge rightly and act fairly; will think as they ought to think, and act as they ought to act; and he assumes this regardless of the daily experiences which show him that men do neither the one nor the other, and forgetting that the complaints he makes against the existing system show his belief to be that men have neither the wisdom nor the rectitude which his plan requires them to have.”

Paper constitutions, Spencer said, “raise smiles on the faces of those who have observed their results; and paper social systems similarly affect those who have contemplated the available evidence.” Indeed, “unnumbered revolutions have shown with wonderful persistence the contrasts between the expected results of political systems and the achieved results.”

Sadly, “fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until, eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.”

Spencer wrote all this years before “scientific,” heart-in-the-right-place regimes took over entire countries to create heaven on earth but ended up unleashing the hounds of hell on the same people whose lives these governments were supposed to improve.

Metamorphosis, Spencer said, “is the universal law, exemplified throughout the heavens and on the earth: especially throughout the organic world; and above all in the animal division of it. No creature, save the simplest and most minute, commences its existence in a form like that which it eventually assumes, and in most cases the unlikeness is great; so great that kinship between the first and the last forms would be incredible were it not daily demonstrated in every poultry-yard and every garden…. It is foolish to suppose that new institutions set up will long retain the character given them by those who set them up. Rapidly or slowly they will be transformed into institutions unlike those intended; so unlike as even to be unrecognizable by their devisers.”

Hence, Spencer’s warnings against uninstructed law-making. Law-making unguided by adequate knowledge, he said, brings enormous evils. Yet, he added, even when the government through the laws it makes “has manifestly caused the mischief complained of, faith in its beneficent agency is not at all diminished. The [government’s] misdoings become…reasons for praying it to do more!”

Many politicians “never look beyond proximate causes and immediate effects. In common with the uneducated masses they habitually regard each phenomenon as involving but one antecedent and one consequence. They do not bear in mind that each phenomenon is a link in an infinite series — is the result of myriads of preceding phenomena, and will have a share in producing myriads of succeeding ones. Hence they overlook the fact that, in disturbing any natural chain of sequences, they are not only modifying the result next in succession, but all the future results into which this will enter as a part-cause. The serial genesis of phenomena, and the interaction of each series upon every other series, produces a complexity utterly beyond human grasp. Even in the simplest cases this is so.”

Spencer hoped to see more “cautious thinkers,” especially among those who wielded power. A cautious thinker, he said, is more likely to acknowledge that “as a question of probabilities, it is unlikely that his views upon any debatable topic are correct. ‘Here,’ he reflects, ‘are thousands around me holding on this or that point opinions differing from mine — wholly in many cases; partially in most others. Each is as confident as I am of the truth of his convictions. Many of them are possessed of great intelligence; and, rank myself high as I may, I must admit that some are my equals — perhaps my superiors. Yet, while every one of us is sure he is right, unquestionably most of us are wrong. Why should not I be among the mistaken? True, I cannot realize the likelihood that I am so. But this proves nothing; for though the majority of us are necessarily in error, we all labor under the inability to think we are in error. Is it not then foolish thus to trust myself? A like warrant has been felt by men all the world through; and, in nine cases out of ten, has proved a delusive warrant. Is it not then absurd in me to put so much faith in my judgments?’ ”

But then again, “all superstitions die hard,” and Spencer feared, presciently, that “belief in government-omnipotence will form no exception.”

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