The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter XIV

The Area of Government---States and Districts

§5. 1 now pass to the second of the two fundamental questions announced at the outset of this chapter: viz., How far, within the limits of the modern country---assuming these determined in the manner which we have just been examining---governmental functions should be exercised over more restricted areas than that of the whole country?

So far as this question relates to the organisation of local governments, and the distribution of functions between local and central organs, its consideration more properly belongs to the second part of the treatise. What I propose here briefly to consider is not the organisation of government, but how far it is desirable that the effects produced, by governmental action should vary from district to district, within the limits of the same State;---apart from any constitutional considerations that may render it expedient to maintain local independence. We might put the question thus:---Assuming any part of the human race, inhabiting any tolerably extensive portion of the earth's surface, to be under one wise government however organised; how far would the laws, and the general rules of governmental action within the limits laid down by law, be the same for all? This is obviously desirable so far as human beings and their circumstances are similar; but we know from experience of very important differences in men's physical, moral, and intellectual characteristics---especially when we compare men at different stages of civilisation---which may rationally determine a judicious government to act differently in their regard. The consideration, however, of such differences as these, and of the variations in the functions and structure of government that may fitly correspond to them, lies for the most part beyond the scope of the present work; since our attention is here primarily directed to the political relations generally suitable to the members of modern civilised communities. Now in such communities the politically important differences that we find in groups of individuals inhabiting different local divisions are, in most cases, connected with differences, historically caused, in the structure of their societies:---different parts of a now united society have been previously under different governments, more or less independent; so that, when the question we are now considering is practically raised with respect to them, they not only have actually systems of law more or less divergent, but also their habits, customs, sentiments, expectations, are more or less firmly adjusted to these different systems. We cannot lay down any precise rules for determining when and how far such local divergences in law should be maintained, and when they should be obliterated: but the following appear to be the chief general considerations for deciding such questions:---

First, on the side of conservation we have (1) the general probability that a system of law which is the result of a gradual process of social development will have been adapted to the average needs, dispositions, and habits of the members of the society in which it is found; (2) the widespread friction caused by new laws jarring with old customs and habits; and (3) the more serious hardship in particular cages due to the disappointment of expectations naturally generated by the older condition of law and custom. On the other hand, the introduction of uniformity---apart from its economic advantages in simplifying the work of administration---tends to prevent the trouble. and occasional disappointment that are liable to arise from transactions between inhabitants of different districts having different laws: and it is to be observed that the inconveniences thus prevented are of a kind that tend normally to increase as time goes on, with the increasing mutual communication and interfusion of the different portions of the community. The resulting mischief is likely to be much more serious in some departments of law than in others. Thus it is likely to be comparatively trifling in the case of the laws relating to the tenure of land: in which, at the same time, the considerations in favour of maintaining local divergences are likely to be specially strong, On the other hand, variation will probably be specially detrimental in the case of commercial law, from the tendency of commercial relations to extend beyond the limits of a single district: and also in the law relating to domestic conditions, since the institution of the family is normally protected---as we have before observed---by strong moral sentiments, which are liable to be at once offended and weakened by the collisions between discordant rules.

Let us now turn to consider briefly the variations in law and in other forms of governmental action, which may be rationally grounded on differences not in the nature of men or the structure of societies, but in their physical environment. Some departments of law scarcely admit of variation on this ground; thus (e.g.) the regulation of the family and the conditions under which it is expedient to enforce contract are not likely to vary with variations in the physical circumstances of different societies: and the protection of person and reputation from injury intentionally inflicted will be equally required everywhere. There are more likely to be important differences required in the governmental interference which I have distinguished as ``indirectly individualistic''; especially owing to the peculiar dangers of mutual mischief which arise under urban as contrasted with rural conditions, from the closer packing of human beings. Thus sanitary regulations are likely to be different in town and country respectively: it has even been said that ``each town has its own drainage problem''. Similarly, the, protection against the introduction of diseases from abroad will require regulations on the borders of a country which will not be necessary in inland districts. Again, we have seen that the general principle of securing to each individual the fullest possible opportunity to employ his labour and undisturbed enjoyment of its results, has to be carried out differently in relation to different kinds of natural utilities: for instance, special regulations are likely to be necessary for mines, for fisheries, for forests; and these, by the nature of the case, are likely to be applicable to certain districts in the country and not to others. For similar reasons special kinds of the interference that we have called---in a wide sense---socialistic, may be only required in special localities: as (e.g.) for the draining of a marshy district, or for the irrigation of one deficient in water, or for the protection of low-lying lands against floods, or for the more elaborate provision of water for household use, which urban conditions render desirable.

In these various ways an important amount of differentiation in the work of government comes to be recognised as needful. To what extent the structure of government should be modified to meet this need is an important question which we shall consider in a later chapter (XXV.).

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