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Liberty and Liberalism; Smith, Bruce
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BRAMWELL (LORD): "Laissez-faire." Liberty and Property Defence League (no date).

Chapter 9

If I did not thus demonstrate the practicability of my proposals, I should fairly lay myself open to a very short and summary criticism. Advocates of socialist doctrines would be able, and only too ready, to dismiss my protest, by an off-hand use of the expression " laissez faire." That would, of itself, be considered a sufficient explanation of my doctrines; and, as a result, many of those, whose enquiries into such a subject are hasty and superficial, would be content to regard my views as purely doctrinaire, and, on that ground, excuse themselves from the trouble of their perusal. I desire, however, that my theories should be guaged by their application to questions, the most practical, so long as the process of guaging is carried out in a broad and comprehensive spirit; that is to say, by taking other than a circumscribed and narrow view of the question under consideration, and by regarding the remote, as well as the immediate results of the contemplated legislative action, to which they are applied. The remote results of legislation are, in the present day, a completely neglected factor, in political discussion and deliberation; and I should certainly claim a much larger than the average amount of attention for them, in the application of my principles. The hasty and off-hand use of the term laissez faire, as usually applied, is nothing more nor less than the process of reductio ad absurdum, utilised for the purpose of throwing ridicule upon the doctrine of a limitation to state functions. If such a limit is advocated, there is an extreme readiness, on the part of those who take the socialist view, to say: "Oh! of course; let everything alone! let things take their course! survival of the fittest and all that sort of thing! the weak must go to the wall, and the strong are to be allowed to crush the remainder out of existence." I need not say that I distinctly repudiate such a view of society. To the April (1885) number of the Contemporary Review, M. Emile de Laveleye contributed an article, entitled: "The State versus the Man," in which he endeavoured to combat Mr. Herbert Spencer's views, as expressed in his (then) recently published work, entitled: "The Man versus The State." M. de Laveleye's paper was an attempt to show that the state was justified in "appropriating state or communal revenues to the purpose of establishing a greater equality among men," and he applied the reductio ad absurdum method of throwing discredit upon Mr. Spencer's theory of limited functions, by contending that, if the laissez faire doctrine were applied to all sociological matters, might would become right, and the physically weak man would become the victim of the strong—that, as a consequence, society would be revolutionised. This is, of course, a very effective method of addressing careless thinkers and indifferently-read persons; but its use, as an argument, speaks badly for the merits of the cause of him who uses it. The truth is, the expression laissez faire, inasmuch as it does not properly express the theory to which it is frequently applied, is capable of being reduced to an absurdity of the most glaring character. The term is usually employed to describe that school of politics which recognises a limit to the functions of government, and which contends that, when that limit has been reached, the state should not further interfere with the free play of either mind or body among the individual citizens constituting the state. The politicians of that school contend that, beyond a certain limit of interference, the state should leave the people alone. The term laissez faire, however, says nothing about the limit up to which interference is allowed. It is simply a short term for ready application; and all who use it familiarly are supposed to know what it means. M. de Laveleye's object is, perhaps, better served by ignoring the range of interference, which even advocates of laissez faire approve, and, by taking the word in its literal and unrestricted sense, reducing the theory, which it represents, to an utter absurdity, by interpreting it as synonymous with Anarchy. Could not the same method be applied to any term which is used to shortly designate some particular school of thought? Would it, for instance, be fair or honest to attempt to render a man ridiculous who called himself an Utilitarian, by representing that he disapproved of art, literature, and all the refining influences of life because they could not be rendered useful in the popular sense of the term? Would it not be better for such a critic to study Bentham, Austin, and Mill, and, first, understand that the word utility, from which the larger term is derived, was intended to comprehend every quality which was calculated to contribute to the happiness of mankind, present or remote? Yet, this is a parallel case to that of M. de Laveleye, and many others, who are simply bent upon upholding their own theories before the general or magazine-reading public. The truth is, as the Earl of Pembroke says, in his article on "Liberty and Socialism," to which I have before referred:—"There is hardly one, of what are commonly called political principles, that will not lead to ruin and absurdity, if carried to its logical end, and which must not, therefore, be met at some point, and limited by its opposite." To leave society alone; that is to say, for the legislature to do nothing, would simply mean anarchy. What we have to determine is whether state functions have a limit, and, if so, where that limit should be placed. All men agree that the state must do something to preserve order and thus secure progress. The point, as yet unsettled, is—Where should its interference stop? Mill said: "When those, who have been called the laissez faire school, have attempted any definite limitation of the province of government, they have usually restricted it to the protection of person and property against fraud." *1 Even this limitation would be far from leading to the brutal state of things, predicted by M. de Laveleye; but, as a fact, there is no stereotyped limit recognised among advocates of laissez faire. They differ, considerably, as to where that limit should be; and all they do agree upon is that there should be a limit.


It has been shown by Sir George Cornewall Lewis that in the earliest governments which have existed, everything was organised upon the principle of individual action, * and the indispensibility, to human progress, of the free play of individual effort, has been testified to by the very highest authorities in philosophy and practical politics. Mill, himself, who took anything but a closely restricted view of state functions, nevertheless recognised, very vividly, the necessity for offering the greatest possible encouragement to individual effort. "There never was," he says, "more necessity for surrounding individual independence of thought, speech, and conduct, with the most powerful defences, in order to maintain that originality of mind and individuality of character, which are the only source of any real progress, and of most of the qualities which make the human race much superior to any herd of animals." *5 "There is," says Mr. Bright, "a danger of people coming to the idea that they can pull or drive the government along; that a government can do anything that is wanted—that, in fact, it is only necessary to pass an act of parliament, to make any one well off. There is no more serious mistake than that.... I recommend the influencing of the opinions, and the actions of private persons, rather than dwelling upon the idea that everything can be done by an act of parliament." *6 Even Professor Sidgwick, who displays little sympathy with the advocates of laissez faire, is bound to admit that "no adequate substitute has, as yet, been found, by any socialistic reformer," for the motive of self-interest.*7


The modern tendency to disregard all such limits, and, even, to act as if there could be no possibility of any being required, has at last led to a reaction. There is fast springing up in Great Britain, a party of politicians deeply imbued with the belief that individual freedom will require to be more carefully guarded than it has been during the last quarter of a century. Such persons are beginning to adopt a new party-title—that of "Individualists," in order to distinguish themselves from the followers of the more popular Socialistic school. As Radicalism becomes more and more Socialistic in its tendencies, there will, naturally, be a disposition on the part of the more moderate Radicals to seek refuge among the Liberal party; and the more moderate Liberals, as also the Conservatives, many of whom are now favourable to the true principles of Liberalism, will be drawn into membership with the Individualist party, in their desire to recognise some sort of limit to democratic interference with individual freedom, with private enterprise, and with the rights of property. The principles which I have classed under the title of "True Liberalism" are almost identical with those which an advocate of laissez faire (according to the proper meaning of the term) would approve. The only difference, of any consequence, among the advocates of that principle is as to where that limit should be placed, beyond which state interference should not go. Socialism is, in effect, a struggling for equal or, at least, approximately equal wealth and social conditions. It is none the less so because of the impossibility of attaining to the extreme point desired, viz., absolute equality. That that attainment is impossible has been admitted by Mr. Chamberlain himself, but he nevertheless advocates, as I have shown in my opening chapter, the attempt at an approximation. The fundamental distinction which appears to be unobserved by the advocates of Socialistic legislation is that which exists between equal wealth or social conditions on the one hand, and equal opportunities on the other. No one now-a-days would seriously contend that one citizen should possess better opportunities than another. It is admitted, on all hands, that all should be equal in that respect, that is to say, that every citizen should be free to attempt anything which his fellow-citizens are allowed to do. But Socialists claim that every citizen should have or possess anything which his fellow-citizens possess. There is a great difference between giving a man the liberty to do anything, and supplying him with the means with which to do it. This distinction has been clearly stated by Hobbes in his own quaint way. He says, in the chapter of his "Leviathan," entitled "The Liberty of Subjects:" "When the impediment of motion is in the constitution of the thing itself, we use not to say, it wants the liberty, but the power to move, as when a stone lieth still, or a man is fastened to his bed by sickness." True Liberalism would give to every man the liberty to do anything which his fellow-citizens are allowed to do; but Socialism is not content with liberty only: it wants the state to confer the power also, that is to say the means. If a man is incapable now-a-days of living as he would wish, it is not by reason of the existence of any aristocratic privileges. There is now no law of any kind, which restricts the liberty of the poor man, without also equally affecting the rich. There is, now, no legislative or enforcible social restriction which will dictate to the poorest citizen the quality of clothes he may wear, the amount of wages he may receive, the number and nature of the courses of which his meals may be constituted, the distances he may travel for work, or the nature of the arrangements for combination which he may enter into with his fellow-workmen. He may wear apparel as elaborate and as gaudy as that of Oliver Goldsmith in his most prosperous moments—if he possess it; he is at liberty to receive wages as large as the income of a Vanderbilt—if only he can earn them; he can live in true epicurean style—if only he be possessed of the viands; and he can, by combination with his fellow-workmen, lift his wages to unprecedented levels—if only the laws of supply and demand will admit of it. The state, far from interfering with him in the enjoyment of these liberties, has secured that enjoyment to him—provided he obtain for himself, and that lawfully, the material which is essential to such enjoyment. But while the state thus secures him that liberty of enjoyment of his own possessions, it stops short, or should stop short at that stage at which he asks for the material itself. This is where Individualism and Socialism diverge; and it requires, I think, only a moment's reflection to see which is the only possible policy of the two. Socialism practically says, "We have the liberty to dress and eat as we like, to be educated and to lift our wages as high as economic laws will allow—but we want you to supply us with the clothes, the food, the education, and the work itself even, out of that apparently inexhaustible fund known as the general revenue."


Socialism practically aims at the approximate equalisation of the conditions of living among citizens. The Radicalism of the present day does the same, and it is admitted to be synonymous with Socialism. *16 The Radical party acknowledges no limit to state functions. Its advocates boast, in fact, that the "death knell" of laissez faire "has been sounded." *17 Liberalism can, therefore, have nothing in common with either Radical or Socialist doctrines. The struggle is between "Individualism" and "Socialism." Lord Hartington speaks true Individualism, and also true Liberalism, when he says: "What all Liberals, most strongly, most ardently desire, is that as large an amount of personal freedom and liberty as is possible should be secured for every individual, and for every class in the country." *18


The subject of sanitary matters may also, by a little subtlety, be brought within the definition of "equal liberties." It has been the habit of the advocates of laissez faire to limit the sources of aggression to our liberties, to our own species, and to regard always as a matter for individual care, aggression from other sources. This I venture to think is an unnecessary and undesirable limitation. If any community is threatened with attack from a foreign people, no question is asked as to the right of the state, as representing the whole body of citizens, to undertake the work of resistance; and, even before such an attack is threatened, we are in the habit of contributing uncomplamingly to the revenue, in order that a peaceful foreign policy may be maintained, and foreign aggression thus obviated. I venture to think that great and malignant diseases may justly be regarded in the same way. The plague of London probably produced more death and misery than would have been produced by the success of the Spanish Armada; yet, while the prevention of the latter would be justified by even so rigid a critic as Mr. Herbert Spencer, the prevention of the former would be condemned. I venture to think, therefore, that, without any undue straining of words, the sewage and drainage of cities and towns can be consistently undertaken by the state, through its deputies—the municipalities.