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A Plea for Liberty: An Argument Against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation; Edited by: Mackay, Thomas
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Introduction, From Freedom to Bondage, by Herbert Spencer

And so it is, too with the general state of the population in respect of food, clothing, shelter, and the appliances of life. Leaving out of the comparison only barbaric states, there has been a conspicuous progress from the time when most rustics lived on barley bread, rye bread, and oatmeal, down to our own time when the consumption of white wheaten bread is universal—from the days when coarse jackets reaching to the knees left the legs bare, down to the present day when labouring people, like their employers, have the whole body covered, by two or more layers of clothing—from the old era of single-roomed huts without chimneys, or from the 15th century when even an ordinary gentleman's house was commonly without wainscot or plaster on its walls, down to the present century when every cottage has more rooms than one and the houses of artisans usually have several, while all have fireplaces, chimneys, and glazed windows, accompanied mostly by paper-hangings and painted doors; there has been, I say, a conspicuous progress in the condition of the peopIe. And this progress has been still more marked within our own time. Any one who can look back sixty years, when the amount of pauperism was far greater than now and beggars abundant, is struck by the comparative size and finish of the new houses occupied by operatives—by the better dress of workmen, who wear broadcloth on Sundays, and that of servant girls, who vie with their mistresses—by the higher standard of living which leads to a great demand for the best qualities of food by working people: all results of the double change to higher wages and cheaper commodities, and a distribution of taxes which has relieved the lower classes at the expense of the upper classes. He is struck, too, by the contrast between the small space which popular welfare then occupied in public attention, and the large space it now occupies, with the result that outside and inside Parliament, plans to benefit the millions form the leading topics, and everyone having means is expected to join in some philanthropic effort. Yet while elevation, mental and physical, of the masses is going on far more rapidly than ever before—while the lowering of the death-rate proves that the average life is less trying, there swells louder and louder the cry that the evils are so great that nothing short of a social revolution can cure them. In presence of obvious improvements, joined with that increase of longevity which even alone yields conclusive proof of general amelioration, it is proclaimed, with increasing vehemence, that things are so bad that society must be pulled to pieces and re-organised on another plan, In this case, then, as in the previous cases instanced, in proportion as the evil decreases the denunciation of it increases; and as fast as natural causes are shown to be powerful there grows up the belief that they are powerless.


Not that the evils to be remedied are small. Let no one suppose that, by emphasizing the above paradox, I wish to make light of the sufferings which most men have to bear. The fates of the great majority have ever been, and doubtless still are, so sad that it is painful to think of them. Unquestionably the existing type of social organisation is one which none who care for their kind can contemplate with satisfaction; and unquestionably men's activities accompanying this type are far from being admirable. The strong divisions of rank and the immense inequalities of means, are at variance with that ideal of human relations on which the sympathetic imagination likes to dwell; and the average conduct, under the pressure and excitement of social life as at present carried on, is in sundry respects repulsive. Though the many who revile competition strangely ignore the enormous benefits resulting from it—though they forget that most of aIl the appliances and products distinguishing civilisation from savagery, and making possible the maintenance of a large population on a small area, have been developed by the struggle for existence—though they disregard the fact that while every man, as producer, suffers from the under-bidding of competitors, yet, as consumer, he is immensely advantaged by the cheapening of all he has to buy—though they persist in dwelling on the evils of competition and saying nothing of its benefits; yet it is not to be denied that the evils are great, and form a large set-off from the benefits. The system under which we at present live fosters dishonesty and lying. It prompts adulterations of countless kinds; it is answerable for the cheap imitations which eventually in many cases thrust the genuine articles out of the market; it leads to the use of short weights and false measures; it introduces bribery, which vitiates most trading relations, from those of the manufacturer and buyer down to those of the shopkeeper and servant; it encourages deception to such an extent that an assistant who cannot tell a falsehood with a good face is blamed; and often it gives the conscientious trader a choice between adopting the malpractice of his competitors, or greatly injuring his creditors by bankruptcy. Moreover, the extensive frauds, common throughout the commercial world and daily exposed in law-courts and newspapers, are largely due to the pressure under which competition places the higher industrial classes; and are otherwise due to that lavish expenditure which, as implying success in the commercial struggle, brings honour. With these minor evils must be joined the major one, that the distribution achieved by the system, gives to those who regulate and superintend, a share of the total produce which bears too large a ratio to the share it gives to the actual workers. Let it not be thought, then, that in saying what I have said above, that I under-estimate those vices of our competitive systems which, thirty years ago, I described and denounced. *1 But it is not a question of absolute evils; it is a question of relative evils—whether the evils at present suffered are or are not less than the evils which would be suffered under another system—whether efforts for mitigation along the lines thus far followed are not more likely to succeed than efforts along utterly different lines.


A cardinal trait in all advancing organization is the development of the regulative apparatus. If the parts of a whole are to act together, there must be appliances by which their actions are directed; and in proportion as the whole is large and complex, and has many requirements to be met by many agencies, the directive apparatus must be extensive, elaborate, and powerful. That it is thus with individual organisms needs no saying; and that it must be thus with social organisms is obvious. Beyond the regulative apparatus such as in our own society is required for carrying on national defence and maintaining public order and personal safety, there must, under the régime of socialism, be a regulative apparatus everywhere controlling all kinds of production and distribution, and everywhere apportioning the shares of products of each kind required for each locality, each working establishment, each individual. Under our existing voluntary co-operation, with its free contracts and its competition, production and distribution need no official oversight. Demand and supply, and the desire of each man to gain a living by supplying the needs of his fellows, spontaneously evolve that wonderful system whereby a great city has its food daily brought round to all doors or stored at adjacent shops; has clothing for its citizens everywhere in multitudinous varieties; has its houses and furniture and fuel ready made or stocked in each locality; and has mental pabulum from halfpenny papers, hourly hawked round, to weekly shoals of novels, and less abundant books of instruction, furnished without stint for small payments. And throughout the kingdom, production as well as distribution is similarly carried on with the smallest amount of superintendence which proves efficient; while the quantities of the numerous commodities required daily in each locality are adjusted without any other agency than the pursuit of profit. Suppose now that this industrial régime of willinghood, acting spontaneously, is replaced by a régime of industrial obedience, enforced by public officials. Imagine the vast administration required for that distribution of all commodities to all people in every city, town and village, which is now effected by traders! Imagine, again, the still more vast administration required for doing all that farmers, manufacturers, and merchants do; having not only its various orders of local superintendents, but its sub-centres and chief centres needed for apportioning the quantities of each thing everywhere needed, and the adjustment of them to the requisite times. Then add the staffs wanted for working mines, railways, roads, canals; the staffs required for conducting the importing and exporting businesses and the administration of mercantile shipping; the staffs required for supplying towns not only with water and gas but with locomotion by tramways, omnibuses, and other vehicles, and for the distribution of power, electric and other. Join with these the existing postal, telegraphic, and telephonic administrations; and finally those of the police and army, by which the dictates of this immense consolidated regulative system are to be everywhere enforced. Imagine all this and then ask what will be the position of the actual workers! Already on the continent, where governmental organizations are more elaborate and coercive than here, there are chronic complaints of the tyranny of bureaucracies—the hauteur and brutality of their members. What will these become when not only the more public actions of citizens are controlled, but there is added this far more extensive control of all their respective daily duties? What will happen when the various divisions of this army of officials, united by interests common to officialism—the interests of the regulators versus those of the regulated—have at their command whatever force is needful to suppress insubordination and act as 'saviours of society'? Where will be the actual diggers and miners and smelters and weavers, when those who order and superintend, everywhere arranged class above class, have come, after some generations, to inter-marry with those of kindred grades, under feelings such as are operative in existing classes; and when there have been so produced a series of castes rising in superiority; and when all these, having everything in their own power, have arranged modes of living for their own advantage: eventually forming a new aristocracy far more elaborate and better organized than the old? How will the individual worker fare if he is dissatisfied with his treatment—thinks that he has not an adequate share of the products, or has more to do than can rightly be demanded, or wishes to undertake a function for which he feels himself fitted but which is not thought proper for him by his superiors, or desires to make an independent career for himself? This dissatisfied unit in the immense machine will be told he must submit or go. The mildest penalty for disobedience will be industrial excommunication. And if an international organization of labour is formed as proposed, exclusion in one country will mean exclusion in all others—industrial excommunication will mean starvation.

The Impracticability of Socialism, by Edward Stanley Robertson

But we need not have the recourse to any conjectures or hypothetical cases. There are instances in abundance. I will mention one, which fortunately refers to a matter concerning which there need be no dispute as to either principle or method. No Individualist will deny that the maintenance of lighthouses is one of the proper functions of Government. Every Socialist would, I think, earnestly maintain that Government is bound to adopt every improvement which can be shown to increase the efficiency of lighthouses, and is bound also to investigate and test every alleged improvement, in favour of which a reasonable primâ facie case can be made out. What has been the actual conduct of our own Board of Trade and Trinity House in regard to the improvement of lighthouse illuminants? I have before me a Blue Book of 143 pages, containing correspondence on the subject of the proposed supersession of oil by gas as a lighthouse illuminant. *33 On the part of the Board of Trade and Trinity House, the entire correspondence is one prolonged effort to evade and shelve the discussion. Toward the end *34 we read: 'The Board of Trade were not without hope that a limit might now be reached in which the whole of the lighthouse authorities could agree, as being the limit of illumination beyond which no practical advantage could result to navigation.' Well may Professor Tyndall remark upon this, *35 'The writer of this paragraph is obviously disappointed at finding himself unable to say to scientific invention, "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther." It would, however, be easier to reach the limit of illumination in the official mind than to fix the limit possible to our lighthouses.' This is the way in which the officials of our own day deal with a practical problem which is undoubtedly within their province; concerning which they are undoubtedly bound to seek for the most efficient appliances; and upon which they have the evidence of a man of science of the very first rank. The reason is not far to seek. Functionaries are under a chronic temptation to keep on standing upon old paths. They habitually defend the machinery and the methods to which they have got accustomed, and treat with coolness all proposals of reform or improvement. As I have already suggested, it seems very doubtful whether Socialist institutions could possibly admit of a Department for the Investigation of Inventions. To draw a hard and fast rule according to which all labour should be rewarded by a share in the actual product of other labour would be to negative every attempt at even mechanical improvement. As to art and literature, the position seems to need no comment. Experience teaches us that everything new in art and literature requires, so to speak, to create its own market for itself. Under Socialism, nothing could secure a market which could not be put upon the market at once—for which, as it may be said, there was not a demand already, even before the process of production should have begun.


I may be told that this is all speculation. As a matter of fact, I may be reminded, small traders are even more behind-hand than any big monopoly. If it were not so, how is it that so many private businesses are now being turned into joint-stock companies? My reply is that in all these cases the business began with private enterprise, and that not until private enterprise had pretty fully done its work did it become practicable to apply the joint-stock principle. I would add that this very principle is itself on its trial just now, and that it is premature to pronounce any judgment until we shall have had much larger experience. The analogous principle of co-operation would seem to be working fairly well as regards distribution, but not so well in production. We must remember also that the possession of large capital confers upon joint-stock enterprises an advantage which in some measure counterbalances, though it does not wholly neutralise, the special advantages attaching to private management. Nor should it be forgotten that this capital itself has been accumulated under private enterprise. The private businesses turned into limited companies are survivals; those that fall behind in the race are the failures of individualism, and no one affirms that individualism makes no failures. I for my part am disposed to think that the circumstances which cause large joint stock companies to resemble Government undertakings are drawbacks and not advantages. It appears to me that if railways could compete as omnibuses do, they would perform the carrying work of the country as cheaply and as efficiently as, on the whole, the omnibus services of London and other great cities perform the services which they render. Owing to exceptional circumstances, railway companies have to place themselves under State patronage, and therefore to submit to State control; and in so far as this is the case, it detracts from their efficiency. Owing, moreover, to the scale on which work has to be carried on, these large enterprises are all more or less tainted with the vice of departmentalism. To use a colloquial phrase, they are tied up with red tape. The terrible railway accident in June, 1889, in the north of Ireland, was largely due to the want of a proper system of brakes, and this want was itself due to slovenly management and a blind trust in old methods. There are plenty of railways still unprovided with fit appliances, despite Board of Trade inspection. I know of one line in the vicinity of a great seaport, two of whose suburban stations have no telegraph wire between them, and the railroad consists of a single line running along the face of a crag overhanging the sea. A postal telegraph line passes both stations, and a very trifling expenditure would connect it with both, but the directors 'do not see their way!'