A Plea for Liberty: An Argument Against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation

Edited by: Mackay, Thomas
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Thomas Mackay, ed.
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New York: D. Appleton and Co.
In print: Liberty Fund, Inc.
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Collected essays, various authors. Includes "From Freedom to Bondage," by Herbert Spencer.

The Limits of Liberty

by Wordsworth Donisthorpe


The power of the State may be defined as the resultant of all the social forces operating within a definite area. 'It follows,' says Professor Huxley, with characteristic logical thoroughness, 'that no limit is, or can be, theoretically set to State interference.'


Ab extra—this is so. I have always endeavoured to show that the effective majority has a right (a legal right) to do just what it pleases. How can the weak set a limit to the will of the strong? Of course, if the State is rotten, if it does not actually represent the effective majority of the country, then it is a mere sham, like some little old patriarch who rules his brawny sons by the prestige of ancient thrashings.


The time comes in the life of every government when it becomes effete, when it rules the stronger by sheer force of prestige, when the bubble waits to be pricked, and when the first-determined act of resistance brings the whole card-castle down with a crash. The bouleversement is usually called a revolution. On the contrary, it is merely the outward and visible expression of a death which may have taken place years before. In such cases a limit can be set to State interference by the simple process of exploding the State. But when a State is (as Hobbes assumes) the embodiment of the will of the effective majority—force majeure—of the country, then clearly no limit can be set to its interference—ab extra. And this is why Hobbes (who always built on fact) describes the power of the State as absolute. This is why he says that each citizen has conveyed all his strength and power to the State.


I fail to see any à priori assumption here. It is the plain truth of his time and of our own. We may agree with John Locke that there ought to be some limit to despotism, and we may keep on shifting the concentrated force from the hands of the One to those of the Few; from the hands of the Few to those of the Many; and from the hands of the Many to those of the Most—the numerical majority. But this handing about of the power cannot alter its nature; it still remains unlimited despotism, as Hobbes rightly assumes. Locke's pretence that the individual citizens reserved certain liberties when the State was formed is of course the merest allegory, without any more foundation in fact than Rousseau's Contrat Social. It is on a par with the 'natural right' of every citizen born into the world to an acre of land and a good education. We may consider that nation wise which should guarantee these advantages to all its children, or we may not; but we must never forget that the rights, when created, are created by the will of the strong for its own good pleasure, and not carved out of the absolute domain of despotism by any High Court of Eternal Justice.


Surely it is the absence of all these à priori vapourings, common to Locke, Rousseau, and Henry George, which renders the writings of Hobbes so fascinating and so instructive.


Shall we then sit down like blind fatalists in presence of the doctrine 'no limit can be set to State-interference?' Certainly not. I have admitted that no limit can be set from without. But just as we can influence the actions of a man by appeals to his understanding, so that it may be fairly said of such an one, 'he cannot lie,' and of another that it is easier to turn the sun from its course than Fabricius from the path of duty: so we may imbue the hearts of our own countrymen with the doctrine of individualism in suchwise that it may sometime be said of England, 'Behold a free country.' It is to this end that individualists are working. Just as a virtuous man imposes restrictions on the gratification of his own appetites, apparently setting a limit to his present will, and compelling a body to move in a direction other than that of least resistance, so, it is hoped, will the wise State of the future lay down a general principle of State-action for its own voluntary guidance, which principle is briefly expressed in the words Let be.*39


In his effort to supply destructive criticism of à priori political philosophy, which is the task Professor Huxley set before him, it seems to me he has been a little unjust to Individualism. He has taken for granted that it is based on à priori assumptions and arguments which are as foreign to the reasoning of some of its supporters as to his own. The individualist claims that under a system of increasing political liberty, many evils, of which all alike complain, would disappear more rapidly and more surely before the forces of co-operation than they will ever do before the distracted efforts of democratic 'regimentation.'


Of course there are individualists as there are socialists, and, we may add, artists and moralists and most other-ists who hang most of their conclusions on capital letters, We have Liberty and Justice and Beauty and Virtue and all the rest of the family; but it is not fair to assert or even to insinuate that Individualism as a practical working doctrine in this country and in the United States is based on reasoning from abstractions. Professor Huxley refers to 'moderns who make to themselves metaphysical teraphim out of the Absolute, the Unknowable, the Unconscious, and the other verbal abstractions whose apotheosis is indicated by initial capitals.' And he adds, 'So far as this method of establishing their claims is concerned, socialism and individualism are alike out of court.' Granted—but so is morality. Honesty, Truth, Justice, Liberty, and Right are teraphim when treated as such, every whit as ridiculous as the Unknowable or the Unconditioned. Nevertheless it is surely possible to label general ideas with general names, after the discovery of their connotation, without being charged with the worship of abstractions. And unless Professor Huxley is prepared to dispense with such general ideas as Right and Wrong, True, Beautiful and Free, I fail to see what objection he can have to the Unknowable when employed to denote what has been so carefully and clearly defined under that term by Mr. Spencer.


At the same time I admit that we have reason to thank Professor Huxley for his onslaught on Absolutism in politics, whereby he has done more good to the cause of progress than he could ever hope to do by merely dubbing himself either individualist or socialist. When the Majority learns that its acts can be criticised, just as other people's acts are criticised; that it can behave in an 'ungentlemanly' manner, as well as in a wrongful manner; that it should be guided in its treatment of the minority by its conscience, and not solely by laws of its own making; then there will be no scope for any other form of government than that which is based on individualism; and the Rights of Man will exist as realities, and not as a mere expression denoting each man's private notions of what his rights ought to be.


No one with the smallest claim to attention has been known to affirm that this or any other nation is yet ripe for the abolition of the State. Some of the more advanced individualists and philosophical anarchists express the view that absolute freedom from State-interference is the goal towards which civilisation is making, and, as is usual in the ranks of all political parties, there are not wanting impatient persons who contend that now is the time for every great reform.


Such are the people who would grant representative institutions to the Fijians, and who would model the Government of India on that of the United States of America. They may safely be left out of account. I suppose no one acquainted with his political writings will accuse Victor Yarros of backwardness or even of opportunism. Yet, says he:—

The abolition of the external State must be preceded by the decay of the notions which breathe life and vigour into that clumsy monster: in other words, it is only when the people learn to value liberty, and to understand the truths of the anarchistic philosophy, that the question of practically abolishing the State looms up and acquires significance.

Again, Mr. Benjamin Tucker, the high priest of anarchy in America, claims that it is precisely what is known in England as individualism. So far is he from claiming any natural right to liberty, that he expressly repudiates all such à priori postulates, and bases his political doctrine on the evidence (of which there is abundance) that liberty would be the mother of order. Referring to Professor Huxley's attack on anarchists as persons who build on baseless assumptions and fanciful suppositions, he says:—

If all anarchists were guilty of such folly, scientific men like Professor Huxley could never be expected to have respect for them: but the professor has yet to learn that there are anarchists who proceed in a way that he himself would enthusiastically approve; who take nothing for granted; who vitiate their arguments by no assumptions; but who study the facts of social life, and from them derive the lesson that liberty would be the mother of order.


The truth is that the science of society has met with general acceptance of late years, and (thanks chiefly to Mr. Spencer) even the most impatient reformers now recognise the fact that a State is an organism and not an artificial structure to be pulled to pieces and put together on a new model whenever it pleases the effective majority to do so. Advice which is good to a philosopher may be bad to a savage and worse to an ape. Similarly institutions which are well suited to one people may be altogether unsuited to another, and the best institutions conceivable for a perfect people would probably turn out utterly unworkable even in the most civilised country of this age. The most ardent constitution-framer now sees that the chances are very many against the Anglo-Saxon people having reached the zenith of progress exactly at the moment when Nature has been pleased to evolve him as its guide. And if it must be admitted that we are not yet ripe for that unconditioned individual liberty which may be the type of the society of the future, it follows that for the present we must recognise some form of State-interference as necessary and beneficent. The problem is, What are the proper limits of liberty? and if these cannot be theoretically defined, what rules should be adopted for our practical guidance? With those who answer No limits, I will not quarrel. Such answer implies the belief that we have as a nation already reached the top rung of the ladder—that we are ripe for perfect anarchy. This is a question of fact which each can answer for himself. I myself do not believe that we have attained to this degree of perfection, and furthermore those who do believe it cannot evade the task of fixing the limits of liberty in a lower plane of social development. We can force them to co-operate with us by admitting their contention for the sake of argument, and then asking whether the Russians are ready for absolute freedom, and if so, whether the Hindoos are ready, or the Chinese, or the Arabs, or the Hottentots, or the tree-dwarfs? The absolutist is compelled to draw the line sooner or later, and then he is likewise compelled to admit that the State has legitimate functions on the other side of that line.


And he must also admit that in practice people have to settle where private freedom and State-action shall mutually limit each other. Benjamin Tucker's last word still leaves us in perplexity as to the practical rule to be adopted now. Let me quote his words and readily endorse them—as far as they go:—

Then liberty always, say the anarchists. No use of force, except against the invader; and in those cases where it is difficult to tell whether the alleged offender is an invader or not, still no use of force except where the necessity of immediate solution is so imperative that we must use it to save ourselves. And in these few cases where we must use it, let us do so frankly and squarely, acknowledging it as a matter of necessity, without seeking to harmonise our action with any political ideal or constructing any far-fetched theory of a State or collectivity having prerogatives and rights superior to those of individuals and aggregations of individuals and exempted from the operation of the ethical principles which individuals are expected to observe. This is the best rule that I can frame as a guide to voluntary co-operators. To apply to it only one case, I think that under a system of anarchy, even if it were admitted that there was some ground for considering an unvaccinated person an invader, it would be generally recognised that such invasion was not of a character to require treatment by force, and that any attempt to treat it by force would be regarded as itself an invasion of a less doubtful and more immediate nature, requiring as such to be resisted.


But how far does this 'best rule' carry us? Let us test it by the case selected. Mr. Tucker thinks that under a régime of liberty it would be generally recognised that such an invasion of the individual's freedom of action as is implied by compulsory vaccination is a greater and a worse invasion than the converse invasion of the general freedom by walking about in public 'a focus of infection.' Perhaps it would be so recognised in some future state of anarchy, but is it so recognised now? I think not. The majority of persons, in this country at least, treat it, and consider that it ought to be treated, as an offense; just as traveling in a public conveyance with the scarletina-rash is treated. And the question is, What, in face of actual public opinion, ought we to do today? The rule gives us no help. Even the most avowed State-socialist is ready to say that compulsion in such matters is justifiable only when it is 'so imperative that we must use it to save ourselves.' He is ready to do so, if need be, 'fairly and squarely, acknowledging it as a matter of necessity.' But so is the protectionist; so is the religious persecutor. Mr. Tucker continues:—

The question before us is not what measures and means of interference we are justified in instituting, but which of those already existing we should first lop off. And to this the anarchists answer that unquestionably the first to go should be those that interfere most fundamentally with a free market, and that the economic and moral changes that would result from this would act as a solvent upon all the remaining forms of interference.


Good again, but why? There must be some middle principle upon which this conclusion is based. And it is for this middle principle, this practical rule for the guidance of those who must act at once, that a search must be made. To restate the question:—


Can any guiding principle be formulated whereby we may know where the State should interfere with the liberties of its citizens and where it should not? Can any definite limits be assigned to State action? Wherein theory shall we draw the line, which in practice we have to draw somewhere?


Surely an unprincipled State is as bad as an unprincipled man. Yet what should we think of a man who, in moral questions, decided each case on its merits as a question of immediate expediency? Who admitted that he told the truth or told lies just as it suited the object he had presently in view? We should say he was an unprincipled man, and we should rightly distrust him. An appeal to Liberty is as futile as an appeal to Justice, until we have defined Liberty.


Various suggestions have been made in order to get over this difficulty. Some people say, Let every man do what is right in his own eyes, provided he does not thereby injure others. To quote Mill:—

The principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection: that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others.


To this Lord Pembroke shrewdly replies:—

But how far does this take us? The very kernel of our difficulty is the fact that hardly any actions are purely self-regarding. The greater part of them bear a double aspect—one which concerns self, another which concerns others.


We might even go further; we might plausibly maintain that every act performed by a citizen from his birth to his death injures his neighbours more or less indirectly. If he eats his dinner he diminishes the supply of food and raises the price. His very existence causes an enhanced demand for the necessaries of life; hence the cry against over-population. One who votes on the wrong side of a Parliamentary election injures all his fellow-countrymen. One who marries a girl loved by another injures that other. One who preaches Christianity or Agnosticism (if untrue) injures his hearers and their relatives and posterity. One who wins a game pains the loser. One who sells a horse for more than it is worth injures the purchaser, and one who sells it for less than it is worth injures his own family.


Taking practical questions concerning which there is much dispute; there are advocates of State-interference with the citizen's freedom to drink what he likes, who base their action not on the ground that the State should protect a fool against the effects of his folly, but on the ground that drink fills the workhouses and the prisons, which have to be maintained out of the earnings of the sober; and, furthermore, that drink leaves legacies of disease and immorality to the third and the fourth generation. Advocates of compulsory vaccination have been heard to say that they would willingly leave those who refuse the boon to perish of small-pox, but that unvaccinated persons are foci of infection, and must be suppressed in the common interest. Many people defend the Factory Acts, not for the sake of the apathetic workers who will not take the trouble to organise and to defend themselves, but for the sake of the physique of the next generation. The suppression of gambling-hells is favoured by many, not on account of the green-horns who lose their money, but because they are schools of cheating and fraud, and turn loose upon society a number of highly-trained swindlers. On the whole, Mill's test will not do.


Some say, 'We must fall back on the consensus of the people; there is nothing else for it; we must accept the arbitrary will—the caprice—of the governing class, be they the many or be they the few.' Others, again, qualify that contention. These say, let us loyally accept the verdict of the majority. This is democracy. I have nothing to urge against it. But, unfortunately, it only shoves the question a step further back. How are the many to decide for themselves when they ought to interfere with the minority and when they ought not? This is just the guiding principle of which we are in search; and it is no answer to tell us that certain persons must decide it for themselves. We are amongst the number; what is our vote going to be? Of course the stronger can do what they choose; but what ought they to choose? What is the wisest course for their own welfare, leaving the minority out of the reckoning?


Socialists say, treat all alike, and all will be well. But equality in slavery is not liberty. Even the fox in the fable would not have had his own tail cut off for the fun of seeing the other foxes in like plight. After the event, it was quite another matter; and one can forgive those who are worked to death for demanding that the leisured classes shall be forced to earn their living. Lock us all up in jail, and we shall all be equally moral and equally happy.


Nor is it any solution of this particular problem to abolish the State, however prudent that course might or might not be: the answer to the present question is not 'No Government !' For this again merely throws the difficulty a step further back. We may put the State on one side and imagine a purely anarchic form of society, and the same question still arises. That is to say, philosophical anarchists do not pretend that the anarchy of the wild beasts is conceivable among sane men, still less desirable,—though they are usually credited with this imbecile notion. They believe that all necessary restrictions on absolute liberty can be brought about by voluntary combination. Let us admit that this may be so. The question then arises, for what purposes are people to combine? Thus the majority in a club can, if they choose, forbid billiard-playing on Sundays. Ought they to do so? Of course the majority may disapprove of and refrain from it, but ought they to permit the minority to play? If not, on what grounds? The Christians in certain parts of Russia have an idea that they are outwitted and injured by their Jew fellow-citizens. If unrestrained by the stronger majority outside—the State—they persecute and drive off the Jews. Ought they to do this? If you reply, 'Leave it to the sense of the people,' the answer is settled, they ought. It is, therefore, no answer to our question to say, 'Away with the State.' It may be a good cry, but it is no solution to our problem. Because you cannot do away with the effective majority.


To reply that out of one hundred persons, the seventy-five weak and therefore orderly persons can combine against the twenty-five advocates of brute-force, is merely to beg the whole question. Ought they to combine for this purpose? And if so, why not for various other purposes? Why not for the very purposes for which they are now banded together in an association called the State?


You rejoin, 'True, but it would be a voluntary State, and that makes all the difference; no one need join it against his will.' My answer is, he need not join it now. The existence of the burglar in our midst is sufficient evidence of this. But since the anarchy of the wild beasts is out of the question, it is clear that certain arbitrary and aggressive acts on the part of individuals must be met and resisted by voluntary combination—by the voluntary combination of a sufficient number of others to overpower them by fear, or, if necessary, by brute force. Again I ask, for what purposes are these combinations to be made?


Whether we adopt despotism or democracy, socialism or anarchy, we are always brought back to this unanswered question, What are the limits of group-action in relation to its units? Shall we say that the State should never interfere with the mutual acts of willing parties? (And by the State I wish to be understood as here meaning the effective majority of a group, be it a club or be it a nation.) This looks plausible, but alas! who are the parties? The parties acting, or the parties affected? Clearly the latter, for otherwise, two persons could agree to kill a third. But who then are the persons affected? Suppose a print-seller, with a view to business, exposes in his shop-window a number of objectionable pictures, for the attraction of those only who choose to look at them and possibly to buy them. I have occasion to walk through that street; am I a party? How am I injured? Is my sense of decency shocked and hurt? But if this is sufficient ground for public interference, then I have a right to call for its assistance when my taste is hurt and shocked by a piece of architecture which violates the laws of high art. I have similar ground of complaint when a speaker gets up in a public place and preaches doctrines which are positively loathsome to me. I have a right of action against a man clothed in dirty rags, or with pomaded hair or a scented pocket-handerchief.


If you reply that in these cases my hurt is not painful enough to justify any interference with another's freedom, I have only to cite the old and almost forgotten arguments for the inquisition. The possible eternal damnation of my children, who are exposed to heretical teaching, is surely a sufficiently painful invasion of my happiness to warrant the most strenuous resistance. And even to modern ears, it will seem reasonable that I should have grounds of action against a music-hall proprietor who should offend the moral sense of my children with songs of a pernicious character. This test then will not do.


It has been suggested that the State should not meddle except on the motion of an individual alleging injury to himself. In other words, that the State must never act as prosecutor, but leave all such matters entirely to private initiative; and that no person should be permitted to complain that some other person is injured or likely to be injured by the act complained of. But there are two valid objections to this rule: firstly, it provides no test of injury or hurt; secondly, it would not meet the case of cruelty to animals or young children, or imbeciles or persons too poor or too ill to take action. It would permit of the murder of a friendless man. This will not do.


May I now venture to present my own view? I feel convinced that there is no à priori solution of the problem. We cannot draw a hard and fast line between the proper field of State-interference and the field sacred to individual freedom. There is no general principle whereby the effective majority can decide whether to interfere or not. And yet we are by no means left without guidance. Take the parallel region of morals: no man has ever yet succeeded in defining virtue à priori. All we can say is that those acts which eventually conduce to the permanent welfare of the agent are moral acts, and those which lead in the opposite direction are immoral. But if any one asks for guidance beforehand, he has to go away empty. It is true, certain preachers tell him to stick to the path of virtue, but when it comes to casuistry they no more know which is the path of virtue than he does himself. 'Which is the way to York?' asks a traveller. 'Oh, stick to the York Road, and you can't go wrong.' That is the sum and substance of what the moralists have to tell us. And yet we do not consider that we are altogether without guidance in these matters. Middle principles, reached by induction from the experience of countless generations, have been formulated, which cannot be shown to be true by any process of deduction from higher truths, but which we trust, simply because we have found them trustworthy a thousand times, and our parents and friends have safely trusted them too. Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not hurt your neighbour's feelings without cause. And why not? Because, as a general rule, it will not pay.


Where is the harm in saying two and two make five? Either you are believed or you are disbelieved. If disbelieved, you are a failure. One does not talk for the music of the thing, but to convey a belief. If you are believed, you have given away false coin or a sham article. The recipient thinks he can buy with it or work with it, and lo! it breaks in his hand. He hates the cause of his disappointment. 'Well, what of that?' you say; 'if I had been strong enough or plucky enough I would have broken his head and he would have hated me for that. Then why should I be ashamed to tell a lie to a man whom I deliberately wish to hurt?' Here we come nearly to the end of our tether. Experience tells us that it is mean and self-wounding to lie, and we believe it. Those who try find it out in the end.


And if this is the true view of individual morals, it should also be found true of what may be called Group-morals or State-laws. We must give up all hope of deducing good laws from high general principles and rest content with those middle principles which originate in experience and are verified by experience. And we must search for these middle principles by observing the tendency of civilisation. In morals they have long been stated with more or less precision but in politics they are still unformulated. By induction from the cases presented to us in the long history of mankind we can, I believe, find a sound working answer to the question we set out with. All history teaches us that there has been an increasing tendency to remove the restrictions placed by the State on the absolute liberty of its citizens. That is an observed fact which brooks no contradiction. In the dawn of civilisation, we find the bulk of the people in a state of absolute bondage, and even those who supposed themselves to be the independent classes, subject to a most rigorous despotism. Every act from the cradle to the grave must conform to the most savage and exacting laws. Nothing was too sacred or too private for the eye of the State. Take the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians; we find them all in a state of the most complete subjection to central authority. Probably the code of law best known to us, owing to its adoption as the canvas on which European religion is painted, is the code of the Jewish theocracy. Most of us know something of the drastic and searching rules laid down in the books of Moses. Therein we find every concern of daily life ruled and regulated by the legislature; how and when people shall wash themselves, what they may eat and what they must avoid, how the food is to be cooked, what clothes may be worn, whom they may marry, and with what rites; while, in addition to this, their religious views are carefully provided for them and also their morals, and in case of transgression, intentional or accidental, the form of expiation to be made. Nor were these laws at all peculiar to the Jews. On the contrary, the laws of some of the contemporary civilisations seem to have been, if possible, even more exacting and frivolously meddlesome. The Greek and Roman laws were nothing like the Oriental codes, but still they were far more meddlesome and despotic than anything we have known in our day. And even in free and merry England we have in the older times put up with an amount of fussy State-interference which would not be tolerated for a week now-a-days. One or two specimens of early law in this country may be cited in order to recall the extent and severity of this kind of legislation.

They shall have bows and arrows, and use the same of Sundays and holidays; and leave all playing at tennis or football and other games called quoits, dice, casting of the stone, kailes, and other such importune games.

Forasmuch as labourers and grooms keep greyhounds and other dogs, and on the holidays when good Christians be at church hearing divine service, they go hunting in parks, warrens, and connigries, it is ordained that no manner of layman which bath not lands to the value of forty shillings a year shall from henceforth keep any greyhound or other dog to hunt, nor shall he use ferrets, nets, heys, harepipes nor cords, nor other engines for to take or destroy deer, hares, nor conies, nor other gentlemen's game, under pain of twelve months' imprisonment.

For the great dearth that is in many places of the realm of poultry, it is ordained that the price of a young capon shall not pass threepence, and of an old fourpence, of a hen twopence, of a pullet a penny, of a goose fourpence.

Esquires and gentlemen under the estate of a knight shall not wear cloth of a higher price than four and a-half marks, they shall wear no cloth of gold nor silk nor silver, nor no manner of clothing embroidered, ring, button, nor brooch of gold nor of silver, nor nothing of stone, nor no manner of fur; and their wives and daughters shall be of the same condition as to their vesture and apparel, without any turning-up or purfle or apparel of gold, silver nor of stone.

Because that servants and labourers will not, nor by a long season would, serve and labour without outrageous and excessive hire, and much more than hath been given to such servants and labourers in any time past, so that for scarcity of the said servants and labourers the husbands and land-tenants may not pay their rents nor live upon their lands, to the great damage and loss as well of the Lords as of the Commons, it is accorded and assented that the bailiff for husbandry shall take by the year 13s. 3d. and his clothing once by the year at most; the master hind 10s., the carter 10s., the shepherd 10s., the oxherd 6s. 8d., the swineherd 6s., a woman labourer 6s., a dey 6s., a driver of the plough 7s. at the most, and every other labourer and servant according to his degree; and less in the country where less was wont to be given, without clothing, courtesy or other reward by covenant. And if any give or take by covenant more than is above specified, at the first that they shall be thereof attainted, as well the givers as the takers, shall pay the value of the excess so taken, and at the second time of their attainder the double value of such excess, and at the third time the treble value of such excess, and if the taker so attainted have nothing whereof to pay the said excess, he shall have forty days' imprisonment.


One can cite these extraordinary enactments by the score, with the satisfactory result of raising a laugh at the expense of our ancestors; but before making too merry, let us examine the beam in our own eye. Some of the provisions of our modern Acts of Parliament, when looked at from a proper distance, are quite as ludicrous as any of the little tyrannies of our ancestors. I do not wish to tread on delicate ground, or to raise party bias, and therefore I will resist the temptation of citing modern instances of legislative drollery.*40 Doubtless the permanent tendency in this country, as all through history, is in a direction opposed to this sort of grandmotherly government; but the reason is not, I fear, our superior wisdom; it is the increasing number of conflicting interests, all armed with democratic power, which renders it difficult. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.


I can imagine no healthier task for our new school of social reformers than a careful enquiry into the effects of all State attempts to improve humanity. It would take too long to go through even a few of them now. There are all the statutes of Plantagenet days against forestalling and regrating and usury; there are the old sumptuary laws, the fish laws, the cloth laws, the Tippling Acts, the Lord's Day Observance Act, the Act against making cloth by machinery, which, by its prohibition of the 'divers devilish contrivances,' drove trade to Holland and to Ireland, and thus made it needful to suppress the Irish woollen trade. Still, on the whole, as I have said, State interference shows signs of becoming weaker and weaker as civilisation progresses. And this brings us back to our original question, What is the rule whereby the majority is to guide itself as to where it should interfere with the freedom of individuals and where it should not? It is this: while according the same worship to Liberty in politics that we accord to Honesty in private dealings, hardly permitting ourselves to believe that its violation can in any case be wise or permanently expedient—while leaning to Liberty as we lean to Truth, and deviating from it only when the arguments in favour of despotism are absolutely overwhelming, our aim should be to find out by study of history what those classes of acts are, in which State interference shows signs of becoming weakened, and as far as possible to hasten on the day of complete freedom in such matters.


When the student of history sees how the Statute of Labourers broke down in its effort to regulate freedom of contract between employer and employed, in the interest of the employer, he will admit the futility of renewing the attempt, this time in the interest of the employed. When he reads the preamble*41 (or pre-ramble as it is aptly styled in working-men's clubs) to James's seventh Tippling Act, he will be less sanguine in embarking on modern temperance legislation.


We find the same record of failure and accompanying mischiefs all along the line, and it is mainly our ignorance of history that blinds us to the truth. By this process of induction, the earnest and honest reformer is led to discover what those individual acts are which are really compatible with social cohesion. He finds that while the State tends to suppress violence and fraud and stealth with ever-increasing severity, it is at the same time more and more tolerant, not from sympathy, but from necessity, of the results, good, bad, and indifferent, of free contract between full-grown sane men and women.


And when a well-wisher to mankind has once thoroughly appreciated and digested this general principle, based as it is on a survey of facts and history, and not woven out of the dream-stuff of à priori philosophy, he will be content to remove all artificial hindrances to progress, and to watch the evolution of society, instead of trying to model it according to his own vague ideas of the Just, and the Good, and the Beautiful.


I wish to show that the only available method of discovering the true limits of liberty at any given period is the historic. History teaches us that there has been a marked tendency (in the main continuous) to reduce the number of State-restrictions on the absolute freedom of the citizens. State-prohibitions are becoming fewer and more definite, while, on the other hand, some of them are at the same time more rigorously enforced. Freedom to murder and rob is more firmly denied to the individual, while in the meantime he has won the liberty to think as he pleases, to say a good deal more of what he pleases, to dress in accordance with his own taste, to eat when and what he likes, and to do, without let or hindrance, a thousand things which, in the olden times, he was not allowed to do without State-supervision. The proper aim of the reformer, therefore, is to find out, by a study of history, exactly what those classes of acts are in which State-interference shows signs of becoming weaker and weaker, and what those other classes of acts are in which such interference tends to be more rigorous and regular. He will find that these two classes are becoming more and more differentiated. And he will then, to the utmost of his ability, hasten on the day of absolute freedom in the former class of cases, and insist on the most determined enforcement of the law in the latter class. Whether this duty will in time pass into other hands, that is to say, whether private enterprise will ever supplant the State in the performance of this function, and whether that time is near or remote, are questions of the greatest interest. What we are mainly concerned to note is that the organisation or department upon which this duty rests incurs a responsibility which must, if society is to maintain its vitality, be faithfully borne. The business of carrying out the fundamental laws directed against the lower forms of competition—murder, robbery, fraud, &c.—must, by whomsoever undertaken, be unflinchingly performed, or the entire edifice of modern civilisation will fall to pieces.


It is enough to make a rough survey of the acts of citizens in which the State claims, or has at one time claimed, to exercise control; to track those claims through the ages; and to note the changes which have taken place in those claims. It remains to follow up the tendency into the future. Anyone undertaking this task will, I repeat, find himself in the presence of two large and fairly well-defined classes of State-restrictions on private liberty; those which tend to become more thorough and invariable, and those which tend to become weaker, more spasmodic and variable. And he will try to abolish these unprincipled interferences altogether, in the belief, based on history, that, though some harm will result from the change, a far more than compensating advantage will accrue to the race. In short, what we have to do is to find the Least Common Pond in politics, as a mathematician finds the Least Common Multiple in the field of numbers.


Take these two joint-stock companies, and consider their prospects. The first is formed for the purpose of purchasing a square mile of land, for getting the coal from under the surface, for erecting furnaces on the land, for making pigiron and converting it into wrought iron and steel, for building houses, churches, and schools for the workpeople, and for converting them and their neighbors to the Catholic faith, and for doing all such other matters and things as shall from time to time appear good to the Board of Directors. The second company is formed for the purpose of leasing a square mile of land, for getting the coal from under the surface, and selling it to the coal-merchants. Now that is just the difference between the State of the past and the State of the future. The shareholders in the second company are not banded together or mutually pledged and bound by a multitude of obligations, but by the fewest compatible with the joint aim. The company with the Least Common Bond is usually the most prosperous. A State held together by too many compacts will perform all or most of its functions ill. What we have to find is this Least Common Bond. Surely it would be absurd to argue that because the shareholders should not be bound by too many compacts, therefore they should not be bound by any. It is folly to pretend that each should be free to withdraw when and how he chooses; that he should be free to go down into the pits, and help himself to the common coal, in any fashion agreeable to himself, so long as he takes no more than his own portion. By taking shares in the Midland Railway Company, I have not bought the right to grow primroses on the line, or to camp out on the St. Pancras Station platform. My liberty to do what I choose with my share of the joint-stock is suspended. I am to that extent in subjection. My fellow-shareholders, or the majority of them, are my masters. They can compel me to spend my own money in making a line of rails which I am sure will never pay. Yet I do not grumble. But if they had the power (by our compact) to declare war on the Great Northern, or to import Dutch cheeses and Indian carpets, I should not care to be a citizen or shareholder of that particular company or state.


What we have got to do, then, is to purge the great company which has long ago been formed for the purpose of utilising the soil of this country to the best effect, from the multifarious functions with which it has overburdened itself. We, the shareholders, have agreed that the Red-Indian system is not suited to this end; and we have therefore agreed to forego our rights (otherwise admitted) of taking what we want from each other by force or fraud. This seems to be a necessary article of association. There is nothing to prevent us from agreeing to forego other rights and liberties if we choose; and possibly there may be some other restraints on our individual liberty which can be shown to be desirable, if not essential, to the success of the undertaking. If so, let them be stated, and the reason for their adoption given. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that a large and happy population can be supported on this soil without any other mutual restriction on personal freedom than that which is involved in the main article of association, would it not be as well for all if each kept charge of his own conscience and his own actions?


And here I should like to guard myself against misapprehension. Individualists are usually supposed to regard the State as a kind of malevolent ogre. Maleficent it is; but by no means malevolent. The State never intervenes without a reason, whether we deem that reason valid or invalid. The reasons alleged are very numerous and detailed, but they all fall under one of two heads. The State interferes either to defend some of the parties concerned against the others, or to defend itself against all the parties concerned. This has nothing to do with the distinction between crimes and civil injuries; it is more in line with the ethical distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding vices. Thus when a State punishes prize-fighters, it is not because one of them injures the other, but because the sport is demoralizing: the State is itself injured, and not any determinate person. Similarly, there are many laws punishing drunkenness, quite apart from the violence and nuisance due to it. In these cases the State alleges that, though no determinate citizen is injured, yet the race suffers, and rightly punishes the offence with a view to eliminating the habit.


Putting on one side all those acts which injure determinate persons, whether crimes or civil injuries, let us see what the State has done and is doing in this country with regard to acts against which no particular citizen has any good ground of complaint. We may classify the subjects of these laws either according to the object affected, or according to the vice aimed at.


Taking some of the minor objects of the State's solicitude by way of illustration, we find that at one time or another it has interfered more or less with nearly all popular games, many sports, nearly the whole of the fine arts, and many harmless and harmful pleasures which cannot be brought under any of those three heads.


In looking for the motive which prompted the State to meddle with these matters, let us give our fathers credit for the best motive, and not, as is usually done, the worst. Football, tennis, nine-pins, and quoits were forbidden, as I have pointed out, because the State thought that the time wasted over them might more advantageously be spent in archery, which was quite as entertaining and far more useful. That was a good reason, but it was not a sufficient reason to modern mind; and moreover the law failed in its object. Some other games, such as baccarat, dice, trump, and primero, were put down because they led to gambling. And gambling was objected to for the good and ample reason that those who indulge in it are morally incapacitated for steady work. Lotteries and betting come under this censure. One who thinks he sees his way to make a thousand per cent. on his capital in a single evening without hard work cannot be expected to devote himself with zeal to the minute economics of his trade, for the purpose of making six per cent. instead of five on the capital invested. Wealth-production is on the average a slow process, and all attempts to hurry up nature and take short cuts to opulence are intoxicating, enervating, disappointing, and injurious, not only to those who make them, but to all those who witness the triumph of the lucky, without fixing their attention on the unsuccessful. Gambling, in short, is wrong; but this does not necessarily warrant the State in forbidding it. Another reason alleged on behalf of the interference was, and still is, that the simple are outwitted by the cunning. But as this is true of all competition, even the healthiest, it does not seem to be a valid reason for State-action. It is also said that games of chance lead to cheating and fraud. But this is by no means a necessary consequence. Indeed, some of the most inveterate gamblers are the most honorable of men. Again, the State refuses to sanction betting contracts for the same reason that under the Statute of Frauds it requires certain agreements to be in writing; namely, to ensure deliberateness and sufficient evidence of the transaction. I think Barbeyrac overlooks this aspect of the case in his Traité de Jeu, in which he defends the lawfulness of chance-games. He says:

If I am at liberty to promise and give my property, absolutely and unconditionally, to whomsoever I please, why may I not promise and give a certain sum, in the event of a person proving more fortunate or more skilful than I, with respect to the result of certain contingencies, movements, or combinations, on which we had previously agreed?... Gaming is a contract, and in every contract the mutual consent of the parties is the supreme law; this is an incontestable maxim of natural equity.


But, as a matter of fact, the State does not prohibit, or even refuse to sanction, all contracts based on chance. It merely requires all or some of the usual guarantees against impulse, together with sufficient evidence and notification. It is true, you are not allowed to bet sixpence with a friend in a public-house that one horse will beat another in a race; you are allowed to bet a thousand pounds on the same event in your own house or at Tattersall's; but if you win and do not get paid you have no redress in a Court of law. But if you bet that your baby will die within twelve months, you are not only permitted to make the bet, but, in case the contingency arises, you can recover the stakes in a Court, provided always the gentlemen you bet with have taken the precaution to dub themselves Life Assurance Society. You may also send a ship to sea, and bet that it will go to the bottom before it reaches its destination. You will recover your odds in a Court, provided the other parties are called underwriters, or some other suitable name. You may bet that some one will set fire to your house before next Christmas, and, if this happens, the Court will compel the other party to pay, though the odds are about 1000 to 1—provided such other party is called a Fire Insurance Office. Again, if twenty men put a shilling each into a pool, buy a goose, a surloin of beef, and a plum-pudding, and then spin a teetotum to see who shall take the lot, that is a lottery, and the twenty men are all punished for the sin by the State. But if a lady buys a fire-screen for £3, and the same twenty men put a sovereign each into the pool, and spin the teetotum to see who shall have the screen, and the £20 goes to the Missionary Society, this is called a bazaar raffle, and no one is punished by the State. If a dozen men put a hundred pounds apiece into a pool, to be the property of him who outlives the rest, that is called tontine, and is not only permitted but guaranteed by the State. If you bet with another man that the Eureka Mine Stocks will be dearer in three months than they are now, that is called speculation on the Stock Exchange, and the State will enforce the payment of the bet. But if you bet that the next throw of the dice will be higher than the last, that is called gambling, and the State will not enforce the payment of the bet. If you sell boxes of toffee for a penny each, on the understanding that one box out of every twenty contains a bright new threepenny-bit, that again is called a lottery, and you go to prison for the crime. But if you sell newspapers for a penny each, on the understanding that in a certain contingency the buyer may net £100, that is called advertisement, and you go not to prison, but possibly (if you sell plenty) to Parliament. If you bet that somebody will redeem his written promise to pay a certain sum of money at a certain date, that is called bill-discounting, and the State sanctions the transaction; but if you bet that the same person will defeat his opponent in a chess-match (though similarly based on a calculation of probabilities and knowledge of his character and record), it is a transaction which the State frowns at, and certainly will not sanction. Who now will say that the State refuses to sanction bets? Gambling, speculation, raffles, lotteries, bill-discounting, life-assurance, fire-insurance, underwriting, tontine, sweepstakes—what are these but different names for the same kind of bargain—a contract based on an unforeseen contingency-a bet? And yet how differently they are treated by the State! Neither is it fair to charge the State with a puritanical bias against gambling. Religion had nothing to do with antigambling legislation; for the State both tolerates and enforces wage-contracts, when they are the result of mature deliberation, sufficiently evidenced, and, as in the case of life-assurance, insurance against fire, and shipwreck, &c., free from the suspicion of wild intoxication.


The State has prohibited certain sports because they are demoralizing, e.g. prize-fighting; and others because they are cruel without being useful, e.g. cock-fighting, bear-baiting, bull-fighting, &c. Angling it regards as useful, and therefore does not condemn it, although it combines cruelty with the lowest form of lying. Agitations are from time to time set on foot for the purpose of putting down fox-hunting on similar grounds. But, fortunately, the magnificent effects of this manly sport on the physique of the race are too palpable to admit of its suppression. Pigeon-shooting is a very different matter. Chess never seems to have fallen under the ban of the law; but billiards, for some reason which I cannot discover, has always been carefully supervised by the State.


Coming to the fine arts, they all of them seem to be regarded by the legislature as probable incentives to low sensuality. Architecture is the solitary exception. Even music, which would seem to approach nearer to divine perfection and purity than any other earthly thing, is carefully hedged about bylaw; possibly, however, this is on account of its dangerous relation to poetry, when the two are wedded in song. When we come to the arts of sculpture, of painting (and its allies, printing, drawing, photography, &c.), of literature (poetry and prose), of the drama, and of dancing, we are bound to admit that in the absence of State-control they are apt to run to licentiousness. But whether it is wise of society, which has been compelled to abstain from interference with sexual irregularity, to penalise that which is suspected of leading to it, is an interesting point. Fornication in itself is no longer even a misdemeanor in this country. The Act 23 & 24 Vict. c. 32 applies only to conspiracy to induce a woman to commit fornication; 'provided,' as Mr. Justice Stephen surmises, 'that an agreement between a man and a woman to commit fornication is not a conspiracy.' At the same time, whatever we may think of these State efforts to encourage and bolster up chastity by legislation, it is not quite honest to ignore or misrepresent the State motive. Monogamy is not the outcome of religious asceticism. We have only to read the Koran or the Old Testament to see that polygamy and religion can be on very good terms. The highest civilisations yet known are based on the monogamic principle; and anyone who realises the effect of the system-on the children of the community must admit that it is a most beneficial one, quite apart from the religious aspect. Whether the action of the State conduces to this result is quite another question. All I assert is that the State is actuated by a most excellent motive.


The first observation on the whole history of this kind of legislation is that it has been a gigantic failure. That is to say, it has not diminished the evils aimed at in the smallest degree. It has rather increased them. It has crabbed and stunted the fine arts, and then vulgarised them. By its rough and clumsy classifications it has crushed out the appeals of Art to the best feelings of human nature, and it has diverted what would have been pure and wholesome into other channels. The man who does not see every emotion of the human soul reflected and glorified in nature's drama around him must be a poor prosaic thing indeed. But we need not go to nature for what has lately been termed suggestiveness. We need not stray beyond the decorative art of dress, which seems to have exercised a special fascination over the sentimental Herrick. The logical outcome of systematic repression of sensual suggestiveness is State-regulated dress. Something like this has often been attempted. In England, during the thirteenth and two following centuries, dress was both regulated by Act of Parliament and cursed from the pulpit. Eccleston mentions how Sero d'Abon, after preaching before Henry I on the sinfulness of beards and long hair, coolly drew a huge pair of scissors from his pocket after the sermon, and, taking advantage of the effect he had produced, went from seat to seat, mercilessly cropping the king himself and the whole congregation. The same writer, speaking of the Early English period, tells us that 'long toes were not entirely abandoned till Henry VII, notwithstanding many a cursing by the clergy, as well as severe legal penalties upon their makers.' I am afraid neither the cursing of the clergy nor the penalties of the law have had the desired effect, for we must remember that it was not the gold nets and curled ringlets and gauze wings worn at each side of the female head, nor the jewelled stomachers, which were the peculiar objects of the aversion of State and Church, but the sensualising effect of all over-refinement in the decoration of the body.


If there is one thing more difficult than another, it is to say where the line should be drawn between legitimate body-decoration and meretricious adornment. When art-critics like Schlegel are of opinion that the nude figure is far less allective than carefully arranged drapery, it is surely the height of blind faith to entrust the State and its blundering machinery to lay down the laws of propriety in the matter of dress. What we should think indecent in this country is not thought indecent among the Zulus, and since the whole question is as to the effect of certain costumes on certain persons, and since those persons are the general public in any particular country, one would imagine that the proper course to adopt would be to leave the decision upon particular cases, as they crop up, to that public. The public may be a bad judge or a biassed judge, but at least it is a more suitable judge than a lumbering State, working on general principles vaguer than a London fog.


Again, recent modern attempts to 'purify' literature have brought the whole crusade into derision, and made us the laughing-stock of Europe. Yet all has been done with the best intentions—even the prosecution of the sellers of Boccaccio's Decameron.


But there are moral questions in which the State concerns itself, which do not fall under the heads of games, sports, nor fine arts, such as drinking, opium-eating, tobacco-smoking, and the use of other stimulants. These indulgences and artificial aids to sensual gratification have been and still are regulated and harassed by the State. Nor is it so long ago that the memory of man runneth not, since our own Government made stringent rules as to the number of meals to be eaten by the several grades of society. The Roman law actually specified the number of courses at each meal. An ancient English writer refers with disgust to the then new-fangled cookery which was coming into vogue in his day, 'all brenning like wild-fire.' But I have yet to learn that gluttony is on the decrease. And we have it on the highest medical authority that more deaths and more diseases can be traced to over-eating than to over-drinking, even in this tippling country. Nor have the laws enacted against sexual irregularities from time immemorial up to this day diminished, much less stamped out, the evil. We empty the casinos only to fill the streets, and we clear the streets only to increase the number and deteriorate the quality of houses of ill-fame. And during both processes we open the door to official black-mailing. The good old saying that you cannot make people moral by Act of Parliament has been, and still is, disregarded, but not with impunity. Surely the State, which has conspicuously failed in every single department of moralisation by force, may be wisely asked in future to mind its own business.


But is it not possible to fix our eyes too persistently and fanatically on the State? Do we not suffer from other interferences quite as odious as the tyrannies of the Effective Majority? Here is what Mr. Pickard said on the Eight-hours question at the Miners' Conference at Birmingham some months since. Somebody had pointed out that the Union could themselves force short hours upon the employers, if need be, without calling upon the legislature. 'If,' he replied, 'no bad result is to follow trade-union effort, how is it possible for a bad result to follow the same arrangement brought about by legislation?' Commenting on this with approval, Justice, the organ of the Social Democratic Federation, says:—

This is a question which Mr. John Morley and the rest of the politicians who prate about the need for shorter working hours, while opposing the penalizing of over-work, should set themselves to answer. Obviously there is no answer that will justify their position. If the limitation of the hours of labour is wrong in principle, and mischievous, harmful, and destructive of our national prosperity, it is just as much so whether effected by trade-union effort or by legislation.


There is a soul of truth in this. Of course we may point out firstly that the passing of a Bill for the purpose is no proof that the majority of the persons primarily affected really desire it, whereas the enforcement of the system by trade-unionism is strong evidence that they do: and secondly, that the legislature cannot effect these objects without simultaneously creating greater evils owing to the necessary operation of State machinery. But I venture to say that the central truth of Mr. Pickard's remark lies a good deal deeper than this. I think we individualists are apt to fix our eyes too exclusively upon the State. Doubtless it is the greatest transgressor. But after all, when analysed, it is only a combination of numerous persons in a certain area claiming to dictate to others in the same area what they shall do, and what they shall not do. These numerous persons we call the effective majority. It is precisely in the position of a cricket-club, or a religious corporation, or any other combination of men bound together by rules. At the present moment in this country a bishop is being persecuted by the majority of his co-religionists because he performs certain trifling rites. I would ask the Church of England whether, in its own interest,—in the interest of the majority of its own members—would not be wiser to repeal these socialistic rules against practices perfectly harmless in themselves. Last year there was a cause célèbre tried before the Jockey Club. Quite apart from the outside interference of the State, this club can and does sanction its own laws most effectively. It can ruin any trainer or jockey whenever it chooses, that is to say, whenever he violates the laws it has made. These laws, fortunately, are about as good as human nature is capable of, and those who suffer under them richly deserve their fate. But it might be otherwise. And even in this exemplary code there is an element of despotism which might be dispensed with. A jockey must not be an owner. Very good: the object is clear, and the intention is excellent. Of course a jockey ought not to expose himself to the temptation of riding another man's horse so as to conduce to the success of his own. No honourable man would yield to the temptation. On the other hand, few owners would trust a jockey whose own horse was entered for the same race. Now I venture to submit that it would be better to leave the matter entirely to the jockey's own choice, and to reserve the penalty for the occasion where there is convincing evidence that the jockey has abused his trust. A jockey charged with pulling, and afterwards found interested as owner or part-owner or backer of another horse in the same race, would then be dealt with under the Jockey Club law, not before. I would strongly advise a jockey to keep clear of ownership, and even of betting (on any race in which his services are engaged), but I would not make an offence out of that which in itself is not an offence, but which merely opens the door to temptation. This has nothing whatever to do with the State or with State law. It is entirely a question of what may, broadly speaking, be called Lynch law. I have recently examined the rules of some of the principal London clubs, and I find that they are, many of them, largely socialistic. Unless I am a member, I do not complain. I merely ask whether the members themselves would not do wisely to widen their liberties. The committee of a certain club had recently a long and stormy discussion as to whether billiards should be permitted on Sundays. In nineteen out of twenty clubs the game is disallowed. The individualists predominated, and the result is that those who do not want to play can refrain: they are not compelled to play. Those who wish to play are not compelled to refrain.


I can imagine a people with the State reduced to a shadow—a government attenuated to the administration of a very tolerant criminal code-and yet so deeply imbued with socialism in all their minor combinations as to be a nation of petty despots: a country where every social clique enforces its own notions of Mrs. Grundy's laws, and where every club tyrannises over its own members, fixing their politics and religion, the limits of stakes, the hours of closing, and a countless variety of other matters. There is or was a club in London where no meat is served on Fridays. There are several in which card-players are limited to half-crown points. There are many more where one card game is permitted and another prohibited. Whist is allowed at the Carlton, but not poker. Then again the etiquette of the professions is in many cases more irksome and despotic than the law of the land. Medical men have been boycotted for accepting small fees from impecunious patients. A barrister who should accept a brief from a client without the intermediary expense of a solicitor would sink to swim no more: although the solicitor's services might be absolutely worthless. Consider also the rules of the new Trade-unionism. I need not go into these. The freedom, not only of voluntary members, but of citizens outside the ring, is utterly trampled under foot. And this brings us back to Mr. Pickard and the soul of truth in his argument. I affirm that a people might utterly abolish and extirpate the State, and yet remain steeped to the lips in socialism of the most revolting type. And I think, as I have said, it is time for those of us who value freedom and detest despotism, from whatever quarter it emanates, to ask ourselves what are the true principles of Lynch law. Suppose, for example, there was no State to appeal to for protection against a powerful ruffian, what should I do? Most certainly I should combine with others no stronger than myself, and overpower the ruffian by superior brute-force. Ought I to do this? Ought I not rather to allow the survival of the fittest to improve the physique of the race—even at my expense? If not, then ought I to combine with others against the freedom of the sly pick-pocket, who through his superior dexterity and agility and cool courage prevails over me, and appropriates my watch, without any exercise of brute force? Are not these qualities useful to the race? Then why should I conspire with others against the harmless sneak who puts chicory in his coffee? If I do not like his coffee, I can go and buy somebody else's? If he chooses to offer me stone for bread at fourpence a pound, and if I am foolish enough to take it at the price, I shall learn to be wiser in future, or else perish of starvation and rid the race of a fool. Then again why should I not conspire? Or are there some sorts of combination which are good, and properly called co-operation, while others are bad, and properly called conspiracy? Let us look a little into this matter of combination,—this arraying of Quantity against Quality.


Hooks and eyes are very useful. Hooks are useless; eyes are useless. Yet in combination they are useful. This is co-operation. Where you have division of labour, and consequent differentiation of function, and eventually of structure, there is co-operation. Certain tribes of ants have working members and fighting members. The military caste are unable to collect food, which is provided for them by the other members of the community, in return for which they devote themselves to the defence of the whole society. But for these soldiers the society would perish. If either class perished, the other class would perish with it. It is the old fable of the belly and the limbs.


Division of labour does not always result in differentiation of structure. In the case of bees and many other insects we know that it does. Among mammals beyond the well-marked structural division into male and female, the tendency to fixed structural changes is very slight. In races where caste prevails, the tendency is more marked. Even in England, where caste is extinct, it has been observed among the mining population of Northumbria. And the notorious short-sightedness of Germans has been set down to compulsory book-study. As a general rule, we may neglect this effect of co-operation among human beings. The fact remains that the organised effort of 100 individuals is a very great deal more effective than the sum of the efforts of 100 unorganised individuals. Co-operation is an unmixed good. And the Ishmaelitic anarchy of the bumblebee is uneconomic. Hostility to the principle of co-operation (upon which society is founded) is usually attributed by the ignorant to philosophical anarchists, while socialists never weary of pointing to the glorious triumphs of co-operation, and claiming them for socialism. Whenever a number of persons join hands with the object of effecting a purpose otherwise unattainable, we have what is tantamount to a new force,—the force of combination; and the persons so combining, regarded as a single body, may be called by a name,—any name: a Union, an Association, a Club, a Company, a Corporation, a State. I do not say all these terms denote precisely the same thing, but they all connote co-operation.


Let the State be now abolished for the purposes of this discussion. How do we stand? We have by no means abolished all the clubs and companies in which citizens find themselves grouped and interbanded. There they all are, just as before,—nay, there are a number of new ones, suddenly sprung up out of the débris of the old State. Here are some eighty men organised in the form of a cricket-club. They may not pitch the ball as they like, but only in accordance with rigid laws. They elect a king or captain, and they bind themselves to obey him in the field. A member is told off to field at long-on, although he may wish to field at point. He must obey the despot.


Here is a ring of horsemen. They ride races. They back their own horses. Disputes arise about fouling, or perhaps the course is a curve and some rider takes a short cut; or the weights of the riders are unequal, and the heavier rider claims to equalise the weights. All such matters are laid before a committee, and rules are drawn up by which all the members of the little racing club pledge themselves to be bound. The club grows: other riding or racing men join it or adopt its rules. At last, so good are its laws that they are accepted by all the racing fraternity in the island, and all racing disputes are settled by the rules of the Jockey Club. And even the judges of the land defer to them, and refer points of racing law to the club.


Here again is a knot of whalers on the beach of a stormy sea. Each trembles for the safety of his own vessel. He would give something to be rid of his own uneasiness. All his eggs are in one basket. He would willingly distribute them over many baskets. He offers to take long odds that his own vessel is lost. He repeats the offer till the long odds cover the value of his ship and cargo, and perhaps profits and time. 'Now,' says he, 'I am comfortable: it is true, I forfeit a small percentage; but if my whole craft goes to the bottom I lose nothing.' He laughs and sings, while the others go croaking about the sands, shaking their heads and looking fearfully at the breakers. At last they all follow his example, and the net result is a Mutual Marine Insurance Society. After a while they lay the odds, not with their own members only, but with others; and the risk being over-estimated (naturally at first), they make large dividends. But now difficulties arise. The captain of a whaler has thrown cargo overboard in a heavy sea. The owner claims for the loss. The company declines to pay, on the ground that the loss was voluntarily caused by the captain and not by the hand of God or the king's enemies; and that there would be no limit to jettison if the claim were allowed. Other members meet with similar difficulties, and finally rules are made which provide for all known contingencies. And when any dispute arises, the chosen umpire (whether it be a mutual friend, or an agora-full of citizens, or a department of State, or any other person or body of persons) refers to the common practice and precedents so far as they apply. In other words, the rules of the Insurance Society are the law of the land. In spite of the State, this is so to-day to a considerable extent; I may say, in all matters which have not been botched and cobbled by statute.


There is another class of club springing out of the altruistic sentiment. An old lady takes compassion on a starving cat (no uncommon sight in the West End of London after the Season). She puts a saucer of milk and some liver on the door-step. She is soon recognised as a benefactress, and the cats for a mile round swarm to her threshold. The saucers increase and multiply, and the liver is an item in her butcher's bill. The strain is too great to be borne single-handed. She issues a circular appeal, and she is surprised to find how many are willing to contribute a fair share, although their sympathy shrivels up before an unfair demand. They are willing to be taxed pro rata, but they will not bear the burden of other people's stinginess. 'Let the poor cats bear it rather,' they say; 'what is everybody's business is nobody's business. It is very sad, but it cannot be helped. If we keep one cat, hundreds will starve; so what is the use?' But when once the club is started, nobody feels the burden; the Cats' Home is built and endowed, and all goes well. Hospitals, infirmaries, aims-houses, orphanages, spring up all round. At first they are reckless and indiscriminate, and become the prey of impostors and able-bodied vagrants. Then rules are framed; the Charity Organisation Society co-ordinates and directs public benevolence. And these rules of prudence and economy are copied and adopted, in many respects, by those who administer the State Poor Law.


Then we have associations of persons who agree on important points of science or politics. They wish to make others think with them, in order that society may be pleasanter and more congenial for themselves. They would button-hole every man in the street and argue the question out with him, but the process is too lengthy and wearisome. They club together, and form such institutions as the British and Foreign Bible Society, which has spent £7,000,000 in disseminating its literature all over the world. We have the Cobden Club, which is slowly and sadly dying of inconsistency after a career of merited success. We have scientific societies of all descriptions that never ask or expect a penny reward for all their outlay, beyond making other people wiser and pleasanter neighbors.


Finally, we have societies banded together to do battle against rivals on the principle of 'Union is strength.' These clubs are defensive or aggressive. The latter class includes all trading associations, the object of which is to make profits by out-manœuvering competitors. The former or defensive class includes all the political societies formed for the purpose of resisting the State-the most aggressive club in existence. Over one hundred of these 'protection societies' of one sort and another are now federated under the hegemony of the Liberty and Property Defence League.


Now we have agreed, for the sake of argument, that the State is to be abolished. What is the result? Here are Watch Committees formed in the great towns to prevent and to ensure against burglars, thieves, and like marauders. How they are to be constituted I do not clearly know; neither do I know the limits of their functions. Here, again, is a Mutual Inquest Society to provide for the examination of dead persons before burial or cremation, in order to make murder as unprofitable a business as possible. Here is a Vigilance Association sending out detectives for the purpose of discovering and lynching the unsocial wretches who knowingly travel in public conveyances with infectious diseases on them. Here is a journal supported by consumers for the advertisement of adulterating dealers. And here again is a filibustering company got up by adventurous traders, of the old East India Company stamp, for the purpose of carrying trade into foreign countries with or without the consent of the invaded parties. Here is a Statistical Society devising rules to make it unpleasant for those who evade registration and the census, and offering inducement to all who furnish the required information. What sort of organisation (if any) will be formed for the enforcement (not necessarily by brute force) of contract? Or will there be many such organisations dealing with different classes of contract? Will there be a Woman's League to boycott any man who has abused the confidence of a woman and violated his pledges? How will it try and sanction cases of breach of promise?


Above all, how is this powerful company for the defence of the country against foreign invaders to be constituted? And what safeguards will its members provide against the tyranny of the officials? When a Senator proposed to limit the standing army of the United States to three thousand, George Washington agreed, on condition that the honorable member would arrange that the country should never be invaded by more than two thousand. Frankenstein created a monster he could not lay. This will be a nut for anarchists of the future to crack.


And now, to revert to the Vigilance Society formed for lynching persons who travel about in public places with small-pox and scarlatina, what rules will they make for their guidance? Suppose they dub every unvaccinated person a 'focus of infection,' shall we witness the establishment of a Vigilance Society to punch the heads of the detectives who punch the heads of the 'foci of infection'? Remember we have both those societies in full working order today. One is called the State, and the other is the Anti-Vaccination Society.


The questions which I should wish to ask are chiefly these two:—(1) How far may voluntary co-operators invade the liberty of others? And what is to prevent such invasion under a system of anarchy? (2) Is compulsory co-operation ever desirable? And what form (if any) should such compulsion take?


The existing State is obviously only a conglomeration of several large societies which would exist separately or collectively in its absence; if the State were abolished, these associations would necessarily spring up out of its ruins, just as the nations of Europe sprang out of the ruins of the Roman Empire. They would apparently lack the power of compulsion. No one would be compelled to join against his will. Take the ordinary case of a gas-lit street. Would an voluntary gas-committee be willing to light the street without somehow taxing all the dwellers in the street? If yes, then there is inequity. The generous and public-spirited pay for the stingy and mean. But if no, then how is the taxing to be accomplished? And where is the line to be drawn? If you compel a man to pay for lighting the street, when he swears he prefers it dark (a householder may really prefer a dark street to a light one, if he goes to bed at sunset, and wants the traffic to be diverted into other streets to ensure his peace); then you will compel him to subscribe to the Watch fund, though his house is burglarproof; and to the fire-brigade, though his house is fireproof; and to the prisons as part of the plant and took of the Watch Committee; and, it may logically be urged, to the churches and schools as part also of such plant and tools for the prevention of certain crimes.


Moreover, if you compel him to subscribe for the gas in the street, you must make him pay his share of the street itself—paving, repairing, and cleansing, and if the street, then the highway; and if the highway, then the railway, and the canal, and the bridges, and even the harbours and lighthouses, and other common apparatus of transport and locomotion.


If we are not going to compel a citizen to subscribe to common benefits, even though he necessarily shares them, how are we to remove the injustice of allowing one man to enjoy what another has earned? Some writers*42 are of opinion that this and all similar questions can be settled by an appeal to Justice, and that the justice of any particular case can be extracted by a dozen jurymen. Now, in all sincerity, I have no conception of what is commonly meant by Justice. Happiness I know; welfare I know; expediency I know. They all mean the same thing. We can call it pleasure, or felicity, or by any other name. We never ask why it is better to be happy than unhappy. We understand pleasure and pain by faculties which underlie reason itself. A child knows the meaning of stomach-ache long before it knows the meaning of stomach. And no philosopher knows it better. Expediency, in the sense in which I use the term, has a meaning. Justice has no meaning at all: that is to say, it conveys no definite meaning to the general understanding. Here is a flat-race about to be run between a strong, healthy boy of sixteen and a delicate lad of twelve? What says Justice? Are we to handicap them; or are we not ? It is a very simple question, and the absolutist ought to furnish us with a simple answer. If he says Yes, he will have half the world down upon him as a socialist leveller. If he says No, he will have the other half down upon him as a selfish brute. But he must choose. Lower yet; even supposing that Justice has a distinct connotation, and furthermore that it connotes something sublime, even then, why should I conform to its dictates? Because it is a virtue? Nonsense: because it is expedient. Why should I tell the truth? There is no reason why, except that it is expedient for me, as I know from experience. There is no baser form of lying than fly-fishing. Is it wrong? No. Why not? Because I do not ask the fishes to trust me in the future. That is why.


I have said that Justice is too vague a guide to the solution of political questions. We are told that, when the question is asked, What is fair and just between man and man? 'you can get a jury of twelve men to give a unanimous verdict.' And 'that by reasoning from what is fair between man and man we can pass to what is fair between one man and several, and from several, to all: and that this method, which is the method of all science, of reasoning from the particular to the general, from the simple to the complex, does give us reliable information as to what should be law.'*43


The flaw in this chain of reasoning is in the assumption that, because you can get a unanimous verdict in the majority of cases as to what is fair between man and man, therefore you can get a true verdict. Twelve sheep will unanimously jump through a gap in the hedge round an old quarry, if one of them will but give the lead. I do not believe that a jury of twelve philosophers, or of twelve members of Parliament, or of twelve judges of the realm, or of twelve anybodies, could decide correctly what is just and right between man and man in any one of a thousand cases which could be stated without deviating from the path of everyday life. And the more they knew, the less likely they would be to agree.


The same writer thinks the intelligence of the 'ordinary elector' quite sufficient to tell him that 'it would be unjust to take from a man by force and without compensation a farm which he had legally and honestly bought.' Well, this is not a very complex case: and yet I doubt whether 'the ordinary elector' could be trusted even here to see justice, and to do it. This recipe for making good laws forcibly reminds me of an old recipe for catching a bird: 'Put a pinch of salt on its tail.' I remember trying it,—but that is some years ago. I grant that, having once got at a sound method of deciding what is fair and right between man and man, you can easily proceed from the particular to the general, and so learn how to make good laws. Yes, but first catch your hare. First show us what is fair between man and man. That is the whole problem. That is my difficulty, and it is not removed by telling me you can get a dozen fellows together who will agree about the answer.


Take a very simple case. X and Y appoint me arbitrator in their dispute. There is no allegation of malfeasance on either side. Both ask for justice, and are ready to accord it, but they cannot agree as to what is justice in the case. It appears that X bought a pony bona fide and paid for it. That is admitted. It further appears that the pony was stolen the night before out of Y's paddock. It is hard on Y to lose his pony—it is hard on X to lose his money. To divide the loss is hard on both. Now how can Justice tell me the true solution? I must fall back on expediency. As a rule, I argue, the title to goods should be valid only when derived from the owner. But surely an exception should be made in the case of a bona fide purchaser: 'for it is expedient that the buyer, by taking proper precautions, may at all events be secure of his purchase: otherwise all commerce between man and man would soon be at an end.' These are the words of Sir William Blackstone, but they are good enough for me. Therefore (and not for any reason based on justice) I should feel disposed to decide that the pony should remain the property of the purchaser. But on further reflection, I should bethink me how extremely easy it would be for two men to conspire together to steal a pony under such a law. One of them leads the pony out of the field by night, sells it to his colleague, gives him a receipt for the money, and disappears. Is this farce to destroy the owner's title? What am I to do? Justice entirely deserts me. I reflect again. There seems to be something 'fishy' about a night sale in a lane. Now had the purchaser bought the pony at some public place at a reasonable hour when people are about, there would have been less ground for suspicion of foul play. How would it be then, I ask myself, to lay down the general rule that, when the deal takes place at any regular public place and during specified hours, the purchaser's title should hold good: but when the deal takes place under other circumstances, the original owner's title should stand? This would probably be something like the outcome of the reflections of a simple untutored mind actuated by common sense. But it is also very like the law of England.


If I appeal for guidance to the wise, the best they can do is to refer me to the writings of the lawyers, where I shall find out all about market overt and a good many other 'wise regulations by which the law bath secured the right of the proprietor of personal chattels from being divested, so far as is consistent with that other necessary policy that bona fide purchasers in a fair, open, and regular manner should not be afterwards put to difficulties by reason of the previous knavery of the seller.'*44 But we have not got to the bottom of the problem yet. There are chattels and chattels. Tables have legs, but cannot walk: horses can. Thereby hangs a tale. Consequently when I think I have mastered all these 'wise regulations,' I am suddenly knocked off my stool of superior knowledge by a couple of elderly statutes—2 P. & M. c. 7 and 31 Eliz. c. 12—whereby special provision is made for horse-dealing. It is enacted that—

The horses shall be openly exposed in the time of such fair or market for one whole hour together, between ten in the morning and sunset, in the public place used for such sales, and not in any private yard or stable; and shall afterwards be brought by both the vendor and vendee to the bookkeeper of such fair or market, who shall enter down the price, colour, and marks of such horse, with the name,, additions, and abode of such vendee and vendor, the latter being properly attested. And even such sale shall not take away the property of the owner, if within six months after the horse is stolen, he put in his claim before some magistrate where the horse shall be found; and within forty days more prove such his property, by the oath of two witnesses, and tender to the person in possession such price as he bona fide paid for the horse in market overt. And in case any of the points before mentioned be not observed, such sale is to be utterly void, and the owner shall not lose his property; and at any distance of time may seize or bring an action for his horse, wherever he happens to find him.


And further refinements on these precautions have since been made.


I do not say that we need approve of all these safeguards and rules, but I do say that they testify to a perception by the legislature of the complexity and difficulty of the question. And furthermore, if anybody offers to decide such cases off-hand on general principles, and at the same time to do justice, he must be a bold man. For my part, the more I look into the law as it is, the more do I see in it of wisdom (not unadulterated of course) drawn from experience. The little obstacles which have from time to time shadowed themselves upon my mind as difficulties in the way of applying clear and unqualified general roles to the solution of all social disputes, are brought into fuller light, and I perceive more and more clearly how hopeless, nay, how impossible it is to deduce the laws of social morality from broad general principles; and how absolutely necessary it is to obtain them by induction from the myriads of actual cases which the race has had to solve somehow or other during the last half-dozen millenniums.


I regard law-making as by no means an easy task when based on expediency. On the contrary, I think it difficult, but practicable: whereas to deduce good laws from the principle of Justice is impossible.


One word more about Justice. I have said that to most people the term is absolutely meaningless. To those who have occasional glimmerings, it conveys two distinct and even opposed meanings—sometimes one, sometimes the other. And it has a third meaning, which is definite enough, but merely negative; in which sense it connotes the elimination of partiality. I fail to see how any political question can be settled by that. That the State should be no respecter of persons, that it should decide any given case in precisely the same way, whether the litigants happen to be A and B or C and D, may be a valuable truth, without casting a ray of light on the right and wrong of the question.


In this negative sense of the term I will venture to define Justice as the Algebra of Judgments. It deals in terms not of Dick, Tom, and Harry, but of X, Y, and Z. Regarded in this light, Justice may properly be described as blind, a quality which certainly cannot be predicated of that Justice which carefully examines the competitors in life's arena and handicaps them accordingly. Consider the countless questions which Impartiality is incompetent to answer. Ought a father to be compelled to contribute to the maintenance of his natural children? The only answer we can get from Impartiality is that, if one man is forced, all men should be forced. Should a man be permitted to sell himself into slavery for life? Should the creditors of an insolvent rank in order of priority, or pro rata? Suppose a notorious card-sharper and a gentleman of unblemished character are publicly accused, untruly accused, of conspiring together to cheat, should they obtain equal damages for the libel?


To all these questions Impartiality is dumb, or replies oracularly, 'What is right for one is right for all.' And that throws no light on the subject.


In short, it is easy to underrate the difficulty of finding out what is fair and right between man and man. To me it seems that this is the whole of the difficulty. And although I think that this can best be overcome by an appeal to expediency, I must not be understood as contending that each particular case must be decided on its merits. We must be guided, as we are guided in our own personal conduct, by middle principles which have stood the test of time and experience. Do not steal. Do not lie. It is by the gradual discovery of similar middle principles by induction from the disputes of everyday life that we shall some day find ourselves in possession of true and useful guides through labyrinth of legislation and politics.


To sum up; I have tried to show that the right course for the State to adopt towards its own citizens—Group-morals—cannot be discovered by deduction from any abstract principles, such as Justice or Liberty; any more than individual morals can be deduced from some underlying law of Virtue. The rules of conduct by which States should be guided are intelligible canons based on centuries of experience, very much like the rules by which our own private lives are guided; not absolutely trustworthy, but better than no general rules at all. They are usually described as the laws of the land, and in so far as the expressed laws really do reflect the nomological laws actually at work, these laws stand in the same relation to the State as private resolutions stand to the individual citizen. In law, as in all other inductive sciences, we proceed from the particular to the general. The judge decides a new case on its merits, the decision serves as a guide when a similar case arises; the ratio decidendi is extracted, and we have a general statement; these generalisations are themselves brought under higher generalisations by jurists and judges, and perhaps Parliament; and finally we find ourselves in the presence of laws or State-morals as general as those cardinal virtues by which most of us try to arrange our lives. That the generalisations made by the legislature are usually false generalisations is a proposition which, I submit, is capable of proof and of explanation. It is wise to obey the laws, firstly, because otherwise we come into conflict with a stronger power than ourselves; secondly, because in the great majority of cases, it is our enlightened interest to do so; the welfare of individual citizens coinciding as a rule with the welfare of the race, and tending to do so more and more. History shows that (probably as a means to that end; though of this we cannot speak positively) the State's sphere of action is a diminishing one-that as it moves forward, it tends to shed function after function, until only a few are left. Whether these duties will pass into the hands of voluntary corporations at any time is a question of the greatest interest; but it is observable that the latest functions remaining to the State are those which are most rigorously performed. And this seems to point to the future identity of the State (in the sense of the sovereign power) with the widest voluntary association of citizens—an association based on some common interest of the widest extent. Thus it is probable that even now an enormous majority of persons in this country would voluntarily forego the right of killing or robbing their neighbors on condition of being guaranteed against similar treatment by others. If so, the voluntary society which Anarchy would evolve and the State which ancient Socialism has evolved, tend in the long run to be one and the same thing. The State will cease to coerce, because coercion will no longer be required.


Notes for this chapter

Is it not a pity to go to France for a term to denote a political idea so peculiarly English? The correct and idiomatic English for laissez-faire is let-be, 'Let me be; says the boy in the street, protesting against interference. Moreover, it is not only colloquial but classical. 'The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him' (Matt. xxvii. 49). There is a barbarous ring about Let act, which is calculated to reflect on the doctrine conveyed. For the last seventeen years I have always found it convenient to speak of the Let-be School.
I may, however, refer to a quaint tract entitled 'Municipal Socialism,' published by the Liberty and Property Defence League. This capital satire on modern local legislation I take up in the name of our forefathers and fling at the heads of those pharisaical reformers of today who never weary of tittering at 'the wisdom of our ancestors.'
'Whereas, notwithstanding all former laws and provisions already made, the inordinate and extreme vice of excessive drinking and drunkenness doth more and more abound, to the great offence of Almighty God and the wasteful destruction of God's good creatures...'
See Mr. Spence's contribution to the Symposium on the Land Question, p. 42, 1890 (T. Fisher Unwin).
Symposium on the Land Question.

IV. State Socialism in the Antipodes, by Charles Fairfield

End of Notes

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