The world is at present suffering almost everywhere from
excessive government interference with industry and commerce. It has always suffered in this way, sometimes to a formidable extent, and probably always will in some degree, owing to the exigencies of political parties. As this is not an essay on politics, the ways in which the working of the party system tends in all countries to the establishment of bad financial and economic arrangements intended to place patronage in the hands of party managers can only be touched on incidentally. Politicians will always find suitable excuses for any line of action they may wish to take, and their line of action in regard to finance and commerce is almost always the same, namely, an extension of the sphere of State Action, on pleas which vary much at different times and places. The course of events in the United Kingdom after the great war must be considered as an episode. Owing to a series of fortunate accidents this country got rid, during the fifty years ending with 1870, of an enormous mass of mischievous laws tending to restrict trade and enable the State to control it. We are still enjoying some of the benefit of the supremacy of the philosophic theories which dominated politics during those years, but for some time past legislation has shown a tendency to resume its normal direction, the sphere of State control being extended in several directions.
Laisser fuire is no longer the economic maxim of either of the great parties of the United Kingdom. On the contrary, both of them have of late made tentative advances towards socialism, and seem likely to move still further in the same direction. So far, however, these advances have not taken the form of open encroachment by the State on the sphere of private enterprise; but if the outcry for the management of railways and other public works by the State becomes sufficiently powerful to make it worth attending to, the politicians will not be long in finding pretexts for accepting that policy. Already some progress has been made in this direction in the sphere of Local Government, gasworks, waterworks, and tramways having in many cases become the property of municipalities. Local bodies, however, provided they are controlled by the ratepayers of the area they administer, are less unfitted than
the national government to manage undertakings of this kind, though even in their case abuses of patronage and other forms of corruption are sure to become prevalent sooner or later. We must look abroad, to our own colonies and to foreign countries, for full-blown examples of administrative control of public works, and of interference with trade generally. In Australia practically all the railways are owned by the State, with very unsatisfactory results from a financial view alone, and almost equally bad consequences politically. In all the Australasian colonies there are strong parties in favour of extending the principle of State ownership still further, but recent events have checked their influence for the time.