John Stuart Mill

Objections to state interference
Principles of Political Economy




These are passages from Book 5, Chapter 11 of Principles of Political Economy. Here we find the classic liberal objections to the paternalistic state on the way to becoming the dirigistic welfare state, meddling in everybody’s life. These objections are still valid now more than ever; the fact that they have been discarded by every political elite should make clear to us that state interference is an inevitable result of state presence as a monopolistic territorial ruler. And so, advocating a minimal state (the night-watchman of classic liberals) without eliminating the monopoly of territorial sovereignty remains forever an illusory and deceitful proposition.



6. I have reserved for the last place one of the strongest of the reasons against the extension of government agency. Even if the government could comprehend within itself, in each department, all the most eminent intellectual capacity and active talent of the nation, it would not be the less desirable that the conduct of a large portion of the affairs of the society should be left in the hands of the persons immediately interested in them.

The business of life is an essential part of the practical education of a people; without which, book and school instruction, though most necessary and salutary, does not suffice to qualify them for conduct, and for the adaptation of means to ends. Instruction is only one of the desiderata of mental improvement; another, almost as indispensable, is a vigorous exercise of the active energies; labour, contrivance, judgment, self-control: and the natural stimulus to these is the difficulties of life.

This doctrine is not to be confounded with the complacent optimism, which represents the evils of life as desirable things, because they call forth qualities adapted to combat with evils. It is only because the difficulties exist, that the qualities which combat with them are of any value. As practical beings it is our business to free human life from as many as possible of its difficulties, and not to keep up a stock of them as hunters preserve game, for the exercise of pursuing it. But since the need of active talent and practical judgment in the affairs of life can only be diminished, and not, even on the most favourable supposition, done away with, it is important that those endowments should be cultivated not merely in a select few, but in all, and that the cultivation should be more varied and complete than most persons are able to find in the narrow sphere of their merely individual interests.

A people among whom there is no habit of spontaneous action for a collective interest - who look habitually to their government to command or prompt them in all matters of joint concern - who expect to have everything done for them, except what can be made an affair of mere habit and routine - have their faculties only half developed; their education is defective in one of its most important branches.     

Not only is the cultivation of the active faculties by exercise, diffused through the whole community, in itself one of the most valuable of national possessions: it is rendered, not less, but more, necessary, when a high degree of that indispensable culture is systematically kept up in the chiefs and functionaries of the state.

There cannot be a combination of circumstances more dangerous to human welfare, than that in which intelligence and talent are maintained at a high standard within a governing corporation, but starved and discouraged outside the pale. Such a system, more completely than any other, embodies the idea of despotism, by arming with intellectual superiority as an additional weapon, those who have already the legal power. It approaches as nearly as the organic difference between human beings and other animals admits, to the government of sheep by their shepherd, without anything like so strong an interest as the shepherd has in the thriving condition of the flock.

The only security against political slavery, is the check maintained over governors, by the diffusion of intelligence, activity, and public spirit among the governed. Experience proves the extreme difficulty of permanently keeping up a sufficiently high standard of those qualities; a difficulty which increases, as the advance of civilization and security removes one after another of the hardships, embarrassments, and dangers against which individuals had formerly no resource but in their own strength, skill, and courage.

It is therefore of supreme importance that all classes of the community, down to the lowest, should have much to do for themselves; that as great a demand should be made upon their intelligence and virtue as it is in any respect equal to; that the government should not only leave as far as possible to their own faculties the conduct of whatever concerns themselves alone, but should suffer them, or rather encourage them, to manage as many as possible of their joint concerns by voluntary co-operation: since this discussion and management of collective interests is the great school of that public spirit, and the great source of that intelligence of public affairs, which are always regarded as the distinctive character of the public of free countries.     

A democratic constitution, not supported by democratic institutions in detail, but confined to the central government, not only is not political freedom, but often creates a spirit precisely the reverse, carrying down to the lowest grade in society the desire and ambition of political domination. In some countries the desire of the people is for not being tyrannized over, but in others it is merely for an equal chance to everybody of tyrannizing. Unhappily this last state of the desires is fully as natural to mankind as the former, and in many of the conditions even of civilized humanity, is far more largely exemplified.

In proportion as the people are accustomed to manage their affairs by their own active intervention, instead of leaving them to the government, their desires will turn to repelling tyranny, rather than to tyrannizing: while in proportion as all real initiative and direction resides in the government, and individuals habitually feel and act as under its perpetual tutelage, popular institutions develop in them not the desire of freedom, but an unmeasured appetite for place and power; diverting the intelligence and activity of the country from its principal business, to a wretched competition for the selfish prizes and the petty vanities of office.


7. The preceding are the principal reasons, of a general character, in favour of restricting to the narrowest compass the intervention of a public authority in the business of the community: and few will dispute the more than sufficiency of these reasons, to throw, in every instance, the burthen of making out a strong case, not on those who resist, but on those who recommend, government interference. Laisser-faire, in short, should be the general practice: every departure from it, unless required by some great good, is a certain evil. 

The degree in which the maxim, even in the cases to which it is most manifestly applicable, has heretofore been infringed by governments, future ages will probably have difficulty in crediting. Some idea may be formed of it from the description of M. Dunoyer (De la Liberté du Travail, vol. i. pp. 353-4) of the restraints imposed on the operations of manufacture under the old government of France, by the meddling and regulating spirit of legislation.

"The State exercised over manufacturing industry the most unlimited and arbitrary jurisdiction. It  disposed without scruple of the resources of manufacturers: it decided who should be allowed to work, what things it should be permitted to make, what materials should be employed, what  processes followed, what forms should be given to productions.
It was not enough to do well, to do better; it was necessary to do according to the rules. Everybody knows the regulation of 1670  which prescribed to seize and nail to the pillory, with the names of the makers, goods not conformable to the rules, and which, on a second repetition of the offence, directed that the  manufacturers themselves should be attached also. Not the taste of the consumers, but the  commands of the law must be attended to. Legions of inspectors, commissioners, controllers,  jurymen, guardians, were charged with its execution. Machines were broken, products were burned when not conformable to the rules: improvements were punished; inventors were fined.  There were different sets of rules for goods destined for home consumption and for those  intended for exportation. An artizan could neither choose the place in which to establish himself,  nor work at all seasons, nor work for all customers. There exists a decree of March 30, 1700,  which limits to eighteen towns the number of places where stockings might be woven. A decree of June 18, 1723, enjoins the manufacturers at Rouen to suspend their works from the 1st of July  to the 15th of September, in order to facilitate the harvest. Louis XIV, when he intended to  construct the colonnade of the Louvre, forbade all private persons to employ workmen without his permission, under a penalty of 10,000 livres, and forbade workmen to work for private persons, on pain for the first offence, of imprisonment, and for the second, of the galleys."

That these and similar regulations were not a dead letter, and that the officious and vexatious meddling was prolonged down to the French Revolution, we have the testimony of Roland, the Girondist minister (I quote at second hand, from Mr. Carey's Essay on the Rate of Wages, pp. 195-6).

"I have seen," says he, "eighty, ninety, a hundred pieces of cotton or woollen stuff cut up, and completely destroyed. I have witnessed similar scenes every week for a  number of years. I have seen manufactured goods confiscated; heavy fines laid on the  manufacturers; some pieces of fabric were burnt in public places, and at the hours of market:  others were fixed to the pillory, with the name of the manufacturer inscribed upon them, and he  himself was threatened with the pillory, in case of a second offence. All this was done under my  eyes, at Rouen, in conformity with existing regulations, or ministerial orders. What crime  deserved so cruel a punishment? Some defects in the materials employed, or in the texture of the  fabric, or even in some of the threads of the warp." 

"I have frequently seen manufacturers visited by a band of satellites who put all in confusion in  their establishments, spread terror in their families, cut the stuffs from the frames, tore off the  warp from the looms, and carried them away as proofs of infringement; the manufacturers were summoned, tried, and condemned: their goods confiscated; copies of their judgment of confiscation posted up in every public place; fortune, reputation, credit, all was lost and  destroyed. And for what offence? Because they had made of worsted, a kind of cloth called shag, such as the English used to manufacture, and even sell in France, while the French regulations  stated that that kind of cloth should be made with mohair. I have seen other manufacturers treated in the same way, because they had made camlets of a particular width, used in England  and Germany, for which there was a great demand from Spain, Portugal, and other countries, and from several parts of France, while the French regulations prescribed other widths for camlets."      

The time is gone by, when such applications as these of the principle of "paternal government" would be attempted, in even the least enlightened country of the European commonwealth of  nations. In such cases as those cited, all the general objections to government interference are valid, and several of them in nearly their highest degree.


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