But when I remember how many of my private schemes have miscarried; how speculations have failed, agents proved dishonest, marriage been a disappointment; how I did but pauperize the relative I sought to help; how my carefully-governed son has turned out worse than most children; how the thing I desperately strove against as a misfortune did me immense good; how while the objects I ardently pursued brought me little happiness when gained, most of my pleasures have come from unexpected sources; when I recall these and hosts of like facts, I am struck with the incompetence of my intellect to prescribe for society … I question the propriety of meddling.

—Herbert Spencer. Over-legislation, 1853.

Herbert Spencer’s experience in life is not unusual; everyone’s endeavors are generally thwarted by ill-conception. Generally speaking, if you find any person enjoying a modicum of success, then you will have found a person working to a formula. For the most part these formulae are ones tried and tested by millions who have gone before. This is why studying medicine, opening a store, getting a job, and going to university are all well-worn paths to success, while inventing a teleportation device or some other novel invention as a way to riches is so rare. This is the dreary reality of our existence; we are not all Thomas Edisons. Mind you, even Edison’s inventions were the result of endless trial and error, experimenting, not on the lives and fortunes of the entire country, but on a few worthless materials in his lab. Legislators are not made of different clay from the rest of humanity. So it is their extreme conceit to imagine that their meddling with the lives and fortunes of so many is justified by the prospects of success.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove