Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 27.: The Limits of State Duties–Continued - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 27.: The Limits of State Duties–Continued - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 2.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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The Limits of State Duties–Continued
368. We saw (in chap. 23) that at a later stage of evolution a society may acquire a nature fundamentally unlike the nature it had at an earlier stage; and we drew the corollary that a theory of state duties appropriate when it had one nature must be inappropriate when it has the other nature. Here we have to draw a further corollary. The implied change of nature absolves the state from various functions for which it was at first the best agent; and generates for these functions other and better agents.
While war was the business of life, while militant organization was imperative, and while coercive rule was needful for disciplining improvident men and curbing their antisocial natures, agencies of a nongovernmental kind could not develop. Citizens had neither the means, nor the experience, nor the characters, nor the ideas, needed for privately cooperating in extensive ways. Hence all large purposes devolved on the state. If roads had to be made, if canals had to be cut, if aqueducts had to be built, the only instrumentality was governmental power exercised over slaves.
But with decline of militancy and rise of industrialism–the decay of the system of status and growth of the system of contract–there have gradually become possible, and have gradually arisen, multitudinous voluntary associations among citizens for discharging numerous kinds of functions. This result has been consequent on modifications of habits, dispositions, and modes of thought, which have been, generation after generation, produced by the daily exchange of services under agreement, in place of the daily enforcing of services. One result is that there can now be achieved without governmental power, various ends which in early days governmental power alone could achieve.
In discussing the sphere of state action we must take into account this profoundly significant fact. More than this: we must take into account a manifest inference. The changes above indicated are far from being ended; and we are justified in concluding that with further progress of them there may rightly go further relinquishment of functions which the state once discharged.
369. That such relinquishment of functions by the state, and assumption of them by other agencies, constitutes a progress, should be manifest to all who know anything about the laws of organization: though, unhappily, this truth seems no more appreciated by them than by those who began their school days with making nonsense verses and pass their mature years in pushing forward ad captandum legislation. For concerning individual organisms and social organisms, nothing is more certain than that advance from lower to higher, is marked by increasing heterogeneity of structures and increasing subdivision of functions. In both cases there is mutual dependence of parts, which becomes greater as the type becomes higher; and while this implies a progressing limitation of one function to one part, it implies also a progressing fitness of such part for such function.
When, some fifty years ago, Milne-Edwards gave to this principle of development in animals the name “physiological division of labor,” he recognized the parallelism between vital economy and social economy; and this parallelism has been since growing ever clearer. But though among the cultured few, there is now some vague recognition of it; and though more especially the increasing division of labor which the industrial part of the social organism displays, has been made familiar by political economists, and the advantages of it duly insisted upon; there is little or no perception of the truth that the principle holds also within the controlling part, and throughout its relations to the other parts. Even without the facts which illustrate it, we might be certain that specialization, with consequent limitation, normally takes place in the regulative structures of a society as in all its other structures; that advantage is achieved by such specialization and limitation; and that any reverse change constitutes a retrogression.
The implication is therefore the same as before. All embracing state functions characterize a low social type; and progress to a higher social type is marked by relinquishments of functions.
370. Most readers will feel little faith in these general conclusions. It will be needful to enforce them by arguments more readily appreciated.
In section 5 I named the fact that the welfare of any living body depends on the due proportioning of its several parts to their several duties; and that the needful balance of power among the parts is effected by a constant competition for nutriment, and the flowing to each of a quantity corresponding to its work. That competition throughout the industrial parts of a society achieves a kindred balance in a kindred way, needs no proof; and that social needs at large are best subserved by carrying out, wherever possible, this relation between effort and benefit, is manifest.
Now in all those nongovernmental cooperations constituting the greater part of modern social life, this balancing is spontaneously effected. I need not dwell on the principle of supply and demand as displayed throughout our industrial organization; and I need not do more than hint that this same principle holds throughout all other nongovernmental agencies–bodies for voluntary religious teaching, philanthropic associations, trades unions. Among all such, activity and growth, or quiescence and decay, occur according as they do or do not fulfill wants that are felt. Nor is this all. A truth which cannot be too much emphasized is that under this stress of competition, each of these agencies is impelled to perform the greatest amount of function in return for a given amount of nutrition. Moreover, competition constantly impels it to improve; to which end it not only utilizes the best appliances but is anxious to get the best men. The direct relation between efficiency and prosperity obliges all voluntary cooperations to work at high pressure.
Contrariwise, the compulsory cooperations by which governmental actions are effected, instead of direct relations between function and nutrition, show us highly indirect relations. Public departments, all of them regimented after the militant fashion, all supported by taxes forcibly taken, and severally responsible to their heads, mostly appointed for party reasons, are not immediately dependent for their means of living and growing on those whom they are designed to benefit. There is no fear of bankruptcy to prompt efficient and rapid performance of duty; there is no taking away of business by an opponent who does work more economically; there is no augmenting of profits by adopting improvements, still less by devising them. Every kind of defect results. As was lately said to me by one official concerning another, on whose remissness I was commenting, “Oh, he gets good pay and doesn't want to be bothered.” In consequence of this indirectness of relation between benefits yielded and payments received, governmental agencies may continue to exist and draw funds for years, and sometimes for generations, after they have ceased to be of service; and when they are weak, or careless, or slow, the inefficiency has to be rectified by pressure exercised through the governmental machine–a machine so cumbrous and complex that only great pressure exercised with great patience can effect the needful change.
371. Every day's papers thrust illustrations of these truths before the world, in relation even to those essential functions which we have no alternative but to devolve on the state. The ill-working of the appliances for national protection and individual protection is a ceaseless scandal.
Army administration is exemplified by the retention of a royal duke as commander-in-chief, by the multiplicity of generals made in satisfaction of class interests, by promotion that is only in small measure determined by merit. It is again exemplified by keeping our own officers in ignorance of improvements which foreign officers are allowed to see; and by the repeated leaking out of secrets through employees in the arsenals. And it is yet again exemplified by the astounding disclosures respecting stores–bayonets that bend, swords that break, cartridges that jam, shells of wrong sizes; so that, as said by the Inquiry Commission of 1887: “The present system is directed to no definite object; it is regulated by no definite rules; it makes no regular stated provision, either for the proper supply and manufacture of warlike stores, or for enforcing the responsibility of those who fail to make them properly, or for ascertaining the fact that they are made improperly.”
That the navy keeps the army in countenance, complaint, inquiry. and exposure, continually remind us. All remember the story of the naval evolutions on the occasion of the Jubilee, when, without the stress of a sea fight, more than a dozen vessels, great and small, came to grief in one way or other–collisions, explosions, breakdowns of engines, and so forth. And then there were the smaller but equally significant disasters which, in the same year, attended the cruise of twentyfour torpedo boats down channel and back; during which eight of the twenty-four were more or less disabled. Vessels that will not steer, guns that burst, ships that run aground, are frequently reported; and then, furnishing a significant contrast, when a first-class man-of-war, the Sultan, after running on a rock, sinks and is regarded by the Admiralty as lost, it is raised again and saved by a private company. To which add that the report concerning Admiralty administration issued in March 1887 showed that “such management as is here disclosed would bring any commercial firm into the Bankruptcy Court in a few months.”
Similarly is it with the making and administration of laws. So constant is the exposure of folly and failure, that the public sense of them is seared. In parliamentary procedure we meet with the extremes of utter recklessness and irrational carefulness: now a bill is hurried through all its stages without debate, and now, after careful consideration has delayed its enactment, it is dropped and has to pass through the whole process again next session. While we see the amending and reamending of clauses aimed to meet every contingency, we see the whole act when passed thrown on to the immense chaotic heap of preceding legislation, making its confusion worse confounded. Complaint and denunciation lead to nothing. Here, in 1867, is the report of a commission formed of leading lawyers and statesmen–Cranworth, Westbury, Cairns, and others–urging the need for a digest as a preparation for a code; and urging that it is a national duty to provide citizens with a means of knowing the laws they have to conform to. Yet, though the question has been occasionally raised, nothing has been done–nothing, that is, by the state, but something by private individuals: Chitty's Equity Index and Sir James Stephen's Digest of the Criminal Law, have to some extent taught legislators what has been done by themselves and their predecessors. Then there is the fact, to the monstrosity of which custom blinds us, that even lawyers do not know what the bearings of a new act are until judges have made decisions under it; while the judges themselves exclaim against the bungling legislation they have to interpret: one judge saying of a clause that he “did not believe its meaning was comprehended either by the draftsman who drew it” or “the parliament that adopted it,” and another declaring that “it was impossible for human skill to find words more calculated to puzzle everybody.” As a natural consequence we have every day appeals and again appeals–decisions being reversed and re-reversed, and the poorer litigants being compelled to submit by the wealthier ones, who can ruin them by going from court to court. The incredible disproportion of sentences, too, is a daily scandal. Here a hungry harvester is sent to prison for eating a pennyworth of the field beans he was cutting, as happened at Faversham; and there a rich man who has committed a violent assault has to pay a fine which to him is trivial. Still more disgraceful is the treatment of men charged with unproved offenses, and men who have been proved innocent: these being kept in prison for months before trials which show them to be guiltless, and those, after bearing long punishments before their innocence is shown, being granted “free pardons” and no compensation for inflicted sufferings and damaged lives.
Even the smallest daily transaction–the paying of a cab-man or the purchase of a necktie–serves to remind one of official bungling; for how can it be better shown than by the coinage? In this we have frequent changes where changes are undesirable. We have mixed systems: decimal, duodecimal, and nondescript. Until recently we had two scarcely distinguishable pieces for threepence and fourpence; we had, four years since, the Jubilee sixpence withdrawn because it stimulated a half-sovereign so exactly that it needed only to be gilt to pass for one. We have the lately introduced four-shilling piece, only by deliberate inspection distinguishable from a five-shilling piece. In most cases there lacks the one needful piece of information–the declared value of the coin. And once more there are no proper adjustments to the demands: everywhere there is an unsatisfied cry for small change.
So that the inference which the general laws of organization compel us to draw, is inductively verified in respect of the three all-essential departments of the state, as well as in a subordinate department, by evidence which every day increases.
372. There are two leading implications of this general truth above exhibited in the abstract, and above exemplified in the concrete.
If people at large tolerate the extravagance, the stupidity, the carelessness, the obstructiveness, daily exemplified in the military, naval, and legal administrations; much more will they tolerate them when exemplified in departments which are neither so vitally important nor occupy so large a space in the public mind. The vices of officialism must exist throughout public organizations of every kind, and may be expected to go to greater extremes where the necessity for checking them is less pressing. Not only, then, may we rationally conclude that when, beyond its essential functions, the state undertakes nonessential functions, it will perform these equally ill, but we may rationally conclude that its performance of them will be still worse.
The second implication is that the ill-performance of essential functions is itself made more extreme by the absorption of attention and energy in discharging nonessential functions. It cannot but be that the power to conduct a few businesses is diminished by the addition of many other businesses to be conducted: and it cannot but be that when public criticism is directed to shortcomings of many kinds it must be less efficient than when directed to shortcomings of few kinds. If, instead of being almost wholly occupied with other things, Parliament were occupied almost wholly with the administrations for external protection and internal protection, no one will dare to deny that these would be more efficient than now; and no one will dare to assert that, if discussions on the platform and in the press were almost wholly about these administrations instead of being almost wholly about other things, the public would tolerate such inefficiency of them as it now does.
Thus whether we wish to avoid the multiplication of ill-performed functions, or whether we wish to have the essential functions better performed, the requirement is the same–limitation. Specialization of functions directly improves the discharge of each function by adjusting the organ to it, and indirectly improves the discharge of other functions by permitting each to acquire an appropriate organ.
373. The foregoing reasons for concluding that in the administration of social affairs the just is also the politic, will weigh but little with the majority. The beliefs in natural law and the universality of causation are not very strong even in the scientific world when vital phenomena are in question; and they are very feeble in the outer world. Only such of the above arguments as are based on facts daily published are likely to tell; and the adequacy of even these will be denied by most.
It will, therefore, be needful to reinforce them by others drawn from evidences directly relevant. Let us devote a chapter to these.