In praise of Over-Legislation (the essay)
By Alberto Mingardi
This very same month in 1853, the Westminster Review was publishing a truly seminal article in the history of classical liberalism: “Over-Legislation” by Herbert Spencer. In his lifetime, Spencer was virtually a household name among philosophers. He has since been irremediably forgotten, for a variety of reasons. Yet, you should not judge him from the caricature that is usually offered of this thinker.
I won’t claim that all of Spencer’s immense body of works is worth reading nowadays. However, “Over-Legislation” certainly is.
The essay is 160 years old, but, with few amendments, it may well have been written these days. Here Spencer challenges the absolute belief in government providing salvation from whatever social ill, regardless of the outcome (“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”).
Advocates of further government intervention, Spencer writes:
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.
The naive belief that government fiat can change the world is dismantled thoroughly, in one of the most effective critiques of the statist mind ever written. Spencer examines one after one the defects of “officialism.” The defects he attributes to bureaucracy–its stupidity, slowness, unadaptiveness, profligacy–if anything have gotten worse in the last 160 years.
Nor is he blind to the cognitive problems that lie within centralized decision-making and, particularly, the almost proverbial inability of governments to consider the impact of their policies beyond their immediate effects.
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.
Trust me, read the whole thing.