Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XI.: the political bias. - The Study of Sociology
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CHAPTER XI.: the political bias. - Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology 
The Study of Sociology (London: Henry S. King, 1873).
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the political bias.
Every day brings events that show the politician what the events of the next day are likely to be, while they serve also as materials for the student of Social Science. Scarcely a journal can be read, that does not supply a fact which, beyond the proximate implication seized by the party-tactician, has an ultimate implication of value to the sociologist. Thus à propos of political bias, I am, while writing, furnished by an Irish paper with an extreme instance. Speaking of the late Ministerial defeat, the Nation says:—
“Mr. Gladstone and his administration are hurled from power, and the iniquitous attempt to sow broadcast the seed of irreligion and infidelity in Ireland has recoiled with the impact of a thunderbolt upon its authors. The men who so long beguiled the ear of Ireland with specious promises, who mocked us with sham reforms and insulted us with barren concessions, who traded on the grievances of this country only to aggravate them, and who, with smooth professions on their lips, trampled out the last traces of liberty in the land, are to-day a beaten and outcast party.”
Which exhibition of feeling we may either consider specially, as showing how the “Nationalists” are likely to behave in the immediate future; or may consider more generally, as giving us a trait of Irish nature tending to justify Mr. Froude’s harsh verdict on Irish conduct in the past; or may consider most generally, after the manner here appropriate, as a striking example of the distortions which the political bias works in men’s judgments.
When we remember that all are thus affected more or less, in estimating antagonists, their acts, and their views, we are reminded what an immense obstacle political partizanship is in the way of Social Science. I do not mean simply that, as all know, it often determines opinions about pending questions; as shown by cases in which a measure reprobated by Conservatives when brought forward by Liberals, is approved when brought forward by their own party. I refer to the far wider effect it has on men’s interpretations of the past and of the future; and therefore on their sociological conceptions in general. The political sympathies and antipathies fostered by the conflicts of parties, respectively upholding this or that kind of institution, become sympathies and antipathies drawn out towards allied institutions of other nations, extinct or surviving. These sympathies and antipathies inevitably cause tendencies to accept or reject favourable or unfavourable evidence respecting such institutions. The well-known contrast between the pictures which the Tory Mitford and the Radical Grote have given of the Athenian democracy, serves as an instance to which many parallels may be found. In proof of the perverting effects of the political bias, I cannot do better than quote some sentences from Mr. Froude’s lecture on “The Scientific Method applied to History.”
“Thucydides wrote to expose the vices of democracy; Tacitus, the historian of the Cæsars, to exhibit the hatefulness of Imperialism.1
Read Macaulay on the condition of the English poor before the last century or two, and you wonder how they lived at all. Read Cobbett, and I may even say Hallam, and you wonder how they endure the contrast between their past prosperity and their present misery.2
An Irish Catholic prelate once told me that to his certain knowledge two millions of men, women, and children had died in the great famine of 1846. I asked him if he was not including those who had emigrated. He repeated that over and above the emigration two millions had actually died; and added, ‘we might assert that every one of these deaths lay at the door of the English Government.’ I mentioned this to a distinguished lawyer in Dublin, a Protestant. His grey eyes lighted up. He replied: ‘Did he say two millions now—did he? Why there were not a thousand died—there were not five hundred.’ The true number, so far as can be gathered from a comparison of the census of 1841 with the census of 1851, from the emigration returns, which were carefully made, and from an allowance for the natural rate of increase, was about two hundred thousand.”3
Further insistence on this point is needless. That the verdicts which will be given by different party-journals upon each ministerial act may be predicted, and that the opposite opinions uttered by speakers and applauded by meetings concerning the same measure, may be foreseen if the political bias is known; are facts from which anyone may infer that the party politician must have his feelings greatly moderated before he can interpret, with even approximate truth, the events of the past, and draw correct inferences respecting the future.
Here, instead of dilating on this truth, I will call attention to kindred truths that are less conspicuous. Beyond those kinds of political bias indicated by the names of political parties, there are certain kinds of political bias transcending party-limits. Already in the chapter on “Subjective Difficulties—Emotional,” I have commented on the feeling which originates them—the feeling drawn out towards the governing agency. In addition to what was there said respecting the general effects of this feeling on sociological inquiry, something must be said about its special effects. And first, let us contemplate a common fallacy in men’s opinions about human affairs, which pervades the several fallacies fostered by the political bias.
Results are proportionate to appliances—see here the tacit assumption underlying many errors in the conduct of life, private and public. In private life everyone discovers the untruth of this assumption, and yet continues to act as though he had not discovered its untruth. Reconsider a moment, under this fresh aspect, a familiar experience lately dwelt upon.
“How happy I shall be,” thinks the child, “when I am as old as my big brother, and own all the many things he will not let me have.” “How happy,” the big brother thinks, “shall I be when, like my father, I have got a house of my own and can do as I like.” “How happy I shall be,” thinks the father, “when, achieving the success in prospect, I have got a large income, a country house, carriages, horses, and a higher social position.” And yet at each stage the possession of the much-desired aids to satisfaction does not bring all the happiness expected, and brings many annoyances.
A good example of the fallacy that results are proportionate to appliances, is furnished by domestic service. It is an inference naturally drawn that if one servant does so much, two servants will do twice as much; and so on. But when this common-sense theory is tested by practice, the results are quite at variance with it. Not simply does the amount of service performed fail to increase in proportion to the number of servants, but frequently it decreases: fewer servants do more work and do it better.
Take, again, the relation of books to knowledge. The natural assumption is that one who has stores of information at hand will become well-informed. And yet, very generally, when a man begins to accumulate books he ceases to make much use of them. The filling of his shelves with volumes and the filling of his brain with facts, are processes apt to go on with inverse rapidities. It is a trite remark that those who have become distinguished for their learning, have often been those who had great difficulties in getting books. Here, too, the results are quite out of proportion to the appliances.
Similarly if we go a step further in the same direction—not thinking of books as aids to information, but thinking of information as an aid to guidance. Do we find that the quantity of acquirement measures the quantity of insight? Is the amount of cardinal truth reached to be inferred from the mass of collected facts that serve as appliances for reaching it? By no means. Wisdom and information do not vary together. Though there must be data before there can be generalization, yet ungeneralized data accumulated in excess, are impediments to generalization. When a man’s knowledge is not in order, the more of it he has the greater will be his confusion of thought. When facts are not organized into faculty, the greater the mass of them the more will the mind stagger along under its burden, hampered instead of helped by its acquisitions. A student may become a very Daniel Lambert of learning, and remain utterly useless to himself and all others. Neither in this case, then, are results proportionate to appliances.
It is so, too, with discipline, and with the agencies established for discipline. Take, as an instance, the use of language. From his early days the boy whose father can afford to give him the fashionable education, is drilled in grammar, practised in parsing, tested in detecting errors of speech. After his public-school career, during which words, their meanings, and their right applications, almost exclusively occupy him, he passes through a University where a large, and often the larger, part of his attention is still given to literary culture—models of style in prose and poetry being daily before him. So much for the preparation; now for the performance. It is notorious that commentators on the classics are among the most slovenly writers of English. Readers of Punch will remember how, years ago, the Provost and Head-Master of Eton were made to furnish food for laughter by quotations from a letter they had published. Recently the Head-Master of Winchester has given us, in entire unconsciousness of its gross defects, a sample of the English which long study of language produces. If from these teachers, who are literally the select of the select, we turn to men otherwise selected, mostly out of the same highly-disciplined class—men who are distilled into the House of Commons, and then re-distilled into the Ministry, we are again disappointed. Just as in the last generation, Royal Speeches drawn up by those so laboriously trained in the right uses of words, furnished for an English grammar examples of blunders to be avoided; so in the present generation, a work on style might fitly take from these documents which our Government annually lays before all the world, warning instances of confusions, and illogicalities, and pleonasms. And then on looking at the performances of men not thus elaborately prepared, we are still more struck by the seeming anomaly. How great the anomaly is, we may best see by supposing some of our undisciplined authors to use expressions like those used by the disciplined. Imagine the self-made Cobbett deliberately saying, as is said in the last Royal Speech, that—
“I have kept in view the double object of an equitable regard to existing circumstances, and of securing a general provision more permanent in its character, and resting on a reciprocal and equal basis, for the commercial and maritime transactions of the two countries.”4
Imagine the poet who had “little Latin and less Greek,” giving the order that—
“No such address shall be delivered in any place where the assemblage of persons to hear the same may cause obstruction to the use of any road or walk by the public.”5
—an order which occurs, along with half-a-dozen lax and superfluous phrases, in the eighteen lines announcing the ministerial retreat from the Hyde-Park contest. Imagine the ploughman Burns, like one of our scholars who has been chosen to direct the education of gentlemen’s sons, expressing himself in print thus—
“I should not have troubled you with this detail (which was, indeed, needless in my former letter) if it was not that I may appear to have laid a stress upon the dates which the boy’s accident has prevented me from being able to claim to do.”6
Imagine Bunyan, the tinker, publishing such a sentence as this, written by one of our bishops:—
“If the 546 gentlemen who signed the protest on the subject of deaconesses had thought proper to object to my having formally licensed a deaconess in the parish of Dilton’s Marsh, or to what they speak of when they say that ‘recognition had been made’ (I presume on a report of which no part or portion was adopted by resolution of the Synod) ‘as to sisters living together in a more conventual manner and under stricter rule,’ I should not have thought it necessary to do more than receive with silent respect the expression of their opinion;” &c., &c.7
Or, to cite for comparison modern self-educated writers, imagine such a sentence coming from Hugh Miller, or Alexander Smith, or Gerald Massey, or “the Norwich weaver-boy” (W. J. Fox), or “the Journeyman Engineer.” Shall we then say that in the case of literary culture, results are proportionate to appliances? or shall we not rather say that, as in other cases, the relation is by no means so simple a one.
Nowhere, then, do we find verified this assumption which we are so prone to make. Quantity of effect does not vary as quantity of means. From a mechanical apparatus up to an educational system or a social institution, the same truth holds. Take a rustic to see a new machine, and his admiration of it will be in proportion to the multiplicity of its parts. Listen to the criticism of a skilled engineer, and you find that from all this complication he infers probable failure. Not elaboration but simplification is his aim: knowing, as he does, that every additional wheel or lever implies inertia and friction to be overcome, and occasional derangement to be rectified. It is thus everywhere. Up to a certain point appliances are needful for results; but beyond that point, results decrease as appliances increase.
This undue belief in appliances, joined with the general bias citizens inevitably have in favour of governmental agencies, prompts the multiplication of laws. It fosters the notion that a society will be the better the more its actions are everywhere regulated by artificial instrumentalities. And the effect produced on sociological speculation is, that the benefits achieved by laws are exaggerated, while the evils they entail are overlooked.
Brought to bear on so immensely-complicated an aggregate as a society, a law rarely, if ever, produces as much direct effect as was expected, and invariably produces indirect effects, many in their kinds and great in their sum, that were not expected. It is so even with fundamental changes: witness the two we have seen in the constitution of our House of Commons. Both advocates and opponents of the first Reform Bill anticipated that the middle classes would select as representatives many of their own body. But both were wrong. The class-quality of the House of Commons remained very much what it was before. While, however, the immediate and special result looked for did not appear, there were vast remote and general results foreseen by no one. So, too, with the recent change. We had eloquently-uttered warnings that delegates from the working-classes would swamp the House of Commons; and nearly everyone expected that, at any rate, a sprinkling of working-class members would be chosen. Again all were wrong. The conspicuous alteration looked for has not occurred; but, nevertheless, governmental actions have already been much modified by the raised sense of responsibility. It is thus always. No prophecy is safer than that the results anticipated from a law will be greatly exceeded in amount by results not anticipated. Even simple physical actions might suggest to use this conclusion. Let us contemplate one.
You see that this wrought-iron plate is not quite flat: it sticks up a little here towards the left—“cockles,” as we say. How shall we flatten it? Obviously, you reply, by hitting down on the part that is prominent. Well, here is a hammer, and I give the plate a blow as you advise. Harder, you say. Still no effect. Another stroke? Well, there is one, and another, and another. The prominence remains, you see: the evil is as great as ever—greater, indeed. But this is not all. Look at the warp which the plate has got near the opposite edge. Where it was flat before it is now curved. A pretty bungle we have made of it. Instead of curing the original defect, we have produced a second. Had we asked an artizan practised in “planishing,” as it is called, he would have told us that no good was to be done, but only mischief, by hitting down on the projecting part. He would have taught us how to give variously-directed and specially-adjusted blows with a hammer elsewhere: so attacking the evil not by direct but by indirect actions. The required process is less simple than you thought. Even a sheet of metal is not to be successfully dealt with after those common-sense methods in which you have so much confidence. What, then, shall we say about a society? “Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” asks Hamlet. Is humanity more readily straightened than an iron plate?
Many, I doubt not, failing to recognize the truth that in proportion as an aggregate is complex, the effects wrought by an incident force become more multitudinous, confused, and incalculable, and that therefore a society is of all kinds of aggregates the kind most difficult to affect in an intended way and not in unintended ways—many such will ask evidence of the difficulty. Response would perhaps be easier were the evidence less abundant. It is so familiar as seemingly to have lost its significance; just as perpetually-repeated salutations and prayers have done. The preamble to nearly every Act of Parliament supplies it; in the report of every commission it is presented in various forms; and for anyone asking instances, the direction might be—Hansard passim. Here I will give but a single example which might teach certain rash enthusiasts of our day, were they teachable. I refer to measures for the suppression of drunkenness.
Not to dwell on the results of the Maine Law, which, as I know from one whose personal experience verified current statements, prevents the obtainment of stimulants by travellers in urgent need of them, but does not prevent secret drinking by residents—not to dwell, either, upon the rigorous measures taken in Scotland in 1617, “for the restraint of the vile and detestable vice of drunkenness daily increasing,” but which evidently did not produce the hoped-for effect; I will limit myself to the case of the Licensing Act, 9 Geo. II., ch. 23, for arresting the sale of spirituous liquors (chiefly gin) by prohibitory licences.
“Within a few months after it passed, Tindal tells us, the commissioners of excise themselves became sensible of the impossibility or unadvisableness of carrying it rigorously into execution. Smollett, who has drawn so dark a picture of the state of things the act was designed to put down, has painted in colours equally strong the mischiefs which it produced:—‘The populace,’ he writes, ‘soon broke through all restraint. Though no licence was obtained and no duty paid, the liquor continued to be sold in all corners of the streets; informers were intimidated by the threats of the people; and the justices of the peace, either from indolence or corruption, neglected to put the law in execution.’ In fact, in course of time, ‘it appeared,’ he adds, ‘that the consumption of gin had considerably increased every year since those heavy duties were imposed.’”8
When, in 1743, this Act was repealed, it was shown during the debates that—
“The quantity of gin distilled in England, which, in 1684, when the business was introduced into this country, had been 527,000 gallons, had risen to 948,000 in 1694, to 1,375,000 in 1704, to 2,000,000 in 1714, to 3,520,000 in 1724, to 4,947,000 in 1734, and to not less than 7,160,000 in 1742. ∗ ∗ ∗ ‘Retailers were deterred from vending them [spirituous liquors] by the utmost encouragement that could be given to informers. ∗ ∗ ∗ The prospect of raising money by detecting their [unlicensed retailers’] practices incited many to turn information into a trade; and the facility with which the crime was to be proved encouraged some to gratify their malice by perjury, and others their avarice; so that the multitude of informations became a public grievance, and the magistrates themselves complained that the law was not to be executed. The perjuries of informers were now so flagrant and common, that the people thought all informations malicious; or, at least, thinking themselves oppressed by the law, they looked upon every man that promoted its execution as their enemy; and therefore now began to declare war against informers, many of whom they treated with great cruelty, and some they murdered in the streets.’”9
Here, then, with absence of the looked-for benefit there went production of unlooked-for evils, vast in amount. To recur to our figure, the original warp, instead of being made less by these direct blows, was made greater; while other distortions, serious in kind and degree, were created. And beyond the encouragement of fraud lying, malice, cruelty, murder, contempt of law, and the other conspicuous crookednesses named, multitudinous minor twists of sentiment and thought were caused or augmented. An indirect demoralization was added to a direct increase of the vice aimed at.
Joining with the prevalent fallacy that results are proportionate to appliances, the general political bias has the further effect of fostering an undue faith in political forms. This tendency to ascribe everything to a visible proximate agency, and to forget the hidden forces without which the agency is worthless—this tendency which makes the child gazing at a steam-engine suppose that all is done by the combination of parts it sees, not recognizing the fact that the engine is powerless without the steam-generating boiler, and the boiler powerless without the water and the burning fuel, is a tendency which leads citizens to think that good government can be had by shaping public arrangements in this way or that way. Let us frame our state-machinery rightly, they urge, and all will be well.
Yet this belief in the innate virtues of constitutions is as baseless as was the belief in the natural superiorities of royal personages. Just, as of old, loyalty to ruling men kept alive a faith in their powers and virtues, notwithstanding perpetual disproofs; so, in these modern days, loyalty to constitutional forms keeps alive this faith in their intrinsic worth, spite of recurring demonstrations that their worth is entirely conditional. That those forms only are efficient which have grown naturally out of character, and that in the absence of fit character forms artificially obtained will be inoperative, is well shown by the governments of trading corporations. Let us contemplate a typical instance of this government.
The proprietors of a certain railway (I am here giving my personal experience as one of them) were summoned to a special meeting. The notice calling them together stated that the directors had agreed to lease their line to another company; that everything had been settled; that the company taking the lease was then in possession; and that the proprietors were to be asked for their approval on the day named in the notice. The meeting took place. The chairman gave an account of the negotiation and of the agreement entered into. A motion expressing approval of the agreement was proposed and to some extent discussed—no notice whatever being taken of the extraordinary conduct of the board. Only when the motion was about to be put, did one proprietor protest against the astounding usurpation which the transaction implied. He said that there had grown up a wrong conception of the relation between boards of directors and bodies of proprietors; that directors had come to look on themselves as supreme and proprietors as subordinate, whereas, in fact, directors were simply agents appointed to act in the absence of their principals, the proprietors, and remained subject to their principals; that if, in any private business, an absent proprietor received from his manager the news that he had leased the business, that the person taking it was then in possession, and that the proprietor’s signature to the lease was wanted, his prompt return would be followed by a result quite different from that looked for—namely, a dismissal of the manager for having exceeded his duty in a very astonishing manner. This protest against the deliberate trampling down of principles recognized by the constitutions of companies, met with no response whatever—not a solitary sympathizer joined in the protest, even in a qualified form. Not only was the motion of approval carried, but it was carried without any definite knowledge of the agreement itself. Nothing more than the chairman’s verbal description was vouchsafed: no printed copies of it had been previously circulated, or were to be had at the meeting. And yet, wonderful to relate, this proprietary body had been already once betrayed by an agreement with this same leasing company!—had been led to undertake the making of the line on the strength of a seeming guarantee which proved to be no guarantee! See, then, the lesson. The constitution of this company, like that of companies in general, was purely democratic. The proprietors elected their directors, the directors their chairman; and there were special provisions for restraining directors and replacing them when needful. Yet these forms of free government had fallen into disuse. And it is thus in all cases. Save on occasions when some scandalous mismanagement, or corruption bringing great loss, has caused a revolutionary excitement among them, railway-proprietors do not exercise their powers. Retiring directors being re-elected as a matter of form, the board becomes practically a close body; usually some one member, often the chairman, acquires supremacy; and so the government lapses into something between oligarchy and monarchy. All this, observe, happening not exceptionally but as a rule, happens among bodies of men mostly well educated, and many highly educated—people of means, merchants, lawyers, clergymen, &c. Ample disproof, if there needed any, of the notion that men are to be fitted for the right exercise of power by teaching.
And now to return. Anyone who looks through these facts and facts akin to them for the truth they imply, may see that forms of government are valuable only where they are products of national character. No cunningly-devised political arrangements will of themselves do anything. No amount of knowledge respecting the uses of such arrangements will suffice. Nothing will suffice but the emotional nature to which such arrangements are adapted—a nature which, during social progress, has evolved the arrangements. And wherever there is want of congruity between the nature and the arrangements—wherever the arrangements, suddenly established by revolution or pushed too far by reforming change, are of a higher type than the national character demands, there is always a lapse proportionate to the incongruity. In proof I might enumerate the illustrations that lie scattered through the modern histories of Greece, of South America, of Mexico. Or I might dwell on the lesson (before briefly referred to) presented us in France; where the political cycle shows us again and again that new Democracy is but old Despotism differently spelt—where now, as heretofore, we find Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, conspicuous on the public buildings, and now, as heretofore, have for interpretations of these words the extremest party-hatreds, vituperations and actual assaults in the Assembly, wholesale arrests of men unfriendly to those in power, forbiddings of public meetings, and suppressions of journals; and where now, as heretofore, writers professing to be ardent advocates of political freedom, rejoice in these acts which shackle and gag their antagonists. But I will take, instead, a case more nearly allied to our own.
For less strikingly, and in other ways, but still with sufficient clearness, this same truth is displayed in the United States. I do not refer only to such extreme illustrations of it as were at one time furnished in California; where, along with that complete political freedom which some think the sole requisite for social welfare, most men lived in perpetual fear for their lives, while others prided themselves on the notches which marked, on the hilts of their pistols, the numbers of men they had killed. Nor will I dwell on the state of society existing under republican forms in the West, where a white woman is burned to death for marrying a negro, where secret gangs murder in the night men whose conduct they dislike, where mobs stop trains to lynch offending persons contained in them, where the carrying of a revolver is a matter of course, where judges are intimidated and the execution of justice often impracticable. I do but name these as extreme instances of the way in which, under institutions that nominally secure men from oppression, they may be intolerably oppressed—unable to utter their opinions and to conduct their private lives as they please. Without going so far, we may find in the Eastern states proof enough that the forms of liberty and the reality of liberty are not necessarily commensurate. A state of things under which men administer justice in their own cases, are applauded for so doing, and mostly acquitted if tried, is a state of things which has, in so far, retrograded towards a less civilized state; for one of the cardinal traits of political progress is the gradual disappearance of personal retaliation, and the increasing supremacy of a ruling power which settles the differences between individuals and punishes aggressors. And in proportion as this ruling power is enfeebled the security of individuals is lessened. How security, lessened in this general way, is lessened in more special ways, we see in the bribery of judges, in the financial frauds by which many are robbed without possibility of remedy, in the corruptness of New York administration, which, taxing so heavily, does so little. And, under another aspect, we see the like in the doings of legislative bodies—in the unfair advantages which some individuals gain over others by “lobbying,” in Crédit-Mobilier briberies, and the like. While the outside form of free government remains, there has grown up within it a reality which makes government not free. The body of professional politicians, entering public life to get incomes, organizing their forces and developing their tactics, have, in fact, come to be a ruling class quite different from that which the constitution intended to secure; and a class having interests by no means identical with public interests. This worship of the appliances to liberty in place of liberty itself, needs continually exposing. There is no intrinsic virtue in votes. The possession of representatives is not itself a benefit. These are but means to an end; and the end is the maintenance of those conditions under which each citizen may carry on his life without further hindrances from other citizens than are involved by their equal claims—is the securing to each citizen all such beneficial results of his activities as his activities naturally bring. The worth of the means must be measured by the degree in which this end is achieved. A citizen nominally having complete means and but partially securing the end, is less free than another who uses incomplete means to more purpose.
But why go abroad for proofs of the truth that political forms are of worth only in proportion as they are vitalized by national character? We have proofs at home. I do not mean those furnished by past constitutional history—I do not merely refer to those many facts showing us that the nominal power of our representative body became an actual power only by degrees; and that the theoretically-independent House of Commons took centuries to escape from regal and aristocratic sway, and establish a practical independence. I refer to the present time, and to actions of our representative body in the plenitude of its power. This assembly of deputies chosen by large constituencies, and therefore so well fitted, as it would seem, for guarding the individual of whatever grade against trespasses upon his individuality, nevertheless itself authorizes new trespasses upon his individuality. A popular government has established, without the slightest hindrance, an official organization that treats with contempt the essential principles of constitutional rule; and since it has been made still more popular, has deliberately approved and maintained this organization. Here is a brief account of the steps leading to these results.
On the 20th June, 1864, just before 2 o’clock in the morning, there was read a first time an Act giving, in some localities, certain new powers to the police. On the 27th of that month, it was read a second time, entirely without comment—at what hour Hansard does not show. Just before 2 o’clock in the morning on June 30th, there was appointed, without remark, a Select Committee to consider this proposed Act. On the 15th July the Report of this Committee was received. On the 19th the Bill was re-committed, and the Report on it received—all in silence. On the 20th July it was considered—still in silence—as amended. And on the 21st July it was read a third time and passed-equally in silence. Taken next day to the House of Lords, it there, in silence no less profound, passed through all its stages in four days (? three). This Act not proving strong enough to meet the views of naval and military officers (who, according to the testimony of one of the Select Committee, were the promoters of it), was, in 1866, “amended.” At 1 o’clock in the morning on March 16th of that year, the Act amending it was read a first time; and it was read a second time on the 22nd, when the Secretary of the Admiralty, describing it as an Act to secure the better health of soldiers and sailors, said “it was intended to renew an Act passed in 1864, with additional powers.” And now, for the first time, there came brief adverse remarks from two members. On April 9th there was appointed a Select Committee, consisting mainly of the same members as the previous one—predominantly state-officers of one class or other. On the 20th, the Report of the Committee was received. On the 26th, the Bill was re-committed just before 2 o’clock in the morning; and on the Report there came some short comments, which were, however, protested against on the ground that the Bill was not to be publicly discussed. And here observe the reception given to the only direct opposition raised. When, to qualify a clause defining the powers of the police, it was proposed to add, “that the justices before whom such information shall be made, shall in all cases require corroborative testimony and support thereof, other than that of the members of the police force,” this qualification was negatived without a word. Finally, this Act was approved and made more stringent by the present House of Commons in 1869.
And now what was this Act, passed the first time absolutely without comment, and passed in its so-called amended form with but the briefest comments, made under protest that comments were interdicted? What was this measure, so conspicuously right that discussion of it was thought superfluous? It was a measure by which, in certain localities, one-half of the people were brought under the summary jurisdiction of magistrates, in respect of certain acts charged against them. Further, those by whom they were to be charged, and by whose unsupported testimony charges were to be proved, were agents of the law, looking for promotion as the reward of vigilance—agents placed under a permanent temptation to make and substantiate charges. And yet more, the substantiation of charges was made comparatively easy, by requiring only a single local magistrate to be convinced, by the testimony on oath of one of these agents of the law, that a person charged was guilty of the alleged acts—acts which, held to be thus proved, were punished by periodic examinations of a repulsive kind and forced inclusion in a degraded class. A House of Commons elected by large constituencies, many of them chiefly composed of working-men, showed the greatest alacrity in making a law under which, in sundry districts, the liberty of a working-man’s wife or daughter remains intact, only so long as a detective does not give evidence which leads a magistrate to believe her a prostitute! And this Bill which, even had there been some urgent need (which we have seen there was not) for dispensing with precautions against injustice, should, at any rate, have been passed only after full debate and anxious criticism, was passed with every effort to maintain secrecy, on the pretext that decency forbade discussion of it; while Mordaunt-cases and the like were being reported with a fulness proportionate to the amount of objectionable details they brought out! Nor is this all. Not only do the provisions of the Act make easy the establishment of charges by men who are placed under temptations to make them; but these men are guarded against penalties apt to be brought on them by abusing their power. A poor woman who proceeds against one of them for making a groundless accusation ruinous to her character, does so with this risk before her; that if she fails to get a verdict she has to pay the defendant’s costs; whereas a verdict in her favour does not give her costs: only by a special order of the judge does she get costs! And this is the “even-handed justice” provided by a government freer in form than any we have ever had!10
Let it not be supposed that in arguing thus I am implying that forms of government are unimportant. While contending that they are of value only in so far as a national character gives life to them, it is consistent also to contend that they are essential as agencies through which that national character may work out its effects. A boy cannot wield to purpose an implement of size and weight fitted to the hand of a man. A man cannot do effective work with the boy’s implement: he must have one adapted to his larger grasp and greater strength. To each the implement is essential; but the results which each achieves are not to be measured by the size or make of the implement alone, but by its adaptation to his powers. Similarly with political instrumentalities. It is possible to hold that a political instrumentality is of value only in proportion as there exists a strength of character needful for using it, and at the same time to hold that a fit political instrumentality is indispensable. Here, as before, results are not proportionate to appliances; but they are proportionate to the force for due operation of which certain appliances are necessary.
One other still more general and more subtle kind of political bias has to be guarded against. Beyond that excess of faith in laws, and in political forms, which is fostered by awe of regulative agencies, there is, even among those least swayed by this awe, a vague faith in the immediate possibility of something much better than now exists—a tacit assumption that, even with men as they are, public affairs might be much better managed. The mental attitude of such may be best displayed by an imaginary conversation between one of them and a member of the Legislature.
“Why do your agents, with no warrant but a guess, make this surcharge on my income-tax return; leaving me to pay an amount that is not due and to establish a precedent for future like payments, or else to lose valuable time in proving their assessment excessive, and, while so doing, to expose my affairs? You require me to choose between two losses, direct and indirect, for the sole reason that your assessor fancies, or professes to fancy, that I have under-stated my income. Why do you allow this? Why in this case do you invert the principle which, in cases between citizens, you hold to be an equitable one—the principle that a claim must be proved by him who makes it, not disproved by him against whom it is made? Is it in pursuance of old political usages that you do this? Is it to harmonize with the practice of making one whom you had falsely accused, pay the costs of his defence, although in suits between citizens you require the loser to bear all the expense?—a practice you have but lately relinquished. Do you desire to keep up the spirit of the good old rulers who impressed labourers and paid them what they pleased, or the still older rulers who seized whatever they wanted? Would you maintain this tradition by laying hands on as much as possible of my earnings and leaving me to get part back if I can expecting, indeed, that I shall submit to the loss rather than undergo the worry, and hindrance, and injury, needful to recover what you have wrongfully taken? I was brought up to regard the Government and its officers as my protectors; and now I find them aggressors against whom I have to defend myself.”
“What would you have? Our agents could not bring forward proof that an income-tax return was less than it should be. Either the present method must be pursued, or the tax must be abandoned.”
“I have no concern with your alternative. I have merely to point out that between man and man you recognize no such plea. When a plaintiff makes a claim but cannot produce evidence, you do not make the defendant submit if he fails to show that the claim is groundless. You say that if no evidence can be given, nothing can be done. Why do you ignore this principle when your agent makes the claim? Why from the fountain of equity comes there this inequity? Is it to maintain consistency with that system of criminal jurisprudence under which, while professing to hold a man innocent till proved guilty, you treat him before trial like a convict—as you did Dr. Hessel? Are your views really represented by these Middlesex magistrates you have appointed, who see no hardship to a man of culture in the seclusion of a prison-cell, and the subjection to prison-rules, on the mere suspicion that he has committed a murder?”
“The magistrates held that the rules allowed them to make no distinctions. You would not introduce class-legislation into prison-discipline?”
“I remember that was one of the excuses; and I cheerfully give credit to this endeavour to treat all classes alike. I do so the more cheerfully because this application of the principle of equality differs much from those which you ordinarily make—as when, on discharging some of your well-paid officials who have held sinecures, you give them large pensions, for the reason, I suppose, that their expensive styles of living have disabled them from saving anything; while, when you discharge dock-yard labourers, you do not give them compensation, for the reason, I suppose, that out of weekly wages it is easy to accumulate a competence. This, however, by the way. I am here concerned with that action of your judicial system which makes it an aggressor on citizens, whether rich or poor, instead of a protector. The instances I have given are but trivial instances of its general operation. Law is still a name of dread, as it was in past times. My legal adviser, being my friend, strongly recommends me not to seek your aid in recovering property fraudulently taken from me; and I perceive, from their remarks, that my acquaintances would pity me as a lost man if I got into your Court of Equity. Whether active or passive, I am in danger. Your arrangements are such that I may be pecuniarily knocked on the head by some one who pretends I have injured his property. I have the alternative of letting my pocket be picked by the scamp who makes this baseless allegation in the hope of being paid to desist, or of meeting the allegation in Chancery, and there letting my pocket be picked, probably to a still greater extent, by your agencies. Nay, when you have, as you profess, done me justice by giving me a verdict and condemning the scamp to pay costs, I find I may still be ruined by having to pay my own costs if he has no means. To make your system congruous throughout, it only needs that, when I call him to save me from the foot-pad, your policeman should deal me still heavier blows than the foot-pad did, and empty my purse of what remains in it.”
“Why so impatient? Are we not going to reform it all? Was it not last session proposed to make a Court of Appellate Jurisdiction by appointing four peers with salaries of £7000 each? And has there not been brought forward this session, even quite early, a Government-measure for preventing the conflict of Law and Equity, and for facilitating appeals?”
“Thanks in advance for the improvement. When I have failed to ruin myself by a first suit, it will be a consolation to think that I can complete my ruin by a second with less delay than hereto-fore. Meanwhile, instead of facilitating appeals, which you seem to think of primary importance, I should be obliged if you would diminish the occasion for appeals, by making your laws such as it is possible for me to know, or at any rate, such as it is possible for your judges to know; and I should be further obliged if you would give me easier remedies against aggressions, instead of remedies so costly, so deceptive, so dangerous, that I prefer suffering the aggressions in silence. Daily I experience the futility of your system. I start on a journey expecting that in conformity with the advertised times, I shall just be able to reach a certain distant town before night; but the train being an hour late at one of the junctions, I am defeated—am put to the cost of a night spent on the way and lose half the next day. I paid for a first-class seat that I might have space, comfort, and unobjectionable fellow-travellers; but, stopping at a town where a fair is going on, the guard, on the plea that the third-class carriages are full, thrusts into the compartment more persons than there are places for, who, both by behaviour and odour, are repulsive. Thus in two ways I am defrauded. For part of the fraud I have no remedy; and for the rest my remedy, doubtful at best, is practically unavailable. Is the reply that against the alleged breach of contract as to time, the company has guarded itself, or professes to have guarded itself, by disclaiming responsibility? The allowing such a disclaimer is one of your countless negligences. You do not allow me to plead irresponsibility if I give the company bad money, or if, having bought a ticket for the second class, I travel in the first. On my side you regard the contract as quite definite; but on the other side you practically allow the contract to remain undefined. And now see the general effects of your carelessness. Scarcely any trains keep their times; and the result of chronic unpunctuality is a multiplication of accidents with increased loss of life.”
“How about laissez-faire? I thought your notion was that the less Government meddled with these things the better; and now you complain that the law does not secure your comfort in a railway-carriage and see that you are delivered at your journey’s end in due time. I suppose you approved of the proposal made in the House last session, that companies should be compelled to give foot-warmers to second-class passengers.”
“Really you amaze me. I should have thought that not even ordinary intelligence, much less select legislative intelligence, would have fallen into such a confusion. I am not blaming you for failing to secure me comfort or punctuality. I am blaming you for failing to enforce contracts. Just as strongly as I protest against your neglect in letting a company take my money and then not give me all I paid for; so strongly should I protest did you dictate how much convenience should be given me for so much money. Surely I need not remind you that your civil law in general proceeds on the principle that the goodness or badness of a bargain is the affair of those who make it, not your affair; but that it is your duty to enforce the bargain when made. Only in proportion as this is done can men’s lives in society be maintained. The condition to all life, human or other, is that effort put forth shall bring the means of repairing the parts wasted by effort—shall bring, too, more or less of surplus. A creature that continuously expends energy without return in nutriment dies; and a creature is indirectly killed by anything which, after energies have been expended, habitually intercepts the return. This holds of associated human beings as of all other beings. In a society, most citizens do not obtain sustenance directly by the powers they exert, but do it indirectly: each gives the produce of his powers exerted in his special way, in exchange for the produce of other men’s powers exerted in other ways. The condition under which only this obtaining of sustenance to replace the matter wasted by effort, can be carried on in society, is fulfilment of contract. Non-fulfilment of contract is letting energy be expended in expectation of a return, and then with-holding the return. Maintenance of contract, therefore, is maintenance of the fundamental principle of all life, under the form given to it by social arrangements. I blame you because you do not maintain this fundamental principle; and, as a consequence, allow life to be impeded and sacrificed in countless indirect ways. You are, I admit, solicitous about my life as endangered by my own acts. Though you very inadequately guard me against injuries from others, you seem particularly anxious that I shall not injure myself. Emulating Sir Peter Laurie, who made himself famous by threatening to ‘put down suicide,’ you do what you can to prevent me from risking my limbs. Your great care of me is shown, for instance, by enforcing a bye-law which forbids me to leave a railway-train in motion; and if I jump out, I find that whether I hurt myself or not, you decide to hurt me—by a fine.11 Not only do you thus punish me when I run the risk of punishing myself; but your amiable anxiety for my welfare shows itself in taking money out of my pocket to provide me with various conveniences—baths and wash-houses, for example, and free access to books. Out of my pocket, did I say? Not always. Sometimes out of the pockets of those least able to afford it; as when, from poor authors who lose by their works, you demand gratis copies for your public libraries, that I and others may read them for nothing—Dives robbing Lazarus that he may give alms to the well-clad! But these many things you offer are things I do not ask; and you will not effectually provide the one thing I do ask. I do not want you to ascertain for me the nature of the Sun’s corona, or to find a north-west passage, or to explore the bottom of the sea; but I do want you to insure me against aggression, by making the punishment of aggressors, civil as well as criminal, swift, certain, and not ruinous to complainants. Instead of doing this, you persist in doing other things. Instead of securing me the bread due to my efforts, you give me a stone—a sculptured block from Ephesus. I am quite content to enjoy only what I get by my own exertions, and to have only that information and those pleasures for which I pay. I am quite content to suffer the evils brought on me by my own defects—believing, indeed, that for me and for all there is no other whole-some discipline. But you fail to do what is needed. You are careless about guaranteeing me the unhindered enjoyment of the benefits my efforts have purchased; and you insist on giving me, at other people’s expense, benefits my efforts have not purchased, and on saving me from penalties I deserve.”
“You are unreasonable. We are doing our best with the enormous mass of business brought before us: sitting on committees, reading evidence and reports, debating till one or two in the morning. Session after session we work hard at all kinds of measures for the public welfare—devising plans for educating the people; enacting better arrangements for the health of towns; making inquiries into the impurity of rivers; deliberating on plans to diminish drunkenness; prescribing modes of building houses that they may not fall; deputing commissioners to facilitate emigration; and so on. You can go to no place that does not show signs of our activity. Here are public gardens formed by our local lieutenants, the municipal bodies; here are lighthouses we have put up to prevent shipwrecks. Everywhere we have appointed inspectors to see that salubrity is maintained; every where there are vaccinators to see that due precautions against small-pox are observed; and if, happening to be in a district where our arrangements are in force, your desires are not well controlled, we do our best to insure you a healthy”—
“Yes, I know what you would say. It is all of a piece with the rest of your policy. While you fail to protect me against others, you insist on protecting me against myself. And your failure to do the essential thing, results from the absorption of your time in doing non-essential things. Do you think that your beneficences make up for the injustices you let me bear? I do not want these sops and gratuities; but I do want security against trespasses, direct and indirect—security that is real and not nominal. See the predicament in which I am placed. You forbid me (quite rightly I admit) to administer justice on my own behalf; and you profess to administer it for me. I may not take summary measures to resist encroachment, to reclaim my own, or to seize that which I bargained to have for my services you tell me that I must demand your aid to enforce my claim. But demanding your aid commonly brings such frightful evils that I prefer to bear the wrong done me. So that, practically, having forbidden me to defend myself, you fail to defend me. By this my life is vitiated, along with the lives of citizens in general. All transactions are impeded; time and labour are lost; the prices of commodities are raised. Honest men are defrauded, while rogues thrive. Debtors outwit their creditors; bankrupts make purses by their failures and recommence on larger scales; and financial frauds that ruin their thousands go unpunished.”
Thus far our impatient friend. And now see how untenable is his position. He actually supposes that it is possible to get government conducted on rational principles! His tacit assumption is that out of a community morally imperfect and intellectually imperfect, there may in some way be had legislative regulation that is not proportionately imperfect! He is under a delusion. Not by any kind of government, established after any method, can the thing be done. A good and wise autocrat cannot be chosen or otherwise obtained by a people not good and wise. Goodness and wisdom will not characterize the successive families of an oligarchy, arising out of a bad and foolish people, any more than they will characterize a line of kings. Nor will any system of representation, limited or universal, direct or indirect, do more than represent the average nature of citizens. To dissipate his notion that truly-rational government can be provided for themselves by a people not truly rational, he needs but to read election-speeches and observe how votes are gained by clap-trap appeals to senseless prejudices and by fostering hopes of impossible benefits, while votes are lost by candid statements of stern truths and endeavours to dissipate groundless expectations. Let him watch the process, and he will see that when the fermenting mass of political passions and beliefs is put into the electoral still, there distils over not the wisdom alone but the folly also—sometimes in the larger proportion. Nay, if he watches closely, he may suspect that not only is the corporate conscience lower than the average individual conscience, but the corporate intelligence too. The minority of the wise in a constituency is liable to be wholly submerged by the majority of the foolish: often foolishness alone gets represented. In the representative assembly, again, the many mediocrities practically rule the few superiorities: the superior are obliged to express those views only which the rest can understand, and must keep to themselves their best and farthest-reaching thoughts as thoughts that would have no weight. He needs but remember that abstract principles are pooh-poohed in the House of Commons, to see at once that while the unwisdom expresses itself abundantly, what of highest wisdom there may be has to keep silence. And if he asks an illustration of the way in which the intelligence of the body of members brings out a result lower than would the intelligence of the average member, he may see one in those muddlings of provisions and confusions of language in Acts of Parliament, which have lately been calling forth protests from the judges.
Thus the assumption that it is possible for a nation to get, in the shape of law, something like embodied reason, when it is not itself pervaded by a correlative reasonableness, is improbable à priori and disproved à posteriori. The belief that truly-good legislation and administration can go along with a humanity not truly good, is a chronic delusion. While our own form of government, giving means for expressing and enforcing claims, is the best form yet evolved for preventing aggressions of class upon class, and of individuals on one another; yet it is hopeless to expect from it, any more than from other forms of government, a capacity and a rectitude greater than that of the society out of which it grows. And criticisms like the foregoing, which imply that its shortcomings can be set right by expostulating with existing governing agents or by appointing others, imply that subtlest kind of political bias which is apt to remain when the stronger kinds have been got rid of.
Second only to the class-bias, we may say that the political bias most seriously distorts sociological conceptions. That this is so with the bias of political party, everyone sees in some measure, though not in full measure. It is manifest to the Radical that the prejudice of the Tory blinds him to a present evil or to a future good. It is manifest to the Tory that the Radical does not see the benefit there is in that which he wishes to destroy, and fails to recognize the mischiefs likely to be done by the institution he would establish. But neither imagines that the other is no less needful than himself. The Radical, with his impracticable ideal, is unaware that his enthusiasm will serve only to advance things a little, but not at all as he expects; and he will not admit that the obstructiveness of the Tory is a wholesome check. The Tory, doggedly resisting, cannot perceive that the established order is but relatively good, and that his defence of it is simply a means of preventing premature change; while he fails to recognize in the bitter antagonism and sanguine hopes of the Radical, the agencies without which there could be no progress. Thus neither fully understands his own function or the function of his opponent; and by as much as he falls short of understanding it, he is disabled from understanding social phenomena.
The more general kinds of political bias distort men’s sociological conceptions in other ways, but quite as seriously. There is this perennial delusion, common to Radical and Tory, that legislation is omnipotent, and that things will get done because laws are passed to do them; there is this confidence in one or other form of government, due to the belief that a government once established will retain its form and work as was intended; there is this hope that by some means the collective wisdom can be separated from the collective folly, and set over it in such way as to guide things aright;—all of them implying that general political bias which inevitably coexists with subordination to political agencies. The effect on sociological speculation is to maintain the conception of a society, as some thing manufactured by statesmen, and to turn the mind from the phenomena of social evolution. While the regulating agency occupies the thoughts, scarcely any attention is given to those astounding processes and results due to the energies regulated. The genesis of the vast producing, exchanging, and distributing agencies, which has gone on spontaneously, often hindered, and at best only restrained, by governments, is passed over with unobservant eyes. And thus, by continually contemplating the power which keeps in order, and contemplating rarely, if at all, the activities kept in order, there is produced an extremely one-sided theory of Society.
Clearly, it is with this kind of bias as it is with the kinds of bias previously considered—the degree of it bears a certain necessary relation to the temporary phase of progress. It can diminish only as fast as Society advances. A well-balanced social self-consciousness, like a well-balanced individual self-consciousness, is the accompaniment of a high evolution.
[1.]Shortly after the first publication of this chapter, I met with a kindred instance. At a Co-operative Congress:—“Mr. Head (of the firm of Fox, Head, & Co., Middlesbrough) * * * remarked that he had thrown his whole soul during the last six years into the carrying out of the principle involved in the Industrial Partnership at Middlesbrough with which he was connected. In that Industrial Partnership there was at present no arrangement for the workmen to invest their savings. A clause to give that opportunity to the workmen was at first put into the articles of agreement, but, as there was only one instance during three years of a workman under the firm applying to invest his savings, that clause was withdrawn. The firm consequently came to the conclusion that this part of their scheme was far ahead of the time.”—Times, April 15, 1873.
[1.]Froude, Short Studies on Great Subjects, Second Series, 1871, p. 480.
[2.]Ibid., p. 483.
[3.]Ibid., pp. 483–4.
[4.]Daily papers, Feb. 7, 1873.
[5.]Times and Post, Feb. 11, 1873.
[6.]Times, Nov. 25, 1872.
[7.]Ibid., Nov. 27, 1872.
[8.]Craik, in Pict. Hist., vol. iv., p. 853.
[9.]Ibid., vol. iv., p. 853.
[10.]When, in dealing with the vitiation of evidence, I before referred to the legislation here named, I commented on the ready acceptance of those one-sided statements made to justify such legislation, in contrast with the contempt for those multitudinous proofs that gross abuses would inevitably result from the arrangements made. Since that passage was written, there has been a startling justification of it. A murder has been committed at Lille by a gang of sham-detectives (one being a government employé); and the trial has brought out the fact that for the last three years the people of Lille have been subject to an organized terrorism which has grown out of the system of prostitute-inspection. Though, during these three years, five hundred women are said by one of these criminals to have fallen into their clutches—though the men have been blackmailed and the women outraged to this immense extent, yet the practice went on for the reason (obvious enough, one would have have thought, to need no proof by illustration) that those aggrieved preferred to submit rather than endanger their characters by complaining; and the practice would doubtless have gone on still but for the murder of one of the victims. To some this case will carry conviction: probably not, however, to those who, in pursuance of what they are pleased to call “practical legislation,” prefer an induction based on a Blue Book to an induction based on Universal History.