Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/June 1891/Editor's Table



IF argument can avail aught in the practical direction of events, the volume lately published under the title of A Plea for Liberty ought to exert a powerful influence upon the politics of our day in so far as they are occupied with questions of social reform. The book is packed with well-digested information and solid reasoning, and no one can fail to derive from its perusal a clearer and wider comprehension of the social problem in its various aspects. The great question which continually presents itself, whatever department of social work we turn to, is, Shall we attempt to hasten improvement by legislation, or shall we trust to the resources of freely acting individuals to modify things in their own interest and to their own advantage? Sometimes, no doubt, legislation, national or municipal, is our only recourse; but the teaching of the book before us is that this recourse has been had in a multitude of cases in which the problem would have been far better solved by individual initiative and action. Another point which is well brought out is that philanthropy in the great majority of cases misses its aim; it wishes to do good, and it does mischief, just reversing the procedure of that ancient prophet who tried to curse, but found himself blessing against his will.

The general issue before the world at the present moment is a very serious one. Mr. Spencer has well expressed it when he entitles his introductory essay From Freedom to Bondage. There is an undoubted danger lest, as he says, those structures in the body politic which make for regulation should gain such a development and such a preponderance as to leave but an insignificant measure of freedom to the social units, and thus, by cramping their activities, fatally impair their energies. We know what a torpor has crept over the Eastern nations through the stereotyping of customs and institutions multiplied beyond all reason. Some one will perhaps say: "Shall we not always remain a free people, with power to change our institutions if they become burdensome? And what does it matter who does social work so long as it is done?" Both questions deserve answer. An institution may be burdensome and hurtful without being felt to be so; or, if felt to be so, the feeling may not be sufficiently acute to prompt to the action necessary to obtain a change; or, again, the feeling, though more or less acute, may not be accompanied by a sense of power to make the change. Look at individuals. Does every individual who theoretically possesses the power to alter his mode of life to his own advantage put that power into exercise? Does every individual who is shown a more excellent way at once shake off ancient habit and enter on the better path? We all know the enormous influence which procrastination, inertness, love of ease, and prejudice in favor of what is established exert on individual lives; and even so is it with society. There is salvation for the individual at given moments, at special conjunctions, at certain partings of the ways; but, the favorable opportunity missed, the situation becomes more difficult and hopeless with every hour. In social matters the civilized world has been going wrong for years past, and is now threatened with a vast increase of the tyrannical legislation which it has been inviting. It may not be too late yet, however, to make a stand, and perhaps to reverse the current of change. The object of A Plea for Liberty is to force reflection on the subject, and, if possible, to dispel the illusion under which so many have fallen that legislation alone, the action of the state, can make a way for us out of our social difficulties.

Mr. Spencer lays stress on the fact that, in many departments of life, without the intervention of government, progress is being made every day toward a better state of things. There is a power of self-adjustment in individuals which, if not artificially checked, makes infallibly toward better conditions. Elsewhere in the volume we are shown the drawbacks that more or less attend all corporate action, but which in a very marked manner attend the action of the most comprehensive and potent corporation of all—the state; and thus are furnished with an answer to the second question, which a few moments ago we were supposing to be asked: What does it matter who discharges any particular function, so long as it is discharged? If it can be shown that, within the whole radius of state-directed activity, there is a diminution of the motives that give to labor and effort their highest efficiency, then it matters a great deal whether individuals are acting freely as individuals in full contact with a natural environment or whether they are replaced by a host of state-paid employés, dragging on in a lazy and intermittent fashion a lumbering governmental machine. Nothing is more capable of demonstration than that government work is, in general, done in a more or less inefficient and perfunctory manner, and always in a wasteful manner. The natural conclusion to draw from this fact would be that the functions of government should be curtailed as much as possible, so that we might have as little as possible of such inferior and expensive work. Unfortunately, this conclusion is drawn by but few. The results of government work are visible and tangible. They are manifest in buildings, harbors, vessels, blue-books, and people are imposed upon by the scale of the operations of the state. They do not ask how much greater or better results the money expended might have yielded; still less do they ask how much of private enterprise has been paralyzed by an unnecessary extension of the functions of the state. But these questions should be asked, and it is the merest unthrift not to ask them. Of all the printing done by the Government in this country, for example, how much serves a really useful purpose? How much finds its way to the junk shop, and thence to the paper-mill? If accurate answers could be had to these questions, we think that even an indifferent public might be aroused.

One of the best essays in the volume we are discussing is that contributed by the editor, Mr. Thomas Mackay, on Investment. In a certain sense it may be said to cover the whole ground; for it deals in the most exhaustive and logical manner with the pretension put forward by socialists that all capital should be vested in the state and used by it for the general good. It shows that as an investor of capital the state is conspicuously incompetent, and that this is so from the very nature of the case. We are tempted to reproduce Mr. Mackay's terse and vigorous statement of his own position: "We argue that capital should belong to him who has earned it, that he alone can make the best use of it, and that he alone should suffer if it is allowed to disappear in ill-considered ventures, or to waste away more rapidly than is necessary for want of due reparation and care; further, that the right of bequest and inheritance is the most economical as well as the most equitable method for the devolution of property from one generation to another; and that the socialist ideal of the universal usefulness of capital, which is our ideal also, can be reached by an ever-widening extension of private ownership and by that means only." This is a succinct and to us refreshing statement of the individualist position; but Mr. Mackay is careful to add that he has no "superstitious respect for the laws which guarantee to owners too extended an authority over their property"; and he lays down what seems to us a useful definition when he says that "the rights of property are those which the mutual forbearance of the members of society finds convenient and indispensable." He thinks that matters in which the courts of law now intervene could be better settled by the parties out of court, and that a certain curtailment in the number of actionable cases might well be made. "In an atmosphere of liberty human character," he declares, "has an adaptability which will prove equal to all occasions." What he desiderates is a "character saturated with the motives of the free life, and in the conviction realized by experience, sanctioned by free choice and made instinctive by custom, that the free interchange of mutual service and mutual forbearance is the beneficent and yet attainable principle on which the well-being of society depends." These, however, are mere expressions of opinion, and Mr. Mackay does not put them forward without bringing facts to their support. His criticism of the state as an investor of the people's money will be found most searching; at the same time he frankly admits that the constantly recurring scandals which mark national and municipal administration are due, "not so much to the incapacity of vestrydom as to the impossible duties for which it is held responsible." He believes (with Henry George) that the legal restrictions on the liquor-traffic have impeded the growth of temperance, and he gives his reasons which we can not here reproduce. Of capital philanthropically employed, he says very tersely that "its usefulness varies inversely as its philanthropy"; and this opinion, too, is backed by cogent reasons drawn from actual experience. Long ago the world's greatest dramatist said, in a passage which Mr. Spencer has most effectively quoted in his First Principles,

"Nature is made better by no mean,
But Nature makes that mean."

We may apply this somewhat differently from what Mr. Spencer has done, and say that Nature can not be bettered by any mean that is not itself natural; and it is because so much philanthropy is against Nature actually intended to check and antagonize the working of natural laws that it so signally and lamentably fails of any useful effect, and tends rather to aggravate social evils. The laws of the universe are more beneficent than we sometimes take them to be, even the law of natural selection which is so often railed against as cruel. We sincerely hope that the gospel of liberty, preached by Mill in his celebrated essay, and now preached anew, with a vastly enlarged array of proofs in the book to which we have called attention, will gain the ear of the world and rescue its civilization.