The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book 3

The Art of Political Economy

Chapter 2

The System of Natural Liberty Considered in Relation to Production

§9. What has been said above would be true, however fully it is granted that social progress is carrying us towards a condition in which the assumption, that the consumer is a better judge than government of the commodities that he requires and of the source from which they may be best obtained, will be sufficiently true for all practical purposes. But it seems to me very doubtful whether this can be granted; since in some important respects the tendencies of social development seem to be rather in an opposite direction. As the appliances of life become more elaborate and complicated through the progress of invention, it is only according to the general law of division of labour to suppose that an average man's ability to judge of the adaptation of means to ends, even as regards the satisfaction of his everyday needs, is likely to become continually less. No doubt an ideally intelligent person would under these circumstances be always duly aware of his own ignorance, and would take the advice of experts. But it seems not unlikely that the need of such advice, and the difficulty of finding the right advisers, may increase more markedly than the average consciousness of such need and difficulty, at any rate where the benefits to be obtained or the evils to be warded off are somewhat remote and uncertain; especially when we consider that the self-interest of producers will in many cases lead them to offer commodities that seem rather than are useful, if the difference between seeming and reality is likely to escape notice.

How far Government can usefully attempt to remedy these shortcomings of self-help is a question that does not admit of a confident general answer, for the reasons discussed in the preceding section. We may, however, notice certain kinds of utility---which are or may be economically very important to individuals---which Government, in a well-organized modern community, is peculiarly adapted to provide. Complete security for savings is one of these. I do not of course claim that it is an attribute of governments, always and everywhere, that they are less likely to go bankrupt, or defraud their creditors, than private individuals or companies: but merely that this is likely to be an attribute of governments in the ideal society that orthodox political economy contemplates; of which we may find evidence in the fact that even now, though loaded with war debts and in danger of increasing the load, the English Government can borrow more cheaply than the most prosperous private company. So again---without at present entering dangerously into the burning question of currency---we may at least say that if stability in the value of the medium of exchange can be attained at all, without sacrifices and risks outweighing its advantages, it must be by the intervention of Government: a voluntary combination powerful enough to produce the result is practically out of the question.

And I have already observed that where uniformity of action or abstinence on the part of a whole class of producers is required for the most economical production of a certain utility, the intervention of Government is at least likely to be the most effective way of attaining the result: especially if the adoption of the required rule by a majority renders it decidedly the immediate interest of individuals to break through it.

To sum up: the general presumption derived from abstract economic reasoning is not in favour of leaving industry altogether to private enterprise, in any community that can usefully be taken even as an ideal for the guidance of practical statesmanship; but is on the contrary in favour of supplementing and controlling such enterprise in various ways by the collective action of the community. The general principles on which the nature and extent of such collective action should be determined have been given in the present chapter; but it would hardly be possible to work out a system of detailed practical rules on the basis of these principles, by the abstract deductive method here adopted; owing to the extent to which the construction of such system ought reasonably to be influenced by the particular social and political conditions of the country and time for which it is framed. In passing therefore from abstract principles to their concrete applications-so far as the limits of my treatise allow me to discuss the latter-it seems best to adopt d more empirical treatment: the exposition of which will be more conveniently reserved for another chapter.

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