Alberto Mingardi  

In praise of Over-Legislation (the essay)

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This very same month in 1853, the Westminster Review was publishing a truly seminal article in the history of classical liberalism: "Over-Legislation" by Herbert Spencer. In his lifetime, Spencer was virtually a household name among philosophers. He has since been irremediably forgotten, for a variety of reasons. Yet, you should not judge him from the caricature that is usually offered of this thinker.

I won't claim that all of Spencer's immense body of works is worth reading nowadays. However, "Over-Legislation" certainly is.

The essay is 160 years old, but, with few amendments, it may well have been written these days. Here Spencer challenges the absolute belief in government providing salvation from whatever social ill, regardless of the outcome ("while every day chronicles a failure, there every day reappears the belief that it needs but an Act of Parliament and a staff of officers to effect any end desired").

Advocates of further government intervention, Spencer writes:


seem to have read backwards the parable of the talents. Not to the agent of proved efficiency do they consign further duties, but to the negligent and blundering agent. Private enterprise has done much, and done it well. Private enterprise has cleared, drained, and fertilized the country, and built the towns; has excavated mines, laid out roads, dug canals, and embanked railways; has invented, and brought to perfection ploughs, looms, steam-engines, printing-presses, and machines innumerable; has built our ships, our vast manufactories, our docks; has established banks, insurance societies, and the newspaper press; has covered the sea with lines of steam-vessels, and the land with electric telegraphs.
Private enterprise has brought agriculture, manufactures, and commerce to their present height, and is now developing them with increasing rapidity. Therefore, do not trust private enterprise. On the other hand, the State so fulfils its judicial function as to ruin many, delude others, and frighten away those who most need succor; its national defences are so extravagantly and yet inefficiently administered as to call forth almost daily complaint, expostulation, or ridicule; and as the nation's steward, it obtains from some of our vast public estates a minus revenue. Therefore, trust the State. Slight the good and faithful servant, and promote the unprofitable one from one talent to ten.

The naive belief that government fiat can change the world is dismantled thoroughly, in one of the most effective critiques of the statist mind ever written. Spencer examines one after one the defects of "officialism." The defects he attributes to bureaucracy--its stupidity, slowness, unadaptiveness, profligacy--if anything have gotten worse in the last 160 years.

Nor is he blind to the cognitive problems that lie within centralized decision-making and, particularly, the almost proverbial inability of governments to consider the impact of their policies beyond their immediate effects.

He writes

when these topical remedies applied by statesmen do not exacerbate the evils they were meant to cure, they constantly induce collateral evils; and these often graver than the original ones. It is the vice of this empirical school of politicians that they never look beyond proximate causes and immediate effects. In common with the uneducated masses they habitually regard each phenomenon as involving but one antecedent and one consequent. They do not bear in mind that each phenomenon is a link in an infinite series--is the result of myriads of preceding phenomena, and will have a share in producing myriads of succeeding ones.
Trust me, read the whole thing.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
david writes:
Private enterprise has done much, and done it well. Private enterprise has cleared, drained, and fertilized the country, and built the towns; has excavated mines, laid out roads, dug canals, and embanked railways; has invented, and brought to perfection ploughs, looms, steam-engines, printing-presses, and machines innumerable; has built our ships, our vast manufactories, our docks; has established banks, insurance societies, and the newspaper press; has covered the sea with lines of steam-vessels, and the land with electric telegraphs.

Private enterprise has brought agriculture, manufactures, and commerce to their present height, and is now developing them with increasing rapidity.

1853, eh? Five years later India would rise up against the East India Company, and within another two Company rule would be abolished in India.

When Spencer was writing, private enterprise was something that had armies and taxation power. I do not think it is quite the same as what libertarians have in mind today.

Tom West writes:

When Spencer was writing, private enterprise was something that had armies and taxation power. I do not think it is quite the same as what libertarians have in mind today.

Thank you david for my chuckle of the day.

Daniel writes:

This comment is directed to David... Your comment is guilty of the logical fallacy "Fallacy of composition" which was highlighted and disproved by Aristotle over 2300 years ago.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_composition

Basically, you dismissed the contents of the article by representing private enterprise as something vastly different from today's situation... as proven by your one example, the East India Company.

I would actually like to see you engage with the contents of this article, not your misrepresentation of it. I think this article is right on target.

Cimon Alexander writes:

The master says:

"Can you love the people and govern the state
without resorting to action?

[...]

It gives them life and rears them.
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It is the steward yet exercises no authority.
Such is called the mysterious virtue."

david writes:

Private enterprise could achieve all that in the Britain of Spencer's day because it was a de facto state. Only de facto states can readily vastly alter the countryside to build roads and canals, because doing so requires riding roughshod over the property rights of thousands of existing property owners. Only de facto states can enact enclosure of the British and Indian and American farmlands, voiding the rights of existing owners at will.

Both the American and British legislatures knew this, and for this reason backed up "private" investors with lots of state force and guarantees: annexing American Indian and Indian land with armies if need be. The modern American libertarian looks upon this and says: private enteprise! and conveniently forgets the US Army that marched alongside it.

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