Government, Its Object

The State

The Objects Of Government

Author: Wilson, Woodrow

The Objects Of Government

1514. Character of the Subject. - Political interest and controversy

centre nowhere more acutely than in the question, What are the proper objects

of government? This is one of those difficult questions upon which it is

possible for many sharply opposed views to be held apparently with almost

equal weight of reason. Its central difficulty is this, that it is a question

which can be answered, if answered at all, only by the aid of a broad and

careful wisdom whose conclusions are based upon the widest possible inductions

from the facts of political experience in all its phases. Such wisdom is

quite beyond the capacity of most thinkers and actors in the field of

politics; and the consequence has been that this question, perhaps more than

any other in the whole scope of political science, has provoked great wars of


1515. The Extreme Views held. - What part shall government play in the

affairs of society? - that is the question which has been the gauge of

controversial battle. What ought the functions of government to be? On the

one hand there are extremists who cry constantly to government, 'Hands off,'

'laissez faire,' 'laissez passer,' who look upon every act of government which

is not merely an act of police with jealousy; who regard government as

necessary, but as a necessary evil; and who would have government hold back

from everything which could by any possibility be accomplished by individual

initiative and endeavor. On the other hand, there are those who, with equal

extremeness of view in the opposite direction, would have society lean fondly

upon government for guidance and assistance in every affair of life; who,

captivated by some glimpse of public power and beneficence caught in the pages

of ancient or mediaeval historian, or by some dream of cooperative endeavor

cunningly imagined by the great fathers of Socialism, believe that the state

can be made a wise foster mother to every member of the family politic.

Between these two extremes, again, there are all grades, all shades and

colors, all degrees of enmity or of partiality to state action.

1516. Historical Foundation for Opposite Views. - Enmity to exaggerated

state action, even a keen desire to keep that action down to its lowest

possible terms, is easily furnished with impressive justification. It must

unreservedly be admitted that history abounds with warnings of no uncertain

sort against indulging the state with a too great liberty of interference with

the life and work of its citizens. Much as there is that is attractive in the

political life of the city states of Greece and Rome, in which the public

power was suffered to be omnipotent, - their splendid public spirit, their

incomparable organic wholeness, their fine play of rival talents, serving both

the common thought and the common action, their variety, their conception of

public virtue, - there is also much to blame, - their too wanton invasion of

that privacy of the individual life in which alone family virtue can dwell

secure, their callous tyranny over minorities in matters which might have been

left to individual choice, their sacrifice of personal independence for the

sake of public solidarity, their hasty average judgments, their too confident

trust in the public voice. They, it is true, could not have had the

individual liberty which we cherish without breaking violently with their own

history, with the necessary order of their development; but neither can we, on

the other hand, imitate them without an equally violent departure from our own

normal development and a reversion to the now too primitive methods of their

pocket republics.

1517. Unquestionable as it is that mediaeval history affords many

seductive examples of an absence of grinding, heartless competition and a

strength of mutual interdependence, confidence, and helpfulness between class

and class such as the modern economist may be pardoned for wishing to see

revived; and true though it be that the history of Prussia under some of the

greater Hohenzollern gives at least colorable justification to the opinion

that state interference may under many circumstances be full of benefit for

the industrial upbuilding of a state, it must, on the other hand, be

remembered that neither the feudal system, nor the mediaeval guild system, nor

the paternalism of Frederic the Great can be rehabilitated now that the

nineteenth century has wrought its revolutions in industry, in church, and in

state; and that, even if these great systems of the past could be revived, we

should be sorely puzzled to reinstate their blessings without restoring at the

same time their acknowledged evils. No student of history can wisely censure

those who protest against state paternalism.

1518. The State a Beneficent and Indispensable Organ of Society. - It by

no means follows, nevertheless, that because the state may unwisely interfere

in the life of the individual, it must be pronounced in itself and by nature a

necessary evil. It is no more an evil than is society itself. It is the

organic body of society: without it society would be hardly more than a mere

abstraction. If the name had not been restricted to a single, narrow,

extreme, and radically mistaken class of thinkers, we ought all to regard

ourselves and to act as socialists, believers in the wholesomeness and

beneficence of the body politic. If the history of society proves anything,

it proves the absolute naturalness of government, its rootage in the nature of

man, its origin in kinship, and its identification with all that makes man

superior to the brute creation. Individually man is but poorly equipped to

dominate other animals: his lordship comes by combination, his strength is

concerted strength, his sovereignty is the sovereignty of union. Outside of

society man's mind can avail him little as an instrument of supremacy; and

government is the visible form of society. If society itself be not an evil,

neither surely is government an evil, for government is the indispensable

organ of society.

1519. Every means, therefore, by which society may be perfected through

the instrumentality of government, every means by which individual rights can

be fitly adjusted and harmonized with public duties, by which individual

self-development may be made at once to serve and to supplement social

development, ought certainly to be diligently sought, and, when found,

sedulously fostered by every friend of society. Such is the socialism to

which every true lover of his kind ought to adhere with the full grip of every

noble affection that is in him.

1520. Socialism and the Modern Industrial Organization. - It is possible

indeed, to understand, and even in a measure to sympathize with, the

enthusiasm of those special classes of agitators whom we have dubbed with the

too great name of 'Socialists.' The schemes of social reform and regeneration

which they support with so much ardor, however mistaken they may be, - and

surely most of them are mistaken enough to provoke the laughter of children, -

have the right end in view: they seek to bring the individual with his special

interests, personal to himself, into complete harmony with society with its

general interests, common to all. Their method is always some sort of

cooperation, meant to perfect mutual helpfulness. They speak, too, a revolt

from selfish, misguided individualism; and certainly modern individualism has

much about it that is hateful, too hateful to last. The modern industrial

organization has so distorted competition as sometimes to put it into the

power of some to tyrannize over many, as to enable the rich and the strong to

combine against the poor and the weak. It has given a woful material meaning

to that spiritual law that "to him that hath shall be given, and from him that

hath not shall be taken away even the little that he seemeth to have." ^1 It

has magnified that self-interest which is grasping selfishness and has thrust

out love and compassion not only, but free competition in part, as well.

Surely it would be better, exclaims the Socialist, altogether to stamp out

competition by making all men equally subject to the public order, to an

imperative law of social cooperation! But the Socialist mistakes: it is not

competition that kills, but unfair competition, the pretence and form of it

where the substance and reality of it cannot exist.

[Footnote 1: Compare F. A. Walker's Political Economy (Advanced Course), sec.


1521. A Middle Ground. - And there is a middle ground. The schemes which

Socialists have proposed society cannot accept and live; and no scheme which

involves the complete control of the individual by government can be devised

which differs from theirs very much for the better. A truer doctrine must be

found, which gives wide freedom to the individual for his self-development and

yet guards that freedom against the competition that kills, and reduces the

antagonism between self-development and social development to a minimum. And

such a doctrine can be formulated, surely, without too great vagueness.

1522. The Objects of Society the Objects of Government. - Government, as

I have said, is the organ of society, its only potent and universal

instrument: its objects must be the objects of society. What, then, are the

objects of society? What is society? It is an organic association of

individuals for mutual aid. Mutual aid to what? To self-development. The

hope of society lies in an infinite individual variety, in the freest possible

play of individual forces: only in that can it find that wealth of resource

which constitutes civilization, with all its appliances for satisfying human

wants and mitigating human sufferings, all its incitements to thought and

spurs to action. It should be the end of government to assist in

accomplishing the objects of organized society. There must be constant

adjustments of governmental assistance to the needs of a changing social and

industrial organization. Not license of interference on the part of

government, but only strength, and adaptation of regulation. The regulation

that I mean is not interference: it is the equalization of conditions, so far

as possible, in all branches of endeavor; and the equalization of conditions

is the very opposite of interference.

1523. Every rule of development is a rule of adaptation, a rule for

meeting 'the circumstances of the case'; but the circumstances of the case, it

must be remembered, are not, so far as government is concerned, the

circumstances of any individual case, but the circumstances of society's case,

the general conditions of social organization. The case for society stands

thus: the individual must be assured the best means, the best and fullest

opportunities, for complete self-development: in no other way can society

itself gain variety and strength. But one of the most indispensable

conditions of opportunity for self-development government alone, society's

controlling organ, can supply. All combinations which necessarily create

monopoly, which necessarily put and keep indispensable means of industrial or

social development in the hands of a few, and those few, not the few selected

by society itself, but the few selected by arbitrary fortune, must be under

either the direct or the indirect control of society. To society alone can

the power of dominating by combination belong. It cannot suffer any of its

members to enjoy such a power for their own private gain independently of its

own strict regulation or oversight.

1524. Natural Monopolies. - It is quite possible to distinguish natural

monopolies from other classes of undertakings; their distinctive marks are

thus enumerated by Sir T. H. Farrer in his excellent little volume on the

State in its Relation to Trade which forms one of the well- known English

Citizen series: ^1

[Footnote 1: P. 71. Sir Thomas Farrer is Permanent Secretary of the English

Board of Trade (sec. 876).]

"1. What they supply is a necessary," a necessary, that is, to life, like

water, or a necessary to industrial action, like railroad transportation.

"2. They occupy peculiarly favored spots or lines of land." Here again

the best illustration is afforded by railroads or by telegraph lines, by

water-works, etc.

"3. The article or convenience they supply is used at the place and in

connection with the plant or machinery by which it is supplied"; that is to

say, at the favored spots or along the favored lines of land.

"4. This article or convenience can in general be largely, if not

indefinitely increased, without proportionate increase in plant and capital";

that is to say, the initial outlay having been made, the favored spot or line

of land having been occupied, every subsequent increase of business will

increase profits because it will not proportionately, or anything like

proportionately, increase the outlay for services or machinery needed. Those

who are outside of the established business, therefore, are upon an equality

of competition neither as regards available spots or lines of land nor as

regards opportunities to secure business in a competition of rates.

"5. Certain and harmonious arrangement, which can only be attained by

unity, are paramount considerations." Wide and systematic organization is


1525. Such enterprises invariably give to a limited number of persons the

opportunity to command certain necessaries of life, of comfort, or of

industrial success against their fellow-countrymen and for their own

advantage. Once established in any field, there can be no real competition

between them and those who would afterwards enter that field. No agency

should be suffered to have such control except a public agency which may be

compelled by public opinion to act without selfish narrowness, upon perfectly

equal conditions as towards all, or some agency upon which the government may

keep a strong hold of regulation.

1526. Control not necessarily Administration. - Society can by no means

afford to allow the use for private gain and without regulation of

undertakings necessary to its own healthful and efficient operation and yet of

a sort to exclude equality in competition. Experience has proved that the

self-interest of those who have controlled such undertakings for private gain

is not coincident with the public interest: even enlightened self-interest may

often discover means of illicit pecuniary advantage in unjust discriminations

between individuals in the use of such instrumentalities. But the proposition

that the government should control such dominating organizations of capital

may by no means be wrested to mean by any necessary implication that the

government should itself administer those instrumentalities of economic action

which cannot be used except as monopolies. In such cases, as Sir T. H. Farrer

says, "there are two great alternatives. (1) Ownership and management by

private enterprise and capital under regulation by the state. (2) Ownership

and management by Government, central or local." Government regulation may in

most cases suffice. Indeed, such are the difficulties in the way of

establishing and maintaining careful business management on the part of

government, that control ought to be preferred to direct administration in as

many cases as possible, - in every case in which control without

administration can be made effectual.

1527. Equalization of Competition. - There are some things outside the

field of natural monopolies in which individual action cannot secure

equalization of the conditions of competition; and in these also, as in the

regulation of monopolies, the practice of governments, of our own as well as

of others, has been decisively on the side of governmental regulation. By

forbidding child labor, by supervising the sanitary conditions of factories,

by limiting the employment of women in occupations hurtful to their health, by

instituting official tests of the purity or the quality of goods sold, by

limiting hours of labor in certain trades, by a hundred and one limitations of

the power of unscrupulous or heartless men to out-do the scrupulous and

merciful in trade or industry, government has assisted equity. Those who

would act in moderation and good conscience in cases where moderation and good

conscience, if indulged, require an increased outlay of money, in better

ventilated buildings, in greater care as to the quality of goods, etc., cannot

be expected to act upon their principles so long as more grinding conditions

for labor or a more unscrupulous use of the opportunities of trade secure to

the unconscientious an unquestionable and sometimes even a permanent

advantage; they have only the choice of denying their consciences or retiring

from business. In scores of such cases government has intervened and will

intervene; but by way, not of interference, by way, rather, of making

competition equal between those who would rightfully conduct enterprise and

those who basely conduct it. It is in this way that society protects itself

against permanent injury and deterioration, and secures healthful equality of

opportunity for self- development.

1528. Society greater than Government. - Society, it must always be

remembered, is vastly bigger and more important than its instrument,

Government. Government should serve Society, by no means rule or dominate it.

Government should not be made an end in itself; it is a means only, - a means

to be freely adapted to advance the best interests of the social organism.

The State exists for the sake of Society, not Society for the sake of the


1529. Natural Limits to State Action. - And that there are natural and

imperative limits to state action no one who seriously studies the structure

of society can doubt. The limit of state functions is the limit of necessary

cooperation on the part of Society as a whole, the limit beyond which such

combination ceases to be imperative for the public good and becomes merely

convenient for industrial or social enterprise. Cooperation is necessary in

the sense here intended when it is indispensable to the equalization of the

conditions of endeavor, indispensable to the maintenance of uniform rules of

individual rights and relationships, indispensable because to omit it would

inevitably be to hamper or degrade some for the advancement of others in the

scale of wealth and social standing.

1530. There are relations in which men invariably have need of each

other, in which universal cooperation is the indispensable condition of even

tolerable existence. Only some universal authority can make opportunities

equal as between man and man. The divisions of labor and the combinations of

commerce may for the most part be left to contract, to free individual

arrangement, but the equalization of the conditions which affect all alike may

no more be left to individual initiative than may the organization of

government itself. Churches, clubs, corporations, fraternities, guilds,

partnerships, unions, have for their ends one or another special enterprise

for the development of man's spiritual or material well-being: they are all

more or less advisable. But the family and the state have as their end a

general enterprise for the betterment and equalization of the conditions of

individual development: they are indispensable.

1531. The point at which public combination ceases to be imperative is

not susceptible of clear indication in general terms; but it is not on that

account indistinct. The bounds of family association are not indistinct

because they are marked only by the immaturity of the young and by the

parental and filial affections, - things not all of which are defined in the

law. The rule that the state should do nothing which is equally possible

under equitable conditions to optional associations is a sufficiently clear

line of distinction between governments and corporations. Those who regard

the state as an optional, conventional union simply, a mere partnership, open

wide the doors to the worst forms of socialism. Unless the state has a nature

which is quite clearly defined by that invariable, universal, immutable mutual

interdependence which runs beyond the family relations and cannot be satisfied

by family ties, we have absolutely no criterion by which we can limit, except

arbitrarily, the activities of the state. The criterion supplied by the

native necessity of state relations, on the other hand, banishes such license

of state action.

1532. The state, for instance, ought not to supervise private morals

because they belong to the sphere of separate individual responsibility, not

to the sphere of mutual dependence. Thought and conscience are private.

Opinion is optional. The state may intervene only where common action,

uniform law are indispensable. Whatever is merely convenient is optional, and

therefore not an affair for the state. Churches are spiritually convenient;

joint-stock companies are capitalistically convenient; but when the state

constitutes itself a church or a mere business association it institutes a

monopoly no better than others. It should do nothing which is not in any case

both indispensable to social or industrial life and necessarily monopolistic.

1533. The Family and the State. - It is the proper object of the family

to mould the individual, to form him in the period of immaturity in the faiths

of religion and in the practice of morality and obedience. This period of

subordination over, he is called out into an independent, self- directive

activity. The ties of family affection still bind him, but they bind him with

silken, not with iron bonds. He has left his 'minority' and reached his

'majority.' It is the proper object of the state to give leave to his

individuality, in order that that individuality may add its quota of variety

to the sum of national activity Family discipline is variable, selective,

formative: it must lead the individual. But the state must not lead. It must

create conditions, but not mould individuals. Its discipline must be

invariable, uniform, impersonal. Family methods rest upon individual

inequality, state methods upon individual equality. Family order rests upon

tutelage, state order upon franchise, upon privilege.

1534. The State and Education. - In one field the state would seem at

first sight to usurp the family function, the field, namely, of education. But

such is not in reality the case. Education is the proper office of the state

for two reasons, both of which come within the principles we have been

discussing. Popular education is necessary for the preservation of those

conditions of freedom, political and social, which are indispensable to free

individual development. And, in the second place, no instrumentality less

universal in its power and authority than government can secure popular

education. In brief, in order to secure popular education the action of

society as a whole is necessary; and popular education is indispensable to

that equalization of the conditions of personal development which we have

taken to be the proper object of society. Without popular education,

moreover, no government which rests upon popular action can long endure: the

people must be schooled in the knowledge, and if possible in the virtues, upon

which the maintenance and success of free institutions depend. No free

government can last in health if it lose hold of the traditions of its

history, and in the public schools these traditions may be and should be

sedulously preserved, carefully replanted in the thought and consciousness of

each successive generation.

1535. Historical Conditions of Governmental Action. - Whatever view be

taken in each particular case of the rightfulness or advisability of state

regulation and control, one rule there is which may not be departed from under

any circumstances, and that is the rule of historical continuity. In politics

nothing radically novel may safely be attempted. No result of value can ever

be reached in politics except through slow and gradual development, the

careful adaptations and nice modifications of growth. Nothing may be done by

leaps. More than that, each people, each nation, must live upon the lines of

its own experience. Nations are no more capable of borrowing experience than

individuals are. The histories of other peoples may furnish us with light,

but they cannot furnish us with conditions of action. Every nation must

constantly keep in touch with its past; it cannot run towards its ends around

sharp corners.

1536. Summary. - This, then, is the sum of the whole matter: the end of

government is the facilitation of the objects of society. The rule of

governmental action is necessary cooperation. The method of political

development is conservative adaptation, shaping old habits into new ones,

modifying old means to accomplish new ends.

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