Why the Chinese Government Should Read Herbert Spencer


“Who now reads Spencer? It is difficult for us to realize how great a stir he made in the world…” With this opening quotation from the historian Crane Brinton, Talcott Parsons, writing in 1937, dismissed the most influential sociologist ever to come out of England. Very few UK sociologists could now claim any knowledge of Herbert Spencer’s thought. This is, itself, an interesting mark of their alienation from their own society’s intellectual traditions. However, Spencer was indeed the most influential sociologist of the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 1920s. If sociologists – in the UK, Europe and North America – did not draw directly on his work, they borrowed from it without acknowledgement or developed their own thinking in opposition to it.

Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer wasn’t always the dour, scowling figure of photographs. In his prime he was a fashion icon, as this 1879 caricature by Francis Carruthers Gould shows. And while Spencer’s scholarship may seem unfashionable today, his insights on militant societies offers a ‘dandy’ lesson for today’s China.

One of Spencer’s most interesting contributions was his delineation of two fundamental ideal types of society: militant and industrial. Militant societies are politically centralized with strong controls over the production and distribution of goods and services to meet planned goals. There is a high degree of state intervention in social and economic life in order to deliver the central plan. This is sustained by substantial investment in systems of social control. Industrial societies are decentralized and organized around markets rather than plans as the basis for co-ordinating flows of goods and services. States underwrite the conditions for effective markets in the rule of law and the maintenance of public order but do not seek to direct the outcomes. The absence of a central plan means that individuals have more liberty to pursue their own projects.

Spencer sees militant societies as organized for effectiveness in international competition, primarily through warfare or the deterrence of aggression against them. Industrial societies are relatively indifferent to warfare. They succeed through trading relationships that create an international order of mutual interdependence. In the long run, Spencer implies, they are likely to be more successful for two reasons.

First, resources are not consumed to the same extent by the military and by the control structures. Securing compliance with the central plan is costly and requires a large number of essentially unproductive workers whose only task is control. If you can do without this burden, you free up resources for more profitable investments and higher levels of personal consumption.

Second, the space created for personal projects, and the lack of concern for compliance, fosters innovation. Innovators are free to have new ideas, to be confident that they will benefit from creating intellectual property, and to have access to resources to support product or service development.

It must be stressed that these are ideal types. As with any other ideal type, we should not expect to find any actual existing society that conforms precisely to them. Most societies lie somewhere on a continuum between these poles. However, Spencer’s analysis is very helpful in understanding the risks of getting too close to the militant end of the spectrum – he is less aware of the risks of going in the other direction. (The indifference of his followers to the casualties of industrial society is an important reason why his approach fell into disrepute.) Alone among the classic sociologists, he has an explanation for the defeat of fascism in World War II and for the implosion of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In the end the constraints on innovation and the costs of social control in these planned societies became too great. The societies were simply out-competed.

This is where Spencer becomes a cautionary tale for the present Chinese government and its attempts to micro-manage society through the ‘social credit’ scheme. Essentially, this is credit scoring on a mass scale. Every citizen accumulates points for prosocial acts identified by the state and demerits for anti-social acts. It is not sufficient to be a ‘good citizen’ in a quiet and unostentatious way. Prosocial acts must be conspicuous and measurable by state agencies. Citizens who do not achieve various threshold scores will have limited access to travel, leisure opportunities, housing, health care, and education for their children.

Under the current president, China has been moving towards the militant pole of Spencer’s continuum. Large numbers of people are employed in monitoring social media and maintaining the ‘Great Firewall’ to exclude and suppress knowledge and opinions that do not fit into the national leadership’s vision of a good society. This workforce is a direct, deadweight cost on the society. More importantly, if Spencer is correct, the consequences are potentially disabling in terms of the constraints on innovation and original thinking. A society that loses the flexibility that comes from unregulated thought is, as Spencer saw, ill-equipped to adapt to changing environments.

Social credit doubles down on control. Although the direct costs may be reduced by modern technologies – just swiping a smartcard to register for prosocial points before joining a neighborhood litter picking group, for instance – they still represent a tax on economic activity that diverts resources from productive investments. Control comes at a price in consumption and investment, to say nothing of adaptability.

Herbert Spencer may not be the most fashionable of the classic sociologists but there are, perhaps, still good reasons for reading his work, especially in China.


Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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