Who do you imagine said this?
“[Trade-unions] seem natural to the passing phase of social evolution, and may have beneficial functions under existing conditions. . . .”
If you guessed some wily labor leader or social democrat, you are wrong. British laissez-faire advocate Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) wrote those words in his Principles of Sociology (1896). Spencer was the most prominent and respected individualist philosopher of his time. To this day his voluminous scholarly and popular writing remains an important resource for adherents of the freedom philosophy.
Spencer’s statement, then, may surprise some readers. It shouldn’t. Our libertarian forebears put the plight of workers at the top of their concerns. In England feudalism had not entirely disappeared, many people had been pushed off the land through enclosure, and true laissez faire was nowhere in evidence. Neomercantilism, or what Albert Jay Nock called the “Merchant-state,” was the rule. For example, early in the Industrial Revolution worker “combinations” were outlawed in England and people were not free leave their home parishes in search of better employment opportunities, something decried by Adam Smith. When these laws were finally repealed, workers were hampered by other state interventions, such as land engrossment, patents, government-backed banking cartels, and tariffs. To be sure, living standards improved, but to the extent that government stifled free competition, workers were deprived of bargaining power and their full free-market reward.
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