Social Justice, Libertarianism

A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarian Thought – Herbert Spencer

If you’re like most people, then the one thing you probably think you know about Herbert Spencer is that he was a “Social Darwinist.”  And that one thing is wrong.

Libertarians like George Smith and Roderick Long (over and over again) have long defended Spencer against the unjust charge of Social Darwinism.  And the point is now, thankfully, generally recognized among serious scholars.

But if Spencer was no Social Darwinist, then what was he, and why have so many people misinterpreted his views?  Can contemporary libertarians find something of value in his work?  Can bleeding heart libertarians?

In my recent Reason TV interview, I said something that could quite reasonably be interpreted as implying that Spencer was a “cold-hearted beast.”  That’s certainly not what I intended to communicate, but alas, this was not my most articulate day.  So I think I owe it to Mr. Spencer to engage with his views more thoroughly.  And what better way, I thought, than by continuing the series I began so long ago: A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarian Thought.  I’ve been meaning to write another entry in it for quite some time.  And now seems an especially appropriate occasion, given that  John Tomasi and I have just begun writing A Brief History of Libertarianism for Princeton University Press.  So we’re hoping to use this forum to gather some useful feedback on a first draft of some of our ideas.

Let’s start, then, by examining the myth of Spencer’s Social Darwinism.

Spencer and Social Darwinism

To be a Social Darwinist, presumably, is to believe that human society ought to be governed by the principle of “survival of the fittest” (a term that Spencer famously coined).  The strong, the wealthy, the intelligent, should reproduce themselves and spread their good genetic material to future generations.  The weak and stupid – and the poor, for is not poverty sufficient evidence of weakness and stupidity? – should be allowed (encouraged?) to die off, so that they can do no further damage in retarding society’s evolutionary progress.

Much of the blame for the popular interpretation of Spencer as a Social Darwinist should probably go to Richard Hofstadter, whose influential Social Darwinism in American Thought devoted an entire chapter to Spencer’s work, and who radically transformed the way Spencer’s thought was perceived in British and American culture.

But part of the blame must go to Spencer himself, whose writings, at times, rather lent themselves toward this sort of misinterpretation.  Spencer did, after all, regard the evolution of human society and of human character as something of the utmost moral importance, believing that human nature was changeable, and (at least in the early parts of his life) that progress over time would inevitably lead to its perfection.  But human nature could evolve toward greater perfection only if its less-than-perfect traits were somehow eliminated.  And often the most effective way for this elimination to occur is simply to allow the bearers of those traits to suffer their natural consequences.  Spencer draws out the implications of this idea in characteristically blunt form in chapter 18 of Social Statics.

“Inconvenience, suffering, and death, are the penalties attached by nature to ignorance, as well as to incompetence—are also the means of remedying these… Partly by weeding out those of lowest development, and partly by subjecting those who remain to the never-ceasing discipline of experience, nature secures the growth of a race who shall both understand the conditions of existence, and be able to act up to them…Who, indeed, after pulling off the coloured glasses of prejudice, and thrusting out of sight his pet projects, can help seeing the folly of these endeavours to protect men against themselves?  A sad population of imbeciles would our schemers fill the world with, could their plans last.  A sorry kind of human constitution would they make for us—a constitution lacking the power to uphold itself, and requiring to be kept alive by superintendence from without—a constitution continually going wrong, and needing to be set right again—a constitution even tending to self-destruction. Why the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such—to clear the world of them, and make room for better. Nature demands that every being shall be self-sufficing.  He on whom his own stupidity, or vice, or idleness, entails loss of life, must, in the generalizations of philosophy, be classed with the victims of weak viscera or malformed limbs. In his case, as in the others, there exists a fatal non-adaptation; and it matters not in the abstract whether it be a moral, an intellectual, or a corporeal one. Beings thus imperfect are nature’s failures, and are recalled by her laws when found to be such. Along with the rest they are put upon trial. If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die. ” (emphasis added)

These last two lines in particular have been seized upon by critics of Spencer to demonstrate the repugnance of his view.  But do they show that Spencer was a Social Darwinist?  Three facts militate against this interpretation.  (For a further deconstruction, see Thomas Leonard’s paper on the “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism”)

First, a nitpick.  While evolutionary arguments certainly played an important role in Spencer’s social thought, Spencer was a Lamarckian, not a Darwinian, in his understanding of how evolution worked.  In other words, Spencer believed that acquired traits could be biologically inherited.  This belief had important implications for Spencer, insofar as it led him to a view of evolution as a progressive phenomenon moving society and the individuals who compose it to higher and better stages of existence.  Evolution, for Spencer, was largely a product of the “conscious, planned exertion” of individuals, and not merely of the “chance variation and natural selection that are at the heart of Darwinism” (Leonard, p. 41).

Second, and more significantly, Spencer was strongly and unequivocally opposed to the aggressive use of force.  “Social Darwinism” suggests a struggle for existence in which might-makes-right and evolutionary fitness is demonstrated by, inter alia, an ability to beat out competitors for scarce resources by the skilled use of violence.  But Spencer was a vocal critic of slavery and military imperialism – two practices that would seem quite at home in the view typically attributed to Spencer.  More fundamentally, the core principle of Spencer’s ethics, his “law of equal freedom,” is explicitly interpreted by Spencer as entailing a prohibition on depriving others of their life or liberty.   For Spencer, ethical principles are the product of evolutionary forces, but also serve to put an independent “check” on those forces.  As Roderick Long puts it:

Spencer praises the “far-seeing benevolence” of evolutionary selection, not because he wants to see the unfit weeded out, but because past selection has led to the emergence of beings with a moral sense advanced enough to moderate the operation of evolutionary selection now. In Spencer’s eyes, charity (at least of the judicious and voluntary kind) represents not a transgression against evolution, but rather a transcendence of one form of evolution in favor of a higher form…

Which leads directly to the third point counting against the standard interpretation of Spencer: Spencer was not, in fact, opposed to charity.  Indeed, the very first lines of the paragraph following the (apparently damning) passage quoted above, Spencer writes that “in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.”  Spencer’s objection, he proceeds to clarify, is not to charity as such, but rather to charity that either a) involves a violation of the law of equal freedom, as does redistribution that is coercively obtained, or b) mitigates present suffering only at the cost of causing greater suffering in the future, as do policies which encourage carelessness by shielding people from the costs of their careless behavior.  The requirements of “positive beneficence,” Spencer held, cannot be specified as precisely as requirements of justice, but this does not make them any less serious or imperative as moral obligations.  Indeed, as Long and others have pointed out, Spencer devotes a full 10 chapters to their discussion in his Principles of Ethics.  I will consider later whether Spencer’s views go as far as they should in recognizing the existence of permissions or obligations to aid the poor.  But the claim that he was a Social Darwinist who rejected such aid entirely is clearly unfounded.


Spencer’s Political Ideology

If Spencer was not a Social Darwinist, then what was he?  According to Hofstadter, Spencer was an “ultra-conservative.”  Murray Rothbard, on the other hand, praised Social Statics as “the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.”  

As Long documents here, the interpretation of Spencer as political conservative is difficult to maintain.  Spencer was an early advocate of equal rights for children and for women (though his position on the latter changed later in life).  He was, this front page New York Times article to the contrary notwithstanding,  a supporter of labor unions, and an opponent of colonialism and imperialism.   [As but one example of the latter, he wrote that the English people cannot pretend to “justify our colonial aggressions by saying that the Creator intends the Anglo-Saxon race to rule the world;” rather, aggression stems from a “piratical spirit” that is happily on the decline as men come to recognize that “territorial aggression is as impolitic as it is unjust” Social Statics, p. 142, 342.]  He was, moreover, opposed to state censorship and the use of state revenues to support religion.  As for the conservative notion that we ought to “support the troops” in times of war, Spencer wrote that “[w]hen men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves” (Facts and Comments, ch. 20).  None of this looks much like conservatism of a contemporary Republican sort.  But it doesn’t look much like conservatism of a Kirkian, Burkean, Stephensian, or any other sort either.

There is a much stronger case to be made for Spencer as a libertarian, though even here the case is not entirely unambiguous.  As mentioned above, Spencer’s fundamental ethical principle is the “law of equal freedom,” which holds that “every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man” (Social Statics, IV.3).   And we have already seen that Spencer thought that the (negative) rights to life and liberty could be derived from this principle.  He also thought that rights to private property (though see below), to free exchange, freedom of speech, movement, and a host of other rights could be derived from it.  And these rights, for Spencer, were very nearly absolute in character – not to be overridden in some particular case even if we believe the social gains to be had by doing so would be very great indeed.

But if we restrict our view to Spencer’s writings in Social Statics, and discount for the moment later works such as those contained in his 1884 book, The Man Versus the State, there is a plausible case to be made that Herbert Spencer was a left-libertarian, along the likes of contemporary theorists such as Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne, and Michael Otsuka, rather than a right-libertarian along the lines of Robert Nozick or Murray Rothbard.  The difference comes down to the question of land.  For Nozick and Rothbard, as for John Locke, human beings could legitimately acquire private property in land – where by “land” they meant both land itself and other raw natural resources like coal, wood, water, etc.  For left-libertarians, on the other hand, such acts of private appropriation are morally problematic.

For Spencer, they ran afoul of the law of equal freedom.  In chapter IX of Social Statics, Spencer argues that the law of equal freedom entails that all men have equal rights to the use of the world.  Private property in land, however, infringes upon this right:

For if one portion of the earth’s surface may justly become the possession of an individual, and may be held by him for his sole use and benefit, as a thing to which he has an exclusive right, then other portions of the earth’s surface may be so held; and eventually the whole of the earth’s surface may be so held; and our planet may thus lapse altogether into private hands.  Observe now the dilemma to which this leads. Supposing the entire habitable globe to be so enclosed, it follows that if the landowners have a valid right to its surface, all who are not landowners, have no right at all to its surface. Hence, such can exist on the earth by sufferance only. They are all trespassers. Save by the permission of the lords of the soil, they can have no room for the soles of their feet. Nay, should the others think fit to deny them a resting-place, these landless men might equitably be expelled from the earth altogether. If, then, the assumption that land can be held as property, involves that the whole globe may become the private domain of a part of its inhabitants; and if, by consequence, the rest of its inhabitants can then exercise their faculties—can then exist even—only by consent of the landowners; it is manifest, that an exclusive possession of the soil necessitates an infringement of the law of equal freedom. For, men who cannot “live and move and have their being” without the leave of others, cannot be equally free with those others.

The only just system, according to Spencer, was one in which private ownership in land would be abolished altogether, and replaced by a system in which the state would serve as the single landlord for society – a system that Hillel Steiner has written about admiringly here and here.  By the time of his Principles of Ethics, however, Spencer had abandoned this proposal – but also softened the rigidity of the right of property (at least in morally non-ideal societies such as ours) so as to allow for its infringement via “such equitably distributed taxation as is required for maintaining order and safety” (Principles of Ethics, ch. 12)

Still, there is a great deal in Spencer’s thought for non-left libertarians to admire.  As Alberto Mingardi argues at length in his recent treatment of Spencer, there are a great many themes in Spencer’s work relating to evolution and dispersed knowledge that anticipate ideas that would later be developed in greater detail by Friedrich Hayek.  His discussion in “The Coming Slavery” (section 2.31) of the relationship between taxation and slavery was the original source for Robert Nozick’s characteristically punchy-but-inconclusive “Tale of the Slave.”  And Spencer’s earliest published work, an essay on “The Proper Sphere of Government,” is an especially compelling and accessible presentation of the core libertarian position.  Among other gems from that piece is the passage in which Spencer explains that government is necessary

not to regulate commerce; not to educate people; not to teach religion; not to administer charity; not to make roads and railways; but simply to defend the natural rights of man – to protect person and property – to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak – in a word, to administer justice.  This is the natural, the original, office of a government.  It was not intended to do less: it ought not to be allowed to do more (p. 185).


Herbert Spencer – Bleeding Heart?

Even if Spencer was no Social Darwinist, however, we still have good reason to question whether his political views – and his views, in particular, about our obligations to the poor – are defensible.  You don’t have to be a social Darwinist to be unjustifiably cold-hearted toward the fate of the worse-off.  So do libertarians today have any reason to take on board Spencer’s views about poverty poor relief?  Do bleeding-heart libertarians?

As we have seen above, Spencer’s view is that charitable aid to the poor is proper, so long as it is not coercive (i.e. so long as it does not violate the law of equal freedom), and so long as it is not ineffective (i.e. so long as it does not do more harm than good).  But aid to the poor, for Spencer, is a kind of charity, not a kind of justice.  It is not something that can be claimed by the poor as a matter of right.  Already, then, we see one way in which Spencer’s view might fall short by the standards of certain views about social justice.

Some of Spencer’s most controversial claims about the poor arise in his discussions of the ineffectiveness of certain kinds of charitable aid.  Spencer is especially concerned to avoid what we would today call moral hazard – situations in which attempts to shield individuals from the consequences of risky behavior encourage them to engage in more risky behavior.  Spencer often writes in a way that seems to express disdain for those who are driven by sympathy to help those whose risky behavior gets them into trouble:

Men who are so sympathetic that they cannot let the struggle for existence bring on the unworthy the sufferings consequent on their incapacity or misconduct, are so unsympathetic that they can, deliberately, make the struggle for existence harder for the worthy, and inflict on them and their children artificial evils in addition to the natural evils they have to bear! (“The Sins of Legislators,” in The Man Versus the State)

But while humane readers no doubt cringe at Spencer’s rhetoric, it’s not obvious that the principle to which Spencer appeals here is one to which bleeding hearts – libertarian or otherwise – should object.  In figuring out how to best help people, we ought to balance the short-term benefits against the possible long-term costs.  We might object to the way in which Spencer strikes that balance – thinking, for instance, that he gives too little weight to present suffering and too much weight to uncertain future suffering.  Or we might object, in certain particular instances, to the empirical claim that relieving suffering now will increase the likelihood of future carelessness.  But surely it is not incompatible with caring someone that you want and encourage them to learn to care for themselves.  After all, this seems precisely the attitude we take (and ought to take) to our children, and sometimes it means letting them suffer (in small ways) pains that we could have prevented.

Much depends, for Spencer – and properly so – on the source of the misfortune we are trying to relieve.  Men who suffer as a result of “accidents” and “unforeseen events, men who have failed for want of knowledge inaccessible to them, men ruined by the dishonesty of others, and men in whom hope long delayed has made the heart sick” ought to be helped.    And “even the prodigal, after severe hardship has branded his memory with the unbending conditions of social life to which he must submit, may properly have another trial afforded him” (Social Statics, Chapter XXV).

Persons who are in distress because of stable defects in their character are another story.  But even here, Spencer argues, we should be cautious about rushing to judgment – in assuming that because someone is poor his character must be worse than ours.  (Here Spencer anticipates certain ideas on “moral luck.”)

It is very easy for you, O respectable citizen, seated in your easy chair, with your feet on the fender, to hold forth on the misconduct of the people – very easy for you to censure their extravagant and vicious habits …. It is no honor to you that you do not spend your savings in sensual gratification; you have pleasures enough without. But what would you do if placed in the position of the laborer? How would these virtues of yours stand the wear and tear of poverty? Where would your prudence and self-denial be if you were deprived of all the hopes that now stimulate you …? Let us see you tied to an irksome employment from dawn till dusk; fed on meager food, and scarcely enough of that …. Suppose your savings had to be made, not, as now, out of surplus income, but out of wages already insufficient for necessaries; and then consider whether to be provident would be as easy as you at present find it. Conceive yourself one of a despised class contemptuously termed “the great unwashed”; stigmatized as brutish, stolid, vicious … and then say whether the desire to be respectable would be as practically operative on you as now. … How offensive it is to hear some pert, self-approving personage, who thanks God that he is not as other men are, passing harsh sentence on his poor, hard-worked, heavily burdened fellow countrymen …. (Social Statics, Chapter XX)

And those in positions of power and privilege in society should be especially reluctant to pass judgment on the poor given the fact that wealth and poverty are often the product of unjust social institutions, not of individual defects of character.  The desire to perpetuate such advantageous injustice, Spencer argued, underlies many of the arguments against the political enfranchisement of the masses.  Such arguments, at their core, really amounted to the claim

that the few must continue to trespass against the many, lest the many should trespass against the few.  The well fed, the luxuriously housed and clothed, the placemen and pensioners, may perhaps think it better that the masses should suffer for their benefit (as they do) than that they should suffer for the benefit of the masses (as they might). But would a just arbitrator say this? Would he not say, on the contrary, that even if their respective members were blessed with equal advantages, the minority ought to be sacrificed rather than the majority; but that as the most numerous are at the same time the least favoured, their claim becomes still more imperative. Surely, if one of the two parties must submit to injustice, it ought to be the rich hundreds, and not the poor thousands. (Social Statics, Chapter XX)

Those last two lines aren’t quite a libertarian endorsement of social justice, but it’s certainly in the ballpark.  But it’s important to note that even if Spencer were advocating a kind of social justice, this wouldn’t be incompatible with his opposition to certain kinds of poor relief.  After all, poor relief can sometimes be in conflict with social justice.  For such relief, according to Spencer, often subsidizes those who could support themselves but have chosen not to do so (or who have, by their own voluntary choices, put themselves in a position where they cannot support themselves), at the expense, not of the rich, but of the working poor.  (See “The Sins of Legislators” and also letters 3 and 4 of “The Proper Sphere of Government.”)



Part of the purpose of this series on the history of libertarian thought is to demonstrate that the ideas defended on this blog are not new.  Concern with poverty and with the poor is a central and constant theme in the libertarian intellectual tradition.  We on this blog might believe that those in the past have not gone far enough, or that they have not articulated the way in which libertarians ought to express their concern for the poor in quite the right way.  And so the idea of a Bleeding Heart Libertarianism is genuinely new in some ways.  But it does not constitute a radical break with libertarian tradition.  Indeed, we think, it represents the best extension and development of that tradition.

I don’t think that Herbert Spencer was a bleeding heart libertarian.  But it’s instructive to see how close he gets.  One who wanted to make the case that libertarianism is at root a cold-hearted doctrine would, with the possible exception of Ayn Rand, have a hard time finding a better case with which to prove his point than the work of Herbert Spencer.  If the case fails even here, then surely one has good reason to doubt the truth of its general claim.

That’s not to say that Spencer’s work is unassailable.  Many key moves in his argument for laissez-faire are questionable, and a fuller treatment of his work would need to probe more carefully: the uneasy relationship between his general utilitarian moral framework and his commitment to near-absolute principles of natural moral law; his derivation of the law of equal freedom; whether the law of equal freedom is meaningful; whether it really generates libertarian conclusions; etc.  My point in this post is not to claim that Spencer’s work is sound in all respects.  In this respect, I am acting like a defense attorney pressing for a guilty of “not guilty.”  My client might have his sins, and he might be guilty of some other serious breach of law; but he is certainly not guilty of the crime of which he has been accused.  At the very least, Herbert Spencer deserves a retrial.



As always in this series, the links below are to some resources that have proved especially useful to me in thinking about and understanding Spencer’s political thought.  It is far from exhaustive.  If there are books or articles I’ve omitted that you have found especially useful,  I encourage you to share them in the comments.

Where should newcomers to Spencer start?  Social Statics undoubtedly provides the best comprehensive introduction to Spencer’s moral and political thought.  If you have the time and energy to read a whole book, it’s certainly a good place to start.  Be warned, though.  Social Statics can be very misleading.  For in it, Spencer is engaged in highly idealized form of moral/political theory – essentially asking what moral rules and political institutions would be appropriate for a perfectly developed humanity, a humanity in which everyone always acts in accordance with the demands that morality places upon them.  He is explicit at several places that the conclusions he reaches in the book do not necessarily apply to humanity in its less-than-perfect state.  But these caveats are easy to overlook, and so it is easy to forget that, for instance, the chapter on “The Right to Ignore the State,” even before it was deleted, was never meant to apply to humanity in its current condition.

So, readers looking for a shorter and less abstract introduction might do well to look to the essays contained in The Man Versus The State.  As mentioned above, Spencer’s essay on “The Proper Sphere of Government” is a wonderful summation of his (early) political thought.  But I suppose I’ll join with Roger Nisbet and Alberto Mingardi in recommending “Over-Legislation” as the one piece to read if you’re only going to read one piece from Spencer.  Read it and see why.


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources
  • RP

    A short, brilliant, and highly salient essay by Herbert Spencer is one that was published in the last year of his life, “Patriotism.”  

    It can be found here:

  • Is the project of this blog to sift through thousands of pages of theory to find something, anything, that shows an attitude other than disdain toward the poor?

    • gaffigubbi88

      Are you implying that libertarian written theory consists of little more than disdain toward the poor?

      • No.  I understand that there is a whole lot more to libertarianism than that.  Questions about positive and negative rights, the nature of a polity and many other things are fascinating.  However, I thought the BHL project was about how libertarianism can have a conversation with those who are concerned with issues of inequality and poverty without calling anyone a “parasite.”  This would have been quite exciting.  Early posts led me to believe that’s what readers would get from BHL.

        Instead, the posts seem to be more and more CYA for the traditional libertarian callousness we’re all so familiar with.   A lot of BHL-style commentary, here and elsewhere, turns to “pay no attention to those self-styled born-on-third-but-think-they-hit-a-triple Randian Ubernmenchen over there, even though they make up the lion’s share of the libertarian political movement.”

        I’d like to hear about alternative ways of thinking about the state and the safety net, not endless apologia for the more embarrassing or fantastical strains of libertarian thought.

        • Glen Whitman

          Charles, I think you misunderstand how many of the posts on this blog are aimed at other (non-BH) libertarians, rather than at liberals.  A post like this one is not intended to convince liberals that we’re okay.  A post like this one is intended to convince non-BH libertarians that the BH position is viable and rooted in libertarian thought.  If the BHL position is to be successful as a project, it has to stake out a middle ground and persuade people on both sides to join it.

    • Layne Vashro

      Before the relatively modern shift in the libertarian discourse (Rand, Rothbard…) this comment would have made no sense whatsoever.  It wouldn’t have been a signal of partisan bickering, it wouldn’t have been interpreted as a hyperbolic swipe, it wouldn’t have been due to a lack of understanding, it just simply would not have been said.  Nobody would have any idea where it was coming from.  It would be like yelling “touchdown” at a baseball game.

      That is the fundamental problem that this blog is trying to address.  The backbone of libertarianism is almost completely composed of philosophers and economists who despised poverty and suffering, and saw respect for individual negative rights and free exchange as the clear path to its elimination.  Both modern libertarians and their critics need to remember this.    

      • There is a difference between disdain for poverty and disdain for the poor.  You can play the ’90s campus communist game and say that libertarianism hasn’t failed because nobody has ever tried it to your hair-splitting standards.  You can create a libertarian fantasy in which private charity perfectly covers the needs of the downtrodden without creating moral hazard or disincentivising work (because you say it will; it’s your fantasy after all).  But in the end, you usually circle around to blaming the poor for lack of virtue, effort or genetic endowment.

        To a non-libertarian, I see arguments about how libertarianism alleviates poverty being made only because poverty is seen an embarrassment for any system of political organization. 

        The use of the words “moochers” and “parasites” come immediately to mind, though to BHL’s credits, I can only recall one time a blogger here used one of them (Fernando, I believe, and he’s the least BH of the Ls here). 

        I tend to think that if libertarians could simply gather together everyone who could afford it and sail off to a virgin land with the poor left behind, they would…  Oh wait, they talk about that all the time!

        Let me explain: I am a liberal with a libertarian bent.  I resent the strawman that a liberal has to be for every tax and every regulation because I am for some taxes and some regulations.  I am against most professional licensing, many zoning laws and I prefer pricing externalities to banning or arbitrarily capping them.  I think the barriers to entry in most fields should be drastically lowered. Liberals are opening up to this way of thinking in larger numbers than you may think.

        If you believe that all taxation is theft and all geographically-based polity is illegitimate, no discussion can be had.  Poverty is borne by the poor.  If libertarians disdain the poor for being parasites or moral defectives, no libertarian discussion of poverty can be anything more than a grudgingly paid toll for entry into a world of people who think that attitude is callous.

        • Layne Vashro

          I am a libertarian that doesn’t disdain the poor.  I don’t believe the poor are defectives and would never call them “mooches” or “parasites”.  I legitimately care about making the world a better place for everyone.  The fact that this is difficult for you to wrap your mind is what necessitates this blog. 

          I don’t believe that anyone is so lazy that they rank idleness above food, shelter, and avoidance of suffering.  The fact that hunger, exposure, and easily removed suffering persist in a world filled with mutualistic exchange and labor saving technology is evidence of a dire systemic problem.  I want to address that problem, that is why I am political.  I believe that left-libertarianism (geolibertarianism in particular) offers the best response to this issue.  My solutions may be different than yours, but that doesn’t mean that I care any less. 

          • That makes you different from nearly every libertarian I’ve heard from online and in real life.  The land ownership issue of geolibertarianism has been touched on here, but it’s a major apostasy, as far as I can tell.

          • Layne Vashro

            “That makes you different from nearly every libertarian I’ve heard from online and in real life. ”

            Unfortunately this is probably true.  There are plenty of left-libertarians out there, but they are in the minority.  The ideas and arguments of modern libertarians are very similar to those of classical libertarians, but the emphasis, focus, and general marketing of libertarianism has become strangely anti-poor, and far too often in defense of the status-quo.  A re-re-branding is in order, and that is my understanding of BHL’s goal.

            “The land ownership issue of geolibertarianism has been touched on here, but it’s a major apostasy, as far as I can tell.”

            I am biased, but i think the issue of “natural opportunities” (land,  natural resources…) should play a much bigger role in defining left-libertarianism.  It was an important issue among many classical libertarians (Stuart Mill, Paine, Jefferson, George, Spencer, Nock…), but seems to have completely evaporated, or become co-opted by socialists.
            That said…  you can be a left-libertarian and honestly care about protecting the poor without being a geolibertarian.  I happen to think those folks are wrong, but that doesn’t make them heartless.  I don’t think they will achieve their goals without addressing the issue of land monopoly, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care.

          • Layne, you may be correct about the issue of “natural opportunities” being co-opted by socialism, but the co-opting—which began in the New Deal era and accelerated in the mid-1960’s with the irredeemable Federal Reserve Note—need not continue.

            However, it will take some legal study. In particular, we need to somehow advance a common understanding of the difference between taxes on “income derived from property sources” (IDPS) vs. taxes on “income derived from non-property sources” (IDNPS).

            Some examples of IDPS are rent, profit from hiring, and interest, where the property sources are, respectively, land, labor, and capital. Taxes on this kind of income are unique to American law because we consider them to be indirect taxes, whereas Britain had always considered them to be direct on the underlying property. Continuing to hold the British view would have meant unacceptable Constitutional conflict because of issues surrounding post-Civil War treatment of the slave’s labor, and because direct taxes in the U.S. need to follow rules of apportionment among the states, and be proportional with respect to the whole of a given class of property.

            Some examples of IDNPS are income earned while exercising a corporate privilege, incoming receipts from business activity, and incoming receipts of a regulated currency—and it is this last item that has caused so much confusion and the “co-opting” you mentioned (because almost no one, including U.S. lawyers, understands that any money not issued under the Coining Clause must be regulated by an income tax under the Commerce Clause).

          • Damien S.

            I don’t understand claims of socialism co-opting concern about natural opportunities in the 1930s-1960s.  Surely it was always part of socialisms? (Plural deliberate.)  Just not as especially prominent as in 19th century libertarianism/anarchism.  Which faded away… I don’t know why, but the US developed 20th century libertarianism, as the leaner meaner form of classical liberalism, rejecting such concerns…

          • Damien, not sure if I understand your question, but I don’t  believe “natural opportunities” can be enjoyed if we don’t first and foremost own our minds, bodies, and the labor that proceeds from them. 

            Ever since the three 1937 Social Security cases, when the Supreme Court authorized a “special income tax” on employee wages (which is really an indirect fiat-currency-regulating tax), our labor has been treated as income, not property. 

            This was the beginning of a trend toward serious socialization in the U.S., which accelerated around 1965, when the “elastic” Federal Reserve Note became irredeemable for coin, making it even more “elastic” to enable Medicare and Medicaid funding. 

            But, the hidden cost of all this socialization is that we can’t claim a property right in our labor (which is often a poor person’s greatest asset) as long as we continue to use income-tax-regulated currencies.

            Besides, working natural persons were never supposed to be the target of income taxation.  Rather, income tax law evolved after the Civil War with the view towards regulating employers, landlords and stockholders … in order to give effect to the ideas of men like Locke, Jefferson, George, Spencer, etc.

            This is a short explanation of what I mean by socialism co-opting libertarianism.

          • “(because almost no one, including U.S. lawyers, understands that any
            money not issued under the Coining Clause must be regulated by an income
            tax under the Commerce Clause).”

            you’re probably the only one who believes money not coined should be regulated by an income tax.

          • Keith, you might be correct about that. Until we find something that can do what hand-to-hand current U.S. coin can do — i.e, preclude the possibility of multiple payments, like real estate and auto title recording systems do — we’re stuck with currency income tax regulation under the Commerce Clause.

          • i think the geolibertarian position of lvt and the citizen dividend is a growing population, along with the equally important monetary issue among geolibertarians. milton friedman supporting the position has been helpful though he isn’t known for that position since he wasn’t paid to promote and propagandize his position. dan sullivan has been instrumental as well. i think it is something funded establishment libertarians like to hide in the closet so we still have a long road to overcome the funding of the austrian school of economics. either i’m just finding more of them or our numbers really are growing with a greater consensus on some core issues.

          • Damien S.

            I legitimately care about making the world a better place for everyone

            This would lead me to ask how such caring manifests, what policy differences it creates between you and standard libertarians…

            I believe that left-libertarianism (geolibertarianism in particular)

            …but that answers that, probably.

            Thing is, while there’s overlap on drugs and migration and such, the difference over property between modern US “libertarians” and left-libertarians of the 19th century “libertarian” school is pretty deep and profound, to the degree that calling them all ‘libertarian’, in the context of addressing poverty, is pretty misleading IMO.  A neo-Georgist like Carl Milsted, who worked his way from modern libertarianism around to advocating a natural resoures tax and citizen’s dividend, is pretty different from commenters here who reject any idea of land reform as suggested for use in extremis by that lefty radical, Murray Rothbard…

            I came here expecting more people like Milsted or presumably you, but I mostly find the same libertarian ideas I saw in the late 1980s when I was 13 and reading L. Neil Smith.  “Just get rid of government and prosperity and charity will help everyone!”

  • “To a non-libertarian, I see arguments about how libertarianism
    alleviates poverty being made only because poverty is seen an
    embarrassment for any system of political organization. ”

    So what? Any political/economic system should be embarrassed by the persistence of poverty. Are you saying that if libertarian arguments for the eradication/mitigation of poverty aren’t motivated by the “right” sensibilities those arguments are illegitimate?

    • Sort of.  I am saying that most of the libertarian chatter about poverty is, as I said, because the persistence of poverty within a political system is seen as discrediting the system.  It discredited communism, it discredits democracy and it would discredit theoretical libertarianism.   The worse the poverty, the more discredited the system, at least in the eyes of the general public.

      Since libertarianism can never have failings because it has never “really” been tried (much like communism), there must be some sort of answer as to how libertarianism alleviates poverty. That’s why libertarians bother to toss in an obligatory reference to private charity rising to the occasion and taking care of the poor.  It’s a “magical asterisk,”  a fantasy number you can plug in to make everything else work out.  Rarely do I see more than a sentence or two on this topic.

      After that asterisk is dropped in, the discussion turns back to the parasites and moochers, as far as I’ve seen.  Spencer differs only in that he uses more florid language than your average McArdle commenter.

      That’s why the “right” sensibilities matter.  If poverty is something you need to address to prevent everyone from thinking your philosophy is heartless, all you’ll end up with is magical asterisks and casting blame on the people who fall through the cracks instead of a substantive discussion. 

      • Anonymous

        If I remember correctly, basically everything Friedman argued about was directly relevant to alleviating actual poverty.  And he did not refer to “parasites and moochers.”  He almost always blamed the conditions of the poor on actual governmental policies and actions (or inactions). 

        • milton friedman was the only one in more recent times of historical figures who replaced the asterisk with the economic justice of land value taxation plus the citizen dividend (along with ending national debt with a greenback). essentially saying, if the lvt doesn’t make the land free and eliminate economic injustice, a citizen dividend will. however, he wasn’t funded to promote such policy, so he really isn’t known for those things.

          the rothbard and hayek variety, were primarily apologists for landed property. albert nock and your mutualist-leaning anarchists did not apologize for landed property. they just called landed property state intervention. i don’t think who said what is as important as trying to express the ideas and being known for those ideas, rather than a historical name being conflated with something stupid they might have said.

          i’m surely guilty of such. we’re all guilty of conflation and bias. i criticize stephen zarlenga for criticizing adam smith. adam smith argued against free market currency, which supports the zarlenga position.

           if i’m known for anything, it would be my colorful language than my positions, i’m not even too sure of my positions anymore. i need to restate my basic position and let the rest of my positions be just what they are, side notes, about what i think of them. i spoke about trade tariffs, progressive sales taxes, and natural resource taxation. however, i’m just trying to state the the positives and negatives of each and more on the fence. my core position is just monetary and land reform of greenbacks, lvt, and the citizen dividend.

          i’m not even sure of landed instructure, with a preference of funding landed infrastructure with user fees. i don’t even think i’ve made that statement. however, i see landed infrastructure  and zoning as something the government should play a role.

          i think we do get in a trap where positions are held because a solution fits into a model rather than making the solutions fit the real problems. we forget the importance of j.s. mill.

      • i’m skeptical on the charity asterisk. directly accountable government spending would probably result in nobody paying taxes and if not politically defeated by the people making a lot of money on non-profit charity. if you’re arguing for charity, your political position is probably lacking, which is part of the argument of george and the classical liberals. if you’re having to make the charity asterisk, you’re probably rightly concerned that your philosophy might be lacking. i’m a bit skeptical on just lvt being adequate enough too so i search for the solutions which would be adequate. perhaps public option in disability, longevity, and less-fortunate insurance (or the equivalent of a credit for insurance) would be necessary, free of usury or charity.

  • Just learning about Spencer here, but his philosophy seems similar to that of Henry George (1839-1897), a proponent of the land value tax (to prevent land monopolization).  And Spencer also appears to have been significantly influenced by Locke, which is important because of how Locke influenced the creation of our Constitution’s two classes of taxation, to distinguish between direct taxes (on property “because of ownership”) vs. indirect taxes (on everything else according to a looser standard).

    As Spencer confirms in his writings, Locke professed that the earth belongs to all men in common, but that each of us have a property right in our labor, a property right that has unfortunately not yet been recognized by the U.S. legal system, but which appears ready.

    Regarding land taxes, for the first 100+ years after the U.S. system was created only real estate was taxed according to the apportionment and proportionality rules of the Direct Tax Clauses. However, as Jefferson and Madison intended, conflict would result because under Lockean philosophy the slave’s labor belonged in the direct-tax category along with real estate, but not as part of the value of the slaveholder’s plantation, and not as something that couldn’t be separated out from the slaveholder’s profits. 

    Anyway, after the Civil War there is much controversy over how to treat income, and how to distinguish it from property, for tax purposes. The controversy is finally put to rest with ratification of the much-misunderstood 16th Amendment, which merely assured everyone that taxes on both forms of income (“income derived from property sources” and “income not derived from property”) are indirect taxes.

    Here is the quote from Justice White in 1916 that causes me to believe that our labor, and eventually the labor of foreign employees and sweatshop workers, will soon be able to claim that labor is one’s personal property, not income:

    “Indeed, from another point of view, the 16th Amendment … shows that it was drawn with the purpose of maintaining the limitations of the Constitution and harmonizing its operation.  We say this because … it had come to be accepted that direct taxes in the Constitutional sense were confined to taxes levied directly on real estate because of its ownership, [but] the Amendment contains nothing repudiating or challenging the ruling in the [1895] Pollock case that the word ‘direct’ had a broader significance, since it embraced also taxes levied directly on personal property because of its ownership, and therefore the Amendment at least impliedly makes such wider significance a part of the Constitution … .” Brushaber v. Union Pacific Railroad (1916).

    • this is the first time i heard spencer having these views. i know that spencer had a more of a survival-of-the-fittest view,  so even if spencer once stated such geolibertarian beliefs, he is not known for being a promoter of such beliefs, having a more apologist position. i personally have not read spencer. he is just low on the reading list considering the position is known for having.

  • CFV

    You might be interested in Tim Gray’s “Is Herbert Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom a Utilitarian or a Rights-Based Theory of Justice?,”  Journal of the History of Philosophy, 26(2): 259-278.

    I know there is an important book by David Weinstein (“Equal Freedom and Utility. Hebert Spencer’s Liberal Utilitarianism”), but unfortunately I haven’t read it (yet).

    • Can’t seem to download Tim Gray’s article, or even purchase it. Anyone have a link?

      • CFV

        Rick: If you give an e-mail address, I can send Gray’s article to you.

        • Much appreciated, CFV, but I already found it.

  • I take a somewhat different line.  Spencer is a Social

    • John Stuart Mill

      “The idea is that relief for individuals, based on their individual needs and circumstances, is fine, but that applied society wide creates a society unfit to compete with other societies by creating a mechanism by which otherwise industrious people find it easier to live off handouts than to help themselves.”

      This is just theory. And it would predict that government does better by making it harder for everyone. Or that being kicked out of home by 14 or so is actually good, no living off parents just getting some extra money with some flipping-burger job. Time to be really productive, even if it limits the fake growth one would have from study and parents handouts.

  • tom hewitt

    William Cobbett’s letter to Thomas Malthus goes into this subject very well.

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  • Jake Witmer

    Spencer was the intellectual height of the kind of liberal described by Hayek in “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Biological evolution doesn’t apply to memes or ideas, as explained by Dawkins, Hayek, and Kevin Kelly (See Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control” for more on this). If an engineer learns an idea, he CAN pass that idea on to his son, and that idea doesn’t need to be discovered by random chance. The same is true of the political ideas that drive the evolution of society. (Moreover, different brains and different kinds of minds are determined both by genotype and interaction with the environment. Temple Grandin’s autistic brainscan looks super-populated or “bushy” at the detail and middle levels. If she had offspring who thought similarly, she’d likely be able to explain visual ideas to her that she couldn’t explain to non-autistic offspring. Thus, the evolution of society operates on both natural selection, and natural selection within the realm of ideas, and “Lamarckian” evolution caused by direct propagation of the fittest ideas and their conversion into practice.)

    Additionally: Social Darwinism is often defined by people who, because they are too stupid and incurious to be libertarians, believe that all social action must be both coercive and collectivized. If then, one suggests that natural orders are not coercive and collective, and that that’s a good thing, and that that also applies to voluntary interactions, and that that’s how emergent order works, the coercive collectivists will suggest that, because all government must be coercive and collective, and that’s how our current government operates, that you favor coercive collectivism being applied to the existing state of “the fittest” to allow them to better dominate everyone else. Nothing could be further from reality or the truth, but to understand this requires intelligence.

    The simplest way to say it is this: “The libertarians you are calling “social darwinists” don’t favor any collective helping of the strong, or the fit. However, the nazis who might properly fit your definition of ‘social darwinist’ did favor the destruction of the weak, and the coercive, collective assistance of the strong. They viewed this as a means of helping their society conquer other societies by force. Since all libertarians disagree with coercion, and with collectivization, they don’t fit your definition of ‘social darwinism.’ What you’re mistakenly calling ‘social darwinism’ could be far less confusingly and far more accurately labeled ‘coercive, collective, assistance of social darwinism’.”

    Darwin wasn’t in favor of the coercive and collective. He reported truthfully and non-judgmentally about the state of nature. Spencer applied Darwin’s ideas to society, noting that there was similar adaptation and improvement over time. Spencer credits that improvement to a reduction in coercive collectivism. In that, he was right.

    Without a term for describing the benevolent aspects of social action that improves society over time, the default term has become “social darwinism.” This term is used to caricature everyone who understands the implication that evolution takes place in large, information-based networks, including human societies.

    In turn, voluntary interaction can also lead to “negative emergence” (emergence that is not benevolent, but is not actively immoral; such as a group of white racists withholding their money from impoverished blacks in an organized but voluntary manner), and coercive emergence (emergence that is not benevolent, and is actively immoral; such as white racists making laws that physically prevent blacks from making money, under the threat of force). Spencer is someone who suggested that charity was a good idea. He could still be a “social darwinist” in the benevolent sense of the term, and want to alleviate conditions of temporary unfairness (being born into abject poverty is “unfair,” and it is not the fault of such a child through any of his bad choices, evil, or sloth; giving charitably to such a child would be more “just” than giving to the thieving or slothful poor). Spencer also points out that evolution in civilization is more forgiving than evolution in nature; this is because evolutionary competition in nature is solely about amoral physical competition.

    The entire domain of competition in civilization can be voluntary, individualist, and moral, or coercive, collectivist, and immoral. The emergent behaviors of the coercive and collectivist are likely to be very negative. And this is what we see: the drug war has destroyed black individuals, and on a larger scale has destroyed black communities.

    The very socialists (who lyingly call themselves liberals) who complain about the oppression of “the black community” by “the white community,” are the ones most at risk of liberal libertarians pointing out the truth: In-Power Chicago Democrats have heaped scorn on their political enemies, labeling them as racists, and have suggested every kind of blame for, and solution to, this racism that might result in the political destruction of their political enemies. But they are totally silent on the prospect of removing the grotesque individual rights violations, in the form of their own laws, that have long oppressed the black community. They are willing to suggest a system that allows for unlimited theft from greedy white “republicans” as a solution to “institutionalized racism.” (While they ignore the actual coercive practices that institutionalize racism, by coercing and attacking the individual.) However, when libertarians suggest that we ought to try eliminating the drug laws that have gutted the inner city, and imprisoned and impoverished generations of young black men, the Democrats and Republicans are united in silence, obfuscation, and opposition to the idea.

    All of the above can be quickly revealed in argument, by asking any individual leveling the allegation of “social darwinism” to define the term. Then, as a follow-up question, ask them if they are opposed to the peaceful, technological, civilization-wide voluntary evolution of conditions that the computer revolution has brought about. Ask if they believe that such an example of evolution, in which a computer engineer is voluntarily-selected by society as more fit to engineer computers than is a football player, is immoral. Keep in mind that this voluntary selection doesn’t prohibit the football player from deciding to design computers, or toward financing the design of computers. If they have a problem with such “natural selection” being used in the furtherance of Spencer’s “social darwinism,” then it sounds like they truly object to progress of any kind being made in a decentralized, voluntary manner.

    Who’s the reactionary then?

    It’s easy to expose coercive socialists (Greens, Democrats, and Republicans) as reactionary, luddite, and thuggish. They cannot conceive of voluntary solutions to problems, and cannot conceive that we do not need an uneducated political class to manipulate us into behaving in our own self-interest.

    For this reason, we should engage them, publicly, at every opportunity, as finances are available for doing so (of course, most wealthy “libertarians” seem to be dilettantes who don’t actually care whether the government is totalitarian or libertarian, since their wealth now insulates them from the harm of totalitarianism in these early-middle stages of the totalitarian cycle).

    Of course, engaging the opposition also presumes that libertarians doing the engaging are good at quickly getting to the heart of the matter in “soundbites.” Such forms of sophistry are what Ds and Rs learn in their political science classes. They are typically highly-skilled rhetoricians, and unskilled critical thinkers. This means the memes being generated by “intellectuals” will be promiscuous, but unintelligent, until libertarians learn to truly prioritize promulgation of the ideas of emergence and social networking.

    For more on the basic concept:

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  • Zachary Quilty

    Lol I stopped reading when you said if spencer wasn’t a social Darwinist then what is he, an ultra conservative aka a librarian, aka a social Darwinist. Social Darwinist is a complex theory but from an economic stand point social Darwinist and libertarianism are the same.

  • Zachary Quilty

    Also Social Darwinism was against imperialism because they believed if they controlled lesser races they had their burden and possible less desirable traits mixed in. Imperialism is where you take over a country and control it for economic gain. When American Imperialism was in full swing it was cooped with progressive idea which like social darwinism, were racist but the progressive were more for controlling the weaker races feeling that because they were biologically superior it was their nature to rule the savage races. So pretty much what you said was Spencer was against progressive ideas, as were all social darwinist.

  • Andy Hough

    This discussion is probably moribund and so not worth contributing to, but I came across it as a top hit when looking for information about Spencer & social Darwinism, and Zwolinsky’s reading of Spencer strikes me as being so specious that I can’t resist chiming in. To take his three points in turn:

    (1) Spencer wasn’t a social Darwinist, but a social Lamarckian. OK, fine, though we can be forgiven for using the former term since most people don’t know what a Lamarckian is. But notice that Spencer’s Lamarckianism makes him more, not less, vulnerable to the charge of heartlessness. A Lamarckian holds that acquired traits (not just biological/genetic ones) are heritable. So it’s not open to a Lamarckian, as it is to a Darwinian, to say that the “good-for-nothings, who in one way or other live on the good-for-somethings—vagrants and sots, criminals and those on the way to crime, youths who are burdens on hard-worked parents, men who appropriate the wages of their wives, fellows who share the gains of prostitutes” (quoting Spencer here) might nevertheless be biologically “fit” and just the contingent victims of bad social conditions, since Lamarckians hold that the behavioral effects of bad social conditions can be passed on biologically. So from a Lamarckian standpoint the project of weeding these people out of the population becomes even more urgent, and the possibility that their vices (or those of their children) might be redeemed through improved social conditions even more remote.

    Anyway Lamarckianism is (thankfully) false, so any association between Spencer and Lamarck wouldn’t seem to work in favor of the relevance of his ideas today.

    (2) Spencer was opposed to violence. Right, but the passages from Social Statics in question are talking about passively allowing the unfit to die, not doing violence against them. In fact in “The Sins of Legislators,” the 1884 essay where he quotes extensively and without apology some of the more rabid of those passages, he immediately goes on to draw this distinction, accusing his critics of hypocrisy in countenancing war while remaining squeamish about natural selection: “though they cannot bear to think of the evils accompanying the struggle for existence as it is carried on *without violence* [my emphasis] among individuals in their own society, they contemplate with equanimity such evils in their intense and wholesale forms, when inflicted by fire and sword on entire communities. Not worthy of much respect then, as it seems to me, is this generous consideration of the inferior at home which is accompanied by unscrupulous sacrifice of the inferior abroad.”

    (3) Spencer allows for individual (though not social) charity. Here the relevant passage from Social Statics seems to me to amplify rather than qualify the preceding ones: it’s notable that Spencer places it immediately after them without any qualifying “to be sure” or “on the other hand.” Here’s a fuller quote from that passage:

    “Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated; albeit there is unquestionably harm done when sympathy is shown, without any regard to ultimate results…Then…it defeats its own end. Instead of diminishing suffering, it eventually increases it. It favours the multiplication of those worst fitted for existence, and, by consequence, hinders the multiplication of those best fitted for existence—leaving, as it does, less room for them. It tends to fill the world with those to whom life will bring most pain, and tends to keep out of it those to whom life will bring most pleasure. It inflicts positive misery, and prevents positive happiness.”

    The “it” here is of course the “spontaneous sympathy”; i.e. private charity, regard for which is supposed to qualify Spencer as a “bleeding heart.” His claim, it seems to me, is unmistakably the opposite: we should harden our hearts against well-meaning charity, whether public or private, and keep our eye on the long view.

    I’m open-minded about the possibility that there might be such a thing as “bleeding heart” libertarianism, and I admire the work of many of the contributors to this blog. But again I have a hard time seeing how Herbert Spencer could be considered one of the fold.

  • anonymous pedant

    “Spencer was a Lamarckian, not a Darwinian, in his understanding of how evolution worked. In other words, Spencer believed that acquired traits could be biologically inherited.”

    Darwin himself was also a “Lamarckian” in this sense, not a Mendelian. Nowadays Mendelian and Darwinian are often conflated, but that’s a historical mistake, as well as this limited sense of “Lamarckian”.

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  • Michael Kolla

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