Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/August 1892/State Intervention in Social Economy

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 41‎ | August 1892


THE Church has now a social doctrine which some Catholics assume to impose on the faith as a teaching of infallible authority. The papacy, turning toward the democracy, has presented a programme of social reform;[1] and in the face of the courtiers and of the people has declared to the age that the first article of the social reform must be a moral reform. This is a hard word to many ears, and the wise men of the world hearing it shake their heads and pass on. "Is that all you have to tell us?" the children of the age seem to say; "we have other things to do than stop to hear your wise advice. The time for these moral lessons has passed. Our progressive age wants something newer and more substantial, which it will hardly go for to Rome." Pope Leo XIII seems to have anticipated these sarcastic reflections, and his language is in marked distinction from that of his predecessors, by his not talking of religion and morals alone. He knows that this is not enough for the unbelieving masses; and after having reminded us that God alone can save us, he does not refuse to consider the means proposed by the wisdom or imagination of men for the pacification of contemporary society; and he examines these means with a kindly and patient solicitude, not as & mystic bent on exposing their vanity, but as a practical man anxious to find early solutions, and sincerely desiring to ameliorate the material position of the working classes.

Two ways to this result are open to our society: one by the intervention of the state, the other by special associations. Leo XIII has examined them both very carefully; and we purpose to see what he thinks of the first, the broadest one, on which the masses would cast themselves as if by instinct. Is the Church in favor of the intervention of the state or against it? The majority believe that, whether we be Catholic or heterodox, we must be for one or the other; that there can be no middle ground. But as a Catholic, Albert de Mun, has remarked, nothing so quickly leads to inexactness as the passion for arranging men and doctrines in separate groups and designating them by special terms. Such a classification would be especially fallacious in this case; for I do not know of any persons who utterly reject the intervention of the state. In one sense everybody is an interventionist, for we all agree with Leo and the theologians that it is the state's duty to protect the rights of every one, and that the repression of abuses belongs to it. But where does the function of protecting individuals which devolves upon the state begin, where does it end, over what does it extend? We do not all form the same conception of the attributes of the public power. This divergence is more important to our society than the contests of republicans and monarchists or the quarrels of opportunists and radicals. This, and not fastidious controversies on forms of government or the validity of constitutions, constitutes the vital question for modern nations.

The doctrine of laissez-faire, or let alone, has lately enjoyed in some states an authority which it does not deserve. It was once a device of freedom, but it was a negative device, and neither science nor society can rest wholly on a negation. Those who have tried to refer all economical science to it have only succeeded in discrediting political economy and economists. The let-alone, applied where it does not belong—to the work of children and girls in the shop or the mine, for example—becomes inhuman and murderous, and, as it were, the accomplice of the criminal exploitation of misery and vice. Hence it has gone into disfavor; and, as often happens to our human weakness, which straightens itself on one side only to lean over on the other, the inevitable reaction against the famous maxim of Gournay has passed just bounds.

This phrase was applied by those who invented it to industry, commerce, and labor. In demanding the let-alone, Gournay and the economists of the eighteenth century claimed for every Frenchman the right to make, sell, buy, and carry agricultural and industrial products freely. The demand was a protest against the minute and ruinous regulations of the old régime, against the pretension to hold in leading-strings everything in the kingdom that lived by labor. In this sense the laissez-faire is eternally true. Of all the phrases pronounced in France, it was one of those which resounded the farthest—the one, perhaps, that has put French words upon the largest number of human lips. The brief maxim, of which few know the author, has made the tour of the globe, and has contributed a good share to the renovation of the world. To it is due the emancipation of labor, and the development by that of public wealth in the nineteenth century. Because a generation or two, in two or three countries, have abused it, is no reason for forgetting its services, especially at a time when we see the old chains brought back, or new ones in forging, with which to load industry and labor.

The third part of the Pope's Encyclical is devoted to this important subject, and, after touching upon several aspects of the question, he concludes that "equity requires that the state concern itself with the workmen, and so act that, of all the goods they secure for society, a suitable part shall return to them, such as habitation and clothing, and that they may live at the cost of the fewest pains and privations. "Whence it follows that the state should favor all that closely or remotely appears calculated to ameliorate their lot." Such is the Pope's theory; but this is of less importance than the practice. If the state has a right to intervene, what should be the conditions and what the limits of its intervention? The Pope is very careful in expressing himself on this point, and declares that intervention ought not to be exercised except when it is absolutely indispensable, or when there is no other means of opposing the evils with which society is afflicted, and should be limited to seeing that every individual's rights are respected and preserved. If it comes to pass, he says, that workmen, abandoning their work or suspending it by strikes, menace public tranquillity; that the natural bonds of the family are relaxed among them; that religion is violated by employers not leaving them time to perform their duties of worship; if, by promiscuous mingling of the sexes or other excitations to vice, the factories imperil morality; if the employer imposes iniquitous burdens on the workmen, or dishonors their manhood by unworthy and degrading conditions; if he endangers their health by excessive tasks, disproportionate to their sex or age—in such cases it is necessary to use, within certain limits, the force and authority of the laws. In the protection of private rights, the Pope adds, the state should concern itself especially with the weak and indigent; and he qualifies his whole expression by saying that the law should undertake nothing beyond what is necessary to repress abuses and remove dangers.

The idea of the state as a Providence appears to us not only false and pernicious from the social point of view; it seems to have about it, too, in these days, something unchristian: it has a pagan flavor, a scent of sacrilegious usurpation. We discern in it a pretension of the state to erect itself into a divinity which shall take the place of the invisible God and arrogate to itself his function on the earth. It is as if there were a revolution in the government of the universe, as if another Providence were coming in to take the place of the old one and dethrone him. We know that the old churchmen saw something divine in the origin and nature of the state; but then there were in those days relations between the Church and the state that exist no longer. The kings and emperors of the middle ages never dreamed habitually of deifying themselves, or of attributing to themselves in their own personalities a divine mission. Even in its highest pretensions and most impudent usurpations the state of the old régime was never ashamed to bow before God, it acknowledged that it held its power from him, and considered itself under obligations to make his laws respected. The Church never saw an adversary or a rival in it; if it rebelled occasionally against the supremacy of the ecclesiastical power, the Church could always hope to bring it back to docility and obedience.

But we mistrust the modern state, both as Christians and as citizens. This modern state, monarchical or republican; the bureaucratic state, with a hundred arms reaching everywhere; the elective state, headless or many-headed, changing, incoherent, capricious, constantly inclined to usurp the functions of the family, of private societies, of individuals—we are afraid to extend its competence beyond bounds. We know it too well to give ourselves up to it. We know by experience how heavy and clumsy its hand is; how violent, rough, arbitrary, and tyrannical are its processes, and how presumptuous and costly are its methods. The Church itself knows something of its character and proceedings. St. Thomas of Aquinas said the state was the servant of God for good. But is it God whose minister the contemporary state is? Even when it does not sin by doctrinal presumption, or by antireligious intolerance, or by usurpation of authority over the family, the state seems to us morally incapable of assuming the high mission which some of the sons of the Church seem to claim for it. It is inspired neither with Christian law nor with the law of God, nor with the ideal justice which such persons prescribe as its guides. Its law and rule are not justice, but electoral interests. Instead of being, as it is invited to be, an impartially serene authority, lifted above all classes and providing equitably for all, the state which we know and whose workings we witness is essentially partial. The child of government by party, it is, we might say, partial by derivation. Instead of the traditional balances of justice, it has two weights and two measures in everything. It has none of the qualities of an earthly Providence: not foresight, or intelligence, or equity, or wisdom. It is always ready to encroach upon a domain which is not its own, and in every direction; it is careless of the rights of others, and recognizes hardly any but those which it has established; it assumes to be the only law-maker, and imagines that it creates right. It believes that everything is permitted it, and vaunts itself on subjecting everything. It wants to be all, and its will is changing, violent, and weak by turns, like the passionate majorities and the ignorant crowds whence it emanates; and so slight is our confidence in the state that its mobility reassures us more than it scares us.

Yes, we distrust the state, whatever its name or shape; we distrust its prudence, its lights, its doctrines, and its aims; its processes, its methods, its propensity to regulate, its obstructiveness, and its self-conceit; its morality, its conscience, and its probity. It worries us to see in it the organ of right and the instrument of justice. We can not arm the state with new rights or fortify its power on one side without re-enforcing it on all sides. The domain of public authority can not be extended over all interests and private contracts without enslaving the individual and subjecting the family to it. No artifice of political science can find means to make the state the master of economical life, the omnipotent arbiter of the mill and the shop, without our societies that live by work being taken wholly into its hand. There is only one way to establish forever the despotism of the state in the world, but there is one, and it is this.

Even if the modern state should become more equitable and more enlightened; if it should become really something else than an irresponsible collectivity exercising power by changing and passionate proxies; if it should put away its sectarian spirit and its tyrannical processes—we should still doubt its competence and its capacity to regulate the mill and the shop. The state is a weighty engine, with slow-running machinery uselessly complicated, which exacts a considerable expenditure of fuel and manual labor for the least work. No other instrument makes a feebler return and wastes so much force. Consequently, the more we extend the action of the state the more we risk impoverishing the country. Instead of hastening the development of national wealth, the state is calculated to hinder it by restraining the free factors of capital and labor. It is always a reproach which its intervention can not escape, and a very grave one in social and economical matters, that the meddling of public authority unnerves private initiative. This of itself would be a cause of uneasiness, for private initiative has always been the main-spring of progress; to break it or paralyze it by enveloping it with laws and regulations which would arrest or restrict its play would be to fetter the progress of industry and of wealth, and to delay the improvement of the condition of the masses. Further than this, in social questions themselves—questions belonging to the workmen—the intervention of the state, with its vexatious processes and its annoying habits, would generally simply end in depressing instead of stimulating private forces and living energies, humanitarian philanthropy and Christian charity. We have already proof of this in public benevolence, which seems, at great expense, to have sterilized the field which private benevolence had fertilized. Beware, lest, instead of inspiring patrons and capitalists, industrial societies and industrial managers, to fulfill their social duty in a larger sense, the arbitrary intervention of the state does not dissuade or discourage them from it! Symptoms of such discouragement are already beginning to appear in France. We, in fact, slander ourselves when we represent that private initiative has been sterile in this sphere. Not so; on the contrary, it is one of the domains in which our end of the century has deserved the most from France and mankind. I want no better evidence of this than the group of social economy, or, as it was justly styled, "of social peace," in our Universal Exposition of 1889, where were represented in fifteen sections: remuneration for labor and participation in benefits; cooperative associations for production; professional syndicates; apprenticeship and patronage societies; mutual aid societies; superannuation and pension funds; accident and life assurance; co-operative consumers' associations; co-operative credit associations; workmen's houses; workmen's circles and people's societies; social hygiene and temperance societies; societies for the protection of children; and national institutions. These fifteen sections of social economy prove by actual specimens that men of means are not insensible to the ills of the working classes, and that our society has not waited for the urging of the state before it occupied itself with questions of interest to working-men. The greater part of the works, foundations, associations, and social enterprises to which awards were made in 1889 were relatively recent, some of them entirely new. They have been tending for several years past to make a rapid advance. Heaven prevent the intervention of the state which is threatened, inflicting a fatal blow on all these creations of private initiative! The state has a heavy hand, not to call it a paw. It often unwittingly crushes what it touches. There is something depressing and stifling in administrative regulation; may it not for a long time yet put the brakes upon a movement from which so much is promised!—Selected and translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.


The emigration of the English agricultural population into the towns is attributed by Mr. T. E. Kebbel, among other causes, to the dullness of village life. The old feasts, the fairs, and the games have for the most part disappeared. Thus, while there is vastly more cricket played in England than fifty years ago, it is not played by the same class. In the old day-long matches on the village greens, the elevens were mostly made up of laborers. They are so no longer.
  1. In the Labor Encyclical.