Wednesday, 10 July 2013

POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS.*

POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS.*

[first Notice.]

Political Institutions. By Herbert Spencer.   Williams & Norgate, London, 1882.
This book constitutes the concluding portion of Mr. Spencer's second volume of the Principles of sociology, and is an important contribution to the author's system of synthetic philosophy. Kant has said that the business of philosophy is to answer three questions :— What can I know? What ought to do? and, For what may I hope? From Thales to Proclus, from Bacon to Kant, the history of philosophy is a record of the answers that in widely differing forms have been given to the first of these questions, which in reality embraces the second and third. The grand distinction between preceding schools of philosophy and the system built up by “our great philosopher,” as the late Mr. Darwin styled Herbert Spencer, is that the former were content with an explanation which has no further guarantee than is given in the logical explanation of the difficulty, whereas the latter imperatively demands that every assumption should be treated as provisional until it has been confronted with facts and verified. Professor Huxley has pointed out that the men who have made the most important positive additions to philosophy— such as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, not to mention more recent examples — have been deeply imbued with the spirit of physical science. It remained for Herbert Spencer to apply the theory of evolution to structures through out the ascending types of animals, to functions which have gone on pari passu with the evolution of structures, and to frame a conception of the evolution of conduct, as correlated with this evolution of structures and functions. In the application of this theory metaphysics, as such, are banished ; scientific enquiry and established fact are the sheet-anchors of  “a synthetic system of philosophy.” “The metaphysician is a merchant who speculates boldly,” says George Henry Lewes, “but without that convertible capital which can enable him to meet his engagements. He gives bills, yet has no gold, no goods to answer for them ; these bills are not representative of wealth which exists in any warehouse. . . . The man of science is also a venturesome merchant, but one full alive to the necessity of solid capital, which can on emergency be produced to meet his bills. He knows the risks he runs whenever that amount of capital is exceeded ; he knows that bankruptcy awaits him if capital be not forthcoming.” But though the methods and scope of metaphysics and science have been widely different, the aim of both is the establishment of a philosophy so firmly knit as to bid defiance to hostile disturbance, so true to nature as to do no violence to liberty, and so complete as to dominate every department of human thought and conduct. The great original contribution of our century to the history of human thought is the insistence upon the tremendous seriousness and absolute necessity of facts. Granted that along with this is found on every side that undeveloped condition of the mind in which hypothetical existences are required at every turn to account for observed phenomena— a condition in which the mind cannot bear to be left alone with facts— yet the scientific tendency is at once unmistakable and steadily on the increase. Foremost among the books that lead and direct this tendency are the works of Herbert Spencer.
 In the preface to this volume Mr. Spencer points out that it deals with phenomena of evolution, which are, above all others, obscure and entangled. The task undertaken is to discover what truths may be affirmed of political organizations at large. The unlikenesses of the various human races, the vast differences of the modes of life entailed by circumstances on the societies formed of them, the numerous contrasts of sizes and degrees of culture exhibited by such societies, constitute difficulties at once many and great. “Satisfactory achievement of this task, “ says Mr. Spencer, “would require the labours of a life. Having been able to devote to it but two years I feel that the results set forth in this volume must of necessity be full of imperfections. If it be asked why, being thus conscious that far more time and wider investigation are requisite for the proper treatment of a subject so immense and involved, I have undertaken it, my reply is that I have been obliged to deal with political evolution as a part of the general theory of evolution ; and with due regard to the claims of other parts, could not make a more prolonged preparation.” In reviewing political organizations in general Mr. Spencer comes to the fore with his well-known views on the mischief wrought by State interference. For the in formation of those who may not be intimate with these views, we may here give a brief resume of them. The duty of the State, as Mr. Spencer understands it, should be to protect and to administer justice, to uphold the law of equal freedom. He demonstrates that it was by maintaining the rights of its members that society began to be, and draws the inference that to maintain such rights must ever be  regarded as its primary duty, and that in assuming any office besides its original one, the State begins to lose the power of fulfilling that original one. He holds that the complete man is the self-sufficing man — the man who is in every point fitted to his circumstances—the man in whom there are desires corresponding not only to all the acts which are immediately advantageous, but to those which are remotely so. To do anything for a man who is thus constituted by some artificial agency is to supersede certain of his powers, is to leave unexercised, and therefore to diminish his happiness. To the completely developed man, therefore, State aid is doubly detrimental. By the revenues required to support its agencies it absorbs the means on which certain of the faculties depend for their exercise, and by the agencies themselves it shuts out other faculties from their spheres of action. To the objection that men are not completely developed, and that, as matters stand, a Government does not by its interpositions preoccupy offices which there are faculties to fill, Mr. Spencer makes reply that, next to being what we ought to be, the most desirable thing is that we should become what we ought to be as fast as possible. He reminds us that strength will show itself only where strength is called for ; that an undeveloped capability can be developed only under the stern discipline of necessity ; that a too feeble sentiment must be set to do, as well as it can, the work required of it, until what was once its impossible task will become the source of a healthy, pleasurable, and desired excitement. “But let a State instrumentality,” he says, “be thrust between such faculty and its work, and the process of adaptation is at once suspended. Growth ceases, and in its place commences retrogression. The embryo agency now superseded by some Commission — some Board and staff of officers — straightway dwindles, for power is as inevitably lost by inactivity as it is gained by activity. Hence humanity no longer goes on moulding itself into harmony with the natural requirements of the social state ; but begins instead to assume a form fitting those artificial requirements. It is consequently stopped in its progress towards that self-sufficiency characteristic of the complete man ; or, in other words, is prevented from fulfilling the conditions essential to complete happiness. And thus, as before said, not only does a Government reverse its function by taking away more property than is needful for protective purposes, but even what it gives in return for the excess so taken, is in essence a loss.”
 These are some of the sentiments as to the limits of State duty put forth by Mr. Spencer in his first work “Social Statics.” In successive publications he has not changed in tone or belief. In the division mentioned of the present book he dwells on the impediments offered by elaborate civilizations to that gradual process of adaptation to the social state which humanity is undergoing. In the antagonism of a Church to legislation interfering with its discipline ; in the opposition of an army to abolition of the purchase system; in the disfavour with which the legal profession at large has regarded law reform, he reads the lesson that neither in their structure nor in their modes of action are parts that have once been specialized easily changed. He finds that as it is true of a Society that maintenance of its existence is the aim of its combined action, so it is true of its separate classes, its sets of officials, its other specialized parts, that the dominant aim of each is to maintain itself, so that not the function to be performed, but the sustentation of those who perform the function becomes the object in view, the result being that when the function is needless, or even detrimental, the structure still keeps itself intact as long as it can. He further proceeds to demonstrate that the extent to which an organization resists reorganization in creases in a compound progression; for while each new part is an additional obstacle to change, the formation of it involves a deduction from the forces causing change. In various ways all who compose the controlling and administrative organization become united with another and separated from the rest. Receiving their subsistence through the national revenue, they tend towards kindred views and feelings respecting the raising of such revenue. “No matter," says Mr. Spencer, “what their previous political opinions may have been, men cannot became public agents of any kind without being biassed towards opinions congruous with their functions. So that he concludes each further growth of the agencies which in any way direct social forces increases the impediment to future modifications by increasing the power of the regulators and decreasing the power of the regulated. And not only so, but the ideas and sentiments of a community as a whole adapt themselves to the regime familiar from childhood in such wise that it comes to be looked upon as natural, till in proportion as public agencies occupy a larger space in daily experience, leaving but a smaller space for other agencies, there comes a greater tendency to think of public control as everywhere needful, and a less ability to conceive of activities as otherwise controlled. An extreme example of this tendency is found by Mr. Spencer in the present constitution of the German Empire when treating of the militant type of society.
 Under the militant type of society the individual is owned by the State ; its fundamental principle is compulsory co-operation. Under such a system the public combination occupying all fields excludes private combinations. If private combinations are allowed to exist it will be on condition of submitting to an official regulation such as greatly restrains independent action. Thus, since Franco-Prussian War there has been in Germany a steady increase of State interference with industrial activities. Three-fourths of all Prussian railways have been made Government property, and the same percentage holds in the other German States, the aim being eventually to make them all Imperial. Trade interferences have been extended by protectionist tariffs, by revival of the usury laws, by restrictions on Sunday labour. Through its postal service the State has assumed industrial functions, presents acceptances, receives money on bills of exchange that are due, as also on ordinary bills, which it gets receipted, and until stopped by shopkeepers' protests, undertook to procure books from publishers. Then there are the measures for extending directly and indirectly the control over popular life— the laws under which up to the middle of last year 224 Socialist Societies have been closed, 180 periodicals suppressed, 317 books, &c, forbidden. On the other hand, there is Prince Bismarck's scheme for re-establishing guilds (bodies which by their regulations coerce their members), and his scheme of State insurance, by the help of which the artizan would in a considerable degree have his hands tied. In England itself Mr. Spencer likewise detects ways in which the system of compulsory co-operation has of late been trenching on the system of voluntary co-operation. He finds this in the increasing assimilation of the volunteer forces to the regular army ; in the order to officers to wear their uniforms when off duty; in the manifest extension of the militant spirit and discipline among the police, who, wearing helmet-shaped hats, beginning to carry revolvers, and looking upon themselves as half soldiers, have come to speak of the people as “civilians.” He traces it in the increasing extent to which the Executive has been over-riding the other governmental agencies, as in the Cyprus business, and as in the doings of the Indian Viceroy under secret instructions from home, and in various minor ways which show endeavours to free officialism from popular checks. Simultaneously with this Mr. Spencer traces actual or prospective extensions of public agency replacing or restraining private agency, such as the “endowment of research,” which, already partially carried out by a Government fund, many wish to carry further ; the proposed Act for establishing a registration of authorized teachers ; the Bill which provides central inspection for local public libraries ; and the scheme for compulsory insurance— “a scheme showing us in an instructive manner the way in which the regulating policy extends itself ; compulsory charity having generated improvidence there comes compulsory insurance as a remedy for the improvidence.”


South Australian Register 18 November 1882,



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