Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/April 1880/Experimental Legislation
"A FOOL Mr. Edgeworth, is one who has never made an experiment." Such are, I believe, the exact words of the remark which Erasmus Darwin addressed to Richard Lovell Edgeworth. They deserve to become proverbial. They have the broad foundation of truth and the trenchant disregard of accuracy in detail which mark an adage. Of course, the saying at once suggests the question, What is an experiment? In a certain way, all people, whether fools or wise men, are constantly making experiments. The education of the infant is thoroughly experimental from the very first, only in a haphazard and unconscious way. The child which overbalances itself in learning to walk is experimenting on the law of gravity. All successful action is successful experiment, in the broadest sense of the term, and every mistake or failure is a negative experiment, which deters us from repetition. Our mental framework, too, is marvelously contrived, so as to go on ceaselessly registering on the tablets of the memory the favorable or unfavorable results of every kind of action. Charles Babbage proposed to make an automaton chess-player which should register mechanically the number of games lost and gained in consequence of every sort of move. Thus, the longer the automaton went on playing games, the more experienced it would become by the accumulation of experimental results. Such a machine precisely represents the acquirement of experience by our nervous organization.
But Erasmus Darwin doubtless meant by experiment something more than this unintentional heaping-up of experience. The part of wisdom is to learn to foresee the results of our actions, by making slight and harmless trials before we commit ourselves to an irrevocable line of conduct. We ought to feel our way, and try the ice before we venture on it to a dangerous extent. To make an experiment, in this more proper sense, is to arrange certain known conditions, or, in other words, to put together certain causal agents, in order to ascertain their aggregate outcome or effect. The experiment has knowledge alone for its immediate purpose. But he is truly happy, as the Latin poet said, who can discern the causes of things, for, these being known, we can proceed at once to safe and profitable applications.
It need hardly be said that it is to frequent and carefully planned appeals to experiment in the physical sciences that we owe almost all the progress of the human race in the last three centuries. Even moral and intellectual triumphs might often be traced back to dependence on physical inventions, and to the incentive which they give to general activity. Certainly, political and military success is almost entirely dependent on the experimental sciences. It is difficult to discover that, as regards courage, our soldiers in Afghanistan and Zoolooland are any better than the men whose countries they invade. But it is the science of the rifle, the shell, and the mountain-gun—science perfected by constant experimentation—which gives the poor savage no chance of successful resistance. To whom do we owe all this in its first beginning, but to the great experimentalist, the friar, Roger Bacon, of Oxford, our truest and greatest national glory, the smallest of whose merits is that he first mentions gunpowder; yet so little does this nation yet appreciate the sources of its power and greatness that the writings of Roger Bacon lie, to a great extent, unprinted and unexplored. It is only among Continental scholars that Roger Bacon is regarded as the miracle of his age and country.
No doubt it is to Francis Bacon, the Lord High Chancellor of England, that the world generally attributes the inauguration of the new inductive era of science. This is hardly the place to endeavor to decide whether the world has not made a great mistake. Professor Fowler, in his admirable critical edition of the "Novum Organum," has said about all that can be said in favor of Lord Bacon's scientific claims; yet I hold to the opinion, long since stoutly maintained by the late Professor De Morgan, not to speak of Baron Liebig and others. that Lord Bacon, though a truly clever man, was a mere dabbler in inductive science, the true methods of which he quite misapprehended. At best, he put into elegant and striking language an estimate of the tendency of science toward experimentalism, and a forecast of the results to be obtained. The regeneration of these last centuries is due to a long series of philosophers, from Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Leibnitz, down to Watt, Faraday, and Joule. Such men followed a procedure very different from that of Francis Bacon.
Now we come to the point of our inquiry. Is the experimental method necessarily restricted to the world of physical science? Do we sufficiently apply to moral, social, and political matters those methods which have been proved so invaluable in the hands of physical philosophers? Do our legislators, in short, appeal to experiment in a way which excepts them from the definition of Erasmus Darwin? English legislation, no doubt, is usually preceded by a great amount of public discussion and Parliamentary wrangling. Sometimes there is plenty of statistical inquiry—plenty, that is, if it were of the right sort and conducted according to true scientific method. Nevertheless, I venture to maintain that as a general rule Parliament ignores the one true way of appealing directly to experience. Our Parliamentary Committees and Royal Commissions of Inquiry pile up Blue-books full of information which is generally not to the point. The one bit of information, the actual trial of a new measure on a small scale, is not forthcoming, because Parliament, if it enacts a law at all, enacts it for the whole kingdom. It habitually makes a leap in the dark, because I suppose it is not consistent with the wisdom and dignity of Parliament to grope its way, and feel for a safe footing. Now, I maintain that, in large classes of legislative affairs, there is really nothing to prevent our making direct experiments upon the living social organism. Not only is social experimentation a possible thing, but it is in every part of the kingdom, excepting the palace of St. Stephen's, the commonest thing possible, the universal mode of social progress. It would hardly be too much to say that social progress is social experimentation, and social experimentation is social progress. Changes effected by any important act of Parliament are like storms, earthquakes, and cataclysms, which disturb the continuous course of social growth. Sometimes they do much good; sometimes much harm; but in any case it is hardly possible to forecast the result of a considerable catastrophic change in the social organism. Therefore I hold unhesitatingly that, whenever it is possible, legislation should observe the order of nature and proceed tentatively.
Social progress, I have said, is social experimentation. Every new heading that is inserted in the London Trades' Directory is claimed by those private individuals who have tried a new trade and found it to answer. The struggle for existence makes us all look out for chances of profit. We are all perhaps in some degree inventors, but some are more bold and successful. Now, every man who establishes a shop or factory or social institution of a novel kind is trying an experiment. If he hits an unsupplied need of his fellow men, the experiment succeeds; that is, it has something succeeding or following it, namely, repetition by himself and others. The word "success" is a most happy one etymologically. To have success is to have a future—a future of imitators.
It is quite apparent that all the great novelties of recent times have been worked out in this tentative way. How, for instance, has our vast and marvelous railway system been developed? Did it spring forth perfect from the wise forethought of Parliament, as Minerva, fully armed and equipped, leaped from the head of Jupiter? On the contrary, did not our wise land-owners and practical men oppose railways to the very utmost—until they discovered what a mistake they were making? There is no great blame to them. Who, indeed, could see in the rude tram-line of Benjamin Outram the germ which was to grow into the maze of lines, and points, and signals which we now pass through without surprise at Clapham Junction or at London Bridge? That most complex organization, a great railway station, is entirely a product of frequent experiment. Gradatim—step by step—would be no unapt motto for any great industrial successes. In such matters experiments are both intentional and unintentional. Of the former the public hears little, except when they result in some profitable patent. The preliminary trials are usually performed in secret, for obvious reasons, and the unsuccessful ones are left undescribed and are quickly forgotten. As to unintentional experiments, they are too numerous. Every railway accident which happens is an experiment revealing some fault of design, some insufficiency in the materials, some contingency unprovided for. The accident is inquired into, and then the engineers set to work to plan improvements which shall prevent the like accident from happening in the future. If we had time to trace the history of the steam-engine, of gas-lighting, of electric telegraphs, of submarine cables, of electric lighting, or of any other great improvement, we should see, in like manner, that the wisdom of Parliament has had nothing to do with planning it. From the first to the last the rule of progress has been that of the ancient nursery rhyme—"Try, try, try: And if at first you don't succeed. Try, try, again."
To put the matter in the strongest light, let the reader consider what he would say about a proposal that Parliament should decide arbitrarily, by its own wisdom, concerning any great impending improvement; take, for instance, that of tramways and steam tram-cars. It is quite conceivable that steam tram-cars will eventually succeed so well as to replace horse conveyance to a great extent. All main highways will then, of course, be laid with tram-rails. But what should we think of the wisdom of Parliament if it undertook to settle the question once for all, and, after taking a score of Blue-books full of evidence, to decide either that there should be no steam tram-ears, or that steam tramways should be immediately laid down between all the villages in the kingdom? The House of Lords did take the former course two sessions ago, and prohibited the use of steam on tramways, because it might frighten horses. In the next session they felt the folly of opposing the irresistible, and expressly allowed the experimental use of steam on tramways.
It may, perhaps, be objected that these are matters of physical science and practical engineering, in which the supremacy of experiment has long been recognized. That is not wholly so; for the success of a system, like that of the railways or tramways, depends much upon social considerations. However that may be, there is no difficulty in showing that the same principles apply to the most purely social institutions. If anything, it is the social side of an enterprise which is usually most doubtful, and most in need of experiment when it can be applied. To construct the Thames Tunnel was a novel and difficult work at the time, but not so difficult as to get the populace to use it. The Great Eastern steamship was another instance of a great mechanical success, which was a social and economical failure. Many like cases might be mentioned, such as the real-ice rinks lately invented.
How is it that any kind of purely social institution is usually established? Take the case of the Volunteer Force. This was commenced, not to speak of earlier movements, or the ancient Honorable Artillery Company, by a few isolated experiments, such as that of the Exeter Rifle Corps in 1852, and the Victoria Rifle Corps in 1853. These succeeded so well that, when in 1859 fears of invasion were afloat, the imitative process set in rapidly. Of course wise, practical people laughed at the mania for playing at soldiers, and most people clearly foresaw that, when once the volunteers had got tired of their new uniforms, the whole thing would collapse. But experience has decided very differently. The force, instead of declining, has gone on steadily growing and substantially improving, until a good authority lately spoke of it as the only sound part of our military system. How much has the wisdom of Parliament had to do with the creation of this force? I believe that even now the Government and the military classes do not appreciate what the volunteer force has done for us by removing all fear of safety at home and enabling the standing army to be freely sent abroad.
Take, again, the case of popular amusements. Would Parliament ever think of defining by act of Parliament when and how people shall meet to amuse themselves, and what they shall do, and when they shall have had enough of it? Must not people find out by trial what pleases and what does not? The late Mr. Sergeant Cox is said to have invented penny readings for the people, and they answered so well under his management that they were imitated in all parts of the kingdom, and eventually in many other parts of the world. Spelling bees were, I believe, an American invention, and had a very lively but brief career. The recent courses of popular scientific lectures arose out of the very successful experiment instituted by Professor Roscoe at Manchester. Many attempts are just now being made to provide attractive and harmless amusements for the people, and this must, of course, be done in a tentative manner.
It is curious, indeed, to observe how evanescent many social inventions prove themselves to be; growth and change have been so rapid of late that there is constant need of new inventions. The Royal Institution in Albemarle Street was a notable invention of its time, chiefly due to Count Rumford, and its brilliant success led to early imitation in Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh, and perhaps elsewhere. But the provincial institutions have with difficulty maintained their raison d'être. After the Royal Institutions came a series of Mechanics' Institutions, which, as regards the mechanics element, were thoroughly unsuccessful, but proved themselves useful in the form of popular colleges or middle-class schools. Now, the great and genuine success of Owens College, as a teaching body, is leading to the creation of numerous local colleges of similar type. This is the age, again, of free public libraries, the practicability and extreme usefulness of which were first established in Manchester. When once possessed of local habitations, such institutions will, it may be hoped, have long careers; but bricks and mortar are usually requisite to give perpetuity to a social experiment. When thus perpetuated, each kind of institution marks its own age with almost geologic certainty. From the times of the Saxons and the Normans we can trace a series of strata of institutions superposed in order of time—the ancient Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, the mediæval guilds surviving in the city companies, the grammar-schools of the Elizabethan age, the almshouses of the Stuart period, the commercial institutions of Queen Anne's reign, and so on down to the free libraries and recreation palaces of the present day. Even styles of architecture are evolved by successful innovation, that is, experiment followed by imitation, and this was never more apparent than in the imitation which has followed upon Sir Joseph Paxton's grand experiment at the Exhibition of 1851.
Now, my contention is that legislators ought, in many branches of legislation, to adopt confessedly this tentative procedure, which is the very method of social growth. Parliament must give up the pretension that it can enact the creation of certain social institutions to be carried on as specified in the "hereinafter contained" clauses. No doubt, by aid of an elaborate machinery of administration and a powerful body of police, Government can, to a certain extent, guide, or at any rate restrain, the conduct of its subjects. Even in this respect its powers are very limited, and a law which does not command the consent of the body of the people must soon be repealed or become inoperative. But, as regards the creation of institutions, Parliament is almost powerless, except by consulting the needs of the time, and offering facilities for such institutions to grow up as experience shows to be successful. But an unfortunate confusion of ideas exists, and it seems to be supposed that, because for reasons of obvious convenience the civil and criminal laws are as a general rule made uniform for the whole kingdom, therefore the legislative action of Parliament must always be uniform and definitive. When an important change is advocated, for instance, in the licensing laws, Parliament collects abundant information, which is usually inconclusive, and then proceeds to effect all over the kingdom some very costly and irrevocable change—a change which generally disappoints its own advocates. Take the case of the Sale of Beer Act of 1830, generally known as the Beershop Act. This is a salient example of bad legislation. Yet it was passed by the almost unanimous wisdom of Parliament, the division in the House of Commons on the second reading showing two hundred and forty-five ayes and only twenty-nine noes. The act originated with Brougham, in the sense that he had in 1822 and 1823 brought in somewhat similar bills, which were partially adopted by the Government of 1830. The idea of the act was to break down the monopoly of the brewers and publicans; to throw open the trade in beer on free-trade principles; and, by offering abundance of wholesome, pure, weak beer, to draw away the working classes from the ginshops. All seemed as plausible as it was undoubtedly well intended. Objections were of course made to the bill, and many people predicted evil consequences; but all such sinister predictions were supposed to be spread about by the interested publicans and brewers. Nevertheless, the new act was soon believed to be a mistake. Sydney Smith, though he had not many years before pleaded for liberty for the people to drink rum-and-water, or whatever else they liked ("Edinburgh Review," 1819), quickly veered round, and gave a graphic account of the beastly state of drunkenness of the sovereign people.
It may be safely said that the Beershop Act realized all the evils expected from it, and few or none of the advantages. It is difficult to say anything in favor of the bar at the comer public-house, except that it is better than the dirty low little beershop, hiding itself away in some obscure recess of the streets. The first is at any rate under the gaze of the public and the control of the magistrates; the beershop, until within the last few years, was too likely to become the uncontrolled resort of the worst classes. Even now that the beershops are brought under the Licensing Magistrates, many years must elapse before the evil wrought by the act of 1830 can be thoroughly removed. This, then, is a striking instance of a leap in the dark, which ought never to have been committed by a prudent Legislature. When the Sale of Beer Bill was under discussion, the Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed to feel that it was a bill which needed experimental trial; for, when objection was made that the act would not extend to Scotland, he urged that it might be better to try the act in one part of the kingdom in the first instance, and then, if it were found to be beneficial, and to answer its intended objects, it might be extended to other parts.
In more recent years the granting of grocers' licenses for the free sale of all kinds of spirituous liquors is likely to prove itself to be an equally disastrous leap in the dark. With the very best intentions, and on the most plausible theoretical grounds, Mr. Gladstone's Government greatly extended the free sale of wine and beer, so that now, in some popular watering-places, I have noticed that almost every third shop-window is ornamented with a pyramid of beer-bottles. Yet the late Government have only succeeded in making the grocers' shop the avenue to the publican's bar. No one can for a moment believe that the free sale of liquors for home use has in the least degree weakened the publican's hold on his customers. If I had on a priori grounds to plan out a scheme of liquor-traffic, I should just reverse the existing law relating to beershops and grocers' licenses. I would prohibit the "off" sale of liquor on any premises where other articles were sold; the purchaser desiring to buy wine, beer, or spirits for home use should be obliged to go to some one of a comparatively few well-marked shops dealing in those things alone. On the other hand, where liquor is sold for consumption on the premises, I should oblige the seller to furnish food and reasonable sitting accommodation. This would be nothing more than a return to the old law about licensed victualers, which yet exists in the letter, though it has been allowed to fall into practical abeyance. The very reasonable law obliging publicans to afford general entertainment was sadly broken down by the Beershops Act, which provided unlimited means for the drinking of beer, pure and simple, without food of any kind. But my contention is, that we must not proceed in such matters on a priori grounds at all. We must try.
Perhaps it may be said that every new law is necessarily an experiment, and affords experience for its own improvement, and, if necessary, its abrogation. But there are two strong reasons why an act which has been made general, and has come into general operation, can seldom serve as an experiment. Of course, a great many acts of Parliament are experimentally found to be mistaken, for they never come into considerable operation at all, like the acts to promote registration of titles, not to mention the Agricultural Holdings Act. Such cases prove little or nothing, except the weakness, and possibly the insincerity, of the Legislature. But if an act comes largely into operation it is practically irrevocable. Parliament can not say simply "as you-were," and proceed to a new and more hopeful experiment. A social humpty-dumpty can not be set up again just as it was before even by the Queen's men. The vested interests created are usually too formidable to be put aside, and too expensive to be bought up. A good many years, say seven, or ten at the least, are needed to develop properly any important legislative experiment, so that the same generation of statesmen would not have more than three or four opportunities of experiment in the same subject during the longest political career. If we divide up the country, and try one experiment on one town or county, and another on another, there is a possibility of making an almost unlimited number of valid trials within ten or twenty years. But, apart from this consideration, a general legislative change is not a true experiment at all, because it affords no clear means of distinguishing its effects from the general resultant of social and industrial progress. Statistical facts are usually numerical or quantitative in character, so that, if many causal agencies are in operation at the same time, their effects are simply added together algebraically, and are inextricably merged into a general total. Thus, the total numbers receiving poor-law relief, or the numbers apprehended in the kingdom for drunkenness, are numerical results affected by the oscillations of trade, by the character of the seasons, the value of gold, etc., etc., as well as by the acts of the Legislature. To make a valid experiment we must have a certain thing subject to certain constant conditions, and we must introduce a single definite change of condition, which will then be probably the cause of whatever phenomenon follows. It is possible, indeed, to experiment upon an object of varying conditions, provided we can find two objects which vary similarly; we then operate upon the one, and observe how it subsequently differs from the other. We need, in fact, what the chemists call a "blind experiment." Suppose, for instance, that an agricultural chemist or a scientific farmer wished to ascertain the effect of a new kind of manure; would it be rational for him to spread the manure over all his available land? would it not then be doubtful whether the increase or decrease of yield were due to the manure or to the character of the seasons? In this case his neighbors' crops might, to some extent, furnish the blind experiment, showing what had been the ordinary yield. But, of course, the obvious mode of procedure is to spread the new manure over a part only of each experimental field, so that the difference of the crops on the different patches brings out, in the most unquestionable way, the effect of the manure. Not only is the smaller experiment, in a logical point of view, far better than the larger one, but it is possible to try many concurrent small experiments upon a farm of moderate extent.
I maintain that, if our legislators are to act rationally, they will as far as possible imitate the agricultural chemist. The idea, for instance, of obliging, or even allowing, all the boroughs in the kingdom simultaneously to adopt the Gothenburg plan, would be ridiculous and irrational. The cost and confusion which would arise from a sudden general trial must be very great; many years would elapse before the result was apparent. And that result would not be so clear as if the trial were restricted to some half a dozen towns. In the mean time it would be far better that other boroughs should be trying other experiments, giving us many strings to our bow, while some towns would actually do best for the country by going on as nearly as possible in their present course. Specific and differentiated experience is what we need, before making any further important change in the drink-trade.
Not only is this the rational method of procedure, but it is practically the method to which we owe all the more successful legislative and administrative reforms of later years. Consider the Poor Law question. During the eighteenth century. Parliament made two or three leaps in the dark, by enacting laws such as Gilbert's Act, and very nearly ruined the kingdom by them. The great Poor Law Commission commenced its operations in the soundest way by collecting all available information about the treatment of the poor, whether at home or abroad. But, what is more to the point, since the new Poor Law was passed in 1834, the partially free action of Boards of Guardians, under the supervision of the Poor Law Commission and the Poor Law Board, has afforded a long series of experimental results. The reports of Mr. Edwin Chadwick and the late Sir George Shaw Lefevre are probably the best models of the true process of administrative reform to be anywhere found. In more recent years several very important experiments have been tried by different Boards of Guardians, such as the boarding out of pauper children, the suppression of vagrancy by the provision of separate vagrant cells and the hard-labor test, and the cutting down of outdoor relief. If the total abolition of outdoor relief is ever to be tried, it must be tried on the small scale first; it would be a far too severe and dangerous measure to force upon the whole country at a single blow. Much attention has lately been drawn to the so-called "Poor-Law Experiment at Elberfeld," which was carefully described by the Rev. W. Walter Edwards, in an article in the "Contemporary Review" for July, 1878, bearing that precise title.
Even when an act of Parliament is passed in general terms applying to the whole kingdom at once, it by no means follows that it will be equally put into operation everywhere. The discretion necessarily allowed to magistrates and other authorities often gives ample scope for instructive experiments. Some years since the Howard Association called attention to what they expressly called "The Luton Experiment," consisting in the extraordinary success with which the magistrates of Luton in Bedfordshire enforced the provisions of the "Prevention of Crime Act." The number of committals to jail from Luton and its vicinity was reduced from two hundred and fifty-seven in 1869 to sixty-six in 1874. The only fault of the experiment consists in the possibility that the thieves and roughs migrated, but this difficulty would be less serious had the experiment been tried in larger towns.
What little insight we can gain into the operation of the licensing laws is mainly due to the considerable differences with which they have been administered in different places. Such is the latitude of discretion given by the law that magistrates can often make very distinct experiments. A short time ago the magistrates of Glasgow intentionally and avowedly made the experiment of locking up in jail all the drunkards brought before them. When I last heard about this experiment it was on the point of failing, because the jails of Glasgow were all quite full, and still the drunkards were coming to the bar. In 1863 the Licensing Magistrates of Liverpool commenced a most interesting experiment, by declaring their intention to adopt "free licensing," that is, to grant licenses to any suitable persons who applied for them. The publicans' licenses were increased from sixteen hundred and seventy-four in 1862 to nineteen hundred and forty in 1866. The system was abandoned in this last year, owing to a change in the constitution of the Bench. None of the magistrates who advocated the change, we are told, ever recanted, but some who supported the change to a restrictive policy have been disappointed with the results. The teaching of this real experiment has been carefully discussed by Mr. S. G. Rathbone in a very able letter, published in the "Times" of the 12th of February, 1877, as also in his evidence before the Lords' Committee of Inquiry on Intemperance (questions 259-384, etc.). But, apart from his objections to the interpretation put upon the facts, the experiment was not continued sufficiently long, and the town in which it was tried is so unique in the annals of intemperance as to be ill-fitted for the purpose.
Much attention has been drawn recently to the merits of the so called Gothenburg scheme, the adoption of which has been so ably advocated by Mr. J. Chamberlain, 31. P. Now, what is this advocacy but argument from a successful experiment? The municipal authorities of Gothenburg allowed a certain method of conducting the sale of liquor to be tried there, and the success was apparently so great that other Swedish towns are rapidly adopting the same plan. This is just the right procedure of trial and imitation. But, if Mr. Chamberlain means that, because the plan succeeds in Gothenburg, therefore the municipal authorities of English towns ought at once to be obliged to purchase and administer the public-houses, he goes much too far. All we ought to do is to try the system in a limited number of to^-ns. Any one acquainted with the bright little Swedish seaport, and the orderly, polished lower-class population of Sweden, will be in no hurry to draw analogies between their condition and that of our great, busy, turbulent Anglo-Irish towns. At any rate it is obvious that experiments ought to be made upon the most closely proximate cases which can be found, and, if three or four such towns as Birmingham, Bristol, Bolton, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne could be induced to try the Gothenburg scheme, it would be an ample first experiment. Even between English towns the differences of magnitude, race, occupation, and local government are often so great that it is by no means certain that the same scheme will succeed equally in all. The differences in the intemperance rates in the several boroughs of England, to which I shall perhaps draw attention on a future occasion, are so extraordinary and profound that the Committee of the House of Lords were thoroughly bewildered on the subject. Under such circumstances it should not be assumed that uniform legislation must be the ultimate object of our efforts.
It is a most important question how far the proposals of the United Kingdom Alliance for the Suppression of the Liquor Traffic can be approved from the point of view here taken up. I venture to maintain that those proposals, so far as embodied in the permissive Prohibitory Bill, now dropped, had all the possible evils of a great legislative leap in the dark, with a few of the corresponding possible advantages. Four years ago, in a paper read to the Manchester Statistical Society, I gave reasons for believing that the long-continued and costly proceedings of the Alliance were simply thrown away, except so far as they might be a warning against similar unwise attempts at legislation. I showed that the Alliance were striving against triple improbabilities: firstly, the improbability (as manifested by the decreasing ratio of the ayes to the noes in the House of Commons' divisions) that Parliament would ever pass the bill; secondly, the improbability that, if passed, the Permissive Act would be largely adopted by the local authorities; thirdly the improbability that, if adopted, it would succeed in lessening intemperance. According to the mathematical principle of the composition of probabilities by multiplication, the probability that any good would ever result from an agitation costing more than a quarter of a century in duration was practically nil. The only effective answers given to my arguments were those of the Rev. Mr. Steinthal and one or two others, who held that the probabilities in question are not altogether independent because Parliament could hardly be forced to pass the bill unless there were extensive localities wishing to adopt it. There is a certain amount of truth in this objection, but it does not to any great degree strengthen the position of the Alliance. Their proposals in their original form seem to me to have the character of a vast experiment—so vast that it was intended to involve the extinction of the trade of publicans and liquor-dealers generally in all parts of the country. Now, that is an experiment, because it is exceedingly doubtful whether the population would tolerate such an interference with their habits, when the meaning of the act came home to them. The information which we can draw from Maine, or other places where prohibition of the traffic has existed, is most conflicting in itself, and remote in analogy. Accordingly, I should much like to see the prohibition of the public sale of liquor tried in several large English boroughs and districts, provided that the necessary act for the purpose could be carried without stopping all other legislation on the subject.
Within the last twelve months Sir Wilfrid Lawson and his followers have had the excellent good sense to drop the Permissive Bill, and proceed, by way of Parliamentary resolution, in favor of "local option." I really do not know exactly what is meant by "local option." Perhaps the Alliance itself does not know; the wisest course would be not to know—that is, to leave a latitude of meaning. In any case they have changed their policy. For year after year, for nearly the average length of a generation, it was the eleven clauses and one schedule of the Permissive Prohibitory Liquor Bill, pure and simple. Now it is "local option." Even if "local option" mean option of prohibition, a resolution is a more tentative method of procedure than the precise clauses of the celebrated bill. But if, as I fondly hope, "local option" will be interpreted to mean option for local authorities to regulate the liquor-traffic in the way thought to be most suitable to the locality, including prohibition when clearly desired by the inhabitants, then the matter assumes a much more hopeful aspect. Not only will the resistance to such a proposal be far less than to the Permissive Bill, but there will be considerable probability that when passed some successful experiments will be carried out. In fact, this "local option" would just be the mode of giving a wide field for diverse experiments which I am advocating. The teetotalers would be at liberty to try their experiments, but they would not in the mean time stop the progress of many other experiments, some of which might, in the course of ten or fifteen years, offer a sound solution of this most difficult problem. Of course, I am aware that this question of the drink-traffic is to a considerable extent a political one. There is a good deal which I might say upon this topic, but it would not be suitable to the tenor of my theme. If the political condition of England be such that the social reform of the people is not the main purpose of our Government, then we must hope that there are brighter lands where the political position is very different.
The best way of dealing with the liquor-trade would be to hand over the matter to the hands of a strong executive commission framed somewhat on the lines of the Poor-Law Commission. This body should have the power of authorizing schemes, proposed by local authorities, and should supervise the working of such schemes, and collect minute information as to the results. They would work entirely through local authorities, whether the corporations of cities and boroughs, or the benches of Licensing Magistrates. Before allowing any very serious experiments, such as the abolition of the public sale, the local authority would have to present evidence that the mass of the inhabitants was in favor of such a measure, and the Commissioners would then probably assign a suitable district, and authorize police regulations suitable for the most advantageous trial of the experiment. This method would carry out to the fullest point the idea of a "local option," Free licensing might be tried in Liverpool, and such other boroughs as liked to venture on such a hazardous experiment. The Gothenburg scheme would be adopted by Birmingham and a few other towns. Manchester might prefer the slighter measure of a rigid restriction and supervision of the public-houses. It is to be hoped that Sunday closing and a lessening of the week-day hours would be voted by many local authorities, and the experiment of remodeling the trade, as suggested above, ought certainly to be tried I should also much like to see some trial made of the important suggestion put forward by Dr. John Watts, at the last meeting of the Social Science Association. He suggests that in each town or district a limited number of licenses should be sold by public auction or tender. His purpose apparently is to limit the number of licenses, and yet to secure the profits of the monopoly to the community.
After the expiration of ten or fifteen years, Parliament would be in possession of a great amount of really practical information, but the probability is that it would not be found necessary to pass any great act for the subsequent regulation of the traffic. The scheme which was found to work best would by degrees be imitated in the districts of corresponding circumstances, just as the Gothenburg scheme is being imitated in other Swedish towns. I do not think that in a matter of this sort the final law need be exactly uniform. In the licensing act of 1872 it was found undesirable to fix a uniform hour of closing public-houses all over the country. Owing to the difference of habits, the metropolitan area was allowed one hour later at night, and considerable latitude was left to the Licensing Magistrates to vary the hours of closing. Surely such matters approximate more in character to hackney-cab regulations or matters of police, which have long been left to the borough authorities. It is only the political question looming behind the social or legislative question, which could warrant Parliament in deciding that people shall go to bed one hour earlier in the country than in London. But Parliamentary experience concerning the Licensing Act of the late Cabinet, and the now defunct Permissive Bill, can not encourage any party to press for a further great general measure of licensing reform. As to the present state of things, it could not be much worse nor more absurd. What with the great variety of kinds of licenses, the doubts and fears of the magistrates as to their powers of withdrawing licenses or restraining extension of premises, the remissness—to use a mild expression—of the police in prosecuting the offenses of publicans, and the universal facility of obtaining any amount of drink at the nearest grocer's shop—I say things really can not be much worse than they are. Under the vigorous exertion of local option the state of affairs would undoubtedly improve in some parts of the country; the pressure of public opinion, of the proposed Commissioners, or, in the last resort, of Parliament, would eventually force the negligent localities to follow the example of the most successful "local-option schemes."
Let it be understood that I do not for a moment suppose that there is much, if any, novelty in the proposals made above. In one place or another almost every suggestion, except perhaps that of a superintending Commission, has been made and discussed. The Lords' Committee have themselves recommended "that legislative facilities should be afforded for the local adoption of the Gothenburg and of Mr. Chamberlain's schemes, or of some modification of them." And the Lords have themselves recognized the value of social "experiments" in providing counter-attractions to the public-house. In their final report, dated the 17th of March last, they remark (p. xliv.):
What is this, however, but an express recognition by the House of Lords of the need of experimentation as regards the entertainment and recreation of the people? I fail to see how such experimentation either can or ought to be confined to philanthropists. If we look around and notice the vast new restaurants of London, the innumerable glittering railway-bars in all parts of the country, the music-halls of all ranks and kinds, the dancing and drinking saloons of some provincial towns—such as Nottingham—and the great enterprise with which such places of recreation as the Pomona and Bellevue Gardens at Manchester are conducted, we shall see that social experiments are not confined to the teetotalers. Indeed it would not be difficult to prove that the nugatory licensing laws, as now administered, present the least possible obstacle to the publicans in pushing their experiments, while they do prevent social reformers from interfering, or from establishing counter-experiments on an equal footing. It is hardly too much to say that the licensing laws are laws to give a license to the publicans and grocers to do what they like to extend the sale of spirituous liquors.
Although the liquor-traffic presents the widest and most important sphere for social experiment, there are many other matters to which it must be applied. Consideration in detail must show whether, in each case, the tentative method is or is not the proper method. But it is easy to name several other reforms which ought, in all probability, to be approached in the experimental manner. Thus, peasant proprietorship ought certainly to be tried in Ireland, as it was intended to be tried under the Bright clauses of the Irish Land Act. I am familiar with most of the economic objections to peasant proprietorship in this kingdom, and I have read sufficient of the large literature of the subject to know that evidence in favor of and against such a tenure of land is exceedingly divergent and perplexing. The proper resource, then, is to try the thing, not by some vast revolution in the land-owning of Ireland, as proposed by the late Mr. Mill—a measure which, in the first place, would never pass Parliament, and, if it did, would cost an enormous sum of money, and probably result in failure—but by a small and progressive experiment. "Earth-hunger" is a very potent passion, and I believe it is that from which the Irish people are really suffering. Bread and bacon are not the only good things an Irish peasant might aspire to; a place to call his own, a share of the air and sunlight of his native isle, and a land-bank in which to save up the strokes of his pick and spade, might work moral wonders*. It is not safe to predict the action of human motive; but, at any rate, try it, although the trial cost as much as one or two first-rate ironclads, or a new triumph over a negro monarch. Surely the state of our Irish Poland is the worst possible injury to our "prestige."
Much doubt exists, again, as to whether imprisonment is necessary to enforce the payment of small debts. If needless, it is certainly oppressive. But if the abolition of the power of imprisonment, on the part of County Court judges, would really destroy the credit of the poorer classes with their tradesmen, a general measure to that effect would be dangerous and difficult to retract. I do not see how the question can be decided, except by trying the effect in a certain number of County Court districts, and watching the results.
It would be well worth the trouble to try the effect upon a certain body of inhabitants of the most perfect sanitary regulation, somewhat in the manner foreshadowed by Dr. B. W. Richardson in his "City of Hygeia." This I should like to see tried, as regards the middle classes, in some newly built watering-place, with full and special powers of sanitary regulation to be granted to it by Parliament, avowedly as an experiment. At the same time, a few large blocks of workmen's dwellings ought to be built and placed under experimental sanitary laws. I am convinced that legislation must by degrees be carried much further in this direction than is at present the case, but it ought to proceed tentatively.
One of the difficult questions of the present day is. How can London be supplied with water? There would be few engineering difficulties if it were allowable to separate the supply of pure water for drinking and cooking purposes from the much larger quantity required for other purposes. Will people drink the impure water? Who can decide such a question satisfactorily, except by experiment on a moderate scale? What could be more absurd than to spend millions upon procuring a separate supply of pure drinking-water for the population of London, and then finding that the population would drink the impure water? Many other like matters must be referred to trial, but it is not the purpose of this article to present a catalogue of experimental reforms, or to follow the argument out into all the possible details.
I am well aware that social experiments must often be subject to various difficulties, such as the migration of inhabitants, or even the intentional frustration of the experiment by interested parties. I have heard it said that the prohibition of liquor-traffic could not be tried on a small scale, because the publicans would be sure to combine to send liquor into the area. If they did so, the fact could readily be put in evidence, and, if they can defeat the teetotalers in detail, I am quite sure that they will defeat them upon any very great and general measure like the Permissive Bill. As to migration of inhabitants, it must be provided against either by suitably increasing the areas of experimental legislation, or else by collecting information as to the amount and probable effects of the migration. But the main point of my theme is to prove that we can not really plan out social reforms upon theoretical grounds. General argument and information of all kinds may properly be employed in designing and choosing the best experiments, but specific experience on a limited scale and in closely proximate circumstances is the only sure guide in the complex questions of social science. Our method must be that of the supremely wise text: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good."—Contemporary Review.
- I do not remember to have seen the importance of this imitative tendency in social affairs described by any writer, except the French engineer and economist Dupuit, who fully describes it in one of his remarkable memoirs, printed in the "Annales des Ponts et Chaussées."
- "Hansard's Debates," April 8, 1830, New Series, vol. .xxiv., p. 26.