Liberty and Liberalism

Smith, Bruce
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London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
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Chapter VI


"It would be easy to show how legislators, in every attempt they have made to protect some particular interests, and uphold some particular principles, have, not only failed, but have brought about results diametrically opposite to those which they proposed."—BUCKLE, History of Civilisation.

"The substitution of government direction for the play of individual action, and the attempt to secure by restriction what can better be secured by freedom."—HENRY GEORGE, Progress and Poverty.

"Experience hath plainly taught in the said town that the said act hath not only not brought the good effect that then was hoped and surmised, but also hath been, and now is likely to be the very greatest cause of the impoverishing and undoing of the poor artificers and others, at whose suit the said act was procured."—Extract from an Act of Parliament of the Reign of Elizabeth.


THE above quotations should sufficiently explain, in general terms, the purpose of the present chapter, and the application of the title which I have adopted for it. In dealing with the very numerous instances of falsely-conceived legislation, which are afforded by historic and modern times, and which I have collected from different sources in order to illustrate the theories for which I am contending, I have found it necessary to divide this portion of my subject into two parts—the first containing those instances which may be fairly placed under the head of "historic;" the second containing those which more correctly come under the heading of the "present day."


I have applied the term "Spurious Liberalism" to both divisions—each of which occupies a chapter—though the instances enumerated under the former were enacted at a time when the word "Liberalism" had not yet been adopted as a political term.


The nature of that older legislation, however, is so identical in principle with the more modern school, that I have, notwithstanding, preferred to treat them both under that head. The principal objectionable feature which characterises all those historic, as well as those modern instances with which I purpose dealing, is that they have the effect of either curtailing the liberty of citizens instead of widening it; involving the State in commercial pursuits instead of leaving that field to private enterprise; or of interfering with the recognised rights of property—in each case, too, to an extent beyond that requisite for the general good, up to which point there could, of course, be no objection. English history presents us with an abundant crop of legislation to which the term "Spurious Liberalism" can fairly be applied, though, nevertheless, it was placed upon the statute-book at a time when the working classes had only a very partial voice in the government of the country.


While the gradual growth of freedom, which I have endeavoured to trace in previous chapters, was going on: stimulated, from time to time, by the growing confidence of the people, and the more frequent expression of the popular wishes, there were certain other features of Liberalism which failed to receive anything like clear recognition, even by the people themselves who were most immediately interested. The broad principles of freedom had certainly been recognised, and understood in the earliest times, even by the dullest classes of citizens; for it required the minimum of intelligence to discern the advantages of liberty of locomotion, for the person; liberty to do as one wished with one's own property; liberty to believe, and worship, in accordance with the particular creed which happened to be most popular in one's own time. These broader features of Liberalism were the first to be recognised and valued by the masses of the people, if not as principles of a studied political science, yet as human wants of a very practical and necessary character. But there were other important features which were not so clearly understood. There were, in fact, other phases of personal freedom which were not so quickly, if at all discerned, in the times of which I am about to speak. I refer to such matters as freedom of commercial intercourse and interchange; freedom of contract in the natural rise and fall of wages and in the conditions of labour; freedom of individual taste and expenditure in the more private concerns of life. These were matters which, in many cases, affected the poor and the rich alike, but principally the poor, who, in their meagre parliamentary representation, enjoyed few opportunities for effectual protest. One can only account for the continuance of those which materially affected the better classes, who did enjoy representation, to the fact that, not being familiar with the fundamental economic laws which are now so widely understood, they were not prompted to any practical resistance. It is highly probable, too, that, for want of knowledge of these fundamental principles, most people rested satisfied with the vague belief (which exists to a large extent in our own day) that in some way or other, though not very clear, such restrictive legislation produced some good to somebody. This is, in fact, the only feasible explanation of the widespread belief in Protection in our own time. In the period which elapsed between the reign of Henry III. and the abolition of the Corn Laws, there existed a most universal ignorance among legislators, regarding the very fundamental principles of what is now termed "political economy." It is tolerably evident, indeed, from history, that an act of parliament was considered to possess something of a creative faculty, by which it could really produce positive benefits, that is to say, could confer them on one class of society, without, at the same time, subtracting them, or the means by which they were obtained, from some other class. It is now generally recognised by all persons, who have read or thought beneath the surface of things, that the comforts of life can only be produced by human exertion of some kind; that though machinery (which the working classes have, from time to time, abused) can much facilitate the production of those comforts, still, previous exertion has to be stored up in order to produce that machinery; and that parliament, which after all, is only a large debating society, cannot, by any magic process, produce something out of nothing—can only, in fact, and that by an improper use of its power, compel one citizen to transfer something to another citizen. An act of parliament, therefore, cannot confer positive advantages on any section of its citizens, except by first taking those advantages, or the means of obtaining them, from some other section of its citizens. This simple—I might almost say primitive—truth has required some centuries for men to find out; and, even in our own day, there are thousands who have not yet fully realised it. This fundamental error lies at the root of all the falsely-conceived legislation of past and present times. In historic times, indeed, there were few men who knew the error of this view, for the science of political economy was almost unknown. In the present day this class of legislation is proposed and enacted in the very face of this knowledge; and many of the men who assist in that enactment ignore, by so doing, all the history of their forefathers, and all the science and political philosophy of their contemporaries.


I propose, therefore, to divide my subject into two branches, enumerating, under the present heading, all those instances which arose under the earlier state of economic knowledge—from the time of Henry III. to the time of the Corn-Laws repeal—and, in a subsequent chapter, all those instances which have been and are being proposed, in our own day, notwithstanding our possession of the facts from history and from science, which, if studied, would inevitably lead to a more correct view of such matters. As I have already said, political economy is a comparatively modern science, practically dating from the time of Adam Smith, whose treatise was published a little over a century ago.*67 It teaches that the operations of society, in relation to commerce, are regulated by ascertainable laws, and that any anticipation of the good effects of any such law, in one direction, must, inevitably, be followed by a corresponding forfeiture of advantages in another direction. For instance, when in the reign of George II. a bounty was paid on the exportation of corn, in order to encourage the agricultural interest, it was little thought that the incentive, thus offered to exportation, would prove so effectual as to lead to corn acquiring an almost fabulous value in the producing country itself, and, as a consequence, to give rise to serious riots. Yet, such was the fact; and, subsequently, when the other extreme was resorted to, by actually prohibiting the exportation of corn, and laying an embargo on all ships laden from British ports, the authors of the law equally lost sight of the fact that what they were doing would have the effect of paralysing the national shipping interests. Yet such also was the case.


Now, in both these instances, the legislation referred to had been prompted by the very best intentions, though the result, in each case, proved that the authors failed to foresee the ultimate effects of their measures, which, in the light of modern economic knowledge, would now be predicted by any person of moderate political education. The first of these laws was conceived for the encouragement of the agricultural interest; the second, with the purpose of removing the dearth of corn, which, according to Hume, "so much distressed the poorer class of people." These were distinct instances of a spurious Liberalism; for, though appearing at first sight to promise national benefits, the liberty of the taxpayer was, in the one case, infringed by his being compelled to contribute, through the revenue, to the granting of a bounty for the purpose of bolstering up a particular industry, for the benefit of a particular class; while, in the second case, the liberty of the agriculturalist was infringed by preventing him from selling to a foreign purchaser, willing to give him a higher price for his corn than that which was obtainable in his own country. These are only individual instances of a far-reaching misconception, by means of which commerce was hampered for purposes which were never to be realised, and interfered with in such a way as to discourage all attempts at development. All such laws had, sooner or later, to be revoked, that is to say, repealed, and the mere repeal was in its turn looked upon as a reform.*68


It was only by a series of experiences of this kind that men came, at last, to understand the principles of what we term political economy. Now, during the period over which so much of this experience was gained, that is to say over which we find commerce almost strangled with abortive legislative restrictions, the government of the country (England) was really in the hands of the monied and better educated section of society. If any class should have known how hopeless were such attempts, it was the class who then more or less monopolised the governing power. But, as I have said, the world was only learning political economy, and at a considerable cost to its commerce and its social advancement. To this fact, alone, can we attribute those great and numerous legislative errors. Consider, for a moment, the position of affairs in the present day. The science of political economy has been expounded by some of the greatest intellects of our century; treatises, without number, have been placed within the reach of the poorest citizen, and the subject has been taught in every university, as well as in many of the best schools in every English-speaking community. Every educated man knows, or, at least, has been taught those principles; and the mistakes of our forefathers have in fact become our heritage, from which we are enabled to draw morals for our own political guidance. The fundamental truth, for instance, which underlies the theory of Freetrade is trite among properly educated persons, and, as Mr. Bright said some time ago, it is difficult to understand "how reasonable men ever thought otherwise." If this be so, it may be fairly asked how it is that, notwithstanding the great advance in political education, so much of what I have called misconceived legislation is still being passed in such a community as that of Great Britain? The answer is obvious. The class who formerly held the preponderance of the governing power, and who, themselves, were parties to the misconceived legislation in earlier times, of which I have spoken, have certainly corrected their view of political questions; but—and this is the reason for which I am seeking—meanwhile, the governing power has been passed on to the masses, who, unfortunately, are almost as little versed in political principles, as were the more educated classes before Adam Smith's time. Parliament is, of necessity, the mirror of the political opinions entertained by those who elect it, and one of the natural but also unfortunate consequences of representative government is that candidates are always forthcoming to advocate the unwise as well as the wise expressions of public opinion. There is reason to believe that, as time progresses, the masses will make a more familiar acquaintance with sound political principles, and resist, more than they have hitherto done, the overtures of aspiring candidates who are not disinclined to stultify themselves in order to win the approval of those who can turn the scale at election time. Thus, then, though the better educated classes of the present day are familiar with political principles, the fact that the government has, to a great extent, passed out of their hands into those of the masses renders the chances of wiser and more far-seeing legislation somewhat remote. A review of some of the modern and impending legislation, which I shall undertake in a future chapter, will, I think, go far to show that society is just now in as great danger, from the passing of misconceived measures, as it was in those remote times to which I have alluded. Every important extension of the franchise brings in to the electoral fold a fresh detachment of the less provident and less reflective section of society. Each of such detachments constitutes a new disturbing factor in the periodical expression of the public opinion, and the effect of such a disturbance in the formation of that opinion, whether for good, or for evil, depends upon the amount of wisdom which is possessed in determining their wants, and the amount of judgment which is exercised in wielding the power by which that determination is expressed. The mere fact of such a detachment having been hitherto excluded from the franchise is, in itself, evidence of having been under age, or of having wanted means; and it would be a mere truism to assert that both youth and poverty are, as a rule, unaccompanied by a large amount of political or any other wisdom. The net result of the Franchise Act of 1885 has been carefully set forth in "The Radical Programme" as follows:—"The parliament of 1880 was elected by three millions of electors, of whom it was estimated one-third were of the working classes. The next House of Commons" (now sitting) "will be elected by five millions of men, of whom three-fifths belong to the labouring population."*69 The Act of 1885 therefore added two millions to the franchise, principally of the agricultural-labourer class. This has been the dream of Radicals for years; yet, hear what the author of the "Radical Programme" says of the class from which this new detachment has been taken:—"The English masses are nearly impervious to political ideas.... The people know vaguely what they want.... There never was a time when instruction was more sorely needed on all these topics."*70 Elsewhere the same authority says:—"It is for the people's leaders to indicate to them the precise methods and instruments by which their wishes may be realised."*71


The modus operandi is then as follows:—All men are, of course, aiming at wise government. Two more millions of electors have been added to the electoral roll of Great Britain, who are "impervious to political ideas;" who "know their wants only vaguely;" and who are "in sore need of instruction on political topics." These two millions are to express "their wishes," and certain other persons, having heard those "wishes," are to carry them out. These latter persons are, in Radical phraseology, to be called "leaders," and the sum and substance of this whole process is that we are to approximate more closely than before to a "wise" government—that is to say, to a government working in the real interests of the "whole people"! Will such a series of propositions stand the most superficial logical analysis? The future is indeed not promising, but let us not venture on prophecy. Let us turn now to the past. The investigation which I shall now make of "Spurious Liberalism," in its historic instances, will prove that the repeated attempts to produce happiness or success for the people, by Act of Parliament, have not only failed to effect their purpose, but, in many cases, produced results entirely opposite to those which were intended and anticipated. It will, at the same time, be noticed that, in a large number of instances, the matters dealt with were of the most private and trivial nature, which could have had no real concern for anybody but the individuals themselves, and certainly not the remotest for the government of the country, or for the people at large, whom the government are supposed to represent.


I shall first deal with those interferences with national commerce, which form part of the material from which Buckle deduced the conclusion that "the history of the commercial legislation of Europe presents every possible contrivance for hampering the energies of commerce." Those interferences were principally with the natural supply and demand of the necessaries of life, such as corn, meat, and wool; and a study of them will show how vain and profitless were, and almost must be, the attempts to improve upon the ordinary economic laws by which the English people are now content to allow their markets to be ruled.


In the reign of Henry III. an assize of bread was fixed—that is to say, a statute was passed with the object of regulating prices.*72 Hume says, in reference to it:—"Yet did the prices often rise much higher than any taken notice of by the statute."*73 The state, in fact, did not succeed in regulating the prices, for they rose notwithstanding the statute. It was, in short, an attempt to keep down the price of bread, but it is evident that the object of the legislative restriction failed to effect its purpose. Even if such an enactment had effected its authors' aim, no argument is necessary to show that such a restriction would have worked an injustice on the holders of corn and the sellers of bread, by depriving them of the liberty of selling it to such persons as would purchase it at the best obtainable price.


In the reign of Edward III. (according to Hume), by far the most considerable of England's exports was that of wool. The king placed an imposition of forty shillings on each sack exported: thus again interfering with the laws of supply and demand, and trespassing, for no legitimate purpose, upon the liberty of those citizens, whose interest it was to export and dispose of abroad, for the best price obtainable, their law-fully acquired commodity. The same monarch, in order to give an artificial stimulus to the woollen manufacture, offered protection and encouragement to foreign weavers, and enacted a law, prohibiting everyone from wearing any cloth but that of English fabric. Later, in the same reign, the exportation of wool was absolutely prohibited, as also that of manufactured iron.*74 This was done with a view of compelling foreigners to come and buy in the English markets; and, lest the law should be evaded, the penalty for a breach was fixed at "death and confiscation."


The policy of parliament, during various periods of this reign, became unbearably interfering. It attempted, what Hume characterises as "the impracticable scheme" of reducing the price of labour, as also that of poultry.*75 A reaper, in the first week of August, was not allowed above twopence a day, or near sixpence of our present money; in the second week, a third more. A master carpenter was limited, through the whole year, to threepence a day; a common carpenter to twopence a day, money of that age.*76


In the following reign (Richard II.), parliament complained (as might have been expected) of the decay of shipping, and attributed it to the fact that the king had authorised frequent seizures for purposes of war. They asserted that one seaport had contained "more vessels than were then to be found in the whole kingdom."*77 Notwithstanding this very distinct lesson, as to the effect of such arbitrary conduct, the same complaint had to be repeated in Edward's reign, and again in that of Richard. In the 27th year of Edward, parliament took upon itself to fix upon particular towns of England as the markets for wool, leather, lead, and certain other commodities. Next it was removed to Calais. The object of this interference with the commerce of the country was to enable foreigners to be invited to a definite market. This scheme likewise was carried out to such extremes by parliament that English merchants were actually prohibited from exporting any English goods from the statutory market, and the result was "the total abandoning of all foreign navigation, except that to Calais."*78 In this reign also "shopkeepers had the prices of provisions dictated to them."*79


In the reign of Henry IV. we find another crop of the same short-sighted legislation. "Commerce," says Hume, "was very little understood in this reign, as in all the preceding. There appears to have been a great jealousy against what were termed merchant strangers." Restraints of various kinds were imposed upon them by act of parliament. For instance, they were obliged to lay out, in English manufactures or commodities, all the money acquired by the sale of their goods; they were prohibited from buying or selling with one another; and it was rendered imperative that all their goods should be disposed of three months after importation.*80 Hume says of this last enactment, that "it was found so inconvenient that it was, soon after, repealed by parliament." It would also appear that, during the previous reigns, the prohibition on the exportation of corn was maintained; for it is said, by Hume, that "permission was given by parliament to export corn when it was at low prices."


Coming down to the reign of Henry VII., we find that "the king's love of money naturally led him to encourage commerce; but," adds Hume, "if we may judge by most of the laws enacted during his reign, trade and industry were rather hurt than promoted by the care and attention given to them." Severe laws were enacted against taking interest for the loan of money,*81 "which," adds Hume, "the superstition of the age zealously proscribed;" and all attempts at evading such a law, so as to make money by the loan of money, were carefully guarded against.*82 "It is needless," says the same writer, "to observe how unreasonable and iniquitous were these laws; how impossible to be executed, and how hurtful to trade, if they could take place."*83


In this same reign, laws were made against the exportation of money, plate, or bullion;*84 "a precaution," adds Hume, "which serves to no other purpose than to make more be exported." The exportation of horses was likewise prohibited,*85 "as if," says the historian, "that exportation did not encourage the breed, and render them more plentiful in the kingdom." In order to promote archery, no bows were to be sold at a higher price than six shillings and fourpence of modern money. "The only effect of this regulation," says the same writer, "must be either that the people would be supplied with bad bows or none at all."*86 In this reign, also, prices were fixed for woollen cloth, caps, and hats;*87 and the wages of labourers were further regulated by statute.*88 "It is evident," says Hume, in comment, "that these matters ought to be left free, and be entrusted to the common course of business and commerce." "One great cause," says the historian, "of the low state of industry during this period was the restraints put upon it." It appears that parliament itself at last recognised this, and subsequently enlarged the limitations, though not sufficiently. Among the many abortive attempts (in the reign of Henry VIII.) at manufacturing happiness by act of parliament, was one which forbade the use of machinery in the making of broad-cloth. The attempt had this effect,—to drive a large part of the woollen trade into Holland, where the "divers devilish contrivances," as the machines were called, were under no such legislative restraint.*89


Speaking of the reign of Mary, Hume says: "The arbitrary proceedings of the queen (Elizabeth) joined to many monopolies granted by this princess, as well as by her father, checked the growth of commerce." The reign supplies us with one excellent example of this abortive legislation. A law had been made, in the previous reign, by which everyone was prohibited from making cloth, unless they had served an apprenticeship of seven years. It was fully expected that, by thus preventing private and inexperienced persons from producing that commodity for themselves, the authorised channels of the industry would be greatly stimulated. Yet we find that in Mary's reign the law in question was repealed; and the reasons given for so doing were that the former statute had occasioned the decay of the woollen manufacture, and had ruined several towns.*90


In contrast with the instances of this class of legislation which I have now enumerated, we have Hume's testimony regarding some features of Elizabeth's reign. "By allowing a free exportation of corn," he says, trade and navigation were promoted, and so much increased was the shipping of her kingdom,...that she was justly styled the Restorer of Naval Glory, and the Queen of the Northern Seas.*91 It was in her reign, however, that the system of monopolies was carried to such a high and injurious pitch of development. In order to reward many persons who had distinguished themselves in civil and military matters during that period, she, not being able to give them suitable money rewards, resorted to the expedient of granting them patents for monopolies in various articles of commerce. Beyond those which she thus gave away, there were others which she sold. The recipients of these patents, having the monopoly of certain articles secured to them, were enabled to charge just what they chose for them. "It is astonishing," says one writer, "to consider the number and importance of those commodities which were thus assigned over to patentees: currants, salt, iron, powder, cards, calf-skin, fells, ox-shin bones, oil, cloth, potashes, aniseeds, vinegar, coal, steel, brushes, pots, bottles, saltpetre, lead, oil, glass, paper, starch, sulphur, fish, beer, leather, and a number of others." Over all these, and a score more articles of daily use, the most absolute monopolies were granted. Hume relates that, when this list was read out in parliament, a member cried out: "Is not bread among the number?" "Bread!" said everyone with astonishment. "Yes," said the member, "if affairs go on at this rate we shall have bread reduced to a monopoly before next parliament." The effect of these monopolies, it is scarcely necessary to say, was most oppressive to the people. The fortunate patentees were most exorbitant in their demands; and it is recorded that salt rose in price from sixpence to fourteen or fifteen shillings a bushel. Of course such prices attracted others to attempt the sale; and, in order to prevent such opposition, the patentees had to be invested with very arbitrary powers, by which they could exact heavy penalties from all who interfered with their patent. The patentee of saltpetre could, for instance, enter into any house and commit whatever havoc he chose, wherever he suspected saltpetre might be concealed.


This arbitrary power enabled its possessors to extort large sums of money, as a payment for more considerate treatment.


"While all domestic intercourse was thus restrained," says Hume, "lest any scope should remain for industry, almost every species of foreign commerce was confined to exclusive companies, who bought and sold, at any price that they thought proper to offer or exact."


These grievances, "the most intolerable for the present, and the most pernicious in their consequences, that ever were known, in any age, or under any government," excited great complaint, but the queen persisted in defending them. A bill was introduced for their abolition; and after much discussion, and much complaint, the queen consented to their partial abolition. These monopolies, meanwhile, had "tended to extinguish all domestic industry."


James I., Elizabeth's successor, called in and annulled those which remained, because they had "extremely fettered every species of domestic industry."*92 Another singular illustration is afforded by Elizabeth's reign. An act (8 Elizabeth, cap. 7) "touching the drapers, cottoners, and frizers of Shewsbury," was passed, to prohibit any one entering into what was termed the "mystery" of those industries, unless they had been "brought up in the use of the said trade." It appears that before six years had elapsed, the drapers and cottoners of Shewsbury discovered their mistake, and communicated it to the government of the day. By a subsequent act (14 Elizabeth, cap. 12) the previous one was repealed, "at the humble suit of the inhabitants of the said town, and also of the said artificers, for whose benefit the said act was supposed to be provided." In the second section, the following significant moral is unconsciously pointed for posterity. "Experience hath plainly taught in the said town that the said act hath, not only not brought the good effect that then was hoped and surmised, but also hath been, and now is likely to be, the very greatest cause of the impoverishing and undoing of the poor artificers and others, at whose suit the said act was procured, for that there be, now, sithence the making of the said statute, much fewer persons to set them a-work than before."*93


Even after the annulling of the monopolies by James I., certain exclusive companies were allowed to continue, by which almost all foreign trade, except "that of France, was brought into the hands of a few rapacious engrossers, and all prospect of future improvement in commerce was for ever sacrificed, to a little temporary advantage of the sovereign." As a further consequence, almost all the commerce of England was centred in London. The whole trade of London was confined to about two hundred citizens, who, by combination, were enabled to fix their own prices to both the exports and imports of the kingdom. This great grievance led to a special committee, which gave as its opinion that "shipping and seamen had sensibly decayed, during all the preceding reign."


Coming, now, to the reign of George II., we find that bounties were being paid on the exportation of corn, even at a time when the Exchequer was so low that the payment had to be made in three per cent. debentures. This artificial encouragement, as I have already shown, induced so large exportations of that commodity that the home prices became exorbitant, and frequent riots occurred in consequence of the popular outcry against the subsidy. From this extreme, in one part of the reign, parliament went to the other, at a subsequent period. In consequence of the dearth of corn, which "so much distressed the poorer class of people," the exportation was prohibited, by statute, and an embargo laid upon all ships laden, or to be laden from British ports. In order, still further, to reduce the price, the exportation was prohibited from any of the British plantations, except to Great Britain or Ireland, or from one colony to another.*94 Many other commodities were simultaneously prohibited from being exported, among them being malt. At the same time, parliament prohibited spirits being made from wheat, in order that that article might be rendered still more cheap.


This had the effect of so raising the market price of malt that a huge petition was presented to parliament by the brewers of London, complaining that they could not carry on their business, and that the distillers would be under the necessity of substituting the best barley in lieu of wheat, of which there would not then be enough for all purposes. They pointed out, also, that, in consequence of the necessary stoppage of their business, the revenue would be materially affected. This latter contention appears to have had the desired effect, for, in order to prevent such a contingency as that to which it pointed, a bill was immediately passed to restrain the distilling of all grain whatsoever. It was next pointed out that the last restriction would ruin many farmers and others, engaged in the trade of malting; but, as it was found impossible to please everybody, parliament left matters where they were. It would, indeed, be difficult to conceive a series of more harrassing interferences with the natural current of commerce; and little business knowledge is requisite to enable one to imagine what ruinous results such a disturbing and disorganizing policy must have produced in the mercantile world. At one period of the reign, a bounty is offered for the exportation of corn. This would, in the ordinary course of events, artificially bolster up the agricultural industry. The maximum amount of land would be put under cultivation, and a large part of the population would be drawn off from less profitable occupations, in order to further the cultivation of cornland. Then, when the industry had become flourishing, and every one of the multitudinous incidental interests had settled down to their respective functions, the act of parliament, abolishing the bounty, and prohibiting the exportation, would suddenly paralyse all concerned. The shipping interest would as suddenly find its trade at an end, and be forced to seek some new channel of employment. The large number of merchants and their assistants, who had been employed in the disposal and exportation of the commodity, would be abruptly deprived of their occupation. The effect upon the agricultural interest is hardly possible to conceive, for, at one blow, a vast portion of the population, and that of the most needy and helpless section of society—the agricultural labourers—would be thrown out of employment and rendered helpless, until the lapse of time had enabled capital, hitherto engaged in agriculture, to find its way into other industries. One cannot, in fact, conceive the extent of the injurious effects of such a meddling and changing policy on the part of a parliament. Such, then, are some of the instances of legislative interference with the commerce of England, almost all of which resulted in injury to the public interest, though benefiting, for a time, certain class-interests, in whose behalf they appear to have been short-sightedly conceived.


It would be easy, had I space, to multiply such instances, drawn from actual history, showing the same unintended and unexpected results. For instance, Act 35 Edward III. was framed for the purpose of keeping down the price of herrings. In that measure, that is to say, in the preamble to it, it was complained that people, "coming to the bargain for herring, and every of them, by malice and envy, increase upon another, and if one proffer forty shillings, another will proffer ten shillings more, and the third sixty shillings, and so everyone surmounteth the other in the bargain."*95 The fact is, this was an act aimed at the prevention of auction sales. Mr. Herbert Spencer, who quotes the act, adds that it was "soon repealed, because it raised the price of the herrings."*96 Again, in the time of Edward III., there was a law by which innkeepers at seaports were sworn to search their guests, to prevent the exportation of money and plate; while, as late as 1824, there was an act of parliament in force which "forbade the manufacturers (for the benefit of the artizans) to fix their factories more than ten miles from the Royal Exchange."


It would be out of my province to enumerate, at any great length, instances of this kind of legislation which have been enacted in other European countries. There were, however, regulations in the last century, by which the French manufacturers were considerably hampered, whereby the state decided on the person to be employed, the articles to be made, the materials to be used, and the qualities of the products—whereby inspectors were authorised to, and actually did break the looms and burn the goods which were not made exactly according to law—whereby, also, improvements in machinery were illegal, and inventors were fined. These, says Mr. Herbert Spencer, "had no small share in producing the Revolution."


Let us turn now from these to similar interferences in matters of more private concern. The history of the laws affecting workmen is nothing more nor less than a series of the most glaring infringements with individual liberty; and when one reflects upon their persistence and rigour, one can scarcely be surprised that a number of that class, now that they have the balance of political power in their hands, should display a spirit of retaliation towards the so-called better classes, whose predecessors, in social position, led to the passing of such laws.


I have already referred to the fixing of wages by the legislature, in the reign of Edward III.; a step which was taken, on the ground that they had become "excessive." That, in itself, was an unmistakable breach of true Liberal principles, inasmuch as the workman had a right to receive whatever consideration he could honestly obtain for his services. The act compelled workmen to accept the same wages which were current prior to the plague, which itself had so thinned their ranks.


In 1362, when, in consequence of a violent storm, a great deal of damage was done to the roofs of the houses, a royal order was issued to the effect that roofing material, as also tilers' wages, should not be increased.


As early as 1383, workmen were prohibited from combining for the purpose of raising their wages. Such combinations were characterised as "conspiracies," and the punishment for a violation was very severe.


In the sixteenth century (Edward VI.), a man was compelled to work at statute prices, and, if he refused, he was branded "V" for vagabond, and reduced to slavery for two years. In order to show that the authors of that measure had, or professed to have the general good in view, when enacting it, the preamble needs to be considered. It complains, by way of recital, that "artificers, handicraftsmen, and labourers have made confederacies,...and have sworn mutual oaths...that they should not meddle with one another, and perform and finish what another had begun, the great impoverishment of his Majesty's subjects."*97


It was not, in fact, till 1795, that a workman could travel in search of work, out of his own parish;*98 and, even as late as 1768, an act of parliament was framed, compelling tailors to work from six a.m. to seven p.m., with an interval of one hour only.*99


Even as late as 1795, magistrates possessed the power of fixing the rates of wages, according to the rise and fall of bread.*100 It is said that even Pitt, Fox, and Whitbread "distinctly asserted the unjust and pernicious doctrine, that a labourer's remuneration should be proportioned, not to his services, but to his wants."*101 An act of parliament was passed, so late as the close of the last century, declaring illegal all contracts, except between masters and men, for obtaining advances of wages, altering the hours of working, or decreasing the quantity of work.*102


Down to 1779, the Scotch miners were compelled to remain in the pits at their master's pleasure; and they were actually sold as part of the capital invested in the work.*103


The wages of workmen of all kinds were fixed, with the most minute detail, in the third and sixth year of Henry VIII.*104


These attempts on the part of the governing power "began with the Statute of Labourers, under Edward III., and ceased only sixty years ago."*105


The same meddlesome spirit, which actuated the foregoing legislation in the provinces of commercial transactions, and in the wages and conditions of workmen, is traceable in other departments of social concern. One would certainly think that freedom in the choice of food would be left untouched by the governing body in any age; but, not so! In 1363, an act was passed enjoining carters, ploughmen, and farm servants generally, not to drink "excessively;" while domestic servants were restricted to one meal a day, of flesh or fish, and were to rest satisfied, at other meals, with "milk, butter, cheese, and other such victuals."*106 By another act of the same reign, no one was allowed, either for dinner or supper, "above three dishes in each course, and not above two courses." In addition to this, it was specially declared that "soused" meat was to count as one of these dishes.*107 Hume, who mentions this act, adds characteristically, "It was easy to foresee that such ridiculous laws must prove ineffectual, and could never be executed."*108 The reasons given for this enactment, in its preamble, are certainly amusing—viz., that the great men have been sore grieved, by the excesses of "over many sorts of costly meats," and "the lesser people, who only endeavour to imitate the great ones in such sorts of meats, are much impoverished," and not able to "aid themselves or their liege-lord."*109 In 1313, a few years before this act, a similar measure prescribed the prices of food, but was, says Mr. Herbert Spencer, "hastily repealed after it had caused entire disappearance of various foods from the markets."*110


On the subject of wearing apparel we find the same spirit of interference showing itself. By an act of Edward III., farm servants were prohibited from wearing any cloth except blanket and russet wool of twelvepence."*111 And no man, under a hundred-a-year was allowed to wear gold, silver, or silk, in his clothes.*112 An act of Edward IV. fined people for wearing "any gown or mantle," not according to what was prescribed. The same monarch limited the length of his subject's boot-toes, that being then recognised as a test of worldly position; while Charles II. decreed the material in which people should be buried.*113


At another period of history, an act was passed providing that no "buttons or button holes made of cloth, serge, drugget, frieze, camlet, or any other stuffs, should be made, set, or bound on clothes, or worn."


The curfew bell regulation, by which all citizens had to put out fires and lights of all kinds at eight o'clock, though more remote, was on a par with this class of legislation; and so also were the edicts of Henry VIII., which prevented the "lower class" from playing dice, cards, bowls, etc. There have been English laws also, setting forth with what amount of energy and thoroughness the ploughman should plough the furrow.


The subject of usury I have already referred to.


After a perusal of all these instances of meddling legislation, it is not at all difficult to realise the truth of what Buckle has said regarding the subject. Speaking generally of the statesmen of the past, he observes:—"They went blundering on in the old track, believing that no commerce could flourish without their interference, troubling that commerce by repeated and harrassing regulations, and taking for granted that it was the duty of every government to benefit the trade of their own people, by injuring the trade of others."*114 And, again, the same writer says:—"Every European government which has legislated respecting trade has acted as if its main objects were to suppress the trade, and ruin the traders. Instead of leaving the national industry to take its own course, it has been troubled by an interminable series of regulations, all intended for its good, and all inflicting serious harm. To such a height has this been carried that the commercial reforms which have distinguished England, during the last twenty years, have solely consisted in undoing this mischievous and intrusive legislation.... It is no exaggeration to say that the history of the commercial legislation of Europe presents every possible contrivance for hampering the energies of commerce.... Duties on importation, and duties on exportation; bounties to raise up a losing trade, and taxes to pull down a remunerative one; this branch of industry forbidden, and that branch of industry encouraged; one article of commerce must not be grown, because it was grown in the colonies; another article might be grown and bought, but, not sold again; while a third article might be bought and sold, but not leave the country. Then, too, we find laws to regulate wages; laws to regulate prices; laws to regulate profits; laws to regulate the interest of money; custom-house arrangements of the most vexatious kind.*115... It would be easy (he continues), to push the enquiry still further, and to show how legislators, in every attempt they have made to protect some particular interests, and uphold some particular principles, have not only failed, but have brought about results diametrically opposite to those which they proposed."*116 Such, then, are some of the instances of the misconceived legislation of historic times. I shall, in a subsequent chapter, show that, notwithstanding the immense advance which has been since made in economic knowledge, much of the legislation of the present day is very little, if at all wiser, or more scientifically conceived.

Notes for this chapter

"At the present day," says Buckle, "eighty years after the publication of Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations,' there is not to be found any one of tolerable education who is not ashamed of holding opinions, which, before the time of Adam Smith, were universally received." "History of Civilisation," vol. i., p. 216.
Buckle says of the Corn-Laws Repeal: "All that was done was to repeal the old laws and leave trade to its natural freedom;" and elsewhere, "Every great reform which has been affected, has consisted not in doing something new, but in undoing something old.... the whole scope and tendency of modern legislation is to restore things to that natural channel from which the ignorance of preceding legislation had driven them."
"The Radical Programme," p. 4.
"The Radical Programme," p. 33.
"The Radical Programme," p. 33.
The details of this act were copied from a preceding assize, dating as far back as the reign of John.
"History of England," vol. i., p. 532.
Hume's "History of England," chap. 16.
37 Edward III., chap. 3.
Hume's "History of England," vol. ii., chap 16.
Hume's "History of England," vol. ii., chap 16.
Hume's "History of England," vol. ii., chap. 16.
"Social Statics," p. 328.
4 Henry IV., chap. 15. 5 Henry IV., chap. 9.
3 Henry VII., chap. 5.
7 Henry VII., chap. 8.
"History of England," vol. ii., chap. 26.
4 Henry VII., chap. 23.
11 Henry VII., chap. 13.
"History of England," vol. ii., chap. 26.
4 Henry VII., chaps. 8, 9.
11 Henry VII., chap. 72.
"Liberty or Law" (Wordsworth Donisthorpe), p. 20.
Hume's "History of England," vol. iii., chap. 37.
Hume's "History of England," vol. iii., chap. 38.
Hume's "History of England," vol. iii., chap. 45.
"The State in Relation to Labour" (W. Stanley Jevons), p. 37.
History of England," (Smollett), vol. ii, chap. 26.
Craik's "History of British Commerce," vol. i., 137.
"Man versus The State," p. 49.
Trant's "Trades' Unions," p. 15.
Trant's "Trades' Unions," p. 19.
Trant's "Trades' Unions' p. 20.
Trant's "Trades' Unions," p. 20.
Trant's "Trades' Union," p. 21.
Trant's "Trades' Unions," p. 21.
Trant's "Trades' Unions," p. 22.
Froude's "History of England," vol, i., p. 27.
"The Man versus The State," p. 49.
Trant's "Trades Unions," p. 7.
Hume's "History of England," vol. ii., chap. 16.
"History of England," ii., 134.
"History of England," J. A. Froude, i., 15.
"The Man versus The State," p. 49.
Trant's "Trades' Unions," p. 7.
Hume's "History of England," vol. ii., p. 133.
"Social Statics," p. 315.
"History of Civilisation," vol. i., p. 213.
'History of Civilisation," vol. i., pp. 276, 277.
"History of Civilisation," p. 283.

Chapter VII

End of Notes

11 of 15

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