The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book 3

The Art of Political Economy

Chapter 3

The Relations of Government to Industry

§4. It is, however, of more general importance to consider the various kinds of the interference with industry which may be necessary or expedient for the due protection of the life, health, physical comfort, freedom and reputation of individuals from harm inflicted, intentionally or otherwise, by private persons. In considering the proper limits of this interference, we find much controversy on the question how far Government may legitimately go in preventing acts that are not directly or necessarily harmful, on the ground that they are likely in some indirect way to have harmful consequences to other persons besides the agent. It would be out of place here to enter fully into this controversy; but I may perhaps say that the question appears to me to be one of degree: and that I do not see how the answer to it in concrete cases can reasonably be decided by any broad general formula. In some cases the burden is so trifling that no one would hesitate to impose it, if experience shows it to be at all efficacious for the attainment of either of the ends above distinguished. Of this kind are the regulations that printers' and publishers' names should be affixed to published documents, in order to secure punishment or redress in case of libels; that poisons when sold should be manifestly designated as such; that vehicles should carry a light at night, &c. So far as more serious interference with the production or sale of certain commodities is exerted, in order to protect from disease and other physical damage either the producers or purchasers of such commodities, or other members of the community, such interference is, no doubt, liable to be attended by economic drawbacks, which have to be carefully weighed against the evils which experience shows it to be capable of preventing. But the final decision as to its expediency does not fall within the sphere of Political Economy and cannot be arrived at by strictly economic methods; since life and health are goods which it is not possible to estimate at a definite pecuniary value.

The question as to the expediency of governmental interference which we may call `indirectly individualistic'---i.e. designed for the protection of individuals other than those whose freedom of action is thereby diminished---tends in practice to be mixed with a question which, from an abstract point of view, is fundamentally distinct; viz. how far (if at all) Government ought to interfere `paternally' to prevent injury to the life or health of an individual caused either by himself or with his own consent. In the chief cases where a man harms himself so seriously as to suggest a need of governmental interference, his conduct has also an important tendency to harm others: hence it is often difficult to say whether it is the former or the latter kind of harm that a given piece of legislation is designed to prevent. Thus the various prescriptions and prohibitions included in our own recent sanitary legislation are frequently criticized as `paternal': but it may be fairly said that in such cases coercion is applied to individuals not primarily in their own interest, but in that of others who might suffer if their houses became a focus of disease. So again, few individualists would deny that the tendency of drunkenness to cause breaches of the peace is a legitimate ground for some interference with the trade of selling alcohol: and the most thoroughgoing abolitionist urges his restriction more as indirectly individualistic than as paternal---i.e. more on the ground of the proved tendency of alcoholic excess to make a man beat his wife and starve his children, than on the ground of its tendency to injure the drunkard himself.

So far as any such legislation is avowedly `paternal' it is clearly opposed to the fundamental assumption---on which (as we have seen) the economic rule of laisser faire partly rests---that every man is the best judge of what contributes to his own happiness; since on this principle each individual ought to set his own value on life and health, and to choose freely the means of maintaining them, just as much as in the case of other utilities. I have, however, already indicated that I do not accept this principle as universally valid: I only accept it as furnishing (as Cairnes says) a handy though rough rule of practical statesmanship, in accordance with ordinary experience of human nature, from which we ought only to deviate in special cases when there are strong empirical grounds for concluding that our general assumption is not borne out by facts. And this view is in harmony with the practice of all civilized governments. Thus (e.g.) our own government does not trust its subjects to find out for themselves and avoid unhealthy food or improperly qualified physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries: or to refrain from buying diseased meat: or to refuse to take part in industrial processes which are exposed to special dangers---as (e.g.) mining and navigation---unless due precautions are taken against these dangers. It finds that even the self-helpful Englishman cannot be trusted to take adequate care of himself in these matters: hence it endeavours in various ways to obviate the mischief liable to result from this want of care. Rarely, indeed, does it attempt by direct prohibition to prevent an individual from doing what is likely to injure himself alone; but it prescribes conditions under which certain dangerous industries are to be carried on, and does not permit them to be violated, even with the full consent of the persons who would be endangered; it directly prohibits persons not qualified in a manner which it prescribes from exercising certain trades---such as that of apothecary, and that of pilot; in other cases it indirectly hinders the employment of practitioners not properly qualified by refusing to enforce payment of fees for their services.

To meet the special arguments for these and similar measures by a simple reference to the general considerations in favour of leaving sane adults to manage their own affairs appears to me clearly irrational and unscientific. But to discuss the proper limits of this `paternal' interference---as I have said of the `indirectly individualistic' interference with which it is practically mixed up---would clearly carry us beyond the province of the present treatise: since all would agree that, in determining these limits, considerations of wealth cannot be taken as decisive. If we regarded a man merely as a means of producing wealth, it might clearly `pay' to allow needle-grinders to work themselves to death in a dozen years---as they used to be willing to do in order to earn higher wages. But a civilized community cannot take this view of its members; the question whether men are to be allowed thus to shorten their lives for a few extra shillings a week has clearly to be decided on other than merely economic grounds. At the same time, it is the business of the economist to estimate the expense, trouble and loss of utility that interference of this kind tends to cause; and if he finds it in any case excessively costly, or likely to be frustrated by a tenacious and evasive pursuit of private interest on the part of the persons interfered with, he must direct attention to these drawbacks.

And the same may be said of the interference of Government for the protection of children;---whether directly, as by limiting the amount of labour that may be enacted from them, and securing to them a certain amount of education; or indirectly, by placing restrictions on the labour of married women (or women who have borne children) so far as these appear necessary in order to secure the proper performance of their maternal functions. As the system of Natural Liberty is, even by its most vehement advocates, regarded as only applicable to adults, it is not in any way opposed to the principle of such regulations; and though (1) the immediate economic loss caused by such restrictions, and (2) the ultimate economic gain to the community from the improved health and training of its children, are important considerations in determining the nature and extent of this kind of interference, they are not by themselves decisive. It is often said that parents are the best guardians of their children's interests: but this, at any rate, is quite a different proposition from that on which the general economic argument for industrial non-interference is based, viz. that every sane adult is the best guardian of his own interests: and the limitations within which experience will lead us to restrict the practical application of the two principles respectively are not likely to coincide.

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