Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER IV.: On the Liberty of Public Discussion in Free Meetings—Continuation of the subject from Letter III. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2
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LETTER IV.: On the Liberty of Public Discussion in Free Meetings—Continuation of the subject from Letter III. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 2.
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On the Liberty of Public Discussion in Free Meetings—Continuation of the subject from Letter III.
I continue, and (I hope) conclude.—In my last on this subject, I left unexamined so much of the speech of the Minister of the Colonies as regards England: this together with the speech that bears the respected name of the Conde de Toreno:—
“In representative governments,” adds the Minister of the Colonies—“England, for instance, there are also societies; but they meet for one determined object, and when that is finished, they are dissolved. But permanent societies are unknown, unless authorized by the law, and when they have this character, the government will be the first to support them.”
1. “In representative governments,” says he—“England for instance.” But why take England for his instance? Spaniards, I will tell you. Because, if it be the object of a minister to put or keep in the condition of a despotic one, the government of which he forms a part, England, with its government, is the country which, at this moment, will in a more particular manner suit his purpose. Oh yes: it will give him a model, and as complete and serviceable a one as if he himself had the making of it.
England a representative government indeed! Oh yes, that it is. But a representive of what? of the people? No: but of the Monarch and of the House of Lords. For in this government, divided, as the supreme power of it is, into three branches—the concurrence of which is necessary indeed, but at the same time sufficient for every considerable permanent measure,—the Monarch alone has one branch; the Lords’ House another; the Commons’ House the third. This being the state of things, if by the representative government he means a government containing in it a branch in which the people are represented,—in the English government there is no such branch. For in that last-mentioned House, little less than a majority of those who have a right to sit in it, are seated either by the Monarch or by some member of the House of Lords:—one Lord, for example, seats nine Members; and an overwhelming majority is composed of men seated by individuals whose particular interest, completely identified as it is with the joint sinister interest of the Monarch and the Lords, is decidedly and inexorably hostile to the interest of the great body of the people. Thus it is as to those who have a right to sit: but as to those who on the several occasions actually sit, the disproportion is always much greater: for, even of the few who might be honest if they were not idle, the greater part are, on each occasion, kept from being honest by their idleness. Nor, when they do sit, do they sit, any of them, but in the atmosphere of a corruptive influence, by which their particular interest is identified with the particular and sinister interest of the Monarch and the Lords. Yes, and that still more effectually than if they had merely been seated by them: all, with scarce one exception, being in the condition of men with bribes in their hands, given them by the Monarch, and capable of being taken back by him at pleasure, or else upon the look-out for such bribes. This state of things is just as notorious as the existence of the two Houses themselves: nor does any one, even of those most interested in denying it, so much as attempt to deny it. For what purpose should be? The books in which the facts are manifested—manifested in names, numbers, and proportions—being in everybody’s hands. In favour of it, all that is ever said is contained in this:—“So it has been and is; therefore so it ought to be.”
All this while, what I cannot but confess, is—that in law fiction—that is, in liar’s language—the government is a government representative of the people: and English lawyer’s fiction, to which the character of lying belongs, or it does not belong to anything, is the acknowledged foundation of everything with us that is called law. In the language of lies, the government, then, does continue a body representative of the people: and, as the state of the case is scarce ever brought to view but by the misrepresentation made of it by this lie, and the vast majority of those who have faculty and leisure to make the distinction on such a subject between lies and truths, are paid for giving currency to this and other such lies, and for pretending to take them for truths (for scarce ever does a judge pronounce a decision, and never does a man go to church, without some notorious lie in his mouth;)—thus it is that the right honourable minister of ultramaria had really a colourable pretence for giving, on this occasion, the government of England as an instance of a representative government. If (as is the case, if I misrecollect not, in the government of the Netherlands, in regard to all the representatives)—if (I say) in England, the Monarch, openly, and in a direct form, did nominate five-sixths of the House of Commons,—even thus, if he left the remaining sixth to be elected by the people, so it were upon your principles of universality, secresy of suffrage, practical equality and bienniality, this would be no small improvement, and I would gladly vote for it. For, in this case, the habit of knowingly uttering and knowingly receiving lies as truths, would thus far be narrowed, and dishonest men could no longer join in assuring honest ones that the government is a government representative of the people, as, in so shameless a manner, they do now. Even if the Monarch did by the members of the House of Commons as he does by the Bishops—even if, after having appointed a junta for the purpose, he sent them a licence to elect whom they pleased, and along with it the name of a man, whom, on pain that should follow, they were to elect: this, even this, would be an improvement; for nowhere exists there any such impudence as to pretend to believe, that in this case it is by any such junta that the priest is put into a palace and made a lord of; that it is by the members of any such junta that he was thus made; or, in short, by anybody but the Monarch by whom they were made. The government would thus be more universally seen than at present to be what it is—a government uniformly determined by a particular and thence sinister interest,—an interest opposite to the interest of the people and to which the interest of the people is thus necessarily, and on every occasion, sacrificed.
“In representative government” indeed. No, my friends: if it had been a government really representative that it had been his interest to direct you to an instance of, he know well enough where to find one. He would have directed you to those rulers, by whose long-suffering and regard for the interests of their fellow-citizens (not to speak of your’s) you have for so many years been saved from the additional miseries of an additional war: to a government, in which the interests of the ruling few and the subject-many are so nearly identified, that (were it not for slave-holding—the monster they are actually employed in combating, and the deceit put upon the people by their lawyers; with the English common-law and its lying fictions in their mouths,) misrule in any shape would be a thing utterly unexperienced: and, in what state the societies in question are under that government, I have already had occasion to inform or remind you in the first of these my letters.
But since the English is the government, for the practice of which he has actually referred you as affording an authority for his support in the course taken by him in the proposing of such a law,—follow him, my friends, to England, and see how far his account of the state of the law in that country quadrates with the truth.
“In England,” says he, “there are also societies; but they meet for one determined object, and when that is finished, they are dissolved.” My friends, look twice at this assertion, and then see whether it even stands in need of any external evidence to convince you of the incorrectness of it. In England, there exist not any societies—any societies whatever, existing for any purpose whatsoever—political or non-political (for thus all-comprehensive and unrestricted is the assertion,) that have any more than that degree of permanence, if permanence it can be called. Consider whether, in the nature of things, this can be true.
But lest that should not be sufficient—lest the assertion should not yet be broad enough, he goes on and says—“But permanent societies are unknown, unless authorized by the law.” Unknown, then, in England, if he is to be believed—not only unexisting but unknown—are all permanent societies: those included that have any beyond the smallest possible degree of permanence.
Permanent societies unknown in England! Even had he so far narrowed his assertion as to make it applicable to the purpose—even had he said “permanent societies occupied in political discussions, are unknown in England”—as well might he have said—sunshine is unknown in England.
To render intelligible the relation between the truth of the case, and the right honourable minister’s account of it, I must beg your notice, my friends, for a distinction, which he knew better (it should seem) than to bring to view. This is—the distinction between the state of the government in question antecedently to the enactment of certain recent laws, and the state into which it has been put by means of them. Applied to the recent state, you will find his account possessing in part a colour of truth: applied to the anterior state, you will find it wholly destitute of all colour of truth.
In doing this, I must begin with giving a determinate import to a phrase of his:—“authorized by law.” Speaking of England, “Permanent societies,” he says, “are unknown unless authorized by law.” Now, by authorized by law, what he means is—existing no otherwise than under a licence which the law necessitates; that is, to use the words of his proposed law, “under the permission of the local authority:” for as to the being authorized by law—meaning real, and not imaginary ex post facto law,—everything is left authorized by law, until it stands prohibited. This being the case, to constitute what he means by “authorized by the law,” requires in the first place a prohibition—a general prohibition, and upon the back of that a special permission, exempting out of that general prohibition the special objects to which the permission applies. This explained, England being the country in question, how stands the fact? Before the year 1817, the things “unknown” were—not the unlicensed permanent societies, which he says were unknown, but the licensed ones, which his endeavour is—to make you regard as being coeval with the constitution: for till March 31st in that year, licences for meeting to talk politics in public were no more known in England than licences for meeting together to dine: and whether by ceasing to be permitted, societies such as those in question can in three and a half years cease to be “known”—of this, my friends, you will judge.
Thus much as to the being “unknown:” Now as to the being in existence. Even as to this point, the fact does not bear him out in his assertion, regard being had to the breadth he has given to it. Permanent societies being here in question, and not ephemeral ones (they forming the subject of another mode of regulation) the prohibition of permanent societies without licence is confined* to “places used for the purpose of delivering lectures or of holding debates.” Thus stands English law: while, according to his account of it, the prohibition of meeting without licence extends to all “permanent societies” without exception.
Bad as it is—bad enough for the establishment of finished despotism—the English liberticide innovation, thus introduced into the English government by the professed abhorrers of all innovation, is not yet bad enough for his purpose: to raise it up to his purpose, you see how he gives to it an extent that does not belong to it.
In the breasts of the organizers of this English despotism, there was a something that put a restraint upon it as to time. In the first seditious meetings act, as above—the earliest commencement of the act being the 31st of March 1817—the duration of it was not longer than till the 24th of July 1818; not so much as 16 months: in the second seditious meetings act (the other being expired,) the earliest commencement being the 24th of December 1819, the duration of it was not made longer than five years from that time; five years, with no other addition than that of an indeterminate fraction, extending however no longer than to the “end of the then next session of parliament.”
This for the present satisfied English despotism: but this minister of your king, nothing less than an eternity of such despotism would satisfy him, or at least his supporter in the Cortes, Mr. Goreli.
“And when they have this character,” concludes this speech, “the government will be the first to support them;” namely, permanent societies, without exception: this character; namely, the character of being, in the language of English law, licensed—in the language of the proposed Spanish law, in possession of “a permission from the local authority.”
My friends, in this clause, short as it is, I see three erroneous notions presented for acceptance.
One is, that societies of the sort in question are capable of standing in need of support, in some shape or other, from government.
Another is, that government has it in its power to render service in some shape or other to the public, by means of support given in some shape or other to these societies.
A third is, that, in some shape or other, support, meaning special support, may be capable of being given by government to the sort of societies in question, without being pernicious.
1. First, as to the need of support. Antecedently to any licence, they have for their support, the natural, original, unrestricted individual liberty. The members, as such, have no need of any other: as men they have indeed need of, but of course have, that protection, whatever it be, which the law affords to all other men. This is support, but not special support. Invade this liberty—narrow it by a prohibition—you thus indeed create in them the need of the permission, whatever it be, with which you will vouchsafe to narrow the prohibition. But when you have done this for them, you have done all they have need of, unless it be the easing them of the prohibition, of which, by the supposition, you will not ease them: do this, you have thus far replaced them in that original situation, in which, as above, no support was either needful to them, or of use.
2. Secondly, as to government’s having it in its power to render any service to the public at large, by means of special support, given in any shape, to these societies.
3. Thirdly, as to the disservice, which government would do to the public at large, by means of, and in proportion to, support given in any shape, to these societies.
For these two points, one consideration may suffice. By support, in any shape, no service, I say, could government render to the public at large. Of support given to them in any shape, the effects, if any, with reference to the public at large, could not, I say, fail of being pernicious: for, according to the value of the support, the effect would be to diminish whatever service they might be capable of rendering to the public, if they were let alone.
Such is my notion of the matter: the following are the grounds of it:—
All the service capable of being rendered to the public by these instruments, is, as above observed, comprised in the two words instruction and excitation;—the excitation being no otherwise serviceable than as the instruction is so too.
But, of the matter of instruction, what is it, the dissemination of which, by any such means, is, or can be, of a nature serviceable to the public? This, too, has been already mentioned: indication of what is amiss, either in the texture of the government, or in the conduct of those to whom the exercise of it powers belongs. This, and nothing else.
“What! nothing else?” says somebody—“by the indication of what is right in both places, is no service rendered to the public?” I answer, No: none that can be rendered by these societies, over and above what would be sufficiently rendered without them. Whatsoever there is right in either place, there are always men in abundance to hold up to view. Mankind must change its nature, ere anything that is said in commendation either of government or of rulers, can fail to be generally acceptable to the aggregate composed of those same rulers. But, without need of being expressly offered, a mass of reward, composed of all the good things that are at the disposal of government, is, by every man, seen stationed over his head, ready to drop, in appropriate and adequate morsels, into the mouth of every man who will be at the pains of earning it, by signalizing himself in the defence of everything or anything, and every person or any person he sees established. Of these ready defenders, there never can be a deficiency, supposing no such societies in existence: of these same defenders, as little can there be a deficiency, supposing any number of these societies in existence. Thus it is, that even without the advantage given them by the restraint imposed upon their adversaries by the licence, and the fear of forfeiting it, things and persons that are established are, by the mere circumstance of being established, put into possession of an undue advantage: an advantage which the nature of their situation secures to them, how opposite soever their character may be to what it should be. As to everything that happens to be wrong in those same high places, for the indication of it there is no such reward; while for defence of it, there is, as we have seen, in prospect and expectancy at least, an infinity of reward. Thus stands the matter, even without the licence. As if that were not enough, comes the licence, and, in endeavour at least, not only leaves the evidence on one side of the cause without motives for bringing it forward, but, by an artificial door thus shut against it, superadds the forcible exclusion of it. Such is the system of procedure, according to which, at the bar of the public, its functionaries, while their adversaries are under the yoke of a licence, are tried.
“Government,” concludes the speech, “will be the first to support them”—these same societies. Under this phrase lurks yet another fallacy as yet unexposed; namely, that even when the societies are thus licensed, thus corrupted, thus depraved, thus filled with the defenders, to the exclusion of the indicators, of abuse, government will be at the pains of taking any such active measures for their support. Of all such active measures, it has just been seen that they are altogether needless. There, upon a shelf just over their heads, in goodly order—there, in men’s imagination, stand the rewards;—there, without any need of special invitation, hands enough will be ready enough to grasp them.
All this while, that which, in speaking of the corruptive influence of licences in this case, is here said, should, it must be confessed, be understood as applying more perfectly to what it is in the conception of those by whom the yoke is imposed, than of the actual effect on those on whom it is imposed. What is scarcely possible is, that by the repressive influence of the licence, every manifestation of disapprobation, towards the conduct of those by whom the yoke is imposed, should, in every shape, be prevented. By degrees, a sort of language will come into use; a language that will be sufficiently understood for any such purpose as that of giving expression to complaint and indignation, yet will not be sufficiently understood for any such purpose as that of affording a tenable ground for the infliction of punishment.
Yes: in every apartment defiled by this liberticide yoke, the instrument of thraldom, the parchment or paper on which it is written, should be hung up on high—hung up in some spot universally conspicuous, with an appropriate accompaniment for pointing men’s attention to it. By a single glance directed to this instrument of tyranny, eulogy might thus be converted into satire,—satire which, be it what it may, can never be too severe.
AN ESSAY ON POLITICAL TACTICS,
ESSAY ON POLITICAL TACTICS.*
[* ]Seditious meeting act, passed December 24, 1819, 60 Geo. III. & 1 Geo. IV. c. 6, § 26.
[* ]This work is now first published in English, being edited from the work of M. Dumont, and the papers of Bentham.