Too Much Legislation

—Published in Britain, a century ago.

It may be useful, now that the public attention is likely to be again much directed to domestic affairs, to advert briefly to the principles on which laws ought to be made, or what is called the philosophy of legislation. From the want of a knowledge of these principles, which can alone supply a standard for making or amending laws, we make laws one session, and repeal them the next, or a session or two afterwards; we allow individuals to suggest or make laws according to their fancy or caprice; and we have in consequence now got a great heap of undigested laws, filling we know not how many volumes, which are a standing disgrace to both Houses of Parliament and to the whole nation . . . .

We must now find out what laws will answer the purposes we propose and what will not. At this moment society is very generally philanthropic, extremely desirous of improving the condition of the multitude; it is deeply affected by sufferings from disease and want, from close, small, and crowded dwellings, and seems resolved by legislation to get rid of dirt and discomfort. The object is excellent; the legislation, how-ever, in the main is really directed against poverty; it is carried out, and can only be carried out, by some kind of restrictions and some kind of office-bearers to see them executed—an infallible means of dividing the existing amount of wealth in smaller portions, with no tendency to increase the whole, and certain, therefore, to sharpen and augment the poverty it really aspires to lessen.

The principle on which legislation must proceed to lessen poverty is, as we now know from much experience, to remove restraints and restrictions, to permit the field of enterprise to become common and uninclosed as Nature made it, to leave the development of all the diverse faculties and powers of individuals perfectly free, assured that they are no more made in vain than the many flowers of the field. Their full development is necessary for the well-being and harmony of the whole, and the legislation which proposes to lessen poverty and its multiplied evils by any kind of restrictions is an error.

The Economist (London), June 7, 1856