Spencer Essays Scientific Political And Speculative Risk


This essay was first published in The Westminster Review for October 1857 and was reprinted in Spencer's Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative (London and New York, 1892, in three volumes.


Shakespeare's simile for adversity—

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head,

might fitly be used also as a simile for a disagreeable truth. Repulsive as is its aspect, the hard fact which dissipates a cherished illusion, is presently found to contain the germ of a more salutary belief. The experience of every one furnishes instances in which an opinion long shrunk from as seemingly at variance with all that is good, but finally accepted as irresistible, turns out to be fraught with benefits. It is thus with self-knowledge: much as we dislike to admit our defects, we find it better to know and guard against than to ignore them. It is thus with changes of creed: alarming as looks the reasoning by which superstitions are overthrown, the convictions to which it leads prove to be healthier ones than those they superseded. And it is thus with political enlightenment: men eventually see cause to thank those who pull to pieces their political air-castles, hateful as they once seemed. Moreover, not only is it always better to believe truth than error; but the repugnant-looking facts are ever found to be parts of something far better than the ideal which they dispelled. To the many illustrations of this which might be cited, we shall presently add another.


It is a conviction almost universally entertained here in England, that our method of making and administering laws possesses every virtue. Prince Albert's unlucky saying that "Representative Government is on its trial," is vehemently repudiated: we consider that the trial has long since ended in our favour on all the counts. Partly from ignorance, partly from the bias of education, partly from that patriotism which leads the men of each nation to pride themselves in their own institutions, we have an unhesitating belief in the entire superiority of our form of political organization. Yet unfriendly critics can point out vices that are manifestly inherent. And if we may believe the defenders of despotism, these vices are fatal to its efficiency.


Now instead of denying or blinking these allegations, it would be wiser candidly to inquire whether they are true; and if true, what they imply. If, as most of us are so confident, government by representatives is better than any other, we can afford to listen patiently to all adverse remarks: believing that they are either invalid, or that if valid they do not essentially tell against its merits. If our political system is well founded, this crucial criticism will serve but to bring out its worth more clearly than ever; and to give us higher conceptions of its nature, its meaning, its purpose. Let us, then, banishing for the nonce all prepossessions, and taking up a thoroughly antagonistic point of view, set down without mitigation its many flaws, vices, and absurdities.


Is it not manifest that a ruling body made up of many individuals, who differ in character, education, and aims, who belong to classes having antagonistic ideas and feelings, and who are severally swayed by the special opinions of the districts deputing them, must be a cumbrous apparatus for the management of public affairs? When we devise a machine we take care that its parts are as few as possible; that they are adapted to their respective ends; that they are properly joined with one another; and that they work smoothly to their common purpose. Our political machine, however, is constructed upon directly opposite principles. Its parts are extremely numerous: multiplied, indeed, beyond all reason. They are not severally chosen as specially qualified for particular functions. No care is taken that they shall fit well together: on the contrary, our arrangements are such that they are certain not to fit. And that, as a consequence, they do not and cannot act in harmony, is a fact nightly demonstrated to all the world. In truth, had the problem been to find an appliance for the slow and bungling transaction of business, it could scarcely have been better solved. Immense hindrance results from the mere multiplicity of parts; a further immense hindrance results from their incongruity; yet another immense hindrance results from the frequency with which they are changed; while the greatest hindrance of all results from the want of subordination of the parts to their functions—from the fact that the personal welfare of the legislator is not bound up with the efficient performance of his political duty.


These defects are inherent in the very nature of our institutions; and they cannot fail to produce disastrous mismanagement. If proofs be needed, they may be furnished in abundance, both from the current history of our central representative government, and from that of local ones, public and private. Let us, before going on to comtemplate these evils as displayed on a great scale in our legislature, glance at some of them in their simpler and smaller manifestations.


We will not dwell on the comparative inefficiency of deputed administration in mercantile affairs. The untrustworthiness of directorial management might be afresh illustrated by the recent joint-stock-bank catastrophies: the recklessness and dishonesty of rulers whose interests are not one with those of the concern they control, being in these cases conspicuously displayed. Or we could enlarge on the same truth as exhibited in the doings of railway-boards: instancing the malversations proved against their members; the carelessness which has permitted Robson and Redpath frauds; the rashness perseveringly shown in making unprofitable branches and extensions. But facts of this kind are sufficiently familiar.


Let us pass, then, to less notorious examples. Mechanics' Institutions will supply our first. The theory of these is plausible enough. Artisans wanting knowledge, and benevolent middle-class people wishing to help them to it, constitute the raw material. By uniting their means they propose to obtain literary and other advantages, which else would be beyond their reach. And it is concluded that, being all interested in securing the proposed objects, and the governing body being chosen out of their number, the results cannot fail to be such as were intended. In most cases, however, the results are quite otherwise. Indifference, stupidity, party-spirit, and religious dissension, nearly always thwart the efforts of the promoters. It is thought good policy to select as president some local notability; probably not distinguished for wisdom, but whose donation or prestige more than counterbalances his defect in this respect. Vice-presidents are chosen with the same view: a clergyman or two; some neighbouring squires, if they can be had; an ex-mayor; several aldermen; half a dozen manufacturers and wealthy tradesmen; and a miscellaneous complement. While the committee, mostly elected more because of their position or popularity than their intelligence or fitness for cooperation, exhibit similar incongruities. Causes of dissension quickly arise. A book much wished for by the mass of the members, is tabooed, because ordering it would offend the clerical party in the institution. Regard for the prejudices of certain magistrates and squires who figure among the vice-presidents, forbids the engagement of an otherwise desirable and popular lecturer, whose political and religious opinions are somewhat extreme. The selection of newspapers and magazines for the reading-room, is a fruitful source of disputes. Should some, thinking it would be a great boon to those for whom the institution was established, propose to open the reading-room on Sundays, there arises a violent fight; ending, perhaps, in the secession of some of the defeated party. The question of amusements, again, furnishes a bone of contention. Shall the institution exist solely for instruction, or shall it add gratification? The refreshment-question, also, is apt to be raised, and to add to the other causes of difference. In short, the stupidity, prejudice, party-spirit, and squabbling, are such as eventually to drive away in disgust those who should have been the administrators; and to leave the control in the hands of a clique, who pursue some humdrum middle course, satisfying nobody. Instead of that prosperity which would probably have been achieved under the direction of one good man-of-business, whose welfare was bound up with its success, the institution loses its prestige, and dwindles away; ceases almost entirely to be what was intended—a mechanics' institution; and becomes little more than a middle-class lounge, kept up not so much by the permanent adhesion of its members, as by the continual addition of new ones in place of the old ones constantly falling off. Meanwhile, the end originally proposed is fulfilled, so far as it gets fulfilled at all, by private enterprise. Cheap newspapers and cheap periodicals, provided by publishers having in view the pockets and tastes of the working-classes; coffee-shops and penny reading-rooms, set up by men whose aim is profit; are the instruments of the chief proportion of such culture as is going on.


In higher-class institutions of the same order—in Literary Societies and Philosophical Societies, etc.—the like inefficiency of representative government is generally displayed. Quickly following the vigour of early enthusiasm, come class and sectarian differences, the final supremacy of a party, bad management, apathy. Subscribers complain they cannot get what they want; and one by one desert to private book-clubs or to Mudie.


Turning from non-political to political institutions, we might, had we space, draw illustrations from the doings of the old poor-law authorities, or from those of modern boards of guardians; but omitting these and other such, we will, among local governments, confine ourselves to the reformed municipal corporations.


If, leaving out of sight all other evidences, and forgetting that they are newly-organized bodies into which corruption has scarcely had time to creep, we were to judge of these municipal corporations by the town-improvements they have effected, we might pronounce them successful. But, even without insisting on the fact that such improvements are more due to the removal of obstructions, and to that same progressive spirit which has established railways and telegraphs, than to the positive virtues of these civic governments; it is to be remarked that the execution of numerous public works is by no means an adequate test. With power of raising funds limited only by a rebellion of ratepayers, it is easy in prosperous, increasing towns, to make a display of efficiency. The proper questions to be asked are: Do municipal elections end in the choice of the fittest men who are to be found? Does the resulting administrative body, perform well and economically the work which devolves on it? And does it show sound judgement in refraining from needless or improper work? To these questions the answers are by no means satisfactory.


Town-councils are not conspicuous for either intelligence or high character. There are competent judges who think that, on the average, their members are inferior to those of the old corporations they superseded. As all the world knows, the elections turn mainly on political opinions. The first question respecting any candidate is, not whether he has great knowledge, judgement, or business-faculty—not whether he has any special aptitude for the duty to be discharged; but whether he is Whig or Tory. Even supposing his politics to be unobjectionable, his nomination still does not depend chiefly on his proved uprightness or capacity, but much more on his friendly relations with the dominant clique. A number of the town magnates, habitually meeting probably at the chief hotel, and there held together as much by the brotherhood of conviviality as by that of opinion, discuss the merits of all whose names are before the public, and decide which are the most suitable. This gin-and-water caucus it is which practically determines the choice of candidates; and, by consequence, the elections. Those who will succumb to leadership—those who will merge their private opinions in the policy of their party, of course have the preference. Men too independent for this—too far-seeing to join in the shibboleth of the hour, or too refined to mix with the "jolly good fellows" who thus rule the town, are shelved; notwithstanding that they are, above all others, fitted for office. Partly from this underhand influence, and partly from the consequent disgust which leads them to decline standing if asked, the best men are generally not in the governing body. It is notorious that in London the most respectable merchants will have nothing to do with the local government. And in New York, "the exertions of its better citizens are still exhausted in private accumulation, while the duties of administration are left to other hands." It cannot then be asserted that in town-government, the representative system succeeds in bringing the ablest and most honourable men to the top.


The efficient and economical discharge of duties is, of course, hindered by this inferiority of the deputies chosen; and it is further hindered by the persistent action of party and personal motives. Not whether he knows well how to handle a level, but whether he voted for the popular candidate at the last parliamentary election, is the question on which may, and sometimes does, hang the choice of a town-surveyor; and if sewers are ill laid out, it is a natural consequence. When, a new public edifice having been decided on, competition designs are advertised for; and when the designs, ostensibly anonymous but really identifiable, have been sent in; T. Square, Esq., who has an influential relative in the corporation, makes sure of succeeding, and is not disappointed: albeit his plans are not those which would have been chosen by any one of the judges, had the intended edifice been his own. Brown, who has for many years been on the town-council and is one of the dominant clique, has a son who is a doctor; and when, in pursuance of an Act of Parliament, an officer of health is to be appointed, Brown privately canvasses his fellow-councillors, and succeeds in persuading them to elect his son; though his son is by no means the fittest man the place can furnish. Similarly with the choice of tradesmen to execute work for the town. A public clock which is frequently getting out of order, and Board-of-Health water-closets which disgust those who have them (we state facts), sufficiently testify that stupidity, favouritism, or some sinister influence, is ever causing mismanagement. The choice of inferior representatives, and by them of inferior employés, joined with private interest and divided responsibility, inevitably prevent the discharge of duties from being satisfactory.


Moreover, the extravagance which is now becoming a notorious vice of municipal bodies, is greatly increased by the practice of undertaking things which they ought not to undertake; and the incentive to do this is, in many cases, traceable to the representative origin of the body. The system of compounding with landlords for municipal rates, leads the lower class of occupiers into the erroneous belief that town-burdens do not fall in any degree on them; and they therefore approve of an expenditure which seemingly gives them gratis advantages while it creates employment. As they form the mass of the constituency, lavishness becomes a popular policy; and popularity-hunters vie with one another in bringing forward new and expensive projects. Here is a councillor who, having fears about his next election, proposes an extensive scheme for public gardens—a scheme which many who disapprove do not oppose, because they, too, bear in mind the next election. There is another councillor, who keeps a shop, and who raises and agitates the question of baths and wash-houses; very well knowing that his trade is not likely to suffer from such course. And so in other cases: the small direct interest which each member of the corporation has in economical administration, is antagonized by so many indirect interests of other kinds, that he is not likely to be a good guardian of the public purse.


Thus, neither in respect of the deputies chosen, nor the efficient performance of their work, nor the avoidance of unfit work, can the governments of our towns be held satisfactory. And if in these recently-formed bodies the defects are so conspicuous, still more conspicuous are they where they have had time to grow to their full magnitude: witness the case of New York. According to The Times correspondent in that city, the New York people pay "over a million and half sterling, for which they have badly-paved streets, a police by no means as efficient as it should be, though much better than formerly, the greatest amount of dirt north of Italy, the poorest cab-system of any metropolis in the world, and only unsheltered wooden piers for the discharge of merchandise."


And now, having glanced at the general bearings of the question in these minor cases, let us take the major case of our central government; and, in connexion with it, pursue the inquiry more closely. Here the inherent faults of the representative system are much more clearly displayed. The greater multiplicity of rulers involves greater cumbrousness, greater confusion, greater delay. Differences of class, of aims, of prejudices, are both larger in number and wider in degree; and hence arise dissensions still more multiplied. The direct effect which each legislator is likely to experience from the working of any particular measure, is usually very small and remote; while the indirect influences which sway him are, in this above all other cases, numerous and strong; whence follows a marked tendency to neglect public welfare for private advantage. But let us set out from the beginning—with the constituencies.


The representative theory assumes that if a number of citizens, deeply interested as they all are in good government, are endowed with political power, they will choose the wisest and best men for governors. Seeing how greatly they suffer from bad administration of public affairs, it is considered self-evident that they must have the will to select proper representatives; and it is taken for granted that average common sense gives the ability to select proper representatives. How does experience bear out these assumptions? Does it not to a great degree negative them?


Several considerable classes of electors have little or no will in the matter. Not a few of those on the register pique themselves on taking no part in politics—claim credit for having the sense not to meddle with things which they say do not concern them. Many others there are whose interest in the choice of a member of Parliament is so slight, that they do not think it worth while to vote. A notable proportion, too, shopkeepers especially, care so little about the result, that their votes are determined by their wishes to please their chief patrons or to avoid offending them. In the minds of a yet larger class, small sums of money, or even ad libitum supplies of beer, outweigh any desires they have to use their political powers independently. Those who adequately recognize the importance of honestly exercising their judgements in the selection of legislators, and who give conscientious votes, form but a minority; and the election usually hangs less upon their wills than upon the illegitimate influences which sway the rest. Here, therefore, the theory fails.


Then, again, as to intelligence. Even supposing that the mass of electors have a sufficiently decided will to choose the best rulers, what evidence have we of their ability? Is picking out the wisest man among them, a task within the range of their capacities? Let any one listen to the conversation of a farmer's market-table, and then answer how much he finds of that wisdom which is required to discern wisdom in others. Or let him read the clap-trap speeches made from the hustings with a view of pleasing constituents, and then estimate the penetration of those who are to be thus pleased. Even among the higher order of electors he will meet with gross political ignorance—with notions that Acts of Parliament can do whatever it is thought well they should do; that the value of gold can be fixed by law; that distress can be cured by poor-laws; and so forth. If he descends a step, he will find in the still-prevalent ideas that machinery is injurious to the working-classes, and that extravagance is "good for trade," indices of a yet smaller insight. And in the lower and larger class, formed by those who think that their personal interest in good government is not worth the trouble of voting, or is outbalanced by the loss of a customer, or is of less value than a bribe, he will perceive an almost hopeless stupidity. Without going the length of Mr. Carlyle, and defining the people as "twenty-seven millions, mostly fools," he will confess that they are but sparely gifted with wisdom.


That these should succeed in choosing the fittest governors, would be strange; and that they do not so succeed is manifest. Even as judged by the most common-sense tests, their selections are absurd, as we shall shortly see.


It is a self-evident truth that we may most safely trust those whose interests are identical with our own; and that it is very dangerous to trust those whose interests are antagonistic to our own. All the legal securities we take in our transactions with one another, are so many recognitions of this truth. We are not satisfied with professions. If another's position is such that he must be liable to motives at variance with the promises he makes, we take care, by introducing an artificial motive (the dread of legal penalties), to make it his interest to fulfil these promises. Down to the asking for a receipt, our daily business-habits testify that, in consequence of the prevailing selfishness, it is extremely imprudent to expect men to regard the claims of others equally with their own: all asseverations of good faith notwithstanding. Now it might have been thought that even the modicum of sense possessed by the majority of electors, would have led them to recognize this fact in the choice of their representatives. But they show a total disregard of it. While the theory of our Constitution, in conformity with this same fact, assumes that the three divisions composing the Legislature will severally pursue each its own ends—while our history shows that Monarch, Lords, and Commons, have all along more or less conspicuously done this; our electors manifest by their votes, the belief that their interests will be as well cared for by members of the titled class as by members of their own class. Though, in their determined opposition to the Reform-Bill, the aristocracy showed how greedy they were, not only of their legitimate power but of their illegitimate power—though, by the enactment and pertinacious maintenance of the Corn-Laws, they proved how little popular welfare weighed in the scale against their own profits—though they have ever displayed a watchful jealousy even of their smallest privileges, whether equitable or inequitable (as witness the recent complaint in the House of Lords, that the Mercantile Marine Act calls on lords of manors to show their titles before they can claim the wrecks thrown on the shores of their estates, which before they had always done by prescription)—though they have habitually pursued that self-seeking policy which men so placed were sure to pursue; yet constituencies have decided that members of the aristocracy may fitly be chosen as representatives of the people. Our present House of Commons contains 98 Irish peers and sons of English peers; 66 blood-relations of peers; and 67 connexions of peers by marriage; in all, 231 members whose interests, or sympathies, or both, are with the nobility rather than the commonalty. We are quite prepared to hear the doctrine implied in this criticism condemned by rose-water politicians as narrow and prejudiced. To such we simply reply that they and their friends fully recognize this doctrine when it suits them to do so. Why do they wish to prevent the town-constituencies from predominating over the county-ones; if they do not believe that each division of the community will consult its own welfare? Or what plea can there be for Lord John Russell's proposal to represent minorities, unless it be the plea that those who have the opportunity will sacrifice the interests of others to their own? Or how shall we explain the anxiety of the upper class, to keep a tight rein on the growing power of the lower class, save from their consciousness that bona fide representatives of the lower class would be less regardful of their privileges than they are themselves? If there be any reason in the theory of the Constitution, then, while the members of the House of Peers should belong to the peerage, the members of the House of Commons should belong to the commonalty. Either the constitutional theory is sheer nonsense, or else the choice of lords as representatives of the people proves the folly of constituencies.


But this folly by no means ends here; it works out other results quite as absurd. What should we think of a man giving his servants equal authority with himself over the affairs of his household? Suppose the shareholders in a railway-company were to elect, as members of their board of directors, the secretary, engineer, superintendent, traffic-manager, and others such. Should we not be astonished at their stupidity? Should we not prophesy that the private advantage of officials would frequently override the welfare of the company? Yet our parliamentary electors commit a blunder of just the same kind. For what are military and naval officers but servants of the nation; standing to it in a relation like that in which the officers of a railway-company stand to the company? Do they not perform public work? Do they not take public pay? And do not their interests differ from those of the public, as the interests of the employed from those of the employer? The impropriety of admitting executive agents of the State into the Legislature, has over and over again thrust itself into notice; and in minor cases has been prevented by sundry Acts of Parliament. Enumerating those disqualified for the House of Commons, Blackstone says:

No persons concerned in the management of any duties or taxes created since 1692, except the commissioners of the treasury, nor any of the officers following, viz, commissioners of prizes, transports, sick and wounded, wine licences, navy, and victualling; secretaries or receivers of prizes; comptrollers of the army accounts; agents for regiments; governors of plantations, and their deputies; officers of Minorca or Gibraltar; officers of the excise and customs; clerks and deputies in the several offices of the treasury, exchequer, navy, victualling, admiralty, pay of the army and navy, secretaries of state, salt, stamps, appeals, wine licences, hackney coaches, hawkers and pedlars, nor any persons that hold any new office under the crown created since 1705, are capable of being elected, or sitting as members.

In which list naval and military officers would doubtless have been included, had they not always been too powerful a body and too closely identified with the dominant classes. Glaring, however, as is the impolicy of appointing public servants to make the laws; and clearly as this impolicy is recognized in the above-specified exclusions from time to time enacted; the people at large seem totally oblivious of it. At the last general election they returned 9 naval officers, 46 military officers, and 51 retired military officers, who, in virtue of education, friendship, and esprit de corps, take the same views with their active comrades—in all 106: not including 64 officers of militia and yeomanry, whose sympathies and ambitions are in a considerable degree the same. If any one thinks that this large infusion of officialism is of no consequence, let him look in the division-lists. Let him inquire how much it has had to do with the maintenance of the purchase-system. Let him ask whether the almost insuperable obstacles to the promotion of the private soldier, have not been strengthened by it. Let him see what share it had in keeping up those worn-out practices, and forms, and mis-arrangements, which entailed the disasters of our late war. Let him consider whether the hushing-up of the Crimean Inquiry and the whitewashing of delinquents were not aided by it. Yet, though abundant experience thus confirms what common sense would beforehand have predicted; and though, notwithstanding the late disasters, exposures, and public outcry for army-reform, the influence of the military caste is so great that the reform has been staved-off; our constituencies are stupid enough to send to Parliament as many military officers as ever!


Not even now have we reached the end of these impolitic selections. The general principle on which we have been insisting, and which is recognized by expounders of the constitution when they teach that the legislative and executive divisions of the Government should be distinct—this general principle is yet further sinned against; though not in so literal a manner. For though they do not take State-pay, and are not nominally Government-officers, yet, practically, lawyers are members of the executive organization. They form an important part of the apparatus for the administration of justice. By the working of this apparatus they make their profits; and their welfare depends on its being so worked as to bring them profits, rather than on its being so worked as to administer justice. Exactly as military officers have interests distinct from, and often antagonistic to, the efficiency of the army; so, barristers and solicitors have interests distinct from, and often antagonistic to, the cheap and prompt enforcement of the law. And that they are habitually swayed by these antagonistic interest, is notorious. So strong is the bias, as sometimes even to destroy the power of seeing from any other than the professional stand-point. We have ourselves heard a lawyer declaiming on the damage which the County-Courts-Act had done to the profession; and expecting his non-professional hearers to join him in condemning it there for! And if, as all the world knows, the legal conscience is not of the tenderest, is it wise to depute lawyers to frame the laws which they will be concerned in carrying out; and the carrying out of which must affect their private incomes? Are barristers, who constantly take fees for work which they do not perform, and attorneys, whose bills are so often exorbitant that a special office has been established for taxing them—are these, of all others, to be trusted in a position which would be trying even to the most disinterested? Nevertheless, the towns and counties of England have returned to the present House of Commons 98 lawyers—some 60 of them in actual practice, and the rest retired, but doubtless retaining those class-views acquired during their professional careers.


These criticisms on the conduct of constituencies do not necessarily commit us to the assertion that none belonging to the official and aristocratic classes ought to be chosen. Though it would be safer to carry out, in these important cases, the general principle which, as above shown, Parliament has itself recognized and enforced in unimportant cases; yet we are not prepared to say that occasional exceptions might not be made, on good cause being shown. All we aim to show is the gross impolicy of selecting so large a proportion of representatives from classes having interests different from those of the general public. That in addition to more than a third taken from the dominant class, who already occupy one division of the Legislature, the House of Commons should contain nearly another third taken from the naval, military, and legal classes, whose policy, like that of the dominant class, is to maintain things as they are; we consider a decisive proof of electoral misjudgement. That out of the 654 members, of which the People's House now consists, there should be but 250 who, as considered from a class point of view, are eligible, or tolerably eligible (for we include a considerable number who are more or less objectionable), is significant of anything but popular good sense. That into an assembly established to protect their interests, the commonalty of England should have sent one-third whose interests are the same as their own, and two-thirds whose interests are at variance with their own, proves a scarcely credible lack of wisdom; and seems an awkward fact for the representative theory.


If the intelligence of the mass is thus not sufficient even to choose out men who by position and occupation are fit representatives, still less is it sufficient to choose men who are the fittest in character and capacity. To see who will be liable to the bias of private advantage is a very easy thing: to see who is wisest is a very difficult thing; and those who do not succeed in the first must necessarily fail in the last. The higher the wisdom the more incomprehensible does it become by ignorance. It is a manifest fact that the popular man or writer, is always one who is but little in advance of the mass, and consequently understandable by them: never the man who is far in advance of them and out of their sight. Appreciation of another implies some community of thought. "Only the man of worth can recognize worth in men. ... The worthiest, if he appealed to universal suffrage, would have but a poor chance. ... Alas! Jesus Christ, asking the Jews what he deserved—was not the answer, Death on the gallows!" And though men do not now-a-days stone the prophet, they, at any rate, ignore him. As Mr. Carlyle says in his vehement way:

If of ten men nine are recognisable as fools, which is a common calculation, how, ... in the name of wonder, will you ever get a ballot-box to grind you out a wisdom from the votes of these ten men? ... I tell you a million blockheads looking authoritatively into one man of what you call genius, or noble sense, will make nothing but nonsense out of him and his qualities, and his virtues and defects, if they look till the end of time.


So that, even were electors content to choose the man proved by general evidence to be the most far-seeing, and refrained from testing him by the coincidence of his views with their own, there would be small chance of their hitting on the best. But judging on him, as they do, by asking him whether he thinks this or that crudity which they think, it is manifest that they will fix on one far removed from the best. Their deputy will be truly representative;—representative, that is, of the average stupidity.


And now let us look at the assembly of representatives thus chosen. Already we have noted the unfit composition of this assembly as respects the interests of its members; and we have just seen what the representative theory itself implies as to their intelligence. Let us now, however, consider them more nearly under this last head.


And first, what is the work they undertake? Observe, we do not say the work which they ought to do, but the work which they propose to do, and try to do. This comprehends the regulation of nearly all actions going on throughout society. Besides devising measures to prevent the aggression of citizens on one another, and to secure each the quiet possession of his own; and besides assuming the further function, also needful in the present state of mankind, of defending the nation as a whole against invaders; they unhesitatingly take on themselves to provide for countless wants, to cure countless ills, to oversee countless affairs. Out of the many beliefs men have held respecting God, Creation, the Future, etc., they presume to decide which are true; and authorize an army of priests to perpetually repeat them to the people. The distress resulting from improvidence, they undertake to remove: they settle the minimum which each ratepayer shall give in charity, and how the proceeds shall be administered. Judging that emigration will not naturally go on fast enough, they provide means for carrying off some of the labouring classes to the colonies. Certain that social necessities will not cause a sufficiently rapid spread of knowledge, and confident that they know what knowledge is most required, they use public money for the building of schools and paying of teachers; they print and publish State-school-books; they employ inspectors to see that their standard of education is conformed to. Playing the part of doctor, they insist that every one shall use their specific, and escape the danger of small-pox by submitting to an attack of cow-pox. Playing the part of moralist, they decide which dramas are fit to be acted and which are not. Playing the part of artist, they prompt the setting up of drawing-schools, provide masters and models; and, at Marlborough House, enact what shall be considered good taste and what bad. Through their lieutenants, the corporations of towns, they furnish appliances for the washing of peoples' skins and clothes; they, in some cases, manufacture gas and put down water-pipes; they lay out sewers and cover over cesspools; they establish public libraries and make public gardens. Moreover, they determine how houses shall be built, and what is a safe construction for a ship; they take measures for the security of railway-travelling; they fix the hour after which public-houses may not be open; regulate the prices chargeable by vehicles plying in the London streets; they inspect lodging-houses; they arrange for burial-grounds; they fix the hours of factory hands. If some social process does not seem to them to be going on fast enough, they stimulate it; where the growth is not in the direction which they think most desirable, they alter it; and so they seek to realize some undefined ideal community.


Such being the task undertaken, what, let us ask, are the qualifications for discharging it? Supposing it possible to achieve all this, what must be the knowledge and capacities of those who shall achieve it? Successfully to prescribe for society, it is needful to know the structure of society—the principles on which it is organized—the natural laws of its progress. If there be not a true understanding of what constitutes social development, there must necessarily be grave mistakes made in checking these changes and fostering those. If there be lack of insight respecting the mutual dependence of the many functions which, taken together, make up the national life, unforeseen disasters will ensue from not perceiving how an interference with one will affect the rest. That is to say, there must be a due acquaintance with the social science—the science involving all others; the science standing above all others in complexity.


And now, how far do our legislators possess this qualification? Do they in any moderate degree display it? Do they make even a distant approximation to it? That many of them are very good classical scholars is beyond doubt: not a few have written first-rate Latin verses, and can enjoy a Greek play; but there is no obvious relation between a memory well stocked with the words spoken two thousand years ago, and an understanding disciplined to deal with modern society. That in learning the languages of the past they have learnt some of its history, is true; but considering that this history is mainly a narrative of battles and plots and negotiations and treacheries, it does not throw much light on social philosophy—not even the simplest principles of political economy have ever been gathered from it. We do not question, either, that a moderate percentage of members of Parliament are fair mathematicians; and that mathematical discipline is valuable. As, however, political problems are not susceptible of mathematical analysis, their studies in this direction cannot much aid them in legislation. To the large body of military officers who sit as representatives, we would not for a moment deny a competent knowledge of fortification, of strategy, of regimental discipline; but we do not see that these throw much light on the causes and cure of national evils. Indeed, considering that war fosters anti-social sentiments, and that the government of soldiers is necessarily despotic, military education and habits are more likely to unfit than to fit men for regulating the doings of a free people. Extensive acquaintance with the laws, may doubtless be claimed by the many barristers chosen by our constituencies; and this seems a kind of information having some relation to the work to be done. Unless, however, this information is more than technical—unless it is accompanied by knowledge of the ramified consequences which laws have produced in times past and are producing now (which nobody will assert), it cannot give much insight into Social Science. A familiarity with laws is no more a preparation for rational legislation, than would a familiarity with all the nostrums men have ever used be a preparation for the rational practice of medicine. Nowhere, then, in our representative body, do we find appropriate culture. Here is a clever novelist, and there a successful maker of railways; this member has acquired a large fortune in trade, and that member is noted as an agricultural improver; but none of these achievements imply fitness for controlling and adjusting social processes. Among the many who have passed through the public school and university curriculum—including though they may a few Oxford double-firsts and one or two Cambridge wranglers—there are none who have received the discipline required by the true legislator. None have that competent knowledge of Science in general, culminating in the Science of Life, which can alone form a basis for the Science of Society. For it is one of those open secrets which seem the more secret because they are so open, that all phenomena displayed by a nation are phenomena of Life, and are dependent on the laws of Life. There is no growth, decay, evil, improvement, or change of any kind, going on the body politic, but what has its cause in the actions of human beings; and there are no actions of human beings but what conform to the laws of Life in general, and cannot be truly understood until those laws are understood.


See, then, the immense incongruity between the end and the means. See on the one hand the countless difficulties of the task; and on the other hand the almost total unpreparedness of those who undertake it. Need we wonder that legislation is ever breaking down? Is it not natural that complaint, amendment, and repeal, should form the staple business of every session? Is there anything more than might be expected in the absurd Jack-Cadeisms which disgrace the debates? Even without setting up so high a standard of qualification as that above specified, the unfitness of most representatives for their duties is abundantly manifest. You need but glance over the miscellaneous list of noblemen, baronets, squires, merchants, barristers, engineers, soldiers, sailors, railway-directors, etc., and then ask what training their previous lives have given them for the intricate business of legislation, to see at once how extreme must be the incompetence. One would think that the whole system had been framed on the sayings of some political Dogberry: "The art of healing is difficult; the art of government easy. The understanding of arithmetic comes by study; while the understanding of society comes by instinct. Watchmaking requires a long apprenticeship; but there needs none for the making of institutions. To manage a shop properly requires teaching; but the management of a people may be undertaken without preparation." Were we to be visited by some wiser Gulliver, or, as in the "Micromegas" of Voltaire, by some inhabitant of another sphere, his account of our political institutions might run somewhat as follows:


"I found that the English were governed by an assembly of men, said to empbody the 'collective wisdom.' This assembly, joined with some other authorities which seem practically subordinate to it, has unlimited power. I was much perplexed by this. With us it is customary to define the office of any appointed body; and, above all things, to see that it does not defeat the ends for which it was appointed. But both the theory and the practice of this English Government imply that it may do whatever it pleases. Though, by their current maxims and usages, the English recognize the right of property as sacred—though the infraction of it is considered by them one of the gravest crimes—though the laws profess to be so jealous of it as to punish even the stealing of a turnip; yet their legislators suspend it at will. They take the money of citizens for any project which they choose to undertake; though such project was not in the least contemplated by those who gave them authority—nay, though the greater part of the citizens from whom the money is taken had no share in giving them such authority. Each citizen can hold property only so long as the 654 deputies do not want it. It seemed to me that an exploded doctrine once current among them of 'the divine right of kings,' had simply been changed into the divine right of Parliaments.


"I was at first inclined to think that the constitution of things on the Earth was totally different from what it is with us; for the current political philosophy here, implies that acts are not right or wrong in themselves but are made one or the other by the votes of law-makers. In our world it is considered manifest that if a number of beings live together, there must, in virtue of their natures, be certain primary conditions on which only they can work satisfactorily in concert; and we infer that the conduct which breaks through these conditions is bad. In the English legislature, however, a proposal to regulate conduct by any such abstract standard would be held absurd. I asked one of their members of Parliament whether a majority of the House could legitimize murder. He said, No. I asked him whether it could sanctify robbery. He thought not. But I could not make him see that if murder and robbery are intrinsically wrong, and not to be made right by decisions of statesmen, that similarly all actions must be either right or wrong, apart from the authority of the law; and that if the right and wrong of the law are not in harmony with this intrinsic right and wrong, the law itself is criminal. Some, indeed, among the English think as we do. One of their remarkable men (not included in their Assembly of Notables) writes thus:

To ascertain better and better what the will of the Eternal was and is with us, what the laws of the Eternal are, all Parliaments, Ecumenic Councils, Congresses, and other Collective Wisdoms, have had this for their object. ... Nevertheless, in the inexplicable universal votings and debatings of these Ages, an idea or rather a dumb presumption to the contrary has gone idly abroad; and at this day, over extensive tracts of the world, poor human beings are to be found, whose practical belief it is that if we "vote" this or that, so this or that will thenceforth be. ... Practically, men have come to imagine that the Laws of this Universe, like the laws of constitutional countries, are decided by voting. ... It is an idle fancy. The Laws of this Universe, of which if the Laws of England are not an exact transcript, they should passionately study to become such, are fixed by the everlasting congruity of things, and are not fixable or changeable by voting!


"But I find that, contemptuously disregarding all such protests, the English legislators persevere in their hyperatheistic notion, that an Act of Parliament duly enforced by State-officers, will work out any object: no question being put whether Laws of Nature permit. I forgot to ask whether they considered that different kinds of food could be made wholesome or unwholesome by State-decree.


"One thing that struck me was the curious way in which the members of their House of Commons judge of one another's capacities. Many who expressed opinions of the crudest kinds, or trivial platitudes, or worn-out superstitions, were civilly treated. Follies as great as that but a few years since uttered by one of their ministers, who said that free-trade was contrary to common sense, were received in silence. But I was present when one of their number, who, as I thought, was speaking very rationally, made a mistake in his pronunciation—made what they call a wrong quantity; and immediately there arose a shout of derision. It seemed quite tolerable that a member should know little or nothing about the business he was there to transact; but quite in-tolerable that he should be ignorant of a point of no moment.


"The English pique themselves on being especially practical—have a great contempt for theorizers, and profess to be guided exclusively by facts. Before making or altering a law it is the custom to appoint a committee of inquiry, who send for men able to give information concerning the matter in hand, and ask them some thousands of questions. These questions, and the answers given to them, are printed in large books, and distributed among the members of the Houses of Parliament; and I was told that they spent about £100,000 a year in thus collecting and distributing evidence. Nevertheless, it appeared to me that the ministers and representatives of the English people, pertinaciously adhere to theories long ago disproved by the most conspicuous facts. They pay great respect to petty details of evidence, but of large truths they are quite regardless. Thus, the experience of age after age has shown that their state-management is almost invariably bad. The national estates are so miserably administered as often to bring loss instead of gain. The government ship-yards are uniformly extravagant and inefficient. The judicial system works so ill that most citizens will submit to serious losses rather than run risks of being ruined by law-suits. Countless facts prove the Government to be the worst owner, the worst manufacturer, the worst trader: in fact, the worst manager, be the thing managed what it may. But though the evidence of this is abundant and conclusive—though, during a recent war, the bunglings of officials were as glaring and multitudinous as ever; yet the belief that any proposed duties will be satisfactorily discharged by a new public department appointed to them, seems not a whit the weaker. Legislators, thinking themselves practical, cling to the plausible theory of an officially-regulated society, spite of overwhelming evidence that official regulation perpetually fails.


"Nay, indeed, the belief seems to gain strength among these fact-loving English statesmen, notwithstanding the facts are against it. Proposals for State-control over this and the other, have been of late more rife than ever. And, most remarkable of all, their representative assembly lately listened with grave faces to the assertion, made by one of their high authorities, that State-workshops are more economical than private workshops. Their prime minister, in defending a recently-established arms-factory, actually told them that, at one of their arsenals, certain missiles of war were manufactured not only better than by the trade, but at about one-third the price; and added, 'so it would be in all things.' The English being a trading people, who must be tolerably familiar with the usual rates of profit among manufacturers, and the margin for possible economy, the fact that they should have got for their chief representative one so utterly in the dark on these matters, struck me as a wonderful result of the representative system.


"I did not inquire much further, for it was manifest that if these were really their wisest men, the English were not a wise people."


Representative government, then, cannot be called a success, in so far as the choice of men is concerned. Those it puts into power are the fittest neither in respect of their interests, nor their culture, nor their wisdom. And as a consequence, partly of this and partly of its complex and cumbrous nature, representative government is anything but efficient for administrative purposes. In these respects it is manifestly inferior to monarchical government. This has the advantage of simplicity, which is always conducive to efficiency. And it has the further advantage that the power is in the hands of one who is directly concerned in the good management of national affairs; seeing that the continued maintenance of his power—nay, often his very life—depends on this. For his own sake a monarch chooses the wisest councillors he can find, regardless of class-distinctions. His interest in getting the best help is too great to allow of prejudices standing between him and a far-seeing man. We see this abundantly illustrated. Did not the kings of France take Richelieu, and Mazarin, and Turgot to assist them? Had not Henry VIII his Wolsey, Elizabeth her Burleigh, James his Bacon, Cromwell his Milton? And were not these men of greater calibre than those who hold the reins under out constitutional régime? So strong is the motive of an autocrat to make use of ability wherever it exists, that he will, like Louis XI, take even his barber into council if he finds him a clever fellow. Besides choosing them for ministers and advisers, he seeks out the most competent men for other offices. Napoleon raised his marshals from the ranks; and owed his military success in great part to the readiness with which he saw and availed himself of merit wherever found. We have recently seen in Russia how prompt was the recognition and promotion of engineering talent in the case of Todleben; and know to our cost how greatly the prolonged defence of Sebastopol was due to this. In the marked contrast to these cases supplied by our own army, in which genius is ignored while muffs are honoured—in which wealth and caste make the advance of plebeian merit next to impossible—in which jealousies between Queen's service and Company's service render the best generalship almost unavailable; we see that the representative system fails in the officering of its executive, as much as in the officering of its legislative. A striking antithesis between the actions of the two forms of government, is presented in the evidence given before the Sebastopol Committee respecting the supply of huts to the Crimean army—evidence showing that while, in his negotiations with the English Government, the contractor for the huts met with nothing but vacillation, delay, and official rudeness, the conduct of the French Government was marked by promptitude, decision, sound judgement, and great civility. Everything goes to show that for administrative efficiency, autocratic power is the best. If your aim is a well-organized army—if you want to have sanitary departments, and educational departments, and charity-departments, managed in a business-like way—if you would have society actively regulated by staffs of State-agents; then by all means choose that system of complete centralization which we call despotism.


Probably, notwithstanding the hints dropped at the outset, most have read the foregoing pages with surprise. Very likely some have referred to the cover of the Review, to see whether they have not, in mistake, taken up some other than the "Westiminster"; while some may, perhaps, have accompanied their perusal by a running commentary of epithets condemnatory of our seeming change of principles. Let them not be alarmed. We have not in the least swerved from the confession of faith set forth in our prospectus. On the contrary, as we shall shortly show, our adhesion to free institutions is as strong as ever—nay, has even gained strength through this apparently antagonistic criticism.


The subordination of a nation to a man, is not a wholesome but a vicious state of things: needful, indeed, for a vicious humanity; but to be outgrown as fast as may be. The instinct which makes it possible is anything but a noble one. Call it "hero-worship," and it looks respectable. Call it what it is—a blind awe and fear of power, no matter of what kind, but more especially of the brutal kind; and it is by no means to be admired. Watch it in early ages deifying the cannibal chief; singing the praises of the successful thief; commemorating the most blood-thirsty warriors; speaking with reverence of those who had shown undying revenge; and erecting altars to such as carried furthest the vices which disgrace humanity; and the illusion disappears. Read how, where it was strongest, it immolated crowds of victims at the tomb of the dead king—how, at the altars raised to its heroes, it habitually sacrificed prisoners and children to satisfy their traditional appetite for human flesh—how it produced that fealty of subjects to rulers which made possible endless aggressions, battles, massacres, and horrors innumerable—how it has mercilessly slain those who would not lick the dust before its idols;—read all this, and the feeling no longer seems so worthy an one. See it in later days idealizing the worst as well as the best monarchs; receiving assassins with acclamation; hurrahing before successful treachery; rushing to applaud the processions and shows and ceremonies wherewith effete power stengthens itself; and it looks far from laudable. Autocracy presupposes inferiority of nature on the part of both ruler and subject: on the one side a cold, unsympathetic sacrificing of other's wills to self-will; on the other side a mean, cowardly abandonment of the claims of manhood. Our very language bears testimony to this. Do not dignity, independence, and other words of approbation, imply a nature at variance with this relation? Are not tyrannical, arbitrary, despotic, epithets of reproach? and are not truckling, fawning, cringing, epithets of contempt? Is not slavish a condemnatory term? Does not servile, that is, serf-like, imply littleness, meanness? And has not the word villain, which originally meant bondsman, come to signify everything which is hateful? That language should thus inadvertently embody dislike for those who most display the instinct of subordination, is alone sufficient proof that this instinct is associated with evil dispositions. It has been the parent of countless crimes. It is answerable for the torturing and murder of the noble-minded who would not submit—for the horrors of Bastiles and Siberias. It has ever been the represser of knowledge, of free thought, of true progress. In all times it has fostered the vices of courts, and made those vices fashionable throughout nations. With a George IV on the throne, it weekly tells ten thousand lies, in the shape of prayers for a "most religious and gracious king." Whether you read the annals of the far past—whether you look at the various uncivilized races dispersed over the globe—or whether you contrast the existing nations of Europe; you equally find that submission to authority decreases as morality and intelligence increase. From ancient warrior-worship down to modern flunkeyism, the sentiment has ever been strongest where human nature has been vilest.


This relation between barbarism and loyalty, is one of those beneficent arrangements which "the servant and interpreter of nature," everywhere meets with. The sub-ordination of many to one, is a form of society needful for men so long as their natures are savage, or anti-social; and that it may be maintained, it is needful that they should have an extreme awe of the one. Just in proportion as their conduct to one another is such as to breed perpetual antagonism, endangering social union: just in that proportion must there be a reverence for the strong, determined, cruel ruler, who alone can repress their explosive natures and keep them from mutual destruction. Among such a people any form of free government is an impossibility. There must be a despotism as stern as the people are savage; and, that such a despotism may exist, there must be a superstitious worship of the despot. But as fast as the discipline of social life modifies character—as fast as, through lack of use, the old predatory instincts dwindle—as fast as the sympathetic feelings grow; so fast does this hard rule become less necessary; so fast does the authority of the ruler diminish; so fast does the awe of him disappear. From being originally god, or demi-god, he comes at length to be a very ordinary person; liable to be criticized, ridiculed, caricatured. Various influences conspire to this result. Accumulating knowledge gradually divests the ruler of those supernatural attributes at first ascribed to him. The conceptions which developing science gives of the grandeur of creation, as well as the constancy and irresistibleness of its Omnipresent Cause, make all feel the comparative littleness of human power; and the awe once felt for the great man is, by degrees, transferred to that Universe of which the great man is seen to form but an insignificant part. Increase of population, with its average percentage of great men, involves the comparative frequency of such; and the more numerous they are the less respect can be given to each: they dwarf one another. As society becomes settled and organized, its welfare and progress become more and more independent of any one. In a primitive society the death of a chief may alter the whole course of things; but in a society like ours, things go on much as before, no matter who dies. Thus, many influences combine to diminish autocratic power, whether political or other. It is true, not only in the sense in which Tennyson writes it, but also in a higher sense, that:

... the individual withers, and world is more and more.


Further, it is to be noted that while the unlimited authority of the greatest man ceases to be needful; and while the superstitious awe which upholds that unlimited authority decreases; it at the same time becomes impossible to get the greatest man to the top. In a rude social state, where might is right, where war is the business of life, where the qualities required in the ruler, alike for controlling his subjects and defeating his enemies, are bodily strength, courage, cunning, will, it is easy to pick out the best; or rather—he picks himself out. The qualities which make him the fittest governor for the barbarians around him, are the qualities by which he gets the mastery over them. But in an advanced, complex, and comparatively peaceful state like ours, these are not the qualities needed; and even were they needed, the firmly-organized arrangements of society do not allow the possessor of them to break through to the top. For the rule of a settled, civilized community, the characteristics required are—not a love of conquest but a desire for the general happiness; not undying hate of enemies but a calm dispassionate equity; not artful manoeuvring but philosophic insight. How is the man most endowed with these to be found? In no country is he ordinarily born heir to the throne; and that he can be chosen out of thirty millions of people none will be foolish enough to think. The incapacity for recognizing the greatest worth, we have already seen illustrated in our parliamentary elections. And if the few thousands forming a constituency cannot pick out from among themselves their wisest man, still less can the millions forming a nation do it. Just as fast as society becomes populous, complex, peaceful; so fast does the political supremacy of the best become impossible.


But even were the relation of autocrat and slave a morally wholesome one; and even were it possible to find the fittest man to be autocrat; we should still contend that such a form of government is bad. We should not contend this simply on the ground that self-government is a valuable educator. But we should take the ground that no human being, however wise and good, is fit to be sole ruler over the doings of an involved society; and that, with the best intentions, a benevolent despot is very likely to produce the most terrible mischiefs which would else have been impossible. We will take the case of all others the most favourable to those who would give supreme power to the best. We will instance Mr. Carlyle's model hero—Cromwell. Doubtless there was much in the manners of the times when Puritanism arose, to justify its disgust. Doubtless the vices and follies bequeathed by effete Catholicism still struggling for existence, were bad enough to create a reactionary asceticism. It is in the order of Nature, however, that men's habits and pleasures are not to be changed suddenly. For any permanent effect to be produced it must be produced slowly. Better tastes, higher aspirations, must be developed; not enforced from without. Disaster is sure to result from the withdrawal of lower gratifications before higher ones have taken their places; for gratification of some kind is a condition to healthful existence. Whatever ascetic morality, or rather immorality, may say, pleasures and pains are the incentives and restraints by which Nature keeps her progeny from destruction. No contemptuous title of "pig-philosophy" will alter the eternal fact that Misery is the highway to Death; while Happiness is added Life and the giver of Life. But indignant Puritanism could not see this truth; and with the extravagance of fanaticism sought to abolish pleasure in general. Getting into power, it put down not only questionable amusements but all others along with them. And for these repressions Cromwell, either as enacting, maintaining, or allowing them, was responsible. What, now, was the result of this attempt to dragoon men into virtue? What came when the strong man who thought he was thus "helping God to mend all," died? A dreadful reaction brought in one of the most degraded periods of our history. Into the newly-garnished house entered "seven other spirits more wicked than the first". For generations the English character was lowered. Vice was gloried in, virtue was ridiculed; dramatists made marriage the stock-subject of laughter; profaneness and obscenity flourished; high aspirations ceased; the whole age was corrupt. Not until George III reigned was there a better standard of living. And for this century of demoralization we have, in great measure, to thank Cromwell. Is it, then, so clear that the domination of one man, righteous though he may be, is a blessing?


Lastly, it is to be remarked that when the political supremacy of the greatest no longer exists in an overt form, it still continues in a disguised and more beneficent form. For is it not manifest that in these latter days the wise man eventually gets his edicts enforced by others, if not by himself. Adam Smith, from his chimney-corner, dictated greater changes than prime ministers do. A General Thompson who forges the weapons with which the Anti-Corn-Law battle is fought—a Cobden and a Bright who add to and wield them, forward civilization much more than those who hold sceptres. Repugnant as the fact may be to statesmen, it is yet one not to be gainsayed. Whoever, to the great effects already produced by Free-trade, joins the far greater effects which will be hereafter produced, must see that the revolution initiated by these men is far wider than has been initiated by any potentate of modern times. As Mr. Carlyle very well knows, those who elaborate new truths and teach them to their fellows, are now-a-days the real rulers—"the unacknowledged legislators"—the virtual kings. Thus we have the good which great men can do us, while we are saved from the evil.


No; the old régime has passed away. For ourselves at least, the subordination of the many to the one has become alike needless, repugnant, and impossible. Good for its time, bad for ours, the ancient "hero-worship" is dead; and happily no declamations, be they never so eloquent, can revive it.


Here seem to be two irreconcileable positions—two mutually-destructive arguments. First, a condemnatory criticism on representative government, and then a still more condemnatory criticism on monarchical government: each apparently abolishing the other.


Nevertheless, the paradox is easily explicable. It is quite possible to say all that we have said concerning the defects of representative government, and still to hold that it is the best form of government. Nay, it is quite possible to derive a more profound conviction of its superiority from the very evidence which appears so unfavourable to it.


For nothing that we have urged tells against its goodness as a means of securing justice between man and man, or class and class. Abundant evidence shows that the maintenance of equitable relations among its subjects, which forms the essential business of a ruling power, is surest when the ruling power is of popular origin; notwithstanding the defects to which such a ruling power is liable. For discharging the true function of a government, representative government is shown to be the best, alike by its origin, its theory, and its results. Let us glance at the facts under these three heads.


Alike in Spain, in England, and in France, popular power embodied itself as a check upon kingly tyranny, that is—kingly injustice. The earliest accounts we have of the Spanish Cortes, say that it was their office to advise the King; and to follow their advice was his duty. They petitioned, remonstrated, complained of grievances, and supplicated for redress. The King, having acceded to their requirements, swore to observe them; and it was agreed that any act of his incontravention of the statutes thus established, should be "respected as the King's commands, but not executed, as contrary to the rights and privileges of the subject." In all which we see very clearly that the special aim of the Cortes was to get rectified the injustices committed by the King or others; that the King was in the habit of breaking the promises of amendment he made to them; and that they had to adopt measures to enforce the fulfilment of his promises. In England we trace analogous facts. The Barons who bridled the tyranny of King John, though not formally appointed, were virtually impromptu representatives of the nation; and in their demand that justice should neither be sold, denied, nor delayed, we discern the social evils which led to this taking of the power into their own hands. In early times the knights and burgesses, summoned by the King with the view of getting supplies from them, had for their especial business to obtain from him the redress of grievances, that is—the execution of justice; and in their eventually-obtained and occasionally-exercised power of withholding supplies until justice was granted, we see both the need there was for remedying the iniquities of autocracy, and the adaptation of representative institutions to this end. And the further development of popular power latterly obtained, originated from the demand for fairer laws—for less class-privilege, class-exemption, class-injustice: a fact which the speeches of the Reform-Bill agitation abundantly prove. In France, again, representative government grew into a definite form under the stimulus of unbearable oppression. When the accumulated extortion of centuries had reduced the mass of the people to misery—when millions of haggard faces were seen throughout the land—when starving complainants were hanged on "a gallows forty feet high"—when the exactions and cruelties of good-for-nothing kings and vampire-nobles had brought the nation to the eye of dissolution; there came, as a remedy, an assembly of men elected by the people.


That, considered a priori, representative government is fitted for establishing just laws, is implied by the unanimity with which Spanish, English, and French availed themselves of it to this end; as well as by the endeavours latterly made by other European nations to do the like. The rationale of the matter is simple enough. Manifestly, on the average of cases, a man will protect his own interests more solicitously than others will protect them for him. Manifestly, where regulations have to be made affecting the interests of several men, they are most likely to be equitably made when all those concerned are present, and have equal shares in the making of them. And manifestly, where those concerned are so numerous and so dispersed, that it is physically impossible for them all to take part in the framing of such regulations, the next best thing is for the citizens in each locality to appoint one of their number to speak for them, to care for their claims, to be their representative. The general principle is that the welfare of all will be most secure when each looks after his own welfare; and the principle is carried out as directly as the circumstances permit. It is inferable, alike from human nature and from history, that a single man cannot be trusted with the interests of a nation of men, where his real or imagined interests clash with theirs. It is similarly inferable from human nature and from history, that no small section of a nation, as the nobles, can be expected to consult the welfare of the people at large in preference to their own. And it is further inferable that only in a general diffusion of political power, is there a safeguard for the general welfare. This has all along been the conviction under which representative government has been advocated, maintained, and extended. From the early writs summoning the members of the House of Commons—writs which declared it to be a most equitable rule that the laws which concerned all should be approved of by all—down to the reasons now urged by the unenfranchised for a participation in political power, this is the implied theory. Observe, nothing is said about wisdom or administrative ability. From the beginning, the end in view has been justice. Whether we consider the question in the abstract, or whether we examine the opinions men have entertained upon it from old times down to the present day, we equally see the theory of representative government to be, that it is the best means of insuring equitable social relations.


And do not the results justify the theory? Did not our early Parliaments, after long-continued struggles, succeed in curbing the licentious exercise of royal power, and in establishing the rights of the subject? Are not the comparative security and justice enjoyed under our form of government, indicated by the envy with which other nations regard it? Was not the election of the French Constituent Assembly followed by the sweeping away of the grievous burdens that weighed down the people—by the abolition of tithes, seignorial dues, gabelle, excessive preservation of game—by the withdrawal of numerous feudal privileges and immunities—by the manumission of the slaves in the French colonies? And has not that extension of our own electoral system embodied in the Reform-Bill, brought about more equitable arrangements?—as witness the repeal of the Corn-Laws, and the equalization of probate and legacy duties. The proofs are undeniable. It is clear, both a priori and a posteriori, that representative government is especially adapted for the establishment and maintenance of just laws.



This essay first appeared in The Westminster Review for July, 1853 and was reprinted in Spencer's Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative (London and New York, 1892, in three volumes).



From time to time there returns on the cautious thinker the conclusion that, considered simply as a question of probabilities, it is unlikely that his views upon any debatable topic are correct. "Here," he reflects, "are thousands around me holding on this or that point opinions differing from mine—wholly in many cases; partially in most others. Each is as confident as I am of the truth of his convictions. Many of them are possessed of great intelligence; and, rank myself high as I may, I must admit that some are my equals—perhaps my superiors. Yet, while every one of us is sure he is right, unquestionably most of us are wrong. Why should not I be among the mistaken? True, I cannot realize the likelihood that I am so. But this proves nothing; for though the majority of us are necessarily in error, we all labor under the inability to think we are in error. Is it not then foolish thus to trust myself? A like warrant has been felt by men all the world through; and, in nine cases out of ten, has proved a delusive warrant. Is it not then absurd in me to put so much faith in my judgments?"


Barren of practical results as this reflection at first sight appears, it may, and indeed should, influence some of our most important proceedings. Though in daily life we are constantly obliged to act out our inferences, trustless as they may be; though in the house, in the office, in the street, there hourly arise occasions on which we may not hesitate; seeing that if to act is dangerous, never to act at all is fatal; and though consequently, on our private conduct, this abstract doubt as to the worth of our judgments must remain inoperative; yet in our public conduct, we may properly allow it to weigh. Here decision is no longer imperative; while the difficulty of deciding aright is incalculably greater. Clearly as we may think we see how a given measure will work, we may infer, drawing the above induction from human experience, that the chances are many against the truth of our anticipations. Whether in most cases it is not wiser to do nothing, becomes now a rational question. Continuing his self-criticism, the cautious thinker may reason—"If in these personal affairs, where all the conditions of the case were known to me, I have so often miscalculated, how much oftener shall I miscalculate in political affairs, where the conditions are too numerous, too widespread, too complex, too obscure to be understood. Here, doubtless, is a social evil and there a desideratum; and were I sure of doing no mischief I would forthwith try to cure the one and achieve the other. But when I remember how many of my private schemes have miscarried; how speculations have failed, agents proved dishonest, marriage been a disappointment; how I did but pauperize the relative I sought to help; how my carefully-governed son has turned out worse than most children; how the thing I desperately strove against as a misfortune did me immense good; how while the objects I ardently pursued brought me little happiness when gained, most of my pleasures have come from unexpected sources; when I recall these and hosts of like facts, I am struck with the incompetence of my intellect to prescribe for society. And as the evil is one under which society has not only lived but grown, while the desideratum is one it may spontaneously obtain, as it has most others, in some unforeseen way, I question the propriety of meddling."



There is a great want of this practical humility in our political conduct. Though we have less self-confidence than our ancestors, who did not hesitate to organize in law their judgments on all subjects whatever, we have yet far too much. Though we have ceased to assume the infallibility of our theological beliefs and so ceased to enact them, we have not ceased to enact hosts of other beliefs of an equally doubtful kind. Though we no longer presume to coerce men for their spiritual good, we still think ourselves called upon to coerce them for their material good: not seeing that the one is as useless and as unwarrantable as the other. Innumerable failures seem, so far, powerless to teach this. Take up a daily paper and you will probably find a leader exposing the corruption, negligence, or mismanagement of some State-department. Cast your eye down the next column, and it is not unlikely that you will read proposals for an extension of State-supervision. Yesterday came a charge of gross carelessness against the Colonial Office. Today Admiralty bunglings are burlesqued. Tomorrow brings the question, "Should there not be more coal-mine inspectors?" Now there is a complaint that the Board of Health is useless; and now an outcry for more railway regulation. While your ears are still ringing with denunciations of Chancery abuses, or your cheeks still glowing with indignation at some well-exposed iniquity of the Ecclesiastical Courts, you suddenly come upon suggestions for organizing "a priesthood of science." Here is a vehement condemnation of the police for stupidly allowing sight-seers to crush each other to death. You look for the corollary that official regulation is not to be trusted; when, instead, à propos of a shipwreck, you read an urgent demand for government-inspectors to see that ships always have their boats ready for launching. Thus, while every day chronicles a failure, there every day reappears the belief that it needs but an Act of Parliament and a staff of officers to effect any end desired. Nowhere is the perennial faith of mankind better seen. Ever since society existed Disappointment has been preaching, "Put not your trust in legislation"; and yet the trust in legislation seems scarcely diminished.


Did the State fulfil efficiently its unquestionable duties, there would be some excuse for this eagerness to assign it further duties. Were there no complaints of its faulty administration of justice; of its endless delays and untold expenses; of its bringing ruin in place of restitution; of its playing the tyrant where it should have been the protector: did we never hear of its complicated stupidities; its 20,000 statutes, which it assumes all Englishmen to know, and which not one Englishman does know; its multiplied forms, which, in the effort to meet every contingency, open far more loopholes than they provide against: had it not shown its folly in the system of making every petty alteration by a new act, variously affecting innumerable preceding acts; or in its score of successive sets of Chancery rules, which so modify, and limit, and extend, and abolish, and alter each other, that not even Chancery lawyers know what the rules are; were we never astounded by such a fact as that, under the system of land registration in Ireland, £6,000 have been spent in a "negative search" to establish the title of an estate; did we find in its doing no such terrible incongruity as the imprisonment of a hungry vagrant for stealing a turnip, while for the gigantic embezzlements of a railway director it inflicts no punishment; had we, in short, proved its efficiency as judge and defender, instead of having found it treacherous, cruel, and anxiously to be shunned, there would be some encouragement to hope other benefits at its hands.


Or if, while failing in its judicial functions, the State had proved itself a capable agent in some other department—the military for example—there would have been some show of reason for extending its sphere of action. Suppose that it had rationally equipped its troops, instead of giving them cumbrous and ineffective muskets, barbarous grenadier-caps, absurdly heavy knapsacks and cartouche-boxes, and clothing colored so as admirably to help the enemy's marksmen; suppose that it organized well and economically, instead of salarying an immense superfluity of officers, creating sinecure colonelcies of £4,000 a year, neglecting the meritorious and promoting incapables; to suppose that its soldiers were always well housed instead of being thrust into barracks that invalid hundreds, as at Aden, or that fall on their occupants, as at Loodianah, where ninety-five were thus killed; suppose that, in actual war it had shown due administrative ability, instead of occasionally leaving its regiments to march barefoot, to dress in patches, to capture their own engineering tools, and to fight on empty stomachs, as during the Peninsular campaign; suppose all this, and the wish for more State-control might still have had some warrant.


Even though it has bungled in everything else, yet had it in one case done well—had its naval management alone been efficient—the sanguine would have had a colorable excuse for expecting success in a new field. Grant that the reports about bad ships, ships that will not sail, ships that have to be lengthened, ships with unfit engines, ships that will not carry their guns, ships without stowage, and ships that have to be broken up, are all untrue; assume those to be mere slanderers who say the the Megœra took double the time taken by a commercial steamer to reach the Cape; that during the same voyage the Hydra was three times on fire, and needed the pumps kept going day and night; that the Charlotte troop-ship set out with 75 days' provisions on board, and was three months in reaching her destination; that the Harpy, at an imminent risk of life, got home in 110 days from Rio; disregard as calumnies the statements about septuagenarian admirals, dilettante ship building, and "cooked" dockyard accounts; set down the affair of the Goldner preserved meats as a myth, and consider Professor Barlow mistaken when he reported of the Admiralty compasses in store, that "at least one-half were mere lumber"; let all these, we say, be held groundless charges, and there would remain for the advocates of much government some basis for their political air-castles, spite of military and judicial mismanagement.


As it is, however, they seem to have read backwards the parable of the talents. Not to the agent of proved efficiency do they consign further duties, but to the negligent and blundering agent. Private enterprise has done much, and done it well. Private enterprise has cleared, drained, and fertilized the country, and built the towns; has excavated mines, laid out roads, dug canals, and embanked railways; has invented, and brought to perfection ploughs, looms, steam-engines, printing-presses, and machines innumerable; has built our ships, our vast manufactories, our docks; has established banks, insurance societies, and the newspaper press; has covered the sea with lines of steam-vessels, and the land with electric telegraphs. Private enterprise has brought agriculture, manufactures, and commerce to their present height, and is now developing them with increasing rapidity. Therefore, do not trust private enterprise. On the other hand, the State so fulfils its judicial function as to ruin many, delude others, and frighten away those who most need succor; its national defences are so extravagantly and yet inefficiently administered as to call forth almost daily complaint, expostulation, or ridicule; and as the nation's steward, it obtains from some of our vast public estates a minus revenue. Therefore, trust the State. Slight the good and faithful servant, and promote the unprofitable one from one talent to ten.


Seriously, the case, while it may not, in some respects, warrant this parallel, is, in one respect, even stronger. For the new work is not of the same order as the old, but of a more difficult order. Ill as government discharges its true duties, any other duties committed to it are likely to be still worse discharged. To guard its subjects against aggression, either individual or national, is a straightforward and tolerably simple matter; to regulate, directly or indirectly, the personal actions of those subjects is an infinitely complicated matter. It is one thing to secure to each man the unhindered power to pursue his own good; it is a widely different thing to pursue the good for him. To do the first efficiently, the State has merely to look on while its citizens act; to forbid unfairness; to adjudicate when called on; and to enforece restitution for injuries. To do the last efficiently, it must become an ubiquitous worker—must know each man's needs better than he knows them himself—must, in short, possess superhuman power and intelligence. Even, therefore, had the State done well in its proper sphere, no sufficient warrant would have existed for extending that sphere; but seeing how ill it has discharged those simple offices which we cannot help consigning to it, small indeed is the probability that it will discharge well offices of a more complicated nature.


Change the point of view however we may, and this conclusion still presents itself. If we define the primary State-duty to be that of protecting each individual against others, then, all other State-action comes under the definition of protecting each individual against himself—against his own stupidity, his own idleness, his own improvidence, rashness, or other defect—his own incapacity for doing something or other which should be done. There is no questioning this classification. For manifestly all the obstacles that lie between a man's desires and the satisfaction of them are either obstacles arising from other men's counter-desires, or obstacles arising from inability in himself. Such of these counter-desires as are just, have as much claim to satisfaction as his; and may not, therefore, be thwarted. Such of them as are unjust, it is the State's duty to hold in check. The only other possible sphere for it, therefore, is that of saving the individual from the consequences of his nature, or, as we say—protecting him against himself. Making no comment, at present, on the policy of this, and confining ourselves solely to the practicability of it, let us inquire how the proposal looks when reduced to its simplest form. Here are men possessed of instincts, and sentiments, and perceptions, all conspiring to self-preservation. The due action of each brings its quantum of pleasure; the inaction, its more or less of pain. Those provided with these faculties in due proportions prosper and multiply; those ill-provided tend to die out. And the general success of this human organization is seen in the fact that under it the world has been peopled, and by it the complicated appliances and arrangements of civilized life have been developed. It is complained, however, that there are certain directions in which this apparatus of motives works but imperfectly. While it is admitted that men are duly prompted by it to bodily sustenance, to the obtainment of clothing and shelter, to marriage and the care of offspring, and to the establishment of the more important industrial and commercial agencies; it is argued that there are many desiderata, as pure air, more knowledge, good water, safe travelling, and so forth, which it does not duly achieve. And these shortcomings being assumed permanent, it is urged that some supplementary means must be employed. It is therefore proposed that out of the mass of men a certain number, constituting the legislature, shall be instructed to attain these various objects. The legislators thus instructed (all characterized, on the average, by the same defects in this apparatus of motives as men in general), being unable personally to fulfil their tasks, must fulfil them by deputy—must appoint commissions, boards, councils, and staffs of officers; and must construct their agencies of this same defective humanity that acts so ill. Why now should this system of complex deputation succeed where the system of simple deputation does not? The industrial, commercial, and philanthropic agencies, which citizens form spontaneously, are directly deputed agencies; these governmental agencies made by electing legislators who appoint officers are indirectly deputed ones. And it is hoped that, by this process of double deputation, things may be achieved which the process of single deputation will not achieve. What is the rationale of this hope? Is it that legislators, and their employés, are made to feel more intensely than the rest these evils they are to remedy, these wants they are to satisfy? Hardly; for by position they are mostly relieved from such evils and wants. Is it, then, that they are to have the primary motive replaced by a secondary motive—the fear of public displeasure, and ultimate removal from office? Why scarcely; for the minor benefits which citizens will not organize to secure directly, they will not organize to secure indirectly, by turning out inefficient servants: especially if they cannot readily get efficient ones. Is it, then, that these State-agents are to do from a sense of duty, what they would not do from any other motive? Evidently this is the only possibility remaining. The proposition on which the advocates of much government have to fall back is, that things which the people will not unite to effect for personal benefit, a law-appointed portion of them will unite to effect for the benefit of the rest. Public men and functionaries love their neighbors better than themselves! The philanthropy of statesmen is stronger than the selfishness of citizens!


No wonder, then, that every day adds to the list of legislative miscarriages. If colliery explosions increase, notwithstanding the appointment of coal-mine inspectors, why, it is but a natural sequence to these false methods. If Sunderland shipowners complain that, as far as tried, "the Mercantile Marine Act has proved a total failure"; and if, meanwhile, the other class affected by it—the sailors—show their disapprobation by extensive strikes; why, it does but exemplify the folly of trusting a theorizing benevolence rather than an experienced self-interest. On all sides we may expect such facts; and on all sides we find them. Government, turning engineer, appoints its lieutenant, the Sewers' Commission, to drain London. Presently Lambeth sends deputations to say that it pays heavy rates, and gets no benefit. Tired of waiting, Bethnal Green calls meetings to consider "the most effectual means of extending the drainage of the district." From Wandsworth come complainants, who threaten to pay no more until something is done. Camberwell proposes to raise a subscription and do the work itself. Meanwhile, no progress is made towards the purification of the Thames; the weekly returns show an increasing rate of mortality; in Parliament, the friends of the Commission have nothing save good intentions to urge in mitigation of censure; and, at length, despairing ministers gladly seize an excuse for quietly shelving the Commission and its plans altogether. As architectural surveyor, the State has scarcely succeeded better than as engineer; witness the Metropolitan Buildings' Act. New houses still tumble down from time to time. A few months since, two fell at Bayswater, and one more recently near the Pentonville prison: all notwithstanding prescribed thicknesses, and hoop-iron bond, and inspectors. It never struck those who provided these delusive sureties that it was possible to build walls without bonding the two surfaces together, so that the inner layer might be removed after the surveyor's approval. Nor did they foresee that, in dictating a larger quantity of bricks than experience proved absolutely needful, they were simply insuring a slow deterioration of quality to an equivalent extent. The government guarantee for safe passenger-ships answers no better than its guarantee for safe houses. Though the burning of the Amazon arose from either bad construction or bad stowage, she had received the Admiralty certificate before sailing. Notwithstanding official approval, the Adelaide was found, on her first voyage, to steer ill, to have useless pumps, ports that let floods of water into the cabins, and coals so near the furnaces that they twice caught fire. The W. S. Lindsay, which turned out unfit for sailing, had been passed by the government agent; and, but for the owner, might have gone to sea at a great risk of life. The Melbourne—originally a State-built ship—which took twenty-four days to reach Lisbon, and then needed to be docked to undergo a thorough repair, had been duly inspected. And lastly, the notorious Australian, before her third futile attempt to proceed on her voyage, had, her owners tell us, received "the full approbation of the government inspector." Neither does the like supervision give security to land-travelling. The iron bridge at Chester, which, breaking, precipitated a train into the Dee, had passed under the official eye. Inspection did not prevent a column on the South-Eastern from being so placed as to kill a man who put his head out of the carriage window. The locomotive that burst at Brighton lately did so notwithstanding a State-approval given but ten days previously. And—to look at the facts in the gross—this system of supervision has not prevented the increase of railway accidents; which, be it remembered, has arisen since the system was commenced.



"Well; let the State fail. It can but do its best. If it succeed, so much the better; if it do not, where is the harm? Surely it is wiser to act, and take the chance of success, than to do nothing." To this plea the rejoinder is that, unfortunately, the results of legislative intervention are not only negatively bad, but often positively so. Acts of Parliament do not simply fail; they frequently make worse. The familiar truth that persecution aids rather than hinders proscribed doctrines—a truth lately afresh illustrated by the forbidden work of Gervinus—is a part of the general truth that legislation often does indirectly the reverse of that which it directly aims to do. Thus has it been with the Metropolitan Buildings' Act. As was lately agreed unanimously by the delegates from all the parishes in London, and as was stated by them to Sir William Molesworth, this act "has encouraged bad building, and has been the means of covering the suburbs of the metropolis with thousands of wretched hovels, which are a disgrace to a civilized country." Thus, also, has it been in provincial towns. The Nottingham Inclosure Act of 1845, by prescribing the structure of the houses to be built, and the extent of yard or garden to be allotted to each, has rendered it impossible to build working-class dwellings at such moderate rents as to compete with existing ones. It is estimated that, as a consequence, 10,000 of the population are debarred from the new homes they would otherwise have, and are forced to live crowded together in miserable places unfit for human habitation; and so, in its anxiety to insure healthy accommodation for artisans, the law has entailed on them still worse accommodations than before. Thus, too, has it been with the Passengers' Act. The terrible fevers which arose in the Australian emigrant ships a few months since, causing in the Buorneuf 83 deaths, in the Wanota 39 deaths, in the Marco Polo 53 deaths, and in the Ticonderoga 104 deaths, arose in vessels sent out by the government; and arose in consequence of the close packing which the Passengers' Act authorizes. Thus, moreover, has it been with the safeguards provided by the Mercantile Marine Act. The examinations devised for insuring the efficiency of captains have had the effect of certifying the superficially-clever and unpractised men, and, as we are told by a shipowner, rejecting many of the long-tried and most trustworthy: the general result being that the ratio of shipwrecks has increased. Thus also has it happened with Boards of Health, which have, in sundry cases, exacerbated the evils to be removed; as, for instance, at Croydon, where, according to the official report, the measures of the sanitary authorities produced an epidemic, which attacked 1,600 people and killed 70. Thus again has it been with the Joint Stock Companies Registration Act. As was shown by Mr. James Wilson, in his late motion for a select committee on life-assurance asociations, this measure, passed in 1844 to guard the public against bubble schemes, actually facilitated the rascalities of 1845 and subsequent years. The legislative sanction, devised as a guarantee of genuineness, and supposed by the people to be such, clever adventurers have without difficulty obtained for the most worthless projects. Having obtained it, an amount of public confidence has followed which they could never otherwise have gained. In this way literally hundreds of sham enterprises that would not else have seen the light have been fostered into being; and thousands of families have been ruined who would never have been so but for legislative efforts to make them more secure.


Moreover, when these topical remedies applied by statesmen do not exacerbate the evils they were meant to cure, they constantly induce collateral evils; and these often graver than the original ones. It is the vice of this empirical school of politicians that they never look beyond proximate causes and immediate effects. In common with the uneducated masses they habitually regard each phenomenon as involving but one antecedent and one consequent. They do not bear in mind that each phenomenon is a link in an infinite series—is the result of myriads of preceding phenomena, and will have a share in producing myriads of succeeding ones. Hence they overlook the fact that, in disturbing any natural chain of sequences, they are not only modifying the result next in succession, but all the future results into which this will enter as a part-cause. The serial genesis of phenomena, and the interaction of each series upon every other series, produces a complexity utterly beyond human grasp. Even in the simplest cases this is so. A servant who puts coals on the fire sees but few effects from the burning of a lump. The man of science, however, knows that there are very many effects. He knows that the combustion establishes numerous atmospheric currents, and through them moves thousands of cubic feet of air inside the house and out. He knows that the heat diffused causes expansions and subsequent contractions of all bodies within its range. He knows that the persons warmed are affected in their rate of respiration and their waste of tissue; and that these physiological changes must have various secondary results. He knows that, could he trace to their ramified consequences all the forces disengaged, mechanical, chemical, thermal, electric—could he enumerate all the subsequent effects of the evaporation caused, the gases generated, the light evolved, the heat radiated; volume would scarcely suffice to enter them. If, now, from a simple inorganic change such numerous and complex results arise, how infinitely multiplied and involved must be the ultimate consequences of any force brought to bear upon society. Wonderfully constructed as it is—mutually dependent as are its members for the satisfaction of their wants—affected as each unit of it is by his fellows, not only as to his safety and prosperity, but in his health, his temper, his culture; the social organism cannot be dealt with in any one part, without all other parts being influenced in ways which cannot be foreseen. You put a duty on paper, and by-and-by find that, through the medium of the jacquard-cards employed, you have inadvertently taxed figured silk, sometimes to the extent of several shillings per piece. On removing the impost from bricks, you discover that its existence had increased the dangers of mining, by preventing shafts from being lined and workings from being tunnelled. By the excise on soap, you have, it turns out, greatly encouraged the use of caustic washing-powders; and so have unintentionally entailed an immense destruction of clothes. In every case you perceive, on careful inquiry, that besides acting upon that which you sought to act upon, you have acted upon many other things, and each of these again on many others; and so have propagated a multitude of changes in all directions. We need feel no surprise, then, that in their efforts to cure specific evils, legislators have continually caused collateral evils they never looked for. No Carlyle's wisest man, nor any body of such, could avoid causing them. Though their production is explicable enough after it has occurred, it is never anticipated. When, under the new Poor-Law, provision was made for the accommodation of vagrants in the union-houses, it was hardly expected that a body of tramps would be thereby called into existence, who would spend their time in walking from union to union throughout the kingdom. It was little thought by those who in past generations assigned parish-pay for the maintenance of illegitimate children, that, as a result, a family of such would by-and-by be considered a small fortune, and the mother of them a desirable wife; nor did the same statesmen see that, by the law of settlement, they were organizing a disastrous inequality of wages in different districts, and entailing a system of clearing away cottages, which would result in the crowding of bedrooms, and in a consequent moral and physical deterioration. The English tonnage-law was enacted simply with a view to regulate the mode of measurement. Its framers overlooked the fact that they were practically providing "for the effectual and compulsory construction of bad ships"; and that "to cheat the law, that is, to build a tolerable ship in spite of it, was the highest achievement left to an English builder." Greater commercial security was alone aimed at by the partnership-law. We now find, however, that the unlimited liability it insists upon is a serious hindrance to progress; it practically forbids the association of small capitalists; it is found a great obstacle to the building of improved dwellings for the people; it prevents a better relationship between artisans and employers; and by withholding from the working-classes good investments for their savings, it checks the growth of provident habits and encourages drunkenness. Thus on all sides are well-meant measures producing unforeseen mischiefs; a licensing-law that promotes the adulteration of beer; a ticket-of-leave system that encourages men to commit crime; a police-regulation that forces street-huxters into the workhouse. And then, in addition to the obvious and proximate evils, come the remote and less distinguishable ones, which, could we estimate their accumulated result, we should probably find even more serious.



But the thing to be discussed is, not so much whether, by any amount of intelligence, it is possible for a government to work out the various ends consigned to it, as whether its fulfillment of them is probable. It is less a question of can than a question of will. Granting the absolute competence of the State, let us consider what hope there is of getting from it satisfactory performance. Let us look at the moving force by which the legislative machine is worked, and then inquire whether this force is thus employed as economically as it would otherwise be.


Manifestly, as desire of some kind is the invariable stimulus to action in the individual, every social agency, of what nature soever, must have some aggregate of desires for its motive power. Men in their collective capacity can exhibit no result but what has its origin in some appetite, feeling, or taste common among them. Did not they like meat, there could be no cattle-graziers, no Smithfield, no distributing organization of butchers. Operas, philharmonic societies, song-books, and street organ-boys, have all been called into being by our love of music. Look through the trades' directory; take up a guide to the London sights; read the index of Bradshaw's time-tables, the reports of the learned societies, or the advertisements of new books; and you see in the publication itself, and in the things it describes, so many products of human activities, stimulated by human desires. Under this stimulus grow up agencies alike the most gigantic and the most insignificant, the most complicated and the most simple—agencies for national defence and for the sweeping of crossings; for the daily distribution of letters, and for the collection of bits of coal out of the Thames mud; agencies that subserve all ends, from the preaching of Christianity to the protection of ill-treated animals; from the production of bread for a nation to the supply of groundsel for caged singing-birds. The accumulated desires of individuals being, then, the moving power by which every social agency is worked, the question to be considered is, Which is the most economical kind of agency? The agency having no power in itself, but being merely an instrument, our inquiry must be for the most efficient instrument; the instrument that costs least, and wastes the smallest amount of the moving power; the instrument least liable to get out of order, and most readily put right again when it goes wrong. Of the two kinds of social mechanism exemplified above, the spontaneous and the governmental, which is the best?


From the form of this question will be readily foreseen the intended answer, that is the best mechanism which contains the fewest parts. The common saying, "What you wish well done you must do yourself," embodies a truth equally applicable to political life as to private life. The experience that farming by bailiff entails loss, while tenant-farming pays, is an experience still better illustrated in national history than in a landlord's account-books. This transference of power from constituencies to members of Parliament, from these to the executive, from the executive to a board, from the board to inspectors, and from inspectors through their subs down to the actual workers—this operating through a series of levers, each of which absorbs in friction and inertia part of the moving force; is as bad, in virtue of its complexity, as the direct employment by society of individuals, private companies, and spontaneously-formed institutions, is good in virtue of its simplicity. Fully to appreciate the contrast, we must compare in detail the working of the two systems.


Officialism is habitually slow. When non-governmental agencies are dilatory, the public has its remedy: it ceases to employ them and soon finds quicker ones. Under this discipline all private bodies are taught promptness. But for delays in State-departments there is no such easy cure. Lifelong Chancery suits must be patiently borne; Museum-catalogues must be wearily waited for. While, by the people themselves, a Crystal Palace is designed, erected, and filled, in the course of a few months, the legislature takes twenty years to build itself a new house. While, by private persons, the debates are daily printed and dispersed over the kingdom within a few hours of their utterance, the Board of Trade tables are regularly published a month, and sometimes more, after date. And so throughout. Here is a Board of Health which, since 1849, has been about to close the metropolitan graveyards, but has not done it yet; and which has so long dawdled over projects for cemeteries, that the London Necropolis Company has taken the matter out of its hands. Here is a patentee who has had fourteen years' correspondence with the Horse Guards, before getting a definite answer respecting the use of his improved boot for the Army. Here is a Plymouth port-admiral who delays sending out to look for the missing boats of the Amazon until ten days after the wreck.


Again, officialism is stupid. Under the natural course of things each citizen tends towards his fittest function. Those who are competent to the kind of work they undertake, succeed, and, in the average of cases, are advanced in proportion to their efficiency; while the incompetent, society soon finds out, ceases to employ, forces to try something easier, and eventually turns to use. But it is quite otherwise in State-organizations. Here, as every one knows, birth, age, backstairs intrigue, and sycophancy, determine the selections rather than merit. The "fool of the family" readily finds a place in the Church, if "the family" have good connections. A youth too ill-educated for any profession does very well for an officer in the Army. Grey hair, or a title, is a far better guarantee of naval promotion than genius is. Nay, indeed, the man of capacity often finds that, in government offices, superiority is a hindrance—that his chiefs hate to be pestered with his proposed improvements, and are offended by his implied criticisms. Not only, therefore, is legislative machinery complex, but it is made of inferior materials. Hence the blunders we daily read of; the supplying to the dockyards from the royal forests of timber unfit for use; the administration of relief during the Irish famine in such a manner as to draw laborers from the field, and diminish the subsequent harvest by one-fourth; the filing of patents at three different offices and keeping an index at none. Everywhere does this bungling show itself, from the elaborate failure of House of Commons ventilation down to the publication of The London Gazette, which invariably comes out wrongly folded.


A further characteristic of officialism is its extravagance. In its chief departments, Army, Navy, and Church, it employs far more officers than are needful, and pays some of the useless ones exorbitantly. The work done by the Sewers Commission has cost, as Sir B. Hall tells us, from 300 to 400 per cent. over the contemplated outlay; while the management charges have reached thirty-five, forty, and forty-five per cent. on the expenditure. The trustees of Ramsgate Harbor—a harbor, by the way, that has taken a century to complete—are spending £18,000 a year in doing what £5,000 has been proved sufficient for. The Board of Health is causing new surveys to be made of all the towns under its control—a proceeding which, as Mr. Stephenson states, and as every tyro in engineering knows, is, for drainage purposes, a wholly needless expense. These public agencies are subject to no such influence as that which obliges private enterprise to be economical. Traders and mercantile bodies succeed by serving society cheaply. Such of them as cannot do this are continually supplanted by those who can. They cannot saddle the nation with the results of their extravagance, and so are prevented from being extravagant. On works that are to return a profit it does not answer to spend forty-eight per cent. of the capital in superintendence, as in the engineering department of the Indian Government; and Indian railway companies, knowing this, manage to keep their superintendence charges within eight per cent. A shopkeeper leaves out of his accounts no item analogous to that £6,000,000 of its revenues, which Parliament allows to be deducted on the way to the Exchequer. Walk through a manufactory, and you see that the stern alternatives, carefulness or ruin, dictate the saving of every penny; visit one of the national dockyards, and the comments you make on any glaring wastefulness are carelessly met by the slang phrase, "Nunky pays."


The unadaptiveness of officialism is another of its vices. Unlike private enterprise which quickly modifies its actions to meet emergencies; unlike the shopkeeper who promptly finds the wherewith to satisfy a sudden demand; unlike the railway-company which doubles its trains to carry a special influx of passengers; the law-made instrumentality lumbers on under all varieties of circumstances through its ordained routine at its habitual rate. By its very nature it is fitted only for average requirements, and inevitably fails under unusual requirements. You cannot step into the street without having the contrast thrust upon you. Is it summer? You see the water-carts going their prescribed rounds with scarcely any regard to the needs of the weather—to-day sprinkling afresh the already moist roads; to-morrow bestowing their showers with no greater liberality upon roads cloudy with dust. Is it winter? You see the scavengers do not vary in number and activity according to the quantity of mud; and if there comes a heavy fall of snow, you find the thoroughfares remaining for nearly a week in a scarcely passable state, without an effort being made, even in the heart of London, to meet the exigency. The late snow-storm, indeed, supplied a neat antithesis between the two orders of agencies in the effects it respectively produced on omnibuses and cabs. Not being under a law-fixed tariff, the omnibuses put on extra horses and raised their fares. The cabs, on the contrary, being limited in their charges by an Act of Parliament which, with the usual shortsightedness, never contemplated such a contingency as this, declined to ply, deserted the stands and the stations, left luckless travellers to stumble home with their luggage as best they might, and so became useless at the very time of all others when they were most wanted! Not only by its unsusceptibility of adjustment does officialism entail serious inconveniences, but it likewise entails great injustices. In this case of cabs, for example, it has resulted since the late change of law, that old cabs, which were before saleable at £10 and £12 each, are now unsaleable and have to be broken up; and thus legislation has robbed cab-proprietors of part of their capital. Again, the recently-passed Smoke-Bill for London, which applies only within certain prescribed limits, has the effect of taxing one manufacturer while leaving untaxed his competitor working within a quarter of a mile; and so, as we are credibly informed, gives one an advantage of £1,500 a year over another. These typify the infinity of wrongs, varying in degrees of hardship, which legal regulations necessarily involve. Society, a living, growing organism, placed within apparatuses of dead, rigid, mechanical formulas, cannot fail to be hampered and pinched. The only agencies which can efficiently serve it are those through which its pulsations hourly flow, and which change as it changes.


How invariably officialism becomes corrupt every one knows. Exposed to no such antiseptic as free competition—not dependent for existence, as private unendowed organizations are, on the maintenance of a vigorous vitality; all law-made agencies fall into an inert, over-fed state, from which to disease is a short step. Salaries flow in irrespective of the activity with which duty is performed; continue after duty wholly ceases; become rich prizes for the idle well-born; and prompt to perjury, to bribery, to simony. East India directors are elected not for any administrative capacity they have; but they buy votes by promised patronage—a patronage alike asked and given in utter disregard of the welfare of a hundred millions of people. Registrars of wills not only get many thousands a year each for doing work which their miserably paid deputies leave half done; but they, in some cases, defraud the revenue, and that after repeated reprimands. Dockyard promotion is the result not of efficient services, but of political favoritism. That they may continue to hold rich livings, clergymen preach what they do not believe; bishops make false returns of their revenues; and at their elections to fellowships, well-to-do priests severally make oath that they are pauper, pius et doctus. From the local inspector whose eyes are shut to an abuse by a contractor's present, up to the prime minister who finds lucrative berths for his relations, this venality is daily illustrated; and that in spite of public reprobation and perpetual attempts to prevent it. As we once heard said by a State-official of twenty-five years' standing, "Wherever there is government there is villainy." It is the inevitable result of destroying the direct connection between the profit obtained and the work performed. No incompetent person hopes, by offering a douceur in The Times, to get a permanent place in a mercantile office. But where, as under government, there is no employer's self-interest to forbid; where the appointment is made by some one on whom inefficiency entails no loss; there a douceur is operative. In hospitals, in public charities, in endowed schools, in all social agencies in which duty done and income gained do not go hand in hand, the like corruption is found; and is great in proportion as the dependence of income upon duty is remote. In State-organizations, therefore, corruption is unavoidable. In trading-organizations it rarely makes its appearance, and when it does, the instinct of self-preservation soon provides a remedy.


To all which broad contrasts add this, that while private bodies are enterprising and progressive, public bodies are unchanging, and, indeed, obstructive. That officialism should be inventive nobody expects. That it should go out of its easy mechanical routine to introduce improvements, and this at a considerable expense of thought and application, without the prospect of profit, is not to be supposed. But it is not simply stationary; it resists every amendment either in itself or in anything with which it deals. Until now that county courts are taking away their practice, all agents of the law have doggedly opposed law-reform. The universities have maintained an old curriculum for centuries after it ceased to be fit; and are now struggling to prevent a threatened reconstruction. Every postal improvement has been vehemently protested against by the postal authorities. Mr. Whiston can say how pertinacious is the conservatism of Church grammar-schools. Not even the gravest consequences in view preclude official resistance: witness the fact that though, as already mentioned, Professor Barlow reported in 1820, of the Admiralty compasses then in store, that "at least one-half were mere lumber," yet notwithstanding the constant risk of shipwrecks thence arising, "very little amelioration in this state of things appears to have taken place until 1838 to 1840." Nor is official obstructiveness to be readily overborne even by a powerful public opinion: witness the fact that though, for generations, nine-tenths of the nation have disapproved this ecclesiastical system which pampers the drones and starves the workers, and though commissions have been appointed to rectify it, it still remains substantially as it was: witness again the fact that though, since 1818, there have been a score of attempts to rectify the scandalous maladministration of charitable trusts—though ten times in ten successive years remedial measures have been brought before Parliament—the abuses still continue in all their grossness. Not only do these legal instrumentalities resist reforms in themselves, but they hinder reforms in other things. In defending their vested interests the clergy delay the closing of town burial-grounds. As Mr. Lindsay can show, government emigration-agents are checking the use of iron for sailing-vessels. Excise officers prevent improvements in the processes they have to overlook. That organic conservatism which is visible in the daily conduct of all men is an obstacle which in private life self-interest slowly overcomes. The prospect of profit does, in the end, teach farmers that deep draining is good; though it takes long to do this. Manufacturers do, ultimately, learn the most economical speed at which to work their steam-engines; though precedent has long misled them. But in the public service, where there is no self-interest to overcome it, this conservatism exerts its full force; and produces results alike disastrous and absurd. For generations after bookkeeping had become universal the Exchequer accounts were kept by notches cut on sticks. In the estimates for the current year appears the item, "Trimming the oil-lamps at the Horse-Guards."


Between these law-made agencies and the spontaneously-formed ones, who then can hesitate? The one class are slow, stupid, extravagant, unadaptive, corrupt, and obstructive: can any point out in the other, vices that balance these? It is true that trade has its dishonesties, speculation its follies. These are evils inevitably entailed by the existing imperfections of humanity. It is equally true, however, that these imperfections of humanity are shared by State-functionaries; and that being unchecked in them by the same stern discipline, they grow to far worse results. Given a race of men having a certain proclivity to misconduct, and the question is, whether a society of these men shall be so organized that ill-conduct directly brings punishment, or whether it shall be so organized that punishment is but remotely contingent on ill-conduct? Which will be the most healthful community—that in which agents who perform their functions badly, immediately suffer by the withdrawal of public patronage; or that in which such agents can be made to suffer only through an apparatus of meetings, petitions, polling-booths, parliamentary divisions, cabinet-councils, and red-tape documents? Is it not an absurdly utopian hope that men will behave better when correction is far removed and uncertain than when it is near at hand and inevitable? Yet this is the hope which most political schemers unconsciously cherish. Listen to their plans, and you find that just what they propose to have done, they assume the appointed agents will do. That functionaries are trustworthy is their first postulate. Doubtless could good officers be ensured, much might be said for officialism; just as despotism would have its advantages could we ensure a good despot.


If, however, we would duly appreciate the contrast between the artificial modes and the natural modes of achieving social desiderata, we must look not only at the vices of the one but at the virtues of the other. These are many and important. Consider first how immediately every private enterprise is dependent on the need for it; and how impossible it is for it to continue if there be no need. Daily are new trades and new companies established. If they subserve some existing public want, they take root and grow. If they do not, they die of inanition. It needs no agitation, no act of Parliament, to put them down. As with all natural organizations, if there is no function for them no nutrient comes to them, and they dwindle away. Moreover, not only do the new agencies disappear if they are superfluous, but the old ones cease to be when they have done their work. Unlike public instrumentalities; unlike heralds' offices, which are maintained for ages after heraldy has lost all value; unlike ecclesiastical courts, which continue to flourish for generations after they have become an abomination; these private instrumentalities dissolve when they become needless. A widely ramified coaching-system ceases to exist as soon as a more efficient railway-system comes into being. And not simply does it cease to exist, and to abstract funds, but the materials of which it was made are absorbed and turned to use. Coachmen, guards, and the rest, are employed to profit elsewhere; do not continue for twenty years a burden, like the compensated officials of some abolished department of the State. Consider, again, how necessarily these unordained agencies fit themselves to their work. It is a law of all organized things that efficiency presupposes apprenticeship. Not only is it true that the young merchant must begin by carrying letters to the post, that the way to be a successful innkeeper is to commence as waiter; not only is it true that in the development of the intellect there must come first the preceptions of identity and duality, next of number, and that without these, arithmetic, algebra, and the infinitesimal calculus, remain impracticable; but it is true that there is no part of an organism but begins in some simple form with some insignificant function, and passes to its final stage through successive phases of complexity. Every heart is at first a mere pulsatile sac; every brain begins as a slight enlargement of the spinal cord. This law equally extends to the social organism. An instrumentality that is to work well must not be designed and suddenly put together by legislators, but must grow gradually from a germ; each successive addition must be tried and proved good by experience before another addition is made; and by this tentative process only, can an efficient instrumentality be produced. From a trustworthy man who receives deposits of money, insensibly grows up a vast banking-system, with its notes, checks, bills, its complex transactions, and its clearing-house. Pack-horses, then wagons, then coaches, then steam-carriages on common roads, and, finally, steam-carriages on roads made for them—such has been the slow genesis of our present means of communication. Not a trade in the directory but has formed itself an apparatus of manufacturers, brokers, travellers, and retailers, in so gradual a way that no one can trace the steps. And so with organizations of another order. The Zoological Gardens began as the private collection of a few naturalists. The best working-class school known—that at Price's factory—commenced with half-a-dozen boys sitting among the candle-boxes, after hours, to teach themselves writing with worn-out pens. Mark, too, that as a consequence of their mode of growth, these spontaneously-formed agencies expand to any extent required. The same stimulus which brought them into being makes them send their ramifications wherever they are needed. But supply does not thus readily follow demand in governmental agencies. Appoint a board and a staff, fix their duties, and let the apparatus have a generation or two to consolidate, and you cannot get it to fulfil larger requirements without some Act of Parliament obtained only after long delay and difficulty.


Were there space, much more might be said upon the superiority of what naturalists would call the exogenous order of institutions over the endogenous one. But, from the point of view indicated, the further contrasts between their characteristics will be sufficiently visible.


Hence then the fact, that while the one order of means is ever failing, making worse, or producing more evils than it cures, the other order of means is ever succeeding, ever improving. Strong as it looks at the outset, State-agency perpetually disappoints every one. Puny as are its first stages, private effort daily achieves results that astound the world. It is not only that joint-stock companies do so much; it is not only that by them a whole kingdom is covered with railways in the same time that it takes the Admiralty to build a hundred-gun ship; but it is that public instrumentalities are outdone even by individuals. The often quoted contrast between the Academy whose forty members took fifty-six years to compile the French dictionary, while Dr. Johnson alone compiled the English one in eight—a contrast still marked enough after making due set-off for the difference in the works—is by no means without parallel. That great sanitary desideratum—the bringing of the New River to London—which the wealthiest corporation in the world attempted and failed, Sir Hugh Myddleton achieved single-handed. The first canal in England—a work of which government might have been thought the fit projector, and the only competent executor—was undertaken and finished as the private speculation of one man, the Duke of Bridgewater. By his own unaided exertions, William Smith completed that great achievement, the geological map of Great Britain; meanwhile, the Ordnance Survey—a very accurate and elaborate one, it is true—has already occupied a large staff for some two generations, and will not be completed before the lapse of another. Howard and the prisons of Europe; Bianconi and Irish travelling; Waghorn and the Overland route; Dargan and the Dublin Exhibition—do not these suggest startling contrasts? While private gentlemen like Mr. Denison build model lodging-houses in which the deaths are greatly below the average, the State builds barracks in which the deaths are greatly above the average, even of the much-pitied town-populations; barracks which, though filled with picked men under medical supervision, show an annual mortality per thousand of 13.6, 17.9 and even 20.4; though among civilians of the same age in the same places, the mortality per thousand is but 11.9. While the State has laid out large sums at Parkhurst in the effort to reform juvenile criminals, who are not reformed, Mr. Ellis takes fifteen of the worst young thieves in London—thieves considered by the police irreclaimable—and reforms them all. Side by side with the Emigration Board, under whose management hundreds die of fever from close packing, and under whose licence sail vessels which, like the Washington, are the homes of fraud, brutality, tyranny, and obscenity, stands Mrs. Chisholm's Family Colonization Loan Society, which does not provide worse accommodation than ever before but much better; which does not demoralize by promiscuous crowding but improves by mild discipline; which does not pauperize by charity but encourages providence; which does not increase our taxes, but is self-supporting. Here are lessons for the lovers of legislation. The State outdone by a working shoe-maker! The State beaten by a woman!


Stronger still becomes this contrast between the results of public action and private action, when we remember that the one is constantly eked out by the other, even doing the things unavoidably left to it. Passing over military and naval departments, in which much is done by contractors and not by men receiving government pay—passing over the Church, which is constantly extended not by law but by voluntary effort—passing over the universities, where the efficient teaching is given not by the appointed officers but by private tutors; let us look at the mode in which our judicial system is worked. Lawyers perpetually tell us that codification is impossible; and some are simple enough to believe them. Merely remarking, in passing, that what government and all its employés cannot do for the Acts of Parliament in general, was done for the 1,500 Customs acts in 1825 by the energy of one man—Mr. Deacon Hume—let us see how the absence of a digested system of law is made good. In preparing themselves for the bar, and finally the bench, law-students, by years of research, have to gain an acquaintance with this vast mass of unorganized legislation; and that organization which it is held impossible for the State to effect, it is held possible (sly sarcasm on the State!) for each student to effect for himself. Every judge can privately codify, though "united wisdom" cannot. But how is each judge enabled to codify? By the private enterprise of men who have prepared the way for him; by the partial codifications of Blackstone, Coke, and others; by the digests of partnership-law, bankruptcy-law, law of patents, laws affecting women, and the rest that daily issue from the press; by abstracts of cases, and volumes of reports—every one of them unofficial products. Sweep away all these fractional codifications made by individuals, and the State would be in utter ignorance of its own laws! Had not the bunglings of legislators been made good by private enterprise, the administration of justice would have been impossible!


Where, then, is the warrant for the constantly proposed extensions of legislative action? If, as we have seen in a large class of cases, government measures do not remedy the evils they aim at; if, in another large class, they make these evils worse instead of remedying them; and if, in a third large class, while curing some evils they entail others, and often greater ones; if, as we lately saw, public action is continually outdone in efficiency by private action; and if, as just shown, private action is obliged to make up for the shortcomings of public action, even in fulfilling the vital functions of the State; what reason is there for wishing more public administrations? The advocates of such may claim credit for philanthropy, but not for wisdom; unless wisdom is shown by disregarding experience.



"Much of this argument is beside the question," will rejoin our opponents. "The true point at issue is, not whether individuals and companies outdo the State when they come in competition with it, but whether there are not certain social wants which the State alone can satisfy. Admitting that private enterprise does much, and does it well, it is nevertheless true that we have daily thrust upon our notice many desiderata which it has not achieved and is not achieving. In these cases its incompetency is obvious; and in these cases, therefore, it behooves the State to make up for its deficiencies: doing this, if not well, yet as well as it can."


Not to fall back upon the many experiences already quoted, showing that the State is likely to do more harm than good in attempting this; nor to dwell upon the fact that, in most of the alleged cases, the apparent insufficiency of private enterprise is a result of previous State-interferences, as may be conclusively shown; let us deal with the proposition on its own terms. Though there would have been no need for a Mercantile Marine Act to prevent the unseaworthiness of ships and the ill-treatment of sailors, had there been no Navigation Laws to produce these; and though were all like cases of evils and shortcomings directly or indirectly produced by law, taken out of the category, there would probably remain but small basis for the plea above put; yet let it be granted that, every artificial obstacle having been removed, there would still remain many desiderata unachieved, which there was no seeing how spontaneous effort could achieve. Let all this, we say, be granted; the propriety of legislative action may yet be rightly questioned.


For the said plea involves the unwarrantable assumption that social agencies will continue to work only as they are now working; and will produce no results but those they seem likely to produce. It is the habit of this school of thinkers to make a limited human intelligence the measure of phenomena which it requires omniscience to grasp. That which it does not see the way to, it does not believe will take place. Though society has, generation after generation, been growing to developments which none foresaw, yet there is no practical belief in unforeseen developments in the future. The Parliamentary debates constitute an elaborate balancing of probabilities, having for data things as they are. Meanwhile every day adds new elements to things as they are, and seemingly improbable results constantly occur. Who, a few years ago, expected that a Leicester Square refugee would shortly become Emperor of the French? Who looked for free trade from a landlords' Ministry? Who dreamed that Irish over-population would spontaneously cure itself, as it is now doing? So far from social changes arising in likely ways, they usually arise in ways which, to common sense, appear unlikely. A barber's shop was not a probable-looking place for the germination of the cotton-manufacture. No one supposed that important agricultural improvements would come from a Leadenhall Street tradesman. A farmer would have been the last man thought of to bring to bear the screw-propulsion of steamships. The invention of a new species of architecture we should have hoped from any one rather than a gardener. Yet while the most unexpected changes are daily wrought out in the strangest ways, legislation daily assumes that things will go just as human foresight thinks they will go. Though by the trite exclamation, "What would our forefathers have said!" there is a frequent acknowledgment of the fact that wonderful results have been achieved in modes wholly unforeseen, yet there seems no belief that this will be again. Would it not be wise to admit such a probability into our politics? May we not rationally infer that, as in the past, so in the future?


This strong faith in State-agencies is, however, accompanied by so weak a faith in natural agencies (the two being antagonistic), that, in spite of past experience, it will by many be thought absurd to rest in the conviction that existing social needs will be spontaneously met, though we cannot say how they will be met. Nevertheless, illustrations exactly to the point are now transpiring before their eyes. Instance the scarcely credible phenomenon lately witnessed in the midland counties. Every one has heard of the distress of the stockingers; a chronic evil of some generation or two's standing. Repeated petitions have prayed Parliament for remedy; and legislation has made attempts, but without success. The disease seemed incurable. Two or three years since, however, the circular knitting machine was introduced; a machine immensely outstripping the old stocking-frame in productiveness, but which can make only the legs of stockings, not the feet. Doubtless, the Leicester and Nottingham artisans regarded this new engine with alarm, as likely to intensify their miseries. On the contrary, it has wholly removed them. By cheapening production it has so enormously increased consumption, that the old stocking-frames, which were before too many by half for the work to be done, are now all employed in putting feet to the legs which the new machines make. How insane would he have been thought who anticipated cure from such a cause! If from the unforeseen removal of evils we turn to the unforeseen achievement of desiderata, we find like cases. No one recognized in Oersted's electromagnetic discovery the germ of a new agency for the catching of criminals and the facilitation of commerce. No one expected railways to become agents for the diffusion of cheap literature, as they now are. No one supposed when the Society of Arts was planning an international exhibition of manufacturers in Hyde Park, that the result would be a place for popular recreation and culture at Sydenham.


But there is yet a deeper reply to the appeals of impatient philanthropists. It is not simply that social vitality may be trusted by-and-by to fulfil each much-exaggerated requirement in some quiet spontaneous way—it is not simply that when thus naturally fulfilled it will be fulfilled efficiently, instead of being botched as when attempted artificially; but it is that until thus naturally fulfilled it ought not to be fulfilled at all. A startling paradox, this, to many; but one quite justifiable, as we hope shortly to show.


It was pointed out some distance back, that the force which produces and sets in motion every social mechanism—governmental, mercantile, or other—is some accumulation of personal desires. As there is no individual action without a desire, so, it was urged, there can be no social action without an aggregate of desires. To which there here remains to add, that as it is a general law of the individual that the intenser desires—those corresponding to all-essential functions—are satisfied first, and if need be to the neglect of the weaker and less important ones; so, it must be a general law of society that the chief requisites of social life—those necessary to popular existence and multiplication—will, in the natural order of things, be subserved before those of a less pressing kind. As the private man first ensures himself food; then clothing and shelter; these being secured, takes a wife; and, if he can afford it, presently supplies himself with carpeted rooms, and a piano, and wines, hires servants and gives dinner-parties; so, in the evolution of society, we see first a combination for defence against enemies, and for the better pursuit of game; by-and-by come such political arrangements as are needed to maintain this combination; afterwards, under a demand for more food, more clothes, more houses, arises division of labor; and when satisfaction of the animal wants has been provided for, there slowly grow up literature, science, and the arts. Is it not obvious that these successive evolutions occur in the order of their importance? Is it not obvious, that, being each of them produced by an aggregate of desires, they must occur in the order of their importance, if it be a law of the individual that the strongest desires correspond to the most needful actions? Is it not, indeed, obvious that the order of relative importance will be more uniformly followed in social action than in individual action; seeing that the personal idiosyncrasies which disturb that order in the latter case are averaged in the former? If any one does not see this, let him take up a book describing life at the gold-diggings. There he will find the whole process exhibited in little. He will read that as the diggers must eat, they are compelled to offer such prices for food that it pays better to keep a store than to dig. As the store-keepers must get supplies, they give enormous sums for carriage from the nearest town; and some men, quickly seeing they can get rich at that, make it their business. This brings drays and horses into demand; the high rates draw these from all quarters; and, after them, wheel-wrights and harness-makers. Blacksmiths to sharpen pickaxes, doctors to cure fevers, get pay exorbitant in proportion to the need for them; and are so brought flocking in proportionate numbers. Presently commodities become scarce; more must be fetched from abroad; sailors must have increased wages to prevent them from deserting and turning miners; this necessitates higher charges for freight; higher freights quickly bring more ships; and so there rapidly develops an organization for supplying goods from all parts of the world. Every phase of this evolution takes place in the order of its necessity; or, as we say, in the order of the intensity of the desires subserved. Each man does that which he finds pays best; that which pays best is that for which other men will give most; that for which they will give most is that which, under the circumstances, they most desire. Hence the succession must be throughout from the most important to the less important. A requirement which at any period remains unfulfilled, must be one for the fulfilment of which men will not pay so much as to make it worth any one's while to fulfil it—must be a less requirement than all the others for the fulfilment of which they will pay more; and must wait until other more needful things are done. Well, is it not clear that the same law holds good in every community? Is it not true of the latter phases of social evolution, as of the earlier, that when things are let alone the smaller desiderata will be postponed to the greater?


Hence, then, the justification of the seeming paradox, that until spontaneously fulfilled, a public want should not be fulfilled at all. It must, on the average, result in our complex state, as in simpler ones, that the thing left undone is a thing by doing which citizens cannot gain so much as by doing other things; is therefore a thing which society does not want done so much as it wants these other things done; and the corollary is, that to effect a neglected thing by artificially employing citizens to do it, is to leave undone some more important thing which they would have been doing; is to sacrifice the greater requisite to the smaller.


"But," it will perhaps be objected, "if the things done by a government, or at least by a representative government, are also done in obedience to some aggregate desire, why may we not look for this normal subordination of the more needful to the less needful in them too?" The reply is, that though they have a certain tendency to follow this order; though those primal desires for public defence and personal protection, out of which government originates, were satisfied through its instrumentality in proper succession; though, possibly, some other early and simple requirements may have been so too; yet, when the desires are not few, universal and intense, but, like those remaining to be satisfied in the latter stages of civilization, numerous, partial, and moderate, the judgment of a government is no longer to be trusted. To select out of an immense number of minor wants, physical, intellectual, and moral, felt in different degrees by different classes, and by a total mass varying in every case, the want that is most pressing, is a task which no legislature can accomplish. No man or men by inspecting society can see what it most needs; society must be left to feel what it most needs. The mode of solution must be experimental, not theoretical. When left, day after day, to experience evils and dissatisfactions of various kinds, affecting them in various degrees, citizens gradually acquire repugnance to these proportionate to their greatness, and corresponding desires to get rid of them, which by spontaneously fostering remedial agencies are likely to end in the worst inconvenience being first removed. And however irregular this process may be (and we admit that men's habits and prejudices produce many anomalies, or seeming anomalies, in it) it is a process far more trustworthy than are legislative judgments. For those who question this, there are instances; and, that the parallel may be the more conclusive, we will take a case in which the ruling power is deemed specially fit to decide. We refer to our means of communication.


Do those who maintain that railways would have been better laid out and constructed by government, hold that the order of importance would have been as uniformly followed as it has been by private enterprise? Under the stimulus of an enormous traffic—a traffic too great for the then existing means—the first line sprung up between Liverpool and Manchester. Next came the Grand Junction and the London and Birmingham (now merged in the London and Northwestern); afterwards the Great Western, the Southwestern, the Southeastern, the Eastern Counties, the Midland. Since then subsidiary lines and branches have occupied our capitalists. As they were quite certain to do, companies made first the most needed, and therefore the best paying, lines; under the same impulse that a laborer chooses high wages in preference to low. That government would have adopted a better order can hardly be, for the best has been followed; but that it would have adopted a worse, all the evidence we have goes to show. In default of materials for a direct parallel, we might cite from India and the colonies, cases of injudicious road-making. Or, as exemplifying State-efforts to facilitate communication, we might dwell on the fact that while our rulers have sacrificed hundreds of lives and spent untold treasure in seeking a Northwest passage, which would be useless if found, they have left the exploration of the Isthmus of Panama, and the making of railways and canals through it, to private companies. But, not to make much of this indirect evidence, we will content ourselves with the one sample of a State-made channel for commerce, which we have at home—the Caledonian Canal. Up to the present time (1853), this public work has cost upwards of £1,100,000. It has now been open for many years, and salaried emissaries have been constantly employed to get traffic for it. The results, as given in its forty-seventh annual report, issued in 1852, are—receipts during the year, £7,909; expenditure ditto, £9,261; loss, £1,352. Has any such large investment been made with such a pitiful result by a private canal company?


And if a government is so bad a judge of the relative importance of social requirements, when these requirements are of the same kind, how worthless a judge must it be when they are of different kinds. If, where a fair share of intelligence might be expected to lead them right, legislators and their officers go so wrong, how terribly will they err where no amount of intelligence would suffice them,—where they must decide among hosts of needs, bodily, intellectual, and moral, which admit of no direct comparisons; and how disastrous must be the results if they act out their erroneous decisions. Should any one need this bringing home to him by an illustration, let him read the following extract from the last of the series of letters some time since published in the Morning Chronicle, on the state of agriculture in France. After expressing the opinion that French farming is some century behind English farming, the writer goes on to say:

There are two causes principally chargeable with this. In the first place, strange as it may seem in a country in which two-thirds of the population are agriculturists, agriculture is a very unhonoured occupation. Develop in the slightest degree a Frenchman's mental faculties, and he flies to a town as surely as steel filings fly to a loadstone. He has no rural tastes, no delight in rural habits. A French amateur farmer would indeed be a sight to see. Again, this national tendency is directly encouraged by the centralizing system of government—by the multitude of the officials, and by the payment of all functionaries. From all parts of France, men of great energy and resource struggle up, and fling themselves on the world of Paris. There they try to become great functionaries. Through every department of the eighty-four, men of less energy and resource struggle up to the chef-lieu—the provincial capital. There they try to become little functionaries. Go still lower—deal with a still smaller scale—and the result will be the same. As is the department to France, so is the arrondissement to the department, and the commune to the arrondissement. All who have, or think they have, heads on their shoulders, struggle into towns to fight for office. All who are, or are deemed by themselves or others, too stupid for anything else, are left at home to till the fields, and breed the cattle, and prune the vines, as their ancestors did for generations before them. Thus there is actually no intelligence left in the country. The whole energy, and knowledge, and resource of the land are barreled up in the towns. You leave one city, and in many cases you will not meet an educated or cultivated individual until you arrive at another; all between is utter intellectual barrenness.


To what end now is this constant abstraction of able men from rural districts? To the end that there may be enough functionaries to achieve those many desiderata which French Governments have thought ought to be achieved—to provide amusements, to manage mines, to construct roads and bridges, to erect numerous buildings; to print books, encourage the fine arts, control this trade, and inspect that manufacture; to do all the hundred-and-one things which the State does in France. That the army of officers needed for this may be maintained, agriculture must go unofficered. That certain social conveniences may be better secured, the chief social necessity is neglected. The very basis of the national life is sapped, to gain a few non-essential advantages. Said we not truly, then, that until a requirement is spontaneously fulfilled, it should not be fulfilled at all?



And here indeed we may recognize the close kinship between the fundamental fallacy involved in these State-meddlings and the fallacy lately exploded by the free-trade agitation. These various law-made instrumentalities for effecting ends which might otherwise not yet be effected, all embody a subtler form of the protectionist hypothesis. The same short-sightedness which, looking at commerce, prescribed bounties and restrictions, looking at social affairs in general, prescribes these multiplied administrations; and the same criticism applies alike to all its proceedings.


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