The Proper Limitations of State Interference
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The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 6 Mar 1924, p. 109-124


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Leacock, Prof. Stephen, Speaker
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The speaker's statement of Canada's ills at the present time: that we are in danger of overgovernment; that we are suffering from the too-great extension of the functions of the State; that it is doing already great harm to our economic life, and threatening greater still; doing a great deal to undermine the sounder principles of morality and self-reliance, and doing much to imperil the older and sterner spirit of British liberty on which our commonwealth was founded. Turning back for a moment to the pages of history to consider the period of the opening of the modern industrial era, about a century ago. Advocating a return to the principle of every man for himself, a return to a measure of greater freedom, and reasons why. A review of those evil days of unrestrained competition and what they have taught us. The principles of the Factory Acts. Progress in the final assertion that the right of property must always be limited by the anterior right of one's fellow-men. The question remaining as to how far that regulation is going to extend, and where justice begins and ends, and where a proper and legitimate conception of what is one's own property must meet with a valid conception of the things that concern the State. The legacy of hatred against capitalism brought down from that era, along with the haunting vision of socialism. The dignity of that vision; the impossibility of that vision. Socialism as a thing that will not and cannot work, and reasons for it. Finding our direction towards the organization of an attempted socialism, or back towards the sterner, sounder, harder ground of individual effort. New times for labour; in what direction is it going to expend its power. Facing this problem of which way society is moving. The duty of everybody who knows anything of the truth about Russia to speak out. The need to get back to a sane capitalism, and how and why that is so. Problems of taxation. The need for British capital. The dangers of accepting American capital. The St. Lawrence project as an example. The attempt to regulate the moral conduct and the private life of individuals as another aspect of the interference of the State, with discussion. The issue of freedom of speech.
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6 Mar 1924
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English
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THE PROPER LIMITATIONS OF STATE INTERFERENCE AN ADDRESS BY PROF. STEPHEN LEACOCK, B.A., PH.D., MCGILL UNIVERSITY, MONTREAL. Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, March 6th, 1924.

PRESIDENT BROOKS introduced the speaker, who was received with applause.

PROF. STEPHEN LEACOCK.

Mr. Chairman, and Members of the Empire Club,--What I am going to say, Sir, will give offence, I trust, to many present--otherwise it would not be worth saying to such a large gathering as this. It is too often the fate of associations such as this that the speaker spreads before them an after-dinner banquet of platitudes, offending nobody and pleasing few. My task is different. I am to speak on a controversial subject in which I cannot hope to agree with all of you, but I know that you will give me at least that respectful sympathy which you always extend to the people who come from our spacious and hospitable Province of Quebec. And therefore, for greater certainty, I think it wiser to say to you in a few words the substance of what I have to say.

Stephen Leacock was born in England and came to Canada in 1876. He was educated at Upper Canada College, University of Toronto (B.A., 1891), and Chicago University (Ph. D., 1903). He is professor of Political Economy in McGill University, Montreal. He is the author of books on political science, and articles on historical topics and has contributed humorous and satirical sketches to many journals. British and American journals acclaim him as a great humorist, but he is more than a humorist. He has opinions on economic problems and on the functions of governments and expresses these with frankness and courage.

I will give you my whole wit in a word; and it is to try and establish this--that at the present age and in the present country we are in danger of over-government; that we are suffering from the too-great extension of the functions of the State; that it is doing already great harm to our economic life, and threatening greater still; doing a great deal to undermine the sounder principles of morality and self-reliance, and doing much to imperil the older and sterner spirit of British liberty on which our commonwealth was founded.

I am saying we are suffering too much from the extension of State activity, from a well-meaning notion that the State is to lead us all, and that we all must follow and take our pattern from it. The common man no doubt expects this kind of doctrine, and follows along with the crowd. He is willing to live the kind of life that other people impose upon him; a life that is dictated by other people's example and circumscribed by collective legislation. So that you find that such a man has no higher aim now than to shout along with the crowd, to look to collective guidance for his own morals, and to take his ideas of family affection from a silly thing called a legislative Mothers' Day. Under such a new and foolish method of collective activity a man proposes to remind himself of his mother's character by Act of Parliament, and to take also his whole patriotism and enthusiasm from some kind of collective bleating of a luncheon club.

If, then, this is our theme, let us turn back for a moment to the pages of history, let us consider the period of the opening of the modern industrial era, about a century ago. During this period the current tendency of society was exactly in the other direction. The danger that threatened was not a too great interference of the State but the too great liberty of the individual. Such action and reaction comes and goes. The tide ebbs and flows; and if we look back to the full flowing of that tide a hundred years ago, in the days of the first beginnings of industrial England, we find that the whole danger then was from too much unrestrained individual liberty, too much reliance upon the principle of private ownership and free competition, a false conception of freedom which meant that the freedom of the few was destined to be the slavery of the many.

Now if I am here advocating a return to the principle of every man for himself, a return to a measure of greater freedom, I say it as one who has studied history and is fully aware of those melancholy pages in the past. You do not need to remind me of how grievous were the sorrows of the English workers under unrestrained free competition when the employer had nothing to fear from the full scope of what is called a "free" contract, and when the workers were rapidly degenerating into slaves. Anybody who has read our history knows that there are no sadder pages in our annals than those that are blotted with the tears of the children of the English factories. There is no man whose conception of freedom should make him willing to bring back those evil and already half-forgotten days. I would indeed that we could forget them forever, and that the shame of unrestrained free competition and all that it meant to the working class could be blotted once and for ever from the industrial history of our Mother Country.

For that was a time when the rich grew richer and richer, and the poor grew poorer and poorer; when labour was bitter and hard; when little children began with their tenderest years a life work of unremitting toil; when young lives that might have blossomed in the sunlight faded and perished in the gloom of the factory and the darkness of the mine. Those were evil days, and they brought with them, alas, a kind of accumulated bitterness against "capital," an accumulated bitterness of those who were employed against those who employed them, which lingers still even in our time. If we have not yet been able to strike a happy medium between freedom and restraint, between open competition and State regulation, it is partly because of that historic bitterness that haunts those j earlier pages of our history.

I say then that a too great liberty brought about this conflict, obscured the fact that after all there is only one principle yet discovered upon which industrial society can rest-the principle of "every man for himself;" and that is the principle which we have fearlessly to reassert in our industrial life. It sounds like brutal selfishness. It sounds like the worst of callousness; but I tell you, Gentlemen, that there is no other fundamental motive that can animate our economic life than the principle that each one stands and must stand for himself, and must work out his own salvation or his own damnation. We may modify it as we like--we may invoke the action of the State to make the conditions fair; but do not let us think that the action of the State can ever take the place of the free prompting of individual effort, the free and noble struggle to advance oneself in the world. I call that by that name--a noble struggle--for there is too much misunderstanding on that point. We are beginning to admire the lazy loafer who will not work, the man who would rather live upon a dole than make an effort to save himself; and we are beginning to look with suspicion on anything that seems to spell effort and success; and there, I tell you, we are wrong. (Applause)

Now let me admit to the full that those evil days of unrestrained competition have taught us that the State has a certain legitimate regulative function. There is nobody now who would turn his back on the principle of the Factory Acts. There is nobody now who would take the obstinate individual point of view of such men as Cobden and Bright. Adored as they were in one respect as apostles of what seemed to them the gospel of free trade, at the same time they were men of their period-mill-owners who did not propose to let the law interfere with the time and hours and conditions of what they called their own property.

Sir, we have changed all that. Each and every one of us admits the right of obtrusive interference there. That is a permanent achievement of the human race. That is a milestone of progress, the final assertion that the right of property must always be limited by the anterior right of one's fellowmen. But when we have said all that, the question remains as to how far that regulation is going to extend, and where justice begins and ends, and where a proper and legitimate conception of what is one's own property must meet with a valid conception of the things that concern the State.

Now, from that era there was brought down not merely a legacy of hatred against capitalism, but another thing was brought down from it--the haunting vision of socialism. I do not know that anything nobler ever came into our history than that vision. I do not know that there is any conception in the world today as noble as the ideal of socialism; that pictured vision as of a second advent which the apostle of socialism sees when he looks towards the dawn in the East; that time to come when none shall work for himself, but each for all, when there shall be no rich and no poor, no hardship and no oppression; when each and every one will share in the glory of a common heritage. Sir, if that were possible, what better could any one ask for mankind? And when I see a man whose socialism means that, when I see a man whose socialism is a burning creed of religion within him, then I am prepared to respect him, and I am not one of those who would impose the clamp of the law on the mouth of a man merely because he uses the words socialist and socialism. If the truth is in him let him talk. The only remedy for finding out the truth is to let people talk. There is an old Scotch maxim-"They say; what say they? Let them say;" and there is no better vantage ground for truth than in the open forum of free controversy.

But the more you talk about socialism, the more the vision fades upon your sight. There is but one objection to it, which is pathetic in its completeness--it is a thing that will not and cannot work. Men being as they are, and the world being as it is, you can form no commonwealth on such a basis, for we are not brothers yet. We are not even brotherly nations, let alone brotherly individuals; and underneath each of us are the teeth and claws of the rapacious animal that will have its own; and any scheme or system that is founded on a brotherly love that does not exist can only lead us into chaos, can only lead us into a system of Russian communism, can only lead us to feed on the dead corpse of what we have taken two thousand years to construct.

It is fair that we should face this issue. Which way are we going? Towards the organization of an attempted socialism, towards that will-of-the-wisp of the marshes leading us to where we perish, or back towards the sounder, sterner, harder ground of individual effort? That is the choice that we have to make. That is the great question--the question especially for every leader of society and labour leader to think out for himself, and ask what is it that he means. Is he going to break away from the principle of private ownership? Does he want to extend State activity and State ownership until it swallows all society? What is his aim? He must face the issue fairly. These are new times for labour. These are not the old dark days when organized labour was under the ban of conspiracy. These are no longer the days when the prison awaited anything like an attempt at the organization of labour. Those days are gone. Labour now stands omnipotent as far as the democratic vote can make it so; and labour has to think out what it is going to do with its strength? In what direction is it going to expend its power? Is the labour movement to be an experiment in socialism, or merely a safe and sane return to a proper individualism?

I take that, Sir, to be the great problem which faces not our country alone but all the industrial countries of the world; and it is a fact that such problems as this are obscured in every country by particular issues. Few people seem to care to face the thing as a broad general proposition. Few people, perhaps, have the opportunity. Their own immediate interest looms so large before them that they will not ask, Which way is society moving? In my opinion we are moving towards socialism. We are moving through the mist; nearer and nearer with every bit of government ownership and governmental regulation, nearer and nearer through the mist to the edge of the abyss over which our civilization may be precipitated to its final catastrophe. Over such an abyss has the civilization of Russia been precipitated. It is the duty of everybody who knows anything of the truth about Russia to speak out. A kind of mirage is over it, due to the distance of 5,000 miles--a mirage behind which we are told to see a happy, rejuvenated country; and a mirage that hides beneath its shade the uncounted corpses of Petrograd; a mirage which conceals from our sight the horrors and catastrophes which communism has meant there, and beckons with a false allurement towards an example from which a nearer vision would make us retreat in horror. Sweep that cloud away, and we can see more clearly and know what is to be the future fate of our own continent; and I tell you, Sir, there is nothing that can make it straight but public opinion--not of politicians, who are only the mouthpieces of opinions framed elsewhere-but the opinion formed in gatherings such as this, among men such as you, where the collective influence can be found which will dictate the policy of the future.

What I am saying, then, if I might put it in simple, almost prosy, business-like speech, is this--that we need to get back to a sane capitalism. The "capitalist" is not such a dreadful sinner as some people think. We have called him so many hard names, we have labelled him with such a lot of epithets, that the poor fellow scarcely shows his face. We have got him almost taxed to extinction, and we turn the screw further and further with every annual budget. We have got him to the point now where the best he can do is to hide his wealth and keep himself in the shade, crying out, if he can, "I, too, am poor!"

There is no country in the world where we need to get away from that more than in Canada. What we need here is capital. The alpha and omega of our present situation is the need of capital. Either we have great assets in this country or we have not. If we have not, then nothing matters; we are all here under a misunderstanding. But if we have assets, then the need of the day is the development of our assets, and for that we must have capital. That is the secret to it--not immigration; the immigrants will follow the capital. Bring in all the available capital that we can from all over the world, and especially from the British Empire, and let the test of the enterprise be that the individual shall see his profit in it; not that the Government shall be allowed to put more and more and more money, to go deeper and deeper in a morass, to pile up fixed charges greater and greater, until the sheer weight of the burden breaks us down. Not that, but a fair and open opportunity for anybody in the world-in the British world--who has money to send to us to build up our country and make for himself a handsome and an honourable fortune. (Applause)

I belong to a University, the freest and best in all the world,--that owes its initiation, its continued existence, and all that it is, to the munificence of the grateful capitalists of Canada, to those who came here as poor men, such as old James McGill, and found their fortune in this country, and who then saw to it that when they left this earthly scene, some nobler memorial was made to their memory than a mere inheritance tax return. I say that we need capital here, and we don't need to be afraid to take every possible fair and legitimate step to bring it here--and above all, British capital. (Hear, hear, and applause)

I am aware that we are getting here on doubtful ground,--at least for some of you, but not for me. I am sure of what I say. We need British capital. (Hear, hear) There are projects that are mooted now that depend on money that is to be given us by the people of the United States. There is one splendid and vast project, appealing in its outline, for turning the St. Lawrence River into a still greater highway, the greatest perhaps in all the world; and in the hurry to have that done some of our citizens are turning eager eyes towards the capital of the United States, and they propose to carry out the St. Lawrence waterways project by letting half of it be done by American money, and thereby giving them half the control of it forever.

Now, Sir, I say that, outside of our own British relations, we have no better friends than the people of the American Republic. On our continued friendship with them hangs the safety of the world. That is not exaggeration; that is plain truth. (Applause) Those of you who go among them as I do, know that their institutions are so closely allied to ours, their life is so similar to ours, their ideals so closely in sympathy with ours, that it would be an unspeakable crime against humanity itself if ever there could be an armed conflict between these two great countries. (Applause) But I tell you, Sir, that the way to lay the first steps towards such a conflict, the way to begin to strain those relations that have stood the test of a hundred years, is to introduce such a tangled and dubious relationship as an American partial control of what is now our own waterway. Sooner than that, Sir, let it wait. The world will live long after us., and Canada will long survive those to whom I speak now. But the monument that we build, the legacy that we leave--that will survive; and let it not be said of our generation that in our eager haste to make money and still more money we sold our own country for the making of it. (Applause)

I am not prepared to say whether that St. Lawrence project is economically sound or not. I do not know. The best of us dispute over that question. You people here in Toronto, looking at it from your point of view, are apt to think it a wonderful thing. We in Montreal are a little doubtful. But judgments such as those, Sir, mere superficial opinions of the crowd, may only mean that we each see the length of our own nose, and as our nose at Montreal is already in the St. Lawrence, we don't need to look any further.

My idea of it is that whether that project is to be taken up or not, whether we are to make the St. Lawrence an ocean highway or not, we should at least do it with British capital or not do it all all. If the thing is ever done, let it stand as another memorial to the unity of the British people. I would sooner wait till Niagara Falls run dry, till the sea-beach covers Toronto again, as it once did, till there is nothing left of Canada but Mount Royal and McGill University on the side of it, rather than imperil the true way of solving that and every other British problem.

That is that, as we say in England.

But I should like to say a few words on another aspect of the interference of the State, and that is the attempt to regulate the moral conduct and the private life of the individual. Let me repeat that I am not indulging in any attack upon any particular persons or any particular code of law. I am aiming higher than that, and I am talking of what has come to be, all over America, to my mind, a new aberration of the State-the notion that the State can make us good, that the State can make us moral, and that the moral good that we cannot achieve by our own effort can be beaten and kicked into us by the gratuitous activity of the State.

Sir, morality was never laid upon that basis. That is not the morality on which our Christian religion was founded. There was no whip and scourge to promulgate the teaching of Jesus Christ; but there are some people who have grown so anxious for morality, to sweep away everything that they think wrong, that they have no time for the working of the spirit, no time for the inner light, no time for the kind of persuasion that spread Christianity through an unwilling world. They want a quicker, a more brutal method than that; the method of torment, of punishment, the method of legislative regulation which says, "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not." And for the basis of such regulation there is to be the simple will of a majority. What we are to do in our own private life is to be dictated this year that way, the other year that other way, according to the 51 people that outvote the rest of every 100. Those who founded democracy could have looked for no such absurdity as that. Those who founded our Democracy cherished in their hearts the notion that John Stuart Mill has so finely expressed--that there is and must remain some corner of private life, some sphere in which the individual rules himself, and in which his soul is all his own. Peony of an earlier day did not look upon it as a part of government to make us moral by Act of Parliament, moral by legislative statute. They had another ideal then-that if we are to be good people, our goodness must be from within, and when laws are kept only on compulsion--or, worse still, when they are only partially kept, at least, and broken when they can be broken, such a law is counter to the fundamental spirit of society.

Our democracy in America has been learning to make itself the newest form of tyranny. It has obtruded where kings never dared step. It has inflicted its pains and penalties, and laid down its code in spheres of human life where the grossest tyrant of the Middle Ages stayed his hand. Let that, go further, and see where it will lead. What a poor, docile set of slaves we shall be again in the Socialistic state, with every phase of our conduct regulated by the law! What, think you, is there in that of true morality? What, Sir, is that but the morality of the penitentiary?

That kind of legislation, that kind of regulation, can never effect the aim at which it strives, can never reach the goal that it sets before itself, for it starts from the wrong premise-the premise that it is in the power of society to whip and beat the individual into moral goodness; and forever such an attempt is bound to fail. All that there is of human worth was not based on that; it came from the human soul, from deeper promptings than those that can be inspired from an intrusive Act of Parliament.

But I turn, in conclusion, to one other aspect of our general theme which, in a way, embraces every other within it-the freedom of speech. There is a thing that we are in danger of losing-the freedom of speech; that kind of instinctive possession of the British people which made them what they were; that sense of fair play; that feeling that every man has a right to his opinion, however silly his views may be; the sacred right to say it, unimpeded by the law. We are substituting now a kind of collective repression partly by law and partly by fear, that obtrudes itself everywhere, that will not let a man speak out and say what he thinks; and in that we are doing an infinite harm.

I am not speaking here of war-time, for there repression must rule. The laws must sleep, said Goldwin Smith, when the Nation is fighting for its life. But we have been carrying the code of war-time into the time of peace. We have been supressing, and legislating, and preventing, until we are getting a new code--the code of the timorous and fearful, that are afraid of words and shadows; a code that will imprison a man for calling himself a Communist or Socialist. If he wishes, let him call himself by those names. What harm can it be? If it is truth it would be only right, and if it is falsehood let him speak it out and let it wither upon his lips. We axe come to an age when men are losing their first birthright as British citizens, when they will not say what they think, like it who will and be damned to them.

I am thinking here particularly of our general attitude towards all such people as Bolshevists, Communists, Revolutionaries, Socialists. We are getting now so that we want to put them all in jail at once without hearing what they have got to say.

Now, let me say what I think on that. I think that the older system, the truly British system, was good-that as long as a man was merely talking generalities against no one in particular or assignable, not openly inciting to rebellion, then let him talk. Let him call himself an Anarchist if he wants to--the more fool he. Let him condemn himself out of his own mouth; but once you start with a rigorous censorship and oppressive legislation prohibiting the words, Free Communist and Anarchist, you will turn revolution into martyrdom; and martyrdom is the most successful thing that ever the world has known. There is nothing that will spread abroad anything, true or false, like the flames of martyrdom, because if the people whom you martyrize have the hardihood to stand the punishment that you impose, you only turn society against the truth and make their martyrdom the very instrument of error.

There is only one thing that will do away with error, and that is the open sunlight of publicity, of British free speech, the open sunlight of discussion, open ridicule if you like, but free discussion of everything. And there is no place where that kind of freedom is more threatened on this continent than in the colleges. A notion is going abroad that the colleges must be dedicated especially to certain pious creeds, to certain economic beliefs; that the colleges must always speak in a hushed tone for fear the working class should hear them. Now, the only result of that is to create a division in the mind 'of the public. I admit there are certain limits in regard to that teaching. No man who has a chair as a professor has a right to become an open propagandist of a crusade inside his class-room; but he has the right, the ordinary common right, outside his classroom to advocate anything that he likes, provided he does not break the law of conspiracy. He has the right to hold any creed that he likes, or no creed if he prefers. He has that right to freedom, and the more you try to take it away from him the more you cut down the progress of education at the root.

Sir, I feel that in coming here I could have found no more truly sympathetic audience, than the one before me. Your Club has an honoured designation. There is no name that has behind it a grander history of fair play and free speech than your name, the Empire Club. There is no name that ought to be higher in example to those who have the honour to belong to this Association. There is no name that could make a speaker wish that he might worthily address you, more than that name that you bear; and I appeal to you by that name today, I appeal to the Members of the Club--whether or not they may agree with what I have said in particular things--to extend to me at least that freedom and fairness that has everywhere been the glory of the British people. (Great applause)

SIR ROBERT FALCONER, in conveying the hearty thanks of the Club to the speaker for his wonderful address, said he was sure Professor Leacock need not fear that in coming to Toronto and addressing this Club he was stepping on dangerous ground, for whether his hearers agreed or not with the views of the speaker they certainly welcomed his very fine presentation of his theme. For himself, Sir Robert said he had rarely listened to such an outspoken and clear expression of the fundamental British virtue of freedom as it has come down to us; and he believed that what Professor Leacock had said as to the necessity in this country of realizing our individuality through the widest possible freedom would go home to the hearts of all as Canadians. Canada could not stand where she is today were it not that we believed that no advance was possible except so far as the individual rose to his opportunity and fulfilled his duty, whether as a citizen, or in uttering his opinions as they had been uttered today, or in the university class-room, or wherever it might be. That attitude was fundamentally Christion, as was a great deal of what Professor Leacock had said. What we must demand is that the world and Canada must remove obstructions to the realization of the individual by the freedom it must exercise. As Canadians and British citizens we must ask ourselves how far it was possible to go in each particular instance, in educational institutions and through legislation, to enable the individual to rise to his freedom in a Christian society; that was the whole point of the address, to his mind. While there might have been some differences of opinion, both speaker and hearers respected each other, and he was sure all agreed with the professor's expression that no progress can be possible unless in each decade we rise and realize more fully the growth of freedom in all its breadth and implications. The Kingdom of God would be realized on earth as each individual rose as a man and citizen to claim his right to serve his God by fulfilling his duty in his own place.

The audience rose and gave three cheers for the speaker of the day.

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The Proper Limitations of State Interference


The speaker's statement of Canada's ills at the present time: that we are in danger of overgovernment; that we are suffering from the too-great extension of the functions of the State; that it is doing already great harm to our economic life, and threatening greater still; doing a great deal to undermine the sounder principles of morality and self-reliance, and doing much to imperil the older and sterner spirit of British liberty on which our commonwealth was founded. Turning back for a moment to the pages of history to consider the period of the opening of the modern industrial era, about a century ago. Advocating a return to the principle of every man for himself, a return to a measure of greater freedom, and reasons why. A review of those evil days of unrestrained competition and what they have taught us. The principles of the Factory Acts. Progress in the final assertion that the right of property must always be limited by the anterior right of one's fellow-men. The question remaining as to how far that regulation is going to extend, and where justice begins and ends, and where a proper and legitimate conception of what is one's own property must meet with a valid conception of the things that concern the State. The legacy of hatred against capitalism brought down from that era, along with the haunting vision of socialism. The dignity of that vision; the impossibility of that vision. Socialism as a thing that will not and cannot work, and reasons for it. Finding our direction towards the organization of an attempted socialism, or back towards the sterner, sounder, harder ground of individual effort. New times for labour; in what direction is it going to expend its power. Facing this problem of which way society is moving. The duty of everybody who knows anything of the truth about Russia to speak out. The need to get back to a sane capitalism, and how and why that is so. Problems of taxation. The need for British capital. The dangers of accepting American capital. The St. Lawrence project as an example. The attempt to regulate the moral conduct and the private life of individuals as another aspect of the interference of the State, with discussion. The issue of freedom of speech.