The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter IV


§1. In this and the four following chapters I propose to work out in some detail what I may call the ``Individualistic minimum'' of governmental interference: that is, the distribution of legal rights and obligations among private persons that results from applying the Individualistic principle, as strictly as seems practically possible, to the actual conditions of human life in society. But before I proceed to this examination, it ought to be noted that some Individualists view this principle in a light fundamentally different from that in which I have regarded it in the preceding chapter. They hold the realisation of freedom or mutual non-interference to be not merely desirable as most conducive to human happiness, but absolutely desirable as the ultimate end of law and of all governmental interference: an ideal good which would be degraded if it were sought merely as a means of obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain. This opinion, however, may I think be shown to be inconsistent with the common sense of mankind, as expressed in actual legislation, and even with the practical doctrines---when they descend to particulars---of the thinkers who profess to hold it. For the kind of laws which Individualists generally agree to recommend may be shown to require for their justification a utilitarian interpretation of the individualistic principle: that is, they require us to conceive, as the general aim of law and government, not the prevention among the governed of mutual interference with freedom in the ordinary sense, but the prevention of mutual interference with each one's pursuit of happiness for himself and his family. And I think that the attempt to show this, under each of the chief heads of individualistic legislation, will be the best way of clearing up our general conception of the individualistic principle; while at the same time it will afford a convenient opportunity of surveying the whole range of the subject before we proceed to consider it in detail.

Let us begin by examining the usage of the words ``Freedom'', or ``Liberty''---which I take to be synonymous. When employed without qualification ``freedom'' signifies primarily the absence of physical coercion or confinement: A is clearly not a free agent if B moves his limbs, and he is not free if he cannot get out of a building because B has locked the door. But in another part of its meaning---which from our present point of view is more important---``freedom'' is opposed not to physical constraint, but to the moral restraint placed on inclination by the fear of painful consequences resulting from the action of other human beings. There is, however, some disagreement as to the extent of this latter meaning: it is disputed whether the moral restraint that impairs my freedom may be caused by fear of any other man's action or only by fear of governmental action. The latter view was taken by Hobbes, who regarded the ``state of nature''---that is, of no government---as a state of unlimited liberty, though also one of intense mutual fear. But this view is paradoxical: it seems absurd to say that it is contrary to liberty to be restrained by dread of the magistrate, and not contrary to liberty to be similarly or more painfully restrained by dread of the lawless violence of a neighbour: we should generally agree with Paley that not only happiness but liberty is less in the Hobbist state of nature than in a well-ordered political society. If it be granted, then, that my liberty is impaired by the restraint on volition caused by fear of the acts of human beings generally, the statement sometimes made that ``every law is contrary to liberty'' is misleading, though in a sense true: since the diminution of liberty caused by the fear of legal Penalties may be more than balanced by the simultaneous diminution of private coercion. It may be fairly said that the end of government is to promote liberty, so far as governmental coercion prevents worse coercion by private individuals.

We have, however, to observe that freedom is sometimes attributed to the citizens of a state, not because the governmental coercion applied to them is restricted to the prevention of private coercion, but because it is exercised with the consent of a majority of the citizens in question. Indeed, the notion of ``liberty'' in this sense---which may be distinguished as ``constitutional liberty''---has had a very prominent place in political discussion. I do not wish to discard this use of the term altogether: but I think it is liable to be misleading. It may be fairly affirmed that a body of persons is ``free''---in the ordinary sense---when the only rules restraining them are in accordance with the corporate will of the body: but it is only in a very peculiar sense---liable to collide markedly with the ordinary meaning of the term---that ``freedom'' can be therefore affirmed of every member of the body. It is obvious that my inclinations may be restrained to any extent, and in the most annoying way, under a government of which the supreme control is vested in the mass of the citizens, if I have the misfortune to belong to the minority of this body: while, again, it is quite conceivable that under a despotic government I may be subject to no further coercion than is necessary to prevent worse coercion by private persons. Accordingly, when I speak without qualification of freedom as belonging to individuals, I shall not mean constitutional freedom, but civil freedom as above defined---absence of physical and moral coercion.

It is certainly conceivable that the maintenance of ``equal freedom'' in this sense should be taken as the ultimate and sole end of legislation, and of governmental interference generally. But in fact, as I have said, all governments and most Individualists practically go beyond this, and aim at protecting the governed from pain---and loss or diminution of their means of gratifying their desires---caused by the action of other human beings. In so doing, I maintain, they adopt by implication a utilitarian view of the mutual interference that law ought to prevent,---even while expressly disavowing the utilitarian criterion.

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