The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter IX


§5. So far, in speaking of governmental coercion, exercised in the interest of the person coerced, as ``paternal'', I have had solely in view the coercion of sane adults. Of course no individualist objects to coercion exercised on children in their own interest: nor can it be seriously maintained that the interests of a child can safely be left altogether to its parents' care: still less, that they can be altogether left to the care of any guardian that its parents may designate. Hence some right (and duty) of governmental interference, to protect children from mischief caused actively or through neglect by their parents and guardians, must be admitted in the strictest individualistic scheme. Thus the limitations on the employment of children in factories and workshops, which have now been adopted by most civilised countries, are approved even by decided advocates of laisser faire: and interference with the labour of women during the period of childbearing is theoretically defensible on similar grounds, as an indirect protection of the physical wellbeing of children; though it is beset with great practical difficulties.

On the other hand, children can hardly be protected like adults against personal confinement or assault, as these are recognised as occasionally necessary means of educational discipline. And, on the individualistic principle, since the burden of rearing and training children should be, as far as possible, thrown on their parents, it seems desirable, so far as this burden is fairly taken up, that the parents' discretion in the training of the child should be left as unfettered as possible; and that Government should only intervene in a purely coercive way when the child's interests are manifestly being sacrificed, either through the greed or passion of, the parents, or through gross neglect or ignorance. How far, when the parents cannot afford to support or educate their children, they should, under any conditions, receive pecuniary aid from Government to enable them to discharge these duties is, for individualists, a difficult and doubtful question. On the one hand, when it is evident that children are, through their parents' poverty, growing up in such a way as to render them likely to be burdensome or dangerous to society, it seems prima facie a prudent insurance against this result for the community to assist in their support and education. On the other hand, similar arguments may be used to justify a governmental provision of sustenance for adults, in order that they may not be driven into criminal courses: and if either kind of governmental assistance is once admitted as justifiable in principle, it is not very easy to limit the burden that may be thrown on industrious and provident individuals by the improvidence of others. At any rate it seems clear that either question brings us to the debatable territory between Individualism and Socialism; which I propose to examine in the following chapter.

For completeness, I may briefly note two cases of governmental interference, ordinarily recognised as necessary, that obviously do not fall within the application of the individualistic principle; the humane treatment of lunatics, and the prevention of cruelty to the inferior animals. In the latter case the coercion is no doubt applied to protect the animals in question from pain inflicted by other creatures: still the protection does not in any degree aim at securing ``freedom of action'' to the animals protected, but simply at the prevention of unnecessary pain; it is, if properly carried out, a one-sided restraint of the freedom of action of men with a view to the greatest happiness of the aggregate of sentient beings.

In conclusion, it may be well to remind the reader that the extent to which the kind of interference discussed in the present chapter should be carried in a modern state will partly depend upon a variety of considerations, the force of which cannot here be estimated. Thus, we have to consider the state of moral opinion in the community---since the repression of mischievous conduct by social disapprobation may render legislative repression unnecessary; the diffusion of knowledge; the customs, industrial and social, actually prevalent; and the development of the habit of voluntary combination among the citizens. For example, where a mischievous or dangerous custom prevails, which it is difficult for an individual to avoid conforming to, there is prima facie special need for legislative interference: on the other hand, in proportion as the habit of combination is developed, this need is diminished.

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