This timely appreciation is particularly easy in respect to the tendencies of the change made in our institutions by the Reform Act of 1867. The great increase of electoral power which the Act places within the reach of the working classes is permanent. The circumstances which have caused them, thus far, to make a very limited use of that power, are essentially temporary. It is known even to the most inobservant, that the working classes have, and are likely to have, political objects which concern them as working classes, and on which they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the interests and opinions of the other powerful classes are opposed to theirs. However much their pursuit of these objects may be for the present retarded by want of electoral organization, by dissensions among themselves, or by their not having reduced as yet their wishes into a sufficiently definite practical shape, it is as certain as anything in politics can be, that they will before long find the means of making their collective electoral power effectively instrumental to the promotion of their collective objects. And when they do so, it will not be in the disorderly and ineffective way which belongs to a people not habituated to the use of legal and constitutional machinery, nor will it be by the impulse of a mere instinct of levelling. The instruments will be the press, public meetings and associations, and the return to Parliament of the greatest possible number of persons pledged to the political aims of the working classes. The political aims will themselves be determined by definite political doctrines; for politics are now scientifically studied from the point of view of the working classes, and opinions conceived in the special interest of those classes are organized into systems and creeds which lay claim to a place on the platform of political philosophy, by the same right as the systems elaborated by previous thinkers. It is of the utmost importance that all reflecting persons should take into early consideration what these popular political creeds are likely to be, and that every single article of them should be brought under the fullest light of investigation and discussion, so that, if possible, when the time shall be ripe, whatever is right in them may be adopted, and what is wrong rejected by general consent, and that instead of a hostile conflict, physical or only moral, between the old and the new, the best parts of both may be combined in a renovated social fabric. At the ordinary pace of those great social changes which are not effected by physical violence, we have before us an interval of about a generation, on the due employment of which it depends whether the accommodation of social institutions to the altered state of human society, shall be the work of wise foresight, or of a conflict of opposite prejudices. The future of mankind will be gravely imperilled, if great questions are left to be fought over between ignorant change and ignorant opposition to change.
1869 that, impressed with the degree in which, even during the last twenty years, when the world seemed so wholly occupied with other matters, the socialist ideas of speculative thinkers had spread among the workers in every civilised country, Mr. Mill formed the design of writing a book on Socialism. Convinced that the inevitable tendencies of modern society must be to bring the questions involved in it always more and more to the front, he thought it of great practical consequence that they should be thoroughly and impartially considered, and the lines pointed out by which the best speculatively-tested theories might, without prolongation of suffering on the one hand, or unnecessary disturbance on the other, be applied to the existing order of things. He therefore planned a work which should go exhaustively through the whole subject, point by point; and the four chapters now printed are the first rough drafts thrown down towards the foundation of that work. These chapters might not, when the work came to be completely written out and then re-written, according to the author’s habit, have appeared in the present order; they might have been incorporated into different parts of the work. It has not been without hesitation that I have yielded to the urgent wish of the editor of this Review to give these chapters to the world; but I have complied with his request because, while they appear to me to possess great intrinsic value as well as special application to the problems now forcing themselves on public attention, they will not, I believe, detract even from the mere literary reputation of their author, but will rather form an example of the patient labour with which good work is done.
Again, the author most justly stigmatises the English law of conspiracy, that reserved weapon of arbitrary and coercion, by which anything, that a court of law thinks ought not to be done, may be made a criminal offence if done in concert by more than one person—a law of which a most objectionable use has been made against Trades’ Unions. But I cannot go entirely with him when he lays it down as an absolute and self-evident truth, that whatever is lawful when done by one person, ought not to be an offence when done by a combination of several. He forgets that the number of agents may materially alter the essential character of the act. Suppose, merely for the sake of illustration, that the state of opinion was such as to induce legislators to tolerate, within certain limits, the prosecution of quarrels and the redress of injuries by the party’s own hands; as is the case practically, though not legally, in all countries where duelling prevails. If, under cover of this license, instead of a combat between one and one, a band of assailants were to set upon a single person, and take his life, or inflict on him bodily harm, would it be allowable to apply to this case the maxim, that what is permitted to one person ought to be permitted to any number? The cases are not parallel; but if there be so much as one case of this character, it is discussable, and requires to be discussed, whether any given case is such a one; and we have a fresh proof how little even the most plausible of these absolute maxims of right and wrong are to be depended on, and how unsafe it is to lose sight, even for a moment, of the paramount principle—the good of the human race. The maxims may, as the rough results of experience, be regarded as presumptions that what they inculcate will be found conducive to the ultimate end; but not as conclusive on that point without examination, still less as carrying an authority independent of, and superior to, the end.
The remainder of the book is occupied in discussing the means adopted or which might be adopted by the operative classes, for obtaining all such advantages in respect of wages, and the other conditions of labour, as are within the reach of attainment: a subject comprehending all the questions respecting the objects and practices of Trades’ Unionism, together with the whole theory and practice of co-operative industry. And here I am nearly at the end of my disagreements with Mr. Thornton. His opinions are in every respect as favourable to the claims of the labouring classes as is consistent with the regard due to the permanent interest of the race. His conclusions leave me little to do but to make a of them, though I may still dissent from some of his premises. For example, the same principles which lead him to acquit employers of wrong, however they may avail themselves of their advantage to keep down wages, make him equally exculpate Unionists from a similar charge, even when he deems them to be making a short-sighted and dangerous use of the power which combinations give them. But while I agree with the author that conduct may be “grovelling and sordid” [p. 180] without being morally culpable, I must yet maintain that if there are (as it cannot be doubted that there are) demands which employers might make from labourers, or labourers from employers, the enforcement of which, even by the most innocent means, would be contrary to the interests of civilisation and improvement—to make these demands, and to insist on them as conditions of giving and receiving employment, is morally wrong.
Workmen are solemnly adjured, [says Mr. Thornton (p. 260),] not to try to get their wages raised, because success in the attempt must be followed by a fall of profits which will bring wages down again. They are entreated not to better themselves, because any temporary bettering will be followed by a reaction which will leave them as ill off as before; not to try to raise the price of labour, because to raise the price is to lower the demand, and to lower the demand is to lower the price. As if a great demand for labour were of any other use to the labourer than that of raising the price of labour, or as if an end were to be sacrificed to means whose whole merit consists in their leading to that same end. If all the political economy opposed to trades’ unions were like this, trades’ unions would be quite right in opposing political economy.
What is more; when we look into the conditions required to make the common theory inadequate, we find that, in the case at least which we have now examined, the incompleteness it stands convicted of amounts to an exceedingly small matter. To establish it, Mr. Thornton had to assume that the customer who was prepared to pay twenty shillings for a hundredweight of fish, was the only person present who was willing to pay even so much as eighteen shillings. In other words, he supposed the case to be an exception to the rule, that demand increases with cheapness: and since this rule, though general, is not absolutely universal, he is scientifically right. If there is a part of the scale through which the price may vary without increasing or diminishing the demand, the whole of that portion of the scale may fulfil the condition of equality between supply and demand. But how many such cases really exist? Among a few chafferers on the beach of a small fishing port, such a case, though even there improbable, is not totally out of the question. But where buyers are counted by thousands, or hundreds, or even scores; in any considerable market—and, far more, in the general market of the world—it is the next thing to impossible that more of the commodity should not be asked for at every reduction of price. The case of price, therefore, which the law of the equalisation does not reach, is one which may be conceived, but which, in practice, is hardly ever realised.
long ago gave proof of his competency to the treatment of some of the most important questions of practical political economy, by two works of great merit, “Over Population and its Remedy,” and “A Plea for Peasant Proprietors.” Of the latter of these especially it may be said, that nothing but the total absence, at the time of its publication, of any general interest in its subject, can account for its not having achieved a high repute and a wide circulation. The lack of interest in the subject has now ceased; opinion is rapidly advancing in the direction which the author favours; and a new edition, with its facts brought down to the latest date, would be welcomed by advanced politicians, and would materially contribute to the formation of an enlightened judgment on one of the economical questions on which truth is most important, and prejudice still most rife.
Those who make the vices of mere trading education an argument for supplementing it by something else, are charged with ignoring the tendency which schools have, in common with other things, to improve with the general progress of human affairs. But human affairs are seldom improving in all directions at once, and it is doubtful if much of the improvement that is now going on is taking the direction of trade morality. Even in commerce properly so called—the legitimate province of self-interest—where it is enough if the ruling motive is limited by simple honesty, things do not look at present as if there were an increasing tendency towards high-minded honour, conscientious abhorrence of dishonest arts, and contempt of quackery. Even there the vastness of the field, the greatness of the stakes now played for, and the increasing difficulty to the public in judging rightly of transactions or of character, are making the principle of competition bring forth a kind of effects, the cure of which will have to be sought somewhere else than in the corrective influence of competition itself. There is more hope, doubtless, on the side of the parents. An increasing number of them are probably acquiring somewhat better notions of what education is, and a somewhat greater value for it. But experience proves that, of all the modes of human improvement, this particular one is about the slowest. The progress of the bulk of mankind is not in any great degree a spontaneous thing. In a few of the best and ablest it is spontaneous, and the others follow in their wake. Where society must move all together, as in legislation and government, the slowest get dragged on, at the price of a deplorable slackening in the pace of the quickest movers; but where each has to act individually, as in sending his children to school, and the power of the more advanced is only that of their opinion and their example, the general mass may long remain sadly behind.
The law does fail in this case, as it failed in the former, but for a different reason; not, as in the former case, because several prices fulfil the condition equally well, but because no price fulfils it. At £50 there is a demand for twice or three times the supply; at £50. 0 0¼ there is no demand at all. When the scale of the demand for a commodity is broken by so extraordinary a jump, the law fails of its application; not, I venture to say, from any fault in the law, but because the conditions on which its applicability depends do not exist. If the peculiarities of the case do not permit the demand to be equal to the supply, leaving it only the alternative of being greater or less, greater or less it will be; and all that can be affirmed is, that it will keep as near to the point of equality as it can. Instead of conflicting with the law, this is the extreme case which proves the law. The law is, that the price will be that which equalises the demand with the supply; and the example proves that this only fails to be the case when there is no price that would fulfil the condition, and that even then, the same causes, still operating, keep the price at the point which will most nearly fulfil it. Is it possible to have any more complete confirmation of the law, than that in order to find a case in which the price does not conform to the law, it is necessary to find one in which there is no price that can conform to it?
And is there any one so blind to the realities of life as to imagine that the emoluments of a private schoolmaster have in general any substantial connection with the merit and efficiency of his teaching? In the first place, he has a direct pecuniary interest in neglecting all studies not cared for by the general public, or by the section of it from whom he hopes for patronage. In those which they do care for, a little trouble goes much farther in aiming at a mere appearance of proficiency, than at the reality. The persons whom he has to satisfy are not experienced examiners, who take pains to find out how much the pupil knows, and are judges of it; but parents, most of whom know little of what is taught at schools, or have forgotten what they knew; many of whom do not test their child’s knowledge by a single question, it being enough for them that he has been at what is called a respectable school—and who desire no better than to take for granted that all is right, and that the certificates or prizes which the children bring home from the master are the earnings of desert, not bribes for the good word of parents. These are not the mere abuses, but the natural fruits, of the trading principle in education; accordingly, the disclosures of the Schools Enquiry Commission have been as damning to the character of the private, as to that of the endowed, schools. When the pupil himself reflects, too late, that his schooling has done him no good, the impression left upon him, if he is one of the common herd, is not that he was sent to a bad when he ought to have been sent to a good school, but that school altogether is a stupid and useless thing, and schoolmasters a set of contemptible impostors. It is difficult to see, in the operation of the trading principle, any tendency to make these things better. When the customer’s ignorance is great, the trading motive acts much more powerfully in the direction of vying with one another in the arts of quackery and self-advertisement than in merit. Those parents who desire for their children something better than what the private schools afford, and do not find that something better in the endowed schools as at present conducted, sometimes combine to form the subscription schools commonly called proprietary. This private election, as it were, of a schoolmaster, by a rate-paying qualification, is an improvement, as far as it goes, for those who take part in it; but as it is only had recourse to by parents who have some perception of the badness of the private schools, it makes the case of these last, if anything, rather worse than before, by withdrawing that small portion of parental influence which would really be exercised, and probably exercised beneficially. And the worth even of the Proprietary Schools depends on that of the high public institutions which are the trainers of schoolmasters, and whose certificates or honours are the chief evidence, often the only tolerable evidence available, to guide the proprietors in their choice.