The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter VII


§3. The most extreme means which have been proposed for equalizing distribution are the systems commonly designated by the terms ``Communism'' and ``Socialism''; which involve either the almost entire abolition of private property, or its restriction to consumers' wealth. These terms, however, and especially the adjectives Communistic and Socialistic, are also used more widely to describe the general principle of any modes of governmental interference which have for their object the attainment of the same result in a more partial way. This practice appears to me convenient; but in order to prevent vagueness it will be well to give each of the terms as precise a signification as possible, without deviating materially from ordinary usage.

Of the two terms `Socialism' is the more comprehensive: Communism being generally regarded as an extreme form of Socialism, in which the most thorough-going antagonism to the institution of private property is manifested. It would, however, be hardly convenient to restrict the term Communism to systems involving the complete abolition of this institution; since no one, I suppose, has ever seriously recommended that (e.g.) a man should not have private property in his clothes. I think therefore that the most useful way in which we can employ the terms Communism and Communistic, without deviating materially from ordinary usage, is to restrict them to those schemes or measures of governmental interference for equalizing distribution which discard or override the principle that a labourer's remuneration should be proportioned to the value of his labour.

The proposal to organize society on a Communistic plan, so as to distribute the annual produce of the labour and capital of the community either in equal shares, or in shares varying not according to the deserts but according to the needs of the recipient, is one of which the serious interest has now passed away; though a generation ago it had not a few adherents, and was supported with earnestness and ability by more than one competent writer. And, notwithstanding what has been urged in the preceding section, the proposition that a Communistic distribution would produce more happiness than the present system, if it could be realized without materially affecting production, or removing needful checks to population, is at any rate a very plausible one. But even if it were completely true I cannot doubt that the removal of the normal stimulus to labour (bodily and intellectual) and to care, which the present individualistic system supplies, would so much reduce the whole produce to be divided, that any advantage derived from greater economy of distribution would be decidedly outweighed---even supposing that no material change took place in population. Probably few of my readers will dispute this; but I may suggest to any one who is inclined to doubt it, to compare the average energy and perseverance in labour displayed by even respectable and conscientious rich persons, even when they select their own work, with the average energy and perseverance of professional men.

If this objection be allowed to be decisive, there will be no necessity to raise the very uninviting ethical questions which would be inevitably presented by the practical problem of preventing too great increase of population in a communistic society. I do not indeed regard this problem as insoluble; but I do not see how the difficulties in which it is involved are to be overcome without such a revolution in the traditional habits and sentiments regulating the relations of the sexes as no thoughtful person could contemplate without alarm and, disquiet.

The definition of Communism, as above laid down, is tolerably distinct; and it enables us to give a definite significance to the adjective `communistic', in its wider application to denote the tendency of minor governmental interferences. That is, we shall classify as communistic any law or institution by which a portion of the aggregate produce of a community is, by the agency of Government, distributed to individuals according to considerations of Need, without regard to their Deserts or previous services. For instance, according to this definition, the English Poor-Law is communistic in its effects---though not, perhaps, in its principle. So again, public roads, parks, libraries, churches, &c., so far as they are freely used by persons who are not taxed for their maintenance, must be called communistic; though, as we shall hereafter (§ 6) notice, the bad effects of communism are thought to be avoided or outweighed in these cases.

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