Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/June 1885/A Rejoinder to M de Laveleye

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947664Popular Science Monthly Volume 27 June 1885 — A Rejoinder to M de Laveleye1885Herbert Spencer



THE Editor of the Contemporary Review having kindly allowed me to see a proof of the foregoing article by M. de Laveleye, and having assented to my request that I might be allowed to append a few explanations and comments, in place of a more formal reply in a future number of the Review, I have, in the following pages, set down as much as seems needful to prevent the grave misunderstandings likely to be produced by M. de Laveleye's criticisms, if they are permitted to pass unnoticed.

On the first page of his essay, M. de Laveleye, referring to the effort to establish "greater equality among men" by "appropriating State, or communal, revenues" for that end, writes—

"Mr. Spencer considers that this effort for the improvement of the condition of the working-classes, which is being everywhere made with greater or less energy, is a violation of natural laws, which will not fail to bring its own punishment on nations, thus misguided by a blind philanthropy" (p. 485).

As this sentence stands, and especially as joined with all which follows, it is calculated to produce the impression that I am opposed to measures "for the improvement of the condition of the working-classes." This is quite untrue, as numerous passages from my books would show. Two questions are involved—What are the measures? and—What is the agency for carrying them out? In the first place, there are various measures conducive to "improvement of the condition of the working-classes" which I have always contended, and still contend, devolve on public agencies, general and local—above all, an efficient administration of justice, by which they benefit both directly and indirectly—an administration such as not simply represses violence and fraud, but promptly brings down a penalty on every one who trespasses against his neighbour, even by a nuisance. While contending for the diminution of State-action of the positively-regulative kind, I have contended for the increase of State-action of the negatively-regulative kind—that kind which restrains the activities of citizens within the limits imposed by the existence of other citizens who have like claims to carry on their activities. I have shown that "maladministration of justice raises, very considerably, the cost of living for all;"[1] and is, therefore, felt especially by the working-classes, whose state is most closely dependent on the cost of living. As one of the evils of over-legislation, I have, from the beginning, urged that, while multitudinous other questions absorb public attention, the justice-question gets scarcely any attention; and social life is everywhere vitiated by the consequent inequities.[2] While defending laissez-faire in its original and proper sense, I have pointed out that the policy of universal meddling has for its concomitant that vicious laissez-faire which leaves dishonesty to flourish at the expense of honesty.[3] In the second place, there are numerous other measures conducive to "the improvement of the condition of the working-classes" which I desire quite as much as M. de Laveleye to see undertaken; and simply differ from him concerning the agency by which they shall be undertaken. Without wishing to restrain philanthropic action, but quite contrariwise, I have in various places argued that philanthropy will better achieve its ends by non-governmental means than by governmental means.[4] M. de Laveleye is much more familiar than I am with the facts showing that, in societies at large, the organized arrangements which carry on production and distribution have been evolved not only without State-help, but very generally in spite of State-hindrance; and hence I am surprised that he apparently gives no credence to the doctrine that, by private persons acting either individually or in combination, there may be better achieved multitudinous ends which it is the fashion to invoke State-agency for.

Speaking of the domain of individual liberty, M. de Laveleye says—

"To be brief, I agree with Mr. Herbert Spencer that, contrary to Rousseau's doctrine, State power ought to be limited, and that a domain should be reserved to individual liberty which should be always respected; but the limits of this domain should be fixed, not by the people, but by reason and science, keeping in view what is best for the public welfare" (p. 488).

I am a good deal perplexed at finding the last clause of this sentence apparently addressed to me as though in opposition. "Social Statics" is a work mainly occupied with the endeavour to establish these limits by "reason and science." In the "Data of Ethics," I have sought, in a chapter entitled the "Sociological View," to show how certain limits to individual liberty are deducible from the laws of life as carried on under social conditions. And in "The Man versus The State," which M. de Laveleye is more particularly dealing with, one part of the last chapter is devoted to showing, deductively, the derivation of what are called "natural rights" from the vital needs, which each man has to satisfy by activities pursued in presence of other men who have to satisfy like needs; while another part of the chapter is devoted to showing, inductively, how recognition of natural rights began, in the earliest social groups, to be initiated by those retaliations which trespasses called forth—retaliations ever tending to produce respect for the proper limits of action. If M. de Laveleye does not consider this to be an establishment of limits "by reason and science," what are the kinds of "reason and science" by which he expects to establish them?

On another page M. de Laveleye says—

"I am of opinion that the State should make use of its legitimate powers of action for the establishment of greater equality among men, in proportion to their personal merits" (p. 489).

Merely observing that the expression "its legitimate powers of action" seems to imply a begging of the question, since the chief point in dispute is—What are "its legitimate powers of action;" I go on to express my surprise at such a sentence coming from a distinguished political economist. M. de Laveleye refers to the "old-fashioned political economy," implying that he is one of those younger economists who dissent from its doctrine; but I was quite unprepared to find that his dissent went so far as tacitly to deny that in the average of cases a proportioning of rewards to personal merits naturally takes place under the free play of supply and demand. Still less, after all the exposures made of the miseries inflicted on men throughout the past by the blundering attempts of the State to adjust prices and wages, did I expect to see in a political economist such a revived confidence in the State as would commission it to adjust men's rewards "in proportion to their personal merit." I hear that there are some who contend that payment should be proportionate to the disagreeableness of the work done: the implication, I suppose, being that the knacker and the nightman should reeeive two or three guineas a day, while a physician's fee should be half-a-crown. But, with such a proportioning, I suspect that, as there would be no returns adequate to repay the cost and time and labor of preparation for the practice of medicine, physicians would quickly disappear; as would, indeed, all those required for the higher social functions. I do not suppose that M. de Laveleye contemplates a proportioning just of this kind. But if in face of all experience, past and present, he trusts officialism to judge of "personal merits," he is sanguine to a degree which surprises me.

One of the questions which M. de Laveleye asks is—

"If the intervention of public power for the improvement of the condition of the working-classes be a contradiction of history, and a return to ancient militant society, how is it that the country in which the new industrial organization is the most developed—that is to say, England—is also the country where State intervention is the most rapidly increasing, and where opinion is at the same time pressing for these powers of interference to be still further extended?" (p. 491).

Several questions are here raised besides the chief one. I have already pointed out that my objection is not to "intervention of public power for the improvement of the condition of the working-classes," but to interventions of certain kinds. The abolition of laws forbidding trade-combinations, and of laws forbidding the travelling of artisans, were surely measures which improved "the condition of the working-classes;" and these were measures which I should have been eager to join in obtaining. Similarly, at the present time I am desirous of seeing provided the easiest and most efficient remedies for sailors fraudulently betrayed into unseaworthy ships; and I heartily sympathize with those who denounce the continual encroachments of landowners—enclosures of commons and the turf-covered borders of lanes, &c. These, and kindred injustices to the working-classes, stretching far back, I am no less desirous to see remedied than is M. de Laveleye; provided always that due care is taken that other injustices are not committed in remedying them. Evidently, then, this expression of M. de Laveleye raises a false issue. Again, he says that I call this public intervention on behalf of the working-classes "a return to ancient militant society." This is quite a mistake. In ancient militant society the condition of the working-classes was very little cared for, and, indeed, scarcely thought of. My assertion was that the coercive system employed, was like the coercive system employed in a militant society: the ends to which the systems are directed, being quite different. But turning to the chief point in his question, I meet it by counter-questions—Why is it that the "new industrial organization" is best developed in England? and—Under what conditions was it developed? I need hardly point out to M. de Laveleye that the period during which industrial organization in England developed more rapidly and extensively than elsewhere, was a period during which the form of government was less coercive than elsewhere, and the individual less interfered with than elsewhere. And if now, led by the admirers of Continental bureaucracies, eager philanthropists are more rapidly extending State-administrations here than they are being extended abroad, it is obviously because there is great scope for the further extension of them here, while abroad there is little scope for the further extension of them.

In justification of coercive methods for "improving the condition of the working-classes," M. de Laveleye says:

"One fact is sufficient to show the great progress due to this State legislation: in an ever-increasing population, crime is rapidly and greatly diminishing" (p. 496).

Now, without dwelling on the fact, shown in Mr. Pike's "History of Crime in England," that "violence and lawlessness" had increased during the war period which ended at Waterloo; and without dwelling on the fact that, after the recovery from prostration produced by war, there was a diminution of crime along with that great diminution of coercive legislation which characterized the long period of peace; I go on to remark that a primary condition to the correct drawing of inferences is—other things equal. Does M. de Laveleye really think, when comparing the state of the last generation with that of the present, that other things are so equal that to the growth of State administrations can be ascribed the decrease of crime? He ignores those two factors, far more important than all others, which have produced a social revolution—railways and free-trade: the last resulting from the abolition of governmental restraints after a long struggle, and the first effected by private enterprise carried out in spite of strenuous opposition for some time made in the Legislature. Beyond all question, the prosperity due to these factors has greatly ameliorated the condition of the working-classes, and by so doing has diminished crime; for undoubtedly, diminishing the difficulties of getting food, diminishes one of the temptations to crime. If M. de Laveleye refers to a more recent diminution, then, unless he denies the alleged relation between drunkenness and crime, he must admit that the temperance agitation, with its pledges, its "Bands of Hope," and its "Blue Ribbon League," has had a good deal to do with it.

Before passing to the chief question let me correct M. de Laveleye on some minor points. He says—

"I think that the great fundamental error of Mr. Herbert Spencer's system, which is so generally accepted at the present day, consists in the belief that if State power were hut sufficiently reduced," &c.

Now I set against this a sentence not long since published by Mr. Frederic Harrison:

"Mr. Spencer has himself just published. . . . 'The Man versus The State,' to which he hardly expects to make a convert except here and there, and about which an unfriendly critic might say that it might be entitled 'Mr. Spencer against all England.'" (Nineteenth Century, vol. xvi. p. 366.)

The fear lest my arguments should prevail, which I presume prompted M. de Laveleye's article, is evidently ill-founded. I wish I saw reason to believe that his estimate is nearer to the truth than the opposite one.

On p. 490, M. de Laveleye writes—

"The law that Mr. Herbert Spencer desires society to adopt is simply Darwin's law—' the survival of the fittest.'"

Perhaps I may be excused for wishing here to prevent further confirmation of a current error. In his article, M. de Laveleye has quoted from "Social Statics" passages showing insistance on the benefits resulting from survival of the fittest among mankind, as well as among animals; though he ignores the fact that the work as a whole is an elaborate statement of the conditions under which, and limits within which, the natural process of elimination of the unfit should be allowed to operate. Here my immediate purpose is to correct the impression which his statement, as above worded, produces, by naming the dates: "Social Statics" was published in 1851; Mr. Darwin's "Origin of Species" in 1859.

And now I pass to the main issue. In pursuance of his statement that I wish society to adopt the survival of the fittest as its guiding principle, M. de Laveleye goes on to describe what would be its action as applied to mankind. Here are his words:

"This is the ideal order of things which, we are told, ought to prevail in human societies, but everything in our present organization (which economists, and even Mr. Spencer himself, admit, however, to be natural) is wholly opposed to any such conditions. An old and sickly lion captured a gazelle; his younger and stronger brother arrives, snatches away his prize, and lives to perpetuate the species; the old one dies in the struggle, or is starved to death. Such is the beneficent law of the 'survival of the fittest.' It was thus among barbarian tribes. But could such a law exist in our present social order? Certainly not! The rich man, feebly constituted and sickly, protected by the law, enjoys his wealth, marries and has offspring, and if an Apollo of herculean strength attempted to take from him his possessions, or his wife, he would be thrown into prison, and were he to attempt to practise the Darwinian law of selection, be would certainly run a fair risk of the gallows" (p. 492).

Now though, on the next page, M. de Laveleye recognizes the fact that the survival of the fittest, as I construe it in its social applications, is the survival of the industrially superior and those who are fittest for the requirements of social life, yet, in the paragraph I have quoted, he implies that the view I hold would countenance violent methods of replacing the inferior by the superior. Unless he desires to suggest that I wish to see the principle operate among men as it operates among brutes, why did he write this paragraph? In the work before him, without referring to other works, he has abundant proof that, above all things, aggression of every kind is hateful to me; and he scarcely needs telling that from my earliest book, written more than a third of a century ago, down to the present time, I have urged the change of all laws which either inflict injustice or fail to remedy injustice, whether committed by one individual against another, or by class against class, or by people against people. Why, then, did M. de Laveleye make it seem that I would, if I could, establish a reign of injustice under its most brutal form? If there needs proof that in my view the struggle for existence as carried on in society, and the greater multiplication of those best fitted for the struggle, must be subject to rigorous limitations, I may quote as sufficient proof a passage from the "Data of Ethics:" premising that the word co-operation used in it, must be understood in its widest sense, as comprehending all those combined activities by which citizens carry on social life:

"The leading traits of a code under which complete living through voluntary co-operation [here antithetically opposed to compulsory co-operation, characterizing the militant type of society] is secured, may be simply stated. The fundamental requirement is that the life-sustaining actions of each shall severally bring him the amounts and kinds of advantage naturally achieved by them; and this implies, firstly, that he shall suffer no direct aggressions on his person or property, and, secondly, that he shall suffer no indirect aggressions by breach of contract. Observance of these negative conditions to voluntary co-operation having facilitated life to the greatest extent by exchange of services under agreement, life is to be further facilitated by exchange of services beyond agreement; the highest life being reached only when, besides helping to complete one another's lives by specified reciprocities of aid, men otherwise help to complete one another's lives" (p. 149).

This passage, indeed, raises in a convenient form the essential question. It will be observed that in it are specified two sets of conditions, by conforming to which men living together may achieve the greatest happiness. The first set of conditions is that which we comprehend under the general name justice; the second set of conditions is that which we comprehend under the general name generosity. The position of M. de Laveleye, and of the multitudes who think with him, is that the community, through its government, may rightly undertake both to administer justice and to practise generosity. On the other hand, I, and the few who think with me, contend that justice alone is to be administered by the community in its corporate capacity; and that the practice of generosity is to be left to private individuals, and voluntarily-formed combinations of individuals. Insuring each citizen's safety in person and property, as well as insuring him such returns for his services as his fellow-citizens agree to give, is a public affair; while affording him help, and giving him benefits beyond those he has earned, is a private affair. The reason for maintaining this distinction is that the last duty can not be undertaken by the State without breach of the first. The vital requirement to social life must be broken that a non-vital requirement may be fulfilled. Under a reign of absolute justice unqualified by generosity, a social life may be carried on, though not the highest social life; but a reign of generosity without any justice—a system under which those who work are not paid, so that those who have been idle or drunken may be saved from misery—is fatal; and any approach to it is injurious. That only can be a wholesome state in which conduct brings its natural results, good or evil, as the case may be; and it is the business of Government, acting on behalf of all, to see that each citizen shall not be defrauded of the good results, and that he shall not shoulder off the evil results on to others. If others, in their private capacities, are prompted by affection or pity to mitigate the evil results, by all means let them do so: no power can equitably prevent them from making efforts, or giving money, to diminish the sufferings of the unfortunate and the inferior; at the same time that no power can equitably coerce them into doing this.

If M. de Laveleye holds, as he appears to do, that enforcing the normal relations between conduct and consequences, right as it may be in the abstract, is impracticable under existing social conditions, which are in many cases such that men get what they have neither earned nor otherwise equitably received, and in many cases such that they are prevented from earning anything; then my reply is, by all means, where this condition of things is due to unjust arrangements, let us rectify these arrangements as fast as we can. But let us not adopt the disastrous policy of establishing new injustices for the purpose of mitigating the mischiefs produced by old injustices.—Contemporary Review.

  1. "Study of Sociology," p. 415, postscript in library edition.
  2. See "Social Statics: 'The Duty of the State.'" Also "Essays," vol. ii. pp. 94-8; vol. iii. p. 167.
  3. "Study of Sociology," pp. 351-3, cheap edition.
  4. "Social Statics: 'Poor Laws.'"