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Joseph Priestley on the presumption of liberty (1771)

The English radical theologian Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) argued that, if it were not clear how much the government should interfere in people’s lives, then it should leave things “to take their natural course”:

(Some) think it best, that every thing, which is not properly of a civil nature, should be entirely overlooked by the civil magistrate; that it is for the advantage of the society, upon the whole, that all those things be left to take their own natural course, and that the legislature cannot interfere in them, without defeating its own great object, the public good.

In some respects, however, it must be acknowledged, that the proper extent of civil government is not easily circumscribed within exact limits. That the happiness of the whole community is the ultimate end of government can never be doubted, and all claims of individuals inconsistent with the public good are absolutely null and void; but there is a real difficulty in determining what general rules, respecting the extent of the power of government, or of governors, are most conducive to the public good.

Some may think it best, that the legislature should make express provision for every thing which can even indirectly, remotely, and consequentially, affect the public good; while others may think it best, that every thing, which is not properly of a civil nature, should be entirely overlooked by the civil magistrate; that it is for the advantage of the society, upon the whole, that all those things be left to take their own natural course, and that the legislature cannot interfere in them, without defeating its own great object, the public good.

We are so little capable of arguing a priori in matters of government, that it should seem, experiments only can determine how far this power of the legislature ought to extend; and it should likewise seem, that, till a sufficient number of experiments have been made, it becomes the wisdom of the civil magistracy to take as little upon its hands as possible, and never to interfere, without the greatest caution, in things that do not immediately affect the lives, liberty, or property of the members of the community; that civil magistrates should hardly ever be moved to exert themselves by the mere tendencies of things, those tendencies are generally so vague, and often so imaginary; and that nothing but a manifest and urgent necessity (of which, however, themselves are, to be sure, the only judges) can justify them in extending their authority to whatever has no more than a tendency, though the strongest possible, to disturb the tranquility and happiness of the state.

About this Quotation:

In a very interesting chapter “Of the nature of Civil Liberty in general” in his book Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768) the radical theologian Joseph Priestly makes a number of very important points about the size and scope of government. Firstly, he says it is not all that important what form a particular government might take (it might be a monarchy, a republic, or a democracy) but what is most important is the extent of power which the government may have. Secondly, that there are things which individuals require the assistance of others in order to achieve, and things which they achieve better by themselves. Thirdly, that magistrates should be considered to be the servants of the public and thus, when individuals feel they no longer need their servant to do their bidding they should be free to dispense with their services. And fourthly, and perhaps most importantly his statement about the “presumption of liberty”, that when in doubt, the state should do nothing and leave people free to go about their business unmolested.

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