The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter VI


§1. In the preceding chapters we have considered the grounds and limits of governmental interference so far as its end is the most economic production of purchasable utilities estimated at any given time at their market value. Many, however, of the particular kinds of interference that we have had occasion to discuss are commonly recommended not from this point of view alone, but also as conducive to a better distribution of produce; whether this better distribution is expressly judged to be such because it is more economic (in the sense above explained); or whether---as is more ordinarily the case---it is preferred and commended as more ``Just'' or ``Equitable''. On the other hand such interferences are often condemned on grounds of Justice; as involving a violation of the rights of individuals. In the following chapter I propose to discuss governmental interference with distribution---including, the comprehensive schemes for such interference recommended by Socialist or semi-socialist writers---from a purely economic or utilitarian point of view; considering how far Individualism or Socialism may be expected to lead to most happiness, so far as this depends on the production and distribution of the produce of industry. In my view this is the consideration that ought to be decisive with the statesman and the philanthropist. But it seems expedient to clear the way for this discussion by a brief examination of other ethical views of the distribution of wealth and of the social order on which it mainly depends; since there are still many thoughtful persons who consider the present individualistic organization of society to be absolutely right, regarding all interference with private property as ``spoliation'', and all interference with free contract as ``tyranny of the state over the individual''. On the other hand there are Socialists who, with no less sincerity, pronounce private property generally---or private property in the instruments of production---to be ``robbery'', and regard the wages-contracts resulting from it as the manifestation of the ``enslavement of labour by capital''.

The opposition between the two views is violent and at first sight irreconcileable; I think, however, that it will be found possible to reduce it materially by careful consideration of the opposing doctrines, and so ultimately to find a common ground on which a profitable discussion may be conducted between them.

It may seem that such a discussion has not sufficient bearing on practical problems to be appropriately included in this part of my treatise. And no doubt the proposal to abolish private property---even if limited to the instruments and materials of production---cannot be said to come as yet within the range of a statesman's consideration; except as an actual or possible source of dangerous and disordering agitation among the poorer classes. But the proper application of the notions ``just'', ``fair'', ``equitable'', &c., to different parts of the existing distribution of wealth is undeniably a matter for practical consideration; since the demand that wages, profits, rents should be "fair" is continually made and approved by large sections of the community who would shrink from any scheme of wholesale interference with the rights of property. And we shall, I think, obtain a clearer and fuller view of the general principles of Justice or Equity which are implicitly assumed on one side or another in the discussion of such demands, if we examine the broad issue between the individualistic ideal of society, approximately realised in modern civilized communities, and the various socialistic schemes that have been constructed with the view of remedying its alleged injustices. Such an examination is not, I conceive, without interest even for those economists (chiefly English) who aim at a purely scientific treatment of the problem of distribution. For the conclusions of economic science have always been supposed to relate ultimately---however qualified and supplemented---to actual human beings; and actual human beings will not permanently acquiesce in a social order that common moral opinion condemns as unjust.

We may begin by removing a complication, by which the argument is sometimes confused, arising from the fact that the individualistic system is in possession of the field. Some persons, if the abolition of private property were proposed, would condemn the proposal as unjust, merely because the institution actually exists and has always existed from time immemorial. Reflection, however, would probably convince them that this position is untenable; since they would not deliberately maintain either that no established social order could be unjust or that if unjust it ought nevertheless to be perpetual. That any removal of legalized and long-standing social injustices should be managed with as much regard as possible to the legitimate expectations of the persons profiting by such injustices would be admitted by all reasonable persons; and more than this would hardly be demanded by any in the case of such generally approved changes as the abolition of slavery, serfdom, absolute despotism, or oppressive oligarchical privileges. Thus our question must clearly be whether the institution of private property is to be regarded, from an abstract point of view, as just or unjust. It would not even be contended, in the parallel cases just mentioned, that full compensation ought to be given to the persons damnified by the changes; for such compensation as would secure them advantages equal to those that they had lost would often be obviously impossible. All that can be said generally is that the compensation for the disappointment of legitimate expectations should be as nearly adequate as the circumstances of the case allow.

On the other hand we may equally neglect the argument that the existing inequalities in the division of property have had their origin in injustice; even if we grant that this is largely true in the case of the nations of modern Europe. For to disturb expectations based on ages of orderly possession, merely in order to remedy such ancient wrongs, is not defensible on any even plausible principles of jurisprudence or morality: such a measure could only be primâ facie justifiable if it led to the final substitution of a more equitable social order. Any plausible attack on private property must be based on objections not to its origin, but to its effects; and similarly, if the absolute justice of the institution is to be maintained, it must not be merely because it exists, but because it is based on rational principles.

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