The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter X


§7. But such provision as has been found practicable for equalising opportunities of labour is not, in any modern state, sufficient to protect the whole population from the evils of extreme indigence. In most modern states an important percentage of the population are, at any given time, temporarily or permanently incapacitated from providing themselves with the necessaries of life. In many cases no doubt this incapacity is due to some kind of marked ill desert---such as drunkenness, or loss of employment through neglect of duty---and in many other cases it might have been avoided by an exercise of prudence not unduly severe. But in an important minority of instances the affliction of indigence is due to misfortunes which the persons afflicted cannot reasonably be blamed for not foreseeing; and even where this is not the case, probably few individualists are able to regard starvation as the appropriate penalty for improvidence, or even for worse faults. At the same time, the inexpediency of leaving the relief of indigence entirely to unsystematised private almsgiving---liable as that is to ``do too much or too little'', and to be largely imposed upon---is now generally recognised. It seems, therefore, that the problem must be taken in hand by Government in some manner and degree. On the other hand, the simple course of securing to the indigent adequate relief from public funds---even if such relief is limited to the bare necessaries of life---involves the risk of a serious diminution of the inducements to industry and thrift in the case of persons struggling on the verge of indigence.

The grave difficulties of the problem thus presented to Government are recognised by all thoughtful persons, and it is not surprising that widely different methods should be proposed, and to a great extent adopted by different Governments, in dealing with these difficulties. The plan involving the minimum of divergence from individualism is that in which Government maintains an agency for the systematic and careful relief of indigence, but requires the relief given to be provided mainly by voluntary contributions. This, speaking broadly, is the French system; it has the advantage of avoiding, so far as it operates, the demoralisation and waste caused by mendacity and unregulated private almsgiving, without incurring the evils of forcing the industrious and thrifty to contribute to the support of the idle and improvident. But its efficiency, depending as it does on the adequacy of the spontaneous gifts of individuals, is inevitably precarious; and, where imprisonment is an ordinary punishment for crime---as it is in modern states generally---this system, if exclusively adopted, would always be liable to the objection that the Government guarantees to criminals a provision for their physical needs which it refuses to non-criminals. This objection is avoided by the English plan; which secures adequate sustenance from public funds to all persons who are in complete destitution, while it aims at minimising the encouragement thus offered to idleness and unthrift by attaching unattractive---though not physically painful---conditions to the public relief given to ordinary adult paupers. Practically, it succeeds better as regards industry than thrift. So far as able-bodied men are concerned, experience has shown that the required combination of unattractiveness with sufficiency of provision for physical needs is attainable by insisting that the recipient of relief shall submit to the constraints of a ``workhouse''. But the system has hitherto failed to bring about general provision against old age, which---for the most part---might be made without difficulty even by unskilled labourers in the period of early manhood, if they were content to defer marriage for a moderate term of years. Further, it would be unpractically severe to insist on the condition of entering the workhouse in the temporary disablement of breadwinners through sickness or accident; while to dispense with it even in these cases involves a serious discouragement to providence. These evils are avoided by the German method---so far as it can be applied---of compulsory insurance against sickness, accidental disablement, chronic infirmity, and old age. This method, it may be observed, involves governmental interference, which is in one aspect greater than that entailed by the English method, since the provision compulsorily made extends to labourers generally, whereas the English system only provides for the destitute: on the other hand, the method of compulsory insurance is, from another point of view, less anti-individualistic, so far as the burden of the provision is thrown on the persons who receive the benefit of it.

Probably a careful combination of the three methods that I have briefly distinguished---regulated private almsgiving, public relief, and compulsory insurance---would at present give us the practically best plan of dealing with the problem of pauperism. How the whole function of poor-relief should be distributed among the three methods is a question that arouses a steadily increasing interest at the present time; but it is difficult to give to it a general theoretical answer of any value. Here I will only say that the proper nature and limits of governmental action for the relief of indigence must largely depend upon (1) the actual extent and effectiveness of voluntary association among the citizens, and (2) on the amount of philanthropic effort and sacrifice habitually devoted by private persons to the supply of social needs, and the wisdom with which these efforts and sacrifices are directed. A similar observation may be made in reference to other departments of the interference of Government, which I have called "socialistic''---whether in the wider or the narrower sense of the term. Thus we actually find that the promotion of education and culture, and the cure of diseases, have been largely provided for in modern civilised communities---though to an extent varying very much from one state to another---by the donations and bequests of individuals. So far as these needs can be adequately met in this way, there is an advantage in avoiding the necessity for additional taxation, which hardly needs demonstrating, but which will be brought prominently before the reader's mind in the course of the next chapter. And it ought here to be noted that if the State intervenes at all in any department that has been hitherto left to private beneficence, there is a serious danger of the latter withdrawing from it, unless the spheres of action appropriate to the two agencies respectively are well and clearly defined; since men who will spend money freely to provide for a social need which would otherwise remain unprovided for, will not be equally disposed to spend it to reduce the drain on the public treasury.

Before concluding, I may again remind the reader that governmental action has certain disadvantages of which the precise nature and importance will vary with variations in the structure of government, and in the relations established---whether by constitutional law or constitutional morality---between the governors and the governed. I mean such disadvantages as (1) the danger of overburdening the governmental machinery with work, (2) the danger of increasing the power capable of being used by governing persons oppressively or corruptly, (3) the danger that the delicate economic functions of government will be hampered by the desire to gratify certain specially influential sections of the community:---for instance, when legislation is in the hands of a representative assembly, the more the functions of Government are extended in a socialistic direction, the greater becomes the risk that contested elections will exhibit an immoral competition between candidates promising to procure public money for the benefit of particular classes and districts. When, along with these dangers, we take into account that the work of government must be done by persons who---even with the best arrangement for effective supervision and promotion of merit---can only have a part of the stimulus to energy and enterprise which the independent worker feels, it will be easily understood that we are not justified in concluding that governmental interference is always expedient, even where laisser faire leads to a manifestly unsatisfactory result; its expediency has to be decided in any particular case by a careful estimate of advantages and drawbacks, requiring data obtained from special experience.

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