The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter XI


§1. A century ago, it appeared to a thoughtful writer that the institution of Government---however indispensable under existing conditions---must inevitably die out before the advance of human reason; and even now, when the pendulum of thought has swung in the opposite direction, the extreme fanatics among social reformers appear to be still divided---or hesitating---between ``Anarchy and Panarchy''. These wild imaginings do not concern us: but it is important to bear in mind that the cost in coercion, money, and services, that is generally required to keep up any part of the work of government, is in itself a sacrifice from a social point of view; and that consequently, in determining the limits of governmental interference in any particular case, on the lines which our previous discussion has drawn, the consideration of this cost is never to be overlooked, and may be of decisive importance:---since here, as in private affairs, the question whether a certain utility should be sought in a certain way may depend on the price that has to be paid for it. At this point, therefore, it seems desirable that we should take a general view of (1) the restraints which it is needful to place on private individuals, in order to protect Government against attack, and to render its discharge of its functions more efficient, and (2) the manner in which the personal services and the material commodities required for governmental work should be obtained.

Under the first head we may begin by assuming that the life, health, reputation, etc., of persons exercising governmental functions will receive protection similar to that afforded to private individuals by such a system of law as has been sketched out in the preceding chapters: and we may make a similar assumption with regard to the land or other wealth which Government manages as "public property'',---either as being necessary to the performance of governmental functions, or most generally useful when held in public ownership. These points need no argument: and it is also obvious that any overt resistance to governmental officials in the discharge of their legitimate functions should be effectively repressed:---though, of course, when such an official has exceeded his lawful functions in applying coercion to any private individual, reparation should be made to the latter for any injury he may have suffered from the unlawful aggression, and punishment should be inflicted on the aggressor if his excess has been wilful or grave. It is more doubtful how far a private person is to be held justified in resisting what he believes to be unlawful aggression on the part of a governmental official, just as he would resist similar aggression on the part of a private individual. It seems most simple and logical to lay down that an official acting illegally loses all advantage of his official character, so far as this action is concerned: still there are important grounds for limiting the right of self-defence more narrowly where the apparent aggressor is an officer of government. For a conflict of force between a private person and a governmental officer is more disturbing and dangerous to social order than a similar conflict between private persons; again, in the former case there is a general presumption that the apparent aggressor is better acquainted with the limits of his legitimate functions than the private individual whose right he apparently invades: finally, reparation is somewhat more secure in the case of aggression by a governmental officer than it is in the case of private aggression, since the private aggressor may escape. On the whole, then, it would seem expedient that the legal right of self-defence against aggressions of governmental officials should, as far as possible, be limited to cases in which the illegitimacy of the official's attack is manifest and unmistakable, or the injury threatened irreparable.

I have been speaking above of strictly legal rights of resistance, as conceivably exercised against subordinate officials. The consideration of the moral right of private persons to resist oppressive action on the part of a supreme organ of government will come more properly at a later stage of the discussion; for which I also reserve the important question how far special restraints should be imposed on freedom of speech and freedom of association of private individuals in order more completely to guard against the danger of seditious resistance to the supreme government.

Leaving the question of open resistance and incitement to resistance, it may be laid down further that any attempt to prevent or pervert the exercise of any governmental powers by bribing or in any way threatening the officials concerned should be severely repressed; and, generally, any dangerous attempt to throw obstacles directly or indirectly in the way of the discharge of governmental functions should be prohibited under penalties, unless for special reasons it should appear that such penal interference would be likely to be attended with evils outweighing its advantages. The most difficult question under this latter head relates to the assistance that relatives and friends are prompted to render to criminals desirous of escaping justice. Such assistance should certainly be viewed generally as a breach of social duty; but to punish it with unrelenting rigour would bring the law into harsh---and somewhat demoralising---collision with the affectionate feelings and habits of mutual service which powerfully move men to aid near kinsmen or intimate friends in distress. On the whole, it is probably best to reserve the punishment of ``accessories after the fact'' for the gravest class of crimes, and even in this case to exempt from punishment the mutual secret aid of husbands and wives, or children and parents.

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