Man or the State?/Inquiry Into the Influence Exercised by Government

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Man or the State?
Inquiry Into the Influence Exercised by Government by Henry Thomas Buckle




To any one who has studied history in its original sources, the notion that the civilization of Europe is chiefly owing to the ability which has been displayed by the different governments, and to the sagacity with which the evils of society have been palliated by legislative remedies, must appear so extravagant as to make it difficult to refute it with becoming gravity. Indeed, of all the social theories which have ever been broached, there is none so utterly untenable, and so unsound in all its parts, as this. In the first place, we have the obvious consideration that the rulers of a country have, under ordinary circumstances, always been the inhabitants of that country: nurtured by its literature, bred to its traditions, and imbibing its prejudices. Such men are, at best, only the creatures of the age, never its creators. Their measures are the result of social progress, not the cause of it. This may be proved, not only by speculative arguments, but also by a practical consideration, which any reader of history can verify for himself. No great political improvement, no great reform, either legislative or executive, has ever been originated in any country by its rulers. The first suggesters of such steps have invariably been bold and able thinkers, who discern the abuse, denounce it, and point out how it is to be remedied. But long after this is done, even the most enlightened governments continue to uphold the abuse and reject the remedy. At length, if circumstances are favorable, the pressure from without becomes so strong that the government is obliged to give way; and, the reform being accomplished, the people are expected to admire the wisdom of their rulers, by whom all this has been done. That this is the course of political improvement must be well known to whoever has studied the law-books of different countries in connection with the previous progress of their knowledge. Full and decisive evidence of this will be brought forward in the present work; but, by way of illustration, I may refer to the abolition of the corn-laws, undoubtedly one of the most remarkable facts in the history of England during this century. The propriety and, indeed, the necessity of their abolition is now admitted by every one of tolerable information; and the question arises as to how it was brought about. Those Englishmen who are little versed in the history of their country will say that the real cause was the wisdom of Parliament; while others, attempting to look a little further, will ascribe it to the activity of the Anti-Com-Law League, and the consequent pressure put upon Government. But whoever will minutely trace the different stages through which this great question successively passed will find that the Government, the Legislature, and the League were the unwitting instruments of a power far greater than all other powers put together. They were simply the exponents of that march of public opinion which on this subject had begun nearly a century before their time. The steps of this vast movement I shall examine on another occasion; at present it is enough to say that soon after the middle of the eighteenth century the absurdity of protective restrictions on trade was so fully demonstrated by the political economists as to be admitted by every man who understood their arguments and had mastered the evidence connected with them. From this moment, the repeal of the corn-laws became a matter, not of party, nor of expediency, but merely of knowledge. Those who knew the facts opposed the laws; those who were ignorant of the facts favored the laws. It was, therefore, clear that whenever the diffusion of knowledge reached a certain point, the laws must fall. The merit of the League was to aid in this diffusion; the merit of the Parliament was to yield to it. It is, however, certain that the members both of League and Legislature could at best only slightly hasten what the progress of knowledge rendered inevitable. If they had lived a century earlier they would have been altogether powerless^ because the age would not have been ripe for their labors. They were the creatures of a movement which began long before any of them were born; and the utmost they could do was to put into operation what others had taught, and repeat, in louder tones, the lessons they had learned from their masters. For it was not pretended, they did not even pretend themselves, that there was anything new in the doctrines which they preached from the hustings, and disseminated in every part of the kingdom. The discoveries had long since been made, and were gradually doing their work; encroaching upon old errors, and making proselytes in all directions. The reformers of our time swam with the stream: they aided what it would have been impossible long to resist. Nor is this to be deemed a slight or grudging praise of the services they undoubtedly rendered. The opposition they had to encounter was still immense; and it should always be remembered, as a proof of the backwardness of political knowledge and of the incompetence of political legislators, that although the principles of free trade had been established for nearly a century by a chain of arguments as solid as those on which the truths of mathematics are based, they were to the last moment strenuously resisted; and it was only with the greatest difficulty that Parliament was induced to grant what the people were determined to have, and the necessity of which had been proved by the ablest men during three successive generations.

I have selected this instance as an illustration, because the facts connected with it are undisputed, and, indeed, are fresh in the memory of us all. For it was not concealed at the time, and posterity ought to know, that this great measure, which, with the exception of the Reform Bill, is by far the most important ever passed by a British parliament, was, like the Reform Bill, extorted from the legislature by a pressure from without; that it was conceded, not cheerfully, but with fear; and that it was carried by statesmen who had spent their lives in opposing what they now suddenly advocated. Such was the history of these events; and such likewise has been the history of all those improvements which are important enough to rank as epochs in the history of modern legislation.

Besides this, there is another circumstance worthy the attention of those writers who ascribe a large part of European civilization to measures originated by European governments. This is, that every great reform which has been effected has consisted, not in doing something new, but in undoing something old. The most valuable additions made to legislation have been enactments destructive of preceding legislation; and the best laws which have been passed have been those by which some former laws were repealed. In the case just mentioned, of the corn-laws, all that was done was to repeal the old laws, and leave trade to its natural freedom. When this great reform was accomplished, the only result was to place things on the same footing as if legislators had never interfered at all. Precisely the same remark is applicable to another leading improvement in modern legislation, namely, the decrease of religious persecution. This is unquestionably an immense boon; though, unfortunately^ it is still imperfect, even in the most civilized countries. But it is evident that the concession merely consists in this: that legislators have retraced their own steps, and undone their own work. If we examine the policy of the most humane and enlightened governments, we shall find this to be the course they have pursued. The whole scope and tendency of modern legislation is to restore things to that natural channel from which the ignorance of preceding legislation has driven them. This is one of the great works of the present age; and if legislators do it well, they will deserve the gratitude of mankind. But though we may thus be grateful to individual lawgivers, we owe no thanks to lawgivers considered as a class. For since the most valuable improvements in legislation are those which subvert preceding legislation, it is clear that the balance of good cannot be on their side. It is clear that the progress of civilization cannot be due to those who, on the most important subjects, have done so much harm that their successors are considered benefactors simply because they reverse their policy, and thus restore affairs to the state in which they would have remained if politicians had allowed them to run on in the course which the wants of society required.

Indeed, the extent to which the governing classes have interfered, and the mischiefs which that interference has produced, are so remarkable as to make thoughtful men wonder how civilization could advance in the face of such repeated obstacles. In some of the European countries the obstacles have, in fact, proved insuperable, and the national progress is thereby stopped. Even in England, where, from causes which I shall presently relate, the higher ranks have for some centuries been less powerful than elsewhere, there has been inflicted an amount of evil which, though much smaller than that incurred in other countries, is sufficiently serious to form a melancholy chapter in the history of the human mind. To sum up these evils would be to write a history of English legislation; for it may be broadly stated that, with the exception of certain necessary enactments respecting the preservation of order and the punishment of crime, nearly every thing which has been done has been done amiss. Thus, to take only such conspicuous facts as do not admit of controversy, it is certain that all the most important interests have been grievously damaged by the attempts of legislators to aid them. Among the accessories of modern civilization there is none of greater moment than trade, the spread of which has probably done more than any other single agent to increase the comfort and happiness of man. But every European government which has legislated much respecting trade has acted as if its main object were to suppress the trade and ruin the traders. Instead of leaving the national industry to take its own course, it has been troubled by an interminable series of regulations, all intended for its good, and all inflicting serious harm. To such a height has this been carried that the commercial reforms which have distinguished England during the last twenty years have solely consisted in undoing this mischievous and intrusive legislation. The laws formerly enacted on this subject, and too many of which are still in force, are marvellous to contemplate. It is no exaggeration to say that the history of the commercial legislation of Europe presents every possible contrivance for hampering the energies of commerce. Indeed, a very high authority, who has maturely studied this subject, has recently declared that if it had not been for smuggling trade could not have been conducted, but must have perished in consequence of this incessant interference. However paradoxical this assertion may appear, it will be denied by no one who knows how feeble trade once was, and how strong the obstacles were which opposed it. In every quarter, and at every moment, the hand of government was felt. Duties on importation, and duties on exportation; bounties to raise up a losing trade, and taxes to pull down a remunerative one; this branch of industry forbidden, and that branch of industry encouraged; one article of commerce must not be grown, because it was grown in the colonies, another article might be grown and bought, but not sold again, while a third article might be bought and sold, but not leave the country. Then, too, we find laws to regulate wages; laws to regulate prices; laws to regulate profits; laws to regulate the interest on money; custom-house arrangements of the most vexatious kind, aided by a complicated scheme which was well called the sliding scale,—a scheme of such perverse ingenuity that all duties constantly varied on the same article, and no man could calculate beforehand what he would have to pay. To this uncertainty, itself the bane of all commerce, there was added a severity of exaction, felt by every class of consumers and producers. The tolls were so onerous as to double and often quadruple the cost of production. A system was organized, and strictly enforced, of interference with markets, interference with manufactories, interference with machinery, interference even with shops. The towns were guarded by excisemen, and the ports swarmed with tide-waiters, whose sole business was to inspect nearly every process of domestic industry, peer into every package, and tax every article; while, that absurdity might be carried to its extreme height, a large part of all this was by way of protection: that is to say, the money was avowedly raised, and the inconvenience suffered, not for the use of the government, but for the benefit of the people; in other words, the industrious classes were robbed in order that industry might thrive.

Such are some of the benefits which European trade owes to the paternal care of European legislators. But worse still remains behind. For the economical evils, great as they were, have been far surpassed by the moral evils which this system produced. The first inevitable consequence was that, in every part of Europe, there arose numerous and powerful gangs of armed smugglers, who lived by disobeying the laws which their ignorant rulers had imposed. These men, desperate from the fear of punishment, and accustomed to the commission of every crime, contaminated the surrounding population; introduced into peaceful villages vices formerly unknown; caused the ruin of entire families; spread, wherever they came, drunkenness, theft, and dissoluteness; and familiarized their associates with those coarse and swinish debaucheries which were the natural habits of so vagrant and lawless a life. The innumerable crimes arising from this are directly chargeable upon the European governments by whom they were provoked. The offences were caused by the laws; and now that the laws are repealed, the offences have disappeared. But it will hardly be pretended that the interests of civilization have been advanced by such a policy as this. It will hardly be pretended that we owe much to a system which, having called into existence a new class of criminals, at length retraces its steps; and, though it thus puts an end to the crime, only destroys what its own act had created.

It is unnecessary to say that these remarks do not affect the real services rendered to society by every tolerably organized government. In all countries, a power of punishing crime and of framing laws must reside somewhere; otherwise the nation is in a state of anarchy. But the accusation which the historian is bound to bring against every government which has hitherto existed is that it has overstepped its proper functions, and at each step has done incalculable harm. The love of exercising power has been found to be so universal that no class of men who have possessed authority have been able to avoid abusing it. To maintain order, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, and to adopt certain precautions respecting the public health, are the only services which any government can render to the interests of civilization. That these are services of immense value, no one will deny; but it cannot be said that by them civilization is advanced, or the progress of Man accelerated. All that is done is to afford the opportunity of progress; the progress itself must depend upon other matters. And that this is the sound view of legislation is, moreover, evident from the fact that as knowledge is becoming more diffused, and as an increasing experience is enabling each successive generation better to understand the complicated relations of life, just in the same proportion are men insisting upon the repeal of those protective laws the enactment of which was deemed by politicians to be the greatest triumph of political foresight.

Seeing, therefore, that the efforts of government in favor of civilization are, when most successful, altogether negative; and seeing, too, that when those efforts are more than negative they become injurious,—it clearly follows that all speculations must be erroneous which ascribe the progress of Europe to the wisdom of its rulers. This is an inference which rests not only on the arguments already adduced, but on facts which might be multiplied from every page of history. For no government having recognized its proper limits, the result is that every government has inflicted on its subjects great injuries; and has done this nearly always with the best intentions. The effects of its protective policy in injuring trade, and, what is far worse, in increasing crime, have just been noticed; and to these instances innumerable others might be added. Thus, during many centuries, every government thought it was its bounden duty to encourage religious truth and discourage religious error. The mischief this has produced is incalculable. Putting aside all other considerations, it is enough to mention its two leading consequences; which are, the increase of hypocrisy, and the increase of perjury. The increase of hypocrisy is the inevitable result of connecting any description of penalty with the profession of particular opinions. Whatever may be the case with individuals, it is certain that the majority of men find an extreme difficulty in long resisting constant temptation. And when the temptation comes to them in the shape of honor and emolument, they are too often ready to profess the dominant opinions, and abandon, not indeed their belief, but the external marks by which that belief is made public. Every man who takes this step is a hypocrite; and every government which encourages this step to be taken is an abettor of hypocrisy and a creator of hypocrites. Well, therefore, may we say that when a government holds out as a bait that those who profess certain opinions shall enjoy certain privileges, it plays the part of the tempter of old, and, like the Evil One, basely offers the good things of this world to him who will change his worship and deny his faith. At the same time, and as a part of this system, the increase of perjury has accompanied the increase of hypocrisy. For legislators, plainly seeing that proselytes thus obtained could not be relied upon, have met the danger by the most extraordinary precautions; and compelling men to confirm their belief by repeated oaths, have thus sought to protect the old creed against the new converts. It is this suspicion as to the motives of others which has given rise to oaths of every kind and in every direction. In England, even the boy at college is forced to swear about matters which he cannot understand, and which far riper minds are unable to master. If he afterwards goes into Parliament, he must again swear about his religion; and at nearly every stage of political life he must take fresh oaths, the solemnity of which is often strangely contrasted with the trivial functions to which they are the prelude. A solemn adjuration of the Deity being thus made at every turn, it has happened, as might have been expected, that oaths, enjoined as a matter of course, have at length degenerated into a matter of form. What is lightly taken is easily broken. And the best observers of English society—observers, too, whose characters are very different, and who hold the most opposite opinions—are all agreed on this, that the perjury habitually practiced in England, and of which government is the immediate creator, is so general that it has become a source of national conniption, has diminished the value of human testimony, and shaken the confidence which men naturally place in the word of their fellow-creatures.

The open vices and, what is much more dangerous, the hidden corruption thus generated in the midst of society by the ignorant interference of Christian rulers is indeed a painful subject; but it is one which I could not omit in an analysis of the causes of civilization. It would be easy to push the inquiry still further, and to show how legislators, in every attempt they have made to protect some particular interests and uphold some particular principles, have not only failed, but have brought about results diametrically opposite to those which they proposed. We have seen that their laws in favor of industry have injured industry; that their laws in favor of religion have increased hypocrisy; and that their laws to secure truth have encouraged perjury. Exactly in the same way, nearly every country has taken steps to prevent usury and keep down the interest of money; and the invariable effect has been to increase usury and raise the interest of money. For since no prohibition, however stringent, can destroy the natural relation between demand and supply, it has followed that when some men want to borrow, and other men want to lend, both parties are sure to find means of evading a law which interferes with their mutual rights. If the two parties were left to adjust their own bargain undisturbed the usury would depend on the circumstances of the loan, such as the amount of security and the chance of repayment. But this natural arrangement has been complicated by the interference of government. A certain risk being always incurred by those who disobey the law, the usurer very properly refuses to lend his money unless he is also compensated for the danger he is in from the penalty hanging over him. This compensation can only be made by the borrower, who is thus obliged to pay what in reality is a double interest: one interest for the natural risk on the loan, and another interest for the extra risk from the law. Such, then, is the position in which every European legislature has placed itself. By enactments against usury it has increased what it wished to destroy: it has passed laws which the imperative necessities of men compel them to violate: while, to wind up the whole, the penalty for such violation falls on the borrowers,—that is, on the very class in whose favor the legislators interfered.

In the same meddling spirit, and with the same mistaken notions of protection, the great Christian governments have done other things still more injurious. They have made strenuous and repeated efforts to destroy the liberty of the press, and prevent men from expressing their sentiments on the most important questions in politics and religion. In nearly every country, they, with the aid of the church, have organized a vast system of literary police, the sole object of which is to abrogate the undoubted right of every citizen to lay his opinions before his fellow-citizens. In the very few countries where they have stopped short of these extreme steps, they have had recourse to others less violent but equally unwarrantable. For even where they have not openly forbidden the free dissemination of knowledge, they have done all that they could to check it. On all the implements of knowledge, and on all the means by which it is diffused, such as paper, books, political journals, and the like, they have imposed duties so heavy that they could hardly have done worse if they had been the sworn advocates of popular ignorance. Indeed, looking at what they have actually accomplished, it may be emphatically said that they have taxed the human mind. They have made the very thoughts of men pay toll. Whoever wishes to communicate his ideas to others, and thus do what he can to increase the stock of our acquirements, must first pour his contributions into the imperial exchequer. That is the penalty inflicted on him for instructing his fellow-creatures. That is the blackmail which government extorts from literature and on receipt of which it accords its favor and agrees to abstain from further demands. And what causes all this to be the more insufferable is the use which is made of these and similar exactions, wrung from every kind of industry, both bodily and mental. It is truly a frightful consideration that knowledge is to be hindered, and that the proceeds of honest labor, of patient thought. and sometimes of profound genius are to be diminished, in order that a large part of their scanty earnings may go to swell the pomp of an idle and ignorant courts minister to the caprice of a few powerful individuals, and too often supply them with the means of turning against the people resources which the people called into existence.

These, and the foregoing statements respecting the effects produced on European society by political legislation, are not doubtful or hypothetical inferences, but are such as every reader of history may verify for himself. Indeed, some of them are still acting in England; and, in one country or another, the whole of them may be seen in full force. When put together they compose an aggregate so formidable that we may well wonder how, in the face of them, civilization has been able to advance. That, under such circumstances, it has advanced is a decisive proof of the extraordinary energy of Man; and justifies a confident belief that as the pressure of legislation is diminished, and the human mind less hampered, the progress will continue with accelerated speed. But it is absurd, it would be a mockery of all sound reasonings to ascribe to legislation any share in the progress, or to expect any benefit from future legislators except that sort of benefit which consists in undoing the work of their predecessors. This is what the present generation claims at their hands; and it should be remembered that what one generation solicits as a boon the next generation demands as a right. And, when the right is pertinaciously refused, one of two things has always happened: either the nation has retrograded or else the people have risen. Should the government remain firm, this is the cruel dilemma in which men are placed: if they submit, they injure their country; if they rebel, they may injure it still more. In the ancient monarchies of the East, their usual plan was to yield; in the monarchies of Europe, it has been to resist. Hence those insurrections and rebellions which occupy so large a space in modern history, and which are but repetitions of the old story, the undying struggle between oppressors and oppressed. It would, however, be unjust to deny that in one country the fatal crisis has now for several generations been successfully averted. In one European country, and in one alone, the people have been so strong, and the government so weak, that the history of legislation, taken as a whole, is, notwithstanding a few aberrations, the history of slow but constant concession: reforms which would have been refused to argument have been yielded from fear; while, from the steady increase of democratic opinions, protection after protection and privilege after privilege have, even in our own time, been torn away; until the old institutions, though they retain their former name, have lost their former vigor, and there no longer remains a doubt as to what their fate must ultimately be. Nor need we add that in this same country where, more than in any other of Europe, legislators are the exponents and the servants of the popular will, the progress has, on this account, been more undeviating than elsewhere; there has been neither anarchy nor revolution; and the world has been made familiar with the great truth that one main condition of the prosperity of a people is that its rulers shall have very little power, that they shall exercise that power very sparingly, and that they shall by no means presume to raise themselves into supreme judges of the national interests, or deem themselves authorized to defeat the wishes of those for whose benefit alone they occupy the post intrusted to them.

  1. From the first volume, published in 1857, of this author's standard "History of Civilization in England."