Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/January 1885/State Usurpation of Parental Functions

Popular Science Monthly Volume 26 January 1885  (1885) 
State Usurpation of Parental Functions by Auberon Herbert


(Letter to the London "Times.")

SIR: Your reviewer, reviewing Mr. Spencer's valuable book of "Man vs. The State" with great sympathy and interest, seems to wonder why Mr. Spencer does not believe in and admire the Factory Acts. Surely to protect children against parents greedy of gain is and must be a right act seems to be his instinctive thought, as it is that of so many other persons.

Will you let me point out one reason why these acts were and always will be, till they are swept away, a very mischievous, though a well-meant, stupidity? They simply are one among the many other stupid attempts to make an official regulation take the place of the unselfish care of parents for their children. How absurd the whole thing seems as one looks quietly back on what took place! Before any acts were passed, parents were supposed—and probably with justice enough in many cases—to be overworking their children, selling their bone and muscle for the wages they received. the acts are passed, and then the air is filled with congratulations on the immense progress made. Moloch shall not be worshiped any more; the white slavery is over; neither the manufacturer nor the parent shall draw an unholy profit from the very life of the children. How hollow and untrue the whole thing was! As if there would have been a single worshiper of Moloch, whether he was parent or manufacturer, the less on the morrow; as if, by the mere idle method of holding some meetings, getting some votes together, and passing an act of Parliament, one fiber in the nature of the Moloch-worshipers would have undergone change! I say deliberately the idle method, because here is the root of the whole matter. All these official reforms are essentially idle. Is the nation to be sober? Pass an act of Parliament out of hand, and shut up the public-houses. Is it to be provident? Pass an act of Parliament and compel men to make provision for themselves. Is it to be intelligent? Pass an act of Parliament and harry the homes till every child is at school. Is it to consist of unselfish and devoted parents? Pass a factory act, and tie the hands of the parent so that he can no longer sell his child's labor. Nothing is required of us but to hold some enthusiastic meetings, make some speeches, write some letters to the "Times", and scrape votes enough together, and then all these great things shall be done. Happy world! How easily it is to be cured of its faults! We may now sink back contentedly into our arm-chairs for the rest of our life, enjoy the testimonials we received in the moment of enthusiasm, admire the statues that were gratefully raised to us, and reperuse our own speeches, as there remains nothing else for us to do in presence of the regeneration in human nature that our last batch of regulations has effected. In view of this modern plan of growing good in ten minutes, we disquieted ourselves very uselessly in past days about the amount of original sin in human nature and the ills and infirmities to which human flesh was heir. What fools men are not to enjoy perfect health, when Holloway's pills, Clarke's blood-mixture, and Eno's fruit-salts are to be had for the ordering; and what fools they are not to become sober, provident, intelligent, and unselfish, when all that is wanted is only to pass two or three acts of Parliament to provide them with the qualities wanted!

The word idle seems to me to suit the case with great nicety. Taking care of the people by acts of Parliament seems to me very like the care of the mother for her child who rings the bell at the Foundling Institution, places her child on the door-step, and then contentedly goes on her own way. Let us suppose that she is doing the best for her child, still the trouble on her part is short and soon over. The long, slow years of anxiety and labor that fall to other mothers will not be for her.

It all ended for her, fortunate woman, when she rang the institution-bell. In the same way the political philanthropist has learned to lay his burden with but short delay on other shoulders than his own. The world's troubles are but an easy nut to crack according to his creed. A new law, a new office in some public department, a new batch of officials, will cure all human perversities from the parent that does not send his child to school down to the abandoned city sinner whoa outrages Mr. Dowsett's feelings by playing cards in the railway-carriage. Why should we tread any longer that toilsome road by which men have sought to better themselves and each other? Why paint a picture by hand, when you can do it so well by a chromo-lithographic process? Why exert ourselves to enlist the active moral forces of society on our side; to work by sympathy, discussion, advice and teaching of every kind; by personal contact; by that wonderful force of example which makes every better kind of life a magnetic power among the lower kinds; by that softening of character and greater gentleness that diffuse themselves everywhere, as savagery of all kinds is just allowed to melt quietly away under the thousand influences of civilization; by raising and ennobling our own motives for helping each other, and, above all, by constant efforts to enlarge and increase our own powers of seeing truly, so that we may understand what are the causes of the evils we see round us, and what are the conditions under which they can be successfully attacked? All this is simply superfluous in presence of the modern omniscient and omnipotent act of Parliament. Think how much trouble, how many long years of slow conversion are saved by our present admirable process of compulsion. Charlemagne—not St. Paul or St. John—was the really enlightened Christian apostle. Be baptized, or, is the one argument specially fitted for the souls of men. But, however excellent these compulsions may be for the first ten minutes, still every ten minutes has its afterward; and let me now ask, what is the after-fruit borne by these compulsions? Let us take for granted that before the first factory acts were passed many children were overworked. There were two ways open for those to take who felt the wrong and wished to remedy it. There was the easy, rapid, and unfruitful parliamentary way; there was the way—slow, up-hill, but very rich in after-fruits—of appealing directly to the people to reform the thing for themselves. I know this last way would have been slow. I know that all those who wish to gather fruit before the tree is planted would have exclaimed, "And meanwhile the children are left to suffer." I know it would have required a personal devotion and belief in their work far greater than that which is necessary for conducting a parliamentary agitation, with its showy and rather sensational rewards; but I also know that in the end the parent would not simply be rendering mechanical obedience to a law; I know that vigilant individual care and intelligent appreciation of the interests of their children would, as a consequence, have slowly grown to be a part of their character. How can these things ever grow into being, if by a compulsory law you make them as regards each special case in turn unnecessary? Did anything in this world ever come into being if you had rendered its growth superfluous? What is it that develops all the best qualities of human nature? Simply the pressure upon us of those natural pains and penalties that follow the absence of these qualities; then the intelligent perception that we are meant for our happiness to have these qualities; then the moral attachment to these qualities that is developed as we struggle to have them. But how can any of these things be if you step in between the man and Nature's way of teaching him with your hasty and ill-advised compulsions? The parent's treatment of the child, as regards his labor, had been both to parent and child an ever-growing, an ever-widening education, if you had had a little more patience as regards learning Nature's ways, and a little less arrogance as regards your own methods.

And now see to-day the second chapter that is already following on the first. Over a long series of years we have been congratulating ourselves upon the philanthropy of these acts and their excellent effect upon the people. A universal system of national education accompanied with compulsion has succeeded to the acts as their logical complement; and now to-day—thanks to the efforts of a few discerning people who have not simply followed a fashion in this matter—we wake to find that we are applying this system in such a hasty and reckless manner that we are injuring the very brains and bodies that we intended to benefit. Of course, the responsible office can not see the mischief—what public office ever did see or understand the more remote and less direct consequences of its actions? Of course, the great mass of parents that have let the education and management of their children slip practically out of their hands, that have measured their duties by an official regulation, that have allowed a group of worthy gentlemen at Whitehall to think and act for them, and have accepted so much public cash for thus morally effacing themselves, that, in a word, are drowsing while others care for and control the very greatest of their interests, have, just so far as they have done this, disqualified themselves from exercising a wise and intelligent discernment as to where the true loss and the true gain lie. How can it be otherwise? All great state systems stupefy. Without dwelling upon the oppressive uniformity; the sacrifice of some to others, and of all to official mediocrity; the stiff wooden parts; the pedantries and complexities that accompany all attempts at official nursing of a nation; the hard and fast regulations that turn grants of public money into a curse and not a blessing; the moral deterioration that results from marrying together one of the noblest of all desires, that of gaining more knowledge, with the meanest of all precautions, "Let us do it at the public expense"—leaving all this out of consideration, the one great fact remains, sufficient in itself to damn the whole thing, that where you have a national and uniform system, there you necessarily have two political parties struggling for its management and blotting out all individual choice and perception by the discipline—in an intellectual sense the brutalizing discipline—that each party for the sake of defeating its opponent learns to submit to. All discipline for fighting purposes brutalizes in this sense. It deprives men of more than half their perceptions. And so it comes naturally about that, having adopted the very best means to make ourselves thoroughly stupid about education—first, by factory acts, and then by their logical completion, a universal state system—we now find ourselves face to face with dangers, the very possibility of which, in our hurry to manufacture intelligence by state machinery, had never occurred to us. But this frightful and almost immeasurable evil of over-pressure, which is certainly not going to be charmed out of existence by any number either of indignant or persuasive minutes written with an undisguised odor of office about them by my friend Mr. Fitch, is not the only sign that you can not make the state a parent without the logical consequence of making the people children. Some years ago we were startled by the reports of the ill-adapted food on which children in certain parts of the manufacturing districts were fed, or rather were not fed; we were startled by the high death-rate of very young children in certain towns. Yet we might have known it would be so. These are the necessary fruits of all such legislation as that of factory acts or of state education and compulsion, which forces on parents a certain view of their duty instead of leaving them, slowly and painfully though it may be, to learn it intelligently for themselves. Official regulation and free mental perception of what is right and wise do not and can not co-exist. I see no possible way in which you can reconcile these great state services, and the conditions under which men have to make true progress in themselves. At least, if you are to do so, you must first get rid of certain great facts in nature. At present we live under the condition which, unfortunately, seems likely to last our time or a little longer, that no great human qualities are developed where you take away the opportunities for their development, that they do not grow spontaneously and without pressure, that each action by which for the moment the good and the bad are placed on the same level—for example, the selfish and the unselfish parent, or the drunkard and the sober man—tends to delay the emergence of the bettor type out of the inferior type. Every such kind of action relieves the unworthy of the consequences of their actions, and takes from the worthy the occasions of acquiring, and preserving, and strengthening those qualities that are good and useful. In a word, so far as you are able to do it for the moment, you make goodness unnecessary; and as unfortunately the world was constructed on a plan which makes goodness an essential element in obtaining happiness, you are trying to go by one road while Nature is trying to go by another. My two friends, Mr. Mundella and Sir W. Lawson, both of them against their will architects of national incapacity, may quarrel with my verdict on their work, but, quarrel or not, they are both doing their best—the one to make temperance and the other to make the intelligent care of parents for their children an unnecessary part of human nature. They are both throwing all the power and influence that are in their hands on the side of the inferior type; they are both, so far as they can do it, preventing the development of the better type. They are both manufacturing virtues which are the mere imitations of virtues, sham products that, as time will tell them, will neither wash nor wear. Many men before them have tried a fall with Nature and her conditions, and have scarcely had the best of it. Nature in her irony often allows us a ten minutes of seeming success when we go against her methods, and I doubt not that both Sir W. Lawson and Mr. Mundella will have a ten minutes of their own; but then comes the after-time in which the bent bow flies back. I hope as it does so it may not hit any of my friends too violently in the face who have been so strenuously bending it down.