Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 9.: Political Beneficence - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 9.: Political Beneficence - 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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466. The injunction ascribed to Charles I, “Touch no state matters,” was one appropriately enough promulgated by a king; for a king naturally likes to have his own way. Ready conformity to the injunction, however, on the part of subjects, does not appear so natural; and yet throughout the past it has been general, and is not uncommon even now. There are many who, though they probably never heard of this rule of King Charles, unconsciously subordinate themselves to it, and seem to take a pride in their subordination. “I never meddle in politics,” you may hear a tradesman say; and he says it in a way implying that he thinks the abstention creditable.
There have, indeed, been times–bad times–to which this mental attitude was fit. In days of exclusive militancy, when slavish submission was conducive to efficiency in war, individuality of thought and action was out of place. But under a political regime like that into which we have grown, taking a share in political life is the duty of every citizen; and not to do so is at once shortsighted, ungrateful, and mean: shortsighted, because abstention, if general, must bring decay of any good institutions which exist; ungrateful, because to leave uncared for these good institutions which patriotic an cestors established, is to ignore our indebtedness to them; mean, because to benefit by such institutions and devolve the maintenance and improvement of them entirely upon others, implies readiness to receive an advantage and give nothing in return.
For a free political organization to remain alive and healthy. all its units must play their parts. If numbers of them remain passive, the organization, in so far as they are concerned, is dead; and, in proportion as such numbers increase, must corrupt. Political beneficence includes the duty of preventing this. Let us glance at some of the evils arising from disregard of this duty, and the benefits which greater regard of it would bring, alike to self and to others.
467. When the system of status has passed into the system of contract, it becomes requisite that the system of contract shall be properly carried out. Protection of life and liberty being presupposed, the one requisite to a social life carried on by voluntary cooperation, is that agreements shall be fulfilled–that for a given amount of work the specified wages shall be paid; that for a definite portion of a commodity there shall be handed over its price in money or an equivalent; that when certain actions are undertaken on certain conditions, the actions shall be performed and the conditions observed. While criminal law has to yield protection against direct aggression, civil law has to yield protection against indirect aggression. And each citizen is, to the extent of his ability, responsible for the efficient performance of these functions.
Unfortunately at present each citizen has little or no consciousness of any such responsibility. If he feels called on to take any share in political life, it is a share in electioneering, or a share in some agitation for shortening hours, or diminishing the number of licenses, or empowering municipal bodies to buy up waterworks, make tramways, &c. As to maintenance of the primary condition to a healthy social life–that each citizen shall have the entire benefit his actions bring while he shall not be allowed to impose on others any evils his actions bring, and that to achieve these ends each shall be compelled to do all he has undertaken to do, and be entitled to receive all he bargained to receive–as to these essential things, the ordinary citizen thinks little or nothing about them. He thinks only of superficial questions and overlooks the fundamental question. He forgets the folly of a legislature which, generation after generation, does nothing to make it possible for citizens to know what the laws are. He looks on vacantly at the absurd actions every year committed by Lords and Commons in heaping a number of new acts on to the vast heap of old acts: making the confusion worse confounded. And just as though it were an unchangeable course of nature, he stands idly by while, in law courts, equity is defeated by technical error; sums gained are eaten up by sums lost in gaining them; poor suitors ruin themselves in fighting rich suitors who defy them by appeals; and the great mass of people aggressed upon, submit to injustice rather than run the risk of greater injustice.
Political beneficence of the rational kind will seek removal of these enormous evils more energetically than it will seek constitutional changes or extensions of state management. For, in countless ways, the lives of all are vitiated by non-fulfillment of this primary condition to social cooperation. They eat adulterated food and wear clothes made of fabrics only partially genuine; all because there is no easy remedy for breach of contract in selling as one thing what is in part another thing. They pay more for every commodity than need be because, in each business, a certain average sum goes in law expenses which have to be met by extra rates of profit. And everyone is in danger of that grave loss which results when one with whom he has transactions suffers, perhaps to the extent of bankruptcy, from large dishonesties for which there is practically no redress. Were it not that in most cases the proximate hides from view the remote, men would see that in seeking a pure and efficient administration of justice, they are conducing to human happiness far more than in seeking the ends ordinarily classed as philanthropic.
468. Probably all will admit that political life is healthy only in proportion as it is conscientious; but few will admit that, as a corollary, political life carried on by party warfare is unhealthy; and that political beneficence may fitly seek to mitigate, and as far as possible abolish, such warfare. It is manifest to us here that in the United States, where the advent of Democrats or Republicans to power is followed by the turning out of officeholders of the one kind and putting in those of the other, and where both ins and outs are heavily taxed to provide funds for those electioneering campaigns which give them or take from them places and incomes, the governmental machinery is made to work ill by the substitution of private ends for public ends. But it is not generally perceived that in England party government, with its struggles for office, has vices which if less are still very great.
One of these vices, always manifest, is daily becoming more conspicuous–the dishonesty of candidates who profess what they do not believe, and promise to do that which they know ought not to be done: all to get support and to help their political leaders. In simple language they try to gain power by force of falsehood. And when, in the House of Commons, many of them say by their votes that they think one thing, while in fact they think the opposite thing, what, in plain words, shall we call them? Actually it has come to this, that a vote, which, on the face of it, is an expression of belief, perhaps on a matter affecting the happiness of millions of people, ceases to be an expression of such belief; and, instead, merely implies the desire that such and such men should fill such and such posts!
“But party loyalty necessitates this sacrifice of private convictions,” is the excuse put in. Yes, party loyalty has come to be a fancied virtue to which the real virtue of veracity is sacrificed. Whence comes the alleged virtue of party loyalty? In what system of ethics does it find a place? It is simply a dishonest mode of conduct disguised by a euphemistic phrase. It is simply demerit assuming the garb of merit.
So utter is the vitiation of sentiments and ideas produced by the system, that the few who will not conform to it are vilified, and represented as hindering political action. In America, where party organization is more developed than here, whoever declines to surrender his convictions, and follow in the mob which is led by a “boss” to the polls, is labeled with the contemptuous name of “Mugwump”; and is condemned as pharisaic and as of an unsocial disposition. In “the land of liberty” it has become a political crime to act on your own judgment. Representative government, rightly so called, has become a sham; under the disguise of which there exists an oligarchy of officeholders, office seekers, and men who exercise irresponsible power.
So far is party government from being an appliance for carrying out the national will, it continually becomes an appliance for overriding the national will. A ministry raised to power by electors many of whom have been misled by promises never to be fulfilled, represents perhaps, the predominant opinion of the nation on some leading question. Once in office, the chiefs of the party backed by a compact majority, can for years do with a free hand many things they were never commissioned to do. By the aid of submissive supporters prompted by “party loyalty,” a small knot of men, headed by one of great influence, enacts this or that law, which, were it put to a plebiscite, would be decisively rejected. Thus, in a second way too, party government defeats representative government. A single man with his troop of obedient servants can for some time impose his will on the nation, just as he might do were he a despotic king.
“But how can public life be carried on in any other way?” This question is thought to embody an unanswerable defense of party government. Says an American, whose advocacy of the system I have just been reading–“Every public measure must have one party in its favor and another against it. There never can be more than two parties on living, practical issues.” Here the fallacy is transparent. The argument implies that a party has never more than one question to decide. It assumes that those who agree with its leaders on some issue which brought them into office, will agree with its leaders on all other issues which may arise during their term of office–an absurd assumption. But a further question is put–“How is a ministry to retain office unless its opinion subordinates the individual opinions of its supporters? and what must happen if ministries are perpetually thrown out by the votes of recalcitrant members of their parties?” Here we have one among countless illustrations of the errors caused by assuming one thing changed while other things remain unchanged. If politicians were conscientious; if, as a result, no one would vote for a thing which he did not believe good; and if, consequently, the body of representatives fell, as it must do, not into two large parties but into a number of small parties and independent members, no ministry could count upon anything like a constant majority. What would happen? A ministry would no longer be required to resign when in a minority; but would simply accept the lesson which a division gave it. It would not, as now, be for a time the master of the House, but would be always the servant of the House: not dictating a policy to it, but accepting that which was found to be its policy. Hence no measure could be carried unless it obtained the sincere support of the average of its many parties, and was thereby proved to be most likely in accordance with the national will. If, as may be contended, this would lead to great delay in the passing of measures, the reply is–So much the better. Political changes should never be made save after overcoming great resistances.
But apart from these considerations, the ethical dictum is clear. There are lies told by actions as well as lies told by words, and ethics gives no more countenance to the one than to the other. As originating from ultimate laws of right conduct, beneficence and veracity must go together; and political beneficence will be shown by insisting on political veracity.
469. Among the tasks enjoined by political beneficence are not only such general ones as enforcement of equitable laws made known to all, and sincerity of political conduct, but there is also the maintenance of pure and efficient administration.
Manifestly included in this task is the choice of good representatives, general and local. Though there is some perception of the need for deliberate effort in this direction, the perception is an unenlightened one. There is no adequate consciousness of the share of duty which each elector has, not simply in giving his vote, but also in seeing that a good choice shall be made possible by a preceding good naming of candidates. At present, while there is a carefully devised machinery for choosing among nominated men, there is only a hole-and-corner machinery for deciding what men shall be nominated: this last function being really more important than the first. For it is of little use to have the overt power of deciding between A and B, when secret powers have picked out for choice an A and a B who are both undesirable. At present the local caucus of each party, more or less under direction of a central caucus in London, overrides the wills of electors by forcing them to say which of two or more they will have; often leaving them practically to say which they dislike least. Under this system there is very little regard for true fitness in a representative. Has he been a large local benefactor? Does he bind himself to support the head of the party? Is he in favor of this or that pet scheme? Can he bring to bear family influence or command votes by popularity of manner? These, and such as these, are the questions which determine his selection by the caucus, and therefore his selection by the constituency. Whether he has wide political knowledge; whether he has much administrative experience; whether he is far-seeing; whether he is conscientious and independent; whether he will promise nothing that he does not approve, or does not feel himself able to perform–these are questions scarcely asked. Of course the general result is a House of Commons made up of political incapables, popularity hunters, and time servers, who, believing in common with their constituents that a society is not a growth but a manufacture, carry on their legislative work under the profound delusion that things can be effectually arranged this way or that way at will; and in pursuit of their party and personal ends, do not inquire what may be the ultimate effects of their temporary expedients. Of course, political beneficence dictates strenuous exertions against this system; and enjoins the duty of seeking some way in which constituents may acquire a real instead of a nominal choice, and be led to choose men who will be fit lawmakers instead of fit tools of party.
Those on whom devolves the choice of men for county councils, municipal bodies, vestries, and the like, are spurred into activity by their leaders when members of such bodies are to be elected; but, forthwith lapsing into their usual quiescence, most of them give small attention to the doings of these bodies, or if they are made aware of inefficiency and corruption, are not prompted by a sense of public duty to seek remedies. A shopkeeper does not like to move because some of his customers, directly or indirectly interested in the misdoings he perceives, may be offended. Among a doctor's patients there are probably a few who, if not implicated with those whose carelessness or incapacity needs exposing, are on friendly terms with them; and he does not feel called upon to risk alienation of such. Even a man of means, whose pecuniary interests will not be endangered by any course he may take, hesitates lest he should make himself unpopular. He knows that enmities will be generated and no compensating friendships formed. And then there are many who, if not deterred by motives above indicated, do not see why they should give themselves trouble for no personal benefit. Abuses are consequently allowed to rise and grow.
Thus is it very generally with administrations. There is no conception that political beneficence requires of each man that he shall take his share in seeing that political machinery, general and local, does its work properly.6
470. “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” said one of the early American statesmen; and eternal vigilance is also the price of well-working institutions. In proportion as human nature is defective, the organizations formed out of human beings must be defective too. And they will become far more defective than they would else be, if there are not constant detections of their defects and constant efforts to prevent increase of them.
Hence a proper sense of public duty will prompt endeavors to stop abuses the moment they become visible, without waiting for them to become serious. The misdoings which, in course of time, make useless or mischievous this or that administration, begin with trivial derelictions of duty, which no one thinks it worth while to protest against. Each increment of mischief, similarly small, is passed over as unimportant; until at length the evil is found to have grown great and perhaps incurable. A good illustration of the way in which ultimate disasters result from the disregard of trifling imperfections, has often struck me when watching the emptying of a canal lock. Here and there in the wall, as the water descends, may be observed a small jet issuing from a crevice–a crevice through which the water enters again when the lock is refilled, and from which there again issues a jet when the water again falls. In an old and neglected lock, not only are these jets numerous but some have become very large. At every use of the lock, a cavity which has been gradually formed behind each of these, is charged and discharges itself; and the larger it becomes the more rapidly does the powerful ingoing and outgoing stream increase it and its channel. Eventually, if nothing is done, the joints of the stonework are so much eaten away, and the back of the wall so much hollowed, that one or other part collapses. In an analogous way the insignificant abuses in an institution, which are initiated by carelessness or self-interest, and tolerated by indifference, or what seems good nature, increases little by little until the whole structure becomes worthless or injurious.
The “eternal vigilance” required to maintain not only liberty but purity, should have for its guide a principle just opposite to the principle commonly followed. Most men, alike in public affairs and private business affairs, assume that things are going right until it is proved they are going wrong; whereas their assumption should be that things are going wrong until it is proved they are going right. Though in churches they continually hear asserted the ingrained wickedness of men, and though in every day's newspaper they find exposed various dishonesties and deceptions, not of simple kinds only but of those complex kinds which bubble companies and swindling syndicates practice; yet they seem to think that in the transactions of any political or social organization they are concerned with, there are, and will be, no corruptions. Though every receipt they take is a precaution against dishonesty. though every law deed makes many provisions to prevent breaches of understanding, and though every act of Parliament is full of clauses implying the belief that some will do wrong if there are any openings left for them to do wrong, people argue that unless evidence has raised it, there should be no suspicion respecting the doings of incorporated bodies or official organizations; and this notwithstanding the daily proofs that bank failures and company disasters arise from ill-grounded beliefs in the conscientiousness of all concerned, and the lack of checks against possible roguery.7
[]Let me here emphasize my meaning by giving an instance of maladministration which daily comes under the eyes of millions of people inhabiting London. I refer to the persistently bad state of the macadamized roads. What is the cause? After rain anyone who looks may see. Generally, if not always, each elevated portion of the surface has at its highest point a piece of broken stone larger than the average of the pieces forming the road–twice or thrice as large. Each of these large pieces, supported by several pieces below, has more power of resisting the impacts of carriage wheels than the smaller pieces around, and becomes relatively prominent. Every carriage wheel, when passing with speed over a prominent point, is jolted upwards, and instantly afterward comes down with a blow upon the succeeding part of the surface. By repetition of these blows a hollow is formed. More than this happens. In rainy weather each hollow becomes filled with water, which makes it softer than the prominent parts and more apt to yield. Hence a surface full of small hills and holes. The evils caused are various. Continuous shakings, uncomfortable to the strong and to the weak very injurious, have to be borne by hundreds of thousands of people in omnibuses, cabs, and carriages; vehicles wear out faster than they should do; horses are overtaxed, and have to be replaced by others sooner than would else be needful. And then the roads themselves wear out rapidly. How does all this happen? simply because the road contractor profits by evading the regulation respecting the size of broken stones. And as the steamroller, of late years introduced, flattens down large and small to an even surface, the surveyor passes the work as all right. Why does he do this? Well, contractors are frequently rich men; and the salaries of surveyors are not very high.
[]At the moment these pages are passing through the press, abundant warnings are furnished to those who can recognize the lesson they teach. Besides minor cases, there are now simultaneously reported in the papers, proceedings concerning the Liberator Building Society, the London and General Bank, Limited, the Hansard Union, Limited, Hobbs & Co., Limited, Barker & Co.'s Bank; in Italy the Banca Romana; and in France the gigantic Panama scandals, implicating directors, legislators, and even ministers. Nevertheless, we shall have tomorrow new schemes, which people will suppose are going right till some catastrophe proves they have been going wrong.