Thomas Hodgskin on the futility of politicians tinkering with bad laws when the whole political system needed to be changed (1832)

Thomas Hodgskin

The British naval officer and later radical journalist Thomas Hodgskin (1878-1869) denounced the politicians in Westminster for tinkering endlessly with trying to patch and mend the laws when what was required was a fundamental change in thinking about what government should do:

Rapidly therefore as the gentlemen at Westminster work, making three or four hundred laws per year, repeating their tasks session after session—actively as they multiply restraints, or add patch after patch, they invariably find that the call for their labours is continually renewed. The more they botch and mend, the more numerous are the holes. Knowing nothing of natural principles, they seem to fancy that society—the most glorious part of creation, if individual man be the noblest of animals—derives its life and strength only from them. They regard it as a baby, whom they must dandle and foster into healthy existence; but while they are scheming how to breed and clothe their pretty fondling—lo! it has become a giant, whom they can only control as far as he consents to wear their fetters.

Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869) was an officer in the British Navy before leaving because of his opposition to the brutal treatment of sailors he both witnessed and experienced first hand. His feistiness resulted in a passionate denunciation of the Navy’s treatment of impressed (conscripted) seamen during the Napoleonic Wars in An Essay on Naval Discipline (1813). He became a journalist and worked for the free trade magazine The Economist and wrote and lectured on laissez-faire economic ideas to working men’s institutes. In a collection of quite cheeky letters to one of the most senior politicians in England, Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, Hodgskin challenged the very foundations upon which the British state rested, its claim that the “artificial rights” to property created and defended by the state were superior to the “natural rights” of property which all people had prior to and in spite of what the state did. Because the Lord Chancellor and the elite who controlled parliament and the state’s bureaucracies did not understand the importance of this distinction, Hodgskin argued, they endlessly fiddled with the laws in order to try to make the “artificial” political system work. But they were out of touch and ignorant and largely unconcerned with the harm they were causing to ordinary people who just wanted to go about their business unmolested by government interference. Politicians like Brougham treated society like a baby which they dandled on their knee, all the while securing fetters to hang about its feet.