Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXIII.: the regulation of commerce. - Social Statics
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CHAPTER XXIII.: the regulation of commerce. - 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 regulation of commerce.
Arrangements which alter the natural course of trade are of two kinds; they may be classed as either artificial stimuli or artificial restraints—bounties or restrictions.
Of bounties must here be said specially what was said in the last chapter of factitious advantages generally; namely, that a government cannot give them without indirectly reversing its function. Not being requisite for the due maintenance of the citizen’s rights, the taking away of his property for the purpose of encouraging certain branches of production, would be wrong even were collateral benefits given in exchange; and as, instead of affording him collateral benefits, the commercial derangements consequent upon it put additional limits to the exercise of his faculties, such a measure is doubly wrong. Now that the faith in mercantile bribes is nearly extinct, it is needless to enforce this abstract inference by any supplementary reasoning.
Of restrictions it scarcely needs saying that they are even more directly inequitable than bounties. Deducible as it is from the law of equal freedom, the right of exchange is as sacred as any other right (Chap. XIII.), and exists as much between members of different nations as between members of the same nation. Morality knows nothing of geographical boundaries, or distinctions of race. You may put men on opposite sides of a river or a chain of mountains; may else part them by a tract of salt water; may give them, if you like, distinct languages; and may even colour their skins differently; but you cannot change their fundamental relationships. Originating as these do in the facts of man’s constitution, they are unalterable by the accidents of external condition. The moral law is cosmopolite—is no respecter of nationalities: and between men who are the antipodes of each other, either in locality or anything else, there must still exist the same balance of rights as though they were next-door neighbours in all things.
Hence, in putting a veto upon the commercial intercourse of two nations, or in putting obstacles in the way of that intercourse, a government trenches upon men’s liberties of action; and by so doing directly reverses its function. To secure for each man the fullest freedom to exercise his faculties, compatible with the like freedom of all others, we find to be the state’s duty. Now trade prohibitions and trade restrictions not only do not secure this freedom, but they take it away. So that in enforcing them the state is transformed from a maintainer of rights into a violator of rights. If it be criminal in a civil power commissioned to shield us from murder to turn murderer itself; if it be criminal in it to play the thief, though set to keep off thieves; then must it be criminal in it to deprive men, in any way, of liberty to pursue the objects of desire, when it was appointed to ensure them that liberty. Whether it kills, or robs, or enslaves, or shackles by trade regulations, its guilt is alike in kind, and differs only in degree. In the one extreme it wholly destroys the power to exercise the faculties; in the other it does this partially. And in strict ethics the same species of condemnation must be visited upon it in both cases.
Not a few will be startled by this view of the matter. Let such reflect awhile upon the antecedents and associations of this trade-ruling. They will find, on doing so, that it is allied in both origin and practice to all other forms of wrong. More than once it has been pointed out, that as unjust customs and institutions derive their viciousness from a moral defect in the people living under them, they must be uniformly pervaded by that viciousness—that as social laws, creeds, and arrangements consist merely of solidified character, the same character will be shown in all the social laws, creeds, and arrangements which co-exist; and, further, that any process of amelioration will affect them simultaneously. This truth was amply illustrated (pp. 161 and 178). We saw that tyranny in forms of government, tyranny in the conduct of lord to serf, tyranny in religious organizations and discipline, tyranny in the matrimonial relationship, and tyranny in the treatment of children, regularly flourished together and regularly decreased at a like rate. In the same category we must now put—tyranny in commercial laws. Sinking those minor irregularities which pervade all nature’s processes, we shall find that from the days when exportation was a capital crime, down to our own free-trade era, there has been a constant ratio kept between the stringency of mercantile restraints and the stringency of other restraints, as there has between the increase of commercial liberty and the increase of general liberty.
A few facts will sufficiently exemplify this. Take as one the instance just alluded to, in which associated with autocratic rule in church, in state, and in feudal hall, we find Edward III., for the purpose of making foreigners come and buy in our markets, prohibiting his subjects from sending abroad any staple goods “under penalty of death and confiscation;” and further enacting, “that the law should be unalterable either by himself or his successors.” Observe, too, how this same despotic spirit was exhibited in the regulations requiring these continental traders to reside during their stay with certain inspectors commissioned to see the cargoes sold within a specified time, and the proceeds re-invested in English goods, and charged to transmit to the Exchequer periodical statements of each merchant’s bargains—regulations, by the way, of which the abandonment was in after times lamented by the venerators of ancestral wisdom, much as the abolition of the sliding scale is mourned over by a certain party of our own day. Note again how, under the same regime, labourers were coerced into working for fixed wages; and then how, to keep the balance even, shopkeepers had the prices of provisions dictated to them. Mark further, that when the most tyrannical of these ordinances fell into disuse, there still continued the less burdensome ones, such as those usury laws, orders to farmers, prescribings of the material for grave-clothes, instructions to manufacturers, &c., referred to in the last chapter. But without going into further detail—without enlarging upon the fact that those intolerable restraints once borne by the manufacturing classes of France were contemporary with intense despotism at court, and a still lingering feudalism in the provinces—without tracing the parallelism that exists between the political and commercial bondage, under which, in spite of their revolutions, the French still live—without pointing out at length the same connection of phenomena in Prussia, in Austria, and in other similarly-ruled countries—without doing all this, the evidence adduced sufficiently shows that the oppressiveness of a nation’s mercantile laws varies as the oppressiveness of its general arrangements and government. Whilst, conversely, if we glance over the annals of progress, and then contemplate the changes that have taken place within these few years, or which are yet in progress, we cannot but remark a similar kinship between the manifestations of a juster feeling in political organization, in ecclesiastical affairs, in the family, and in our commercial code.
Thus, trade restrictions are of the same race with irresponsible government and slavery. An obtuse perception of, and an insufficient sympathy with, the claims of man, are the parents of all tyrannies and dishonesties, bear they what name they may. Interferences with the freedom of exchange are as certainly their progeny as are the worst violations of human rights: they are constantly found in the society of these: and though not popularly classed as crimes, they are in both origin and nature closely related to them.
There is another aspect under which these trade regulations, in common with many kindred contrivances for the management of social affairs, may be regarded. They are all in essence idolatrous. The worship of dead, powerless things made with human hands is not extinct, as people flatter themselves—cannot be extinct—never will be entirely extinct. The elements of man’s nature are persistent: the change is in their ratios. Typical remains of every disposition must continue traceable even to the remotest future. If, on the one hand, it is an error to suppose that humanity has not altered at all, it is, on the other hand, an error to suppose that it has altered, or even will alter, so completely as to retain no traces of its bygone character.
Scientifically defined, idolatry is a mode of thought under which all causation is attributed to entities. It results from the first generalization of the undeveloped intellect, which, having constantly seen results produced by visible, tangible objects, infers that all results are so produced. In the mind of the savage every effect is believed to be due to a special worker, because special workers have been observed to precede effects in a multitude of instances. The laws of mental action necessitate that, as all known causes have presented themselves to him as personal agencies, all unknown causes must be conceived by him of the same nature. Hence the original fetishism. A stone thrown by an unseen hand, a piece of wood that, when heated, bursts into flame, or an animal found in the neighbour-hood of some natural catastrophe, is at once assumed to be the acting power. Here is a phenomenon—a visible change of state in some observed object: past experience inevitably suggests that there is a worker of this change: past experience also inevitably suggests that such worker is an entity: the entity to which the character of worker is ultimately ascribed will be that which past experience points out as most probable: and, in the absence of other entities, this character of worker will attach to the wood that gives out the flame, or to the stone that inflicts the blow. Thus the wood and stone, being looked upon as agents of unknown power capable of inflicting injury, are prayed to and propitiated.
From the very first, however, there begins an accumulation of facts calculated to undermine this theory of things, and certain ultimately to overthrow it. For, whilst he regards all phenomena as the doings of living beings, the primitive man necessarily attributes to such beings qualities similar to those of the beings he sees—men and brutes. Reasoning, as he must, from the known to the unknown, he is obliged to conceive the unknown generators of change to be like the known ones in all things: and we find that he does this; we find that he represents them by forms either human, or bestial, or both, and that he imagines their passions and habits to be like his own. Now an attribute, possessed in common by all the beings known to him, is that of irregular volition. He sees no creature whose acts are so uniform that he can say positively what its future behaviour will be. Hence it happens that when certain natural events, originally ascribed by him to living agents—events such as the rising and setting of the sun and the falling of bodies to the earth—come to be perpetually repeated, and follow the same antecedents without exception, his notion of personal agency is shaken. This perfect uniformity of action is at variance with his knowledge of all known beings—is at variance with his very conception of a being. And thus in respect to the most familiar sequences, experience silently forces upon him the idea of a constant course of procedure—or what we express by the word law; and a belief in impersonal agency slowly supplants the original belief in personal agency. This revolution in his mode of thinking, though at first confined to the every-day instances of causation, extends in process of time to a wider and wider range of cases. The unceasing accumulation of facts which begins when increase of population provides a multitude of observers, continually furnishes new illustrations of that uniformity of sequence which conflicts with the notion of special workers; and thus the domain of the so-called supernatural is step by step usurped by the so-called natural. Still, it is only in as far as uniformity of sequence is made abundantly manifest, that the old theory is superseded. Though, amongst the Greeks, Thales taught that there were laws of matter, he nevertheless considered that a load-stone had a soul. Where the occurrence is unusual—that is, where the connection between antecedent and consequent is not familiar—that is, where circumstances do not discountenance the original belief in special workers, that belief is still held. Hence it happens that, long after all ordinary phenomena have come to be considered as due to the properties of things, or, in other words, to impersonal agency, such an event as an eclipse or an earthquake is explained as a dragon eating the sun, or as a god turning over in his sleep; an epidemic is ascribed to witchcraft; a luminous whiff of marsh-gas is regarded as a “Will o’ the whisp;” a failure in the dairy or brewhouse is set down to fairy malice; and there are myths about Giants’ Causeways and Devils’ Bridges. Where the connection between cause and effect is very remote or obscure, as in matters of fortune and in certain bodily affections, this disposition to attribute power to entities continues even after science has made great progress; and thus we find that in our own day the old fetishism still lingers in the regard shown to crooked sixpences, wart-charms, and omens.
It lingers, moreover, as already hinted, in less suspected forms. Many much-reverenced social instrumentalities, also, have originated in this primitive necessity of ascribing all causation to special workers—this inability to detach the idea of force from an individual something. Just in proportion as natural phenomena are regarded by any people as of personal instead of impersonal origin, will the phenomena of national life be similarly construed: and, indeed, since moral sequences are less obvious than physical ones, they will be thus construed even more generally. The old belief that a king could fix the value of coinage, and the cry raised at the change of style—“Give us our eleven days,” obviously implied minds incapable of conceiving social affairs to be regulated by other than visible, tangible agencies. That there should be at work some unseen but universally-diffused influence determining the buyings and sellings of citizens and the transactions of merchants from abroad, in a way the most advantageous to all parties, was an idea as foreign to such minds as was that of uniform physical causation to the primitive Greeksa ; and, conversely, as the primitive Greeks could understand the operations of nature being performed by a number of presiding individualities, so to the people of the middle ages it was comprehensible that a proper production and distribution of commodities should be ensured by acts of Parliament and government officials. Whilst the due regulation of trade by a natural indestructible force was inconceivable to them, they could conceive trade to be duly regulated by a force resident in some material instrumentality put together by legislators, clothed in the robes of office, painted by court flatterers, and decorated with “jewels five words long.”b
But with the complex phenomena of commerce, as with the simpler phenomena of the inorganic world, constancy of sequence has gradually undermined the theory that power dwells in entities. Irresistible evidence is at length establishing a belief in the law of supply and demand, as some thousands of years ago it established a belief in the law of gravitation. And the development of politico-economical science, being thus a further conquest of the faith in impersonal agencies over the faith in personal agencies, must be regarded as one of that series of changes which commenced with the first victory of natural philosophy over superstition.
Fortunately it is now needless to enforce the doctrine of commercial freedom by any considerations of policy. After making continual attempts to improve upon the laws of trade, from the time of Solon downwards, men are at length beginning to see that such attempts are worse than useless. Political economy has shown us in this matter—what indeed it is its chief mission to show—that our wisest plan is to let things take their own course. An increasing sense of justice, too, has assisted in convincing us. We have here learned, what our forefathers learned in some cases, and what, alas! we have yet to learn in many more, that nothing but evil can arise from inequitable regulations. The necessity of respecting the principles of abstract rectitude—this it is that we have had another lesson upon. Look at it rightly and we shall find that all the Anti-Corn-Law League did, with its lectures, its newspapers, its bazaars, its monster meetings, and its tons of tracts, was to teach people—what should have been very clear to them without any such teaching—that no good can come of violating men’s rights. By bitter experience and a world of talk we have at length been made partially to believe as much. Be it true or not in other cases, we are now quite certain that it is true in trade. In respect to this at least we have declared that, for the future, we will obey the law of equal freedom.
[a]See Grote’s History.
[b]A metaphor that has been used to denote the pride with which the German officials regard their titles.