Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXVIII.: sanitary supervision. - Social Statics
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CHAPTER XXVIII.: sanitary supervision. - 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 current ideas respecting legislative interference in sanitary matters do not seem to have taken the form of a definite theory. The Eastern Medical Association of Scotland does indeed hold “that it is the duty of the state to adopt measures for protecting the health as well as the property of its subjects;” and the Times lately asserted that “the Privy Council is chargeable with the health of the Empire;”a but no considerable political party has adopted either of these dogmas by way of a distinct confession of faith. Nevertheless, the opinions that widely prevail on questions of sewage, watersupply, ventilation, and the like, fully commit their advocates to the belief these dogmas embody.
That it comes within the proper sphere of government to repress nuisances is evident. He who contaminates the atmosphere breathed by his neighbour, is infringing his neighbour’s rights. Men having equal claims to the free use of the elements—having faculties which need this free use of the elements for their due exercise—and having that exercise more or less limited by whatever makes the elements more or less unusable, are obviously trespassed against by any one who unnecessarily vitiates the elements, and renders them detrimental to health, or disagreeable to the senses; and in the discharge of its function as protector, a government is obviously called upon to afford redress to those so trespassed against.
Beyond this, however, it cannot lawfully go. As already shown in several kindred cases, for a government to take from a citizen more property than is needful for the efficient defence of that citizen’s rights, is to infringe his rights—is, consequently, to do the opposite of what it, the government, is commissioned to do for him—or, in other words, is to do wrong. And hence all taxation for sanitary superintendence coming, as it does, within this category, must be condemned.
This theory, of which Boards of Health and the like are embodiments, is not only inconsistent with our definition of state-duty, but is further open to strictures, similar to, and equally fatal with, those made in analogous cases. If by saying “that it is the duty of the state to adopt measures for protecting the health of its subjects,” it is meant (as it is meant by the majority of the medical profession) that the state should interpose between quacks and those who patronize them, or between the druggist and the artizan who wants a remedy for his cold—if it is meant that to guard people against empirical treatment, the state should forbid all unlicensed persons from prescribing—then the reply is, that to do so is directly to violate the moral law. Men’s rights are infringed by these, as much as by all other trade interferences. The invalid is at liberty to buy medicine and advice from whomsoever he pleases; the unlicensed practitioner is at liberty to sell these to whomsoever will buy. On no pretext whatever can a barrier be set up between them, without the law of equal freedom being broken; and least of all may the government, whose office it is to uphold that law, become a transgressor of it.
Moreover this doctrine, that it is the duty of the state to protect the health of its subjects, cannot be established, for the same reason that its kindred doctrines cannot, namely, the impossibility of saying how far the alleged duty shall be carried out. Health depends upon the fulfilment of numerous conditions—can be “protected” only by ensuring that fulfilment: if, therefore, it is the duty of the state to protect the health of its subjects, it is its duty to see that all the conditions of health are fulfilled by them. Shall this duty be consistently discharged? If so, the legislature must enact a national dietary: prescribe so many meals a day for each individual; fix the quantities and qualities of food, both for men and women; state the proportion of fluids, when to be taken, and of what kind; specify the amount of exercise, and define its character; describe the clothing to be employed; determine the hours of sleep, allowing for the difference of age and sex: and so on with all other particulars, necessary to complete a perfect synopsis, for the daily guidance of the nation: and to enforce these regulations it must employ a sufficiency of duly-qualified officials, empowered to direct every one’s domestic arrangements. If, on the other hand, a universal supervision of private conduct is not meant, then there comes the question—Where, between this and no supervision at all, lies the boundary up to which supervision is a duty? To which question no answer can be given.
There is a manifest analogy between committing to government-guardianship the physical health of the people, and committing to it their moral health. The two proceedings are equally reasonable, may be defended by similar arguments, and must stand or fall together. If the welfare of men’s souls can be fitly dealt with by acts of parliament, why then the welfare of their bodies can be fitly dealt with likewise. He who thinks the state commissioned to administer spiritual remedies, may consistently think that it should administer material ones. The disinfecting society from vice may naturally be quoted as a precedent for disinfecting it from pestilence. Purifying the haunts of men from noxious vapours may be held quite as legitimate as purifying their moral atmosphere. The fear that false doctrines may be instilled by unauthorized preachers, has its analogue in the fear that unauthorized practitioners may give deleterious medicines or advice. And the persecutions once committed to prevent the one evil, countenance the penalties used to put down the other. Contrariwise, the arguments employed by the dissenter to show that the moral sanity of the people is not a matter for state superintendence, are applicable, with a slight change of terms, to their physical sanity also.
Let no one think this analogy imaginary. The two notions are not only theoretically related; we have facts proving that they tend to embody themselves in similar institutions. There is an evident inclination on the part of the medical profession to get itself organized after the fashion of the clericy. Moved as are the projectors of a railway, who, whilst secretly hoping for salaries, persuade themselves and others that the proposed railway will be beneficial to the public—moved as all men are under such circumstances, by nine parts of self-interest gilt over with one part of philanthropy—surgeons and physicians are vigorously striving to erect a medical establishment akin to our religious one. Little do the public at large know how actively professional publications are agitating for state-appointed overseers of the public health. Take up the Lancet, and you shall find articles written to show the necessity of making poor-law medical officers independent of Boards of Guardians by appointing them for life, holding them responsible only to central authority, and giving them handsome salaries from the Consolidated Fund. The Journal of Public Health proposes that “every house on becoming vacant be examined by a competent person as to its being in a condition adapted for the safe dwelling in of the future tenants;” and to this end would raise by fees, chargeable on the landlords, “a revenue adequate to pay a sufficient staff of inspectors four or five hundred pounds a year each.” A non-professional publication, echoing the appeal, says—“No reasonable man can doubt that if a proper system of ventilation were rendered imperative upon landlords, not only would the cholera and other epidemic diseases be checked, but the general standard of health would be raised.” Whilst the Medical Times shows its leanings, by announcing, with marked approbation, that “the Ottoman government has recently published a decree for the appointment of physicians to be paid by the state,” who “are bound to treat gratuitously all—both rich and poor—who shall demand advice.”
More or less distinctly expressed in these passages there is an unmistakable wish to establish an organized, tax-supported class, charged with the health of men’s bodies, as the clergy are charged with the health of their souls. And whoever has watched how institutions grow—how by little and little a very innocent-looking infancy unfolds into a formidable maturity, with vested interests, political influence, and a strong instinct of self-preservation, will see that the germs here peeping forth are quite capable, under favourable circumstances, of developing into such an organization. He will see further, that favourable circumstances are not wanting—that the prevalence of unemployed professional men, with whom these proposals for sanitary inspectors and public surgeons mostly originate, is likely to continue; and that continuing, it will tend to multiply the offices it has created, much in the same way that the superabundance of clergy multiplies churches. He will even anticipate that, as the spread of education is certain to render the pressure upon the intellectual labour-market still more intense than it now is, there will by-and-by be a yet greater stimulus to the manufacture of berths—a yet greater tendency on the part of all who want genteel occupations for their sons, to countenance this manufacture—and, therefore, a yet greater danger of the growth of a medical establishment.
The most specious excuse for not extending to medical advice the principles of free-trade, is the same as that given for not leaving education to be diffused under them; namely, that the judgment of the consumer is not a sufficient guarantee for the goodness of the commodity. The intolerance shown by orthodox surgeons and physicians, towards unordained followers of their calling, is to be understood as arising from a desire to defend the public against quackery. Ignorant people say they cannot distinguish good treatment from bad, or skilful advisers from unskilful ones: hence it is needful that the choice should be made for them. And then, following in the track of priesthoods, for whose persecutions a similar defence has always been set up, they agitate for more stringent regulations against unlicensed practitioners, and descant upon the dangers to which men are exposed by an unrestricted system. Hear Mr. Wakley. Speaking of a recently-revived law relating to chemists and druggists, he says, “It must have the effect of checking, to a vast extent, that frightful evil called counter practice, exercised by unqualified persons, which has so long been a disgrace to the operation of the laws relating to medicine in this country, and which, doubtless, has been attended with a dreadful sacrifice of human life.” (Lancet, Sept. 11, 1841.) And again, “There is not a chemist and druggist in the empire who would refuse to prescribe in his own shop in medical cases, or who would hesitate day by day to prescribe simple remedies for the ailments of infants and children.” ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ “We had previously considered the evil to be of enormous magnitude, but it is quite clear that we had under-estimated the extent of the danger to which the public are exposed.” (Lancet, Oct. 16, 1841.)
Any one may discern through these ludicrous exaggerations much more of the partizan than of the philanthropist. But let that pass. And without dwelling upon the fact, that it is strange a “dreadful sacrifice of human life” should not have drawn the attention of the people themselves to this “frightful evil,”—without doing more than glance at the further fact, that nothing is said of those benefits conferred by “counter practice,” which would at least form a considerable set-off against this “evil of enormous magnitude,”—let it be conceded that very many of the poorer classes are injured by druggists prescriptions and quack medicines. The allegation having been thus, for argument’s sake, admitted in full, let us now consider whether it constitutes a sufficient plea for legal interference.
Inconvenience, suffering, and death, are the penalties attached by nature to ignorance, as well as to incompetence—are also the means of remedying these. And whoso thinks he can mend matters by dissociating ignorance and its penalties, lays claim to more than Divine wisdom, and more than Divine benevolence. If there seems harshness in those ordinations of things, which, with unfaltering firmness, punish every breach of law—if there seems harshness in those ordinations of things which visit a slip of the foot with a broken limb—which send lingering agonies to follow the inadvertent swallowing of a noxious herb—which go on quietly, age after age, giving fevers and agues to dwellers in marshes—and which, now and then, sweep away by pestilence tens of thousands of unhealthy livers—if there seems harshness in such ordinations, be sure it is apparent only, and not real. Partly by weeding out those of lowest development, and partly by subjecting those who remain to the never-ceasing discipline of experience, nature secures the growth of a race who shall both understand the conditions of existence, and be able to act up to them. It is impossible in any degree to suspend this discipline by stepping in between ignorance and its consequences, without, to a corresponding degree, suspending the progress. If to be ignorant were as safe as to be wise, no one would become wise. And all measures which tend to put ignorance upon a par with wisdom, inevitably check the growth of wisdom. Acts of parliament to save silly people from the evils which putting faith in empirics may entail upon them, do this, and are therefore bad. Unpitying as it looks, it is best to let the foolish man suffer the appointed penalty of his foolishness. For the pain—he must bear it as well as he can: for the experience—he must treasure it up, and act more rationally in future. To others as well as to himself will his case be a warning. And by multiplication of such warnings, there cannot fail to be generated in all men a caution corresponding to the danger to be shunned. Are there any who desire to facilitate the process? Let them dispel error; and, provided they do this in a legitimate way, the faster they do it the better. But to guard ignorant men against the evils of their ignorance—to divorce a cause and consequence which God has joined together—to render needless the intellect put into us for our guidance—to unhinge what is, in fact, the very mechanism of existence—must necessarily entail nothing but disasters.
Who, indeed, after pulling off the coloured glasses of prejudice, and thrusting out of sight his pet projects, can help seeing the folly of these endeavours to protect men against themselves? A sad population of imbeciles would our schemers fill the world with, could their plans last. A sorry kind of human constitution would they make for us—a constitution lacking the power to uphold itself, and requiring to be kept alive by superintendence from without—a constitution continually going wrong, and needing to be set right again—a constitution even tending to self-destruction. Why the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such—to clear the world of them, and make room for better. Nature demands that every being shall be self-sufficing. All that are not so, nature is perpetually withdrawing by death. Intelligence sufficient to avoid danger, power enough to fulfil every condition, ability to cope with the necessities of existence—these are qualifications invariably insisted on. Mark how the diseased are dealt with. Consumptive patients, with lungs incompetent to perform the duties of lungs, people with assimilative organs that will not take up enough nutriment, people with defective hearts that break down under excitement of the circulation, people with any constitutional flaw preventing the due fulfilment of the conditions of life, are continually dying out, and leaving behind those fit for the climate, food, and habits to which they are born. Even the less-imperfectly organized, who, under ordinary circumstances, can manage to live with comfort, are still the first to be carried off by epidemics; and only such as are robust enough to resist these—that is, only such as are tolerably well adapted to both the usual and incidental necessities of existence, remain. And thus is the race kept free from vitiation. Of course this statement is in substance a truism; for no other arrangement of things is conceivable. But it is a truism to which most men pay little regard. And if they commonly overlook its application to body, still less do they note its bearing upon mind. Yet it is equally true here. Nature just as much insists on fitness between mental character and circumstances, as between physical character and circumstance; and radical defects are as much causes of death in the one case as in the other. He on whom his own stupidity, or vice, or idleness, entails loss of life, must, in the generalizations of philosophy, be classed with the victims of weak viscera or malformed limbs. In his case, as in the others, there exists a fatal non-adaptation; and it matters not in the abstract whether it be a moral, an intellectual, or a corporeal one. Beings thus imperfect are nature’s failures, and are recalled by her laws when found to be such. Along with the rest they are put upon trial. If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die. Whether the incompleteness be in strength, or agility, or perception, or foresight, or self-control, is not heeded in the rigorous proof they are put to. But if any faculty is unusually deficient, the probabilities are that, in the long run, some disastrous, or, in the worst cases—fatal result will follow. And, however irregular the action of this law may appear—however it may seem that much chaff is left behind which should be winnowed out, and that much grain is taken away which should be left behind, yet due consideration must satisfy every one that the average effect is to purify society from those who are, in some respect or other, essentially faulty.
Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated: albeit there is unquestionably harm done when sympathy is shown, without any regard to ultimate results. But the drawbacks hence arising are nothing like commensurate with the benefits otherwise conferred. Only when this sympathy prompts to a breach of equity—only when it originates an interference forbidden by the law of equal freedom—only when, by so doing, it suspends in some particular department of life the relationship between constitution and conditions, does it work pure evil. Then, however, it defeats its own end. Instead of diminishing suffering, it eventually increases it. It favours the multiplication of those worst fitted for existence, and, by consequence, hinders the multiplication of those best fitted for existence—leaving, as it does, less room for them. It tends to fill the world with those to whom life will bring most pain, and tends to keep out of it those to whom life will bring most pleasure. It inflicts positive misery, and prevents positive happiness.
Turning now to consider these impatiently-agitated schemes for improving our sanitary condition by act of parliament, the first criticism to be passed upon them is that they are altogether needless, inasmuch as there are already efficient influences at work gradually accomplishing every desideratum.
Seeing, as do the philanthropic of our day, like the congenitally blind to whom sight has just been given—looking at things through the newly-opened eyes of sympathy—they form very crude and very exaggerated notions of the evils to be dealt with. Some, anxious for the enlightenment of their fellows, collect statistics exhibiting a lamentable amount of ignorance; publish these; and the lovers of their kind are startled. Others dive into the dens where poverty hides itself, and shock the world with descriptions of what they see. Others, again, gather together information respecting crime, and make the benevolent look grave by their disclosures. Whereupon, in their horror at these revelations, men keep thoughtlessly assuming that the evils have lately become greater, when in reality it is they who have become more observant of them. If few complaints have hitherto been heard about crime, and ignorance, and misery, it is not that in times past these were less widely spread; for the contrary is the fact; but it is, that our forefathers were comparatively indifferent to them—thought little about them, and said little about them. Overlooking which circumstance, and forgetting that social evils have been undergoing a gradual amelioration—an amelioration likely to progress with increasing rapidity—many entertain a needless alarm lest fearful consequences should ensue, if these evils are not immediately remedied, and a visionary hope that immediate remedy of them is possible.
Such are the now prevalent feelings relative to sanitary reform. We have had a multitude of blue-books, Board of Health reports, leading articles, pamphlets, and lectures, descriptive of bad drainage, overflowing cesspools, festering graveyards, impure water, and the filthiness and humidity of low lodging houses. The facts thus published are thought to warrant, or rather to demand, legislative interference. It seems never to be asked, whether any corrective process is going on. Although every one knows that the rate of mortality has been gradually decreasing, and that the value of life is higher in England than elsewhere—although every one knows that the cleanliness of our towns is greater now than ever before, and that our spontaneously-grown sanitary arrangements are far better than those existing on the Continent, where the stinks of Cologne, the uncovered drains of Paris, the water-tubs of Berlina , and the miserable footways of the German towns, show what state-management effects—although every one knows these things, yet is it perversely assumed that by state-management only can the remaining impediments to public health be removed. Surely the causes which have brought the sewage, the paving and lighting, and the water-supply of our towns, to their present state, have not suddenly ceased. Surely that amelioration, which has been taking place in the condition of London for these two or three centuries, may be expected to continue. Surely the public spirit, which has carried out so many urban improvements since the Municipal Corporations Act gave greater facilities, can carry out other improvements. Surely, if all that has been done towards making cities healthy, has been done, not only without government aid, but in spite of government obstructions—in spite, that is, of the heavy expense of local acts of parliament—we may reasonably suppose, that what remains to be done can be done in the same way, especially if the obstructions are removed. One would have thought that less excuse for meddling existed now than ever. Now that so much has been effected; now that spontaneous advance is being made at an unparalleled rate; now that the laws of health are beginning to be generally studied; now that people are reforming their habits of living; now that the use of baths is spreading; now that temperance, and ventilation, and due exercise are getting thought about—to interfere now, of all times, is surely as rash and uncalled-for a step as was ever taken.
And then to think that, in their hot haste to obtain by law healthier homes for the masses, men should not see that the natural process already commenced is the only process which can eventually succeed. The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Labouring Classes is doing all that is possible in the matter. It is endeavouring to show that, under judicious management, the building of salubrious habitations for the poor becomes a profitable employment of capital. If it shows this, it will do all that needs to be done; for capital will quickly flow into investments offering good returns. If it does not show this—if, after due trial, it finds that these Model Lodging Houses do not pay, and that better accommodation than the working people now have can be obtained for them only by diminishing the interest on money sunk in building, then not all the acts of parliament that can be passed between now and doomsday will improve matters one jot. These plans for making good ventilation imperative; insisting upon water-supply, and fixing the price for it, as Lord Morpeth’s Bill would have done; having empty houses cleansed before re-occupation, and charging the owners of them for inspection—these plans for coercing landlords into giving additional advantages for the same money are nothing but repetitions of the old proposal, that “the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops,” and are just as incapable of realization. The first result of an attempt to carry them out would be a diminution of the profits of house-owners. The interest on capital invested in houses no longer being so high, capital would seek other investments. The building of houses would cease to keep pace with the growth of population. Hence would arise a gradual increase in the number of occupants to each house. And this change in the ratio of houses to people would continue until the demand for houses had raised the profits of the landlord to what they were, and until, by overcrowding, new sanitary evils had been produced to parallel the old onesa . If, by building in larger masses, and to a greater height, such an economy can be achieved in ground-rent, the cost of outer walls, and of roofing, as to give more accommodation at the same expense as now (which happily seems probable), then the fact only needs proving, and, as before said, the competition of capital for investment will do all that can be done; but if not, the belief that legislative coercion can make things better is a fit companion to the belief that it can fix the price of bread and the rate of wages.
Let those who are anxious to improve the health of the poor, through the indirect machinery of law, bring their zeal to bear directly upon the work to be done. Let them appeal to men’s sympathies, and again to their interests. Let them prove to people of property that the making of these reforms will pay. Let them show that the productive powers of the labourer will be increased by bettering his health, whilst the poors’-rates will be diminished. Above all, let them demand the removal of those obstacles which existing legislation puts in the way of sanitary improvementa . Their efforts thus directed will really promote progress. Whereas their efforts as now directed are either needless or injurious.
These endeavours to increase the salubrity of town-life by law, are not only open to the criticism that the natural forces already at work render them unnecessary, and to the additional criticism that some of the things strained after are impossible of legislative achievement, but it must further be observed, that even the desiderata which acts of parliament will reach, can be so reached only through very faulty instrumentalities. It is, in this case, as in many others, the peculiarity of what are oddly styled “practical measures,” that they supersede agencies which are answering well by agencies which are not likely to answer well. Here is a heavy charge of inefficiency brought against the drains, cesspools, stink-traps, &c., of England in general, and London in particular. The evidence is voluminous and conclusive, and by common consent a verdict of proven is returned. Citizens look grave and determine to petition parliament about it. Parliament promises to consider the matter; and after the usual amount of debate, says—“Let there be a Board of Health.” Whereupon petitioners rub their hands, and look out for great things. They have unbounded simplicity—these good citizens. Legislation may disappoint them fifty times running, without at all shaking their faith in its efficiency. They hoped that Church abuses would be rectified by the Ecclesiastical Commission: the poor curates can say whether that hope has been realized. Backed by an act of parliament, the Poor-Law Commissioners were to have eradicated able-bodied pauperism: yet, until checked by the recent prosperity, the poors’-rates have been rapidly rising to their old level. The New Building Act was to have given the people of London better homes; whereas, as we lately saw, it has made worse the homes that most wanted improving. Men were sanguine of reforming criminals by the silent system, or the separate system; but, if we are to judge by the disputes of their respective advocates, neither of these plans is very successful. Pauper children were to have been made into good citizens by industrial education; from all quarters, however, come statements that a very large percentage of them get into goal, or become prostitutes, or return to the workhouse. The measures enjoined by the Vaccination Act of 1840 were to have exterminated small-pox; yet the Registrar-General’s reports show that the deaths from small-pox have been increasing. And thus does year after year add to those abortive schemes, of which so many have been quoted (pp. 8, 46,288). Yet scarcely a doubt seems to arise, respecting the competency of legislators to do what they profess. From the times when they tried to fix the value of money down to our own day, when they have but just abandoned the attempt to fix the price of corn, statesmen have been undertaking all kinds of things, from regulating the cut of boot-toes, up to preparing people for Heaven; and have been constantly failing, or producing widely-different results from those intended. Nevertheless such inexhaustible faith have men, that, although they see this, and although they are daily hearing of imbecilities in public departments—of Admiralty Boards that squander three millions a year in building bad ships and breaking them up again—of Woods and Forests Commissioners who do not even know the rental of the estates they manage—of bungling excise-chemists who commit their chiefs to losing prosecutions, for which compensation has to be made—yet government needs but to announce another plausible project, and men straightway hurrah, and throw up their caps, in the full expectation of getting all that is promised.
But the belief that Boards of Health, and the like, will never effect what is hoped, needs not wholly rest either upon abstract considerations, or upon our experience of state-instrumentalities in general. We have one of these organizations at work, and, as far as may be at present judged, it has done anything but answer people’s expectations. To condemn it, because choked sewers, and open gully-holes, and filthy alleys remain much as they were, would, perhaps, be unreasonable, for time is needed to rectify evils so widely established. But there is one test by which we may fairly estimate its efficiency, viz., its conduct before and during the late pestilence. It had more than a year’s notice that the cholera was on its way here. There were two whole sessions of parliament intervening between the time when a second invasion from that disease was foreseen and the time when the mortality was highest. The Board of Health had, therefore, full opportunity to put forth its powers, and to get greater powers if it wanted them. Well, what was the first step that might have been looked for from it? Shall we not say the suppression of intramural interments? Burying the dead in the midst of the living was manifestly hurtful; the evils attendant on the practice were universally recognised; and to put it down required little more than a simple exercise of authority. If the Board of Health believed itself possessed of authority sufficient for this, why did it not use that authority when the advent of the epidemic was rumoured? If it thought its authority not great enough (which can hardly be, remembering what it ultimately did), then why did it not obtain more? Instead of taking either of these steps, however, it occupied itself in considering future modes of water-supply, and devising systems of sewage. Whilst the cholera was approaching, the Board of Health was cogitating over reforms, from which the most sanguine could not expect any considerable benefit for years to come. And then, when the enemy was upon us, this guardian, in which men were putting their trust, suddenly bestirred itself, and did what, for the time being, made worse the evils to be remedied. As was said by a speaker, at one of the medical meetings held during the height of the cholera, “the Commissioners of Public Health had adopted the very means likely to produce that complaint. Instead of taking their measures years ago, they had stirred up all sorts of abominations now. They had removed dunghills and cesspools, and added fuel tenfold to the fire that existed. (Hear, hear.) Never since he could recollect had there been such accumulations of abominable odours as since the Health of Towns Commission had attempted to purify the atmosphere. (A laugh, and Hear, hear.)” At length, when, in spite of all that had been done (or, perhaps, partly in consequence of it), the mortality continued to increase, the closing of graveyards was decided upon, in the hope, as we must suppose, that the mortality would thereby be checked. As though, when there were hundreds of thousands of bodies decomposing, the ceasing to add to them would immediately produce an appreciable effect!
If to these facts we add the further one, that, notwithstanding the directions issued for prophylactic treatment, and the system of domiciliary visits, the cholera carried off a greater number than before, we have some reason for thinking that this sanitary guardianship did no good, but, it may be, even harm.
Should it be said that the Board of Health is badly constituted, or has not sufficient power, and that had a better organization been given to it we should have seen different results, the reply is, that the almost invariable occurrence of some such fatal hitch is one of the reasons for condemning these interferences. There is always some provoking if in the way. If the established clergy were what they should be, a state-church might do some good. If parish relief were judiciously administered, a poor-law would not be so bad thing. And if a sanitary organization could be made to do just what it is intended to do, something might be said in its favour.
Even could state-agency compass for our towns the most perfect salubrity, it would be in the end better to remain as we are, rather than obtain such a benefit by such means. It is quite possible to give too much even for a great desideratum. However valuable good bodily health may be, it is very dearly purchased when mental health goes in exchange. Whoso thinks that government can supply sanitary advantages for nothing, or at the cost of more taxes only, is woefully mistaken. They must be paid for with character as well as with taxes. A full equivalent must be given in other coin than gold, and even more than an equivalent.
Let it be again remembered that men cannot make force. All they can do is to avail themselves of force already existing, and employ it for working out this or that purpose. They cannot increase it; they cannot get from it more than its specific effect; and as much as they expend of it for doing one thing, must they lack of it for doing other things. Thus it is now becoming a received doctrine, that what we call chemical affinity, heat, light, electricity, magnetism, and motion, are all manifestations of the same primordial force—that they are severally convertible into each other—and, as a corollary, that it is impossible to obtain in any one form of this force more than its equivalent in the previous form. Now this is equally true of the agencies acting in society. It is quite possible to divert the power at present working out one result, to the working out of some other result. You may transform one kind of influence into another kind. But you cannot make more of it, and you cannot have it for nothing. You cannot, by legislative manæuvring, get increased ability to achieve a desired object, except at the expense of something else. Just as much better as this particular thing is done, so much worse must another thing be done.
Or, changing the illustration, and regarding society as an organism, we may say that it is impossible artificially to use up social vitality for the more active performance of one function, without diminishing the activity with which other functions are performed. So long as society is let alone, its various organs will go on developing in due subordination to each other. If some of them are very imperfect, and make no appreciable progress towards efficiency, be sure it is because still more important organs are equally imperfect, and because the amount of vital force pervading society being limited, the rapid growth of these involves cessation of growth elsewhere. Be sure, also, that whenever there arises a special necessity for the better performance of any one function, or for the establishment of some new function, nature will respond. Instance in proof of this, the increase of particular manufacturing towns and sea-ports, or the formation of incorporated companies. Is there a rising demand for some commodity of general consumption? Immediately the organ secreting that commodity becomes more active, absorbs more people, begins to enlarge, and secretes in greater abundance. Instrumentalities for the fulfilment of other social requirements—for the supply of religious culture, education, and so forth, are similarly provided: the less needful being postponed to the more needful; just as the several parts of the embryo are developed in the order of their subservience to life. To interfere with this process by producing premature development in any particular direction is inevitably to disturb the due balance of organization, by causing somewhere else a corresponding atrophy. Let it never be forgotten that at any given time the amount of a society’s vital force is fixed. Dependent as is that vital force upon the degree of adaptation that has taken place—upon the extent to which men have acquired fitness for a co-operative life—upon the efficiency with which they can combine as elements of the social organism, we may be quite certain that, whilst their characters remain constant, nothing can increase its total quantity. We may be also certain that this total quantity can produce only its exact equivalent of results; and that no legislators can get more from it; although by wasting it they may, and always do, get less.
Already, in treating of Poor-Laws and National Education, we have examined in detail the reaction by which these attempts at a multiplication of results are defeated. In the case of sanitary administrations, a similar reaction may be traced; showing itself, amongst other ways, in the checking of all social improvements that demand popular enterprise and perseverance. Under the natural order of things, the unfolding of an intelligent, self-helping character, must keep pace with the amelioration of physical circumstances—the advance of the one with the exertions put forth to achieve the other; so that in establishing arrangements conducive to robustness of body, robustness of mind must be insensibly acquired. Contrariwise, to whatever extent activity of thought and firmness of purpose are made less needful by an artificial performance of their work, to that same extent must their increase, and the dependent social improvements, be retarded.
Should proof of this be asked for, it may be found in the contrast between English energy and Continental helplessness. English engineers (Manby, Wilson, and Co.) established the first gas-works in Paris, after the failure of a French company; and many of the gas-works throughout Europe have been constructed by Englishmen. An English engineer (Miller) introduced steam navigation on the Rhone; another English engineer (Pritchard) succeeded in ascending the Danube by steam, after the French and Germans had failed. The first steam-boats on the Loire were built by Englishmen (Fawcett and Preston); the great suspension bridge at Pesth has been built by an Englishman (Tierney Clarke); and an Englishman (Vignolles) is now building a still greater suspension bridge over the Dnieper; many continental railways have had Englishmen as consulting engineers; and in spite of the celebrated Mining College at Freyburg, several of the mineral fields along the Rhine have been opened up by English capital employing English skill. Now why is this? Why were our coaches so superior to the diligences and eilwagen of our neighbours? Why did our railway system develop so much faster? Why are our towns better drained, better paved, and better supplied with water? There was originally no greater mechanical aptitude, and no greater desire to progress in us than in the connate nations of northern Europe. If anything, we were comparatively deficient in these respects. Early improvements in the arts of life were imported. The germs of our silk and woollen manufactures came from abroad. The first water-works in London were erected by a Dutchman. How happens it, then, that we have now reversed the relationship? How happens it, that instead of being dependent on continental skill and enterprise, our skill and enterprise are at a premium on the Continent? Manifestly the change is due to difference of discipline. Having been left in a greater degree than others to manage their own affairs, the English people have become self-helping, and have acquired great practical ability. Whilst conversely that comparative helplessness of the paternally-governed nations of Europe, illustrated in the above facts, and commented upon by Laing, in his “Notes of a Traveller,” and by other observers, is a natural result of the state-superintendence policy—is the reaction attendant on the action of official mechanisms—is the atrophy corresponding to some artificial hypertrophy.
One apparent difficulty accompanying the doctrine now contended for remains to be noticed. If sanitary administration by the state be wrong, because it implies a deduction from the citizen’s property greater than is needful for maintaining his rights, then is sanitary administration by municipal authorities wrong also for the same reason. Be it by general government or by local government, the levying of compulsory rates for drainage, and for paving and lighting, is inadmissible, as indirectly making legislative protection more costly than necessary, or, in other words, turning it into aggression (p. 278); and if so, it follows that neither the past, present, nor proposed methods of securing the health of towns are equitable.
This seems an awkward conclusion; nevertheless, as deducible from our general principle, we have no alternative but to take to it. How streets and courts are rightly to be kept in order remains to be considered. Respecting sewage there would be no difficulty. Houses might readily be drained on the same mercantile principle that they are now supplied with water. It is highly probable that in the hands of a private company the resulting manure would not only pay the cost of collection, but would yield a considerable profit. But if not, the return on the invested capital would be made up by charges to those whose houses were drained: the alternative of having their connections with the main sewer stopped, being as good a security for payment as the analogous ones possessed by water and gas companies. Paving and lighting would properly fall to the management of house-owners. Were there no public provision for such conveniences, house-owners would quickly find it their interest to furnish them. Some speculative building society having set the example of improvement in this direction, competition would do the rest. Dwellings without proper footway before them, and with no lamps to show the tenants to their doors, would stand empty, when better accommodation was offered. And good paving and lighting having thus become essential, landlords would combine for the more economical supply of them.
To the objection that the perversity of individual landlords and the desire of others to take unfair advantage of the rest, would render such an arrangement impracticable, the reply is that in new suburban streets not yet taken to by the authorities such an arrangement is, to a considerable extent, already carried out, and would be much better carried out but for the consciousness that it is merely temporary. Moreover, no adverse inference could be drawn, were it even shown that for the present such an arrangement is impracticable. So, also, was personal freedom once. So once was representative government, and is still with many nations. As repeatedly pointed out, the practicability of recognising men’s rights is proportionate to the degree in which men have become moral. That an organization dictated by the law of equal freedom cannot yet be fully realized is no proof of its imperfection: is proof only of our imperfection. And as by diminishing this, the process of adaptation has already fitted us for institutions which were once too good for us, so will it go on to fit us for others that may be too good for us now.
We find, then, that besides being at variance with the moral law, and besides involving absurdities, the dogma that it is the duty of the state to protect the health of its subjects may be successfully combated on grounds of policy. It turns out, upon examination, to be near akin to the older dogma that it is the duty of the state to provide for the spiritual welfare of its subjects—must, if consistently followed out, necessitate a co-extensive organization—and must, for aught there appears to the contrary, produce analogous results. Of the sufferings consequent upon unrestrained empiricism, it may safely be said that they are not so great as is represented; and that in as far as they do exist, they are amongst the penalties nature has attached to ignorance or imbecility, and which cannot be dissociated from it without ultimately entailing much greater sufferings. The anxiety to improve by legislative measures the salubrity of our towns, is deprecated on the ground that natural causes insure the continuance of progress—insure further sanitary reforms, just as they insure advancement in the arts of life, the development of manufactures and commerce, and the spread of education. Moreover, it appears that such of these measures as are directed to the improvement of habitations, aim at what laws either cannot do, or what is being done much better without them; and to the rest it is objected, that they are not likely to accomplish the proposed end—a belief founded upon the results of all analogous legislation, and confirmed by the little experience we have at present had of sanitary legislation itself. Further it is argued that even could the hoped-for advantages be fully realized they would be purchased at too great a cost; seeing that they could be obtained only by an equivalent retardation in some still more important department of social progress.
[a]See Times, Oct. 17, 1848.
[a]For putting out fires in Berlin they depend on open tubs of water that stand about the city at certain points, ready to be dragged where they are wanted.
[a]Such results have actually been brought about by the Metropolitan Buildings Act. Whilst this Act has introduced some reform in the better class of houses (although to nothing like the expected extent, for the surveyors are bribed, and moreover the fees claimed by them for inspecting every trifling alteration operate as penalties on improvement), it has entailed far more evil, just where it was intended to confer benefit. An architect and surveyor describes it as having worked after the following manner. In those districts of London consisting of inferior houses, built in that insubstantial fashion which the New Building Act was to mend, there obtains an average rent, sufficiently remunerative to landlords whose houses were run up economically before the New Building Act passed. This existing average rent fixes the rent that must be charged in these districts for new houses of the same accommodation—that is, the same number of rooms, for the people they are built for do not appreciate the extra safety of living within walls strengthened with hoop-iron bond. Now it turns out upon trial, that houses built in accordance with the present regulations, and let at this established rate, bring in nothing like a reasonable return. Builders have consequently confined themselves to erecting houses in better districts (where the possibility of a profitable competition with pre-existing houses shows that those pre-existing houses were tolerably substantial), and have ceased to erect dwellings for the masses, except in the suburbs where no pressing sanitary evils exist. Meanwhile, in the inferior districts above described, has resulted an increase of overcrowding—half-a-dozen families in a house—a score lodgers to a room. Nay, more than this has resulted. That state of miserable dilapidation into which these abodes of the poor are allowed to fall, is due to the absence of competition from new houses. Landlords do not find their tenants tempted away by the offer of better accommodation. Repairs, being unnecessary for securing the largest amount of profit, are not made. And the fees demanded by the surveyor, even when an additional chimney-pot is put up, supply ready excuses for doing nothing. Thus, whilst the New Building Act has caused some improvement where improvement was not greatly needed, it has caused none where it was needed, but has instead generated evils worse than those it was to remove. In fact, for a large percentage of the very horrors which our sanitary agitators are now trying to cure by law, we have to thank previous agitators of the same school!
[a]Writing before the repeal of the brick-duty, the Builder says, “It is supposed that one-fourth of the cost of a dwelling which lets for 2s. 6d. or 3s. a week is caused by the expense of the title-deeds and the tax on wood and bricks used in its construction. Of course the owner of such property must be remunerated, and he therefore charges 7 ½d. or 9d. a week to cover these burdens.” Mr. C. Gatliff, secretary to the Society for Improving the Dwellings of the Working Classes, describing the effect of the window-tax, say, “They are now paying upon their institution in St. Pancras the sum of £162 16s. in window-duties, or 1 per cent. per annum upon the original outlay. The average rental paid by the Society’s tenants is 5s. 6d. per week, and the window-duty deducts from this 7 ¼d. per week.”—Deputation to Lord Ashley, see Times, Jan. 31, 1850. Mr. W. Voller, a master-tailor, says, “I lately inserted one of Dr. Arnott’s ventilators in the chimney of the workshop, little thinking I should be called upon by Mr. Badger, our district surveyor, for a fee of 25s.“—Morning Chronicle, Feb. 4, 1850.