This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
There is an economical reason for government. "Without the strong arm of the public force, men could not work unmolested, or retain the results of their labor. Without law, production would be hindered directly, by the confusion of society and the interruption of violence. But far more serious would be the secondary effects on industry. All motives to the accumulation of wealth would be withdrawn, by the insecurity of property. Its possession might even become an object of terror.
We cannot, indeed, trace society back to anarchy; for a state of anarchy is impossible with human nature. Even the savage tribes take on political forms. Like a drop whose cohesion is violently broken, the public body seeks to form itself anew, or at least to aggregate itself about two or three new centres. Absolute isolation is not merely impolitic: it is impracticable. But, as far as we can go back, on the path of social order, we find industry answering to law.
To what share is government entitled in the general production? If, as we have seen, it is the indispensable condition of all wealth, it can rightfully claim a part of all wealth; and that part will be, at the least, enough to sustain itself in this economical function. It owns just as much of this wealth it has helped to create as is necessary to continue itself; for, without this, wealth could not be. The absolute necessities of government, then, afford the minimum measure of its share in wealth.
Has government no right to more than what is essential to its support in this economical function? Its industrial work embraces a wider field than appears in the simple statement. In America, education is required as a part of the public police; and our eminent statesmen have estimated the outlay of schools and colleges cheap, in the results on order and security. In Great Britain, the church has been held to be a legitimate agent of the public force, and its maintenance is provided for out of the public purse. Government may employ means of influence, numerous and remote, all in the interest of peace.
But has it no right to property beyond this? Plainly it has. We must not be as stringent in our scientific views as young Gobbo, and complain that "this making of Christians will raise the price of pork." Political economy recognizes that humanity has other interests than wealth, and respects the claim of government to duties and services for the sake of a moral good. But such reasons should appear clearly. Nothing should be taken arbitrarily, or for contingent use. Man is the direct producer, and the product remains in his hands. If government, as indirectly engaged with him, enters with a claim to share the profits, it must show cause distinctly for whatever it takes. It is the part of the statesman, not of the economist, to judge of occasions like these.
Having defined the right of government economically to participate in wealth, two considerations naturally precede the discussion of methods: —
1st, Government should undertake nothing that can be left to individual enterprise.
If we admit that the difficulties which surround industry are imposed for our good, and form a part of our discipline and culture, political society palpably acts on a false idea when it relieves the citizen of his own proper responsibility, care, or labor, and assumes his natural duties. This, however, is not the only reason against such interference. Government never does the work of individuals as well as it can be done by individuals.
It is related of Herodes Atticus, that, having come upon a great treasure concealed in the ground, he took it to Nerva, and pressed it on his acceptance, saying, "it was too considerable for a subject to use." —"Abuse it, then," replied the emperor. The anecdote has great significance as to the employment of wealth. Its abuse by the citizen is almost preferable to its use by the state. If government were conceived to be always wise, it would still be better, on the whole, that citizens should direct their own industrial matters, wisely or unwisely, as might happen. But, when the liability of government to err is confessed, we have a double argument against taking the fee or use of wealth out of private hands. It cannot be too often or earnestly insisted on, that individual, interested supervision is the grandest economical condition, and should never be departed from till the work becomes too vast for single hands.
2d, Government should do nothing for display.
For ages the science of politics might be summed up in the word "pageantry." To dazzle the vulgar eye, and overawe the common sense of the people, by splendid equipage and stately building, has been the main theory of rulers. The system certainly has not failed for want of trial. There have been governors who earnestly sought to prove, that the power of the law and the peace of the subject did not depend on show. The simplicity and austerity exhibited by Carus of Rome, Julian of Constantinople, Elizabeth of England, the Great Frederick of Prussia, and the Saracen caliphs in all ages, stand in marked contrast with the wicked and ruinous extravagance that has marked the administration of most of the governments of the world.
It is gratifying to believe, that, in some countries, the advance of economic principles has relieved the people of great burdens by limiting the display of government. Imagine the storm in Parliament, had it been proposed to buy the great Sanci diamond * for the British crown. Yet, two centuries ago, the heart of England would have craved it for the royal brow.
* Disposed of at private sale in 1865.
3d, The expense of government will vary according to the circumstances and character of the people.
Some peoples have a government as simple, primitive, and cheap as their clothing; while others, no more highly civilized, manifest an inclination to complicated and refined, forms of administering law, which bring a heavy burden of taxation on the present, and entail permanent debt on posterity. Some nations are obliged, by their position, to build themselves around with fortifications, and maintain extensive forces, just as some countries can keep out the ocean only by artificial dikes and levees; others have a natural strength, or an isolation, that is good to them as strong armies. Some peoples can be governed readily in the plainest manner by rulers who, like the caliphs, sweep their own floors, patch their own shoes, milk their cows, and live on soldier's fare; others are supposed to require an immense amount of pageantry to dazzle the public eye, and occasional wars, wasting thousands of men and millions of money, to divert the common mind from troublesome questions, and keep the peace at home.
Russia spends yearly three dollars a head in governing her people and supporting her armies; Prussia, five dollars; the United States, up to 1860, two and a half dollars, reckoning only the federal establishment; Great Britain runs her expenditure up to ten dollars. Political economy has great charity for claims based on public considerations. It allows that whatever is really necessary for peace and order and property, in full view of the national peculiarities or geographical difficulties, is economically well spent and a good investment of capital.
It is not alone the direct office of preventing immediate crime, and protecting present property, that government performs at so great cost. Civil law is an educator. It gives a prospect and a security for the future; it multiplies the ambitions and the desires of all who live under it; it elevates the self-respect and trains the self-control of all good citizens.
Yet government charges heavily for what it does. The yearly revenue of the European states is, at present, very little, if any, short of fifteen hundred millions of dollars. The expenditure of the United States, even if no attempt is made to liquidate the public debt, will not, probably, be less than three hundred millions; and this, exclusive of all the service of State and municipal government.
On the whole, it may be said of this duty of capital to support government, that it pays, as an investment, whatever it may necessarily cost; but that the expense should be strictly held down to the lowest practicable figure.