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IN FAVOUR OF THE PRACTICABILITY OF
THE ABLE-BODIED POOR,
BY FINDING EMPLOYMENT FOR THEM;
THE BENEFICIAL CONSEQUENCES OF SUCH EMPLOYMENT,
BOTH TO THE
MORALS OF THE POOR,
TO THE COMMITTEE ON THE POOR LAWS.
BY SIR EGERTON BRYDGES, BART. M. P.
A MEMBER OF THE COMMITTEE.
THE same assumptions, which afford arguments tending to prove the difficulties in the way of a remedy to the present operation of the Poor Laws, add to the alarm and despondence with which they are fraught, by involving in them the necessary reflection, that, if true, our general welfare, the prosperity of our agriculture, of our trade, and of our finances, has to combat with at least equal obstacles. The same principles apply to both; and if well founded in one case, it seems to me impossible to refuse assent to their operation in the other.
"It is therefore with a most earnest anxiety, even far beyond what the pressing and portentous subject of the Poor Laws could have inflicted on me, that I have been for many days tasking the best powers of my mind to this deep and extensive inquiry. For the sake of simplicity, for the sake of that freedom from prejudices, which in the search of Truth it was desirable on so momentous an occasion to attain, I sirable prejudices, have kept the workings of my mind unmixed with the theories of others. I have not consulted a single printed book or pamphlet on the subject: and though formerly not unread in the volumes of Adam Smith, and of other men eminent in the science of Political Economy, their theories have so far melted away from my memory in the process of this investigation, that, at the present moment
I can form no guess how far I am supported or contradicted by their doctrines.
My opinions seem to me (perhaps delusively) to stand on the rock of common sense and experience. And I conceive that I should have acted with great impertinence on this occasion, if I had only repeated what I had copied from others, and which might already be much better consulted in their own original language. If I differ from them, my arguments, even though they should be finally condemned as erroneous, will probably be at least thought worthy of consideration. If I coincide with them, the arrival at the same results by a different process will be a strong confirmation of their justness.
The extraordinary phænomena of the present crisis are such as Adam Smith could little foresee: and the wonderful confusion of ideas which betrayed itself on subjects of this nature, so late as the discussions on the Corn bill in 1814 and 1815, proves that these things are yet little understood, and will bear further elucidation.
The result of this Inquiry has been, to set my own mind at perfect ease: for it has confirmed me, even to conviction, in the opinion entertained by me at the outset, that those portentous assumptions, which so strongly arrested my consideration, are founded in complicated error; that none of the obstacles to the simple and practical remedy for the mischiefs of the Poor Laws exist: and that, for the same reasons, none of the gloomy predictions for the future. prosperity of the State, in its wealth and finances, have any just foundation.
As long as the principle and basis of the present fabric of the Poor Laws remained unquestioned by the Government, all that an individual could hope to do towards ameliorating the condition of those for whom it was instituted, was to propose an amendment of some of the minor defects in its
machinery, which time or accident, or inadvertence, had caused. For this purpose, I have for several Sessions attempted several small alterations, which I yet believe would have somewhat corrected the existing System.
As Government has taken up that, which nothing less than the cooperation of Government could give effect to Mr. Curwen's motion to investigate the whole System, with a view to remodel and rebuild the whole-a line of argument and series of suggestions of a very different nature has become proper.
I mention this, that what I now propose may not seem inconsistent with my former efforts. At the same time I cannot but be fully sensible how much light of the most valuable kind has been thrown upon this subject by the collision of able and well-informed minds in the Committee: and that much of this train of argument, and many of these suggestions, would never have occurred to me, but for the inquiries and reflections which the discussions of that Committee forced upon me.
When I heard Mr. Gilbert's powerful exposition of the fatal and ruinous operation of the present System on the morals and happiness of the Poor, which it was impossible not to admit in its full extent; and yet felt an unqualified conviction, that funds equal to those on which the Poor had been so long accustomed to rely, could not be withdrawn, or even diminished except very slowly, without privations and sufferings too great to be hazarded; my mind was oppressed by difficulties attached to the subject, which it required some strenuous pains to overcome. At length I found how Mr. Curwen's plan of contribution to the Rates, a little altered in some of its details, might be made to produce all the good desired, free from the counterbalancing evil which threatened it; and while it should relieve the Poor, and restore their morals, should at once lighten and
almost extinguish the burden on the shoulders of those on whom it now so partially and heavily falls, and incalculably increase the wealth and strength of the State.
Nor can I refrain from drawing the notice, in this place, to one other advantage incidental to the scheme of maki the Poor main contributors to the funds for their own support. It would nearly, if not wholly, remove the difficulty of effectually altering the present law of Settlements, which causes such grievous hardships to Paupers, and such expensive litigations to Parishes.