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OBSERVATIONS ON PARLIAMENTARY REFORM. - David Ricardo, The Works of David Ricardo (McCulloch ed.) 
The Works of David Ricardo. With a Notice of the Life and Writings of the Author, by J.R. McCulloch (London: John Murray, 1888).
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OBSERVATIONS ON PARLIAMENTARY REFORM.
The manuscript of the following Essay on Parliamentary Reform was given by Mr Ricardo, a short time before his death, to Mr M'Culloch. The latter, not thinking it right that so important a paper should be withheld from the public, printed it in the Scotsman of the 24th of April 1824.
OBSERVATIONS ON PARLIAMENTARY REFORM.
A monarch, or any other ruler, wishes to have no other check on his actions but his own will, and would, if he could, reign despotically, uncontrolled by any other power. In every country of the world, some check, more or less strong, exists on the will of the Sovereign, even in those Governments which are supposed to be the most despotic. In Turkey, and at Algiers, the people or the army rise up in insurrection, and frequently depose and strangle one tyrant, and elevate another in his place, who is checked in his career by a dread of the same species of violence.
The only difference, in this point, between the Governments of countries which are called free and those which are called arbitrary, is in the organization of this check, and in the facility and efficacy with which it is brought to bear upon the will of the Sovereign. In England, the monarch's authority is checked by the fear of resistance, and the power of organizing and calling forth this resistance is said to be in the aristocracy and the people, through the medium of the two Houses of Parliament.
It is undoubtedly true that the monarch would not long venture to oppose the opinion decidedly expressed by the House of Commons, and therefore he may be said to be checked and controlled by those who appoint the House of Commons. All great questions are decided in the House of Commons; the House of Lords seldom gives any opposition to important measures to which the other House has given its sanction. Nor, when the constitution of that House is considered, is such opposition necessary, for the House of Commons is not appointed by the people, but by the Peers and the wealthy aristocracy of the country. The really efficient power of Government is, then, in the hands of the wealthy aristocracy, subject, indeed, to an irregular influence which I shall presently explain. What is the consequence of this?—A compromise between the aristocracy and the monarchy; and all the power and influence which Government gives are divided between them. The monarch has the appointment to all places of trust and profit— to the ministry—to the army and navy—to the courts of law; he has also the power of appointing to many other lucrative situations, such as ambassadors, heads and subordinates of public offices, &c., &c. Notwithstanding this great power, his measures can be controlled by the House of Commons, and therefore, it is of importance to Government to get a majority in that House.
This is easily obtained by giving a portion of these lucrative places to those who have the choice of the majority of the House of Commons; accordingly, it is well known that no means are so effectual for obtaining situations of trust and profit from the Crown as the possession of parliamentary influence; and, as the appetite for lucrative places is insatiable, both in ministers and their followers, and the oligarchy and theirs, places are often created for the men, and others are frequently continued after they have become unnecessary, for the advantage solely of these favoured individuals. If, then, there were no other check on both these bodies, England would not have to boast of a better Government than what exists in those countries in which it is called despotic. But, happily, there is another check, and that a tolerably efficient one, which is with the people, and would not, without a violent struggle, be wrested from them. The check on this Government, which operates on behalf of the people, is the good sense and information of the people themselves, operating through the means of a free press, which controls not only the Sovereign and his ministers, but the aristocracy and the House of Commons, which is under its influence. This is the great safeguard of our liberties. Every transaction of the great functionaries of the State is, by means of the press, conveyed in two days to the extremities of the kingdom, and the alarm is sounded if any measure is adopted, or even proposed, which might in its tendency be hurtful to the community. This check, then, like others that we have been speaking of, resolves itself into the fear which Government and the aristocracy have of an insurrection of the people, by which their power might be overturned, and which alone keeps them within the bounds which now appear to arrest them. The press, amongst an enlightened and well-informed people, is a powerful instrument to prevent misrule, because it can quickly organise a formidable opposition to any encroachment on the people's rights, and, in the present state of information, perhaps there would not be found a minister who would be sufficiently daring to attempt to deprive us of it. This power, however, is irregular in its operation. It is not always easy to rouse the people to an active opposition to minor measures, which may be shown to be detrimental to their interests; neither is it powerful, on ordinary occasions, in getting a repeal of those laws, which, however detrimental, have been long in force; and therefore it is in a certain degree braved. In spite of the thunders of the press, men continue to be placed in Parliament, whose interests are often at direct variance with the interest of the people. The offices of State, and the lucrative situations under Government, are not bestowed according to merit; bad laws continue to disgrace our statute-book, and good ones are rejected because they would interfere with particular interests; wars are entered into for the sake of private advantage, and the nation is borne down with great and unnecessary expenses. Experience proves that the liberty of the press is insufficient to correct or prevent these abuses, and that nothing can be effectual to that purpose but placing the check in a more regular manner in the people by making the House of Commons really and truly the representatives of the people. Of all the classes in the community the people only are interested in being well governed; on this point there can be no dispute or mistake. Good government may be contrary to the interests of the aristocracy, or to those of the monarch, as it may prevent them from having the same emoluments, advantage, or power, which they would have if Government was not busied about the happiness of the many, but chiefly concerned itself about the happiness of the few; but it can never be prejudicial to the general happiness.
If, then, we could get a House of Commons chosen by the people, excluding all those, whether high or low, who had interests separate and distinct from the general interest, we should have a controlling body whose sole business and duty it would be to obtain good government. It is not denied that, in innumerable instances, the interest of the aristocracy and that of the people will be the same, and therefore many good laws and regulations would be made if the aristocracy were to govern without control. The same may be said of the Monarch; but in many important instances they will also be opposed, and then it is that we shall look in vain for good laws and for good government. A reform in the House of Commons, then,—the extension of the elective franchise to all those against whom no plausible reason can be urged that they have, or suppose they have, interest contrary to the general interest, is the only measure which will secure liberty and good government on a solid and permanent foundation. This is so self-evident that one is surprised that an argument can be offered against it; but, to do the opponents of this measure justice, they do not advance any direct argument against it; their whole endeavour is to evade it.
A House of Commons such as you contend for, they say, would be a good, but how are you to obtain it? Has not the country flourished in spite of the imperfections you mention, and why would you wish to improve what is already demonstrated to be so good? The House of Commons is not chosen by the people generally, but it is chosen by men who have received a good and liberal education—whose characters are unimpeachable, and who are much better judges of what will conduce to the happiness of the people than they themselves are. By extending the franchise you open the door to anarchy, for the bulk of the people are interested, or think they are so, in the equal division of property, and they would choose only such demagogues as held out the hope to them that such division should take place. To which it may be answered, that although it be true that the country has flourished with a House of Commons constituted as ours has been, it must be shown that such a constitution of it is favourable to the prosperity of the country, before such an argument can be admitted for its continuance. It is not sufficient to say that we have been successful, and therefore we should go on in the same course. The question to be asked is, notwithstanding our success, has there been nothing in our institutions to retard our progress? A merchant may flourish although he is imposed upon by his clerk, but it would be a worthless argument to persuade him to keep this clerk because he had flourished while he was in his employ. Whilst any evil can be removed, or any improvement adopted, we should listen to no suggestions so inconclusive as that we have been doing well. Such an argument is a bar to all progress in human affairs.
Why have we adopted the use of steam-engines? It might have been demonstrated that our manufactures had flourished without them, and why not let well enough alone? Nothing is well enough whilst anything better is within our reach; this is a fallacy which can only be advanced by the ignorant or designing, and can no longer impose on us. What signifies, too, the unimpeachable characters and the good education of those who choose the members of the House of Commons? Let me know what the state of their interests is, and I will tell you what measures they will recommend.
If this argument were good for any thing, we might get rid of all the checks and restraints of law, as far at least as they regarded a part of the community. Why ask from ministers an account of the public income and expenditure annually? Are they not men of good character and education?
What need of a House of Commons or of a House of Lords? Are they to restrain the Sovereign? Why should you not place the fullest reliance in his virtue and integrity?
Why fetter the judges by rules, and burden them with juries? Is it possible that such enlightened and good men could decide unjustly or corruptly? To keep men good you must as much as possible withdraw from them all temptation to be otherwise. The sanctions of religion, of public opinion, and of law, all proceed on this principle, and that State is most perfect in which all these sanctions concur to make it the interest of all men to be virtuous, which is the same thing as to say, to use their best endeavour to promote the general happiness.
The last point for consideration is the supposed disposition of the people to interfere with the rights of property. So essential does it appear to me, to the cause of good government, that the rights of property should be held sacred, that I would agree to deprive those of the elective franchise against whom it could justly be alleged that they considered it their interest to invade them. But in fact it can be only amongst the most needy in the community that such an opinion can be entertained. The man of a small income must be aware how little his share would be if all the large fortunes in the kingdom were equally divided among the people. He must know that the little he would obtain by such a division could be no adequate compensation for the overturning of a principle which renders the produce of his industry secure. Whatever might be his gains after such a principle had been admitted, would be held by a very insecure tenure, and the chance of his making any future gains would be greatly diminished; for the quantity of employment in the country must depend, not only on the quantity of capital, but upon its advantageous distribution, and, above all, on the conviction of each capitalist that he will be allowed to enjoy unmolested the fruits of his capital, his skill, and his enterprise. To take from him this conviction is at once to annihilate half the productive industry of the country, and would be more fatal to the poor labourer than to the rich capitalist himself. This is so self-evident, that men very little advanced beyond the very lowest stations in the country cannot be ignorant of it; and it may be doubted whether any large number even of the lowest would, it they could, promote a division of property. It is the bugbear by which the corrupt always endeavour to rally those who have property to lose around them, and it is from this fear, or pretended fear, that so much jealousy is expressed of entrusting the least share of power to the people. But the objection, when urged against reform, is not an honest one, for, if it be allowed that those who have a sacred regard to the rights of property should have a voice in the choice of representatives, the principle is granted for which reformers contend. They profess to want only good government, and, as a means to such an end, they insist that the power of choosing members of Parliament should be given to those who cannot have an interest contrary to good government. If the objection made against reform were an honest one, the objectors would say how low in the scale of society they thought the rights of property were held sacred, and there they would make their stand. That class, and all above it, they would say, may fairly and advantageously be entrusted with the power which is wished to be given them, but the presumption of mistaken views of interest in all below that class would render it hazardous to entrust a similar power with them—it could not at least be safely done until we had more reason to be satisfied that, in their opinion, the interest of the community and that of themselves were identified on this important subject.
This concession would satisfy the reasonable part of the public. It is not universal suffrage as an end, but as a means, of good government, that the partisans of that measure ask it for. Give them the good government, or let them be convinced that you are really in earnest in procuring it for them, and they will be satisfied, although you should not advance with the rapid steps that they think would be most advantageously taken. My own opinion is in favour of caution, and therefore I lament that so much is said on the subject of Universal Suffrage. I am convinced that an extension of the suffrage, far short of making it universal, will substantially secure to the people the good government they wish for, and therefore I deprecate the demand for the universality of the elective franchise; at the same time, I feel confident that the effects of the measure which would satisfy me would have so beneficial an effect on the public mind—would be the means of so rapidly increasing the knowledge and intelligence of the public, that, in a limited space of time after this first measure of reform were granted, we might, with the utmost safety, extend the right of voting for members of Parliament to every class of the people.
But it is intolerable, because the House of Commons is not disposed to go the full length of what is perhaps indiscreetly asked of them, that therefore they should refuse to grant any reformation of abuses whatever, that, against the plainest conviction, they should assert that a House of Commons, constituted as this is, is best calculated to give to the people the advantages of good government, and that they should continue to maintain that the best interests of the people are attended to, when it is demonstrated that they not only are not, but cannot be, whenever they are opposed to the interests of those who are in full possession of power, namely, the King, and the Oligarchy, who are bribed to support his government.