Herbert Spencer

The Sins of Legislators




With his usual acuity and irony Herbert Spencer puts scorn on the supposedly good intentions of the legislators keen on reforming society, and highlights the disasters that their appalling ignorance brings on everybody. This essay is one of those included in The Man versus the State.



Be it or be it not true that Man is shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin, it is unquestionably true that Government is begotten of aggression and by aggression. In small undeveloped societies where for ages complete peace has continued, there exists nothing like what we call Government: no coercive agency, but mere honorary headship, if any headship at all. In these exceptional communities, unaggressive and from special causes unaggressed upon, there is so little deviation from the virtues of truthfulness, honesty, justice, and generosity, that nothing beyond an occasional expression of public opinion by informally-assembled elders is needful (1). Conversely, we find proofs that, at first recognized but temporarily during leadership in war, the authority of a chief is permanently established by continuity of war; and grows strong where successful war ends in subjection of neighbouring tribes. And thence onwards, examples furnished by all races put beyond doubt the truth, that the coercive power of the chief, developing into king, and king of kings (a frequent title in the ancient East), becomes great in proportion as conquest becomes habitual and the union of subdued nations extensive (2). Comparisons disclose a further truth which should be ever present to us - the truth that the aggressiveness of the ruling power inside a society increases with its aggressiveness outside the society. As, to make an efficient army, the soldiers must be subordinate to their commander; so, to make an efficient fighting community, must the citizens be subordinate to their government. They must furnish recruits to the extent demanded, and yield up whatever property is required.

An obvious implication is that political ethics, originally identical with the ethics of war, must long remain akin to them; and can diverge from them only as warlike activities and preparations become less. Current evidence shows this. At present on the Continent, the citizen is free only when his services as a soldier are not demanded; and during the rest of his life he is largely enslaved in supporting the military organization. Even among ourselves a serious war would, by the necessitated conscription, suspend the liberties of large numbers and trench on the liberties of the rest, by taking from them through taxes whatever supplies were needed - that is, forcing them to labour so many days more for the State. Inevitably the established code of conduct in the dealings of Governments with citizens, must be allied to their code of conduct in their dealings with one another. I am not, under the title of this article, about to treat of the trespassers and the revenges for trespasses, accounts of which mainly constitute history; nor to trace the internal inequities which have ever accompanied the external inequities. I do not propose here to catalogue the crimes of irresponsible legislators; beginning with that of King Khufu, the stones of whose vast tomb were laid in the bloody sweat of a hundred thousand slaves toiling through long years under the lash; going on to those committed by conquerors, Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Macedonian, Roman, and the rest; and ending with those of Napoleon, whose ambition to set his foot on the neck of the civilized world, cost not less than two million lives (3). Nor do I propose here to enumerate those sins of responsible legislators seen in the long list of laws made in the interests of dominant classes - a list coming down in our own country to those under which there were long maintained slavery and the slave-trade, torturing nearly 40,000 negroes annually by close packing during a tropical voyage, and killing a large percentage of them, and ending with the corn-laws, by which, says Sir Erskine May, 'to ensure high rents, it had been decreed that multitudes should hunger' (4).

Not, indeed, that a presentation of the conspicuous misdeeds of legislators, responsible and irresponsible, would be useless. It would have several uses - one of them relevant to the truth above pointed out. Such a presentation would make clear how that identity of political ethics with military ethics which necessarily exists during primitive times, when the army is simply the mobilized society and the society is the quiescent army, continues through long stages, and even now affects in great degrees our law-proceedings and our daily lives. Having, for instance, shown that in numerous savage tribes the judicial function of the chief does not exist, or is nominal, and that very generally during early stages of European civilization, each man had to defend himself and rectify his private wrongs as best he might - having shown that in mediaeval times the right of private war among members of the military order was brought to an end, not because the head ruler thought it his duty to arbitrate, but because private wars interfered with the efficiency of his army in public wars - having shown that the administration of justice displayed through subsequent ages a large amount of its primitive nature, in trial by battle carried on before the king or his deputy as umpire, and which, among ourselves, continued nominally to be an alternative form of trial down to 1819; it might then be pointed out that even now there survives trial by battle under another form: counsel being the champions and purses the weapons. In civil cases, the ruling agency cares scarcely more than of old about rectifying the wrongs of the injured; but, practically, its deputy does little less than enforce the rules of the fight: the result being less a question of equity than a question of pecuniary ability and forensic skill. Nay, so little concern for the administration, of justice is shown by the ruling agency, that when, by legal conflict carried on in the presence of its deputy, the combatants have been pecuniarily bled even to the extent of producing prostration, and when, an appeal being made by one of them, the decision is reversed, the beaten combatant is made to pay for the blunders of the deputy, or of a preceding deputy; and not unfrequently the wronged man, who sought protection or restitution, is taken out of court pecuniarily dead. Adequately done, such a portrayal of governmental misdeeds of commission and omission, proving that the partially-surviving code of ethics arising in, and proper to, a state of war, still vitiates governmental action, might greatly moderate the hopes of those who are anxious to extend governmental control. After observing that along with the still-manifest traits of that primitive political structure which chronic militancy produces, there goes a still-manifest survival of its primitive principles; the reformer and the philanthropist might be less sanguine in their anticipations of good from its all-pervading agency, and might be more inclined to trust agencies of a nongovernmental kind. But leaving out the greater part of the large topic comprehended under the title of this article, I propose here to deal only with a comparatively small remaining part - those sins of legislators which are not generated by their personal ambitions or class interests, but result from lack of the study by which they are morally bound to prepare themselves.


A druggist's assistant who, after listening to the description of pains which he mistakes for those of colic, but which are really caused by inflammation of the caecum, prescribes a sharp purgative and kills the patient, is found guilty of manslaughter. He is not allowed to excuse himself on the ground that he did not intend harm but hoped for good. The plea that he simply made a mistake in his diagnosis is not entertained. He is told that he had no right to risk disastrous consequences by meddling in a matter concerning which his knowledge was so inadequate. The fact that he was ignorant how great was his ignorance is not accepted in bar of judgement. It is tacitly assumed that the experience common to all should have taught him that even the skilled, and much more the unskilled, make mistakes in the identification of disorders and in the appropriate treatment; and that having disregarded the warning derivable from common experience, he was answerable for the consequences. We measure the responsibilities of legislators for mischiefs they may do, in a much more lenient fashion. In most cases, so far from thinking of them as deserving punishment for causing disasters by laws ignorantly enacted, we scarcely think of them as deserving reprobation. It is held that common experience should have taught the druggist's assistant, untrained as he is, not to interfere; but it is not held that common experience should have taught the legislator not to interfere till he has trained himself. Though multitudinous facts are before him in the recorded legislation of our own country and of other countries, which should impress on him the immense evils caused by wrong treatment, he is not condemned for disregarding these warnings against rash meddling. Contrariwise, it is thought meritorious in him when - perhaps lately from college, perhaps fresh from keeping a pack of hounds which made him popular in his county, perhaps emerging from a provincial town where he acquired a fortune, perhaps rising from the bar at which he has gained a name as an advocate - he enters Parliament; and forthwith, in quite a light-hearted way, begins to aid or hinder this or that means of operating on the body politic. In this case there is no occasion even to make for him the excuse that he does not know how little he knows; for the public at large agrees with him in thinking it needless that he should know anything more than what the debates on the proposed measures tell him.

And yet the mischiefs wrought by uninstructed lawmaking, enormous in their amount as compared with those caused by uninstructed medical treatment, are conspicuous to all who do but glance over its history. The reader must pardon me while I recall a few familiar instances. Century after century, statesmen went on enacting usury laws which made worse the condition of the debtor - raising the rate of interest 'from five to six when intending to reduce it to four' (5), as under Louis XV; and indirectly producing undreamt of evils of many kinds, such as preventing the reproductive use of spare capital, and 'burdening the small proprietors with a multitude of perpetual services' (6). So too, the endeavours which in England continued through five hundred years to stop forestalling, and which in France, as Arthur Young witnessed, prevented anyone from buying 'more than two bushels of wheat at market' (7), went on generation after generation increasing the miseries and mortality due to dearth; for, as everybody now knows, the wholesale dealer, who was in the statue 'De Pistoribus' vituperated as 'an open oppressor of poor people',(8), is simply one whose function it is to equalize the supply of a commodity by checking unduly rapid consumption. Of kindred nature was the measure which, in 1315, to diminish the pressure of famine, prescribed the prices of foods, but which was hastily repealed after it had caused entire disappearance of various foods from the markets; and also such measures, more continuously operating, as those which settled by magisterial order 'the reasonable gains' of victuallers (9). Of like spirit and followed by allied mischiefs have been the many endeavours to fix wages, which began with the Statute of Labourers under Edward II, and ceased only sixty years ago; when, having long galvanized in Spitalfields a decaying industry and fostered there a miserable population, Lords and Commons finally gave up fixing silk-weavers' earnings by the decisions of magistrates.

Here I imagine an impatient interruption. 'We know all that; the story is stale. The mischiefs of interfering with trade have been dinned in our ears till we are weary; and no one needs to be taught the lesson afresh.' My first reply is that by the great majority the lesson was never properly learnt at all, and that many of those who did learn it have forgotten it. For just the same pleas which of old were put in for these dictations, are again put in. In the statute 35 of Edward III, which aimed to keep down the price of herrings (but was soon repealed because it raised the price), it was complained that people 'coming to the fair ... do bargain for herring, and every of them, by malice and envy, increase upon other, and, if one proffer forty shilling, another will proffer ten shillings more, and the third sixty shillings, and so every one surmounteth other in the bargain' (10). And now 'the higgling of the market', here condemned and ascribed 'to malice and envy', is being again condemned. The evils of competition have all along been the stock cry of the Socialists; and the council of the Democratic Federation denounces the carrying on of exchange under 'the control of individual and greed profit'. My second reply is that interferences with the law of supply and demand, which a generation ago were admitted to be habitually mischievous, are now being daily made by Acts of Parliament in new fields; and that, as I shall presently show, they are in these new fields increasing the evils to be cured and producing fresh ones, as of old they did in fields no longer intruded upon. Returning from this parenthesis, I go on to explain that the above Acts are named to remind the reader that uninstructed legislators have in past times continually increased human suffering in their endeavours to mitigate it; and I have now to add that if these evils, shown to be legislatively intensified or produced, be multiplied by ten or more, a conception will be formed of the aggregate evils caused by law-making unguided by social science. In a paper read to the Statistical Society in May 1873, Mr Janson, vice-president of the Law Society, stated that from the Statute of Merton (20 Henry III) to the end of 1872, there had been passed 18,110 public Acts; of which he estimated that four-fifths had been wholly or partially repealed. He also stated that the number of public Acts repealed wholly or in part, or amended, during the three years 1870-71-72 had been 3,532, of which 2,579 had been totally repealed. To see whether this state of repeal has continued, I have referred to the annually-issued volumes of 'The Public General Statutes' for the last three sessions. Saying nothing of the numerous amended Acts, the result is that in the last three sessions there have been totally repealed, separately or in groups, 650 Acts, belonging to the present reign, besides many of preceding reigns. This, of course, is greatly above the average rate; for there has of late been an active purgation of the statute-book. But making every allowance, we must infer that within our own times, repeals have mounted some distance into the thousands. Doubtless a number of them have been of laws that were obsolete; others have been demanded by changes of circumstances (though seeing how many of them are of quite recent Acts, this has not been a large cause); others simply because they were inoperative; and others have been consequent on the consolidations of numerous Acts into single Acts. But unquestionably in multitudinous cases, repeals came because the Acts had proved injurious. We talk glibly of such changes - we think of cancelled legislation with indifference. We forget that before laws are abolished they have generally been inflicting evils more or less serious; some for a few years, some for tens of years, some for centuries. Change your vague idea of a bad law into a definite idea of it as an agency operating on people's lives, and you see that it means so much of pain, so much of illness, so much of mortality. A vicious form of legal procedure, for example, either enacted or tolerated, entails on suitors, costs, or delays, or defeats. What do these imply? Loss of money, often ill-spared; great and prolonged anxiety; frequently consequent bad health; unhappiness of family and dependents; children stinted in food and clothing - all of them miseries which bring after them multiplied remoter miseries. Add to which the far more numerous cases of those who, lacking the means or the courage to enter on lawsuits, and therefore submitting to frauds, are impoverished; and have similarly to bear the pains of body and mind which ensue. Even to say that a law has been simply a hindrance, is to say that it has caused needless loss of time, extra trouble, and additional worry; and among over-burdened people extra trouble and worry imply, here and there, physical and mental prostrations, with their entailed direct and indirect sufferings. Seeing, then, that bad legislation means injury to men's lives, judge what must be the total amount of mental distress, physical pain, and raised mortality, which these thousands of repealed Acts of Parliament represent! Fully to bring home the truth that law~making unguided by adequate knowledge brings enormous evils, let me take an instance which a question of the day recalls.


Already I have hinted that interferences with the connexion between supply and demand, given up in certain fields after immense mischiefs had been done during many centuries, are now taking place in other fields. This connexion is supposed to hold only where it has been proved to hold by the evils of disregarding it: so feeble is men's belief in it. There appears no suspicion that in cases where it seems to fail, natural causation has been traversed by artificial hindrances. And yet in the case to which I now refer - that of the supply of houses for the poor - it needs but to ask what laws have been doing for a long time past, to see that the terrible evils complained of are mostly law-made. A generation ago discussion was taking place concerning the inadequacy and badness of industrial dwellings, and I had occasion to deal with the question. Here is a passage then written:

An architect and surveyor described it [the Building Act] as having worked after the following manner. In those districts of London consisting of inferior houses built in that unsubstantial fashion which the New Building Act was to mend, there obtains an average rent, sufficiently remunerative to landlords whose houses were run up economically before the New Building Act passed. This existing average rent fixes the rent that must be charged in these districts for new houses of the same accommodation - that is the same number of rooms, for the people they are built for do not appreciate the extra safety of living within walls strengthened with hoop-iron bond. Now it turns out upon trial, that houses built in accordance with the present regulations, and let at this established rate, bring in nothing like a reasonable return. Builders have consequently confined themselves to erecting houses in better districts (where the possibility of a profitable competition with pre-existing houses shows that those pre-existing houses were tolerably substantial), and have ceased to erect dwellings for the masses, except in the suburbs where no pressing sanitary evils exist. Meanwhile, in the inferior districts above described, has resulted an increase of overcrowding - half-a-dozen families in a house, a score lodgers to a room. Nay, more than this has resulted. That state of miserable dilapidation into which these abodes of the poor are allowed to fall, is due to the absence of competition from new houses. Landlords do not find their tenants tempted away by the offer of better accommodation. Repairs, being unnecessary for securing the largest amount of profit, are not made. . . . In fact for a large percentage of the very horrors which our sanitary agitators are trying to cure by law, we have to thank previous agitators of the same school! - Social Statics, p. 384 (edition of 1851).

These were not the only law-made causes of such evils. As shown in the following further passage, sundry others were recognized:

Writing before the repeal of the brick duty, the Builder says: 'It is supposed that one-fourth of the cost of a dwelling which lets for 2s. 6d. or 3s. a week is caused by the expense of the tide-deeds and the tax on wood and bricks used in its construction. Of course, the owner of such property must be remunerated, and he therefore charges 7 and 1/2d. or 9d. a week to cover these burdens.' Mr C. Gadiff, secretary to the Society for Improving the Dwellings of the Working Classes, describing the effect of the window tax, says: 'They are now paying upon their institution in St Pancras the sum of £ 162 16s. in window-duties, or 1 per cent per annum upon the original outlay. The average rental paid by the Society's tenants is 5s. 6d. per week, and the window-duty deducts from this 7 and 1/4 d. per week.' - The Times, 31 January 1850. - Social Statics, p. 385 (edition of 1851).

Neither is this all the evidence which the press of those days afforded. There was published in The Times of 7 December 1850 (too late to be used in the above-named work, which I issued in the last week of 1850), a letter dated from the Reform Club, and signed 'Architect', which contained the following passages:

Lord Kinnaird recommends in your paper of yesterday the construction of model lodging-houses by throwing two or three houses into one. Allow me to suggest to his Lordship, and to his friend Lord Ashley to whom he refers, that if,

1. The window tax were repealed,
2. The building Act repealed (excepting the clauses enacting that party and external walls shall be fireproof),
3. The timber duties either equalized or repealed, and,
4. An Act passed to facilitate the transfer of property.

There would be no more necessity for model lodging-houses than there is for model ships, model cotton-mills, or model steam-engines.

The first limits the poor man's house to seven windows,
The second limits the size of the poor man's house to 25 feet by 18 (about the size of a gentleman's dining-room), into which space the builder has to cram a staircase, an entrance passage, a parlour, and a kitchen (walls and partitions included).
The third induces the builder to erect the poor man's house of timber unfit for building purposes, the duty on the good material (Baltic) being fifteen times more than the duty on the bad or injurious article (Canadian). The Government, even, exclude the latter from all their contracts.
The fourth would have considerable influence upon the present miserable state of the dwellings of the poor. Small freeholds might then be transferred as easily as leaseholds. The effect of building leases has been a direct inducement to bad building.

To guard against mis-statements or over-statements, I have taken the precaution to consult a large East-end builder and contractor of forty years' experience, Mr C. Forrest, Museum Works, 17 Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, who, being churchwarden, member of the vestry, and of the board of guardians, adds extensive knowledge of local public affairs to his extensive knowledge of the building business. Mr Forrest, who authorizes me to give his name, verifies the foregoing statements, with the exception of one which he strengthens. He says that 'Architect' understates the evil entailed by the definition of 'a fourth-rate house'; since the dimensions are much less than those he gives (perhaps in conformity with the provisions of a more recent Building Act). Mr Forrest has done more than this. Besides illustrating the bad effects of great increase in ground-rents (in sixty years from £1 to £8 10s. for a fourth-rate house) which, joined with other causes, had obliged him to abandon plans for industrial dwellings he had intended to build - besides agreeing with' Architect' that this evil has been greatly increased by the difficulties of land transfer due to the law-established system of trusts and entails; he pointed out that a further penalty on the building of small houses is inflicted by additions to local burdens ('prohibitory imposts' he called them): one of the instances he named being that to the cost of each new house has to be added the cost of pavement, roadway, and sewerage, which is charged according to length of frontage, and which, consequently, bears afar larger ratio to the value of a small house than to the value of a large one.

From these law-produced mischiefs, which were great a generation ago, and have since been increasing, let us pass to more recent law-produced mischiefs. The misery, the disease, the mortality, in 'rookeries', made continually worse by artificial impediments to the increase of fourth-rate houses, and by the necessitated greater crowding of those which existed, having become a scandal, Government was invoked to remove the evil. It responded by Artisans' Dwellings Acts; giving to local authorities powers to pull down bad houses and provide for the building of good ones. What have been the results? A summary of the operations of the Metropolitan Board of Works, dated 21 December 1883, shows that up to last September it had, at a cost of a million and a quarter to ratepayers, unhoused 21,000 persons and provided houses for 12,000 - the remaining 9,000 to be hereafter provided for, being, meanwhile, left houseless. This is not all. Another local lieutenant of the Government, the Commission of Sewers for the City, working on the same lines, has, under legislative compulsion, pulled down in Golden Lane and Petticoat Square, masses of condemned small houses, which, together, accommodated 1,734 poor people; and of the spaces thus cleared five years ago, one has, by State authority, been sold for a railway station, and the other is only now being covered with industrial dwellings which will eventually accommodate one-half of the expelled population: the result up to the present time being that, added to those displaced by the Metropolitan Board of Works, these 1,734 displaced five years ago, form a total of nearly 11,000 artificially made homeless, who have had to find corners for themselves in miserable places that were already overflowing ! See then what legislation has done. By ill-imposed taxes, raising the prices of bricks and timber, it added to the costs of houses; and promoted, for economy's sake, the use of bad materials in scanty quantities. To check the consequent production of wretched dwellings, it established regulations which, in mediaeval fashion, dictated the quality of the commodity produced: there being no perception that by insisting on a higher quality and therefore higher price, it would limit the demand and eventually diminish the supply. By additional local burdens, legislation has of late still further hindered the building of small houses. Finally, having, by successive measures, produced first bad houses and then a deficiency of better ones, it has at length provided for the artificially-increased overflow of poor people by diminishing the house-capacity which already could not contain them!

Where then lies the blame for the miseries of the Eastend? Against whom should be raised 'The bitter cry of outcast London'? (11)

The German anthropologist Bastian, tells us that a sick native of Guinea who causes the fetish to lie by not recovering is strangled (12); and we may reasonably suppose that among the Guinea people, anyone audacious enough to call in question the power of the fetish would be promptly sacrificed. In days when Governmental authority was enforced by strong measures, there was a kindred danger in saying anything disrespectful of the political fetish. Nowadays, however, the worst punishment to be looked for by one who questions its omnipotence, is that he will be reviled as a reactionary who talks laissez-faire. That any facts he may bring forward will appreciably decrease the established faith is not to be expected; for we are daily shown that this faith is proof against all adverse evidence. Let us contemplate a small part of that vast mass of it which passes unheeded.

'A Government-office is like an inverted filter; you send in accounts clear and they come out muddy.' Such was the comparison I heard made many years ago by the late Sir Charles Fox, who, in the conduct of his business, had considerable experience of public departments. That his opinion was not a singular one, though his comparison was, all men know. Exposures by the press and criticisms in Parliament, leave no one in ignorance of the vices of red-tape routine. Its delays, perpetually complained of, and which in the time of Mr Fox Maule went to the extent that 'the commissions of officers in the army' were generally 'about two years in arrear', is afresh illustrated by the issue of the first volume of the detailed census of 1881, more than two years after the information was collected. If we seek explanations of such delays, we find one origin to be a scarcely credible confusion. In the case of the census returns, the Registrar-General tells us that 'the difficulty consists not merely in the vast multitude of different areas that have to be taken into account, but still more in the bewildering complexity of their boundaries' : there being 39,000 administrative areas of 22 different kinds which overlap one another - hundreds, parishes, boroughs, wards, petty sessional divisions, lieutenancy divisions, urban and rural sanitary districts, dioceses, registration districts, etc. And then, as Mr Rathbone, M.P., points out (13), these many superposed sets of areas with intersecting boundaries, have their respective governing bodies with authorities running into one another's districts. Does anyone ask why for each additional administration Parliament has established a fresh set of divisions? The reply which suggests itself is - To preserve consistency of method. For this organized confusion corresponds completely with that organized confusion which Parliament each year increases by throwing on to the heap of its old Acts a hundred new Acts, the provisions of which traverse and qualify in all kinds of ways the provisions of multitudinous Acts on to which they are thrown: the onus of settling what is the law being left to private persons, who lose their property in getting judges' interpretations. And again, this system of putting networks of districts over other networks, with their conflicting authorities, is quite consistent with the method under which the reader of the Public Health Act of 1872, who wishes to know what are the powers exercised over him, is referred to 26 preceding Acts of several classes and numerous dates (14). So, too, with administrative inertia. Continually there occur cases showing the resistance of officialism to improvements; as by the Admiralty when use of the electric telegraph was proposed, and the reply was - 'We have a very good semaphore system'; or as by the Post Office, which the late Sir Charles Siemens years ago said had obstructed the employment of improved methods of telegraphing and which since then has impeded the use of the telephone. Other cases akin to the case of industrial dwellings, now and then show how the State with one hand increases evils which with the other hand it tries to diminish; as when it puts a duty on fire-insurances and then makes regulations for the better putting out of fires: dictating, too, certain modes of construction which, as Captain Shaw shows, entail additional dangers (15). Again, the absurdities of official routine, rigid where it need not be and lax where it should be rigid, occasionally become glaring enough to cause scandals; as when a secret State document of importance, put into the hands of an ill-paid copying-clerk who was not even in permanent Government employ, was made public by him; or as when the mode of making the Moorsom fuse, which was kept secret even from our highest artillery officers, was taught to them by the Russians, who had been allowed to learn it; or as when a diagram showing the 'distances at which British and foreign iron-clads could be perforated by our large guns': communicated by an enterprising attaché to his own Government, then became known 'to all the Governments of Europe', while English officers remained ignorant of the facts (16). So, too, with State-supervision. Guaranteeing of quality by inspection has been shown, in the hall-marking of silver, to be superfluous, while the silver trade has been decreased by it (17); and in other cases it has lowered the quality by establishing a standard which it is useless to exceed: instance the case of the Cork butter-market, where the higher kinds are disadvantaged in not adequately profiting by their better repute (18); or, instance the case of herring-branding (now optional), the effect of which is to put the many inferior curers who just reach the level of official approval, on a par with the few better ones who rise above it, and so to discourage these. But such lessons pass unlearned. Even where the failure of inspection is most glaring, no notice is taken of it; as instance the terrible catastrophe by which a train full of people was destroyed along with the Tay bridge. Countless denunciations, loud and unsparing, were vented against engineer and contractor; but little, if anything, was said about the Government officer from whom the bridge received State-approval. So, too, with prevention of disease. It matters not that under the management or dictation of State-agents some of the worst evils occur; as when the lives of 87 wives and children of soldiers are sacrificed in the ship Accrington (19); or as when typhoid fever and diphtheria are diffused by a State-ordered drainage system, as in Edinburgh (20); or as when officially enforced sanitary appliances, ever getting out of order, increase the evils they were to decrease (21). Masses of such evidence leave unabated the confidence with which sanitary inspection is invoked - invoked, indeed, more than ever; as is shown in the recent suggestion that all public schools should be under the supervision of health-officers. Nay, even when the State has manifestly caused the mischief complained of, faith in its beneficent agency is not at all diminished; as we see in the fact that, having a generation ago authorized, or rather required, towns to establish drainage systems which delivered sewage into the rivers, and having thus polluted the sources of water-supply, an outcry was raised against the water-companies for the impurities of their water - an outcry which continued after these towns had been compelled, at vast extra cost, to revolutionize their drainage systems. And now, as the only remedy, there follows the demand that the State, by its local proxies, shall undertake the whole business. The State's misdoings become, as in the case of industrial dwellings, reasons for praying it to do more!

This worship of the legislature is, in one respect, indeed, less excusable than the fetish-worship to which I have tacitly compared it. The savage has the defence that his fetish is silent - does not confess its inability. But the civilized man persists in ascribing to this idol made with his own hands, power which in one way or other it confesses it has not got. I do not mean merely that the debates daily tell us of legislative measures which have done evil instead of good; nor do I mean merely that the thousands of Acts of Parliament which repeal preceding Acts, are so many tacit admissions of failure. Neither do I refer only to such quasigovernmental confessions as that contained in the report of the Poor Law Commissioners, who said that - 'We find, on the one hand, that there is scarcely one statute connected with the administration of public relief which has produced the effect designed by the legislature, and that the majority of them have created new evils, and aggravated those which they were intended to prevent' (22). I refer rather to confessions made by statesmen and by State departments. Here, for example, in a memorial addressed to Mr Gladstone, and adopted by a highly-influential meeting held under the chairmanship of the late Lord Lyttelton, I read:

We, the undersigned, Peers, Members of the House of commons, Ratepayers, and Inhabitants of the Metropolis, feeling strongly the truth and force of your statement made in the House of Commons, in 1866, that, 'there is still a lamentable and deplorable state of our whole arrangements with regard to public works - vacillation, uncertainty, costliness, extravagance, meanness, and all the conflicting vices that could be enumerated, are united in our present system,' etc., etc. (23)

Here, again, is an example furnished by a recent minute of the Board of Trade (November, 1883), in which it is said that since 'the Shipwreck Committee of 1836 scarcely a session has passed without some Act being passed or some step being taken by the legislature or the Government with this object' [prevention of shipwrecks]; and that 'the multiplicity of statutes, which were all consolidated into one Act in 1854, has again become a scandal and a reproach:' each measure being passed because previous ones had failed. And then comes presently the confession that 'the loss of life and of ships has been greater since 1876 than it was before.' Meanwhile, the cost of administration has been raised from £17,000 a year to £73,000 a year (24).

It is surprising how, spite of better knowledge, the imagination is excited by artificial appliances used in particular ways. We see it all through human history, from the war-paint with which the savage frightens his adversary, down through religious ceremonies and regal processions, to the robes of a Speaker and the wand of an officially-dressed usher. I remember a child who, able to look with tolerable composure on a horrible cadaverous mask while it was held in the hand, ran away shrieking when his father put it on. A kindred change of feeling comes over constituencies when, from boroughs and counties, their members pass to the Legislative Chamber. While before them as candidates, they are, by one or other party, jeered at, lampooned, 'heckled', and in all ways treated with utter disrespect. But as soon as they assemble at Westminster, those against whom taunts and invectives, charges of incompetence and folly, had been showered from press and platform, excite unlimited faith. Judging from the prayers made to them, there is nothing which their wisdom and their power cannot compass.


The reply to all this will doubtless be that nothing better than guidance by 'collective wisdom' can be had - that the select men of the nation, led by a re-selected few, bring their best powers, enlightened by all the knowledge of the time, to bear on the matters before them. 'What more would you have?' will be the question asked by most. My answer is that this best knowledge of the time with which legislators are said to come prepared for their duties is a knowledge of which the greater part is obviously irrelevant, and that they are blameworthy for not seeing what is the relevant knowledge. No amount of the linguistic acquirements by which many of them are distinguished will help their judgements in the least; nor will they be appreciably helped by the literatures these acquirements open to them. Political experiences and speculations coming from small ancient societies, through philosophers who assume that war is the normal state, that slavery is alike needful and just, and that women must remain in perpetual tutelage, can yield them but small aid in judging how Acts of Parliament will work in great nations of modern types. They may ponder on the doings of all the great men by whom, according to the Carlylean theory, society is framed, and they may spend years over those accounts of international conflicts, and treacheries, and intrigues, and treaties, which fill historical works, without being much nearer understanding the how and the why of social structures and actions, and the ways in which laws affect them. Nor does such information as is picked up at the factory, on Change, or in the justice room, go far towards the required preparation.

That which is really needed is a systematic study of natural causation as displayed among human beings socially aggregated. Though a distinct consciousness of causation is the last trait which intellectual progress brings - though with the savage even a simple mechanical cause is not conceived as such - though even among the Greeks the flight of a spear was thought of as guided by a god - though from their times down almost to our own, epidemics have been habitually regarded as of supernatural origin - and though among social phenomena, the most complex of all, causal relations may be expected to continue longest unrecognized; yet in our days, the existence of such casual relations has become clear enough to force on all who think, the inference that before meddling with them they should be diligently studied. The mere facts, now familiar, that there is a connexion between the number of marriages and the price of corn, and that in the same society during the same generation, the ratio of crime to population varies within narrow limits, should be sufficient to make all see that human desires, using as guide such intellect as is joined with them, act with approximate uniformity. It should be inferred that among social causes, those initiated by legislation, similarly operating with an average regularity, must not only change men's actions, but, by consequence, change their natures probably in ways not intended. There should be recognition of the fact that social causation, more than all other causation, is a fructifying causation; and it should be seen that indirect and remote effects are no less inevitable than proximate effects. I do not mean that there is denial of these statements and inferences. But there are beliefs and beliefs - some which are held nominally, some which influence conduct in small degrees, some which sway it irresistibly under all circumstances; and unhappily the beliefs of law-makers respecting causation in social affairs, are of the superficial sort. Let us look at some of the truths which all tacitly admit, but which scarcely any take account of in legislation.

There is the indisputable fact that each human being is in a certain degree modifiable, both physically and mentally. Every theory of education, every discipline, from that of the arithmetician to that of the prize-fighter, every proposed reward for virtue or punishment for vice, implies the belief, embodied in sundry proverbs, that the use or disuse of each faculty, bodily or mental, is followed by an adaptive change in it - loss of power or gain of power, according to demand.

There is the fact, also in its broader manifestations universally recognized, that modifications of structure, in one way or other produced, are inheritable. No one denies that by the accumulation of small changes, generation after generation, constitution fits itself to conditions; so that a climate which is fatal to other races is innocuous to the adapted race. No one denies that peoples who belong to the same original stock, but have spread into different habitats where they have led different lives, have acquired in course of time different aptitudes and different tendencies. No one denies that under new conditions new national characters are even now being moulded; as witness the Americans. And if adaptation is everywhere and always going on, then adaptive modifications must be set up by every change of social conditions.

To which there comes the undeniable corollary that every law which serves to alter men's modes of action - compelling, or restraining, or aiding, in new ways - so affects them as to cause, in course of time, fresh adjustments of their natures. Beyond any immediate effect wrought, there is the remote effect, wholly ignored by most - a re-moulding of the average character: a re-moulding which may be of a desirable kind or of an undesirable kind, but which in any case is the most important of the results to be considered.

Other general truths which the citizen, and still more the legislator, ought to contemplate until they become wrought into his intellectual fabric, are disclosed when we ask how social activities are produced; and when we recognize the obvious answer that they are the aggregate results of the desires of individuals who are severally seeking satisfactions, and ordinarily pursuing the ways which, with their pre-existing habits and thoughts, seem the easiest - following the lines of least resistance: the truths of political economy being so many sequences. It needs no proving that social structures and social actions must in some way or other be the outcome of human emotions guided by ideas either those of ancestors or those of living men. And that the right interpretation of social phenomena is to be found in the cooperation of these factors from generation to generation, follows inevitably.

Such an interpretation soon brings us to the inference that among men's desires seeking gratifications, those which have prompted their private activities and their spontaneous cooperations, have done much more towards social development than those which have worked through governmental agencies. That abundant crops now grow where once only wild berries could be gathered, is due to the pursuit of individual satisfactions through many centuries. The progress from wigwams to good houses has resulted from wishes to increase personal welfare; and towns have arisen under the like promptings. Beginning with traffic at gatherings on occasions of religious festivals, the trading organization, now so extensive and complex, has been produced entirely by men's efforts to achieve their private ends. Perpetually, governments have thwarted and deranged the growth, but have in no way furthered it; save by partially discharging their proper function and maintaining social order. So, too, with those advances of knowledge and those improvements of appliances, by which these structural changes and these increasing activities have been made possible. It is not to the State that we owe the multitudinous useful inventions from the spade to the telephone; it was not the State which made possible extended navigation by a developed astronomy; it was not the State which made the discoveries in physics, chemistry, and the rest, which guide modern manufacturers; it was not the State which devised the machinery for producing fabrics of every kind, for transferring men and things from place to place, and for ministering in a thousand ways to our comforts. The worldwide transactions conducted in merchants' offices, the rush of traffic filling our streets, the retail distributing system which brings everything within easy reach and delivers the necessaries of life daily at our doors, are not of governmental origin. All these are results of the spontaneous activities of citizens, separate or grouped. Nay, to these spontaneous activities governments owe the very means of performing their duties. Divest the political machinery of all those aids which Science and Art have yielded it - leave it with those only which State-officials have invented; and its functions would cease. The very language in which its laws are registered and the orders of its agents daily given, is an instrument not in the remotest degree due to the legislator; but is one which has unawares grown up during men's intercourse while pursuing their personal satisfactions.

And then a truth to which the foregoing one introduces us, is that this spontaneously-formed social organization is so bound together that you cannot act on one part without acting more or less on all parts. We see this unmistakably when a cotton-famine, first paralysing certain manufacturing districts and then affecting the doings of wholesale and retail distributors throughout the kingdom, as well as the people they supply, goes on to affect the makers and distributors, as well as the wearers, of other fabrics - woollen, linen, etc. Or we see it when arise in the price of coal, besides influencing domestic life everywhere, hinders many of our industries, raises the prices of the commodities produced, alters the consumption of them, and changes the habits of consumers. What we see clearly in these marked cases happens in every case, in sensible or in insensible ways. And manifestly, Acts of Parliament are among those factors which, beyond the effects directly produced, have countless other effects of multitudinous kinds. As I heard remarked by a distinguished professor, whose studies give ample means of judging - 'When once you begin to interfere with the order of Nature there is no knowing where the results will end'. And if this is true of that sub-human order of Nature to which he referred, still more is it true of that order of Nature existing in the social arrangements of human beings.

And now to carry home the conclusion that the legislator should bring to his business a vivid consciousness of these and other such broad truths concerning the society with which he proposes to deal, let me present somewhat more fully one of them not yet mentioned.


The continuance of every higher species of creature depends on conformity, now to one, now to the other, of two radically-opposed principles. The early lives of its members, and the adult lives of its members, have to be dealt with in contrary ways. We will contemplate them in their natural order.

One of the most familiar facts is that animals of superior types, comparatively slow in reaching maturity, are enabled when they have reached it, to give more aid to their offspring than animals of inferior types. The adults foster their young during periods more or less prolonged, while yet the young are unable to provide for themselves; and it is obvious that maintenance of the species can be secured only by this parental care. It requires no proving that the blind unfledged hedge-bird, or the young puppy even after it has acquired sight, would forthwith die if it had to keep itself warm and obtain its own food. The gratuitous aid must be great in proportion as the young one is of little worth, either to itself or to others; and it may diminish as fast as, by increasing development, the young one acquires worth, at first for self-sustentation, and by-and-by for sustentation of others. That is to say, during immaturity, benefits received must vary inversely as the power or ability of the receiver. Clearly if during this first part of life benefits were proportioned to merits, or rewards to deserts, the species would disappear in a generation.

From this regime of the family-group, let us turn to the regime of that larger group formed by adult members of the species. Asks what happens when the new individual, acquiring complete use of its powers and ceasing to have parental aid, is left to itself. Now there comes into play a principle just the reverse to that above described. Throughout the rest of its life, each adult gets benefit in proportion to merit - reward in proportion to desert: merit and desert in each case being understood as ability to fulfil all the requirements of life - to get food, to find shelter, to escape enemies. Placed in competition with members of its own species and in antagonism with members of other species, it dwindles and gets killed off, or thrives and propagates, according as it is ill-endowed or well-endowed. Manifestly an opposite regime, could it be maintained, would, in course of time, be fatal. If the benefits received by each individual were proportionate to its inferiority - if, as a consequence, multiplication of the inferior was furthered, and multiplication of the superior hindered, progressive degradation would result; and eventually the degenerate species would fail to hold its ground in presence of antagonistic species and competing species.

The broad fact then, here to be noted, is that Nature's modes of treatment inside the family-group and outside the family-group are diametrically opposed to one another; and that the intrusion of either mode into the sphere of the other, would be destructive either immediately or remotely.

Does anyone think that the like does not hold of the human species? He cannot deny that within the human family, as within any inferior family, it would be fatal to proportion benefits to merits. Can he assert that outside the family, among adults, there should not be, as throughout the animal world, a proportioning of benefits to merits? Will he contend that no mischief will result if the lowly endowed are enabled to thrive and multiply as much as, or more than, the highly endowed? A society of men, standing towards other societies in relations of either antagonism or competition, may be considered as a species, or, more literally, as a variety of a species; and it must be true of it as of other species or varieties, that it will be unable to hold its own in the struggle with other societies, if it disadvantages its superior units that it may advantage its inferior units. Surely none can fail to see that were the principle of family life to be adopted and fully carried out in social life - were reward always great in proportion as desert was small, fatal results to the society would quickly follow; and if so, then even a partial intrusion of the family regime into the regime of the State, will be slowly followed by fatal results. Society in its corporate capacity, cannot without immediate or remoter disaster interfere with the play of these opposed principles under which every species has reached such fitness for its mode of life as it possesses, and under which it maintains that fitness.

I say advisedly - society in its corporate capacity; not intending to exclude or condemn aid given to the inferior by the superior in their individual capacities. Though when given so indiscriminately as to enable the inferior to multiply, such aid entails mischief; yet in the absence of aid given by society, individual aid, more generally demanded than now, and associated with a greater sense of responsibility, would, on the average, be given with the effect of fostering the unfortunate worthy rather than the innately unworthy: there being always, too, the concomitant social benefit arising from culture of the sympathies. But all this may be admitted while asserting that the radical distinction between family-ethics and State-ethics must be maintained; and that while generosity must be the essential principle of the one, justice must be the essential principle of the other - a rigorous maintenance of those normal relations among citizens under which each gets in return for his labour, skilled or unskilled, bodily or mental, as much as is proved to be its value by the demand for it: such return, therefore, as will enable him to thrive and rear offspring in proportion to the superiorities which make him valuable to himself and others.

And yet, notwithstanding the conspicuousness of these truths, which should strike everyone who leaves his lexicons, and his law-deeds, and his ledgers, and looks abroad into that natural order of things under which we exist, and to which we must conform, there is continual advocacy of paternal government. The intrusion of family-ethics into the ethics of the State, instead of being regarded as socially injurious, is more and more demanded as the only efficient means to social benefit. So far has this delusion now gone, that it vitiates the beliefs of those who might, more than all others, be thought safe from it. In the essay to which the Cobden Club awarded its prize in 1880, there occurs the assertion that 'the truth of Free Trade is clouded over by the laissez-faire fallacy'; and we are told that 'we need a great deal more parental government - that bugbear of the old economists' (25).

Vitally important as is the truth above insisted upon, since acceptance or rejection of it affects the entire fabric of political conclusions formed, I may be excused if I emphasize it by here quoting certain passages contained in a work I published in 1851: premising, only, that the reader must not hold me committed to such teleological implications as they contain. After describing 'that state of universal warfare maintained throughout the lower creation', and showing that an average of benefit results from it, I have continued thus:

Note further, that their carnivorous enemies not only remove from herbivorous herds individuals past their prime, but also weed out the sickly; the malformed, and the least fleet or powerful. By the aid of which purifying process, as well as by the fighting so universal in the pairing season, all vitiation of the race through the multiplication of its inferior sample is prevented; and the maintenance of a constitution completely adapted to surrounding conditions, and therefore most productive of happiness, is ensured. The development of the higher creation is a progress towards a form of being capable of a happiness undiminished by these drawbacks. It is in the human race that the consummation is to be accomplished. Civilization is the last stage of its accomplishment. And the ideal man is the man in whom all the conditions of that accomplishment are fulfilled. Meanwhile, the well-being of existing humanity, and the unfolding of it into this ultimate perfection, are both secured by that same beneficent, though severe discipline, to which the animate creation at large is subject: a discipline which is pitiless in the working out of good: a felicity-pursuing law which never swerves for the avoidance of partial and temporary suffering. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many 'in shallows and in miseries', are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence.

* * *

To become fit for the social state, man has not only to lose his savageness, but he has to acquire the capacities needful for civilized life. Power of application must be developed; such modification of the intellect as shall qualify it for its new tasks must take place; and, above all, there must be gained the ability to sacrifice a small immediate gratification for a future great one. The state of transition will of course be an unhappy state. Misery inevitably results from incongruity between constitution and conditions. All these evils which afflict us, and seem to the uninitiated the obvious consequences of this or that removable cause, are unavoidable attendants on the adaptation now in progress. Humanity is being pressed against the inexorable necessities of its new position - is being moulded into harmony with them, and has to bear the resulting unhappiness as best it can. The process must be undergone, and the sufferings must be endured. No power on earth, no cunningly-devised laws of statesmen, no world-rectifying schemes of the humane, no communist panaceas, no reforms that men ever did broach or ever will broach, can diminish them one jot. Intensified they may be, and are; and in preventing their intensification, the philanthropic will find ample scope for exertion. But there is bound up with the change a normal amount of suffering, which cannot be lessened without altering the very laws of life.

* * *

Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated; albeit there is unquestionably harm done when sympathy is shown, without any regard to ultimate results. But the drawbacks hence arising are nothing like commensurate with the benefits otherwise conferred. Only when this sympathy prompts to a breach of equity - only when it originates an interference forbidden by the law of equal freedom - only when, by so doing, it suspends in some particular department of life the relationship between constitution and conditions, does it work pure evil. Then, however, it defeats its own end. Instead of diminishing suffering, it eventually increases it. It favours the multiplication of those worst fitted for existence, and, by consequence, hinders the multiplication, of those best fitted for existence - leaving, as it does, less room for them. It tends to fill the world with those to whom life will bring most pain, and tends to keep out of it those to whom life will bring most pleasure. It inflicts positive misery, and prevents positive happiness. - Social Statics, pp. 322-5 and pp. 380-1 (edition of 1851).


The lapse of a third of a century since these passages were published, has brought me no reason for retreating from the position taken up in them. Contrariwise, it has brought a vast amount of evidence strengthening that position. The beneficial results of the survival of the fittest, prove to be immeasurably greater than those above indicated. The process of 'natural selection', as Mr Darwin called it, cooperating with a tendency to variation and to inheritance of variations, he has shown to be a chief cause (though not, I believe, the sole cause) of that evolution through which all living things, beginning with the lowest and diverging and rediverging as they evolved, have reached their present degrees of organization and adaptation to their modes of life. So familiar has this truth become that some apology seems needed for naming it. And yet, strange to say, now that this truth is recognized by most cultivated people - now that the beneficent working of the survival of the fittest has been so impressed on them that, much more than people in past times, they might be expected to hesitate before neutralizing its action - now more than ever before in the history of the world, are they doing all they can to further survival of the unfittest!

But the postulate that men are rational beings, continually leads one to draw inferences which prove to be extremely wide of the mark (26).

'Yes truly; your principle is derived from the lives of brutes, and is a brutal principle. You will not persuade me that men are to be under the discipline which animals are under. I care nothing for your natural-history arguments. My conscience shows me that the feeble and the suffering must be helped; and if selfish people won't help them, they must be forced by law to help them. Don't tell me that the milk of human kindness is to be reserved for the relations between individuals, and that Governments must be the administrators of nothing but hard justice. Every man with sympathy in him must feel that hunger and pain and squalor must be prevented; and that if private agencies do not suffice, then public agencies must be established.'

Such is the kind of response which I expect to be made by nine out of ten. In some of them it will doubtless result from a fellow-feeling so acute that they cannot contemplate human misery without an impatience which excludes all thought of remote results. Concerning the susceptibilities of the rest, we may, however, be somewhat sceptical. Persons who are angry if, to maintain our supposed national 'interests' or national 'prestige', those in authority do not send out thousands of men to be partially destroyed while destroying other thousands of men because we suspect their intentions, or dislike their institutions, or want their territory, cannot after all be so tender in feeling that contemplating the hardships of the poor is intolerable to them. Little admiration need be felt for the professed sympathies of people who urge on a policy which breaks up progressing societies; and who then look on with cynical indifference at the weltering confusion left behind, with all its entailed suffering and death. Those who, when Boers, asserting their independence, successfully resisted us, were angry because British 'honour' was not maintained by fighting to avenge a defeat, at the cost of more mortality and misery to our own soldiers and their antagonists, cannot have so much 'enthusiasm of humanity' as the protests like that indicated above would lead one to expect. Indeed, along with this sensitiveness which it seems will not let them look with patience on the pains of the battle of life' as it quietly goes on around, they appear to have a callousness which not only tolerates but enjoys contemplating the pains of battles of the literal kind; as one sees in the demand for illustrated papers containing scenes of carnage, and in the greediness with which detailed accounts of bloody engagements are read. We may reasonably have our doubts about men whose feelings are such that they cannot bear the thought of hardships borne, mostly by the idle and the improvident, and who, nevertheless, have demanded thirty-one editions of The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, in which they may revel in accounts of slaughter. Nay, even still more remarkable is the contrast between the professed tender-heartedness and the actual hard-heartedness of those who would reverse the normal course of things that immediate miseries may be prevented, even at the cost of greater miseries hereafter produced. For on other occasions you may hear them, with utter disregard of bloodshed and death, contend that in the interests of humanity at large, it is well that the inferior races should be exterminated and their places occupied by the superior races. So that, marvellous to relate, though they cannot bear to think of the evils accompanying the struggle for existence as it is carried on without violence among individuals in their own society, they contemplate with equanimity such evils in their intense and wholesale forms, when inflicted by fire and sword on entire communities. Not worthy of much respect then, as it seems to me, is this generous consideration of the inferior at home which is accompanied by unscrupulous sacrifice of the inferior abroad.

Still less respectable appears this extreme concern for those of our own blood which goes along with utter unconcern for those of other blood, when we observe its methods. Did it prompt personal effort to relieve the suffering, it would rightly receive approving recognition. Were the many who express this cheap pity like the few who devote large parts of their time to aiding and encouraging, and occasionally amusing, those who, by ill-fortune or incapacity, are brought to lives of hardship, they would be worthy of unqualified admiration. The more there are of men and women who help the poor to help themselves - the more there are of those whose sympathy is exhibited directly and not by proxy, the more we may rejoice. But the immense majority of the persons who wish to mitigate by law the miseries of the unsuccessful and the reckless, propose to do this in small measure at their own cost and mainly at the cost of others - sometimes with their assent but mostly without. More than this is true; for those who are to be forced to do so much for the distressed, often equally or more require something doing for them. The deserving poor are among those who are taxed to support the undeserving poor. As, under the old Poor Law, the diligent and provident labourer had to pay that the good-for-nothings might not suffer, until frequently under this extra burden he broke down and himself took refuge in the workhouse - as, at present, the total rates levied in large towns for all public purposes, have reached such a height that they 'cannot be exceeded without inflicting great hardship on the small shop-keepers and artisans, who already find it difficult enough to keep themselves free from the pauper taint' (27); so in all cases, the policy is one which intensifies the pains of those most deserving of pity, that the pains of those least deserving of pity may be mitigated. Men who are so sympathetic that they cannot let the struggle for existence bring on the unworthy the sufferings consequent on their incapacity or misconduct, are so unsympathetic that they can, deliberately, make the struggle for existence harder for the worthy, and inflict on them and their children artificial evils in addition to the natural evils they have to bear!

And here we are brought round to our original topic - the sins of legislators. Here there comes clearly before us the commonest of the transgressions which rulers commit - a transgression so common, and so sanctified by custom, that no one imagines it to be a transgression. Here we see that, as indicated at the outset, Government, begotten of aggression and by aggression, ever continues to betray its original nature by its aggressiveness; and that even what on its nearer face seems beneficence only, shows, on its remoter face, not a little maleficence - kindness at the cost of cruelty. For is it not cruel to increase the sufferings of the better that the sufferings of the worse may be decreased?

It is, indeed, marvellous how readily we let ourselves be deceived by words and phrases which suggest one aspect of the facts while leaving the opposite aspect unsuggested. A good illustration of this, and one germane to the immediate question, is seen in the use of the words 'protection' and 'protectionist' by the antagonists of free-trade, and in the tacit admission of its propriety by free-traders. While the one party has habitually ignored, the other party has habitually failed to emphasize, the truth that this so-called protection always involves aggression; and that the name aggressionist ought to be substituted for the name protectionist. For nothing can be more certain than that if, to maintain A's profit, B is forbidden to buy of C, or is fined to the extent of the duty if he buys of C, then B is aggressed upon that A may be 'protected'. Nay, 'aggressionists' is a title doubly more applicable to the anti-free-traders than is the euphemistic title 'protectionists'; since, that one producer may gain, ten consumers are fleeced.

Now just the like confusion of ideas, caused by looking at one face only of the transaction, may be traced throughout all the legislation which forcibly takes the property of this man for the purpose of giving gratis benefits to that man. Habitually when one of the numerous measures thus characterized is discussed, the dominant thought is concerning the pitiable Jones who is to be protected against some evil; while no thought is given to the hard-working Brown who is aggressed upon, often much more to be pitied. Money is exacted (either directly or through raised rent) from the huckster who only by extreme pinching can pay her way, from the mason thrown out of work by a strike, from the mechanic whose savings are melting away during an illness, from the widow who washes or sews from dawn to dark to feed her fatherless little ones; and all that the dissolute may be saved from hunger, that the children of less impoverished neighbours may have cheap lessons, and that various people, mostly better off, may read newspapers and novels for nothing! The error of nomenclature is, in one respect, more misleading than that which allows aggressionists to be called protectionists; for, as just shown, protection of the vicious poor involves aggression on the virtuous poor. Doubtless it is true that the greater part of the money exacted comes from those who are relatively well-off. But this is no consolation to the ill-off from whom the rest is exacted. Nay, if the comparison be made between the pressures borne by the two classes respectively, it becomes manifest that the case is even worse than at first appears; for while to the well-off the exaction means loss of luxuries, to the ill-off it means loss of necessaries.

And now see the Nemesis which is threatening to follow this chronic sin of legislators. They and their class, in common with all owners of property, are in danger of suffering from a sweeping application of that general principle practically asserted by each of these confiscating Acts of Parliament. For what is the tacit assumption on which such Acts proceed? It is the assumption that no man has any claim to his property, not even to that which he has earned by the sweat of his brow, save by permission of the community; and that the community may cancel the claim to any extent it thinks fit. No defence can be made for this appropriation of A's possessions for the benefit of B, save one which sets out with the postulate that society as a whole has an absolute right over the possessions of each member. And now this doctrine, which has been tacitly assumed, is being openly proclaimed. Mr George and his friends, Mr Hyndman and his supporters, are pushing the theory to its logical issue. They have been instructed by examples, yearly increasing in number, that the individual has no rights but what the community may equitably over-ride; and they are now saying - 'It shall go hard but we will better the instruction', and abolish individual rights altogether.


Legislative misdeeds of the classes above indicated are in large measure explained, and reprobation of them mitigated, when we look at the matter from afar off. They have their root in the error that society is a manufacture; whereas it is a growth. Neither the culture of past times nor the culture of the present time, has given to any considerable number of people a scientific conception of a society - a conception of it as having a natural structure in which all its institutions, governmental, religious, industrial, commercial, etc., are interdependently bound - a structure which is in a sense organic. Or if such a conception is nominally entertained, it is not entertained in such way as to be operative on conduct. Contrariwise, incorporated humanity is very commonly thought of as though it were like so much dough which the cook can mould as she pleases into pie-crust, or puff, or tartlet. The communist shows us unmistakably that he thinks of the body politic as admitting of being shaped thus or thus at will; and the tacit implication of many Acts of Parliament is that aggregated men, twisted into this or that arrangement, will remain as intended.

It may indeed be said that, even irrespective of this erroneous conception of a society as a plastic mass instead of as an organized body, facts forced on his attention hour by hour should make everyone sceptical as to the success of this or that proposed way of changing a people's actions. Alike to the citizen and to the legislator, home-experiences daily supply proofs that the conduct of human beings baulks calculation. He has given up the thought of managing his wife and lets her manage him. Children on whom he has tried now reprimand, now punishment, now suasion, now reward, do not respond satisfactorily to any method; and no expostulation prevents their mother from treating them in ways he thinks mischievous. So, too, his dealings with his servants, whether by reasoning or by scolding, rarely succeed for long; the falling short of attention, or punctuality, or cleanliness, or sobriety, leads to constant changes. Yet, difficult as he finds it to deal with humanity in detail, he is confident of his ability to deal with embodied humanity. Citizens, not one-thousandth of whom he knows, not one-hundredth of whom he ever saw, and the great mass of whom belong to classes having habits and modes of thought of which he has but dim notions, he feels sure will act in ways he foresees, and fulfil ends he wishes. Is there not a marvellous incongruity between premises and conclusion?

One might have expected that whether they observed the implications of these domestic failures, or whether they contemplated in every newspaper the indications of a social life too vast, too varied, too involved, to be even vaguely pictured in thought, men would have entered on the business of law-making with the greatest hesitation. Yet in this more than anything else do they show a confident readiness. Nowhere is there so astounding a contrast between the difficulty of the task and the unpreparedness of those who undertake it. Unquestionably among monstrous beliefs one of the most monstrous is that while for a simple handicraft, such as shoemaking, a long apprenticeship is needful, the sole thing which needs no apprenticeship is making a nation's laws!


Summing up the results of the discussion, may we not reasonably say that there lie before the legislator several open secrets, which yet are so open that they ought not to remain secrets to one who undertakes the vast and terrible responsibility of dealing with millions upon millions of human beings by measures which, if they do not conduce to their happiness, will increase their miseries and accelerate their deaths? There is first of all the undeniable truth, conspicuous and yet absolutely ignored, that there are no phenomena which a society presents but what have their origins in the phenomena of individual human life, which again have their roots in vital phenomena at large. And there is the inevitable implication that unless these vital phenomena, bodily and mental, are chaotic in their relations (a supposition excluded by the very maintenance of life) the resulting phenomena cannot be wholly chaotic: there must be some kind of order in the phenomena which grow out of them when associated human beings have to cooperate. Evidently, then, when one who has not studied such resulting phenomena of social order, undertakes to regulate society, he is pretty certain to work mischiefs.

In the second place, apart from a priori reasoning, this conclusion should be forced on the legislator by comparisons of societies. It ought to be sufficiently manifest that before meddling with the details of social organization, inquiry should be made whether social organization has a natural history; and that to answer this inquiry, it would be well, setting out with the simplest societies, to see in what respects social structures agree. Such comparative sociology, pursued to a very small extent, shows a substantial uniformity of genesis. The habitual existence of chieftainship, and the establishment of chiefly authority by war; the rise everywhere of the medicine man and priest; the presence of a cult having in all places the same fundamental traits; the traces of division of labour, early displayed, which gradually become more marked; and the various complications, political, ecclesiastical, industrial, which arise as groups are compounded and re-compounded by war; prove to any who compare them that, apart from all their special differences, societies have general resemblances in their modes of origin and development. They present traits of structure showing that social organization has laws which over-ride individual wills; and laws the disregard of which must be fraught with disaster.

And then, in the third place, there is that mass of guiding information yielded by the records of legislation in our own country and in other countries, which still more obviously demands attention. Here and elsewhere, attempts of multitudinous kinds, made by kings and statesmen, have failed to do the good intended and have worked unexpected evils. Century after century new measures like the old ones, and other measures akin in principle, have again disappointed hopes and again brought disaster. And yet it is thought neither by electors nor by those they elect, that there is any need for systematic study of that law-making which in bygone ages went on working the ill-being of the people when it tried to achieve their well-being. Surely there can be no fitness for legislative functions without wide knowledge of those legislative experiences which the past has bequeathed. Reverting, then, to the analogy drawn at the outset, we must say that the legislator is morally blameless or morally blameworthy, according as he has or has not acquainted himself with these several classes of facts. A physician who, after years of study, has gained a competent knowledge of physiology, pathology, and therapeutics, is not held criminally responsible if a man dies under his treatment: he has prepared himself as well as he can, and has acted to the best of his judgement. Similarly the legislator whose measures produce evil instead of good, notwithstanding the extensive and methodic inquiries which helped him to decide, cannot be held to have committed more than an error of reasoning. Contrariwise, the legislator who is wholly or in great part uninformed concerning the masses of facts which he must examine before his opinion on a proposed law can be of any value, and who nevertheless helps to pass that law, can no more be absolved if misery and mortality result, than the journeyman druggist can be absolved when death is caused by the medicine he ignorantly prescribes.




(1) Political Institutions,§§ 437, 573.

(2) ibid., §§ 471-3.

(3) Landfrey. See also Study of Sociology, p. 42, and Appendix.

(4) Constitutional History of England, ii, p.6-7.

(5) W. E. H. Lecky, History of Rationalism, ii, pp. 293-4.

(6) De Tocqueville, The State of Society in France before the Revolution, p. 421.

(7) Young's Travels, i, pp. 128-9. 8.

(8) G. L. Craik's History of British Commerce, i, p. 134

(9) Craik, loc. cit., i, pp. 136-7

(10) ibid., i, p. 137.

(11) More recently, Glasgow has furnished a gigantic illustration of the disasters which result from the socialistic meddlings of municipal bodies. The particulars may be found in proceedings of the Glasgow Town Council, reported in the Glasgow Herald for 11 September 1891. In the course of the debate it was said that the Glasgow Improvement Trust had for years been pursuing a 'course of blundering', and had landed the corporation 'in a quagmire'. Out of some £2,000,000 taken from the ratepayers to buy and clear 88 acres of bad house property, £1,000,000 had been got back by sale of cleared lands. But the property remaining in the hands of the Corporation, mostly vacant land, has, by successive valuations in 1880, 1884, and 1891, been shown to have gradually depreciated to the extent of £320,000 - an admitted depreciation, believed to be far less than the actual depreciation. Moreover, model-blocks built by the Improvement Trust, have proved to be not only financial failures, but also failures philanthropically considered. One which cost £10,000, and in the first year yielded 5 per cent, brought in the second year 4 per cent, and in the third 2% per cent. Another which cost £11,000 yields only 3 per cent. And, as is thus implied, these dwellings, instead of being in demand, have a decreasing number of tenants - a decreasing number, too, notwithstanding the fact that the clearing of so large an area of low-class dwellings has increased the pressure of the working population, made the over-crowding greater in other parts of the city, and intensified the sanitary evils which were to be mitigated. Commenting on the results, as they had become manifest at the close of 1888, Mr Honeyman, President of the Social Economy Section of the Glasgow Philosophical Society, said that the model-building put up by the Improvement Trust, was one 'which no sane builder would dream of imitating, because it would not pay', and that they had 'put anything like fair competition entirely out of the question': 'driving the ordinary builder from the field'. He also pointed out that the bulding regulations and restrictions imposed by the Improvement Trust, tended 'to keep the land belonging to the Corporation vacant, and hinder the erection of dwellings of the humblest class'. In like manner, at a meeting of the Kyrle Society, the Lord Provost of Glasgow pointed out that when, with philanthropic motives, they built houses for the working-people at prices which would not pay the ordinary builder, then 'immediately the whole of those builders who had hitherto supplied the wants of the working classes would stop, and philanthropy would require to take the whole burden of the provision on itself'. To achieve all these failures and produce all these evils, many thousands of hard-working ratepayers, who have difficulty in making both ends meet, have been taxed and pinched and distressed. See, then, the enormous evils that follow in the train of the baseless belief in the unlimited power of a majority - the miserable superstition that a body elected by the greater number of citizens has the right to take from citizens at large any amount of money for any purpose it pleases!

(12) Mensch, iii, p. 225.

(13) The Nineteenth Century, February 1883.

(14) 'The Statistics of Legislation.' By F. H. Janson, Esq., F.L.S., Vice-president of the Incorporated Law Society. [Read before the Statistical Society, May 1873.]

(15) Fire Surveys; or, a Summary of the Principles to be observed in Estimating the Risk of Buildings.

(16) See The Times, 6 October 1874, where other instances are given.

(17) Sir Thomas Farrer, The State in its Relation to Trade, p. 47.

(18) ibid., p. 149.

(19) Hansard, vol. clvi, p. 718, and vol. clviii, p. 4464.

(20) Letter of an Edinburgh M.D. in The Times of 17 January 1876, verifying other testimonies; one of which I had previously cited concerning Windsor, where, as in Edinburgh, there was absolutely no typhoid in the undrained parts, while it was very fatal in the drained parts - Study of Sociology, chap. i, notes.

(21) I say this partly from personal knowledge; having now before me memoranda made 25 years ago concerning such results produced under my own observation. Verifying facts have recently been given by Sir Richard Cross in the Nineteenth Century for January 1884, p. 155.

(22) Sir G. Nicholl's History of the English Poor Law, ii, p. 252.

(23) See The Times, 31 March 1873.

(24) In these paragraphs are contained just a few additional examples. Numbers which I have before given in books and essays, will be found in Social Statics (1851); 'Over-Legislation' (1853); 'Representative Government' (1857); 'Specialized Administration' (1871); Study of Sociology (1873), and Postscript to ditto (1880); besides cases in smaller essays.

(25) On the Value of Political Economy to Mankind. By A. N. Cumming, pp. 47,48.

(26) The saying of Emerson that most people can understand a principle only when its light falls on a fact, induces me here to cite a fact which may carry home the above principle to those on whom, in its abstract form, it will produce no effect. It rarely happens that the amount of evil caused by fostering the vicious and good-for-nothing can be estimated. But in America, at a meeting of the States Charities Aid Association, held on 18 December 1874, a startling instance was given in detail by Dr Harris. It was furnished by a county on the Upper Hudson, remarkable for the ratio of crime and poverty to population. Generations ago there had existed a certain 'gutter-child', as she would be here called, known as 'Margaret', who proved to be the prolific mother of a prolific race. Besides great numbers of idiots, imbeciles, drunkards, lunatics, paupers, and prostitutes, 'the county records show two hundred of her descendants who have been criminals'. Was it kindness or cruelty which, generation after generation, enabled these to multiply and become an increasing curse to the society around them? [For particulars see The Jukes: a Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity. By R. L. Dugdale. New York: Putnams.]

(27) Mr I. Chamberlain in Fortnightly Review, December 1883, p. 772.


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