Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/July 1890/Editor's Table
A MORAL ISSUE.
TO many of our friends, as we learn from letters that reach us from time to time, the position that The Popular Science Monthly takes up on political and economical questions appears more or less "one-sided." They would wish us, if we can not throw our influence on the side of paternal and protective government, at least to hold the scales even between that system and the anti-paternal, anti-protective system, to which manifestly our preference is given. We are sorry to disappoint any who find our pages sufficiently interesting to command their attention, but we do not see that we can abandon our present attitude. There is enough of trimming, enough of compromise, enough of the non-committal style of writing in the newspaper press: a magazine that professes to represent science may be pardoned for being true to what it conceives to be the teachings of science. What we are compelled to see in the restrictions that governments impose upon the course of trade is not a true statesmanship or a generous public policy, but simply a series of transactions, or, as they are now more familiarly called, "deals" with different private interests. Who can truthfully deny that this is the case? Certain manufacturers ask for protection and get it. What is their object in asking? Surely their own private gain. What do they ask? That other people may be forced to buy their goods, so long as the price is kept within a certain figure which is fixed far above the value of such goods in the markets of the world. Is this a righteous demand to make? It seems to us far from righteous. It seems to us that a man who approaches the Legislature with a request that the power may be conferred upon him by law to force his goods at a high price upon people who could buy, and would much prefer to buy, other goods at a lower price, comes forward with an essentially immoral proposition. But what if the people at large accept the proposition, it may be asked. What if they are willing to impose a heavy tax upon themselves in order that certain manufactures may be established in the country? We answer, that if the people were really willing to impose the tax upon themselves, there would be no need of the law. It is just because if the cheaper goods were accessible, everybody would buy them, that the applicant for "protection" seeks to tie the hands of the public. But we are not without positive information as to the relation of protection to politics. We know that in the highest political circles men who have had the tariff fixed to suit themselves are regarded as having received important personal favors. They have been put in the way of accumulating large stores of "fat" at the expense of the public, and if they are not forward in yielding up a little of the fat, when required, to help the party that framed the tariff so accommodatingly, indignant chairmen or secretaries of committees are apt to talk in a very menacing way about "frying the fat out of them."
The issue we see here is a moral one. Certain relations between the state and individuals are moral, natural, right. Certain other relations are abnormal, unnatural, wrong. Certain relations give rise to no evil; others are inseparable from evil. The protectionist régime is fruitful—can any candid man deny it?—in hypocrisy and fraud: hypocrisy on the part of those who, while solely intent on their own gain, make the most specious pretenses of patriotism and philanthropy; and fraud on the part of those who are led into attempts to evade a portion of the huge tax levied on the goods they import. The régime of non-interference would, in these two respects, lift a tremendous burden oft the morals of the community. Who can pretend, in the face of known facts, that the relations between the seekers after protection and the tariff-makers are of a moral kind? How is it possible that we should have honest legislation, when interest after interest is constantly appealing for assistance or the continuance or increase of assistance, pledging itself tacitly if not expressly to return the favor when election-day comes round?
A well-known French economist, M. Courcelle-Seneuil, has lately expressed himself so vigorously and pointedly on this subject in the columns of the Nouvelle Revue, that we are tempted to quote one or two of his observations. Speaking of the common opinion that it is the business of government to promote the wealth of the community by special legislation, he says: "All inquiry in regard to this matter demonstrates: (1) That governments in general have no competence in questions of trade and industry of a nature to authorize them to regulate and control these departments of activity; (2) that the best means of enriching a nation is to leave its industry and commerce absolutely free; (3) that in interfering in commerce and industry the governing power can only transfer to one citizen the wealth of another, contrary to the very end of its institution, which is to maintain peace by justice. Justice consists in defending individual citizens against the violence or fraud which their fellows might otherwise exercise against them, while leaving to each as far as possible the conditions of existence natural to him as an inhabitant of the planet. The government could only favor a certain number by giving them what it had taken from the rest; in other words, by practicing the very thing which its business is to prevent—namely, injustice. ... For example: I am carrying on an industry; I affirm that the nation has an interest in having that industry favored or 'protected,' as they say; I add that, if it is not protected, either by means of a bounty paid out of the public chest, or by a tariff that shall enable me to levy a tax upon consumers for my own benefit, I can not continue my business. One or other of the two affirmations may be false, and both commonly are. Nevertheless, the public are so accustomed to be imposed upon by words, that both affirmations may be admitted without verification, particularly if they are maintained by persons of great wealth who go about in their carriages begging alms of other people. . . . Established for a quite different purpose, the government has no competence in industrial matters, and can only act therein upon the advice of others. This advice is nearly always interested and unjust."
How entirely we concur in these remarks has already been indicated. If any one can show us that we are wrong in viewing this whole question in a moral light, and pronouncing for that theory of government which seems to us most favorable to public and private morality, we shall be prepared to consider it in other aspects, and listen with patience to the argumentations of those who would fain persuade us that restrictions on the activity and free initiative of individual citizens make for the strength and prosperity of the people as a whole, and that the national wealth is increased when goods are produced in the country at relatively high cost, which might be procured from abroad at relatively low cost.
The above remarks apply to tariff legislation, but individual liberty is abridged in many other ways that seem to us essentially wrong. That the members of a particular profession should have laws passed in their special interest, and should be empowered to decide who may and who may not enter into competition with them, is, we think, a violation at once of justice and of liberty. The worst of these things is, that a public motive is always alleged for what is in the main, if not exclusively, the outcome of private greed or jealousy. It would scarcely be too much to say that the most offensive forms of trade-unionism are found in connection with the so-called learned professions. Time was when it was supposed that the state had to look after the spiritual health of individuals; and for that purpose to prescribe their theological beliefs and religious observances. That belief has for the most part been exploded in the modern world, but its place has been taken by the notion that the state is responsible for the intellectual health of its members; and in lieu of the state church we have state schools. As regards the physical health of the community, the general method is to legalize one or two—possibly quite conflicting—schools of medicine, and to empower them to rule out, and if necessary to prosecute and punish, all others. Nobody, broadly speaking, seems to believe that, in the absence of all legislation of this character, people could in any adequate manner preserve their health or protect themselves against gross imposture. We believe it—believe it most heartily; and we believe that the science of medicine would advance far more rapidly, and that, on the whole, the public health would be far better, if every man were left perfectly free to employ any one he chose to attend him in sickness. At present every licensed practitioner feels himself authorized to call every unlicensed practitioner a quack. We should prefer a system under which, to a quickened public intelligence in questions of health, and disease, the quack should stand revealed by his quackery. How much of real quackery is now concealed by the license to practice it might distress a confiding public to know.
Our voice may be as that of one crying in the wilderness, but we cry with conviction when we call for more individual liberty, with its correlative individual responsibility. There is something wrong, something vicious, in the application of compulsion where freedom of choice is indicated by all the natural conditions of the case. Force should be reserved for cases in which force is required, where nothing else will serve the purpose, and where the purpose is vital to the life of the society. In other cases the application of force is wrong. The issue of "Man vs. the State" is a moral issue; and the more the question is looked at in that light, the more irrelevant, or at least unnecessary, other lines of argument will appear.