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OVER-LEGISLATION (1853) - Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom 
The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, introduction by Albert Jay Nock (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981).
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This essay first appeared in The Westminster Review for July, 1853 and was reprinted in Spencer’s Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative (London and New York, 1892, in three volumes).
From time to time there returns on the cautious thinker the conclusion that, considered simply as a question of probabilities, it is unlikely that his views upon any debatable topic are correct. “Here,” he reflects, “are thousands around me holding on this or that point opinions differing from mine—wholly in many cases; partially in most others. Each is as confident as I am of the truth of his convictions. Many of them are possessed of great intelligence; and, rank myself high as I may, I must admit that some are my equals—perhaps my superiors. Yet, while every one of us is sure he is right, unquestionably most of us are wrong. Why should not I be among the mistaken? True, I cannot realize the likelihood that I am so. But this proves nothing; for though the majority of us are necessarily in error, we all labor under the inability to think we are in error. Is it not then foolish thus to trust myself? A like warrant has been felt by men all the world through; and, in nine cases out of ten, has proved a delusive warrant. Is it not then absurd in me to put so much faith in my judgments?”
Barren of practical results as this reflection at first sight appears, it may, and indeed should, influence some of our most important proceedings. Though in daily life we are constantly obliged to act out our inferences, trustless as they may be; though in the house, in the office, in the street, there hourly arise occasions on which we may not hesitate; seeing that if to act is dangerous, never to act at all is fatal; and though consequently, on our private conduct, this abstract doubt as to the worth of our judgments must remain inoperative; yet in our public conduct, we may properly allow it to weigh. Here decision is no longer imperative; while the difficulty of deciding aright is incalculably greater. Clearly as we may think we see how a given measure will work, we may infer, drawing the above induction from human experience, that the chances are many against the truth of our anticipations. Whether in most cases it is not wiser to do nothing, becomes now a rational question. Continuing his self-criticism, the cautious thinker may reason—” If in these personal affairs, where all the conditions of the case were known to me, I have so often miscalculated, how much oftener shall I miscalculate in political affairs, where the conditions are too numerous, too widespread, too complex, too obscure to be understood. Here, doubtless, is a social evil and there a desideratum; and were I sure of doing no mischief I would forthwith try to cure the one and achieve the other. But when I remember how many of my private schemes have miscarried; how speculations have failed, agents proved dishonest, marriage been a disappointment; how I did but pauperize the relative I sought to help; how my carefully-governed son has turned out worse than most children; how the thing I desperately strove against as a misfortune did me immense good; how while the objects I ardently pursued brought me little happiness when gained, most of my pleasures have come from unexpected sources; when I recall these and hosts of like facts, I am struck with the incompetence of my intellect to prescribe for society. And as the evil is one under which society has not only lived but grown, while the desideratum is one it may spontaneously obtain, as it has most others, in some unforeseen way, I question the propriety of meddling.”
There is a great want of this practical humility in our political conduct. Though we have less self-confidence than our ancestors, who did not hesitate to organize in law their judgments on all subjects whatever, we have yet far too much. Though we have ceased to assume the infallibility of our theological beliefs and so ceased to enact them, we have not ceased to enact hosts of other beliefs of an equally doubtful kind. Though we no longer presume to coerce men for their spiritual good, we still think ourselves called upon to coerce them for their material good: not seeing that the one is as useless and as unwarrantable as the other. Innumerable failures seem, so far, powerless to teach this. Take up a daily paper and you will probably find a leader exposing the corruption, negligence, or mismanagement of some State-department. Cast your eye down the next column, and it is not unlikely that you will read proposals for an extension of State-supervision. Yesterday came a charge of gross carelessness against the Colonial Office. Today Admiralty bunglings are burlesqued. Tomorrow brings the question, “Should there not be more coal-mine inspectors?” Now there is a complaint that the Board of Health is useless; and now an outcry for more railway regulation. While your ears are still ringing with denunciations of Chancery abuses, or your cheeks still glowing with indignation at some well-exposed iniquity of the Ecclesiastical Courts, you suddenly come upon suggestions for organizing “a priesthood of science.” Here is a vehement condemnation of the police for stupidly allowing sight-seers to crush each other to death. You look for the corollary that official regulation is not to be trusted; when, instead, à propos of a shipwreck, you read an urgent demand for government-inspectors to see that ships always have their boats ready for launching. Thus, while every day chronicles a failure, there every day reappears the belief that it needs but an Act of Parliament and a staff of officers to effect any end desired. Nowhere is the perennial faith of mankind better seen. Ever since society existed Disappointment has been preaching, “Put not your trust in legislation” ; and yet the trust in legislation seems scarcely diminished.
Did the State fulfil efficiently its unquestionable duties, there would be some excuse for this eagerness to assign it further duties. Were there no complaints of its faulty administration of justice; of its endless delays and untold expenses; of its bringing ruin in place of restitution; of its playing the tyrant where it should have been the protector: did we never hear of its complicated stupidities; its 20,000 statutes, which it assumes all Englishmen to know, and which not one Englishman does know; its multiplied forms, which, in the effort to meet every contingency, open far more loopholes than they provide against: had it not shown its folly in the system of making every petty alteration by a new act, variously affecting innumerable preceding acts; or in its score of successive sets of Chancery rules, which so modify, and limit, and extend, and abolish, and alter each other, that not even Chancery lawyers know what the rules are; were we never astounded by such a fact as that, under the system of land registration in Ireland, £6,000 have been spent in a “negative search” to establish the title of an estate; did we find in its doing no such terrible incongruity as the imprisonment of a hungry vagrant for stealing a turnip, while for the gigantic embezzlements of a railway director it inflicts no punishment; had we, in short, proved its efficiency as judge and defender, instead of having found it treacherous, cruel, and anxiously to be shunned, there would be some encouragement to hope other benefits at its hands.
Or if, while failing in its judicial functions, the State had proved itself a capable agent in some other department—the military for example—there would have been some show of reason for extending its sphere of action. Suppose that it had rationally equipped its troops, instead of giving them cumbrous and ineffective muskets, barbarous grenadier-caps, absurdly heavy knapsacks and cartouche-boxes, and clothing colored so as admirably to help the enemy’s marksmen; suppose that it organized well and economically, instead of salarying an immense superfluity of officers, creating sinecure colonelcies of £4,000 a year, neglecting the meritorious and promoting incapables; to suppose that its soldiers were always well housed instead of being thrust into barracks that invalid hundreds, as at Aden, or that fall on their occupants, as at Loodianah, where ninety-five were thus killed; suppose that, in actual war it had shown due administrative ability, instead of occasionally leaving its regiments to march barefoot, to dress in patches, to capture their own engineering tools, and to fight on empty stomachs, as during the Peninsular campaign; suppose all this, and the wish for more State-control might still have had some warrant.
Even though it has bungled in everything else, yet had it in one case done well—had its naval management alone been efficient—the sanguine would have had a colorable excuse for expecting success in a new field. Grant that the reports about bad ships, ships that will not sail, ships that have to be lengthened, ships with unfit engines, ships that will not carry their guns, ships without stowage, and ships that have to be broken up, are all untrue; assume those to be mere slanderers who say the the Megœra took double the time taken by a commercial steamer to reach the Cape; that during the same voyage the Hydra was three times on fire, and needed the pumps kept going day and night; that the Charlotte troop-ship set out with 75 days’ provisions on board, and was three months in reaching her destination; that the Harpy, at an imminent risk of life, got home in 110 days from Rio; disregard as calumnies the statements about septuagenarian admirals, dilettante ship building, and “cooked” dockyard accounts; set down the affair of the Goldner preserved meats as a myth, and consider Professor Barlow mistaken when he reported of the Admiralty compasses in store, that “at least one-half were mere lumber” ; let all these, we say, be held groundless charges, and there would remain for the advocates of much government some basis for their political air-castles, spite of military and judicial mismanagement.
As it is, however, they seem to have read backwards the parable of the talents. Not to the agent of proved efficiency do they consign further duties, but to the negligent and blundering agent. Private enterprise has done much, and done it well. Private enterprise has cleared, drained, and fertilized the country, and built the towns; has excavated mines, laid out roads, dug canals, and embanked railways; has invented, and brought to perfection ploughs, looms, steam-engines, printing-presses, and machines innumerable; has built our ships, our vast manufactories, our docks; has established banks, insurance societies, and the newspaper press; has covered the sea with lines of steam-vessels, and the land with electric telegraphs. Private enterprise has brought agriculture, manufactures, and commerce to their present height, and is now developing them with increasing rapidity. Therefore, do not trust private enterprise. On the other hand, the State so fulfils its judicial function as to ruin many, delude others, and frighten away those who most need succor; its national defences are so extravagantly and yet inefficiently administered as to call forth almost daily complaint, expostulation, or ridicule; and as the nation’s steward, it obtains from some of our vast public estates a minus revenue. Therefore, trust the State. Slight the good and faithful servant, and promote the unprofitable one from one talent to ten.
Seriously, the case, while it may not, in some respects, warrant this parallel, is, in one respect, even stronger. For the new work is not of the same order as the old, but of a more difficult order. Ill as government discharges its true duties, any other duties committed to it are likely to be still worse discharged. To guard its subjects against aggression, either individual or national, is a straightforward and tolerably simple matter; to regulate, directly or indirectly, the personal actions of those subjects is an infinitely complicated matter. It is one thing to secure to each man the unhindered power to pursue his own good; it is a widely different thing to pursue the good for him. To do the first efficiently, the State has merely to look on while its citizens act; to forbid unfairness; to adjudicate when called on; and to enforece restitution for injuries. To do the last efficiently, it must become an ubiquitous worker—must know each man’s needs better than he knows them himself—must, in short, possess superhuman power and intelligence. Even, therefore, had the State done well in its proper sphere, no sufficient warrant would have existed for extending that sphere; but seeing how ill it has discharged those simple offices which we cannot help consigning to it, small indeed is the probability that it will discharge well offices of a more complicated nature.
Change the point of view however we may, and this conclusion still presents itself. If we define the primary State-duty to be that of protecting each individual against others, then, all other State-action comes under the definition of protecting each individual against himself—against his own stupidity, his own idleness, his own improvidence, rashness, or other defect—his own incapacity for doing something or other which should be done. There is no questioning this classification. For manifestly all the obstacles that lie between a man’s desires and the satisfaction of them are either obstacles arising from other men’s counter-desires, or obstacles arising from inability in himself. Such of these counter-desires as are just, have as much claim to satisfaction as his; and may not, therefore, be thwarted. Such of them as are unjust, it is the State’s duty to hold in check. The only other possible sphere for it, therefore, is that of saving the individual from the consequences of his nature, or, as we say—protecting him against himself. Making no comment, at present, on the policy of this, and confining ourselves solely to the practicability of it, let us inquire how the proposal looks when reduced to its simplest form. Here are men possessed of instincts, and sentiments, and perceptions, all conspiring to self-preservation. The due action of each brings its quantum of pleasure; the inaction, its more or less of pain. Those provided with these faculties in due proportions prosper and multiply; those ill-provided tend to die out. And the general success of this human organization is seen in the fact that under it the world has been peopled, and by it the complicated appliances and arrangements of civilized life have been developed. It is complained, however, that there are certain directions in which this apparatus of motives works but imperfectly. While it is admitted that men are duly prompted by it to bodily sustenance, to the obtainment of clothing and shelter, to marriage and the care of offspring, and to the establishment of the more important industrial and commercial agencies; it is argued that there are many desiderata, as pure air, more knowledge, good water, safe travelling, and so forth, which it does not duly achieve. And these shortcomings being assumed permanent, it is urged that some supplementary means must be employed. It is therefore proposed that out of the mass of men a certain number, constituting the legislature, shall be instructed to attain these various objects. The legislators thus instructed (all characterized, on the average, by the same defects in this apparatus of motives as men in general), being unable personally to fulfil their tasks, must fulfil them by deputy—must appoint commissions, boards, councils, and staffs of officers; and must construct their agencies of this same defective humanity that acts so ill. Why now should this system of complex deputation succeed where the system of simple deputation does not? The industrial, commercial, and philanthropic agencies, which citizens form spontaneously, are directly deputed agencies; these governmental agencies made by electing legislators who appoint officers are indirectly deputed ones. And it is hoped that, by this process of double deputation, things may be achieved which the process of single deputation will not achieve. What is the rationale of this hope? Is it that legislators, and their employés, are made to feel more intensely than the rest these evils they are to remedy, these wants they are to satisfy? Hardly; for by position they are mostly relieved from such evils and wants. Is it, then, that they are to have the primary motive replaced by a secondary motive—the fear of public displeasure, and ultimate removal from office? Why scarcely; for the minor benefits which citizens will not organize to secure directly, they will not organize to secure indirectly, by turning out inefficient servants: especially if they cannot readily get efficient ones. Is it, then, that these State-agents are to do from a sense of duty, what they would not do from any other motive? Evidently this is the only possibility remaining. The proposition on which the advocates of much government have to fall back is, that things which the people will not unite to effect for personal benefit, a law-appointed portion of them will unite to effect for the benefit of the rest. Public men and functionaries love their neighbors better than themselves! The philanthropy of statesmen is stronger than the selfishness of citizens!
No wonder, then, that every day adds to the list of legislative miscarriages. If colliery explosions increase, notwithstanding the appointment of coal-mine inspectors, why, it is but a natural sequence to these false methods. If Sunderland shipowners complain that, as far as tried, “the Mercantile Marine Act has proved a total failure” ; and if, meanwhile, the other class affected by it—the sailors—show their disapprobation by extensive strikes; why, it does but exemplify the folly of trusting a theorizing benevolence rather than an experienced self-interest. On all sides we may expect such facts; and on all sides we find them. Government, turning engineer, appoints its lieutenant, the Sewers’ Commission, to drain London. Presently Lambeth sends deputations to say that it pays heavy rates, and gets no benefit. Tired of waiting, Bethnal Green calls meetings to consider “the most effectual means of extending the drainage of the district.” From Wandsworth come complainants, who threaten to pay no more until something is done. Camberwell proposes to raise a subscription and do the work itself. Meanwhile, no progress is made towards the purification of the Thames; the weekly returns show an increasing rate of mortality; in Parliament, the friends of the Commission have nothing save good intentions to urge in mitigation of censure; and, at length, despairing ministers gladly seize an excuse for quietly shelving the Commission and its plans altogether. As architectural surveyor, the State has scarcely succeeded better than as engineer; witness the Metropolitan Buildings’ Act. New houses still tumble down from time to time. A few months since, two fell at Bayswater, and one more recently near the Pentonville prison: all notwithstanding prescribed thicknesses, and hoop-iron bond, and inspectors. It never struck those who provided these delusive sureties that it was possible to build walls without bonding the two surfaces together, so that the inner layer might be removed after the surveyor’s approval. Nor did they foresee that, in dictating a larger quantity of bricks than experience proved absolutely needful, they were simply insuring a slow deterioration of quality to an equivalent extent. The government guarantee for safe passenger-ships answers no better than its guarantee for safe houses. Though the burning of the Amazon arose from either bad construction or bad stowage, she had received the Admiralty certificate before sailing. Notwithstanding official approval, the Adelaide was found, on her first voyage, to steer ill, to have useless pumps, ports that let floods of water into the cabins, and coals so near the furnaces that they twice caught fire. The W. S. Lindsay, which turned out unfit for sailing, had been passed by the government agent; and, but for the owner, might have gone to sea at a great risk of life. The Melbourne—originally a State-built ship—which took twenty-four days to reach Lisbon, and then needed to be docked to undergo a thorough repair, had been duly inspected. And lastly, the notorious Australian, before her third futile attempt to proceed on her voyage, had, her owners tell us, received “the full approbation of the government inspector.” Neither does the like supervision give security to land-travelling. The iron bridge at Chester, which, breaking, precipitated a train into the Dee, had passed under the official eye. Inspection did not prevent a column on the South-Eastern from being so placed as to kill a man who put his head out of the carriage window. The locomotive that burst at Brighton lately did so notwithstanding a State-approval given but ten days previously. And—to look at the facts in the gross—this system of supervision has not prevented the increase of railway accidents; which, be it remembered, has arisen since the system was commenced.
“Well; let the State fail. It can but do its best. If it succeed, so much the better; if it do not, where is the harm? Surely it is wiser to act, and take the chance of success, than to do nothing.” To this plea the rejoinder is that, unfortunately, the results of legislative intervention are not only negatively bad, but often positively so. Acts of Parliament do not simply fail; they frequently make worse. The familiar truth that persecution aids rather than hinders proscribed doctrines—a truth lately afresh illustrated by the forbidden work of Gervinus—is a part of the general truth that legislation often does indirectly the reverse of that which it directly aims to do. Thus has it been with the Metropolitan Buildings’ Act. As was lately agreed unanimously by the delegates from all the parishes in London, and as was stated by them to Sir William Molesworth, this act “has encouraged bad building, and has been the means of covering the suburbs of the metropolis with thousands of wretched hovels, which are a disgrace to a civilized country.” Thus, also, has it been in provincial towns. The Nottingham Inclosure Act of 1845, by prescribing the structure of the houses to be built, and the extent of yard or garden to be allotted to each, has rendered it impossible to build working-class dwellings at such moderate rents as to compete with existing ones. It is estimated that, as a consequence, 10,000 of the population are debarred from the new homes they would otherwise have, and are forced to live crowded together in miserable places unfit for human habitation; and so, in its anxiety to insure healthy accommodation for artisans, the law has entailed on them still worse accommodations than before. Thus, too, has it been with the Passengers’ Act. The terrible fevers which arose in the Australian emigrant ships a few months since, causing in the Buorneuf 83 deaths, in the Wanota 39 deaths, in the Marco Polo 53 deaths, and in the Ticonderoga 104 deaths, arose in vessels sent out by the government; and arose in consequence of the close packing which the Passengers’ Act authorizes. Thus, moreover, has it been with the safeguards provided by the Mercantile Marine Act. The examinations devised for insuring the efficiency of captains have had the effect of certifying the superficially-clever and unpractised men, and, as we are told by a shipowner, rejecting many of the long-tried and most trustworthy: the general result being that the ratio of shipwrecks has increased. Thus also has it happened with Boards of Health, which have, in sundry cases, exacerbated the evils to be removed; as, for instance, at Croydon, where, according to the official report, the measures of the sanitary authorities produced an epidemic, which attacked 1,600 people and killed 70. Thus again has it been with the Joint Stock Companies Registration Act. As was shown by Mr. James Wilson, in his late motion for a select committee on life-assurance asociations, this measure, passed in 1844 to guard the public against bubble schemes, actually facilitated the rascalities of 1845 and subsequent years. The legislative sanction, devised as a guarantee of genuineness, and supposed by the people to be such, clever adventurers have without difficulty obtained for the most worthless projects. Having obtained it, an amount of public confidence has followed which they could never otherwise have gained. In this way literally hundreds of sham enterprises that would not else have seen the light have been fostered into being; and thousands of families have been ruined who would never have been so but for legislative efforts to make them more secure.
Moreover, when these topical remedies applied by statesmen do not exacerbate the evils they were meant to cure, they constantly induce collateral evils; and these often graver than the original ones. It is the vice of this empirical school of politicians that they never look beyond proximate causes and immediate effects. In common with the uneducated masses they habitually regard each phenomenon as involving but one antecedent and one consequent. They do not bear in mind that each phenomenon is a link in an infinite series—is the result of myriads of preceding phenomena, and will have a share in producing myriads of succeeding ones. Hence they overlook the fact that, in disturbing any natural chain of sequences, they are not only modifying the result next in succession, but all the future results into which this will enter as a part-cause. The serial genesis of phenomena, and the interaction of each series upon every other series, produces a complexity utterly beyond human grasp. Even in the simplest cases this is so. A servant who puts coals on the fire sees but few effects from the burning of a lump. The man of science, however, knows that there are very many effects. He knows that the combustion establishes numerous atmospheric currents, and through them moves thousands of cubic feet of air inside the house and out. He knows that the heat diffused causes expansions and subsequent contractions of all bodies within its range. He knows that the persons warmed are affected in their rate of respiration and their waste of tissue; and that these physiological changes must have various secondary results. He knows that, could he trace to their ramified consequences all the forces disengaged, mechanical, chemical, thermal, electric—could he enumerate all the subsequent effects of the evaporation caused, the gases generated, the light evolved, the heat radiated; volume would scarcely suffice to enter them. If, now, from a simple inorganic change such numerous and complex results arise, how infinitely multiplied and involved must be the ultimate consequences of any force brought to bear upon society. Wonderfully constructed as it is—mutually dependent as are its members for the satisfaction of their wants—affected as each unit of it is by his fellows, not only as to his safety and prosperity, but in his health, his temper, his culture; the social organism cannot be dealt with in any one part, without all other parts being influenced in ways which cannot be foreseen. You put a duty on paper, and by-and-by find that, through the medium of the jacquard-cards employed, you have inadvertently taxed figured silk, sometimes to the extent of several shillings per piece. On removing the impost from bricks, you discover that its existence had increased the dangers of mining, by preventing shafts from being lined and workings from being tunnelled. By the excise on soap, you have, it turns out, greatly encouraged the use of caustic washing-powders; and so have unintentionally entailed an immense destruction of clothes. In every case you perceive, on careful inquiry, that besides acting upon that which you sought to act upon, you have acted upon many other things, and each of these again on many others; and so have propagated a multitude of changes in all directions. We need feel no surprise, then, that in their efforts to cure specific evils, legislators have continually caused collateral evils they never looked for. No Carlyle’s wisest man, nor any body of such, could avoid causing them. Though their production is explicable enough after it has occurred, it is never anticipated. When, under the new Poor-Law, provision was made for the accommodation of vagrants in the union-houses,* it was hardly expected that a body of tramps would be thereby called into existence, who would spend their time in walking from union to union throughout the kingdom. It was little thought by those who in past generations assigned parish-pay for the maintenance of illegitimate children, that, as a result, a family of such would by-and-by be considered a small fortune, and the mother of them a desirable wife; nor did the same statesmen see that, by the law of settlement, they were organizing a disastrous inequality of wages in different districts, and entailing a system of clearing away cottages, which would result in the crowding of bedrooms, and in a consequent moral and physical deterioration. The English tonnage-law was enacted simply with a view to regulate the mode of measurement. Its framers overlooked the fact that they were practically providing “for the effectual and compulsory construction of bad ships” ; and that “to cheat the law, that is, to build a tolerable ship in spite of it, was the highest achievement left to an English builder.” Greater commercial security was alone aimed at by the partnership-law. We now find, however, that the unlimited liability it insists upon is a serious hindrance to progress; it practically forbids the association of small capitalists; it is found a great obstacle to the building of improved dwellings for the people; it prevents a better relationship between artisans and employers; and by withholding from the working-classes good investments for their savings, it checks the growth of provident habits and encourages drunkenness. Thus on all sides are well-meant measures producing unforeseen mischiefs; a licensing-law that promotes the adulteration of beer; a ticket-of-leave system that encourages men to commit crime; a police-regulation that forces street-huxters into the workhouse. And then, in addition to the obvious and proximate evils, come the remote and less distinguishable ones, which, could we estimate their accumulated result, we should probably find even more serious.
But the thing to be discussed is, not so much whether, by any amount of intelligence, it is possible for a government to work out the various ends consigned to it, as whether its fulfillment of them is probable. It is less a question of can than a question of will. Granting the absolute competence of the State, let us consider what hope there is of getting from it satisfactory performance. Let us look at the moving force by which the legislative machine is worked, and then inquire whether this force is thus employed as economically as it would otherwise be.
Manifestly, as desire of some kind is the invariable stimulus to action in the individual, every social agency, of what nature soever, must have some aggregate of desires for its motive power. Men in their collective capacity can exhibit no result but what has its origin in some appetite, feeling, or taste common among them. Did not they like meat, there could be no cattle-graziers, no Smithfield, no distributing organization of butchers. Operas, philharmonic societies, song-books, and street organ-boys, have all been called into being by our love of music. Look through the trades’ directory; take up a guide to the London sights; read the index of Bradshaw’s time-tables, the reports of the learned societies, or the advertisements of new books; and you see in the publication itself, and in the things it describes, so many products of human activities, stimulated by human desires. Under this stimulus grow up agencies alike the most gigantic and the most insignificant, the most complicated and the most simple—agencies for national defence and for the sweeping of crossings; for the daily distribution of letters, and for the collection of bits of coal out of the Thames mud; agencies that subserve all ends, from the preaching of Christianity to the protection of ill-treated animals; from the production of bread for a nation to the supply of groundsel for caged singing-birds. The accumulated desires of individuals being, then, the moving power by which every social agency is worked, the question to be considered is, Which is the most economical kind of agency? The agency having no power in itself, but being merely an instrument, our inquiry must be for the most efficient instrument; the instrument that costs least, and wastes the smallest amount of the moving power; the instrument least liable to get out of order, and most readily put right again when it goes wrong. Of the two kinds of social mechanism exemplified above, the spontaneous and the governmental, which is the best?
From the form of this question will be readily foreseen the intended answer, that is the best mechanism which contains the fewest parts. The common saying, “What you wish well done you must do yourself,” embodies a truth equally applicable to political life as to private life. The experience that farming by bailiff entails loss, while tenant-farming pays, is an experience still better illustrated in national history than in a landlord’s account-books. This transference of power from constituencies to members of Parliament, from these to the executive, from the executive to a board, from the board to inspectors, and from inspectors through their subs down to the actual workers—this operating through a series of levers, each of which absorbs in friction and inertia part of the moving force; is as bad, in virtue of its complexity, as the direct employment by society of individuals, private companies, and spontaneously-formed institutions, is good in virtue of its simplicity. Fully to appreciate the contrast, we must compare in detail the working of the two systems.
Officialism is habitually slow. When non-governmental agencies are dilatory, the public has its remedy: it ceases to employ them and soon finds quicker ones. Under this discipline all private bodies are taught promptness. But for delays in State-departments there is no such easy cure. Lifelong Chancery suits must be patiently borne; Museum-catalogues must be wearily waited for. While, by the people themselves, a Crystal Palace is designed, erected, and filled, in the course of a few months, the legislature takes twenty years to build itself a new house. While, by private persons, the debates are daily printed and dispersed over the kingdom within a few hours of their utterance, the Board of Trade tables are regularly published a month, and sometimes more, after date. And so throughout. Here is a Board of Health which, since 1849, has been about to close the metropolitan graveyards, but has not done it yet; and which has so long dawdled over projects for cemeteries, that the London Necropolis Company has taken the matter out of its hands. Here is a patentee who has had fourteen years’ correspondence with the Horse Guards, before getting a definite answer respecting the use of his improved boot for the Army. Here is a Plymouth port-admiral who delays sending out to look for the missing boats of the Amazon until ten days after the wreck.
Again, officialism is stupid. Under the natural course of things each citizen tends towards his fittest function. Those who are competent to the kind of work they undertake, succeed, and, in the average of cases, are advanced in proportion to their efficiency; while the incompetent, society soon finds out, ceases to employ, forces to try something easier, and eventually turns to use. But it is quite otherwise in State-organizations. Here, as every one knows, birth, age, backstairs intrigue, and sycophancy, determine the selections rather than merit. The “fool of the family” readily finds a place in the Church, if “the family” have good connections. A youth too ill-educated for any profession does very well for an officer in the Army. Grey hair, or a title, is a far better guarantee of naval promotion than genius is. Nay, indeed, the man of capacity often finds that, in government offices, superiority is a hindrance—that his chiefs hate to be pestered with his proposed improvements, and are offended by his implied criticisms. Not only, therefore, is legislative machinery complex, but it is made of inferior materials. Hence the blunders we daily read of; the supplying to the dockyards from the royal forests of timber unfit for use; the administration of relief during the Irish famine in such a manner as to draw laborers from the field, and diminish the subsequent harvest by one-fourth; the filing of patents at three different offices and keeping an index at none. Everywhere does this bungling show itself, from the elaborate failure of House of Commons ventilation down to the publication of The London Gazette, which invariably comes out wrongly folded.
A further characteristic of officialism is its extravagance. In its chief departments, Army, Navy, and Church, it employs far more officers than are needful, and pays some of the useless ones exorbitantly. The work done by the Sewers Commission has cost, as Sir B. Hall tells us, from 300 to 400 per cent. over the contemplated outlay; while the management charges have reached thirty-five, forty, and forty-five per cent. on the expenditure. The trustees of Ramsgate Harbor—a harbor, by the way, that has taken a century to complete—are spending £18,000 a year in doing what £5,000 has been proved sufficient for. The Board of Health is causing new surveys to be made of all the towns under its control—a proceeding which, as Mr. Stephenson states, and as every tyro in engineering knows, is, for drainage purposes, a wholly needless expense. These public agencies are subject to no such influence as that which obliges private enterprise to be economical. Traders and mercantile bodies succeed by serving society cheaply. Such of them as cannot do this are continually supplanted by those who can. They cannot saddle the nation with the results of their extravagance, and so are prevented from being extravagant. On works that are to return a profit it does not answer to spend forty-eight per cent. of the capital in superintendence, as in the engineering department of the Indian Government; and Indian railway companies, knowing this, manage to keep their superintendence charges within eight per cent. A shopkeeper leaves out of his accounts no item analogous to that £6,000,000 of its revenues, which Parliament allows to be deducted on the way to the Exchequer. Walk through a manufactory, and you see that the stern alternatives, carefulness or ruin, dictate the saving of every penny; visit one of the national dockyards, and the comments you make on any glaring wastefulness are carelessly met by the slang phrase, “Nunky* pays.”
The unadaptiveness of officialism is another of its vices. Unlike private enterprise which quickly modifies its actions to meet emergencies; unlike the shopkeeper who promptly finds the wherewith to satisfy a sudden demand; unlike the railway-company which doubles its trains to carry a special influx of passengers; the law-made instrumentality lumbers on under all varieties of circumstances through its ordained routine at its habitual rate. By its very nature it is fitted only for average requirements, and inevitably fails under unusual requirements. You cannot step into the street without having the contrast thrust upon you. Is it summer? You see the water-carts going their prescribed rounds with scarcely any regard to the needs of the weather—to-day sprinkling afresh the already moist roads; to-morrow bestowing their showers with no greater liberality upon roads cloudy with dust. Is it winter? You see the scavengers do not vary in number and activity according to the quantity of mud; and if there comes a heavy fall of snow, you find the thoroughfares remaining for nearly a week in a scarcely passable state, without an effort being made, even in the heart of London, to meet the exigency. The late snow-storm, indeed, supplied a neat antithesis between the two orders of agencies in the effects it respectively produced on omnibuses and cabs. Not being under a law-fixed tariff, the omnibuses put on extra dowedes and raised their fares. The cabs, on the contrary, being limited in their charges by an Act of Parliament which, with the usual shortsightedness, never contemplated such a contingency as this, declined to ply, deserted the stands and the stations, left luckless travellers to stumble home with their luggage as best they might, and so became useless at the very time of all others when they were most wanted! Not only by its unsusceptibility of adjustment does officialism entail serious inconveniences, but it likewise entails great injustices. In this case of cabs, for example, it has resulted since the late change of law, that old cabs, which were before saleable at £10 and £12 each, are now unsaleable and have to be broken up; and thus legislation has robbed cab-proprietors of part of their capital. Again, the recently-passed Smoke-Bill for London, which applies only within certain prescribed limits, has the effect of taxing one manufacturer while leaving untaxed his competitor working within a quarter of a mile; and so, as we are credibly informed, gives one an advantage of £1,500 a year over another. These typify the infinity of wrongs, varying in degrees of hardship, which legal regulations necessarily involve. Society, a living, growing organism, placed within apparatuses of dead, rigid, mechanical formulas, cannot fail to be hampered and pinched. The only agencies which can efficiently serve it are those through which its pulsations hourly flow, and which change as it changes.
How invariably officialism becomes corrupt every one knows. Exposed to no such antiseptic as free competition—not dependent for existence, as private unendowed organizations are, on the maintenance of a vigorous vitality; all law-made agencies fall into an inert, over-fed state, from which to disease is a short step. Salaries flow in irrespective of the activity with which duty is performed; continue after duty wholly ceases; become rich prizes for the idle well-born; and prompt to perjury, to bribery, to simony. East India directors are elected not for any administrative capacity they have; but they buy votes by promised patronage—a patronage alike asked and given in utter disregard of the welfare of a hundred millions of people. Registrars of wills not only get many thousands a year each for doing work which their miserably paid deputies leave half done; but they, in some cases, defraud the revenue, and that after repeated reprimands. Dockyard promotion is the result not of efficient services, but of political favoritism. That they may continue to hold rich livings, clergymen preach what they do not believe; bishops make false returns of their revenues; and at their elections to fellowships, well-to-do priests severally make oath that they are pauper, pius et doctus. From the local inspector whose eyes are shut to an abuse by a contractor’s present, up to the prime minister who finds lucrative berths for his relations, this venality is daily illustrated; and that in spite of public reprobation and perpetual attempts to prevent it. As we once heard said by a State-official of twenty-five years’ standing, “Wherever there is government there is villainy.” It is the inevitable result of destroying the direct connection between the profit obtained and the work performed. No incompetent person hopes, by offering a douceur in The Times, to get a permanent place in a mercantile office. But where, as under government, there is no employer’s self-interest to forbid; where the appointment is made by some one on whom inefficiency entails no loss; there a douceur is operative. In hospitals, in public charities, in endowed schools, in all social agencies in which duty done and income gained do not go hand in hand, the like corruption is found; and is great in proportion as the dependence of income upon duty is remote. In State-organizations, therefore, corruption is unavoidable. In trading-organizations it rarely makes its appearance, and when it does, the instinct of self-preservation soon provides a remedy.
To all which broad contrasts add this, that while private bodies are enterprising and progressive, public bodies are unchanging, and, indeed, obstructive. That officialism should be inventive nobody expects. That it should go out of its easy mechanical routine to introduce improvements, and this at a considerable expense of thought and application, without the prospect of profit, is not to be supposed. But it is not simply stationary; it resists every amendment either in itself or in anything with which it deals. Until now that county courts are taking away their practice, all agents of the law have doggedly opposed law-reform. The universities have maintained an old curriculum for centuries after it ceased to be fit; and are now struggling to prevent a threatened reconstruction. Every postal improvement has been vehemently protested against by the postal authorities. Mr. Whiston can say how pertinacious is the conservatism of Church grammar-schools. Not even the gravest consequences in view preclude official resistance: witness the fact that though, as already mentioned, Professor Barlow reported in 1820, of the Admiralty compasses then in store, that “at least one-half were mere lumber,” yet notwithstanding the constant risk of shipwrecks thence arising, “very little amelioration in this state of things appears to have taken place until 1838 to 1840.” Nor is official obstructiveness to be readily overborne even by a powerful public opinion: witness the fact that though, for generations, nine-tenths of the nation have disapproved this ecclesiastical system which pampers the drones and starves the workers, and though commissions have been appointed to rectify it, it still remains substantially as it was: witness again the fact that though, since 1818, there have been a score of attempts to rectify the scandalous maladministration of charitable trusts—though ten times in ten successive years remedial measures have been brought before Parliament—the abuses still continue in all their grossness. Not only do these legal instrumentalities resist reforms in themselves, but they hinder reforms in other things. In defending their vested interests the clergy delay the closing of town burial-grounds. As Mr. Lindsay can show, government emigration-agents are checking the use of iron for sailing-vessels. Excise officers prevent improvements in the processes they have to overlook. That organic conservatism which is visible in the daily conduct of all men is an obstacle which in private life self-interest slowly overcomes. The prospect of profit does, in the end, teach farmers that deep draining is good; though it takes long to do this. Manufacturers do, ultimately, learn the most economical speed at which to work their steam-engines; though precedent has long misled them. But in the public service, where there is no self-interest to overcome it, this conservatism exerts its full force; and produces results alike disastrous and absurd. For generations after bookkeeping had become universal the Exchequer accounts were kept by notches cut on sticks. In the estimates for the current year appears the item, “Trimming the oil-lamps at the Horse-Guards.”
Between these law-made agencies and the spontaneously-formed ones, who then can hesitate? The one class are slow, stupid, extravagant, unadaptive, corrupt, and obstructive: can any point out in the other, vices that balance these? It is true that trade has its dishonesties, speculation its follies. These are evils inevitably entailed by the existing imperfections of humanity. It is equally true, however, that these imperfections of humanity are shared by State-functionaries; and that being unchecked in them by the same stern discipline, they grow to far worse results. Given a race of men having a certain proclivity to misconduct, and the question is, whether a society of these men shall be so organized that ill-conduct directly brings punishment, or whether it shall be so organized that punishment is but remotely contingent on ill-conduct? Which will be the most healthful community—that in which agents who perform their functions badly, immediately suffer by the withdrawal of public patronage; or that in which such agents can be made to suffer only through an apparatus of meetings, petitions, polling-booths, parliamentary divisions, cabinet-councils, and red-tape documents? Is it not an absurdly utopian hope that men will behave better when correction is far removed and uncertain than when it is near at hand and inevitable? Yet this is the hope which most political schemers unconsciously cherish. Listen to their plans, and you find that just what they propose to have done, they assume the appointed agents will do. That functionaries are trustworthy is their first postulate. Doubtless could good officers be ensured, much might be said for officialism; just as despotism would have its advantages could we ensure a good despot.
If, however, we would duly appreciate the contrast between the artificial modes and the natural modes of achieving social desiderata, we must look not only at the vices of the one but at the virtues of the other. These are many and important. Consider first how immediately every private enterprise is dependent on the need for it; and how impossible it is for it to continue if there be no need. Daily are new trades and new companies established. If they subserve some existing public want, they take root and grow. If they do not, they die of inanition. It needs no agitation, no act of Parliament, to put them down. As with all natural organizations, if there is no function for them no nutrient comes to them, and they dwindle away. Moreover, not only do the new agencies disappear if they are superfluous, but the old ones cease to be when they have done their work. Unlike public instrumentalities; unlike heralds’ offices, which are maintained for ages after heraldy has lost all value; unlike ecclesiastical courts, which continue to flourish for generations after they have become an abomination; these private instrumentalities dissolve when they become needless. A widely ramified coaching-system ceases to exist as soon as a more efficient railway-system comes into being. And not simply does it cease to exist, and to abstract funds, but the materials of which it was made are absorbed and turned to use. Coachmen, guards, and the rest, are employed to profit elsewhere; do not continue for twenty years a burden, like the compensated officials of some abolished department of the State. Consider, again, how necessarily these unordained agencies fit themselves to their work. It is a law of all organized things that efficiency presupposes apprenticeship. Not only is it true that the young merchant must begin by carrying letters to the post, that the way to be a successful innkeeper is to commence as waiter; not only is it true that in the development of the intellect there must come first the preceptions of identity and duality, next of number, and that without these, arithmetic, algebra, and the infinitesimal calculus, remain impracticable; but it is true that there is no part of an organism but begins in some simple form with some insignificant function, and passes to its final stage through successive phases of complexity. Every heart is at first a mere pulsatile sac; every brain begins as a slight enlargement of the spinal cord. This law equally extends to the social organism. An instrumentality that is to work well must not be designed and suddenly put together by legislators, but must grow gradually from a germ; each successive addition must be tried and proved good by experience before another addition is made; and by this tentative process only, can an efficient instrumentality be produced. From a trustworthy man who receives deposits of money, insensibly grows up a vast banking-system, with its notes, checks, bills, its complex transactions, and its clearing-house. Pack-horses, then wagons, then coaches, then steam-carriages on common roads, and, finally, steam-carriages on roads made for them—such has been the slow genesis of our present means of communication. Not a trade in the directory but has formed itself an apparatus of manufacturers, brokers, travellers, and retailers, in so gradual a way that no one can trace the steps. And so with organizations of another order. The Zoological Gardens began as the private collection of a few naturalists. The best working-class school known—that at Price’s factory—commenced with half-a-dozen boys sitting among the candle-boxes, after hours, to teach themselves writing with worn-out pens. Mark, too, that as a consequence of their mode of growth, these spontaneously-formed agencies expand to any extent required. The same stimulus which brought them into being makes them send their ramifications wherever they are needed. But supply does not thus readily follow demand in governmental agencies. Appoint a board and a staff, fix their duties, and let the apparatus have a generation or two to consolidate, and you cannot get it to fulfil larger requirements without some Act of Parliament obtained only after long delay and difficulty.
Were there space, much more might be said upon the superiority of what naturalists would call the exogenous order of institutions over the endogenous one. But, from the point of view indicated, the further contrasts between their characteristics will be sufficiently visible.
Hence then the fact, that while the one order of means is ever failing, making worse, or producing more evils than it cures, the other order of means is ever succeeding, ever improving. Strong as it looks at the outset, State-agency perpetually disappoints every one. Puny as are its first stages, private effort daily achieves results that astound the world. It is not only that joint-stock companies do so much; it is not only that by them a whole kingdom is covered with railways in the same time that it takes the Admiralty to build a hundred-gun ship; but it is that public instrumentalities are outdone even by individuals. The often quoted contrast between the Academy whose forty members took fifty-six years to compile the French dictionary, while Dr. Johnson alone compiled the English one in eight—a contrast still marked enough after making due set-off for the difference in the works—is by no means without parallel. That great sanitary desideratum—the bringing of the New River to London* —which the wealthiest corporation in the world attempted and failed, Sir Hugh Myddleton achieved single-handed. The first canal in England—a work of which government might have been thought the fit projector, and the only competent executor—was undertaken and finished as the private speculation of one man, the Duke of Bridgewater. By his own unaided exertions, William Smith completed that great achievement, the geological map of Great Britain; meanwhile, the Ordnance Survey—a very accurate and elaborate one, it is true—has already occupied a large staff for some two generations, and will not be completed before the lapse of another. Howard and the prisons of Europe; Bianconi and Irish travelling; Waghorn and the Overland route; Dargan and the Dublin Exhibition—do not these suggest startling contrasts? While private gentlemen like Mr. Denison build model lodging-houses in which the deaths are greatly below the average, the State builds barracks in which the deaths are greatly above the average, even of the much-pitied town-populations; barracks which, though filled with picked men under medical supervision, show an annual mortality per thousand of 13.6, 17.9 and even 20.4; though among civilians of the same age in the same places, the mortality per thousand is but 11.9. While the State has laid out large sums at Parkhurst in the effort to reform juvenile criminals, who are not reformed, Mr. Ellis takes fifteen of the worst young thieves in London—thieves considered by the police irreclaimable—and reforms them all. Side by side with the Emigration Board, under whose management hundreds die of fever from close packing, and under whose licence sail vessels which, like the Washington, are the homes of fraud, brutality, tyranny, and obscenity, stands Mrs. Chisholm’s Family Colonization Loan Society, which does not provide worse accommodation than ever before but much better; which does not demoralize by promiscuous crowding but improves by mild discipline; which does not pauperize by charity but encourages providence; which does not increase our taxes, but is self-supporting. Here are lessons for the lovers of legislation. The State outdone by a working shoe-maker! The State beaten by a woman!
Stronger still becomes this contrast between the results of public action and private action, when we remember that the one is constantly eked out by the other, even doing the things unavoidably left to it. Passing over military and naval departments, in which much is done by contractors and not by men receiving government pay—passing over the Church, which is constantly extended not by law but by voluntary effort—passing over the universities, where the efficient teaching is given not by the appointed officers but by private tutors; let us look at the mode in which our judicial system is worked. Lawyers perpetually tell us that codification is impossible; and some are simple enough to believe them. Merely remarking, in passing, that what government and all its employés cannot do for the Acts of Parliament in general, was done for the 1,500 Customs acts in 1825 by the energy of one man—Mr. Deacon Hume—let us see how the absence of a digested system of law is made good. In preparing themselves for the bar, and finally the bench, law-students, by years of research, have to gain an acquaintance with this vast mass of unorganized legislation; and that organization which it is held impossible for the State to effect, it is held possible (sly sarcasm on the State!) for each student to effect for himself. Every judge can privately codify, though “united wisdom” cannot. But how is each judge enabled to codify? By the private enterprise of men who have prepared the way for him; by the partial codifications of Blackstone, Coke, and others; by the digests of partnership-law, bankruptcy-law, law of patents, laws affecting women, and the rest that daily issue from the press; by abstracts of cases, and volumes of reports—every one of them unofficial products. Sweep away all these fractional codifications made by individuals, and the State would be in utter ignorance of its own laws! Had not the bunglings of legislators been made good by private enterprise, the administration of justice would have been impossible!
Where, then, is the warrant for the constantly proposed extensions of legislative action? If, as we have seen in a large class of cases, government measures do not remedy the evils they aim at; if, in another large class, they make these evils worse instead of remedying them; and if, in a third large class, while curing some evils they entail others, and often greater ones; if, as we lately saw, public action is continually outdone in efficiency by private action; and if, as just shown, private action is obliged to make up for the shortcomings of public action, even in fulfilling the vital functions of the State; what reason is there for wishing more public administrations? The advocates of such may claim credit for philanthropy, but not for wisdom; unless wisdom is shown by disregarding experience.
“Much of this argument is beside the question,” will rejoin our opponents. “The true point at issue is, not whether individuals and companies outdo the State when they come in competition with it, but whether there are not certain social wants which the State alone can satisfy. Admitting that private enterprise does much, and does it well, it is nevertheless true that we have daily thrust upon our notice many desiderata which it has not achieved and is not achieving. In these cases its incompetency is obvious; and in these cases, therefore, it behooves the State to make up for its deficiencies: doing this, if not well, yet as well as it can.”
Not to fall back upon the many experiences already quoted, showing that the State is likely to do more harm than good in attempting this; nor to dwell upon the fact that, in most of the alleged cases, the apparent insufficiency of private enterprise is a result of previous State-interferences, as may be conclusively shown; let us deal with the proposition on its own terms. Though there would have been no need for a Mercantile Marine Act to prevent the unseaworthiness of ships and the ill-treatment of sailors, had there been no Navigation Laws to produce these; and though were all like cases of evils and shortcomings directly or indirectly produced by law, taken out of the category, there would probably remain but small basis for the plea above put; yet let it be granted that, every artificial obstacle having been removed, there would still remain many desiderata unachieved, which there was no seeing how spontaneous effort could achieve. Let all this, we say, be granted; the propriety of legislative action may yet be rightly questioned.
For the said plea involves the unwarrantable assumption that social agencies will continue to work only as they are now working; and will produce no results but those they seem likely to produce. It is the habit of this school of thinkers to make a limited human intelligence the measure of phenomena which it requires omniscience to grasp. That which it does not see the way to, it does not believe will take place. Though society has, generation after generation, been growing to developments which none foresaw, yet there is no practical belief in unforeseen developments in the future. The Parliamentary debates constitute an elaborate balancing of probabilities, having for data things as they are. Meanwhile every day adds new elements to things as they are, and seemingly improbable results constantly occur. Who, a few years ago, expected that a Leicester Square refugee would shortly become Emperor of the French? Who looked for free trade from a landlords’ Ministry? Who dreamed that Irish over-population would spontaneously cure itself, as it is now doing? So far from social changes arising in likely ways, they usually arise in ways which, to common sense, appear unlikely. A barber’s shop was not a probable-looking place for the germination of the cotton-manufacture. No one supposed that important agricultural improvements would come from a Leadenhall Street tradesman. A farmer would have been the last man thought of to bring to bear the screw-propulsion of steamships. The invention of a new species of architecture we should have hoped from any one rather than a gardener. Yet while the most unexpected changes are daily wrought out in the strangest ways, legislation daily assumes that things will go just as human foresight thinks they will go. Though by the trite exclamation, “What would our forefathers have said!” there is a frequent acknowledgment of the fact that wonderful results have been achieved in modes wholly unforeseen, yet there seems no belief that this will be again. Would it not be wise to admit such a probability into our politics? May we not rationally infer that, as in the past, so in the future?
This strong faith in State-agencies is, however, accompanied by so weak a faith in natural agencies (the two being antagonistic), that, in spite of past experience, it will by many be thought absurd to rest in the conviction that existing social needs will be spontaneously met, though we cannot say how they will be met. Nevertheless, illustrations exactly to the point are now transpiring before their eyes. Instance the scarcely credible phenomenon lately witnessed in the midland counties. Every one has heard of the distress of the stockingers; a chronic evil of some generation or two’s standing. Repeated petitions have prayed Parliament for remedy; and legislation has made attempts, but without success. The disease seemed incurable. Two or three years since, however, the circular knitting machine was introduced; a machine immensely outstripping the old stocking-frame in productiveness, but which can make only the legs of stockings, not the feet. Doubtless, the Leicester and Nottingham artisans regarded this new engine with alarm, as likely to intensify their miseries. On the contrary, it has wholly removed them. By cheapening production it has so enormously increased consumption, that the old stocking-frames, which were before too many by half for the work to be done, are now all employed in putting feet to the legs which the new machines make. How insane would he have been thought who anticipated cure from such a cause! If from the unforeseen removal of evils we turn to the unforeseen achievement of desiderata, we find like cases. No one recognized in Oersted’s electromagnetic discovery the germ of a new agency for the catching of criminals and the facilitation of commerce. No one expected railways to become agents for the diffusion of cheap literature, as they now are. No one supposed when the Society of Arts was planning an international exhibition of manufacturers in Hyde Park, that the result would be a place for popular recreation and culture at Sydenham.
But there is yet a deeper reply to the appeals of impatient philanthropists. It is not simply that social vitality may be trusted by-and-by to fulfil each much-exaggerated requirement in some quiet spontaneous way—it is not simply that when thus naturally fulfilled it will be fulfilled efficiently, instead of being botched as when attempted artificially; but it is that until thus naturally fulfilled it ought not to be fulfilled at all. A startling paradox, this, to many; but one quite justifiable, as we hope shortly to show.
It was pointed out some distance back, that the force which produces and sets in motion every social mechanism—governmental, mercantile, or other—is some accumulation of personal desires. As there is no individual action without a desire, so, it was urged, there can be no social action without an aggregate of desires. To which there here remains to add, that as it is a general law of the individual that the intenser desires—those corresponding to all-essential functions—are satisfied first, and if need be to the neglect of the weaker and less important ones; so, it must be a general law of society that the chief requisites of social life—those necessary to popular existence and multiplication—will, in the natural order of things, be subserved before those of a less pressing kind. As the private man first ensures himself food; then clothing and shelter; these being secured, takes a wife; and, if he can afford it, presently supplies himself with carpeted rooms, and a piano, and wines, hires servants and gives dinner-parties; so, in the evolution of society, we see first a combination for defence against enemies, and for the better pursuit of game; by-and-by come such political arrangements as are needed to maintain this combination; afterwards, under a demand for more food, more clothes, more houses, arises division of labor; and when satisfaction of the animal wants has been provided for, there slowly grow up literature, science, and the arts. Is it not obvious that these successive evolutions occur in the order of their importance? Is it not obvious, that, being each of them produced by an aggregate of desires, they must occur in the order of their importance, if it be a law of the individual that the strongest desires correspond to the most needful actions? Is it not, indeed, obvious that the order of relative importance will be more uniformly followed in social action than in individual action; seeing that the personal idiosyncrasies which disturb that order in the latter case are averaged in the former? If any one does not see this, let him take up a book describing life at the gold-diggings. There he will find the whole process exhibited in little. He will read that as the diggers must eat, they are compelled to offer such prices for food that it pays better to keep a store than to dig. As the store-keepers must get supplies, they give enormous sums for carriage from the nearest town; and some men, quickly seeing they can get rich at that, make it their business. This brings drays and horses into demand; the high rates draw these from all quarters; and, after them, wheel-wrights and harness-makers. Blacksmiths to sharpen pickaxes, doctors to cure fevers, get pay exorbitant in proportion to the need for them; and are so brought flocking in proportionate numbers. Presently commodities become scarce; more must be fetched from abroad; sailors must have increased wages to prevent them from deserting and turning miners; this necessitates higher charges for freight; higher freights quickly bring more ships; and so there rapidly develops an organization for supplying goods from all parts of the world. Every phase of this evolution takes place in the order of its necessity; or, as we say, in the order of the intensity of the desires subserved. Each man does that which he finds pays best; that which pays best is that for which other men will give most; that for which they will give most is that which, under the circumstances, they most desire. Hence the succession must be throughout from the most important to the less important. A requirement which at any period remains unfulfilled, must be one for the fulfilment of which men will not pay so much as to make it worth any one’s while to fulfil it—must be a less requirement than all the others for the fulfilment of which they will pay more; and must wait until other more needful things are done. Well, is it not clear that the same law holds good in every community? Is it not true of the latter phases of social evolution, as of the earlier, that when things are let alone the smaller desiderata will be postponed to the greater?
Hence, then, the justification of the seeming paradox, that until spontaneously fulfilled, a public want should not be fulfilled at all. It must, on the average, result in our complex state, as in simpler ones, that the thing left undone is a thing by doing which citizens cannot gain so much as by doing other things; is therefore a thing which society does not want done so much as it wants these other things done; and the corollary is, that to effect a neglected thing by artificially employing citizens to do it, is to leave undone some more important thing which they would have been doing; is to sacrifice the greater requisite to the smaller.
“But,” it will perhaps be objected, “if the things done by a government, or at least by a representative government, are also done in obedience to some aggregate desire, why may we not look for this normal subordination of the more needful to the less needful in them too?” The reply is, that though they have a certain tendency to follow this order; though those primal desires for public defence and personal protection, out of which government originates, were satisfied through its instrumentality in proper succession; though, possibly, some other early and simple requirements may have been so too; yet, when the desires are not few, universal and intense, but, like those remaining to be satisfied in the latter stages of civilization, numerous, partial, and moderate, the judgment of a government is no longer to be trusted. To select out of an immense number of minor wants, physical, intellectual, and moral, felt in different degrees by different classes, and by a total mass varying in every case, the want that is most pressing, is a task which no legislature can accomplish. No man or men by inspecting society can see what it most needs; society must be left to feel what it most needs. The mode of solution must be experimental, not theoretical. When left, day after day, to experience evils and dissatisfactions of various kinds, affecting them in various degrees, citizens gradually acquire repugnance to these proportionate to their greatness, and corresponding desires to get rid of them, which by spontaneously fostering remedial agencies are likely to end in the worst inconvenience being first removed. And however irregular this process may be (and we admit that men’s habits and prejudices produce many anomalies, or seeming anomalies, in it) it is a process far more trustworthy than are legislative judgments. For those who question this, there are instances; and, that the parallel may be the more conclusive, we will take a case in which the ruling power is deemed specially fit to decide. We refer to our means of communication.
Do those who maintain that railways would have been better laid out and constructed by government, hold that the order of importance would have been as uniformly followed as it has been by private enterprise? Under the stimulus of an enormous traffic—a traffic too great for the then existing means—the first line sprung up between Liverpool and Manchester. Next came the Grand Junction and the London and Birmingham (now merged in the London and Northwestern); afterwards the Great Western, the Southwestern, the Southeastern, the Eastern Counties, the Midland. Since then subsidiary lines and branches have occupied our capitalists. As they were quite certain to do, companies made first the most needed, and therefore the best paying, lines; under the same impulse that a laborer chooses high wages in preference to low. That government would have adopted a better order can hardly be, for the best has been followed; but that it would have adopted a worse, all the evidence we have goes to show. In default of materials for a direct parallel, we might cite from India and the colonies, cases of injudicious road-making. Or, as exemplifying State-efforts to facilitate communication, we might dwell on the fact that while our rulers have sacrificed hundreds of lives and spent untold treasure in seeking a Northwest passage, which would be useless if found, they have left the exploration of the Isthmus of Panama, and the making of railways and canals through it, to private companies. But, not to make much of this indirect evidence, we will content ourselves with the one sample of a State-made channel for commerce, which we have at home—the Caledonian Canal. Up to the present time (1853), this public work has cost upwards of £1,100,000. It has now been open for many years, and salaried emissaries have been constantly employed to get traffic for it. The results, as given in its forty-seventh annual report, issued in 1852, are—receipts during the year, £7,909; expenditure ditto, £9,261; loss, £1,352. Has any such large investment been made with such a pitiful result by a private canal company?
And if a government is so bad a judge of the relative importance of social requirements, when these requirements are of the same kind, how worthless a judge must it be when they are of different kinds. If, where a fair share of intelligence might be expected to lead them right, legislators and their officers go so wrong, how terribly will they err where no amount of intelligence would suffice them,—where they must decide among hosts of needs, bodily, intellectual, and moral, which admit of no direct comparisons; and how disastrous must be the results if they act out their erroneous decisions. Should any one need this bringing home to him by an illustration, let him read the following extract from the last of the series of letters some time since published in the Morning Chronicle, on the state of agriculture in France. After expressing the opinion that French farming is some century behind English farming, the writer goes on to say:
There are two causes principally chargeable with this. In the first place, strange as it may seem in a country in which two-thirds of the population are agriculturists, agriculture is a very unhonoured occupation. Develop in the slightest degree a Frenchman’s mental faculties, and he flies to a town as surely as steel filings fly to a loadstone. He has no rural tastes, no delight in rural habits. A French amateur farmer would indeed be a sight to see. Again, this national tendency is directly encouraged by the centralizing system of government—by the multitude of the officials, and by the payment of all functionaries. From all parts of France, men of great energy and resource struggle up, and fling themselves on the world of Paris. There they try to become great functionaries. Through every department of the eighty-four, men of less energy and resource struggle up to the chef-lieu—the provincial capital. There they try to become little functionaries. Go still lower—deal with a still smaller scale—and the result will be the same. As is the department to France, so is the arrondissement to the department, and the commune to the arrondissement. All who have, or think they have, heads on their shoulders, struggle into towns to fight for office. All who are, or are deemed by themselves or others, too stupid for anything else, are left at home to till the fields, and breed the cattle, and prune the vines, as their ancestors did for generations before them. Thus there is actually no intelligence left in the country. The whole energy, and knowledge, and resource of the land are barreled up in the towns. You leave one city, and in many cases you will not meet an educated or cultivated individual until you arrive at another; all between is utter intellectual barrenness.
To what end now is this constant abstraction of able men from rural districts? To the end that there may be enough functionaries to achieve those many desiderata which French Governments have thought ought to be achieved—to provide amusements, to manage mines, to construct roads and bridges, to erect numerous buildings; to print books, encourage the fine arts, control this trade, and inspect that manufacture; to do all the hundred-and-one things which the State does in France. That the army of officers needed for this may be maintained, agriculture must go unofficered. That certain social conveniences may be better secured, the chief social necessity is neglected. The very basis of the national life is sapped, to gain a few non-essential advantages. Said we not truly, then, that until a requirement is spontaneously fulfilled, it should not be fulfilled at all?
And here indeed we may recognize the close kinship between the fundamental fallacy involved in these State-meddlings and the fallacy lately exploded by the free-trade agitation. These various law-made instrumentalities for effecting ends which might otherwise not yet be effected, all embody a subtler form of the protectionist hypothesis. The same short-sightedness which, looking at commerce, prescribed bounties and restrictions, looking at social affairs in general, prescribes these multiplied administrations; and the same criticism applies alike to all its proceedings.
For was not the error that vitiated every law aiming at the artificial maintenance of a trade, substantially that which we have just been dwelling upon; namely this overlooking of the fact that, in setting people to do one thing, some other thing is inevitably left undone? The statesmen who thought it wise to protect home-made silks against French silks, did so under the impression that the manufacture thus secured constituted a pure gain to the nation. They did not reflect that the men employed in this manufacture would otherwise have been producing something else; a something else which, as they could produce it without legal help, they could more profitably produce. Landlords who have been so anxious to prevent foreign wheat from displacing their own wheat, have never duly realized the fact that if their fields would not yield wheat so economically as to prevent the feared displacement, it simply proved that they were growing unfit crops in place of fit crops; and so working their land at a relative loss. In all cases where, by restrictive duties, a trade has been upheld that would otherwise not have existed, capital has been turned into a channel less productive than some other into which it would naturally have flowed. And so, to pursue certain State-patronized occupations, men have been drawn from more advantageous occupations.
Clearly then, as above alleged, the same oversight runs through all these interferences; be they with commerce, or be they with other things. In employing people to achieve this or that desideratum, legislators have not perceived that they were thereby preventing the achievement of some other desideratum. They have habitually assumed that each proposed good would, if secured, be a pure good, instead of being a good purchasable only by submission to some evil which would else have been remedied; and, making this error, have injuriously diverted men’s labor. As in trade, so in other things, labor will spontaneously find out, better than any government can find out for it, the things on which it may best expend itself. Rightly regarded, the two propositions are identical. This division into commercial and non-commercial affairs is quite a superficial one. All the actions going on in society come under the generalization: human effort ministering to human desire. Whether the ministration be effected through a process of buying and selling, or whether in any other way, matters not so far as the general law of it is concerned. In all cases it must be true that the stronger desires will get themselves satisfied before the weaker ones; and in all cases it must be true that to get satisfaction for the weaker ones before they would naturally have it, is to deny satisfaction to the stronger ones.
To the immense positive evils entailed by over-legislation have to be added the equally great negative evils; evils which, notwithstanding their greatness, are scarcely at all recognized, even by the far-seeing. While the State does those things which it ought not to do, as an inevitable consequence, it leaves undone those things which it ought to do. Time and activity being limited, it necessarily follows that legislators’ sins of commission entail sins of omission. Mischievous meddling involves disastrous neglect; and until statesmen are ubiquitous and omnipotent, must ever do so. In the very nature of things an agency employed for two purposes must fulfil both imperfectly; partly because while fulfilling the one it cannot be fulfilling the other, and partly, because its adaptation to both ends implies incomplete fitness for either. As has been well said à propos of this point, “A blade which is designed both to shave and to carve, will certainly not shave so well as a razor or carve so well as a carving-knife. An academy of painting, which should also be a bank, would in all probability exhibit very bad pictures and discount very bad bills. A gas-company, which should also be an infant-school society, would, we apprehend, light the streets ill, and teach the children ill.” And if an institution undertakes, not two functions but a score; if a government, whose office it is to defend citizens against aggressors, foreign and domestic, engages also to disseminate Christianity, to administer charity, to teach children their lessons, to adjust prices of food, to inspect coal-mines, to regulate railways, to superintend house-building, to arrange cab-fares, to look into people’s stink-traps, to vaccinate their children, to send out emigrants, to prescribe hours of labor, to examine lodging-houses, to test the knowledge of mercantile captains, to provide public libraries, to read and authorize dramas, to inspect passenger-ships, to see that small dwellings are supplied with water, to regulate endless things from a banker’s issues down to the boat-fares on the Serpentine; is it not manifest that its primary duty must be ill-discharged in proportion to the multiplicity of affairs it busies itself with? Must not its time and energies be frittered away in schemes, and inquiries, and amendments, in discussions, and divisions, to the neglect of its essential business? And does not a glance over the debates make it clear that this is the fact? and that, while Parliament and public are alike occupied with these mischievous interferences, these utopian hopes, the one thing needful is left almost undone?
See here, then, the proximate cause of our legal abominations. We drop the substance in our efforts to catch shadows. While our firesides and clubs and taverns are filled with talk about corn-law questions, and church questions, and education questions, and poor-law questions—all of them raised by over-legislation—the justice-question gets scarcely any attention; and we daily submit to be oppressed, cheated, robbed. This institution which should succor the man who has fallen among thieves, turns him over to solicitors, barristers, and a legion of law-officers; drains his purse for writs, briefs, affidavits, subpœnas, fees of all kinds and expenses innumerable; involves him in the intricacies of common courts, chancery-courts, suits, counter-suits, and appeals; and often ruins where it should aid. Meanwhile, meetings are called and leading articles written and votes asked and societies formed and agitations carried on, not to rectify these gigantic evils, but partly to abolish our ancestors’ mischievous meddlings and partly to establish meddlings of our own. Is it not obvious that this fatal neglect is a result of this mistaken officiousness? Suppose that external and internal protection had been the sole recognized functions of the ruling powers: is it conceivable that our administration of justice would have been as corrupt as now? Can any one believe that had Parliamentary elections been habitually contested on questions of legal reform, our judicial system would still have been what Sir John Romilly calls it, “a technical system invented for the creation of costs” ? Does any one suppose that, if the efficient defence of person and property had been the constant subject-matter of hustings pledges, we should yet be waylaid by a Chancery court which has now more than two hundred millions of property in its clutches; which keeps suits pending fifty years, until all the funds are gone in fees; which swallows in costs two millions annually? Dare any one assert that had constituencies been always canvassed on principles of law-reform versus law-conservatism, ecclesiastical courts would have continued for centuries fattening on the goods of widows and orphans? The questions are next to absurd. A child may see that with the general knowledge people have of legal corruptions and the universal detestation of legal atrocities, an end would long since have been put to them, had the administration of justice always been the political topic. Had not the public mind been constantly preoccupied, it could never have been tolerated that a man neglecting to file an answer to a bill in due course, should be imprisoned fifteen years for contempt of court, as Mr. James Taylor was. It would have been impossible that, on the abolition of their sinecures, the sworn-clerks should have been compensated by the continuance of their exorbitant incomes, not only till death, but for seven years after, at a total estimated cost of £700,000. Were the State confined to its defensive and judicial functions, not only the people but legislators themselves would agitate against abuses. The sphere of activity and the opportunities for distinction being narrowed, all the thought and industry and eloquence which members of Parliament now expend on impracticable schemes and artificial grievances, would be expended in rendering justice pure, certain, prompt, and cheap. The complicated follies of our legal verbiage, which the uninitiated cannot understand and which the initiated interpret in various senses, would be quickly put an end to. We should no longer frequently hear of Acts of Parliament so bunglingly drawn up that it requires half a dozen actions and judges’ decisions under them, before even lawyers can say how they apply. There would be no such stupidly-designed measures as the Railway Winding-up Act, which, though passed in 1846 to close the accounts of the bubble-schemes of the mania, leaves them still unsettled in 1854; which, even with funds in hand, withholds payment from creditors whose claims have been years since admitted. Lawyers would no longer be suffered to maintain and to complicate the present absurd system of land-titles, which, besides the litigation and loss it perpetually causes, lowers the value of estates, prevents the ready application of capital to them, checks the development of agriculture, and thus hinders the improvement of the peasantry and the prosperity of the country. In short, the corruptions, follies, and terrors of law would cease; and that which men now shrink from as an enemy they would come to regard as what it purports to be—a friend.
How vast then is the negative evil which, in addition to the positive evils before enumerated, this meddling policy entails on us! How many are the grievances men bear, from which they would otherwise be free! Who is there that has not submitted to injuries rather than run the risk of heavy law-costs? Who is there that has not abandoned just claims rather than “throw good money after bad” ? Who is there that has not paid unjust demands rather than withstand the threat of an action? This man can point to property that has been alienated from his family from lack of funds or courage to fight for it. That man can name several relations ruined by a lawsuit. Here is a lawyer who has grown rich on the hard earnings of the needy and the savings of the oppressed. There is a once-wealthy trader who has been brought by legal iniquities to the workhouse or the lunatic asylum. The badness of our judicial system vitiates our whole social life: renders almost every family poorer than it would otherwise be; hampers almost every business transaction; inflicts daily anxieties on every trader. And all this loss of property, time, temper, comfort, men quietly submit to from being absorbed in the pursuit of schemes which eventually bring on them other mischiefs.
Nay, the case is even worse. It is distinctly provable that many of these evils about which outcries are raised, and to cure which special Acts of Parliament are loudly invoked, are themselves produced by our disgraceful judicial system. For example, it is well known that the horrors out of which our sanitary agitators make political capital, are found in their greatest intensity on properties that have been for a generation in Chancery; are distinctly traceable to the ruin thus brought about; and would never have existed but for the infamous corruptions of law. Again, it has been shown that the long-drawn miseries of Ireland, which have been the subject of endless legislation, have been mainly produced by inequitable land-tenure and the complicated system of entail: a system which wrought such involvements as to prevent sales; which practically negatived all improvement; which brought landlords to the workhouse; and which required an Incumbered Estates Act to cut its Gordian knots and render the proper cultivation of the soil possible. Judicial negligence, too, is the main cause of railway-accidents. If the State would fulfil its true function, by giving passengers an easy remedy for breach of contract when trains are behind time, it would do more to prevent accidents than can be done by the minutest inspection or the most cunningly-devised regulations; for it is notorious that the majority of accidents are primarily caused by irregularity. In the case of bad house-building, also, it is obvious that a cheap, rigorous, and certain administration of justice, would make Building Acts needless. For is not the man who erects a house of bad materials ill put together, and, concealing these with papering and plaster, sells it as a substantial dwelling, guilty of fraud? And should not the law recognize this fraud as it does in the analogous case of an unsound horse? And if the legal remedy were easy, prompt, and sure, would not builders cease transgressing? So is it in other cases; the evils which men perpetually call on the State to cure by superintendence, themselves arise from non-performance of its original duty.
See then how this vicious policy complicates itself. Not only does meddling legislation fail to cure the evils it aims at; not only does it make many evils worse; not only does it create new evils greater than the old; but while doing this it entails on men the oppressions, robberies, ruin, which flow from the non-administration of justice. And not only to the positive evils does it add this vast negative one, but this again, by fostering many social abuses that would not else exist, furnishes occasions for more meddlings which again act and react in the same way. And thus as ever, “things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.”
After assigning reasons, thus fundamental, for condemning all State-action save that which universal experience has proved to be absolutely needful, it would seem superfluous to assign subordinate ones. Were it called for, we might, taking for text Mr. Lindsay’s work on Navigation and Mercantile Marine Law, say much upon the complexity to which this process of adding regulation to regulation—each necessitated by foregoing ones—ultimately leads: a complexity which, by the misunderstandings, delays, and disputes it entails, greatly hampers our social life. Something, too, might be added upon the perturbing effects of the “gross delusion,” as M. Guizot calls it, “a belief in the sovereign power of political machinery” —a delusion to which he partly ascribes the late revolution in France; and a delusion which is fostered by every new interference. But, passing over these, we would dwell for a short space upon the national enervation which this State-superintendence produces.
The enthusiastic philanthropist, urgent for some Act of Parliament to remedy this evil or secure the other good, thinks it a trivial and far-fetched objection that the people will be morally injured by doing things for them instead of leaving them to do things themselves. He vividly conceives the benefit he hopes to get achieved, which is a positive and readily-imaginable thing. He does not conceive the diffused, invisible, and slowly-accumulating effect wrought on the popular mind, and so does not believe in it; or, if he admits it, thinks it beneath consideration. Would he but remember, however, that all national character is gradually produced by the daily action of circumstances, of which each day’s result seems so insignificant as not to be worth mentioning, he would perceive that what is trifling when viewed in its increments may be formidable when viewed in its total. Or if he would go into the nursery, and watch how repeated actions—each of them apparently unimportant,—create, in the end, a habit which will affect the whole future life, he would be reminded that every influence brought to bear on human nature tells, and, if continued, tells seriously. The thoughtless mother who hourly yields to the requests, “Mamma, tie my pinafore,” “Mamma, button my shoe,” and the like, cannot be persuaded that each of these concessions is detrimental; but the wiser spectator sees that if this policy be long pursued, and be extended to other things, it will end in inaptitude. The teacher of the old school who showed his pupil the way out of every difficulty, did not perceive that he was generating an attitude of mind greatly militating against success in life. The modern teacher, however, induces his pupil to solve his difficulties himself; believes that in so doing he is preparing him to meet the difficulties which, when he goes into the world, there will be no one to help him through; and finds confirmation for this belief in the fact that a great proportion of the most successful men are self-made. Well, is it not obvious that this relationship between discipline and success holds good nationally? Are not nations made of men; and are not men subject to the same laws of modification in their adult years as in their early years? Is it not true of the drunkard, that each carouse adds a thread to his bonds? of the trader, that each acquisition strengthens the wish for acquisitions? of the pauper, that the more you assist him the more he wants? of the busy man, that the more he has to do the more he can do? And does it not follow that if every individual is subject to this process of adaptation to conditions, a whole nation must be so; that just in proportion as its members are little helped by extraneous power they will become self-helping, and in proportion as they are much helped they will become helpless? What folly is it to ignore these results because they are not direct and not immediately visible. Though slowly wrought out, they are inevitable. We can no more elude the laws of human development than we can elude the law of gravitation; and so long as they hold true must these effects occur.
If we are asked in what special directions this alleged helplessness, entailed by much state-superintendence, shows itself, we reply that it is seen in a retardation of all social growths requiring self-confidence in the people; in a timidity that fears all difficulties not before encountered; in a thoughtless contentment with things as they are. Let any one, after duly watching the rapid evolution going on in England, where men have been comparatively little helped by governments—or better still, after contemplating the unparalleled progress of the United States, which is peopled by self-made men, and the recent descendants of self-made men—let such an one, we say, go on to the Continent, and consider the relatively slow advance which things are there making; and the still slower advance they would make but for English enterprise. Let him go to Holland and see that though the Dutch early showed themselves good mechanics, and have had abundant practice in hydraulics, Amsterdam has been without any due supply of water until now that works are being established by an English company. Let him go to Berlin and there be told that, to give that city a water-supply such as London has had for generations, the project of an English firm is about to be executed by English capital, under English superintendence. Let him go to Vienna and learn that it, in common with other continental cities, is lighted by an English gas-company. Let him go on the Rhone, on the Loire, on the Danube, and discover that Englishmen established steam navigation on those rivers. Let him inquire concerning the railways in Italy, Spain, France, Sweden, Denmark, how many of them are English projects, how many have been largely helped by English capital, how many have been executed by English contractors, how many have had English engineers. Let him discover, too, as he will, that where railways have been government-made, as in Russia, the energy, the perseverance, and the practical talent developed in England and the United States have been called in to aid. And then if these illustrations of the progressiveness of a self-dependent race, and the torpidity of paternally-governed ones, do not suffice him, he may read Mr. Laing’s successive volumes of European travel, and there study the contrast in detail. What, now, is the cause of this contrast? In the order of nature, a capacity for self-help must in every case have been brought into existence by the practice of self-help; and, other things equal, a lack of this capacity must in every case have arisen from the lack of demand for it. Do not these two antecedents and their two consequents agree with the facts as presented in England and Europe? Were not the inhabitants of the two, some centuries ago, much upon a par in point of enterprise? Were not the English even behind in their manufactures, in their colonization, in their commerce? Has not the immense relative change the English have undergone in this respect, been coincident with the great relative self-dependence they have been since habituated to? And has not the one been caused by the other? Whoever doubts it, is asked to assign a more probable cause. Whoever admits it, must admit that the enervation of a people by perpetual State-aids is not a trifling consideration, but the most weighty consideration. A general arrest of national growth he will see to be an evil greater than any special benefits can compensate for. And, indeed, when, after contemplating this great fact, the overspreading of the earth by the English, he remarks the absence of any parallel achievement by continental race; when he reflects how this difference must depend chiefly on difference of character, and how such difference of character has been mainly produced by difference of discipline; he will perceive that the policy pursued in this matter may have a large share in determining a nation’s ultimate fate.
We are not sanguine, however, that argument will change the convictions of those who put their trust in legislation. With men of a certain order of thought the foregoing reasons will have weight. With men of another order of thought they will have little or none; nor would any accumulation of such reasons affect them. The truth that experience teaches has its limits. The experiences which teach must be experiences which can be appreciated; and experiences exceeding a certain degree of complexity become inappreciable to the majority. It is thus with most social phenomena. If we remember that for these two thousand years and more, mankind have been making regulations for commerce, which have all along been strangling some trades and killing others with kindness, and that though the proofs of this have been constantly before their eyes, they have only just discovered that they have been uniformly doing mischief; if we remember that even now only a small portion of them see this; we are taught that perpetually-repeated and ever-accumulating experiences will fail to teach, until there exist the mental conditions required for the assimilation of them. Nay, when they are assimilated, it is very imperfectly. The truth they teach is only half understood, even by those supposed to understand it best. For example, Sir Robert Peel, in one of his last speeches, after describing the immensely increased consumption consequent on free trade, goes on to say:
If, then, you can only continue that consumption; if, by your legislation, under the favor of Providence, you can maintain the demand for labor and make your trade and manufactures prosperous; you are not only increasing the sum of human happiness, but are giving the agriculturists of this country the best chance of that increased demand which must contribute to their welfare.
—The Times, Feb. 22, 1850.
Thus the prosperity really due to the abandonment of all legislation, is ascribed to a particular kind of legislation. “You can maintain the demand,” he says; “you can make trade and manufactures prosperous” ; whereas, the facts he quotes prove that they can do this only by doing nothing. The essential truth of the matter—that law had been doing immense harm, and that this prosperity resulted not from law but from the absence of law—is missed; and his faith in legislation in general, which should, by this experience, have been greatly shaken, seemingly remains as strong as ever. Here, again, is the House of Lords, apparently not yet believing in the relationship of supply and demand, adopting within these few weeks the standing order—
That before the first reading of any bill for making any work in the construction of which compulsory power is sought to take thirty houses or more, inhabited by the labouring classes in any one parish or place, the promoters be required to deposit in the office of the clerk of the Parliaments a statement of the number, description, and situation of the said houses, the number (so far as they can be estimated) of persons to be displaced, and whether any, and what, provision is made in the bill for remedying the inconvenience likely to arise from such displacements.
If, then, in the comparatively simple relationships of trade, the teachings of experience remain for so many ages unperceived, and are so imperfectly apprehended when they are perceived, it is scarcely to be hoped that where all social phenomena—moral, intellectual, and physical—are involved, any due appreciation of the truths displayed will presently take place. The facts cannot yet get recognized as facts. As the alchemist attributed his successive disappointments to some disproportion in the ingredients, some inpurity, or some too great temperature, and never to the futility of his process or the impossibility of his aim; so, every failure of State-regulations the law-worshipper explains away as being caused by this trifling oversight, or that little mistake: all which oversights and mistakes he assures you will in future be avoided. Eluding the facts as he does after this fashion, volley after volley of them produce no effect.
Indeed this faith in governments is in a certain sense organic; and can diminish only by being outgrown. From the time when rulers were thought demi-gods, there has been a gradual decline in men’s estimates of their power. This decline is still in progress, and has still far to go. Doubtless, every increment of evidence furthers it in some degree, though not to the degree that at first appears. Only in so far as it modifies character does it produce a permanent effect. For while the mental type remains the same, the removal of a special error is inevitably followed by the growth of other errors of the same genus. All superstitions die hard; and we fear that this belief in government-omnipotence will form no exception.
[* ]Workhouses supported by the Union of several communities. In Scotland they are called “combination poorhouses.”
[* ]“Nunky” diminutive of “uncle.” As we would say, “Uncle Sam pays.”
[* ]The political Corporation of London; not a private corporation.—Ed.