The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter IV

Section 10

§10. I pass to notice certain important cases in which the interference of Government has been widely exercised and still more extensively solicited partly in the interest of production; but also largely with a view to other ends-the relief of distress, the increase of political security and stability, the amelioration of the moral or intellectual condition of large classes of citizens, or the attainment of certain ideal aims of social human progress. The departments to which I refer may be briefly indicated by the names Education, Emigration and Land-tenure;---the last two being to some extent connected. I shall here consider them merely from a productional point of view.

Of these departments the first is undoubtedly the most important, if we take the term in an extended sense, to include all institutions or regulations for the promotion of culture, either of adults or of children. I have before observed, that though the same machinery may partly serve the two purposes,---still the principles on which Government intervenes in the education of children are importantly different from those upon which its assistance is claimed for the intellectual improvement of adults. From the fundamental assumption of the system of natural liberty, that a man is the best guardian of his own interests, it by no means follows that he is the best guardian of his children's interests; and, in fact, in the freest of modern communities, it is found necessary to sustain by legal sanctions the parent's obligation to provide even for the material wants of his children. It is, therefore, no contravention of natural liberty---so far at least as it is maintained in the interest of production to secure them a minimum of education by the same legal compulsion. But the expense of this education, if not artificially reduced by pecuniary aid from Government, would---in almost any civilized society---be so serious a burden on the poorest class, that it would be practically impossible to make the compulsion universal: and, as was before pointed out, the community derives an economic gain from the education of its younger members---so far as they are thereby rendered more efficient labourers---which the self-interest of private employers cannot be relied upon to provide, owing to the difficulty of appropriating the advantage of the increased efficiency. Hence a national provision for education may to some extent be considered and justified as a measure for improving national production. The instruction, however, that is thus made compulsory and artificially cheap on this principle should be strictly confined to imparting aptitudes of incontestable utility to industry; and whatever it is made universally obligatory to acquire should, of course, be universally useful.

But further; there may be the same general economic justification for cbeapening by governmental aid the special training required for skilled labour, as there is for cheapening elementary general education: that is, the community may gain an adequate return for its expenditure in the greater abundance and better quality of the skilled labour so provided. This argument would hold, independently of any assumption that natural liberty is not likely to provide the right kind of training for those who can afford to pay for it. In fact, however, this assumption has been very generally made by those wbo have defended or solicited the intervention of modern Governments in the preparation for various trades and professions. Even in the case of the lower kinds of skilled labour, it is widely held that the traditional custom of learning a trade by apprenticeship---i.e. by mere practice and the casual intermittent instruction that persons engaged in the work can find time to give to beginners---has actually led to very unsatisfactory results: that the skill thus acquired tends to be mechanical and unprogressive, and not even so cheap as it appears, owing to the long time spent in its acquisition: and that therefore it is a socially remunerative employment of public money to organize and artificially cheapen systematic technical instruction. In the case, again, of the higher kinds of skill required for what are called the learned professions, the incapacity of ordinary persons to judge of such skill has been generally recognised as a ground for governmental interference to ensure a certain degree of competence in recognised members of these professions: and most civilized Governments have not been content to secure this by requiring certain examinations to be passed by such persons; they have also given salaries to teachers appointed to impart the required knowledge at low charge, in universities or otherwise. A modern university, however, is not merely an institution for imparting special kinds of knowledge for professional purposes; it has also the function of advancing knowledge generally and facilitating its acquirement by students whose aims are purely scientific. This speculative pursuit of knowledge is to a large extent---and to an extent incapable at any given time of being definitely determined---indirectly useful to industry; and since, as was before noticed, its results cannot usually be appropriated and sold, there is an obvious reason for remunerating the labour required to produce these results, and defraying the expenses incidental to the work, out of public funds,---at any rate if a provision adequate for the purpose is not available from private sources.

Besides oral instruction, in modern times, access to books is a most important means of spreading and advancing knowledge. Libraries, indeed, are among the essential instruments of academic teaching; but, as has been strikingly said, a library apart from oral instruction is itself a cheap university. The institution of free libraries and museums supported at public expense is perhaps most frequently advocated, just as a national provision for elementary or bigher education is, from a distributional point of view, as a harmless and salutary form of communism; still the great indirect advantage that the community gains through the general spread of intelligence, and especially through facilitating the acquirement of knowledge by exceptionally gifted persons, is at any rate an important consideration from the point of view of production. And even in the case of galleries and museums of Art this consideration comes in to some extent, so far as artistic cultivation improves artistic production.

Before leaving this subject it should be observed that by far the most extensive application of public funds to the culture of adults, in most modern European communities, consists of a provision for religious worship and instruction. It would, however, be obviously incongruous to dwell on this in the present connexion: and in fact the interference of the State for this purpose, considered from a purely secular point of view, is rather to be justified on account of the value of the clergy as ``spiritual police'',---that is, from the indirect aid given by them to the necessary governmental function of preventing crime.

[Back to:][PPE, Book III, Chapter 4, Section 9]
[Forward to:] [PPE, Book III, Chapter 4, Section 11] Emmigration
[Up to:]
[PPE Intro and Table of Contents]