The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter IX


§2. A consideration of the last-mentioned case leads naturally to a further important step; which, as we shall see, brings us up to the disputed margin of what I have called the ``individualistic minimum'' of governmental interference. For the prevention of deception by sellers, in respect of the quantity of the wares purchased, is obviously much facilitated by the prescription of standard weights and measures: and similarly in many other cases the easiest and most effective way of preventing harm is to prescribe certain precautions against it---i.e. to prohibit acts or omissions not directly or necessarily mischievous to others, but attended with a certain risk of mischief. Here, however, we have come to an extension of governmental interference, in the way of regulation---involving a similar extension in the way of inspection---the legitimacy of which has been in some cases seriously disputed by individualists. Its aim, however, does not go beyond the protection of individuals from mischief caused by other individuals: and certain ancient kinds of it---of which the prescription of standard measures is a familiar example---have never, so far as I know, met with any practical opposition: while, in modern times, a continually increasing amount of it is now judged necessary by our own and other civilised Governments. I may give as instances restrictions on the manufacture and carriage of explosive substances and rules against importing cattle from countries where disease is rife. It is not certain that any given cargo of suspected cattle or carelessly carried explosives would do any harm: but most prudent persons see that the risk is too great to run.

Now this kind of indirectly individualistic interference can hardly be argued to be generally inadmissible, on our utilitarian interpretation of the fundamental principle of Individualism. Sometimes, indeed, the burden thus imposed on private persons is so slight in comparison with the evils guarded against, that no one would hesitate to impose it, if experience shows it to be at all efficacious for the attainment of the end in view. This is the case (e.g.) when Government, besides diffusing information and warning, imposes on others the duty of furnishing it, either to remove or reduce the risk of mischief through violence, negligence, or fraud---as when it orders that poisons when sold should be designated as such, and that the name and address of persons to whom they are sold should be preserved; or to facilitate the attainment of redress in case of wrong---as when it requires printers' and publishers' names to be affixed to publications. Another instance of the same kind is the compulsory registration of mortgages and bills of sale, regarded as a precaution against fraud.

Where the restraints or burdens imposed by such interference are more serious, the annoyance and cost entailed by it, on the community or on individuals, must of course be carefully weighed against the evils which experience shows it to be capable of preventing: and under the head of cost must be included any economic loss caused by the enforced substitution of a more expensive for a cheaper process of attaining any industrial end. But I do not think that any general rules can be laid down for determining the limits of such interference: all we can say is that a milder degree of interference, if effective, is generally to be preferred.

The possible gradations in intensity of interference will of course vary according to circumstances; but I may give one or two illustrations of them. I may begin by referring to the much-discussed case of restrictions on freedom of speech or writing, so far as such restrictions are designed to protect the rights of private persons. There are obvious and great advantages to be gained by leaving men as much liberty as possible to argue that certain established rights, or certain modes of exercising these rights, are injurious to the community and ought to be suppressed: since it is through judicious criticism of this kind that improvements in legislation and administration of law are chiefly to be expected, while in other cases---where a change in legal rights is inexpedient---such criticism may be useful in rousing public sentiment to supplement the inevitable deficiencies of law: and if judicious criticism is to be allowed and even encouraged, injudicious criticism must be tolerated to some extent, even though it has a certain tendency to cause violations of law. Hence, even when this dangerous tendency is so marked as to render some repression of free criticism less mischievous than complete toleration, it is generally expedient to confine this repression to the more inflammatory modes of publishing opinions hostile to established rights: for instance, to allow such opinions to be freely published in books, when they could not be tolerated in speeches or placards. Again, certain practices dangerous to others---such as the drinking of alcohol to the point of intoxication---may be tolerated in private but repressed if the drunkard appears in public. Or, again, restrictions may be imposed not on the persons who do the acts liable to be followed by mischievous consequences, but on the traders who, for private gain, supply facilities for such acts,---as when the publican is forbidden to sell alcohol to a person who is clearly intoxicated, or is known by him to be a habitual drunkard. This last kind of interference is, indeed, no less intense than that for which it is a substitute; but, owing to its limited range, it is on the whole less vexatious.

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