The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter X


§3. 1 have said enough to show that, even in the more or less ideal society of intelligent persons which is contemplated in the traditional argument for laisser faire, there is no reason to suppose that a purely individualistic organisation of industry would be the most effective and economical. And the reasons above given largely explain and justify the extent to which in modern States the provision of utilities---other than security from wrong---is undertaken by Government in the name of the community, or subjected to special governmental regulations, instead of being left to private enterprise; on the ground that the interests of the whole community will be better promoted by this arrangement. Thus certain portions of the surface of the globe---the original raw material and instrument of industry---have always been held in common, as obviously more useful when open to common use and enjoyment, and under common management, so far as management is needed: and the labour required to keep them in good condition has been imposed or provided by Government. Roads, and commons for recreation, come under this head: also seas and large rivers, in which navigation and fishery have been common to all, under governmental regulation; also forests to a considerable extent. And it is to be noted that, in certain important respects, the need of systematic governmental intervention to modify man's physical environment tends to grow as the cultivated area of land extends with growing civilisation: as in the case of interference with the natural flow of surface waters, with a view to better irrigation and drainage, and in that of the artificial maintenance of forests, especially needed on high tablelands and mountain slopes.

Further, in modern civilised communities generally, the private ownership of land is held to be limited by a general right of the community to take compulsorily the land of any individual, when required for the most economic attainment of an important public utility, at the value that it would have had apart from this public need: I and in recent times this right has been exercised in very important cases,---the most important being the construction of the artificial roads and waterways which have transformed modern trade and industry. It is true that canals and railways have been largely constructed by private enterprise; but they have usually needed for economical construction the intervention of Government to give the power of buying land compulsorily: and as this power has been granted on account of the public utility of the enterprise, the management of canals and railways---even where it has been left in the hands of private companies---has been placed under governmental regulation, and assumed a semi-public character. That a certain amount of such regulation is legitimate and required in the interests of the community, is admitted even by leading advocates of laisser faire. Whether governments should actually undertake the construction and management of railways is a more doubtful question, on which there has been much divergence in practice: still, important---though not decisive---arguments for this measure are furnished by (1) the value to a political community of facilities for mutual intercourse and rapid communication among its different elements; and (2) the economic advantage of a coherent organisation of railway traffic, and the consequent tendency of railways to fall more and more under the conditions of partial monopoly, so that many of the advantages of competition are lost to the public.

On similar grounds the business of communication by letters and telegrams has been found suitable for Government---chiefly through the economic gain that results from having the whole work done by a single organisation: and it is, in fact, undertaken by almost all modern governments. So again, the ordinary advantages of competitive industry can hardly be realised in providing for the water-supply and---by modern methods---for the lighting of towns: accordingly, these businesses, in modern times, tend to assume a semi-public character, being either undertaken by municipal governments or subjected to special governmental regulation. Further, modern governments universally monopolise coinage, and regulate in some degree the business of banking:---interventions chiefly justified by the great public importance of giving security and stability to the current medium of exchange.

In a wide sense of the term, these and similar kinds of governmental interference may all be called ``Socialistic'' in Principle; since they tend to narrow the sphere of private property and private enterprise, by the retention of resources and functions in the hands---or under the regulation of Government as representing the community. Such interference differs very much in intensity in different cases; according as Government (1) merely regulates, and perhaps subvents, or (2) itself undertakes a department of business, or (3) establishes a legal monopoly of the business in its own favour---as in the case of the post-office in England. But the term ``Socialistic'' may be fairly applied to this kind of intervention, whatever its degree of intensity, if it is used in simple opposition to ``Individualistic''. This meaning of the term, however, must be carefully distinguished from another---and I think more common---meaning, in which ``Socialism'' is understood to imply a design of altering the distribution of wealth, by benefiting the poor at the expense of the rich. For though such effects on distribution may in some cases result from the measures above mentioned, their primary aim is not to give advantage to one section of the community at the expense of another, but to secure benefits to the community as a whole which tend to be distributed among its members generally---though in a way difficult exactly to trace and apportion.

[Back to:] [Elempol, Chapter 10, Section 2]
[Forward to:] [Elempol, Chapter 10, Section 4]
[Up to:]
[Elempol Intro and Table of Contents]