THE reader is to include here in the idea of “Government,” any branch of the Executive, or even any body of private persons, entrusted with the practical management of public interests unconnected directly with their own personal ones. In theoretical discussions of legislative interference with political economy it is usually, and of course unnecessarily, assumed that Government must be always of that form and force in which we have been accustomed to see it;—that its abuses can never be less, nor its wisdom greater, nor its powers more numerous. But, practically, the custom in most civilized countries is, for every man to deprecate the interference of Government as long as things tell for his personal advantage, and to call for it when they cease to do so. The request of the Manchester Economists to be supplied with cotton by Government (the system of supply and demand having, for the time, fallen sorrowfully short of the expectations of scientific persons from it), is an interesting case in point.1 It were to be wished that less wide and bitter suffering, suffering, too, of the innocent, had been needed to force the nation, or some part of it, to ask itself why a body of men, already confessedly capable of managing matters both military and divine, should not be permitted, or even requested, at need, to provide in some wise for sustenance as well as for defence; and secure, if it might be,—(and it might, I think, even the rather be),—purity of bodily, as well as of spiritual, aliment? Why, having made many roads for the passage of armies, may they not make a few for the conveyance of food; and after organising, with applause, various schemes of theological instruction for the Public, organise, moreover, some methods of bodily nourishment for them? Or is the soul so much less trustworthy in its instincts than the stomach, that legislation is necessary for the one, but inapplicable to the other?2

Notes by Editors of the Library Edition

1. Ruskin’s reference is explained by a letter to his father from Milan (July 6, 1862): “That’s a nice article in Thursday’s Times about the Manchester people wanting Government interference in cotton, now that the ̳let alone‘ system is coming to grief.” Compare xxxx, § 34 n. (18.88).

2.The original note continued thus:—

There is a strange fallacy running at this time through all the talk about free-trade. It is continually assumed that every kind of Government interference takes away liberty of trade. Whereas liberty is lost only when interference hinders, not when it helps. You do not take away a man’s freedom by showing him his road—nor by making it smoother for him (not that it is always desirable to do so, but it may be); nor even by fencing it for him, if there is an open ditch at the side of it. The real mode in which protection interferes with liberty, and the real evil of it, is not in its “protecting” one person, but in its hindering another; a form of interference which invariably does most mischief to the person it is intended to serve, which the Northern Americans are about uncomfortably to discover, unless they think better of it.

There is also a ludicrous confusion in many persons’ minds between protection and encouragement; they differ materially. “Protection” is saying to the commercial schoolboy, “Nobody shall hit you.” Encouragement is saying to him, “That’s the way to hit.” [289/290]

Last modified 25 March 2019