Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/May 1884/The Sins of Legislators I

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THE

 

POPULAR SCIENCE

 

MONTHLY.



MAY, 1884



THE SINS OF LEGISLATORS.
By HERBERT SPENCER.

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 aggression ends in subjection of neighboring tribes. And thence onward, 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 societies 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 in their several grades must be subordinate to the commander; so, to make an efficient fighting society, must the citizens be subordinate. They must furnish recruits to the extent demanded, and yield up whatever property is required. An obvious implication is that the ethics of Government, 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 labor 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 trespasses and the revenges for trespasses, accounts of which constitute the great mass of 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 tens of thousands of 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, inflicting on immense numbers of negroes the horrors of "the middle passage" and killing thirty per cent of them, and ending with that of the corn laws, by which, says Sir Erskine May, "to insure 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 governmental 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 in early stages of the civilized races each man had to defend himself, and rectify his private wrongs as best he might— having shown that in mediaeval Europe 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 long continued to display in large measure 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 more than to 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 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 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.

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 personal ambitions or class interests, but result from a lack of the study by which legislators 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 cæcum, 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 judgment. It is tacitly assumed that the experience common to all should have taught him that even the skilled, and much more the unskilled, are liable to 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 any kind of 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 law-making, vast 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 producing undreamed-of evils of an indirect kind, such as preventing the reproductive use of spare capital, and "burdening the small proprietors with a multitude of perpetual services."[6] So, too, the endeavors which in England continued through five hundred years to stop forestalling, and which in France, as Arthur Young witnessed, prevented any one 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 statute " 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 victualers.[9] Of like spirit and followed by allied mischiefs have been the many endeavors to fix wages, which began with the statute of laborers under Edward III, 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 magisterial order.

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 learned at all, and that very 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 shillings, 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 denounced the carrying on of exchange under "the control of individual greed and 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 other fields; and that, as I shall presently show, they are in these fields increasing the evils to be cured and producing new ones, as much 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 endeavors 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 study of social science. In a paper read to the Statistical Society in May, 1873, by Mr. Janson, Vice-President of the Law Society, it was 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 partly, or amended, during the three years 1870-72 had been 3,532, of which 2,759 had been totally repealed. To see whether this rate of repeal has continued, I have referred to the annually-issued volumes of "The Public General Statutes" for the last three sessions. Leaving out amended acts and enumerating only acts entirely repealed, the result is that in the last three sessions there have been repealed separately, or in groups, 650 acts belonging to the present reign. This, of course, is greatly above the average rate; for there has of late been an active clearance of the statute-book going on. 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 canceled 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 delay, or defeat. What do these imply? Loss of money, often ill-spared; great and prolonged anxiety; frequently consequent illness; unhappiness of family and dependents; children stinted in food and clothing—all of them miseries which bring after them multitudinous remoter miseries. Add to which there are the far more numerous cases of those who, lacking the means or the courage to enter on lawsuits, and submitting to frauds, are impoverished, and have similarly to bear the pains of body and mind which ensue. 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 immense evils, let me take a special case which a question of the day brings before us.

Already I have hinted that interferences with the connection 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 connection 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 seems no suspicion that, in cases where it seems to fail, it is because it 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 describes 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 consesquently 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 now trying to cure by law, we have to thank previous agitators of the same school!— Social Statics," p. 384 (first edition).

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 title-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 712d. or 9d. a week to cover these burdens." M. C. Gatliff, 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 one 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 714d. per week."—"Times," January 31, 1850. "Social Statics," p. 386 (original edition).

Neither is this all the evidence which the press of those days afforded. There was published in the "Times " of December 7, 1850 (too late to be used in the above-named work, which I issued in the last week of that year), 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 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 fire-proof);
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 twenty-five feet by eighteen (about the size of a gentleman's dining-room), into which space the builder has to cram a staircase, an entrance-passage, a parlor, 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 misstatement or overstatement, I have taken the precaution to consult a large East-End builder and contractor of fifty-five years' experience, Mr. C. Forrest, Museum Works, 17 Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, who, being church-warden, 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 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 a far 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 December 21, 1883, shows that up to last September it had, at a cost of a million and a quarter to rate-payers, 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 Corporation of London, working on the same lines, has cleared four spaces amounting to several acres; but has unhappily failed to get them covered with the substituted houses needed, and has thus added a further thousand or two to those who have to seek homes in miserable places that are already overflowing!

See, then, what legislation has done. By ill-imposed taxation, raising the prices of bricks and timber, it added to the cost of houses, and prompted, 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 mediæval 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 increasing overflow of poor people by diminishing the house capacity which already could not contain them!

Where, then, lies the blame for the crying evils of the East- End? Against whom should be raised "the bitter cry of outcast London"?

The German anthropologist, Bastian, tells us that a sick native of Guinea who causes the fetich to lie by not recovering is strangled;[11] and we may reasonably suppose that among the Guinea people any one audacious enough to call in question the power of the fetich 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 fetich. 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 delayed 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 thirty-nine thousand administrative areas of twenty-two different kinds which overlap one another—hundreds, petty sessional divisions, lieutenancy divisions, urban and rural sanitary districts, unions, school-board districts, school-attendance districts, etc. And then, as Mr. W. Rathbone points out,[12] these many superposed sets of areas, with intersecting boundaries, have their respective governing bodies with authorities running into one another's districts. Does any one 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 harmonizes 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 twenty-six preceding acts of several classes and numerous dates.[13] 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 William Siemens years ago said had obstructed the employment of improved methods of telegraphing, and since then has impeded the general use of the telephone. Other cases, akin to that above set forth in detail, 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.[14] 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 is not even in permanent Government employ, is 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 ironclads 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.[15] So, too, with state-supervision. From time to time it is pointed out that coal-mine explosions continue notwithstanding coal-mine inspection: the only effect being that more inspection and more stringent regulations are demanded. 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 eighty-seven wives and children of soldiers are sacrificed in the ship Accrington;[16] or as when typhoid fever and diphtheria are diffused by a state-ordered drainage system, as in Edinburgh;[17] or as when officially-enforced sanitary appliances, ever getting out of order, increase the evils they were to decrease.[18] These and multitudinous such facts 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, the water-companies have come to be daily denounced for the impurities of their water; and, 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 work of the Legislature is, in one respect, indeed, less excusable than the fetich-worship to which I have tactily compared it. The savage has the defense that his fetich is silent—does not confess its inability. But the civilized man persists in ascribing to this idol, made with his own hands, powers 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 quasi-governmental 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." I refer rather to those 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, rate-payers, 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.[19]

And 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 shipwreck); 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 ever was before." Meanwhile, the cost of administration has been raised from £17,000 a year to £73,000 a year.[20]

It is surprising how, spite of better knowledge, the imagination is affected 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 taunt and invective, 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 can not compass.

[To be continued.]

  1. "Political Institutions," §§ 437, 573.
  2. Ibid., §§ 471-473.
  3. "Study of Sociology," p. 42
  4. "Constitutional History of England," ii, p. 617
  5. Lecky, "Rationalism," ii. pp. 293, 294
  6. Tocqueville, "The State of Society in France before the Revolution," p. 421.
  7. Young's "Travels," i, pp. 128, 129.
  8. Craik's "History of British Commerce," i, p. 134.
  9. Ibid, i, pp. 136, 137.
  10. Craik, loc. cit., i, p. 137.
  11. "Mensch," iii, p. 225.
  12. "The Nineteenth Century," February, 1883
  13. "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.)
  14. "Fire Surveys; or, a Summary of the Principles to be observed in estimating the Risk of Buildings."
  15. See "Times," October 6, 1874, where other instances are given.
  16. Hansard, vol. clvi, p. 718, and vol. clvii, p. 4464.
  17. Letter of an Edinburgh M. D. in the " Times" of January 17, 1876, verifying other testimonies: one of which I have 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.
  18. I say this partly from personal knowledge; having now before me memoranda made twenty-five 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.
  19. The "Times," March 31, 1873
  20. These are just a few additional examples. Masses of those which I have on earlier occasions given 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 some cases in smaller essays.