This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
No subject stands so peculiarly related to scientific inquiry as this. There is no scheme of governmental action which can present a more clear and convincing argument, drawn from the nature of things, and even from experience, prior to actual legislation; while none has been more effectually exploded by trial. There seems to be a perfect reason for sumptuary laws; yet the general sense of civilization has, after full experiment, settled decisively against them.
It is impossible to look about the smallest community, without being grieved at the maimer in which much of its labor and wealth are expended. What enlightened person can pass once through any street of human habitation, without seeing very many instances of folly, extravagance, perversion, and indolence, which are wasting the best gifts of God and the fairest hopes of man? And, when this view is carried out to all the communities of a nation, it is not strange that philosophers and statesmen have come to believe most earnestly, that by salutary curbs on expenditure and spurs to exertion, by reforming dress, diet, equipage, and establishment, they could multiply manifold the comforts of the people, the resources of the state, and the means of social and moral culture. And why not? That there is no reason manifest in the nature of things is proved by the fact, that everywhere, and at all times, the most benevolent, temperate, and sagacious, alike of political rulers and of political writers, have agreed in recommending stringent sumptuary provision and inspection by law.
And yet nothing has more utterly and conclusively failed. It is not that the evil is imaginary; for enough wealth and power are wasted to make every human being comfortable and happy. It is not that the state of things is unsusceptible of reformation; for the matter is one wholly of human choice, and open to the control of the public sanctions. It is not that the aggregate sense of the community, in matters of consumption (not of production), is not, on the whole, more enlightened and less fickle than that of individuals. We say, on the whole; for there have been instances in which laws were even behind the instincts of the community, and proposed to compel the popular energies and tastes to less advantageous forms of consumption. As instances, we may cite the enactment in the reign of Charles II. of England, prescribing, under penalties, the interment of the dead in shrouds made of wool, for the encouragement of that manufacture; the Spanish Cortes, petitioning in the same breath for the prohibition of coaches and encouragement of bull-fights; and all of the recent legislation of this country, in any form, which has taken for its principle the absurdity, that to issue bonds for expenses incurred in the work of destruction adds any thing but weight to the national burdens, and can introduce aught but grievance and faction into our politics. Yet, as we said, the major will of the community would, on the whole, prescribe a more harmonious and healthful consumption of wealth than that which follows individual choices. Why, then, has law, acting to this end, failed of its purpose so universally and so manifestly, that such enactments are hardly ever proposed at the present days even by the most sanguine of philanthropists?
It is difficult to give a full and satisfactory explanation. One reason is, that such enactments are very easy of evasion. Expenditure is not a matter that submits readily to inspection and proof. The interest of the producer and of the desire of the consumer are against the enforcement of the law. Then, again, luxury can take on so many forms, can slip so readily from the grasp of definitions and specifications, that the law becomes a greater trouble to its officers than to its offenders.
But the grand reason is, that it is against human nature; and with this we may fairly close our objections.
But all these furnish no conclusion against the regulation of public morals and manners in things that affect the happiness and safety of the community. It is no longer legislation to supplement the wisdom of the individual or instruct industry. It becomes the defence of the general good. It is not a breach of personal rights, but the safeguard of public liberty. If there is any habit or practice which brings disease and suffering and disorder, which abridges the power of labor and the span of life, which inflicts misery upon the innocent and unoffending, which entails expense upon the whole community for the charge of pauperism and the punishment of crime, there can be no doubt of the right and duty of the people to protect themselves, through the power of their government, by the most severe and efficient laws that can be devised. To deny this is to deny the validity of government itself.