Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION III.: CAUSES OF THE PROHIBITORY SYSTEM. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3
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SECTION III.: CAUSES OF THE PROHIBITORY SYSTEM. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 3.
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CAUSES OF THE PROHIBITORY SYSTEM.
The system of injustice and impolicy thus extensively pursued,—to what causes shall its existence and its domination be ascribed? In this case, as in others, the cause will be found in the comparative strength of the producing influence, concurring with the comparative weakness of the opposing and restraining influence.
The efficient causes—the causes of the prohibition—are—
I. Combined public exertions.
II. Secret or corrupt influence.
III. Non-existence of counter-efficient influence.
IV. Legislative blindness.
I. In proportion as an individual, engaged in any one branch of industry, sees or fears to see his performances outdone by any competitor, whether foreign or domestic, he is interested in putting a stop to such rival labour, if possible—or to lessen its produce as far as he is able. The individual feeling is necessarily communicated to any body of individuals in the same situation: their common bond of union against those who are prejudiced by the employment of these productions, is much stronger than the motives to rivalry against one another. Hence, to obtain benefit for themselves and each other, individually and collectively considered, at the expense of all but themselves, is of course at all times the wish, and, as far as any prospect of success presents itself, at all times the endeavour, of all persons so connected and so situated.
By combined public exertion, what is meant to be designated is neither more nor less than the aggregate of the exertions made by all such individuals as deem themselves likely to receive benefit in any shape from the prohibitory measure in question. The following are the principal circumstances on which the success of such exertion will naturally depend:—
1. The apparent, and thence the real number of the persons thus confederating, of whose individual interests the particular interest in question is composed.
2. The aggregate quantity of capital engaged in the particular interest in question.
3. The apparent, and thence the real magnitude of the loss that would be produced to that particular interest, for want of the prohibitory measure in question.
4. The facility which, by local neighbourhood or otherwise, they possess for combining their efforts, and for concerting measures for employing them with the greatest possible effect.
5. The ability with which such representations are framed, as are intended to convey their case to the cognizance of the constituted authorities, or others on whom they depend for the ultimate success of their exertions: ability accompanied by energy and clearness, in so far as correct conception would be favourable to their cause—with obscurity and confusion, in so far as correct conception would be unfavourable to their cause.
6. The useful extent given to the circulation of such their communications; which extent will have for its measure the difference between the whole number of the persons on whose cognizance of the matter the success of their exertions will have to depend, and the number of those by whom, in consequence of their receipt of these communications or otherwise, cognizance of the matter comes to be actually taken.
II. By secret influence, the idea intended to be conveyed is, that influence which on the occasion in question is applied to the one or the few on whose will the success of the exertion depends, by the one or the few who, by habitual intercourse, possess in relation to them more or less facility of access in private.
On the part of the individual in question, be he who he may, the quantity of time it is possible for him to apply to the business in question, be it what it may, is a limited quantity—a quantity which, with reference to that necessary for the reception of the whole body of information, is most commonly and most probably insufficient even when the faculties of the person in question are, in the highest degree possible, well adapted to the prompt and correct reception of it.
If in any instance it happens that a person who, by any consideration, be it what it may, stands engaged to give support to the measure, is in habits of adequate familiarity with those on whom the adoption of it depends, the consequent advantage possessed by the measure is great and manifest. An additional and extra quantity of the arbiter’s time is thus applied to the subject, and applied on that side. The only portion of time habitually applied to the business of the office in question, taken in the aggregate, will be the only portion of time, a part of which can in general be allotted to the particular business in question, in the regular and established way. If, then, so it be, that amongst those who have habitual access to the official person, amongst his ordinary companions and intimates, should happen to be a person thus interested in the measure, a portion of the time allotted even for refreshment will in this particular instance be added to the time allotted to official business; and thus the force of that sympathy which is produced by social enjoyment of this sort is added to whatsoever force the case may afford on that side, in the shape of appropriate and substantial argument.
Thus it is, that whatsoever of just representative fact and argument together is afforded by the measure in question, is capable of receiving, in one way or other, from secret influence, an incalculable degree of force.
The influence, let it be supposed, is in the case in question no other than that which may be deemed legitimate influence—influence of understanding on understanding—influence operating no otherwise than by the direct force of such facts and arguments as the case may furnish.
But by the same private opportunities through which, in conjunction with and addition to those of a public nature, facility is given to the application of this legitimate influence—by these same private opportunities, and by these alone, facility is also given to the application of sinister and corruptive influence: influence of will on will, applied in a pecuniary or other inviting shape to the official person’s private interest.
III. In every such case of prohibition of one branch of industry for the encouragement of another—of prohibition, for example, of foreign produce for the encouragement of domestic analogous produce,—there are, as above, two distinct interests—interests opposed to each other: the interest of producers, the particular interest—the interest of consumers, the universal interest. Of these opposite interests, it is the lesser interest that always operates, as above, with peculiar force—with a force which is peculiar to every particular interest, as contra-distinguished from and opposed to the greater, the universal interest. The individuals who compose the particular interest always are, or at least may be—and have to thank themselves and one another if they are not—a compact harmonizing body—a chain of iron: the individuals making the universal interest are on every such occasion an unorganized, uncombined body—a rope of sand. Of the partakers in the universal interest, the proportion of interest centred in one individual is too small to afford sufficient inducement to apply his exertions to the support of his trifling share in the common interest. Add to which the difficulty, the impossibility, of confederacy to any such extent as should enable the exertions of the confederates fairly to represent the amount of the general interest—that general interest embracing, with few exceptions, the whole mass of society. In a less degree, the same observations apply to the case of the producers of the commodities with which, antecedently to the prohibition, the now prohibited goods were purchased.
Much greater, however, is the advantage which the lesser sinister interest possesses over the greater common interest, as far as secret influence is concerned.
Of the two modes of secret influence, that which is exercised by understanding on understanding, comes in only in aid of the legitimate influence of appropriate facts and arguments: the demand for it is, therefore, not altogether exclusive. But in so far as that influence is exercised only on one side—in so much as that influence is misdirected, by the combined means of persuasion employed by the confederated few who compose the particular interest, against the diffused means of persuasion possessed by the unrepresented or imperfectly represented many, who compose the general interest,—in so far it is clearly pernicious.
But it is the exclusively-possessed attribute of a particular interest, at once to require and to create facilities for the supply of sinister and corruptive influence. The universal interest—the people at large—the subject many—never see, never can see, engaged in support of their interest—of that universal interest—a friend and advocate established in habits of intimacy with the official person, at the table of the official person; an intimate whom, by any favour in their power to bestow, they can induce to engage that same official person to support, by his individual exertions, that general interest against which the particular interest is waging war. For any purpose of corrupt influence, the official person himself and his table-companion are equally inaccessible to the general interest: the particular interest can come at both.
The consequence is, that whenever the general interest is sacrificed to the particular interest, a probability has place that the sacrifice has been obtained, not from the sincerity of honest delusion, but from the perversity of corrupt intention. This probability will be more or less, according to the more or less obvious impolicy of the measure, and to the facilities afforded, under the circumstances of the case, for the introduction of corruptive influence among those who occupy the high places of authority.
These causes, in fact, apply to the whole field of government; they account for the universal domination of the interests of the few over the interests of the many; they account for the largest portion of the aggregate mass of misrule.
But it may be retorted, this prevalence of particular over universal interest being, according to yourself, so general, the necessary consequence is, that no ultimate mischief ensues—everything is as it should be; for what is the universal interest but the aggregate of all particular interests?
This is evading, not meeting the argument. The desire indeed exists universally to give prevalence each man to his own particular interest; but not the faculty. The wish is everywhere—the power not so.
Even of the manufacturing interests, it is not every class that has the power to associate and combine in support of the common interest of the class: that power only exists where similar manufactures are concentrated in small districts—where means of intercourse are frequent and easy—or where large numbers are employed by large capital lodged in the hand of a single individual, or of a single partnership. What facilities of general association or combination are possessed by individuals employed as general shopkeepers, bakers, butchers, tailors, shoemakers, farmers, carpenters, bricklayers, masons, &c.? None whatsoever.
Had every one individual in every one of these classes his vote in the business, all would indeed be as it should be: the sum of all the several distinguishable interests being thus framed and ascertained, would constitute the universal interest; in a word, the principle of universal suffrage would be applied.
Very different, however, is the state of things. Separate and particular interests start up, solicit and obtain protection, by the exercise of the influence referred to, to the danger and the detriment of the common prosperity. Of these the aggregate body of the influential interest is mainly composed. The concentration of immense capital in single hands, great facilities for combination, and sometimes an union of both, furnish a power of evil which is but too commonly allowed to immolate the general good. Against its gigantic influence, appeal would seem in vain. A number of small fraternities exist, who, if they were able to unite, might maintain themselves against one large one equal to them all; but as it is, standing up separately, separately they are opposed and crushed by the overwhelming influence, one by one.
Of the baneful effects produced by the concentrated efforts of a coalition of those individual interests which form the particular interest, as opposed to the general national interest, the Spanish prohibitory decree is a remarkable illustration. In this case, a few clamorous manufacturers and a few short-sighted self-named patriots united their forces, and besieged the Cortes with their representations. Compared to the amount of counter-interest, they were, as we have shown, as one to a hundred; but their forces were organized—their strength was consolidated. Where, then, were the representatives of the thousand, when the representatives of the ten were drawn out in battle array? Nowhere! So the law was passed: it was declared to be eminently popular; for the people who had petitioned, had petitioned in its favour: the truth being that the people, the immense majority of the people, had not petitioned at all; nobody was sufficiently interested. The law was passed; and now it is that the public injury begins to be felt, and now it is that the public voice begins to be heard. Spain has had but too long and too calamitous an experience of the injury done by that ever-busy meddling with the freedom of commerce which has for ages distinguished her short-sighted legislators, and which, in spite of natural advantages almost peculiar to herself, has eternally involved her in financial difficulties, distress, and poverty.
In England, all other particular interests are overborne and crushed by one great particular interest, named in the aggregate the agricultural interest. By a system of prohibition, foreign grain is excluded, with the avowed intent of making home-produced grain dearer than it would be otherwise—dearer to the whole population in the character of consumers and customers; and for the avowed purpose of securing to a particular class of persons a pecuniary advantage, at the expense of the whole population of the country.*
But the class of persons meant to be favoured, and actually favoured, by this undue advantage, are not any class of persons employed in any beneficial operation; but a class of persons who, without any labour of their own, derive from the labours of others a share of the means of enjoyment much greater than is possessed by any who employ their labour in the purchase of it. They are land proprietors, deriving their means of enjoyment or of luxury from the rent of land cultivated by the industrious: they are, in a word, not labourers, but idlers—not the many, but the few. While, for the support of war, paper-money was issued in excess, they let their lands at rates which, if neither too high nor too low at that time, taking into account the then value of money, would necessarily be too high when, by the diminution of the issue of that money, the difficulty of obtaining it was increased, and its value increased from the same cause: and this evil is accumulating, if the amount of taxes paid by the occupier of the land, on account of the land, or on any other account, increases also.
In this case—the case as it now exists—the difficulty of coming to a right judgment, of feeling that we have come to a right judgment, is great indeed; so great, that in the determination of many an individual, in whose breast particular interest is in operation, regard for the universal interest might and would have been productive of the very line of conduct which has been determined by the more potent force of individual interest.
But of this difficulty, wherever it exists, what should be the consequence? Not that prohibition should be resorted to, but that it should be abstained from. So long as nothing is done in relation to the object by government, whatever happens amiss is the result of the nation’s will, and government is not chargeable with it. But when, and if, and where, government takes upon itself to interfere and apply to the subject its coercive power, whatever mischief results from the exercise of that coercive power, is the result of the agency of government, and the rulers stand chargeable with it.
Whichever course is taken,—action or inaction—interference or non-interference—liberty, or coercion in the shape of prohibition,—distress to a vast extent—distress verging on ruin—distress on one side or the other—must be the inevitable consequence. If the importation of foreign grain be left free, ruin is entailed on the farmer, distress on the landlords: prohibit foreign grain, and ruin falls not only upon the manufacturer, but upon the labouring class; that is, the great majority even of agriculturists. Such is our miserable situation. Its cause is excessive taxation—excessive taxation, the consequence of unjust war;—unjust war, the fruits of the determination formed by the ruling few to keep the subject many in a state of ignorance and error—in a state of dependence something beneath the maximum of degradation and oppression. In England, the primal and all-sufficient cause of misgovernment, and consequent misery, the corruption of the system of national representation; in every other country, the want of a system of adequate national representation, or rather the want of a representative democracy, in place of a more or less mitigated despotism: the want of the only form of government in which the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the end in view.
The mischiefs, then, of this system of partial encouragement being in all its shapes so vast, so incalculable, and their sum so plainly predominant over the sum of good, to whom or to what shall we attribute the existence, the prevalence of such a system?
To the general causes of misrule—to the want of the necessary elements of good government—to a deficiency of appropriate probity, or intellectual aptitude, or active talent: in other words, to a want of honesty, or ability, or industry.
One cause bearing upon the question of appropriate intellectual aptitude or ability, and likely to mislead it, is this:—The good which constitutes the ground of the prohibitory measure, the reason that operates in favour of it, is comparatively prominent—the evil not equally so; its place is comparatively in the back ground. Hence it is, as in too many other instances,—a good, however small, is by its vicinity to the eye enabled to eclipse and conceal the evil, however large.
When, reckoning from the day on which a measure has received the force of law, a certain period of time has elapsed, custom covers it with its mantle; and, regarding it as an unauthorized act of daring to look into the nature of the measure, men inquire no further than into the existence of the law; habit gives it a fixed authority: and thus it is that, in every country, worship is bestowed on laws and institutions vying in absurdity with any scheme of extravagance which the imagination of man could produce.
Thus things go on—evil is piled upon evil—till at length the burthen of evil is absolutely intolerable. Then it is that men’s eyes are opened, and a desire to retrace their erroneous steps is conceived. But no sooner has the legislator turned round, than he finds the way barred against him by a host of difficulties. And thus, when nothing would have been easier at first than to prevent the disease—that is, to forbear creating it—the cure becomes ineligible, insufferable, not to say impossible; and error and folly become immoveable and immortal.
A PLAN FOR SAVING ALL TROUBLE AND EXPENSE IN THE TRANSFER OF STOCK,
CIRCULATING ANNUITIES, &c.*
[* ]As a guide to estimate the consumption of foreign corn in Great Britain, the imports and exports for 21 successive years will be found in Tables D and E. They were published in 1813 by order of the House of Commons. By these it would appear that the pro-rata annual importation of wheat, taking this period into account, was about 450,000 quarters; and of flour, 200,000 cwts.; which, taken in round numbers at 50,000 quarters, makes 500,000 quarters in all. The pro-rata exports of the same period were about 43,000 quarters of wheat, and 100,000 cwts. of flour; say in all, 68,000 quarters of wheat; so that the net amount of foreign grain consumed in Great Britain will have been about 430,000 quarters yearly. Calculating the annual consumption of the country at 11 millions of quarters, the proportion employed of foreign to home-produced wheat will be about a twenty-sixth part. Dr. Adam Smith gives no data, but assumes the proportion in his time to have been as 1 to 570. Can such a change have really taken place?
[* ]When the pen was first set to work upon these pages, there was generally understood to be a deficiency of paper money. At present, there is at least no such deficiency:—a superabundance seems much more probable. At the time of the want, the proposed paper presented itself as a remedy against the want: now, at the time of the superabundance, it presents itself as a safeguard against the sort of mischief—past, present, and impending—which may be traced to the superabundance.