The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter IX


§3. Here, however, it has to be observed that in dealing with these and similar concrete examples of what I have characterised as ``indirectly individualistic interference'', we see that it is very difficult to distinguish it in practice from the kind that I have called ``paternal''. Abstractly considered, the question (1) ``How far Government may legitimately go in preventing acts or omissions that are not directly or necessarily harmful, on the ground that there is risk of their causing mischief indirectly to persons, other than the agent, who have not consented to run the risk'', is quite distinct from the question (2) ``How far Government ought to interfere to prevent mischief caused to an individual by himself or with his own consent''. But in concrete cases the two questions are almost always mixed up, since, where a man's acts or neglects tend to harm himself so seriously as to suggest a need of Governmental interference to prevent the mischief, they usually tend also to harm others. An illustration of this may be found in the sanitary regulations enforced by our own legislation. When a man is forced to co-operate with his fellow-citizens in a common system of drainage and water-supply, when he is prevented from using a house unfit for human habitation, or from overcrowding any part of a house, it may be said that coercion is applied to him in his own interest: and no doubt it is designed that he should derive benefit from the coercion; still its main justification lies in the need of protecting his children and neighbours who might suffer if his house became a focus of disease. Similarly, few individualists are so extreme as to deny that the tendency of drunkenness to cause breaches of the peace is a legitimate ground for some interference with the trade of selling alcohol: and the most thoroughgoing abolitionist usually urges restriction more as indirectly individualistic than as paternal---i.e. more on the ground of the proved tendency of alcoholic excess to make a man beat his wife and starve his children, than on the ground of its tendency to injure the drunkard himself.

So again, where an individual would evidently cause danger to the physical wellbeing or the property of others by not taking precautions to protect his own person or. property from certain external sources of mischief,---as in the case of protection of land from floods, or of men or useful animals from infectious diseases,---it is, I conceive, a simple application of the individualistic principle to make him responsible, after warning, for the injury that his neglect may cause to others: and if so, when this injury is likely to be, in kind or amount, such as he could not adequately compensate, it is an obvious and not unreasonable extension of the principle to compel him to co-operate with others in a general system of precautions. And though the benefit of such compulsion may be primarily received by himself, still since the decisive ground for adopting it is the prevention of mischief to others, it is not properly to be regarded as ``paternal'' interference,---in the special sense in which I have adopted this term. Similar reasoning is applicable to the provision of means for reducing mischief caused by accident or neglect, when such mischief is liable to spread: as in the case of fires in towns.

Other interferences that may seem prima facie ``paternal'' in their aims admit of being regarded, at least in part, as merely an extension of that protection against deception which the individualistic principle has always been held to cover. For instance, when our Government endeavours to prevent its subjects from employing improperly qualified physicians, apothecaries, and pilots; or from buying meat known to be diseased; or from taking part in dangerous industrial processes---as (e.g.) mining and navigation---without due precautions, it may be said that it aims merely at protecting its subjects from evils incurred through ignorance of which other persons take advantage. And a similar view may also be taken of another important class of cases in which the mischief sought to be prevented is pecuniary loss. Thus, it may be said that the prohibition of ``truck'' (that is, of the payment of wages otherwise than in money) is ``indirectly individualistic'' and not ``paternal''; since its design is merely to secure to labourers the amount of real wages that is by contract fairly due to them, by preventing the diminution of such real wages through the supply of goods of inferior quality, at a price above their market value.

The truth is---as the discussion of the conditions of valid contracts showed us---that it is a task of some delicacy to define the individualistic principle, in relation to deception, with the exactness required for practical application. When it is affirmed that an ``individual should be left to take care of his own interests'', some proviso is always understood with regard to his protection against imposture: but the precise nature of the proviso is left somewhat obscure: and it may be plausibly extended to prohibit any man from knowingly profiting by the ignorance of another. And if we go as far as this, it may be plausibly urged that it is desirable, when possible, to go further, and prevent A from profiting by the manifest ignorance of B, even when it is shared by A; especially considering the great difficulty of ascertaining whether or not an impostor is self-deceived. But when we have come to this point, the line between individualistic and paternal interference will have practically vanished. And even the rule that no one may knowingly profit by the ignorance of another, if consistently applied to commercial dealings, would carry us far beyond what any individualist has ventured practically to recommend; and if it could ever be effectually carried out---would seriously impair the stimulus to the acquisition of useful knowledge on which individualism relies.

On the whole, therefore, I think that we must interpret the proviso above mentioned as merely prohibiting a man from profiting by ignorance or error that he has contributed, intentionally or negligently, to produce: and it is on this view that I should define the limits, in the cases above mentioned, of directly individualistic interference. To prevent the flesh of diseased animals from being disguised as the flesh of healthy animals; to prevent would-be surgeons or apothecaries from pretending to have obtained certificates of qualification which they have not really obtained; to oblige employers who may have contracted to pay wages in goods to supply such goods in strict accordance with contract as regards quality and price;---all this is clearly and directly individualistic: on the other hand, if Government absolutely prohibits the purchase of food it deems unhealthy, the consultation of physicians it deems unqualified, the adoption of methods of payment it deems unfit, its action is certainly what I have called ``paternal''. But in many of these cases it is possible for Government to do more than prevent deception, without incurring the chief objections to ``paternal'' intervention: it may take measures to remove the ignorance of consumers as to the dangerous qualities of commodities offered for purchase,---or the ignorance of labourers as to the dangerous nature of instruments which their employers require them to use,---without compelling any one to act on the information thus supplied. And such a procedure is, in my view, within the limits of the ``indirectly individualistic'' intervention of Government discussed in this chapter; since its aim is to protect individuals from mischief caused by the action of others, the risk of which---as they are supposed not to know it---they cannot be said to have consented to run. We may assume that the great majority of persons do not wish to shoot with gun-barrels that are liable to burst, or to consume condiments rendered attractive by poisonous colouring matter: and if the dangerous quality of these and other commodities can only be known by technical skill, the coercion involved in raising by taxation the required funds, to provide for the examination by experts of such commodities before they are sold, is but a slight price to pay for the consequent protection against mischief. The consumer might still be left free to buy unsafe guns or poisonous pickles if he chose. Similarly, unseaworthy ships and unnecessarily dangerous machinery might be examined and reported on by governmental experts, without any positive prohibition of their use, in case persons were found to run the risk of using them in spite of full and clear warning.

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