The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter IX


§4. In what I have said above I do not mean to imply that all governmental interference which is undeniably ``paternal'' ought therefore to be rejected without further inquiry. I consider that so uncompromising an adhesion to the principle ``at men are the best guardians of their own welfare'' is not rationally justified by the evidence on which the principle rests. I regard this principle as a rough induction from our ordinary experience of human life; as supported on an empirical basis sufficiently strong and wide to throw the onus probandi heavily on those who advocate any deviation from it, but in no way proved to be an even approximately universal truth. Hence, if strong empirical grounds are brought forward for admitting a particular practical exception to this principle-if, e.g., it is proved that men are largely liable to ruin themselves by gambling or opium-smoking, or knowingly to incur easily avoided dangers in industrial processes,---it would, I think, be unreasonable to allow these praftices to go on without interference, merely on account of the established general presumption in favour of laisser faire. The particular cases in which such ``paternal'' intervention is on the whole desirable must be determined by experience, and will naturally vary with times and circumstances. We may, however, lay down generally, that this kind of governmental action shall be reduced within the narrowest limits compatible with the attainment of the end in view: and that it should, generally speaking, take as far as possible some other form than that of directly commanding a man, under penalties, to do what he does not like---or not to do what he likes---for his own good. One indirect method of paternal interference I have already noticed in the case of drunkenness: it is possible, in this and similar cases, to reduce greatly the total amount of attempted coercion by punishing the trader rather than the consumer. Thus we may punish the seller of lottery-tickets and not the purchaser: the keeper of a gaming-house and not the gambler. For further illustration, let us consider the different ways in which Government may intervene to secure adequate qualifications in any class of professional men, e.g. physicians. Quackery is very mischievous; but it would be too violent an encroachment on freedom to prohibit men from consulting a quack and taking his advice; or even to prevent this indirectly, by punishing the quack as such; since Government would thus present itself to the quack's dupes in the odious position of standing between a sick man and the recovery of his health. But without any action of this irritating and strongly coercive kind, Government may do much to reduce the mischief of quackery in the following ways:---

(1) It may, as was before said, institute an authoritative certificate as a guarantee that the holder has gone through a certain course of training, and may require an uncertificated practitioner to abstain from concealing in any way the absence of the certificate; (2) it may give damages, or even, in grave cases, enforce punishment, for grossly unskilful treatment by an uncertificated practitioner, when the result's of such treatment have been clearly mischievous; and finally (3) it may refuse to uncertificated practitioners the legal right of receiving fees from their patients.

This last is an example of a kind of interference which it is important to distinguish and contemplate in a more general way; since it is free from one class of objections commonly urged by advocates of laisser faire against the extension of governmental interference. Such objections, as we saw, are not solely based on the supposition that the individual is the best guardian of his own interests; it is also urged that the efficiency of Government is likely to be impaired by any considerable increase of its functions---that ``the machine will break down through overwork'',---or that the consequent increase of its power and patronage constitutes a political danger. And, again, the importance of minimising the direct annoyance caused by governmental coercion is urged, not only because such annoyance is pro tanto a diminution of happiness, but even more, because the resulting discontent is politically dangerous. These objections I do not propose to discuss in detail here: but it is obvious that they are all avoided when the influence of Government on private action---as in the case of the quack's fees---is exercised not by positive, but by negative interference, i.e. by declining to interfere. Several examples of this may be found; e.g. the right of self-defence and the recapture of property, and the important family rights of the husband and father, are mainly established by the withdrawal of the ordinary protection of the law from the persons against whose will these rights are or may be exercised. So again, we noticed in dealing with the conditions of valid contracts that there is a margin of conduct mischievous in its effects which it would do more harm than good to prevent by the more intense method of prohibition and punishment, but which it may nevertheless be expedient to prevent by declining to enforce contracts which facilitate it: the most important instances of this are contracts of which the subject-matter involves sexual immorality. The invalidation of oppressive usurious contracts is a historic case of paternal interference falling under the same general head.

Another important way in which Government may practically determine the relations of private citizens without coercion is by giving an authoritative interpretation to ordinary contracts, in points left ambiguous by the words or other signs actually used by the contracting parties. Thus, in an ordinary contract of sale in England, a purchaser's promise to pay twenty pounds is defined by Government to mean a promise to pay at least eighteen gold sovereigns, of full weight, together with either two sovereigns, or forty shillings; or else to pay Bank of England notes for which coin to the amounts above mentioned may be obtained on demand. Bi-metallists urge that it would be desirable to change the definition and interpret the promise as an undertaking to pay either twenty gold sovereigns or silver coin in a certain fixed proportion, or notes of the Bank of England similarly redeemable in either metal. If this measure were adopted, no one would be compelled to sell or buy goods on these terms: any seller who chose might still insist on receiving gold; still it is most probable that the effect of fixing this bi-metallic interpretation on all contracts, in which sums of money were mentioned without an express limitation to gold, would be to bring both metals into approximately equal use as currency.

This mode of interference is well adapted to the realisation of the ``paternal'' principle in a mild degree: but it is probably more often used when the end in view is the interest, not of the individual interfered with, but of the community of which he is a member.

[Back to:] [Elempol, Chapter 9, Section 3]
[Forward to:] [Elempol, Chapter 9, Section 5]
[Up to:]
[Elempol Intro and Table of Contents]