All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1955

Principles Are Inflexible

Extracted from Social Statics. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865.

Make a hole through a principle to admit a solitary exception, and, on one pretence or other, exceptions will by and by be thrust through after it, as to render the principle utterly good for nothing. In fact, if its consequences are closely traced, this same plea for license in special cases turns out to be the source of nearly all the evils that afflict us . . . .

When Philip of Valois swore the officers of his mint to conceal the debasement of the coinage, and to endeavour to make the merchants believe that the gold and silver pieces were of full value, he thought that although perhaps unprincipled, such a measure would be vastly profitable. And so no doubt believed the other kings, who, in the “good old times,” almost universally did the like. They overreached themselves, however, as all such schemers do. It is true that their debts were diminished “in proportion to the reduction in the value of the currency; but their revenues were at the same time reduced in the like ratio. Moreover, the loss of their reputation for honesty made them afterwards un-able to borrow money, except at proportionately high rates of interest, to cover the risk ran by the lender.” So that they not only lost on the creditor side of their accounts what they gained on the debtor side, but put themselves at a great disadvantage for the future . . . .

Protected trades, too, have afforded many proofs of the impolicy of injustice . . . . Under the now happily exploded plea of protection to native industry, the silk manufacturers were freed from all foreign competition. Their prices were thus artificially raised, and all the nation was compelled to buy of them. And so, having a large market and profits, they thought their prosperity ensured. They were doomed to disappointment, however. Instead of a brisk and extensive trade, they obtained a languishing and confined one; and that branch of manufacture, which was to have been a pattern of commercial greatness, became a byword for whining poverty. How utterly absurd, under such a lamentable state of things, must have appeared the proposal to return toward equitable dealing by lowering the duties! What “impracticables” must those men have been thought, who, because monopoly was unjust, wished to expose the almost ruined manufacturers to the additional difficulty of foreign competition! Could any thing be more contrary to common sense? Here surely was a case in which “abstract principles” must give way to “policy.” No: even here, too, obedience to the moral law proved to be the best. Rebellion against it had been punished by accumulated distresses: a partial submission was rewarded by an increase of prosperity. Within fourteen years from the date at which duties were lowered, the trade had more than doubled itself—had increased more within that period than during the preceding century. And those who, but a short time before, were unable to meet their French compeers in the home-markets, not only began to compete with them in the marts of other nations, but to send large quantities of goods to France itself. []

If “what most people want” is one’s criterion of value, then there is no problem involved beyond ascertaining what in fact people do want—a question that can indeed be answered by science, but why should one want what most people want? The very contrary would seem to be the case: those who have taught us what we know about ethics . . . have usually wanted precisely what most people of their time did not want.


Dwight Macdonald, “The Root Is Man”

One special form of cowardice or, at least, of moral laziness is particularly widespread, since it often appears in free countries: the tendency to concede, with a pretense of philosophic thinking, that “the world is moving toward” this, that, or the other thing.


No one questions that the world is always moving toward new forms and new transformations: economic transformations, religious transformations, technical transformations; and there is no harm in trying to foresee, for example, whether the economic future will be Communistic or one of free competition. Where moral cowardice begins is in the acceptance of any one of these prophecies in order to spare oneself any effort of will or thought, in a hypocritical admission that one is obeying a “historic necessity,” thereby escaping the moral necessity that conscience imposes on us . . . .

What counts is not to know toward what the world is going, but to know toward what each one of us is going. In a world passing through a less fateful crisis than ours, Mazzini said to the Italians. “You will not create better conditions unless you yourselves become better . . .”

Count Carlo Sforza, “Contemporary Italy”

  • Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was one of the leading 19th century English radical individualists. He began working as a journalist for the laissez-faire magazine The Economist in the 1850s. Much of the rest of his life was spent working on an all-encompassing theory of human development based upon the ideas of individualism, utilitarian moral theory, social and biological evolution, limited government, and laissez-faire economics.