– April 24, 2020
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Social, political and economic crises, including those connected with a viral pandemic, absorb so much of our attention that it is easy to miss or forget anniversaries marking when famous figures may have been born or had earlier passed away. In this case, April 27th marks the 200th birthday of British classical liberal and advocate of laissez-faire, Herbert Spencer, who was born on that date in 1820. 

It is, perhaps, of special significance to take notice of Herbert Spencer at the present moment because of the political currents in society, when governments are extending their reach over people’s social and economic lives in almost unprecedented ways in the name of fighting the spread of the coronavirus, including in countries usually considered to possess underlying institutions respectful of human freedom. 

Throughout a good part of his life up to his death on December 8, 1903, at the age of 83, Spencer was one of the most internationally renowned figures in the fields of sociology, history, and political economy. He contributed to the theory of social evolution and development, drew widely upon his knowledge of history to analyze and interpret social processes and human institutions, and articulated a clear and principled defense of individual liberty, private property and free enterprise, and the need for a limited government that would be narrowly constrained to primarily defending people’s freedom against the aggressions of others, but very little else. 

With the rise of political and economic collectivism in the last decades of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, Spencer’s writings and political views soon fell into disrepute and ridicule. The idea that individuals should be recognized in their personal rights to live their life as they saw best without molestation from either private persons or political authority was out-of-step in an era that considered the individual as merely a cog in the wheel of governmental planning and design, to which each person was to be obedient and subservient. 

Spencer’s Early Interest in the Ideas of Freedom

Herbert Spencer was born on April 27, 1820 in Derby, England. He came from a family of religious dissenters suspicious of and opposed to political denial of freedom of conscience, thought, and action. As a young man, he made a living as a civil engineer during the railway boom in Great Britain. However, an interest in political issues relating to his non-conformist religious beliefs, led him to write in 1842-1843 a series of articles that were soon published under the title, The Proper Sphere of Government (1843). This small work also helped him land a job a few years later as an editor for The Economist news magazine (1848-1853).

During his time with The Economist, Spencer expanded the ideas in his earlier work into a wider defense of individual rights under a strictly limited government. Social Statics, or the Conditions Essential for Human Happiness (1851), gained him increasing attention at a time when classical liberal ideas and ideals seemed to be making strides in a growing number of places in Europe, even if not always successfully in changing the course and content of government policy and authority. 

A Sociology of Human Evolution to Liberty

But what became Spencer’s life work was the formulation of a “Synthetic Philosophy” that drew upon biology and the growing scientific idea of evolution to explain human and societal development from simple to more complex forms, and from primitive and primal tribal collectivism to peaceful and productive individualism based on freedom of association and market-based division of labor. 

This work appeared in ten volumes over a nearly 20-year period, a central element of which was his three-volume, Principles of Sociology (1874, 1879; 1885). A still insightful and sometimes witty introduction to his views on the nature of the social sciences is his book, The Study of Sociology (1873).

One of the phrases identified with Spencer’s theory of social evolution was that of the “survival of the fittest.” This became a condemnatory accusation against him that in the competition of life only the strong should be allowed to survive, while “the weak” in society should be left to perish so a stronger strain of humans could emerge. 

As I will attempt to show, never was there a more distorted and twisted understanding of what Herbert Spencer saw in social evolution. Indeed, we will see that he believed that society evolved into forms that enabled those lacking in physical strength or political manipulating power to find niches in life that in more primitive times would have resulted in their enslavement or death. 

Spencer’s Concerns with the Return to Collectivism

Friends of freedom often look at the 19th century and see it in wide brushstrokes that makes it appear as a century of liberal freedoms, and in comparison to earlier times and to much of the last one hundred years this was certainly the case. But already in the 1860s and 1870s there were strong trends back in collectivist directions with the rise of socialism, nationalism, interventionism, and welfare statism. 

In the eyes of someone like Herbert Spencer, the old state system of paternalism, restriction, and redistribution was reasserting itself. In response to this, he published a series of articles that appeared in book form as Man Versus the State (1884). Along with a number of other essays that were complements to these essays, Spencer attempted to analyze and warn about the danger from a turn away from the path of liberty before it had been able to more fully liberate mankind from all the hindrances in the way of human betterment and improvement. 

Particularly damaging to a humane society, in Spencer’s view, was 19th century imperialism, with its conquest of global empires that not only harmed those placed under the conqueror’s rule but diminished the freedom of those in the imperialist nations, as well. Some of Spencer’s last writings before his death were strongly anti-imperialist and appear in Facts and Comments (1902). 

The Moral Principle of Equal Freedom

Herbert Spencer’s starting premise, as stated time and again in Social Statics, is, “Every man has freedom to do as he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man” (p. 95). He argues that whether the starting point is a belief in God and God’s purpose for man, or whether we rely, instead, on our reason and reflection on the nature and desire of any and all men, the conclusion that we can readily reach is that the purpose of all of us is wanting the achievement of happiness. Which one of us as normal human beings do not want to be happy?

But the pursuit of happiness, he says, requires the exercise of our mental and physical faculties, and to do so, each of us must be at liberty to decide upon the ends that may move us closer to that happiness and the best means as we see them to try to approach that end. Only individuals possessing the greatest latitude to act as they peacefully wish can ever have the chance to fulfill some aspect of that element in our human make-up that cries out to be happier than we may be. 

If each of us is to have the freedom to pursue that happiness, this requires seeing a boundary beyond which anyone of us may not go, and that is an abridgement of every other individual’s right and liberty to do the same. This demands, as Spencer says, “that each man shall have the greatest freedom compatible with the like freedom of all others” (pp. 75-76). Or as Spencer more clearly explains his view of man in society:

Liberty of action being the first essential to exercise of faculties, and therefore the first essential of happiness; and the liberty of each limited by the like liberty of all being the form which this first essential assumes when applied to many instead of to one, it follows that this liberty of each, limited by the like liberty of all, is the rule of conformity with which society must be organized. Freedom being the prerequisite to normal life for the individual, equal freedom becomes the prerequisite to normal life in society. And . . . this law of equal freedom is the primary law of right relationships between man and man . . .

(p.79)

From this starting point, Spencer proceeds to explain the how and the why of each individual’s right to his life and personal liberty, to his right to private property peacefully acquired in a setting of respecting each’s equal freedom, and how this includes the right of free association and exchange for mutual betterment and pursuit of happiness in a way that violates the equal freedom of none, and improves the chances of each. 

The Rights of Women and the Right to Ignore the State

It is interesting to note that 18 years before John Stuart Mill’s famous essay on “The Subjugation of Women,” with its defense of equal rights and respect for women, in Social Statics, Herbert Spencer devoted a chapter to “The Rights of Women,” Or as he states it, “Equity knows no difference of sex. In its vocabulary the word man must be understood in a generic and not a specific sense. The law of equal freedom manifestly applies to the whole race – female as well as male.” (p. 138). This included her right to pursue her own happiness, to earn a living, to acquire and dispose of property, to freely enter into any and all professions and occupations, and participate in any and all voluntary and mutual acts of exchange. This was a crucial conclusion from first principles for a classical liberal like Herbert Spencer. 

One other notable chapter in the first edition of Social Statics was an argument for “The Right to Ignore the State” (pp. 185-194). In other words, an individual who peacefully and honestly goes about his personal affairs and interactions with others should be free from any intrusion and inhibition attempted or imposed by government. In a free society, as Spencer understood it, government has only one legitimate reason for existing, and that is to secure and protect each individual in his right to his life, liberty, and property. As long as he violates no one else’s equal rights and therefore remains outside of the orbit of any legitimate concerns of government, the individual is at liberty to ignore and not associate in any way with the organs of political authority. That is, he may ignore the state, and the state should leave him at liberty to do so. 

A Minimal State, Including in Matters of Health and Sanitation

For the remainder of the book, Spencer develops the arguments for saying that in a free society the government should not be responsible for and interfering with education, health and welfare, religious practice or charity. In making this “negative” claim, he also elaborates on the reasons why government should not be involved in these social matters and why and how individual action and voluntary association for trade or philanthropy would take care of these concerns far better than political power ever can. 

In the face of the current pandemic, it is noteworthy to point out that Spencer did not consider it the duty and responsibility of the government to oversee medical concerns or sanitary conditions. Ultimately, these were the responsibility of each individual in his associative relationships with others. Too often history had shown that when the state was turned to even in this area of life, medical professionals and practitioners soon took advantage of government regulations and rules to gain anti-competitive restrictions on those who might attempt to offer their alternative services, including with better and innovative treatments and cures. 

Indeed, through such regulatory regimes, the general public is coaxed into a false sense of confidence and safety that reduces the incentive for each person to be more attentive and alert to what is the best advice and better cure. Self-responsibility in more of this area, as in most others, would reduce the likelihood of quackery, increase the advancement of medical cures and treatments, and heighten people’s alertness to improving their own actions and interactions to minimize the catching and spreading of diseases.  

Spencer’s Warning on the Return of Paternalistic Government

While Social Statics was clearly considered by Spencer to be a rationale and inspiration for the recognition of and increasing respect for the human liberty of everyone, everywhere, the following decades brought increasing discouragement to him. In the last decades of the 19th century, the government increasingly intervened in people’s personal, social and economic affairs. Living in Great Britain, many of the examples and instances of government encroachment used in Man Versus the State and the related essays that he wrote during that time were drawn from what was happening in his own country.

Government was, once again, telling people how they might work and in which trades and under what conditions of employment. Government agencies increasingly intruded into the decision-making of private enterprisers when nothing that they did could be charged with violating the equal rights of individuals. Government departments were attempting to take over activities and responsibilities previously considered the domain of personal choice or voluntary mutual assistance. Taxes were increased and its burden was widened on the members of society to undertake all of these new tasks. Each and every one of these policies inescapably involved the loss of liberty over another corner of life. 

Spencer offered example after example of how these new and extended activities by government not only abridged people’s freedom, but time after time made worse the “problem” the interventions were meant to alleviate; that the regulations and controls caused so many confusions and difficulties that new regulations had to be constantly promulgated in an attempt to repair the damage done by a prior intervention; and these government activities cost far more than if matters had been left in private hands.

The Wrong Turn from Repeal to “Positive” Legislation

Why had this turn away from liberty and back to political paternalism come about? This is the theme of the first essay in Man Versus the State, on “The New Toryism.” Spencer explained that for several centuries the great political battle in Great Britain had been between the Tories and the Liberals. The Tories had stood for and defended authoritarian, hierarchical, and paternalistic society; a society under which the few ruled over the many, in which “rights” were unequal and privilege-based, and in which those in authority claimed the right to tell people how to live, think and believe. 

Liberals called for equal rights and liberty for all under impartial rule of law, with individuals free to live their lives as they chose in voluntary association with others. In this, the liberals were the advocates for abolition and repeal, since far too many of what was part of the “law of the land” were abridgements and barriers to freedom of choice and a system of free exchange. Every repeal and abridgement were offered and viewed as a reform to improve the conditions under which people lived by getting government out of the way. 

But after a large and wide series of such repeals and abolitions, it wrongly came to be implicitly considered that “reform” had as its purpose an improvement in the conditions of the citizenry, rather than restoring people’s liberty. The “old” reforms bettered people’s conditions by removing impediments to liberty; but now there were calls for “new” reforms meant to more directly improve people’s conditions through “positive” actions. 

These new reforms required not just removing limits to liberty but introducing abridgements of freedom in the name of bettering the human condition. The new regulations told people how to live, under what conditions they might work and earn a living, how and for what they might spend the incomes they earned, and that some incomes had to be redistributed. 

But to do all these “good things” for people, those in political power and in the intervening bureaucracies were required to restrict people’s choices and free interactions with others on the terms they otherwise would have set for themselves. It was for this reason that Spencer titled the second essay in Man Versus the State, “The Coming Slavery.” 

Abandon Liberalism and Government Becomes a Plunder Game

Liberalism, Spencer argued, was being transformed from a political philosophy devoted to the establishment of a society without private aggression or political coercion of human conduct, into a “New Toryism” of paternalism, privilege, and plunder. True liberalism was not only being pushed aside but was also having its good name stolen away for the pursuit of false purposes inconsistent with the original ideal and program that it represented. 

This changing of purposes and methods, Spencer believed, touched upon the question, “Representative Government – What is it Good For?” (1857). When a government is generally limited in its responsibilities and actions to those of protecting each person’s life, liberty, and honestly acquired property, the large majority of citizens will agree and concur with most of what government does and how it may do it. Differences among the voting public will revolve around disagreement concerning the better means to achieve these few commonly shared and agreed to ends. 

But once the government’s activities are extended in various directions outside of these narrowly agreed-to purposes, conflicts must necessarily arise between groups and factions in the society. What shall government do to influence society’s development in one direction rather than some other? Who shall receive privileges and favors from or burdens imposed by government based on taxes paid and taxes redistributed, and regulations benefiting some at the expense of others?

Once government enters into the role of paternalist and planner, power-grabbing, corruption, manipulation and propaganda naturally follow. It is at this point that all the criticism and complaints concerning “democracy” and representative government arise. How can it be anything else, once it is a vehicle for gaining something at another’s expense through political power? The only way to “clean up” government and reduce the political power-plays would be to restrict and restrain government to protecting each’s liberty rather than abridging some’s freedom to benefit someone else. 

The Collectivism of the Militant Type of Society

Central to Herbert Spencer’s view of man and society was his interpretation of societal evolution from primitive times to the present. This was a leading theme of Spencer’s Principles of Sociology, especially as offered in volume three. Here he most methodically develops his distinction between what he came to call the “Militant” versus the “Industrial” types of society. 

The “Militant type of society” originates in the tribal circumstances of either repelling the aggressive threats of neighboring tribes, or the undertaking of aggressive actions against other tribes. Defensive or offensive actions on a continuing basis invariably results in the gravitating toward a warrior leader who demonstrates those characteristics found to be most essential in the “chief” who will preserve or expand the boundaries and lives of the tribe.

The social structure increasingly takes on a centralized form of subordination and obedience to the military leader, to whom all in the society must be submissive to assure survival and victory. The lives, liberty and property of the group or tribal members are all placed at the service and command of the military leadership.

The Militant Society draws upon certain types of personalities possessing the needed capabilities in terms of leadership. These are primarily physical strength, manipulative guile, wealth acquired through plunder, and asserted mystical powers above those of the ordinary tribesman. Explained Spencer:

Naturally, in rude societies, the strong hand predominates. Apart from the influence of age, bodily strength procures distinction . . . Mental superiority, alone or joined with other attributes, is a common cause of predominance . . . A chief . . . is one who by his strength, cunning, and courage had obtained some command over [others] . . . Such political headship as exists, is acquired by one whose fitness asserts itself in the form of greater age, superior prowess, stronger will, wider knowledge, quicker insight, or larger wealth . . .

War and the threat of war naturally results in the subordination of the individual to the tribe, since the survival of the group is considered paramount, without which the individual’s personal survival becomes impossible. 

But in proportion as men are compelled to cooperate [in the Militant Society], their self-prompted actions are restrained. By as much as the unit becomes merged in the mass, by so much does he lose his individuality as a unit. And this leads us to note the several ways in which evolution of the militant type entails subordination of the citizen. His life is not his own but is at the disposal of his society. So long as he remains capable of bearing arms, he has no alternative but to fight when called on; and, where militancy is extreme, he cannot return as a vanquished man under penalty of death . . .

So, too, with his property. Whether, as in many cases, what he holds as private he so holds by permission only, or whether private ownership is recognized, it remains true that in the last resort he is obliged to surrender whatever is demanded for the community’s use. Briefly, then, under the militant type the individual is owned by the State. While preservation of the society is the primary end, preservation of each member is a secondary end—an end cared for chiefly as subserving the primary end . . .

The Individualism and Liberty of Industrial Society

Herbert Spencer, then, contrasts this Militant Type of Society with the nature and characteristics of the Industrial Type of Society. “Industrial” does not refer, in itself, to any particular degree of industrialization or of “industriousness” on the part of the members of such a society. Rather it refers to the nature and institutional relationships between the members within such an “Industrial Society.”

The Industrial Type of Society is based on voluntary association, individual freedom and responsibility, and “spontaneous” formation of human relationships rather than ones imposed and rigidly controlled by a political authority. Said Spencer: 

[The Industrial Society is] characterized throughout by the same individual freedom which every commercial transaction implies. The cooperation by which the multiform activities of the society are carried on becomes a voluntary cooperation. And while the developed sustaining system which give to a social organism the industrial type acquires for itself, like the developed sustaining system of an animal, a regulating apparatus of a diffused and decentralized kind, it tends also to decentralize the primary regulating apparatus by making it derive from numerous classes its disputed powers.

Spencer emphasized that the emergence of Industrial Society has been inseparably connected with the development and evolution of peaceful and private commerce and trade. Slowly over time, this generates independent sources of control and freedom separate from the State and its political leadership, which weakens and substitutes individual initiative and decision-making for that of the government. 

Industrial Society Fosters Equal Rights and Mutual Prosperity

Commerce and trade enable sources of income and personal security outside of the control and good graces of those in political power. Hence, there begins to emerge a “middle class” that has the ability to counteract and resist the power and authority of those with political control and position. Notions of individual and equal rights and relationships begin to emerge and gain acceptance. The “contract society” begins to replace the command and control system of social organization. Explained Spencer: 

And here we are brought back to the truth that cannot be too much insisted upon, that growth of popular power is in all ways associated with trading activities. For only by trading activities can many people be brought to live in close contact.

Industrial development further aids popular emancipation by generating an order of men whose power, derived from their wealth, competes with, and begins in some cases to exceed, the power of those who previously were alone wealthy—the men of rank. While this initiates a conflict that diminishes the influence previously exercised by patriarchal or feudal heads only, it also initiates a milder form of subordination.

Rising, as the rich trader habitually does in early times, from the non-privileged class, the relation between him and those under him is one from which there is excluded the idea of personal subjection . . . In town populations, made up largely of refugees, who either become small traders or are employed by great ones, the experience of a relatively independent life becomes common, and the conception of it clear.

The “Industrial” or contract society not only frees the individual from the control and constraint of those in hierarchical command in the preceding Militant type of society, it fosters and rewards individual initiative and creative differentiation, a cultivating of “diversity.” In such a society, people come to view and treat each other as equals in terms of their individual rights, with mutual respect and regard. Here emerges the society of liberty in place of the society of command: 

Commercial success and growth have thus, as their inevitable concomitants, the maintenance of the respective rights of those concerned, and a strengthening consciousness of them. Absence of a centralized coercive rule, implying as it does feeble political restraints exercised by the society over its units, is accompanied by a strong sense of individual freedom, and a determination to maintain it. 

While, as we saw, the compulsory cooperation proper to militancy, forbids, or greatly discourages, individual initiative, the voluntary cooperation which distinguishes industrialism, gives free scope to individual initiative, and develops it by letting enterprise bring its normal advantages.

Those who are successfully original in idea and act, prospering and multiplying in a greater degree than others, produce, in course of time, a general type of nature ready to undertake new things. The speculative tendencies of English and American capitalists, and the extent to which large undertakings, both at home and abroad, are carried out by them, sufficiently indicate this trait of character.

Militant vs. Industrial Society Make for Different Fitness of Survival 

Spencer was also clear in this portion of his discussion that Industrial Society also enabled the survival and prospering of different types of societal members. In the tribal Militant Society, success was dependent on wartime prowess, brute force, and authoritarian ability to control the others in society. The physically weak or disabled, those of a kinder and weaker bent of mind, those more concerned with “ideas” and cultural pursuits were limited or winnowed out. They were less “fit” for survival in such a tribal, collectivist society. 

But in Industrial Society, the coming prosperity that develops with production and trade, and wealth and material comfort, enable those who would have been considered too “weak” in that Militant tribal society to survive and flourish, to be among “the fit.” Here “survival” requires intelligence, creativity, artistic and cultural curiosity and capability, and commercial adaptability. In the Militant Society, poor eyesight would have been a handicap in either successfully hunting or doing battle in war. In Industrial Society, the development of eyeglasses and the growing wealth to make them available for more in the society, enables those with weaker eyesight to not only survive but find niches for work and reward that before would have been impossible. 

The Industrial Society needs different talents in the division of labor than are wanted in the Militant Society. The warrior of the Militant Society may make a living in an Industrial Society as a professional athlete, a policeman or soldier for national defense, or as a night watchman in a manufacturing plant. Worse still, he might become an elected politician!

The physically weak teller of tales to the tribal children around the fire in the cave, who may end up being killed by a wild animal because he lacked the strength to ward off the attack, will have the better ability and skills to survival and flourish in Industrial Society because his talents make it possible to survive and prosper as a lawyer or a doctor or an architect, or by making a living as a script writer, successful author, or a newsman or editorialist who makes his living condemning “capitalism” and the “injustice” of the profit-motive, while being materially being much better off than the warrior-night watchman. 

It is the evolution from tribal society to modern Industrial Society, Spencer argues, that provides the institutional change and possibilities permitting the survival and betterment of far more of the members of society than in the primitive past. Industrial society offers the opportunities and the wealth for more to live and do well than had ever would have been the case in earlier times. The handicaps of a Militant Society become the advantages in an Industrial or commercial, market-based society. 

Imperialism and the Return to the Militant Society

Being a “scientific determinist” more than he should have been, in thinking that society naturally evolved in various ways from more primitive to more civilized forms of human existence, Spencer was deeply bothered and frustrated by what he saw as a reversal to the Militant forms of society with the coming of political paternalism, the regulated and redistributing state, and the spirit and empire building of late 19th century European imperialism. All of these, in his mind, were steps backward to a less free and good society. 

He had no patience for what he considered misguided and misplaced “patriotism.” In Facts and Comments, he said if anyone accused him of being dishonest or untruthful it would cut him to the quick. But if he was called unpatriotic, he was left unaffected or undisturbed. It was one thing to be proud of one’s country when it stood for individual liberty, rule of law, an end to slavery, and a respect for the right of other peoples in other lands to peacefully go their own way. 

But when a government such as Great Britain’s imposed its will on other people’s through conquest and control, when those who resisted British imperialism in those conquered lands were brutalized and killed for wanting to be free, then he was only too happy to be called unpatriotic. 

He said that several years earlier when Britain was fighting a war to extend its imperial control to Afghanistan, a member of a London club that he belonged to commented that the latest newspaper dispatches warned that British soldiers had been surrounded and feared killed by Afghan resisters. Spencer shocked that person by saying, “When 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” (p. 90).

As far as he was concerned the entire pattern of British imperial policy could be summarized in one sentence: “The policy is simple and uniform – Bibles first, then bombshells.” 

In an essay on “Imperialism and Slavery,” he pointed out that imposing imperial power over peoples in other lands not only enslaved them, but no less the imperialist. When a slave master attaches a rope around the slave to control him, the slave master is also bound by having his own liberty restricted due to the necessity of holding the other end of the rope in his hand to restrain his captive. Imperialism burdens the imperial power with taxes to administer the conquered territory, the cost of policing it with an occupying military, and reduces the freedom of those in the imperial country to have to support a policy that works against peaceful trade and common betterment and respect among peoples. 

He considered all the collectivist trends around him in those years just before his death in 1903 as instances of “re-barbarization” and “regimentation,” throwbacks to the Militant type of society that weakened and threatened the existence and successes of market-based Industrial types of society. 

Freedom Requires People Jealous of Their Own Liberty

In 1882, Herbert Spencer, at the height of his international notoriety, spent almost three months lecturing around the United States. While in America, he gave an extended interview to a New York news reporter. He was asked from what quarter did he consider to be the greatest danger to liberty. Spencer replied: 

As one of your early statesmen said, ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’ But it is far less against foreign aggressions upon national liberty that this vigilance is required than against insidious growth of domestic interferences with personal liberty . . .

The fact is, that free institutions can be properly worked only by men each of whom is jealous of his own rights and is also sympathetically jealous of the rights of others – will neither himself aggress on his neighbors, in small things or great, nor tolerate aggression on them by others. The republican form of government is the highest form of government; but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature – a type nowhere at present existing. We [the British] have not grown to it, nor have you [the Americans].

The world in which we presently live, unfortunately, demonstrates that we are still far from fully being those human beings developed in their character and senses of right and wrong to properly understand and defend our own freedom and that of others, as well. And to see that it is all only possible in a society of personal liberty that respects and practices social and economic laissez-faire. 

Richard M. Ebeling

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Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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