You put a duty on paper, and by-and-by find that … you have inadvertently taxed figured silk, sometimes to the extent of several shillings per piece. On removing the impost from bricks, you discover that its existence had increased the dangers of mining, by preventing shafts from being lined and workings from being tunnelled. By the excise on soap, you have, it turns out, greatly encouraged the use of caustic washing-powders; and so have unintentionally entailed an immense destruction of clothes. In every case you perceive, on careful inquiry, that besides acting upon that which you sought to act upon, you have acted upon many other things, and each of these again on many others; and so have propagated a multitude of changes in all directions … legislators have continually caused collateral evils they never looked for … Though their production is explicable enough after it has occurred, it is never anticipated.

—Herbert Spencer. Over-legislation, 1853.

Although legislators do not see the remote consequences of their meddling, the problem is not a lack of foresight but lack of principle. Just as a liar’s problem is not insufficient foresight in constructing his tangled web, but rather a failure to adhere to honesty as the best policy. Legislators must stick to providing a legal framework and avoid meddling.

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