Proper Sphere of Government: Letter III

Proper Sphere of Government: Letter III

From preceding arguments it was inferred, that if the administration of justice had been recognised as the only duty of the state, a national church would not have existed, that restrictions upon commerce could never have been enacted, and that a poor law would be inadmissible. As the last conclusion will not meet with such general approbation as its predecessors, it is deemed requisite to enter more fully into the evidence that may be adduced in support of it: and the Nonconformist being the organ of a political body, who profess to act upon principle and not upon expediency, and who avow their intention to follow up sound doctrine, whether it may lead to odium or popularity, it is hoped that the arguments brought forward, will meet with a candid consideration, apart from all personal or political bias.

The fund provided by the poor law is usually considered as a contribution from the richer orders of the community, for the support of the destitute; and, coming from the pockets of those in easy circumstances, it is supposed to be a great boon to their poorer neighbours. But this is not a correct mode of viewing the case. A political economist would reason thus. Here is an institution which practically divides the community into two great classes—labourers and paupers, the one doing nothing towards the production of the general stock of food and clothing, and the other having to provide for the consumption of both. Hence it is evident, that each member of the producing class, is injured by the appropriation of a portion of the general stock by the non-producing class. But who form the great bulk of the producing class? The working population. Their labour is the chief ingredient in the wealth of the nation; without them land and capital would be useless. It follows, then, that this provision, set apart for the poor, is mainly provided by the labours of the people, and hence that the burden falls chiefly upon them.

Lest this generalizing style of argument should be unsatisfactory, it may be well to adopt another mode of proof. We know that the average cost of any article is determined by the expenses attendant upon its production; that the price at which the manufacturer sells his calico, is dependent upon the amount of labour expended upon it, the cost of his machinery, the value of the raw material, and so forth; and that the price at which the farmer can afford to sell his corn, is governed by the amount of his rent, the cost of cultivation, &c.; and we also know, that if any one of these expenses is increased, a rise in the price of the produce must follow; that if the landlords double their rents, the farmers must charge more for their grain. Now the poor rates, in some of the unions under the present law, are 40 per cent upon the rental, and under the old law they were in some cases 75 and 100 per cent. What does this amount to but a doubling of the rent? It matters not whether both portions are paid to the landlord, or whether one half goes to him, and the other to the parish, the effect upon the cost of the produce is the same, and the consumers of that produce, have to pay a higher price for it, than they would have to do, were no such demand made. But who form the great mass of consumers?—The working population. They then are the parties from whom the greater part of this additional tax comes. Thus we arrive at the same conclusion as before; that not only do the industrious classes contribute a considerable portion of the poor rates directly, but that the greater part of what apparently comes from the upper ranks, is originally derived from them.

Many poor law advocates build their arguments upon the existence of a corn law. They say that were there no bar to the importation of foreign produce, and no consequent check to the demand for our manufactures, they would not object to the working man being dependent upon his own resources; but that so long as the price of food is unnaturally raised, and the call for labour so uncertain, they must maintain the necessity of a public charity. To this there are two replies.

First, That the argument rests upon a wrong hypothesis, originating as it does in the assumption, that public charity proceeds from the stores of the rich, when, as has been shown, the greater portion of it comes from the toils of the labouring classes. The very parties for whose benefit the fund is raised, are, in virtue of their productive industry, chiefly instrumental in raising it. The fact, therefore, that the industrious population are already suffering from a corn law, affords no reason why one part of them should be still further burdened, by having to provide food and clothing for the other.

Secondly, That the new definition of the duty of a government is not in the least affected by the argument, seeking that free trade is a necessary consequence of the same principle that excludes a poor law; and if so, it follows that those objections which are founded upon the existence of commercial restrictions, are not applicable.

But even admitting that a poor law ameliorates the condition of the labouring classes in times of national distress; still it does not follow that it is either a wise, or, ultimately, a benevolent law. So long as the earth continues to produce, and mankind are willing to labour, an extensive distress must indicate something unnatural in the social arrangements. Such is the present condition of England. Europe and America produce more food than they can consume—our artisans are anxious to work, and yet they are bordering upon starvation, consequently there must be something radically wrong, in our political institutions. Is it better to palliate, or to cure the evil? Is it better to mitigate the distress by the distribution of public charity, or to allow it so to manifest itself, as to demand the discovery and removal of its cause? Which do we consider the kindest physician, the one who alleviates the pain of a disease by continually administering anodynes, or the one who allows his patient to experience a little suffering in the exhibition of the symptoms, that he may discover the seat of the malady, and then provide a speedy remedy? The alternative requires no consideration.

It is surprising that writers who have of late been animadverting upon the national collection scheme, and who have pointed out the mockery of recommending charity, in answer to a call for justice, should not perceive that the case is but a type of the poor law. Both are attempts to mitigate an evil, not to remove it; both are means of quieting the complaints of the nation, and both will tend to retard the attainment of those rights which the people demand. The Times, in an article upon the national petition, made an observation to the effect, that the contents of the document were not worthy of notice, but that the fact of its presentation, clearly proved the necessity for a “more generous poor law,” to satisfy the complainants. Here is a clear exposition of the policy: we must stop the mouths of the people by charity: we need not enter into the question of their rights, but we must give them more parish pay!

A poor law, however, is not only inexpedient in practice, but it is defective in principle. The chief arguments that are urged against an established religion, may be used with equal force against an established charity. The dissenter submits, that no party has a right to compel him to contribute to the support of doctrines, which do not meet his approbation. The rate-payer may as reasonably argue, that no one is justified in forcing him to subscribe towards the maintenance of persons, whom he does not consider deserving of relief. The advocate of religious freedom, does not acknowledge the right of any council, or bishop, to choose for him what he shall believe, or what he shall reject. So the opponent of a poor law, does not acknowledge the right of any government, or commissioner, to choose for him who are worthy of his charity, and who are not. The dissenter from an established church, maintains that religion will always be more general, and more sincere, when the support of its ministry is not compulsory. The dissenter from a poor law, maintains that charity will always be more extensive, and more beneficial, when it is voluntary. The dissenter from an established church can demonstrate that the intended benefit of a state religion, will always be frustrated by the corruption which the system invariably produces. So the dissenter from a poor law, can show that the proposed advantages of state charity, will always be neutralized by the evils of pauperism, which necessarily follow in its train. The dissenter from an established church, objects that no man has a right to step in between him and his religion. So the dissenter from established charity, objects that no man has a right to step in between him and the exercise of his religion.

How is it, that those who are so determined in their endeavours to rid themselves of the domination of a national church—who declare that they do not need the instruction of the state in the proper explanation of the gospel—how is it that these same men, are tamely allowing and even advocating, the interference of the state, in the exercise of one of the most important precepts of that gospel? They deny the right of the legislature to explain the theory, and yet argue the necessity of its direction in the practice. Truly it indicates but little consistency on the part of dissenters, that whilst they defend their independence in the article of faith, they have so little confidence in their own principles, that they look for extraneous aid in the department of works. The man who sees the inhabitants of a country deficient in spiritual instruction, and hence maintains the necessity of a national religion, is doing no more than the one who finds part of the population wanting in food and clothing, and thence infers the necessity of a national charity.

Again, the moral effect of a poor law upon the rate-paying portion of the community is little considered, although one of its most important features. Here, also, there is an evident analogy between established religion and established charity. It is said, that in a system like that of our national church, in which the visible duties of a communicant, consist chiefly, in attendance upon public worship, reception of the sacraments, payment of tithes, church rates, etc., the form will always be substituted for the reality; that the periodical ceremonies will take the place of the daily practice; that the physical will take the place of the spiritual. It may be said, with equal truth, that a similar effect will follow the establishment of a poor law; the same principles in human nature are acted upon; the payment of poor rates will supplant the exercise of real benevolence, and a fulfilment of the legal form, will supersede the exercise of the moral duty. Forced contributions rarely appeal to the kindly feelings. The man who is called upon for a rate, does not put his hand into his pocket out of pure sympathy for the poor; he looks upon the demand as another tax, and feels annoyance rather than pleasure, in paying it. Nor does the effect end here. The poor labourer or artisan, who is struggling hard with the world to maintain his independence, excites no pity. So long as there is a poor law he cannot starve, and it will be time enough to consider his case when he applies for relief. The beggar who knocks at his door, or the way-worn traveler who accosts him in his walk, is told to go to his parish; there is no need to inquire into his history, and to give him private assistance if found deserving, for there is already a public provision for him. Such is the state of mind encouraged by national charity. When the legal demand is paid, the conscience is satisfied; the party is absolved from all exercise of generosity; charity is administered by proxy; the nobler feelings are never required to gain the victory over the selfish propensities; a dormant condition of those feelings necessarily follows, and a depreciation of the national character is the final result. The payment of poor rates bears the same relation to real charity, that the attention to forms and ceremonies bears to real religion.

But, it may be asked, how are we to know that voluntary benevolence would suffice for the relief of the ordinary distresses of the poor, were there no national provision? A somewhat analogous question is put as an objection to the extension of the suffrage—how are we to know that those who are not fitted for the exercise of the franchise, will become so when it is given to them? and a similar reply to that so ably employed by the editor of the Nonconformist in that case, will apply here. Men are not in the habit of preparing for duties they are never called upon to perform; they are not in the habit of exhibiting virtues which are never needed; moral vigour cannot co-exist with moral inactivity; and the higher feelings will ever remain inactive, until circumstances prompt them to exercise. Hence, while there is a public provision for poverty, there will be no incentive to the exercise of benevolence on the part of the rich, and no stimulus to prudence and economy on the part of the poor. So long as the one class can point to the pay table, they will not give; and so long as the other have an inexhaustible fund to apply to, they will not save. It may reasonably be concluded, therefore, that were there no poor law, the rich would be more charitable, and the poor more provident. The one would give more, and the other would ask less.

A general view of the arguments shows:

1. That the burden of the poor law fall chiefly upon the industrious classes.

2. That the existence of commercial restrictions, is, therefore, no argument for retaining it.

3. That even assuming a poor law to be directly beneficial, it is indirectly injurious, inasmuch as it prolongs the causes of distress.

4. That established charity is open to many of the strongest objections that can be urged against established religion.

5. That a poor law discourages the exercise of real benevolence, and lowers the standard of national character.

6. That were there no poor law, the increase of voluntary charity, and the decrease of improvidence, would render one unnecessary.

From these reasons it is concluded, that the proposed definition of the duty of a government, in excluding a poor law, is only excluding what is intrinsically bad.