The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter X


§2. In the first place, it should be observed that the argument above given, even if fully granted, would only justify appropriation to the labourer, and free exchange of the utilities produced by labour; it affords no direct justification for the appropriation of natural resources, which private property in material things inevitably involves. Hence, so far as this appropriation of natural resources restricts other men-s opportunities of applying labour productively, the appropriation, as we have seen, is of doubtful legitimacy, from the point of view of the strictest individualism. It must, therefore, be regarded as theoretically subject to limitation or regulation, in the interest of the whole aggregate of individuals concerned. How far this limitation and regulation should go must be determined by experience in different departments: but it may be laid down generally that it is the duty of Government as representing the community to prevent the bounties of nature from being wasted by the unrestricted pursuit of private interest. Thus, for instance, Government may properly interfere to protect mines and fisheries from wasteful exhaustion, and save rare and useful species of plants from extermination; and, when necessary, may undertake or control the management of natural watercourses, with a view both to irrigation and to the supply of motive power. An& I conceive that measures of a much more sweeping kind in the same direction---including even the complete abolition of private property in land---are theoretically defensible on the basis of individualism; they have, indeed, received the support of thoroughgoing advocates of this doctrine.

Secondly, individuals may not be able---at all, or without inconvenience practically deterrent---to remunerate themselves by the sale of the utilities which it is for the general interest that they should render to society. This may be either because the utility is from its nature incapable of being appropriated, or because---though undeniably important from the point of view of the community---its value to an individual is too uncertain and remote to render it worth purchasing on grounds of private interest. An example of the former is furnished by forests: since no private landowner who maintains a forest can, by free exchange, exact any return for such benefit as he may confer on the community by its favourable influence on climate in moderating and equalising rainfall. The other case may be illustrated by scientific investigation generally; since most of the advances made in scientific knowledge, even though they may be ultimately the source of important material benefits to man's estate, would hardly remunerate the investigator if treated as marketable commodities, and only communicated to private individuals who were willing to pay for them.

Even where the inconvenience of selling a commodity would not be deterrent, the waste of time and labour that the process would involve may be so great as to render it on the whole a more profitable arrangement for the community to provide the commodity out of public funds. For instance, no one doubts that it would be inexpedient to leave bridges in towns generally to be provided by private enterprise and paid by tolls.

We have also to take account of waste of time and trouble in forming business connections, which seems an inevitable incident of a competitive organisation of business. Definite items of this economic loss, are expressed in the sums spent on advertisements, and in the promotion of joint-stock companies. But to these we have to add the much larger though less definite waste of labour spent in rendering services of comparatively small utility, by traders who have not yet established a business connection, or who are slowly losing business through the pressure of competition or of industrial change; I and the similar waste in the case of professional services of all kinds.

Again, there is an important class of cases in which the individuals have an adequate motive for rendering some service to society, but not for rendering as much service as it is in their power to render. These are cases in which competition is excluded by natural or artificial monopoly of the production or sale of a commodity. For the interest of the monopolist of any ware is liable to conflict very materially with the interest of the community; since the demand for a monopolised commodity is often of such a nature that a greater total profit can be obtained from the sale of a smaller quantity, owing to the extent to which the price would fall if the supply were increased. The importance of this case, it may be observed, tends to increase as the opportunities for monopoly grow with the growth of civilisation: partly from the increasing advantages of industry on a large scale, partly from the increasing ease with which combination among the members of any class of producers is brought about and maintained.

Combination resulting in monopoly may, as I have just shown, be a source of economic loss to the community. On the other hand, there are cases in which combined action or abstinence on the part of a whole class of producers is required to realise a certain utility, either at all or in the most economical way: and in such cases the intervention of Government, though not the only method of securing the result, is likely to be the most effective method. If, indeed, we could assume that all the persons concerned will act in the most intelligent way, the matter might be left to voluntary association; but in any community of human beings that we can hope to see, the most we can expect is that the great majority of any industrial class will be adequately enlightened, vigilant, and careful, in protecting their own interests: and where the efforts and sacrifices of a great majority might be rendered useless by the neglect of one or two individuals, it would be dangerous to trust to voluntary association. The protection of land below the sea-level against floods, or of useful animals and plants against infectious diseases, are cases of this kind which we have already noticed.

And the ground for governmental interference is still stronger if the very fact of a combination among the great majority of an industrial class to attain a given result materially increases the inducement for individuals to stand aloof from the combination. Thus, if it were ever so clearly the interest of shopkeepers to close their shops on Sundays or other holidays, provided the closing were universal, it would still be very difficult to effect the result by purely voluntary combination; since the closing of a great number of shops would obviously tend to throw custom into the hands of the few who kept their shops open.

Even where the need of uniformity is not imperative, voluntary combination is likely to be found inadequate for the attainment of results of public importance, if the interest of any individual in such results is indirect and uncertain;---as may easily be the case even though the public interest is plain and undeniable.

Finally, there are certain kinds of utility which Government, in a well-ordered modern community, is peculiarly adapted to provide. Thus, being financially more stable than private individuals and companies, it can give completer security to creditors; and is thus specially adapted to undertake banking and insurance for the poor, and to bear the responsibilities of a paper currency for the community generally. So again, it enjoys special facilities for collecting and diffusing useful statistical information,---a point of growing importance in modern communities.

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