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Fata Morgana

One could write a 10,000 page encyclopedia illustrating the unintended consequences of seemingly thoughtful actions on the part of individuals and governments. This one stands out in particular for me. It is from Herbert Spencer’s classic work, Social Statics:

Those too were admirable motives, and very cogent reasons, which led our government to establish an armed force on the coast of Africa for the suppression of the slave trade. What could be more essential to the “greatest happiness” than the annihilation of the abominable traffic? And how could forty ships of war, supported by an expenditure of £700,000 a year, fail to wholly or partially accomplish this? The results have, however, been anything but satisfactory. When the abolitionists of England advocated it, they little thought that such a measure instead of preventing would only “aggravate the horrors, without sensibly mitigating the extent of the traffic;” that it would generate fast-sailing slavers with decks one foot six inches apart, suffocation from close packing, miserable diseases, and a mortality of thirty-five per cent. They dreamed not that when hard pressed a slaver might throw a whole cargo of 500 negroes into the sea; nor that on a blockaded coast the disappointed chiefs would, as at Gallinas, put to death 200 men and women, and stick their heads on poles, along shore, in sight of the squadron.

(Source: See Anti-Slavery Society’s Report for 1847; and Evidence before Parliamentary Committee, 1848)

Just a little later on comes my favorite passage of all, it reads like it was written last week:

But why cite individual cases? Does not the experience of all nations testify to the futility of these empirical attempts at the acquisition of happiness? What is the statute-book but a record of such unhappy guesses? or history but a narrative of their unsuccessful issues? And what forwarder are we now? Is not our government as busy still as though the work of law-making commenced but yesterday? Has it made any apparent progress toward a final settlement of social arrangements? Does it not rather each year entangle itself still further in the web of legislation, confounding the already heterogeneous mass of enactments into still greater confusion? Nearly every parliamentary proceeding is a tacit confession of incompetency. There is scarcely a bill introduced but is entitled “An Act to amend an Act.” The “Whereas” of almost every preamble heralds an account of the miscarriage of previous legislation. Alteration, explanation, and repeal, form the staple employment of every session. All our great agitations are for the abolition of institutions purporting to be for the public good. Witness those for the removal of the Test and Corporation Acts, for Catholic Emancipation, for the repeal of the Corn Laws; to which may now be added, that for the separation of Church and State. The history of one scheme is the history of all. First comes enactment, then probation, then failure; next an amendment and another failure; and, after many alternate tinkerings and abortive trials, arrives at length repeal, followed by the substitution of some fresh plan, doomed to run the same course, and share a like fate.

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