The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter VIII


§2. In order to shew the importance of this latter connexion let us consider separately each of the chief modes by which Government obtains the commodities it requires. These commodities may be divided into (1) Services, (2) Material products requiring to be continually supplied, and (3) Land, buildings and other comparatively permanent investments of capital; and both services and material products may be obtained either (a) without purchase, or (b) by purchase with money previously provided in some way. In many civilized countries an important part of the services required by Government is obtained otherwise than by free exchange. In England, for instance, the work of legislation is unpaid; and so is a considerable share of the judicial work, whether performed voluntarily, as in the case of magistrates, or compulsorily, as it is by jurymen. We are not, however, concerned to do more than notice these facts: since the desirability of imposing or accepting these unremunerated services is, I conceive, a political question in the decision of which economic considerations have but a subordinate place. This cannot be so decidedly said in the case, economically far more important, of labour obtained compulsorily for the purposes of military (including naval) service. The defenders of the compulsory system have no doubt urged other than economic reasons in its favour,---it has been said that the defence of one's country is a function which ought to be undertaken from patriotism or a sense of duty, rather than from mercenary motives and a taste for the incidents of the painful business of mutual slaughter; it ought therefore not to be made the work of a special profession recruited in the ordinary way by free contract; but rather imposed upon all citizens, whom there is not some special reason for exempting. It has been urged further that this system diminishes the constitutional dangers inseparable from the existence of a large standing army; since conscripts are less likely than professional soldiers to be seduced into fighting unjustifiably against the established political order.

But, whatever weight may be attached to these or other non-economic arguments, it seems undeniable, at any rate, that under certain circumstances there may be overwhelming economic considerations in favour of compulsory service. Where, indeed, the number of soldiers and sailors required for warlike purposes is not large in proportion to the population, and their services can be obtained at about the rate at which labour of similar quality would be hired for peaceful industry, voluntary enlistment seems clearly the most economical system; since it tends to select the persons most likely to be efficient soldiers and those to whom military functions are least distasteful; both which advantages are lost by the adoption of the compulsory system. But a nation may unfortunately require an army so large that its ranks could not be kept full by voluntary enlistment, except at a rate of remuneration much above that which would be paid in other industries for labour that requires no more outlay in training and no scarcer qualifications: and in this case the burden of the taxation requisite to provide for such an army may easily be less endurable than the burden of compulsory service.

However to present even the economical argument on this question completely we should have to consider the respective advantages of short and long service, the proper relation between the regular army and the reserve, and other details of military (and naval) organization into which my limits do not allow me to enter.

The material products required by the state it is ordinarily expedient to obtain by purchase, leaving the production of them to private industry; for the reasons that lead us to regard the present individualistic organization of industry as in general economically superior to a socialistic organization. But in certain cases these arguments either do not apply or are balanced by special reasons in favour of State manufacture: either where the articles required by Government are of a quite peculiar kind (such as the instruments of warfare, cannons, ironclads, &c.) so that the advantage of free competition may not be obtainable at all, or may be more likely to be obtained if Government undertakes the manufacture; or where the quality of the article is very important and at the same time difficult to test if obtained by purchase; or where systematic and costly experiments in production are required.

In the case of land, buildings, and other comparatively permanent kinds of wealth what has practically to be considered is often not how the state is to be supplied with them, but rather how far it is desirable that it should retain possession of them. Much of the land that now belongs to the public in the form of roads, commons, forests, harbours, &c. has never been private property: other portions of it, in modern European communities, have been the semi-private property of the royal families in feudal and semifeudal times, and have since gradually acquired, more or less completely, the character of public property; other portions have been taken from individuals or societies in the way of confiscation. But however such property may have been obtained, there can hardly be any valid reason for keeping it now, unless it is required for the due performance of necessary governmental functions, or unless for special reasons it is likely to be more useful socially under governmental management.

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