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Quotation of the Day…

… is from pages 256-257 of Albert Venn Dicey’s monumental 1905 volume, Lectures on the Relation Between Law & Public Opinion in England During the Nineteenth Century (original emphasis):

The beneficial effect of state intervention, especially in the form of legislation, is direct, immediate, and, so to speak, visible, whilst its evil effects are gradual and indirect, and lie out of sight.  If a law imposes a penalty on a shipowner who sends a vessel to sea before he has obtained a Board of Trade certificate of its seaworthiness, and it is probable that few ships will set out on their voyage without a certificate, and it is possible that, for the moment, the number of ships which go to sea unfit to meet a storm may be diminished.  These good results of State intervention are easily noticeable.  That the same law may make a shipowner, who has obtained a certificate, negligent in seeing that his ship is really seaworthy, and that the certificate will in practice bar any action for real negligence, are evil results of legislation which are indirect and escape notice.  Nor in this instance, or in similar cases, do most people keep in mind that State inspectors may be incompetent, careless, or even occasionally corrupt, and that public confidence in inspection, which must be imperfect, tends to make the very class of persons whom it is meant to protect negligent in taking due measures for their own protection; few are those who realize the undeniable truth that State help kills self-help.  Hence the majority of mankind must almost of necessity look with undue favour upon governmental intervention.  This natural bias can be counteracted only by the existence, in a given society, as in England between 1830 and 1860, of a presumption or prejudice in favour of individual liberty – that is, of laissez faire.

(Those of us steeped in modern law-and-economics scholarship can pick at some of details of the way Dicey used ship certification as his example of legislation that has both seen and unseen consequences.  But his larger point – and it is of the utmost importance – remains unaffected and true.)


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