Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/June 1884/The Sins of Legislators II

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647793Popular Science Monthly Volume 25 June 1884 — The Sins of Legislators II1884Herbert Spencer




JUNE, 1884.




THE reply to all this will doubtless be that nothing better than guidance by "collective wisdom" can be had—that the select men of the nation, led by a reselected few, bring their best powers, enlightened by all the knowledge of the time, to bear on the matters before them. "What more would you have?" will be the question asked by most.

My answer is that this best knowledge of the time with which legislators are said to come prepared for their duties is a knowledge of which the greater part is obviously irrelevant, and that they are blame-worthy for not seeing what is the relevant knowledge. No amount of the linguistic acquirements by which many of them are distinguished will help their judgments in the least; nor will they be appreciably helped by the literatures these acquirements open to them. Neither the history of Thucydides, nor the biographies of Plutarch, nor the dialogues of Plato, will in any considerable degree prepare them for judging how this or that measure will operate on social life. Not even Aristotle's "Politics" will give them much help in judging how acts of Parliament are likely to work. They may ponder on the doings of all the great men by whom, according to the Carlylean theory, society is framed, and they may spend years over those accounts of international conflicts, and treacheries, and intrigues, and treaties, which fill historical works, without being much nearer understanding the how and the why of social structures and actions, and the ways in which laws affect them. Nor does such information as is picked up in the factory, on 'change, or in the justice-room, go far toward the required preparation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, notwithstanding the conspicuousness of these truths, which should strike every one who leaves his lexicons, and his law-deeds, and his ledgers, and looks abroad into that natural order of things under which we exist, and to which we must conform, there is continual advocacy of paternal government. The intrusion of family-ethics into the ethics of the state, instead of being regarded as socially injurious, is more and more demanded as the only efficient means to social benefit. So far has this delusion now gone, that it vitiates the beliefs of those who might, more than all others, be thought safe from it. In the essay to which the Cobden Club awarded its prize in 1880, there occurs the assertion that "the truth of free trade is clouded over by the laissez-faire fallacy"; and we are told that "we need a great deal more of paternal government—that bugbear of the old economists."[1]

Vitally important as is the truth above insisted upon, since acceptance or rejection of it affects the entire fabric of political conclusions formed, I may be excused if I re-emphasize it by here quoting certain passages contained in a work I published in 1850: premising only that the reader must not hold me committed to such teleological implications as they contain. After describing "that state of universal warfare maintained throughout the lower creation," and showing that an average of benefit results from it, I have continued thus:

Note, further, that their carnivorous enemies not only remove from herbivorous herds individuals past their prime, but also weed out the sickly, the malformed, and the least fleet or powerful. By the aid of which purifying process, as well as by the fighting, so universal in the pairing-season, all vitiation of race through the multiplication of its inferior samples is prevented, and the maintenance of a constitution completely adapted to surrounding conditions, and therefore most productive of happiness, is insured.

The development of the higher creation is a progress toward a form of being capable of happiness undiminished by these drawbacks. It is in the human race that the consummation is to be accomplished. Civilization is the last stage of its accomplishment. And the ideal man is the man in whom all the conditions of that accomplishment are fulfilled. Meanwhile, the well-being of existing humanity and the unfolding of it into this ultimate perfection are both secured by that same beneficent though severe discipline to which the animate creation at large is subject—a discipline which is pitiless in the working out of good, a felicity-pursuing law which never swerves for the avoidance of partial and temporary suffering. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many "in shallows and in miseries," are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence....

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

Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated; albeit there is unquestionable harm done when sympathy is shown, without any regard to ultimate results. But the drawbacks hence arising are nothing like commensurate with the benefits otherwise conferred. Only when this sympathy prompts to a breach of equity—only when it originates an interference forbidden by the law of equal freedom—only when, by so doing, it suspends in some particular department of life the relationship between constitution and conditions, does it work pure evil. Then, however, it defeats its own end. Instead of diminishing suffering, it eventually increases it. It favors the multiplication of those worst fitted for existence, and, by consequence, hinders the multiplication of those best fitted for existence—leaving, as it does, less room for them. It tends to fill the world with those to whom life will bring most pain, and tends to keep out of it those to whom life will bring most pleasure. It inflicts positive misery, and prevents positive happiness.—"Social Statics," pp. 322-325 and pp. 380, 381 (edition of 1851).

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

But the postulate that men are rational beings continually leads one to draw inferences which prove to be extremely wide of the mark.[2]

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

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

Still less respectable appears this extreme concern for those of our own blood which goes along with utter unconcern for those of other blood, when we observe its methods. Did it prompt personal effort to relieve the suffering, it would rightly receive approving recognition. Were the many who express this cheap pity like the few who patiently, week after week, and year after year, devote large parts of their time to helping and encouraging, and occasionally amusing, those who, in some cases by ill-fortune and in other cases by incapacity or misconduct, are brought to lives of hardship, they would be worthy of unqualified admiration. The more there are of men and women who help the poor to help themselves—the more there are of those whose sympathy is exhibited directly and not by proxy, the more we may rejoice. But the immense majority of the persons who wish to mitigate by law the miseries of the unsuccessful and the reckless propose to do this in small measure at their own cost and mainly at the cost of others— sometimes with their assent but mostly without. More than this is true; for those who are to be forced to do so much for the miserable often equally or more require something doing for them. The deserving poor are among those who are burdened to pay the costs of caring for the undeserving poor. As under the old poor-law the diligent and provident laborer had to pay that the good-for-nothings might not suffer, until frequently under this extra burden he broke down and himself took refuge in the workhouse—as at present it is admitted that the total rates levied in large towns for all public purposes have now reached such a height that they "can not be exceeded without inflicting great hardship on the small shopkeepers and artisans, who already find it difficult enough to keep themselves free from the pauper taint";[3] so in all cases the policy is one which intensifies the pains of those most deserving of pity, that the pains of those least deserving of pity may be mitigated. In short, men who are so sympathetic that they can not allow the struggle for existence to bring on the unworthy the sufferings consequent on their incapacity or misconduct, are so unsympathetic that they can, with equanimity, make the struggle for existence harder for the worthy, and inflict on them and their children artificial evils in addition to the natural evils they have to bear!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summing up the results of the discussion, may we not reasonably say that there lie before the legislator several open secrets, which yet are so open that they ought not to remain secrets to one who undertakes the vast and terrible responsibility of dealing with millions upon millions of human beings by measures which, if they do not conduce to their happiness, will increase their miseries and accelerate their deaths?

There is first of all the undeniable truth, conspicuous and yet absolutely ignored, that there are no phenomena which a society presents but what have their origins in the phenomena of individual human life, which again have their roots in vital phenomena at large. And there is the inevitable implication that unless these vital phenomena, bodily and mental, are chaotic in their relations (a supposition excluded by the very maintenance of life) the resulting phenomena can not be wholly chaotic: there must be some kind of order in the phenomena which grow out of them when associated human beings have to cooperate. Evidently, then, when one who has not studied such resulting phenomena of social order undertakes to regulate society he is pretty certain to work mischiefs.

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

And then, in the third place, there is that mass of guiding information yielded by the records of law-making in our own country and in other countries, which still more obviously demands attention. Here and elsewhere attempts of multitudinous kinds, made by kings and statesmen, have failed to do the good intended and have worked unexpected evils. Century after century new measures like the old ones, and other measures akin in principle, have again disappointed hopes and again brought disaster. And yet it is thought neither by electors nor by those they elect that there is any need for systematic study of that legislation which in by-gone ages went on working the ill-being of the people when it tried to achieve their well-being. Surely there can be no fitness for legislative functions without wide knowledge of those legislative experiences which the past has bequeathed.

Reverting, then, to the analogy drawn at the outset, we must say that the legislator is morally blameless or morally blameworthy according as he has or has not acquainted himself with these several classes of facts. A physician who, after years of study, has gained a competent knowledge of physiology, pathology and therapeutics, is not held criminally responsible if a man dies under his treatment; he has prepared himself as well as he can, and has acted to the best of his judgment. Similarly the legislator whose measures produce evil instead of good, notwithstanding the extensive and methodic inquiries which helped him to decide, can not be held to have committed more than an error of reasoning. Contrariwise, the legislator who is wholly or in great measure uninformed concerning these masses of facts which he must examine before his opinion on a proposed law can be of any value, and who nevertheless helps to pass that law, can no more be absolved if misery and mortality result, than the journeyman druggist can be absolved when death is caused by the medicine he ignorantly prescribes.

  1. "On the Value of Political Economy to Mankind," by A. N. Gumming, pp. 47, 48.
  2. The saying of Emerson, that most people can understand a principle only when its light falls on a fact, induces me here to cite a fact which may carry home the above principle to those on whom in its abstract form it may produce no effect. It rarely happens that the amount of evil caused by fostering the vicious and the good-for-nothing can be estimated. But in America, at a meeting of the State Charities Aid Association, held on December 18, 1874, a startling instance was given in detail by Dr. Harris. It was furnished by a county on the upper Hudson, remarkable for the ratio of crime and poverty to population. Generations ago there had existed a certain "gutter-child," as she would be here called, known as "Margaret," who proved to be the prolific mother of a prolific race. Besides great numbers of idiots, imbeciles, drunkards, lunatics, paupers, and prostitutes, "the county records show two hundred of her descendants who have been criminals." Was it kindness or cruelty which, generation after generation, enabled these to multiply and become an increasing curse to the society around them?
  3. Mr. Chamberlain in "Fortnightly Review," December, 1883, p. 772.