The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter IX


§5. Ever since Christianity has been the established religion of Europe, thoughtful and conscientious rich persons have found a serious difficulty in providing themselves with perfectly satisfactory arguments in support of the customs of luxurious private expenditure to which they have commonly conformed, in view of the obvious happiness that might be produced by devoting their superfluous wealth in some way to increase the scanty income of the poor; and it is a matter of some interest to consider how far modern Political Economy has diminished or increased this difficulty. I conceive that it has operated to a considerable extent in both directions; so that its resultant effect is rather hard to ascertain. On the one hand, it has exploded the comfortable belief that the luxurious expenditure of the rich is on the whole the source of wages to the poor;---it has pointed out that though labour is no doubt employed in making the luxuries, still if the money spent in them were given to the poor, labour would be no less employed in making the additional comforts of the latter; they would get, speaking broadly, the same wages and the gifts as well. Again, apart from any particular doctrines, the general habit of contemplating society in its economic aspect tends to impress powerfully on the mind the great waste of the material means of happiness that is involved in the customary expenditure even of the most respectable rich persons. On the other hand, though Political Economy has hardly had anything positively new to teach to experienced persons with regard to the dangers of almsgiving, it has certainly tended to make the common view of these dangers more clear, definite and systematic. It has impressed forcibly on instructed minds the general rule that if a man's wants are supplied by gift when he might have supplied them himself by harder work and greater thrift, his motives to industry and thrift tend to be so far diminished; and not only his motives, but the motives of all persons in like circumstances who are thereby led to expect like gifts for themselves. If, indeed, almsgiving could be confined to the relief of distress against which provision could not have been made, this danger would be eliminated; but it is obvious that any important and widespread source of distress, though perhaps incapable of being foreseen in any particular case, is---by the very fact of its frequency and importance---capable of being foreseen as a general probability, so that provision may be made against it by insurance or otherwise. If, finally, it be said that the poorest class of labourers have no superfluous wealth from which to make such provision, Political Economy answers with undeniable force that they can at any rate defer the responsibility of increasing the population until they have saved the minimum required for security against the pecuniary demands of ordinary misfortunes. It is no doubt possible for an almsgiver in particular cases to convince himself that his gift is not likely to entail any material encouragement to improvidence; but he can rarely be quite sure of this; and the general sense that care and knowledge are required even to minimize the danger has caused almsgiving to be now regarded as a difficult art, instead of the facile and applauded indulgence of the pleasurable impulses of benevolence that it once seemed to be. From such an art selfish, inert, or frivolous persons, if duly instructed, have a natural disposition to keep altogether aloof. But there is reason to hope that, in minds of nobler stamp, the full perception of the difficulties and risks attending the voluntary redistribution of wealth will only act as a spur to the sustained intellectual activity required for the successful accomplishment of this duty.

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