Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/January 1897/An Object Lesson in Social Reform


No error is more prevalent among intelligent and well-read people than that the social philosophy of Herbert Spencer has little or no practical application to the modern problems of social reform. So deep-rooted is this error that the ablest religious journal in the United States, which gives much attention to these problems, once advised him to throw it away. Because he does not favor recourse to the state for purposes outside of the maintenance of justice, it could not conceive that his social philosophy provided in a more effective way for the solution of social problems. By an account of a homely instance of the application of this philosophy, I purpose to show how practical it is in the ordinary as well as extraordinary affairs of life—how it has no rival in the important and beneficent work of bettering the condition of mankind. The instance to which I refer is the method adopted in the city of Rochester, N. Y., to provide side paths along the country roads for bicyclists.


In the early part of the present year the newspapers of the city made the surprising announcement one morning that there had just passed the State Legislature and been placed in the hands of the Governor for approval a bill to tax all bicyclists in Monroe County one dollar each, the fund thus raised to be devoted to the construction of side paths. I say surprising advisedly. Although it was afterward learned that seven or eight thousand bicyclists out of the twenty thousand in the county had signed petitions for the bill, scarcely any public mention of it had been made, and no public discussion of it had taken place. The newspapers went so far as to charge that it had been "sneaked" through the Legislature. While the charge was false, it illustrates for the thousandth time how important legislation may be had without the knowledge of the community it affects.

Besides an indiscriminate imposition of the tax on all bicyclists, whether living in the city or country, or whether they would have occasion or not to use the paths, the bill called into existence the customary political machinery to execute it. There were to be five side-path commissioners, appointed by the Board of Supervisors, and to serve five years. They were to determine the paths to be built, to decide how they should be built, to let contracts, and to issue orders on the county treasurer, the collector of the tax, for the payment of work. The most odious feature of the bill was the provision that the tax "should be a lien on the cycle taxed"; that in case of nonpayment the collector should "proceed to enforce said tax by seizing the cycle" and "selling the same at public auction to the highest bidder"; that the proceeds of such sale should be applied toward the payment of the tax and the incidental expenses, including the two-dollar fee to the collector.

In the heated discussion that followed the publication of these provisions, the usual arguments in favor of such legislation were brought forward. The most comprehensive as well as the most familiar was the "general-welfare" argument. This was the fine product of a clerical mind unable to appreciate the full significance of the golden rule and the commandment against covetousness. The argument of a distinguished physician, equally destitute of a keen appreciation of the rights of those bicyclists that might never have time to take an excursion into the country, was that "this plan is the only feasible solution of an extremely difficult problem." He said that it was "the outcome of careful consideration by the older and conservative wheelmen of the city, and not the scheme of the road riders, so called." He went to the extent of claiming most erroneously that "the opponents of the bill admit that the raising of such a fund by voluntary subscription would be impracticable, and only through legislative action, authorizing the construction of such paths along our common highways by a small annual tax, can this much-needed public improvement be consummated."

A curious feature of the discussion, one common to the arguments of the most enlightened as well as the most ignorant that took part in it, was the amazing exhibition of selfishness, and of indifference to the rights of others. "The millennium is too far ahead," wrote another defender of the bill, impatient with the delay involved in voluntary enterprise, and convinced of the perfect propriety of coercing the bicyclists that did not care to contribute. "Only a few of the present generation of riders will be able to enjoy the full benefits of that network of good roads promised when that time comes. Our largest interest is in the present. We are selfish enough to want a few of the good things now that are sure to come in abundance hereafter." Then, to show how just the tax was, since it was levied on bicyclists only, and how glad they would be to pay it, since all were taxed alike, he added: "We only ask those interested to contribute their mite. Every wheelman will be willing to pay his tax if he knows that his neighbor, who is a wheelman, will do the same. When a rider tells me he is against the bill because he is paying for something he does not use, I know that it is the one dollar, not the man, that is kicking. Every rider will use the best path, whether it be a side path or a road. This is human nature." Alluding, finally, to the people willing to avail themselves of what he was pleased to call, with infinite scorn, "the free-lunch way of going through life," he said: "Could we get the free-lunchers to pay a dollar if they were not forced to? No; but they will use the paths just the same, and kick if they are not kept in good repair."

How often have these arguments been made to do duty for all sorts of schemes to promote "the general welfare"! How forceful and admirable they appear to the excellent persons that frame them! In the first place, the tax was such a little one; no one could be too poor to pay it. In the second place, people would be so delighted to pay compulsorily what they would not pay voluntarily! In the third place, "could anything be more commendable than the suppression of "the free-lunch way of going through life," and the forcing of these odious "kickers" to pay for the paths they would be glad to have at other people's expense? Only one thing could be more commendable, and that is for those good people that want something done for their own benefit to pay for it themselves; only one thing could be more odious, and that is for these same people to get a law enacted to compel others to help them pay for it. The philanthropists that advocated the bill could not see that they, in reality, were the "free-lunchers"; for they were not so much interested in the encouragement of generosity as they were to profit from it after it had been encouraged. It was not "the kickers" that needed reformation—it was the reformers themselves.

What such excellent persons need most is not more knowledge, as many reformers suppose, but, as Mr. Spencer has often pointed out, a livelier imagination and keener sympathies. Had the training of these faculties been more perfect, the proposed tax would have called to mind the hundreds, if not thousands, of poor owners of bicycles that had been forced to practice the most rigid economy to buy them—the shop girls, the mechanics and laborers, the servant girls and messenger boys, and the impoverished invalids advised to take exercise to restore health shattered by long hours in shops or stores. There would have been the feeling that to these unfortunates a dollar was a considerable sum, and that if it could not be paid, as the bill required, the cost and annoyance of the legal proceedings authorized for its collection would be a serious hardship. The possible sufferings of unfortunate delinquents, rather than the advantage of paths and the suppression of "free-lunchers," would have filled the mirror of consciousness. With feelings stirred by pictures of injustice and suffering, not unworthy of the best days of a feudal despot, the benevolent advocates of the bill would have opposed it with even greater energy and skill than they defended it.

Another curious fact brought out was the ignorance of many of the petitioners as to the true character of the bill. Until the objections to it had been set forth in the newspapers, they did not realize what they had petitioned for. Even then it was impossible for some intelligent persons to comprehend that the bill was an outrage. I remember talking with two or three lawyers about it. Both from a legal and moral point of view they thought it an excellent measure. Another professional man, one of the brightest I ever knew, pronounced it the most just and practicable that could be proposed. But in spite of these perverted opinions, the discussion evoked such indignation and opposition that the bill was rejected by the mayor and common council, whose approval was required to make it law.


Now that the bill had been defeated in accordance with the social philosophy of Mr. Spencer, what, in accordance with that philosophy, was the next thing to be done? Was the construction of side paths to be opposed altogether? Were bicyclists to be deprived of this means of pleasure and rapid communication between the city and country? If the view taken of Mr. Spencer's social philosophy by the journal mentioned had been correct, these two questions would have to be answered in the negative. Nothing would have remained for the bicyclists to do but to get along as best they could with the bad roads and shoestring paths that fringe them.

Happily, however, the view in question was incorrect. Mr. Spencer's social philosophy enjoins the importance of taking advantage of every improvement, whatever it be, that will promote human welfare. That bicycle paths are an improvement of this kind needs no argument. As already intimated, they facilitate communication; they encourage people that live in the city to visit the country, acquaint themselves with its charms, and take the exercise that the preservation of health requires. But Mr. Spencer's social philosophy teaches that the improvement shall be undertaken voluntarily by those alone that desire it. Not only shall they undertake it themselves, but they shall seek to persuade others to join with them. What Mr. Spencer's philosophy forbids is that they shall ever resort to the argument of coercion to secure the aid of others.

Hardly had the bill been defeated before its opponents began work in accordance with this salutary principle of social reform. Through their efforts there sprang into existence, as in physical evolution, the social organs required to meet the new social wants. Voluntary associations were formed in different parts of the city to collect money from those that wished to give, and use it in the construction of paths. But the first step was not encouraging; it was decidedly discouraging. The meeting called to form the first Side-path Association was not attended by more than six or eight persons. But they were interested in the cause, and they were determined to do what they could to further it. They organized, elected a president, a vice president, a secretary, and a treasurer, collected a small sum from those present, and decided to go to work at once. The discussion that took place disclosed the conviction that it was inadvisable to wait until a larger fund had been collected. A previous experience was a warning against it. A bicycle organization in the city had collected six hundred dollars for paths, but, instead of beginning work at once with this sum, it waited to raise more money, and while waiting the money already in hand went for other purposes. Another reason for immediate action was the belief that as soon as bicyclists saw that the new association "meant business" they would contribute. Each foot of path constructed would be convincing evidence of the sincerity and enterprise of the association and of the value of the work undertaken. It was not long before money enough came in for a mile of path. Soon, too, two other associations were organized and began work in the same way.

The supreme merit of voluntary effort, as every careful student of Mr. Spencer's social philosophy knows, is the powerful stimulus it exerts both upon the generous emotions and upon the intellectual powers. People brought together by their interest in a common cause not only feel friendly toward one another, but by their desire to interest others in the same cause they are moved to be friendly with them. Most marked was the growth of this feeling among the bicyclists of the city and country after the defeat of the tax bill. It was often mentioned and commented upon. As a result of the desire to promote a common cause, contributions came in freely. They were not limited to the dollar fixed by the tax bill. There were several sums ranging from twenty-five to one hundred dollars. Nor did they come from bicyclists alone. People that never rode a wheel gave. Nor were contributions confined to money; they included cinders, ashes, and gravel for the paths and team work from farmers.

The invention of ways and means was quite as marked as the moral effect. Had the tax bill been passed, the bicyclists would have been just as indifferent to this subject as they would have been to one another. But the necessity of raising money by voluntary effort stimulated them to the discovery of the most effective ways. The women riders held a lawn festival, and raised some money; they gave an entertainment in a public hall and raised more. A newspaper was induced to undertake the collection of a fund. It was so successful that it obtained more than a thousand dollars. At the suggestion of a physician much interested in bicycle riding as a healthful exercise, a callithumpian parade was held in the driving park. Although the admission was only twenty-five cents, nearly twenty-five hundred dollars more were obtained. The result of the various methods for raising money was over five thousand dollars.

The best part of the defeat of the tax bill was the deliverance from politics and politicians. Here, too, was another application of the social philosophy of Mr. Spencer. How often has he shown that a more cumbersome, ineffective, and wasteful way of doing business could not be devised! Had the wit of man set about to invent something to dissipate energy, to stir up contention, and to produce the least satisfactory results, it could have hit upon nothing better adapted to this end than the tax bill. There would have been the intriguing for the appointment of the side-path commissioners; the scheming to get contracts for the construction of the paths; the pulling and hauling to have them constructed in some particular locality first; and, finally, the certainty that they would not have been built in the best and most economical way. But in place of this mass of politics, inseparable from the state conduct of business, there was the natural selection of the most reputable and fit men to take charge of the work. One of them was an engineer of long experience in municipal works. Another was a contractor of more than usual character and ability. Still another was a banker, who was made treasurer, and who personally inspected the work before it was paid for. Still another was a man of wealth and leisure, who was glad to devote himself thus to the welfare of his fellows. All the other gentlemen that had anything to do with the work were likewise men of standing in the community. All served without pay.

The result of the selection of such men was the construction of the largest possible number of miles of path with the smallest possible expenditure. They exercised care in the purchase and use of material. They knew that they had but a limited sum of money to spend, and they aimed to make it go as far as they could and to build as good paths as they could. They avoided expensive experiments. They made sure, before going ahead, that the plan they had adopted was the best. How well they succeeded is shown by the fact that no fault has been found with their work. As the various paths were completed, the bicyclists of the city were invited to join in what was called an "opening." From five hundred to two thousand would meet at the entrance of the path and ride over it. In every instance they expressed satisfaction with what had been done. It had been estimated, while the tax bill was under discussion, that the paths would cost ten cents a running foot. By the plan thought to be so chimerical the cost was reduced to from two to four cents a running foot.


What was done in this instance, where it was believed indispensable to summon the aid of the state, can be done in all instances. No practical problem of social reform has been or can be suggested that can not be solved by voluntary effort. To appeal to the state to solve it is to appeal to force, to resort to feudal methods. It is, moreover, to assume that I know better than my neighbors what will make them happy—that I have the right to compel them to make that use of their money that will add to my pleasure rather than to theirs. By the pursuit of this absurd policy, modern reformers, forgetting that they are following in the footsteps of the old French despots, imagine that they are hastening the millennium. What they are hastening is only a revolt against their suppression of freedom. They are building up a despotism of democracy certain to become just as hateful and intolerable as the despotism of autocracy.