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CHAPTER XXII.: the limit of state-duty. - Herbert Spencer, Social Statics 
Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, (London: John Chapman, 1851).
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the limit of state-duty.
A function to each organ, and each organ to its own function, is the law of all organization. To do its work well, an apparatus must possess special fitness for that work; and this will amount to unfitness for any other work. The lungs cannot digest, the heart cannot respire, the stomach cannot propel blood. Each muscle and each gland must have its own particular nerve. There is not a fibre in the body but what has a channel to bring it food, a channel to take its food away, an agency for causing it to assimilate nutriment, an agency for stimulating it to perform its peculiar duty, and a mechanism to take away effete matter; not one of which can be dispensed with. Between creatures of the lowest type, and creatures of the highest, we similarly find the essential difference to be, that in the one the vital actions are carried on by a few simple agents, whilst in the other the vital actions are severally decomposed into their component parts, and each of these parts has an agent to itself. In organizations of another order the same principle is apparent. When the manufacturer discovered that by confining each of his employés wholly to one process, he could immensely increase the productive powers of his establishment, he did but act upon this same rule, of one function to one organ. If we compare the mercantile arrangements of a village with those of a city, we shall find that the huxters of the one carry on many trades each, whilst every shopkeeper of the other confines himself to a single trade; showing us how a highly-developed apparatus for the distribution of commodities is similarly distinguished by subdivision of duties. Language, too, exemplifies the same truth. Between its primitive state, in which it consisted of nothing but nouns, used vaguely to indicate all ideas indiscriminately, and its present state, in which it consists of numerous “parts of speech,” the process of growth has been that of gradually separating words into classes serving different purposes; and just as fast as this process has advanced, has language become capable of completely fulfilling its end.
May we not, then, suspect that the assigning of one function to one organ, is the condition of efficiency in all instrumentalities? If, as far as we can see, such is the law not only of natural organizations, but of what, in a superficial sense, we call artificial ones, does it not seem probable that it is the universal law? Will it not be the law of institutions? Will it not be the law of the state? Must we not expect that with a government also, special adaptation to one end implies non-adaptation to other ends? And is it not likely that by devolving on a government additional functions, the due discharge of its peculiar function will be sacrificed? And would not this imply that a government ought not to undertake such additional functions?
But laying aside analogy, let us inquire whether it is not the fact, that in assuming any office besides its original one, the state begins to lose the power of fulfilling that original one. What is it that we call the state? Men politically associated. How associated? Voluntarily. For what purpose? For mutual protection. Men voluntarily associated for mutual protection: this then is our definition. Now, when rightly ordered, the conditions on which this voluntary association offers its services, must be such as enable it to afford the greatest amount of protection possible. If otherwise—if it insists on non-essential conditions which prevent some men from accepting its services, or on conditions which unnecessarily compromise the liberty of those men who do accept its services, it manifestly fails to that extent in performing its function. Now the moment the state undertakes a second office it does all this. Men leagued together for a special object will never unanimously agree in the pursuit of any other object. So long as our joint-stock protection-society confines itself to guaranteeing the rights of its members, it is pretty certain to be co-extensive with the nation; for whilst such an organization is needed at all, most men will sacrifice something to secure its guardianship. But let an additional duty be assigned to it, and there will immediately arise more or less schism. The dissenting minority may in such case consist of two parties; the one comprising those who have so great a repugnance to the contemplated arrangement, as to resolve upon seceding rather than consent to it; and a larger party consisting of those who grumble at the imposition of additional charges for the doing what they do not wish to be done, but who think well to submit rather than give up the benefits of protection. Towards both these parties the state fails in its duty. The one it drives away by disadvantageous terms; and from the other it exacts sacrifices beyond what are needful for the performance of its original function; and by so doing becomes an aggressor instead of a protector. Observe how the case stands when put personally.
“Your taxes are heavier this year than last,” complains a citizen to the government; “how is it?”
“The sums voted for these new school-houses, and for the salaries of the masters and mistresses, have increased the draught upon our exchequer,” replies the government.
“School-houses, masters and mistresses—what have I to do with these? you are not charging me with the cost of them, are you?”
“Why, I never authorized you to do so.”
“True; but parliament, or, in other words, the majority of the nation, has decided that the education of the young shall be entrusted to us, and has authorized us to raise such funds as may be necessary for fulfilling this trust.”
“But suppose I wish to superintend the education of my children myself?”
“You may do as you please; but you must pay for the privilege we offer, whether you avail yourself of it or not. Even if you have no children you must still pay.”
“And what if I refuse?”
“Why, were we to act up to old precedents, we should punish you; but as things now stand we shall content ourselves with giving notice that you have outlawed yourself.”
“Nay, I have no wish to do that; I cannot at present dispense with your protection.”
“Very well, then you must agree to our terms, and pay your share of the new tax.”
“See, now, what a dilemma you place me in. As I dare not relinquish the protection I entered into political combination to obtain, I must either give you a part of my property for nothing; or, should I make a point of having some equivalent, I must cease to do that which my natural affections prompt. Will you answer me a few questions?”
“What is it that you, as a national executive, have been appointed for? Is it not to maintain the rights of those who employ you; or, in other words, to guarantee to each the fullest freedom for the exercise of his faculties compatible with the equal freedom of all others?”
“It has been so decided.”
“And it has been also decided that you are justified in diminishing this freedom only to such extent as may be needful for preserving the remainder, has it not?”
“That is evidently a corollary.”
“Exactly. And now let me ask what is this property, this money, of which in the shape of taxes you are demanding from me an additional amount? Is it not that which enables me to get food, clothing, shelter, recreation, or, to repeat the original expression—that on which I depend for the exercise of most of my faculties?”
“Therefore to decrease my property is to decrease my freedom to exercise my faculties, is it not?”
“Then this new impost of yours will practically decrease my freedom to exercise my faculties?”
“Well, do you not now perceive the contradiction? Instead of acting the part of a protector you are acting the part of an aggressor. What you were appointed to guarantee me and others, you are now taking away. To see that the liberty of each man to pursue the objects of his desires is unrestricted, save by the like liberty of all, is your special function. To diminish this liberty by means of taxes, or civil restraints more than is absolutely needful for performing such function, is wrong, because adverse to the function itself. Now your new impost does so diminish this liberty more than is absolutely needful, and it is consequently unjustifiable.”
Thus we find, as was foretold, that whenever the state begins to exceed its office of protector, it begins to lose protective power. Not a single supplementary service can it attempt without producing dissent; and in proportion to the amount of dissent so produced by it, the state defeats the end for which it was established. Let it undertake many additional duties, and there will be scarcely a man who does not object to being taxed on account of one or more of them—scarcely a man, therefore, to whom the state does not in some degree do the very opposite of what it is appointed to do. Now this thing which the state is appointed to do is the essential thing—the thing by which society is made possible; and these other things proposed to be done are non-essential, for society is possible without them. And as the essential ought not to be sacrificed to the non-essential, the state ought not to do anything but protect.
It will perhaps be urged, however, that the evil done by a government, when it thus oversteps its original duty, is only an apparent one; seeing that though it diminishes men’s spheres of action in one direction, it adds to them in another. All such supplementary functions, an objector may say, subserve in some way or other the wants of society; that is, they facilitate the satisfaction of men’s desires; that is, they afford to men greater freedom for the exercise of their faculties. For if you argue that taking away a man’s property diminishes his freedom to exercise his faculties, because it diminishes his means of exercising them, then you must in fairness admit, that by procuring for him certain of the objects he desires, or by taking away the obstacles that lie between him and those objects, or by otherwise helping him to his ends, the state is increasing his power to exercise his faculties, and hence is practically increasing his freedom.
To all which the answer is, that cutting away men’s opportunities on one side, to add to them on another, is at best accompanied by a loss. Let us remember that the force by which a society, through its government, works out certain results, is never increased by administrative mechanisms, but that part of it escapes in friction. Government evidently cannot create any facilities for the exercise of faculties; all it can do is to redistribute them. It is easy to calculate what one of these artificial arrangements can effect. Set down the amount of power to satisfy his wants, which it takes from a citizen in extra taxes; deduct the serious waste occurring under official manipulations; and the remainder, transformed into some new shape, is all that can be returned to him. The transaction is consequently a losing one. So that, whilst in attempting to serve the public by undertaking supplementary functions, a government fails in its duty towards all who dissent; it does not really compensate for this by additional advantages afforded to the rest; to whom it merely gives, with one hand, less than it takes away with the other.
But in truth the transaction is a yet more detrimental one than it thus appears, for even the gift is a delusion—has a minus sign before it, unobserved, perhaps, by the many, but sufficiently visible to the analyst. The expediency philosophy of which this general state-superintendence is a practical expression, embodies the belief that government ought not only to guarantee men in the unmolested pursuit of happiness, but should provide the happiness for them and deliver it at their doors. Now no scheme could be more self-defeating, for no scheme could be more completely at variance with the constitution of things. Man, as briefly delineated at the outset, (p. 19) consists of a congeries of faculties, qualifying him for surrounding conditions. Each of these faculties, if normally developed, yields to him, when exercised, a gratification constituting part of his happiness; whilst, in the act of exercising it, some deed is done subserving the wants of the man as a whole, and affording to the other faculties the opportunity of performing in turn their respective functions, and of producing every one its peculiar pleasure: so that, when healthily balanced, each subserves all, and all subserve each. We cannot live at all unless this mechanism works with tolerable efficiency; and we can live entirely—that is can have entire happiness—only when the reciprocity between capacities and requirements is perfect. As before said, the complete man is the self-sufficing man—the man who is in every point fitted to his circumstances—the man in whom there are desires corresponding not only to all the acts which are immediately advantageous, but to those which are remotely so. Evidently, one who is thus rightly constituted cannot be helped. To do anything for him by some artificial agency, is to supersede certain of his powers—is to leave them unexercised, and therefore to diminish his happiness. To healthily-developed citizens, therefore, state aid is doubly detrimental. It injures them both by what it takes and by what it does. By the revenues required to support its agencies it absorbs the means on which certain of the faculties depend for their exercise; and by the agencies themselves it shuts out other faculties from their spheres of action.
“But men are not complete; they are not healthily developed; they have not capacities in harmony with their wants; and therefore, as matters stand, a government does not by its interpositions preoccupy offices which there are faculties to fill.” Very true; but next to being what we ought to be, the most desirable thing is that we should become what we ought to be as fast as possible. We are undergoing the process of adaptation. We have to lose the characteristics which fitted us for our original state, and to gain those which will fit us for our present state; and the question to be asked, respecting these mechanical remedies for our deficiencies, is—do they facilitate the change? Certainly not. A moment’s thought will convince us that they retard it. No one can need reminding that demand and supply is the law of life as well as the law of trade—that strength will show itself only where strength is called for—that an undeveloped capability can be developed only under the stern discipline of necessity. Would you draw out and increase some too feeble sentiment? Then you must set it to do, as well as it can, the work required of it. It must be kept ever active, ever strained, ever inconvenienced by its incompetency. Under this treatment it will, in the slow lapse of generations, attain to efficiency; and what was once its impossible task will become the source of a healthy, pleasurable, and desired excitement. But let a state-instrumentality be thrust between such faculty and its work, and the process of adaptation is at once suspended. Growth ceases; and in its place commences retrogression. The embryo agency now superseded by some commission—some board and staff of officers, straightway dwindles; for power is as inevitably lost by inactivity as it is gained by activity. Hence, humanity no longer goes on moulding itself into harmony with the natural requirements of the social state; but begins, instead, to assume a form fitting these artificial requirements. It is consequently stopped in its progress towards that self-sufficingness characteristic of the complete man; or, in other words, is prevented from fulfilling the conditions essential to complete happiness. And thus, as before said, not only does a government reverse its function by taking away more property than is needful for protective purposes, but even what it gives, in return for the excess so taken, is in essence a loss.
There is indeed one faculty, or rather combination of faculties, for whose shortcomings the state, as far as in it lies, may advantageously compensate—that, namely, by which society is made possible. It is clear that any being whose constitution is to be moulded into fitness for new conditions of existence must be placed under those conditions. Or, putting the proposition specifically—it is clear that man can become adapted to the social state, only by being retained in the social state. This granted, it follows that as man has been, and is still, deficient in those feelings which, by dictating just conduct, prevent the perpetual antagonism of individuals and their consequent disunion, some artificial agency is required by which their union may be maintained. Only by the process of adaptation itself can be produced that character which makes social equilibrium spontaneous. And hence, whilst this process is going on, an instrumentality must be employed, firstly to bind men into an associated state, and secondly to check all conduct endangering the existence of that state. Such an instrumentality we have in a government.
And now mark that whether we consider government from this point of view, or from that previously occupied, our conclusions respecting it are in essence identical. For when government fulfils the function here assigned it, of retaining men in the circumstances to which they are to be adapted, it fulfils the function which we on other grounds assigned it—that of protector. To administer justice,—to mount guard over men’s rights,—to prevent aggression,—is simply to render society possible, to enable men to live together—to keep them in contact with their new conditions. And seeing that the two definitions are thus at root the same, we shall be prepared for the fact that, in whichever way we specify its duty, the state cannot exceed that duty without defeating itself. For, if regarded as a protector, we find that the moment it does anything more than protect, it becomes an aggressor instead of a protector; and, if regarded as a help to adaptation, we find that when it does anything more than sustain the social state, it retards adaptation instead of hastening it.
Thus much for the positive evidence: let us now enter upon the negative. The expediency-philosophers say that government has other functions to fulfil besides that of upholding men’s rights. If so, what are they? To the assertion that the boundary line of state-duty as above drawn is at the wrong place, the obvious rejoinder is—show us where it should be drawn. This appeal the expediency-philosophers have never yet been able to answer. Their alleged definitions are no definitions at all. As was proved at the outset (p. 3), to say that government ought to do that which is “expedient,” or to do that which will tend to produce the “greatest happiness,” or to do that which will subserve the “general good,” is to say just nothing; for there is infinite disagreement respecting the natures of these desiderata. A definition of which the terms are indefinite is an absurdity. Whilst the practical interpretation of “expediency” remains a matter of opinion, to say that a government should do that which is “expedient,” is to say that it should do, what we think it should do!
Still then our demand is—a definition. Between the two extremes of its possible power—the everything and the nothing with which a government may be entrusted, where is the proper limitation? Of the innumerable fields of action lying open to an uncontrolled legislature, which shall it occupy? Shall it extend its interference to the fixing of creeds, as in the old times; or to overlooking modes of manufacture, farming operations, and domestic affairs, as it once did; or to commerce, as of late—to education, as now—to public health, as some wish—to dress, as in China—to literature, as in Austria—to charity, to manners, to amusements? If not to all of them, to which of them? Should the perplexed inquirer seek refuge in authority, he will find precedents not only for these but for many more such interferences. If, like those who disapprove of master tailors having their work done off the premises, or like those who want to prevent the produce of industrial prisons displacing that of free artizans, or like those who would restrain charity-school children from competing with seamstresses, he thinks it desirable to meddle with trade arrangements, there are plenty of exemplars for him. There is the law of Henry VII., which directed people at what fairs they should sell their goods; and that of Edward VI., which enacted a fine of £100 for a usurious bargain; and that of James I., which prescribed the quantity of ale to be sold for a penny; and that of Henry VIII., which made it penal to sell any pins but such as are “double headed, and have their head soldered fast to the shank, and well smoothed; the shank well shaven; the point well and round-filed and sharpened.” He has the countenance, too, of those enactments which fixed the wages of labour; and of those which dictated to farmers, as in 1533, when the sowing of hemp and flax was made compulsory; and of those which forbad the use of certain materials, as that now largely-consumed article, logwood, was forbidden in 1597. If he approves of so extended a superintendence, perhaps he would adopt M. Louis Blanc’s idea that “government should be considered as the supreme regulator of production,” and having so adopted it, push state control as far as it was once carried in France, when manufacturers were pilloried for defects in the materials they employed, and in the texture of their fabrics; when some were fined for weaving of worsted a kind of cloth which the law said should be made of mohair, and others because their camlets were not of the specified width; and when a man was not at liberty to choose the place for his establishment, nor to work at all seasons, nor to work for everybody. Is this considered too detailed an interference? Then, perhaps, greater favour will be shown to those German regulations by which a shoemaker is prevented from following his craft until an inspecting jury has certified to his competence; which disable a man who has chosen one calling from ever adopting another; and which forbid any foreign tradesman from settling in a German town without a licence. And if work is to be regulated, is it not proper that work should be provided, and the idle compelled to perform a due amount of it? In which case how shall we deal with our vagrant population? Shall we take a hint from Fletcher of Saltoun, who warmly advocated the establishment of slavery in Scotland as a boon to “so many thousands of our people who are at this day dying for want of bread”? or shall we adopt the analagous suggestion of Mr. Carlyle, who would remedy the distresses of Ireland by organizing its people into drilled regiments of diggers? The hours of labour too—what must be done about these? Having acceded to the petition of the factory workers, ought we not to entertain that of the journeymen bakers? and if that of the journeymen bakers, why not, as Mr. Cobden asks, consider the cases of the glass-blowers, the nightmen, the iron-founders, the Sheffield knife-grinders, and indeed all other classes, including the hardworked M.P.s themselves? And when employment has been provided, and the hours of labour fixed, and trade regulations settled, we must decide how far the state ought to look after peoples’ minds, and morals, and health. There is this education question: having satisfied the prevalent wish for government schools with tax-paid teachers, and adopted Mr. Ewart’s plan for town-libraries and museums, should we not canvass the supplementary proposal to have national lecturers? and if this proposal is assented to, would it not be well to carry out the scheme of Sir David Brewster, who desires to have “men ordained by the State to the undivided functions of science”—“an intellectual priesthood,” “to develop the glorious truths which time and space embosom”?a Then having established “an intellectual priesthood” to keep company with our religious one, a priesthood of physic such as is advocated by certain feeless medical men, and of which we have already the germ in our union doctors, would nicely complete the trio. And when it had been agreed to put the sick under the care of public officials, consistency would of course demand the adoption of Mr. G. A. Walker’s system of government funerals, under which “those in authority” are “to take especial care” that “the poorest of our brethren” shall have “an appropriate and solemn transmission” to the grave, and are to grant in certain cases “gratuitous means of interment.” Having carried out thus far the communist plan of doing everything for everybody, should we not consider the peoples’ amusements, and, taking example from the opera-subsidy in France, establish public ball-rooms, and gratis concerts, and cheap theatres, with state-paid actors, musicians and masters of the ceremonies; using care at the same time duly to regulate the popular taste, as indeed in the case of the Art-Union subscribers our present Government proposed to do? Speaking of taste naturally reminds us of dress, in which sundry improvements might be enforced; for instance—the abolition of hats: we should have good precedent either in Edward IV., who fined those wearing “any gown or mantell” not according to specification, and who limited the superfluity of peoples’ boot toes, or in Charles II., who prescribed the material for his subjects’ grave-clothes. The matter of health, too, would need attending to; and, in dealing with this, might we not profitably reconsider those ancient statutes which protected peoples’ stomachs by restricting the expenses of their tables: or, remembering how injurious are our fashionable late hours, might we not advantageously take a hint from the old Norman practice, and fix the time at which people should put out their fires and go to bed: or might we not with benefit act upon the opinion of M. Beausobre, a statesman, who said it was “proper to watch during the fruit season, lest the people eat that which is not ripe”? And, then, by way of making the superintendence quite complete, would it not be well to follow the example of that Danish king who gave directions to his subjects how they should scour their floors, and polish their furniture?
Multiply these questions into a volume full; add to them the endless subordinate ones to which in practice they must give rise; and some idea may be formed of the maze through which the expediency-philosopher has to find his way. Where now is his clue? Again comes the inquiry—how does he propose to determine between what should be attempted and what should not? which is his definition? If he would escape the charge of political empiricism, he must show us some scientific test by which he can in each case determine whether or not state-superintendence is desirable. Between the one extreme of entire non-interference, and the other extreme in which every citizen is to be transformed into a grown-up baby, “with bib and pap-spoon,” there lie innumerable stopping places; and he who would have the state do more than protect is required to say where he means to draw the line, and to give us substantial reasons why it must be just there and nowhere else.
After the difficulty of finding out the thing to be done, there comes the other difficulty of finding out the way to do it. Let us excuse the expediency-philosopher one half of his task—let us for the occasion assume something to be unanimously agreed to as a proper undertaking; and now suppose we enquire of him—How about your means of accomplishing it? Are you quite sure they will answer? Are you quite sure that your apparatus will not break down under its work? quite sure that it will produce the result you wish? quite sure that it will not produce some very different result? quite sure that you will not get into one of those imbroglios that so many have lost themselves in? There is no lack of warnings. “Let us put down usury,” said to themselves the rulers of the middle ages: they tried; and did just the reverse of what they intended; for it has turned out, that “all regulations interfering with the interest of money render its terms more rigorous and burdensome.” “We will exterminate Protestantism,” whispered the continental Catholics to each other: they tried; and instead of doing this they planted in England the germs of a manufacturing organization which has to a great extent superseded their own. “It will be well to give the labouring classes fixed settlements” thought the Poor Law legislators; and having acted out this thought there eventually grew up the clearance system, with its overcrowded cottages, and non-resident labour-gangs. “We must suppress these brothels,” decided the authorities of Berlin in 1845: they did suppress them; and in 1848, the registrar’s books and the hospital returns proved matters to be considerably worse than beforea . “Suppose we compel the London parishes to maintain and educate their pauper children in the country,” said statesmen in the time of George III; “’it would greatly tend to the preservation of the lives of the infant parish poor:’” so they passed the 7 Geo. III., c. 39; and by-and-by there began the business of child-farming, ending in the Tooting tragedy. Are not such warnings worthy of attention? Or does the expediency-philosopher value those facts only which are embodied in Blue-books and Board of Trade tables?
Then as to his administrative mechanisms—can be answer for the satisfactory working of them? The common remark that public business is worse managed than all other business, is not altogether unfounded. To-day he will find it illustrated in the doings of a department which makes a valuable estate like the New Forest, a loss to the country of £3000 a year; which allowed Salcey Forest to be wholly cut down and made away with by a dishonest agent; and which, in 1848, had its accounts made up to March, 1839, only. To-morrow he may read of Admiralty bunglings—of ships badly built, pulled to pieces, re-built and patched—of nearly a million spent on iron war-steamers which are now found not to stand cannon shot—and of a sluggishness which puts the national dockyards “about seven years” behind all others. Now the exposure is of an extravagance which builds gaols at a cost of £1200 per prisoner; and now of a carelessness which permits important legal records to rot amongst rubbish. Here is a sailor of whom the State demanded sixpence a month towards a hospital which was never provided, and whose pension from the Merchant-Seamen’s Fund is nothing like what it would have been from an ordinary assurance society; and there, on the other hand, is a Mint moneyer who gets more than £4000 a year for doing what a tithe of the amount would amply pay for. Official delay is seen in the snail-paced progress of the Museum Catalogue; official mismanagement in the building of Houses of Parliament not fit for speaking in; and official perversity in the opposition uniformly made to improvement by the Excise, the Customs, and the Post Office authorities. Does the expediency-philosopher feel no apprehensions on contemplating such evidence? Or, as one specially professing to be guided by experience, does he think that on the whole experience is in his favour?
Perhaps he has not heard that of ten mechanical inventions, usually some nine fail; and that, before the tenth can be made to answer, endless obstacles that had never been dreamed of have to be surmounted. Or, if he has heard this, does he think that the properties of humanity being so much easier to understand than those of iron and brass, and an institution constructed of living men being a simple thing as compared with an inanimate mechanism, legislative schemes are not likely thus to miscarry?
“It is a gross delusion to believe in the sovereign power of political machinery,” says M. Guizot. True: and it is not only a gross delusion, but a very dangerous one. Give a child exaggerated notions of its parent’s power, and it will by-and-by cry for the moon. Let a people believe in government-omni-potence, and they will be pretty certain to get up revolutions to achieve impossibilities. Between their exorbitant ideas of what the state ought to do for them on the one side, and its miserable performances on the other, there will surely be generated feelings extremely inimical to social order—feelings which, by adding to the dissatisfaction otherwise produced, may occasion outbreaks that would not else have occurred.
But this belief in “the sovereign power of political machinery” is not born with men; they are taught it. And how are they taught it? Evidently by these preachers of universal legislative superintendence—by the pretensions of statesmen themselves—and by having seen, from their childhood, all kinds of functions undertaken by government officials. The idea which, in his critique upon the late events in France, M. Guizot calls a “gross delusion,” is an idea which he, in common with others, has been practically inculcating. Following in the steps of his predecessors, he has kept in action, and in some cases even extended, that system of official supervision to which this idea owes its birth. Was it not natural that men, living under the regulation of legions of prefects, sub-prefects, inspectors, controllers, intendants, commissaries, and other civil employés to the number of 535,000—men who were educated by the government, and taught religion by it—who had to ask its consent before they could stir from home—who could not publish a handbill without a permit from the authorities, nor circulate a newspaper after the censor’s veto—who daily saw it dictating regulations for railways, inspecting and managing mines, building bridges, making roads, and erecting monuments—who were led to regard it as the patron of science, literature, and the fine arts, and as the dispenser of honours and rewards—who found it undertaking the manufacture of gunpowder, superintending the breeding of horses and sheep, playing the part of public pawnbroker, and monopolizing the sale of tobacco and snuff—who saw it attending to everything, from the execution of public works down to the sanitary inspection of prostitutes—was it not natural that men so circumstanced should acquire exalted ideas of state power? And, having acquired such ideas, were they not likely to desire the state to compass for them unattainable benefits; to get angry because it did not do this; and to attempt by violent means the enforcement of their wishes? Evidently the reply must be affirmative. And if so, it is not too much to say that this overstepping of the proper sphere of government, leading as it does to that “gross delusion,” a belief in “the sovereign power of political machinery,” is the natural forerunner of such schemes as those of Blanc and Cabet, and of that confusion which the attempt to realize them by state-agency must produce.
There are other modes, too, in which social stability is endangered by this interference system. It is a very expensive system: the further it is carried, the larger become the revenues required: and we all know that beavy taxation is inseparable from discontent. Moreover it is in its nature essentially despotic. In governing everything it unavoidably cramps men; and, by diminishing their liberty of action, angers them. It galls by its infinity of ordinances and restrictions; it offends by professing to help those whom it will not allow to help themselves; and it vexes by its swarms of dictatorial officials, who are for ever stepping in between men and their pursuits. Those regulations by which the French manufacturers were hampered during the last century, when the state decided on the persons to be employed, the articles to be made, the materials to be used, and the qualities of the products—when inspectors broke the looms and burnt the goods that were not made according to law—and when improvements were illegal and inventors were fined—had no small share in producing the great revolution. Nor, amongst the causes which conspired to overthrow the government of Louis Philippe, must we forget the irritation generated by an analogous supervision, under which a mine cannot be opened without the permission of the authorities; under which a bookseller or printer may have his business suspended by the withdrawal of his licence; and under which it is penal to take a bucket of water out of the sea.
Thus, if we regard government as a means of upholding the social state, we find that, besides suffering a direct loss of power to perform its duty on attempting anything else, there are several subsidiary ways in which the assumption of additional functions endangers the fulfilment of its original function.
But we have not sufficiently considered the infinite presumption discernible in this attempt at regulating all the doings of men by law. To make up for defects in the original constitution of things—this is the meaning of the scheme, nakedly stated. It is said of a certain personage, that he wished he had been consulted when the world was being made, for that he could have given good advice; and not a little historical celebrity has attached to this personage, in virtue of his so-thought unparalleled arrogance. Shallow, shallow! Why, the great majority of our statesmen and politicians do as much every day. Advice, indeed! they do not stop at advice. They actively interpose, take into their own hands matters that God seems to be mismanaging, and undertake to set them right! It is clear to them that social wants and relationships have been so carelessly provided for, that without their vigilant management all will go wrong. As for any silent influences by which imperfections are in process of being removed, they do not believe in them. But by a commission, a staff of officers, and a parliamentary grant, every deficiency shall be made good, and the errors of Omniscience be rectified!
In truth it is a sad sight for any one who has been, what Bacon recommends—“a servant and interpreter of nature,” to see these political schemers, with their clumsy mechanisms, trying to supersede the great laws of existence. Such an one, no longer regarding the mere outsides of things, has learned to look for the secret forces by which they are upheld. After patient study, this chaos of phenomena into the midst of which he was born has begun to generalize itself to him; and where there seemed nothing but confusion, he can now discern the dim outlines of a gigantic plan. No accidents, no chance; but everywhere order and completeness. One by one exceptions vanish, and all becomes systematic. Suddenly what had appeared an anomaly answers to some intenser thought, exhibits polarity, and ranges itself along with kindred facts. Throughout he finds the same vital principles, ever in action, ever successful, and embracing the minutest details. Growth is unceasing; and though slow, all powerful: showing itself here in some rapidly-developing outline; and there, where the necessity is less, exhibiting only the fibrils of incipient organization. Irresistible as it is subtle, he sees in the worker of these changes, a power that bears onwards peoples and governments regardless of their theories, and schemes, and prejudices—a power which sucks the life out of their lauded institutions, shrivels up their state-parchments with a breath, paralyzes long-venerated authorities, obliterates the most deeply-graven laws, makes statesmen recant and puts prophets to the blush, buries cherished customs, shelves precedents, and which, before men are yet conscious of the fact, has wrought a revolution in all things, and filled the world with a higher life. Always towards perfection is the mighty movement—towards a complete development and a more unmixed good; subordinating in its universality all petty irregularities and fallings back, as the curvature of the earth subordinates mountains and valleys. Even in evils, the student learns to recognise only a struggling beneficence. But, above all, he is struck with the inherent sufficingness of things, and with the complex simplicity of those principles by which every defect is being remedied—principles that show themselves alike in the self-adjustment of planetary perturbations, and in the healing of a scratched finger—in the balancing of social systems, and in the increased sensitiveness of a blind man’s ear—in the adaptation of prices to produce, and in the acclimatization of a plant. Day by day he sees a further beauty. Each new fact illustrates more clearly some recognised law, or discloses some inconceived completeness: contemplation thus perpetually discovering to him a higher harmony, and cherishing in him a deeper faith.
And now, in the midst of his admiration and his awe, the student shall suddenly see some flippant red-tapist get upon his legs and tell the world how he is going to put a patch upon nature! Here is a man who, in the presence of all the wonders that encompass him, dares to announce that he and certain of his colleagues have laid their heads together and found out a way to improve upon the Divine arrangements! Scarcely an idea have these meddlers got of what underlies the facts with which they propose to deal; as you shall soon find on sounding their philosophy: and yet, could they carry out their pretensions, we should see them self-appointed nurses to the universe! They have so little faith in the laws of things, and so much faith in themselves, that, were it possible, they would chain earth and sun together, lest centripetal force should fail! Nothing but a parliament-made agency can be depended upon; and only when this infinitely-complex humanity of ours has been put under their ingenious regulations, and provided for by their supreme intelligence, will the world become what it ought to be! Such, in essence, is the astounding creed of these creation-menders.
Consider it then in what light we may—morally or scientifically, with reference to its practicableness, or as a question of political prudence, or even in its bearings upon religious faith—we find this theory, that a government ought to undertake other offices besides that of protector, to be an untenable theory. It has been shown that if the maintaining of rights be regarded as the special function of the state, the state cannot fulfil any other function without a partial loss of power to fulfil its special one. When, from another point of view, the state is looked upon as an aid to adaptation, we still find that it cannot exceed its duty of guarding men’s liberties, without becoming a hindrance to adaptation, instead of an aid. It turns out that to abolish the limit of legislative interposition now contended for, is in fact to abolish all limits whatever—is to give the civil power a field of action to which no bounds can be fixed, save in some arbitrary and utterly unphilosophical way. Moreover, even could certain supplementary affairs, considered fit for government supervision, be duly distinguished from the rest, there would still be the fact that all experience shows government to be an incompetent manager of such supplementary affairs. It is further urged, that the system of extended official control is bad, because unfavourable to social stability. And, finally, that system is repudiated, as involving an absurd and even impious presumption.
Such, then, are the general arguments brought forward to prove that whilst the state ought to protect, it ought to do nothing more than protect. By the abstract thinker they may perhaps be deemed conclusive. There are others, however, with whom they will weigh comparatively little; and, for the conviction of these, it will be needful to examine in detail each of the several cases in which legislative superintendence is commonly advocated. Let us now proceed to do this.
[a]See Address to the British Association at Edinburgh, in 1850.
[a]Reports of Dr. Fr. J. Behrend. See Medical Times, March 16, 1850.