“And that’s Herbert Spencer,” I said to my young friend, as he surveyed my considerable collection of liberty-themed books. “He’s a magnificent philosopher. You should read him.” “Oh, but wasn’t he a racist?” he replied. And just like that, the scholarly work of a lifetime was dismissed, relegated to the dustbin of history, because somewhere along the line, someone had used that hateful word to describe the man, and it had stuck.
This is a trick that I see progressives use all the time, and it’s having serious consequences not only to our political discourse, but to our understanding of history as well. Rather than tackle great ideas head on, it’s easier to attack the man behind them. In logic, this is called the Ad Hominem fallacy. And there is no more poisonous term to use these days than the word “racist.”
No one wants to be associated with anyone who could possibly be considered racist, and for good reason. Apart from the obvious fact that racism is a hateful way of thinking that has resulted in some of the most horrific crimes in human history, society at large has demonstrated that the charge of harboring racist thoughts is enough to utterly destroy a career. Just ask Michael Richards. Perhaps that’s as it should be; social pressure is an effective and non-violent way of enforcing good behavior and societal norms. But the consequence has been that it is all too easy to delegitimize someone simply by throwing that word at them, with or without evidence.
And since this is a favorite tool of the Left, you can imagine who its most frequent targets are: individualists, libertarians, conservatives, advocates of limited government, all the things that collectivists hate. The irony is that, as Ayn Rand point out, racism itself is fundamentally collectivist in that it lumps people into groups instead of treating them as individuals. Perhaps this is why so many progressives are preoccupied with the subject.
So, in the interest restoring a few reputations, busting some myths, and trying to foster a more open dialogue without resorting to name calling and personal attacks, I want to take this opportunity to go through a few of the most prominent cases of great thinkers tarnished by accusations of racial acrimony, starting with the much maligned Herbert Spencer.
Herbert Spencer was a brilliant British philosopher who wrote on everything from biology, to psychology, to ethics, to political philosophy. It is this latter category which remains most relevant today, Spencer went beyond most classical liberals, embracing a radical individualist viewpoint that condemned the state as unnecessary and malevolent. Murray Rothbard cited his book “Social Statics” as one of the most important libertarian works ever written, and its chapter The Right to Ignore the State has been reprinted as a standalone testament to freedom from government.
Spencer was an avid follower of Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection, and actually coined the term “survival of the fittest.” It was in Spencer’s attempt to apply Darwin’s theories the other aspects of science and philosophy that he ran into trouble. In a defense of market competition not dissimilar to anything written by Adam Smith, Spencer analogized the market to nature, asserting that unsuccessful businesses die off while successful ones survive, much like what happens in the animal kingdom.
Spencer is quick to amend his statement, adding that charity is both necessary and praiseworthy to help those incapable of succeeding on their own, but his critics seized upon the phrase “social Darwinism” and tried to cast Spencer as a supporter of letting the poor die in the streets, which in turn led to charges of support for eugenics and racism.
Murray Rothbard, perhaps the 20th century’s most ardent defender of liberty and a follower of Mises, grew a little cranky in his older years, as we are all wont to do, and wrote a couple of provocative articles that have allowed his detractors to smear him with the epithet “racist.” In one essay, he defends the use of the term “Jap” as shorthand for a Japanese person, not because of any derogatory intention, but as a matter of mere linguistic efficiency. Like many on the Right, he saw an increasing tide of political correctness as an oppressive force, and was not afraid to rail, at times unconsciously against it.
Another example is a review Rothbard wrote of “The Bell Curve” praising the controversial book for acknowledging the obvious but unpopular truth that people are different from one another. Rothbard was reacting against the egalitarian fantasy that government can make everyone equal, not expressing some sort of racial animus, as is plain to anyone who reads his words in their original context.
And yet, these two essays have been sufficient for many to erase the dozens of volumes of brilliant economic and political analysis he produced in his lifetime, none of which bear the slightest sign of racial prejudice or malice against minorities (unless you consider government employees a minority.)
Ludwig von Mises
Even Ludwig von Mises himself, the foremost exponent of the Austrian School of economics and of modern libertarianism in general has been charged with racism, albeit in an argument so tortured that it is not worth repeating here.
But what if I’m wrong? After all, none of us can really know what is in a person’s heart, especially only by reading what they wrote. Maybe some of these people did, on occasion, think racist thoughts. What then?
We have all seen the systematic attempts by the college campus crowd to scrub our history of heroes like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington on the grounds that they owned slaves. Owning slaves is an unquestionably terrible thing to do, and we know from the writings of the founding fathers that the question of the ethics of slavery was not unknown to them. They really should have known better, it’s true.
But does the fact that they did some bad things, and thought some bad thoughts taint every other achievement of these remarkable lives? Certainly not! I can hardly think of a more despicable human being the Richard Wagner, the German composer who was openly anti-Semitic, narcissistic, and self-absorbed to the point of abusing all of his friend emotionally and financially. Yet that knowledge about his character doesn’t diminish for one instant the soaring majesty of the music he wrote. I tremble in awe at the overture to Das Rheingold. I am moved almost to tears at Tannhauser or Lohengrin. The sins of the creator do not undermine the genius of the creation.
A similar analysis applies to the founders. The Declaration of Independence’s bold proclamation that all men are created equal may have been hypocritical in an era that accepted slavery, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable, and it could be argued that such an unvarnished defense of human rights helped pave the way for the abolition of slavery nearly a century later.
We have a tendency to want to categorize people as either “good” or “bad”, but people are more complicated than that. Everyone has done something they can be proud of, and no one has led a perfectly blameless life. It is possible to condemn a historical figure for his faults, and at the same time celebrate him for his accomplishments without internal contradiction. What we should never do is assume that one bad act erases all the good done in a given life, or that one good deed absolves a life filled with wickedness.
The point of all this is that, if we are to learn anything at all from the great thinkers of the past, we must be able to separate the ideas themselves from the men who dreamt them up, and judge them on their own merits or lack thereof. Herbert Spencer was not a Social Darwinist, but even if he were, it would not mean that he didn’t have a good point about the right to ignore the state.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.