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We shall see, if we open histories, that laws, which[118] are or ought to be covenants between free men, have generally been nothing but the instrument of the passions of some few men, or the result of some accidental and temporary necessity. They have never been dictated by an unimpassioned student of human nature, able to concentrate the actions of a multitude of men to a single point of view, and to consider them from that point alonethe greatest happiness divided among the greatest number. Happy are those few nations which have not waited for the slow movement of human combinations and changes to cause an approach to better things, after intolerable evils, but have hastened the intermediate steps by good laws; and deserving is that philosopher of the gratitude of mankind, who had the courage, from the obscurity of his despised study, to scatter abroad among the people the first seeds, so long fruitless, of useful truths.

It is against crimes affecting the person that punishments are most desirable and their vindictive character most justly displayed. Personal violence calls for personal detention or personal chastisement;[102] and the principle of analogy in punishment is most appropriate in the case of a man who maltreats his wife or abuses his strength against any weakness greater than his own. Punishment in such cases is a demand of natural justice, whether anyone is affected by the example or not, and whether or not the man himself is improved by it. Not only is it the best means of enforcing that personal security which is one of the main functions of the State, but it is an expression of that sense of moral reprobation which is so necessary to the good order of society.

A contradiction between the laws and the natural feelings of mankind arises from the oaths which are required of an accused, to the effect that he will be a truthful man when it is his greatest interest to be false; as if a man could really swear to contribute to his own destruction, or as if religion would not be silent with most men when their interest spoke on the other side. The experience of all ages has shown that men have abused religion more than any other of the precious gifts of heaven; and for what reason should criminals respect it, when men esteemed as the wisest have often violated it? Too weak, because too far removed from the senses, are[147] for the mass of people the motives which religion opposes to the tumult of fear and the love of life. The affairs of heaven are conducted by laws absolutely different from those which govern human affairs; so why compromise those by these? Why place men in the terrible dilemma of either sinning against God or concurring in their own ruin? The law, in fact, which enforces such an oath commands a man either to be a bad Christian or to be a martyr. The oath becomes gradually a mere formality, thus destroying the force of religious feelings, which for the majority of men are the only pledge of their honesty. How useless oaths are has been shown by experience, for every judge will bear me out when I say that no oath has ever yet made any criminal speak the truth; and the same thing is shown by reason, which declares all laws to be useless, and consequently injurious, which are opposed to the natural sentiments of man. Such laws incur the same fate as dams placed directly in the main stream of a river: either they are immediately thrown down and overwhelmed, or a whirlpool formed by themselves corrodes and undermines them imperceptibly. Since, therefore, there is more to fear from a punished than from an unpunished criminal, there is the less reason to regret the general impunity of crime. There is indeed a large class of crimes for the prevention of which more would be done, by leaving them to their natural consequences, and to the strong power against them which the general interests and moral feelings of mankind will always enforce, than by actual punishment. It is particularly crimes of dishonesty which are best punished by the mere fact of their discovery. By the Norwegian law if an offender holds any official place he is punished, not by fine or imprisonment, but by the loss of his office and all the privileges connected with it.[59] And if we imagine a country without any legal penalty at all for theft or dishonesty, thieves and their tribe would soon find their proper punishment, by that process of social shifting, which would drive them to the most deleterious or dangerous occupations of life even more effectually than it so drives them at present. The less dependence is placed on the penal sanctions of crime, the stronger do the moral restraints from it become. There seem to be three principal reasons why, under our present system, crime still keeps its general level, irrespective of all changes in our degrees of punishment.

Injuries that are personal and affect a mans honourthat is, the fair share of favour that he has a right to expect from othersshould be punished with disgrace.

The object, therefore, of this chapter is chiefly[70] negative, being none other than to raise such mistrust of mere custom, and so strong a sense of doubt, by the contradictions apparent in existing laws and theories, that the difficulties of their solution may tempt to some investigation of the principles on which they rest.

The other book was from a man whom above all others our forefathers delighted to honour. This was Archdeacon Paley, who in 1785 published his Moral and Political Philosophy, and dedicated it to the then Bishop of Carlisle. Nor is this fact of the dedication immaterial, for the said Bishop was the father of the future Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough, who enjoys the melancholy fame of having been the inveterate and successful opponent of nearly every movement made in his time, in favour of the mitigation of our penal laws. The chapter on Crimes and Punishments in Paley and the speeches of Lord Ellenborough on the subject in the House of Lords are, in point of fact, the same thing; so that Paleys chapter is of distinct historical importance, as the[55] chief cause of the obstruction of reform, and as the best expression of the philosophy of his day. If other countries adopted Beccarias principles more quickly than our own, it was simply that those principles found no opponents anywhere equal to Archdeacon Paley and his pupil, Lord Ellenborough.

There is also a fourth consequence of the above principles: that the right to interpret penal laws cannot possibly rest with the criminal judges, for the[126] very reason that they are not legislators. The judges have not received the laws from our ancestors as a family tradition, as a legacy that only left to posterity the duty of obeying them, but they receive them from living society, or from the sovereign that represents it and is the lawful trustee of the actual result of mens collective wills; they receive them, not as obligations arising from an ancient oath[65] (null, because it bound wills not then in existence, and iniquitous, because it reduced men from a state of society to that of a flock), but as the result of the tacit or expressed oath made to the sovereign by the united wills of living subjects, as chains necessary for curbing and regulating the disorders caused by private interests. This is the natural and real source of the authority of the laws.

It is well known that Lord Tenterden refused ever to sit again in the House of Lords if the Reform Bill became law, and that he predicted that that measure would amount to the political extinction of the Upper House. As regards the history of our criminal law Lord Tenterden was right, for the period of long pauses had passed away, and rapid changes were made with but short intervals of breathing-time. From the year the Reform Bill passed the school of Beccaria and Bentham achieved rapid successes in England. In 1832 it ceased to be capital to steal a horse or a sheep, in 1833 to break into a house, in 1834 to return prematurely from transportation, in 1835 to commit sacrilege or to steal a letter. But[67] even till 1837 there were still 37 capital offences on the statute-book; and now there are only two, murder and treason. Hanging in chains was abolished in 1834; the pillory was wholly abolished in 1837; and the same year Ewart, after many years struggle, obtained for prisoners on trial for felony the right (still merely a nominal one)[39] of being defended by counsel.

Thefts without violence should be punished by fine. He who enriches himself at anothers expense ought to suffer at his own. But, as theft is generally only the crime of wretchedness and despair, the crime of that unhappy portion of mankind to whom the right of property (a terrible, and perhaps not necessary right[67]) has left but a bare subsistence; and as pecuniary penalties increase the number of criminals above the number of crimes, depriving the innocent of their bread in order to give it to the wicked, the fittest punishment will be that kind of servitude which[214] alone can be called just, namely, the temporary servitude of a mans labour and person for the compensation of society, the personal and absolute dependence due from a man who has essayed to exercise an unjust superiority over the social compact. But when the theft is accompanied with violence, the punishment also should be a combination of corporal and servile punishment. Some previous writers have shown the evident abuse that arises from not distinguishing punishments for thefts of violence from those for thefts of cunning, thus making an absurd equation between a large sum of money and the life of a man. For they are crimes of a different nature; and in politics, as in mathematics, this axiom is most certain, that between heterogeneous quantities the terms of difference are infinite; but it is never superfluous to repeat what has hardly ever been put into practice. Political machinery more than anything else retains the motion originally given to it, and is the slowest to adapt itself to a fresh one.