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The Functions of the State

Donisthorpe's Individualism: A System of Politics, Part 5

In pursuit of understanding what the state may legitimately do, Donisthorpe explains what modern states actually do.

Editor’s Note

Having declared for democracy, having surveyed history to find that states tend to accumulate together into larger states and greater numbers of people join the ruling class as time goes on, Donisthorpe now proceeds to address the two master questions of political science: What is the State? and What does the State do? Though they are clearly different questions with different sorts of answers, they “are usually confounded and treated together,” resulting in a great many familiar political problems. The next “great question” our author introduces is “What ought the Government, however constituted, to do?” But before we may detail and delineate all the things a government ought to do, it might do well to take stock of all the things states actually do. So, armed with the historical and anthropological knowledge marshaled in his first two chapters, and with his key questions in mind, Donisthorpe takes us through the long ledger of modern statecraft.

First and foremost, states constitute themselves to provide for the common defense of those within their borders or those competing for their protection. Beyond this, though, modern states engage in endless methods of projecting power out beyond their borders, protecting private tradesmen with whole squadrons deployed to the ends of the earth, fortresses and coaling stations dotting the way there. States provide law and order for their territories, though these institutions are prone to corruption and inequity. States raise funds through taxation, a practice universally hated but also near-universally accepted (though our author notes that “The raising of revenue by some kind of taxation is denounced by Mr. Auberon Herbert, but he seems on this point to be in a minority of one.”) States undertake to regulate and protect the interests of “private workers,” which many people certainly appreciated, though many others resented the state’s heavy hand. States engage in a large amount of their own industrial, scientific, exploratory, and information-gathering work, some of which is essential to other, more basic state functions, but most of which serves the private interests of various lobbies—the Museum Trusts, let’s say.

Modern states, of course, routinely went beyond these simple and near ubiquitous functions. They have been called upon to provide libraries and schools, public baths and public housing, mandatory vaccinations, proscriptions against supposedly immoral behavior like drug use or sex work, established churches and state media, sanitation boards and family courts, and of course there were even those who wanted their government to control greater and greater portions of the globe in the constant scramble for empire. And there are—as we are each painfully aware—a thousand other functions he could have listed in more or less detail, though as our portion concludes, “In spite of all these omissions the area surveyed is wide enough to call up doubts in the minds of both parties—Individualists and Socialists—as to whether the happy mean has in all cases been yet hit by the State.”

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Individualism: A System of Politics

By Wordsworth Donisthorpe
London: MacMillan and Co. 1889.

CHAPTER III: The Functions of the State

When we examine the numerous questions which exercise the minds of those who take an intelligent interest in politics, we find that they fall into two distinct classes: one class relating to the structure or constitution of government; the other to the function or duty of government. These two fundamental questions, “What is the State?” and “What does the State [do]?” though standing clearly apart, are usually confounded and treated together. Now, although they may be equally vital, that is no reason for assuming that those who agree upon the one point must necessarily hold identical views on the other. With respect to structure, politicians fall at once into two large and nearly equal parties, namely, those who are satisfied with the existing constitution just as it is, and those who contend that it ought to be more or less modified. Doubtless, the members of this latter class differ also among themselves as to the kind and amount of change desirable, from the red republican, through all shades of radicalism, to the most timid trimmer that adorns the Liberal benches. Their opponents are of opinion that changes are dangerous, or that at all events, if they must occur, it is best to let them come of themselves, and to retard rather than hasten them on. This party also contains many shades of Toryism, from the old-fashioned worshipper of antiquity, who would fain, if possible, reverse the tide of history and undo the evil of modern days, to the so-called Liberal-Conservative, who deems it wise to bend to circumstances and to float passively on the stream, though not to swim with it.

Turn now to the other great question, “What ought the Government, however constituted, to do?” “What are the duties of the State, be it monarchical, republican, or mixed? ‘” And here again politicians may be split up into two great parties. There are those who maintain the greatest possible liberty of the individual citizen compatible with the equal liberty of his fellows, and who disapprove, therefore, of all meddlesome legislation. They would restrict the functions of the State to the administration of justice, the maintenance of order, the defence of the country against foreign antagonism, and the collection and management of revenue for these purposes; and leave other matters to take care of themselves. On the other hand, there are those who believe that a well-organised body like the State is, or might be made, the most highly-efficient machine for the carrying out of many great and noble schemes for the improvement of the people and the amelioration of their lot. Such are the persons who support State education. State charities, State museums and galleries, State railways and telegraphs, State banks, State post-offices, and even State censors and spies. Such are the persons who would close the public-house at ten o’clock or altogether, and who would convert drunkards by force, who would and do force their medical nostrums upon unbelievers, and imprison those who resist. Such were the persons who took into the general-charge the eternal welfare of their fellow-creatures, and founded inquisitions to keep them in the right path. All these and a thousand other matters say they, can be best regulated and managed by the State.

Diametrically opposed as these two parties are, and fundamental as the issue between them undoubtedly is, it is a remarkable fact that they enjoy at present no distinctive appellations; and it is entirely upon difference of opinion concerning State structure that the existing party divisions are based. Indeed, some persons (even experienced statesmen) appear to be so far carried away by zeal for structural change or resistance to it, as never to give the equally if not more vital question of function a thought. Others, again, care little for the form of government so long as it is easy to live happily and freely under it….

Men of this stamp have during the last fifty years kept themselves in the background. The battle for equality, the struggles for parliamentary reform, for a redistribution of seats, for extension of the suffrage, for the enfranchisement of women, for the reconstruction of the House of Lords, and for the endless other constitutional reforms and changes, must be fought out when liberty is not in danger. But the very structural changes accomplished since the framing of the first Reform Bill have produced unforeseen effects upon the views of the ultimate governing body with respect to the duties of the State, which effects have been quickened since some two decades ago Mr. Disraeli threw open the floodgates still wider to the torrent of democracy. Speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Liberty and Property Defence League, Mr. Pleydell Bouverie, said—

“One sees proposals of even eminent men nowadays which, by looking into the history of this country, you will find are strictly allied to the old sumptuary laws, and laws for the regulation of labour, and for settling what men are to earn, eat, and drink, which are to be found in the statute book four hundred years ago. We thought these notions had been exploded a hurtful and foolish, but they are coming to the front again, and I think it is due to the fact that a large amount of political power is now wielded by the comparatively uneducated and ignorant classes. The very mistakes and fallacies which were not recognised to be such by the educated classes four hundred years ago, and which influenced their legislation, are again influencing the classes which have recently acquired political power. They are for emulating those old-fashioned Acts of Parliament; unreasonable and impossible expectations are indulged in; and there is a great desire for ridiculous interference by Act of Parliament, which will again have to be exploded by the good sense of those who agree with the gentlemen here.”

Agitations for constitutional reform in harmony with the principle of equality are giving place to agitations for restrictions on the liberty of one class for the benefit of another, and the liberty of the individual for the supposed benefit of the public. This tendency brings politics home to the doors of those who take but a lukewarm interest in the “levelling ” process, and a very keen interest in their own freedom….

Before we are competent to define the proper sphere of State action with any degree of accuracy we must survey the whole field covered by officialism at the present day, in this country and in other countries, and in past times. By the use of the comparative method we shall possibly be enabled to detect permanent tendencies which will guide us in predicting the probable limitations of State action among civilised communities of the future. This work has not yet been done, or even begun, and it is needless to say I do not presume to attempt it here. At the same time it may be some help to those who are seriously considering this most important of all political questions of the day, if we cast our eye over the province of governmental interference in our own country, and point out what substitutes for such action have in the several departments been suggested, and how far they are feasible. From a condition of tribal socialism Englishmen have taken many centuries to attain their present degree of civil liberty, and it is admitted that considerable remnants of the old patriarchal socialism still remain, and are likely to remain (though possibly in diminishing quantities) for many years, decades, and perhaps centuries to come. In so far as such socialism is necessary because we are not yet ripe for absolute individualism, we are bound to regard it as “beneficent socialism.” It is none the less socialism. It must be understood then that in the following review of existing State interferences I am at present offering no opinion on their goodness or badness, but merely pointing out the fact.

…It may be well to begin with those which are admitted by most people to be normal functions, and to pass on to those which are condemned by larger and larger numbers, till we come to those which even socialists would hardly defend. First, then, we find that the State undertakes the defence of the country against foreign aggression. It maintains at the general expense a costly army and navy. It builds forts and ships, and supplies itself with all the requirements in connection therewith. Some persons contend that it should not make its own guns and ammunition: that it should not build its own ships, or construct its own military railways, that it should not even erect its own fortifications; but that it should purchase all such things and services from private persons under suitable contracts regulated by competition. Apart from the defence of the country, the State goes farther, it follows the trade of its citizens to the uttermost parts of the earth, and for their protection it keeps up lines of communication along the water highways. It holds other peoples in subjection, partly for their own good, but chiefly for the commercial advantage of Englishmen. Some persons think that traders should be left to take care of themselves, to raise and maintain their own armies and fleets, as the East India Company did last century.

The next State function of which the large majority approve is the maintenance at home of law and order; that is to say, the defence of every citizen against the aggression of other citizens, and the enforcement of promises of a certain kind (contracts). With the exception of Anarchists none dispute the propriety of this State work. The performance of it requires the maintenance of Courts of Justice and an army of police. The extent to which the State should go in preventing crime is keenly disputed. Some, for instance, would prohibit the carrying of firearms; others would allow the storing of dynamite in private houses, leaving the consequences to private responsibility. Recourse has been had recently to spies and informers; some consider this bad, others maintain that it is defensible.

The next State function which very few persons deprecate is the levying of the necessary means for carrying out the above and other Government work. The raising of revenue by some kind of taxation is denounced by Mr. Auberon Herbert, but he seems on this point to be in a minority of one, though I have no wish here to beg the question.

We now come to matters of State interference which excite a considerable amount of opposition-rightly or wrongly. The State holds itself responsible for the qualification of certain private workers. Persons who wish to practise medicine and surgery, to sell drugs, to lend money on pledges, to deal in second-hand metals, to sell alcoholic liquors, tobacco, or “game,” to plead in the Courts, to mind engines, to carry on a variety of other occupations, must satisfy the State that they are properly qualified by education or respectability, or both. Some think that if the Bar, for example, were thrown open, the public would easily judge for itself as to the competency of the competitors, just as it now does in spite of the Government certificate. The same argument is applied to medicine. Due responsibility for culpable negligence would, it is said, suffice.

And the State carries on many works also on its own account. It carries letters and sends telegrams and parcels. Some point to the fact that the telephone companies, which are private, are much more cheaply worked than the telegraphs, and deduce the natural conclusion from the observation. Others point to the high charges which private carriers made for letter-distributing before the State took up the work and claimed the monopoly. But the State examines poetry and chooses the best poet as the Laureate. It studies astronomy on its own account and appoints an Astronomer Royal. It undertakes scientific expeditions and (some ten or twenty years after) publishes reports of them. It vies with private enterprise in its efforts to get to the North Pole. It collects pictures and books and objects of antiquarian and scientific interest, and stores them in national museums and galleries. It keeps up botanical gardens, and also gardens for simple recreation. All these things may be regarded as national, and not calculated to benefit any particular class of persons at the expense of the others. In some quarters it is objected that these matters would be attended to by private enterprise if it were not for State competition, and better managed. It is pointed out that the Polaris Expedition effected more than the British Expedition under Captain Nares at less than a tenth of the cost; and that the report of the Challenger is only still very far from complete. On the other hand, it is contended that no private library can compare in any respect with that of the British Museum. Similarly, it is said, that private individuals could never have kept such recreation grounds as Hyde Park out of the hands of the builders for the good of the public health.

We have surveyed the field of modern State action, and passed in review certain institutions intended to benefit the nation as a whole. But beyond these national institutions the State undertakes to provide others which benefit one class at the expense of the remainder: it maintains local baths and wash-houses, free libraries and free or half-free schools, and it builds dwelling-houses for certain classes of persons. It is contended by the advocates of these State institutions that, although one class is primarily benefited, the whole community derives indirect advantage from them. Individualists, on the other hand, urge that private enterprise will, in the absence of Government competition, supply enough to meet the demand, and that more than this is detrimental to the public welfare. It is also said that the quality of the supply is thus stereotyped and private initiative crippled. The State is asked by some to distribute the population in accordance with the fertility of the soil and the production, of the district, by what is called State emigration or State-aided colonisation. This is strongly opposed by the majority, which maintains that population distributes itself most economically when left to itself. But the same majority approves of so distributing wealth that those who have shall contribute something towards the maintenance of the utterly destitute. Some contend that the levying of a poor-rate is in response to a legal and moral claim on the part of the poorest section of the community —a right to live. Others say it is a tribute to the national sentiment, the offspring of pity, and in the same category with the laws against cruelty to animals; while others again defend the poor law as a safety-valve against revolution, and without any other justification. Again the question has been keenly debated whether the State is warranted in stepping in between a citizen and his own animals in the interest of humanity. Some say these matters may safely be left to the social sanction.

Other State interferences may be classified under the heads of Sanitation, Morality, Religion, and Justice. Whether individuals should be allowed to dispose of their sewage as they think fit, or should be compelled to adopt some general and approved system; whether they should be forced to adopt certain medical precautions in the general interest, such as those required by quarantine laws, Vaccination Acts, Contagious Diseases Acts, notification and compulsory removal laws and the like; whether they should be allowed to build according to demand, or according to rules like those contained in the Metropolitan Buildings Acts; whether such matters as smoke-abatement should be treated as questions of mere private nuisance; whether the dead should be disposed of according to the fancies of their surviving relations, or on some State-ordained system; whether private persons should be permitted to use and also to abuse public waters by polluting them until such time as they see the necessity of combining to keep them pure; whether the makers and vendors of foods, drugs, beverages, etc., should be untrammelled by any other law than the maxim caveat emptor, or whether the State should analyse these commodities and punish adulterators: upon all these questions of sanitation, and a hundred others of the same kind, opinions differ.

In the interests of Morality some contend (an enormous majority) that the State should punish bigamy and practices inimical to monogamy, and should prescribe between whom, marriages should lawfully be sanctioned. Some of those who admit this, contend that the State is needlessly strict in its prohibitions, e.g. in the case of marriage with the sister of a deceased wife. Some of those who would allow young girls, against their inclinations, to be sacrificed to the greed or ambition of parents or guardians, provided the contract is one of marriage, deny the sufficiency of parental responsibility in the case of similar contracts of a temporary character, even when the young person is a consenting party. Opinions widely differ as to how far the State is warranted in sharing the responsibility with parents, and in standing in loco parentis with respect to orphans. It is also debated whether the suppression of brothels other than disorderly houses is, properly speaking, a State duty; and the same difference extends to the question of public-houses, where drunkenness may (or may not) result in disorder and nuisance. In the interest of morality the State exercises censorship of plays, though it has not till the other day been deemed necessary to continue the precaution in the case of light literature. In the matter of gambling, opinions widely differ, and the State seems to comply with them all. It prohibits some kinds of betting and lotteries under heavy penalties. Other kinds, such as betting on racecourses, it tolerates, but refuses to sanction; and other kinds, again, it recognises and sanctions, such as Stock Exchange speculations. Probably it may be said that according to the spirit of Scotch jurisprudence a fair bet should be enforced like any other contract, whereas English law would consistently refuse to sanction it. As to which is the best course for the State to adopt, having regard to the general welfare, opinions again differ.

Coming to State action in the interest of Religion, there is great diversity of view. The tendency has clearly been in the direction of diminished Government interference in such matters. People are no longer burned for heresy. Whether heretics should be burnt is still a debated question, but the “Noes” have it. Not so, however, with regard to Sabbath observance, Sunday trading. Sunday amusements, etc. On these points, and on the maintenance of a Church Establishment, public opinion seems to be pretty evenly balanced. There still remain on the Statute-books certain laws relating to oaths, and others relating to blasphemy, which imply that the State considers itself bound to punish offences against what may be called the national religion.

In this very brief survey of existing State functions in England we have necessarily omitted all reference to whole classes of Government action, and notably to that coming under the head Justice. And we have passed over the whole field of municipal functions, such as road-making, maintaining, paving, and cleaning; lighting, bridge-building; the laying of sewers and drains, water supply, fire extinction, the regulation of cemeteries, markets, and fairs, etc. etc. In spite of all these omissions the area surveyed is wide enough to call up doubts in the minds of both parties—Individualists and Socialists— as to whether the happy mean has in all cases been yet hit by the State.

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