Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION IV.: SOLE REMEDY IN PRINCIPLE—DEMOCRATIC ASCENDENCY. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3
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SECTION IV.: SOLE REMEDY IN PRINCIPLE—DEMOCRATIC ASCENDENCY. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 3.
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SOLE REMEDY IN PRINCIPLE—DEMOCRATIC ASCENDENCY.
Such being the disease, behold now the remedy—the only remedy: he for whose nerves it is too strong, let him, as soon as the irritation pains him,—take warning and shut his eyes against it; let him shut his eyes, and prepare his neck for a yoke, the pressure of which will continue on the increase, till either convulsion breaks it, or existence sinks under it. This remedy—two words, viz. democratical ascendency, will, in principle, suffice for the expression of it. Taking this for the general description of the end,—parliamentary reform will next make its appearance in the character of a means: parliamentary reform in general as a proposed means: radical parliamentary reform, as the only means, by which either that immediate end, or the ultimate end—political salvation, can, in the nature of the case, be accomplished.
Without any outward and visible change in the forms of the constitution,—by the means already indicated, by the mere instrumentality of the ever-increasing mass of the matter of good operating in the hands of the crown in the character of matter of corruptive influence,—have the two separate, partial, and sinister interests,—viz. the monarchical and the aristocratical,—obtained over the democratical interest (which is no other than the universal interest,) not only an ascendency—but an ascendency so complete, that, under the outside show of a mixed and limited monarchy, a monarchy virtually and substantially absolute is the result.
Without any outward and visible change in the forms of the constitution—though waste already committed cannot be caused not to have been committed—though past misrule cannot be caused not to have reigned—yet may the plague be stayed. To the democratical, to the universal interest, give—one might almost say, restore—that ascendency which by the confederated, partial, and sinister interest has been so deplorably abused, and so long as it continues, will continue to be abused:—thus you have the remedy: this is what parliamentary reform will do, if it does anything: this is what parliamentary reform means, if it means anything.
This, in the year 1780, and again in 1783, was the declared wish—the accomplishment of it the avowed, the official, the parliamentary endeavour of the late Duke of Richmond: a duke—and with royal blood, though from a sinister channel, flowing in his veins: already, even at the earliest of those two periods, a veteran: a veteran—not only in the army, but in parliament, in office, and of course in high office. His declared object was—the restoring to the people what by him were regarded as their unalienable rights: and what,—taking the word right in a certain altogether usual sense, though assuredly not in a legal sense, may with indisputable propriety be said to be so:—his object—giving to the people those rights: his declared and principal means—universal suffrage and an annually renewed House of Commons.—Now this peer—this duke—what object less good than this could have been his object?—what his expectation? Could it have been anarchy?—could it have been so much as democracy? But read his plan—one of the few schemes of legislation, to which the authors have been at the same time able and willing to give the support of reasons. Read his plan, and with it read his reasons: they are contained in a LETTER dated August 15, 1783, and addressed to “Lieutenant-Colonel Sharman, commander of the Volunteers, Ireland.” Some ipse-dixitism in it about rights, might, in point of reasoning, though perhaps not in point of power of persuasion, have been spared: but, setting aside the ipse-dixitism,—better and sounder, and closer reasoning, is not often to be found. Never yet has that man been found who durst grapple with it. Men shut their eyes against it, and write and talk as if it had never been in existence.*
Now in this change—for unless the plague continues and spreads, a change there must be—in this change, is there any innovation? No: in substance there is not so much as an innovation. The one thing needful is—that the power of the purse should be actually and effectively in the hands of the real representatives, the freely chosen deputies of the body of the people: the power of the purse, that being the power by the exercise of which, for the defence of the people against Stuart tyranny, all other needful powers were acquired. Now, at various periods in the history of this country, this all-productive power was actually in the hands of the people: witness statute after statute: witness in one reign, viz. the splendid and unhappily conquering reign of Edward III., and at thirty-two years interval, two statutes, by each of which the annual holding of a parliament—and in those days parliaments annually holden were annually changed—was declared to be the legitimate state and condition of the government.
Now, if in those days—in those days in which the press was unknown—in which scarce any man but a priest could so much as read—and in which there was nothing worth the reading—no—not so much as the bible—to be read;—if in those days, in which standing armies were unknown, the people could, without danger to themselves or anybody else, possess and exercise the power of the purse;—if in those days of ignorance and barbarism, all this could be;—in these our days, under the protection of such a forest of bayonets;—in these our days, in which every man either reads or hears his newspaper—and in which everything that, in this part of the field at least, man can need for his instruction, may be to be found in newspapers;—in these days, shall blind cowardice, or tyranny in the skin of cowardice, find in pretended universal ignorance a pretext for scorning universal suffrage? But of this more in an ensuing section.
But enough, and already too much, of the endlessly mischievous absurdity involved in the word innovation. What! is evil converted into good by being old?—good into evil by being new? What! is experience worth nothing? In toothless infancy is there more wisdom than in grey hairs? From self-contradictory nonsense, let us come to common sense: from long past and widely dissimilar, let us come to the present state of things.
In the ascendency of the democratic interest,—to anything but the continuance of unconstitutionally usurped and most perniciously abused power, is there any the slightest show of danger?—in any determinate and assignable shape, any the smallest ground for apprehension? What shall decide? Shall it be experience? Well: by experience, and that as well in its negative as its positive shape, the decision is pronounced.
Look to positive experience: behold it in the American United States. There you have—not merely democratic ascendency—democratic ascendency in a mixed government—but democracy—pure democracy, and nothing else. There you have—not one democracy only, but a whole cluster of democracies: there, all is democracy; all is regularity, tranquillity, prosperity, security: continual security, and with it continually increasing, though with practical equality divided, opulence. All, all is democracy: no aristocracy; no monarchy; all that dross evaporated. As for us, we need no such purity; we could not brook it: the dross has a glitter on it; our eyes are used to it,—that glitter: we cannot part with it. With us, so far as consists with national salvation, possession not only of property but of power, even though that power be but a trust, is a sacred thing: the uti possidetis principle, as in international law a well known and frequently applied, so in internal government, a sacred principle. Well, let us keep it then—the whole of it: not pure democracy do we want, nor anything like it: what we want is, under the existing forms of subjection, the ascendency—the virtual and effective ascendency—of the democratic interest: this is all we are absolutely in need of: with this we should be content: with less than this it is in vain to speak of content: for less than this cannot save us.
Look to negative experience. While, in the language of legitimacy and tyranny, and of the venal slavery that crawls under them, democracy and anarchy are synonymous terms,—see whether, on the whole surface of the globe, there is, or ever has been, anywhere so much as a single example, from which this abuse of words can receive countenance. Look once more at the United States, and see whether, on the habitable globe, there exists anywhere so regular, so well-regulated a government.
Look not to Greece or Italy: look not to ancient or to middle ages: look not to any self-acting democracy. Compared with the democracy here in question—compared with a representative democracy—a democracy in which the sole power exercised by the people is that of choosing their deputies, and in those deputies their rulers,—whatever else has been called democracy, has had nothing of democracy but the name.
Well then: forasmuch as in democracy, though it be American democracy, a total democracy,—forasmuch as in a democracy, standing by itself without support from anything but itself, there be no such thing as danger—no diminution of security for person, property, reputation, condition in life, religious worship—in a word, for anything on which man sets a value,—what ground can the nature of the case afford, for any apprehension of danger—in a partial democracy, with monarchy and aristocracy by the side, and at the head of it, for its support? for its support, and for keeping it in order, a standing army—a conquering—an irresistible standing army—that grand instrument of order—all around it?
Well then: such being in general terms the instrument—and the only possible instrument—of political salvation, now as to the principles by which the application made of it requires to be guided.
At present, the cause of the misrule is this: viz. the rule is completely in the hands of those whose interest it is—their interest, and thence of necessity their desire, and, as far as depends upon them, the determination—that the misrule should continue:—the thing required is—leaving the executive part of the government where it is—so to order matters, that the controuling part of the government shall be in the hands of those whose interest it is that good government shall take place of misrule: of misrule in every shape, and more particularly in the two most intimately connected and mutually fostering shapes—waste and corruption, corruption and waste. Now these are the whole body of the people, two classes alone excepted: viz. those by whom a loss in the shape of money, and those by whom a loss in the shape of power (not to speak of factitious dignity) would be sustained or apprehended from the change! As to what regards money, the uti possidetis principle being received and acted upon,—supposing delinquency out of the question, the only loss that could befal anybody would be, loss of the chance of increase. As to what regards power, in this shape it cannot be denied, that, of any change,—by which misrule could on the whole, or any considerable part, be made to cease,—loss of power actually in possession—and that to no inconsiderable amount—would be an altogether inevitable consequence. Loss of money? Yes! But of what money? Of money at present expected to be received as the wages of corruption. Loss of power? Yes! But of what power? Of that power which at present, for the purchase of the wages of corruption in the shape of money, as well as other shapes, is perpetually on sale.
Before proceeding any farther, up comes (it must be confessed) a question, the title of which to an answer cannot admit of dispute. In the case of so vast a multitude of individuals, of the vast majority of whom it were too much to suppose that they had any tolerable acquaintance with the business of government—how is it that there can be any adequate probability of their concurring in the making a tolerably apt choice, in regard to the persons by whom it shall thus be carried on?
The short answer is—that, as the matter stands, the question is but a question of curiosity and theory. That, for the purpose in question, a choice sufficiently apt can be made—is habitually made—and, with entire confidence, may be reasonably depended upon—is, by the American examples above referred to, put altogether out of doubt. The question is, then, reduced to this: viz. in what, among the circumstances belonging to the case, are we to look for the cause of a state of things, of the existence of which there cannot be a doubt,—but which, in a distant and abstract view of it, presents itself as thus improbable.
For giving immediate facility to the answer, a distinction no less familiar in itself, than important in its consequences, may here be brought to view. This is—the distinction between a self-formed and a derivative judgment. On the ground of any self-formed judgment, few indeed could, in a case such as that in question, be expected to act with any tolerable degree of wisdom or felicity:—true: but neither is it less so, that on the ground of derivative judgment, there exists not (nor in this country is ever likely to exist) any such large and miscellaneous body of men, of whom the majority may not, even in such a case as this, be expected, and with reason, to act with a degree of felicity adequate to the purpose. For, in respect of those concerns which, to each individual taken by himself, are of still superior importance—viz. physic, law, and religion, for example—every man who is not, in his own eyes, competent to make, on the ground of his own self-formed judgment, the choice of an agent or assistant, does he not feel himself reduced to the necessity of acting on the ground of derivative judgment?—in a word, on the ground of public opinion?—and, under the yoke of this, as well as so many other necessities, the business of life—of private, of domestic life—goes on in the way we see. Of private life? Well, and why not also of public life. Of the business of each? Well, and why not then the business of all?* And note, that on this occasion, the probability of making any such choice as shall be not only foolish but mischievous—(and in so far as it is not practically mischievous, no matter how foolish it is) is not only circumscribed, but circumscribed within very narrow limits, by the nature and number of the individuals, who, on an occasion such as that in question, can offer themselves, with any the least prospect of finding acceptance at the hands of the majority of so large a multitude as that in question: say at least, several thousands. True it is, that were the electors, for example, the parishioners of a small parish,—many might be the instances in which it might happen, that foolish and ignorant men might, in considerable and those preponderant numbers, agree in the choice of some artful and profligate man of their own level and their own set,—by whom, to his own private and sinister purposes, their confidence would be abused. But when—whether it be in respect of territory as well as population, or in respect of population alone—the electoral circle is of any such large dimensions as those in question, all such individual and private causes of seduction and deception are altogether out of the question: no man can either propose himself, or be reasonably expected to be proposed, but upon the ground of some reputed qualification, of his possession of which, supposing him to possess it, the whole population of the electoral district will be in some sort in the possession of the means of judging.
But of all qualifications, real or imaginable, the qualification, such as it is, which consists in the possession of property to such an amount as to draw attention, is at the same time the very qualification, concerning the possession of which men in general are best satisfied with their competence to form a right judgment,—and that on which, in proportion to its real virtue in the character of presumptive evidence of appropriate aptitude, the greatest reliance is,—by men in general, and in particular by the most uninformed classes,—wont to be placed.
The men who at present determine the course of election by the influence of will on will—these same men, in the event of the proposed change—these same men, and in a proportion much more likely to outstrip than to fall short of their deserts,—would they not, by the influence of understanding, real or imputed, on understanding, exercise, for the most part, the same effective power—produce, for the most part—so far as concerns possession of the seats—the same effects as now? Possession of the seats?—Yes; viz. in the case of those, in whose eyes, after the necessary change, on the only terms on which they would be to be had, these seats would be worth having. But among those by whom the office is at present possessed—possessed, and on each occasion, at each man’s pleasure, the functions that belong to it either exercised or neglected,—how many are there in whose eyes it would be worth possessing, if at all times the functions could not be left neglected, except when, under the spur of sinister interest, the power of it came of course to be abused?
Well—and suppose, among 658 members—(for the supposition, that number may do as well as another,)—among the 658 members, returned under a system of democratic ascendency, ten knaves should be found plotting and confederating with one another (though what in that case could they be gainers by any such plotting?)—and fourscore and ten fools foolish enough to be led by them. In such a case, what is the mischief they would be able to do?
Alas! how happy would not the state of things be in comparison of what it is, if there were not more than thrice ten knaves occupied without ceasing, not only in the plotting of mischief, but in the doing it and carrying it into effect!—more than thrice ten such knaves—(or, if it be but once, the once is but too sufficient)—and more than thrice fourscore and ten,—in whom, in a proportion altogether indeterminable,—the knavery of following, with eyes wide open, at the tail of the knaves,—and the folly of suffering themselves to be led, with winking, or half-closed, or carelessly, or purposely averted eyes,—are combined.*
Ascendency? Yes; ascendency it must be: nothing less will serve.
Talk of mixture: yes, this may serve, and must serve: but then, the intrinsically noxious ingredients—the ingredients which must be kept in, though for no better reason than that we are used to them—and being so used to them, could not bear—(for who is there that could bear?)—to part with them—these ingredients, of which the greatest praise would be that they were inoperative, must not be in any such proportion of force, as to destroy, or materially to impair, the efficiency of the only essentially useful one.
Talk of balance: never will it do: leave that to Mother Goose and Mother Blackstone. Balance! balance! Politicians upon roses—to whom, to save the toil of thinking—on questions most wide in extent, and most high in importance—an allusion—an emblem—an anything—so as it has been accepted by others, is accepted as conclusive evidence—what mean ye by this your balance? Know ye not, that in a machine of any kind, when forces balance each other, the machine is at a stand? Well, and in the machine of government, immobility—the perpetual absence of all motion—is that the thing which is wanted? Know ye not that—since an emblem you must have—since you can neither talk, nor attempt to think, but in hieroglyphics—know you not that, as in the case of the body natural, so in the case of the body politic, when motion ceases, the body dies?
So much for the balance: now for the mixture—the mixture to which, as such, such virtue is wont to be ascribed. Here is a form of government, in which the power is divided among three interests:—the interest of the great body of the people—of the many;—and two separate interests—the interest of the one and the interest of the few—both of which are adverse to it:—two separate and narrow interests, neither of which is kept on foot—but at the expense, to the loss, and by the sacrifice, of the broader interest. This form of government (say you) has its advantages. Its advantages?—compared with what?—compared with those forms of government, in which the people have no power at all, or in which, if they have any, they have not so much? Oh yes: with any such form of government for an object of comparison, its excellence is unquestionable. But, compare it with a form of government in which the interest of the people is the only interest that is looked to—in which neither a single man, with a separate and adverse interest of his own, nor a knot of men with a separate and adverse interest of their own, are to be found—where no interest is kept up at the expense, to the loss, by the sacrifice, of the universal interest to it,—where is then the excellence?
Nay, but (says somebody,) in the form of government in question, what the supreme—the universal power is—is a compound—a mixture of the three powers corresponding to the three interests: what the excellence produced by it is in, is—not any one of the three ingredients taken by itself: no—it is the mixture. Take away any one of the three masses of power, the mixture is changed: the excellence is diminished:—take away any two of them, mixture has place no longer:—the excellence vanishes.
Good—this notion about mixture: Oh yes, good enough, so long as the respective natures of the several interests are kept out of sight. Look at them, and then see whether it be possible that, taking the power of the people for the simple substance,—by the adding to it either or both of the two other powers, and thus making a mixture,—any such quality as excellence, with reference to what belongs to the simple substance taken by itself, can be produced.
A form of government, in which the interest of the whole is the only interest provided for—in which the only power is a power having for its object the support of that interest,—in this form of government behold the simple substance. To this simple substance add, separately or conjunctively, a power employed in the support of the interest of one single person, and a power employed in the support of the interest of a comparatively small knot of persons,—in either of these cases you have a mixture:—well: compared, then, with the simple substance, when and where can be the advantages of this mixture?
What—what could man ever find to say in behalf of monarchy, but that monarchy is legitimacy?—or in behalf of aristocracy, but that property is virtue?
Fair questions these:—should any man feel disposed to answer them, let the answers be so too: and let them not—Oh! let them not! be either imprisonment or death!
Go to the flour-mill: get a sack of flour, in which there is flour, and nothing else:—make bread of it,—there you have the simple substance. In making your bread, add now to the flour some powder of chalk, with or without some powder of burnt bones: in either case you have a mixture. Well, in either case, so long as you do not add to the flour too much of that which is not flour, your bread may afford nourishment: it may give to your constitution—to the constitution of your natural body—a support. But, from either of these two new ingredients, does this body of yours derive any nourishment? the constitution of it any support? your bread anything that can be called by the name of excellence?
Father of the representative system! O rare Simon De Montfort!—thou who, in giving birth to it—without perhaps intending good to human being, save one—didst to mankind more good than ever was done by any one other mortal man!—in giving birth to that most beneficent system, thou gavest birth to the only practicable democracy—to the only democracy, of which extent beyond a nut-shell, or duration beyond a day, are attainable attributes! Comes the persecution of the Stuarts, and democracy—representative democracy is planted in America, with nothing but monarchy to hang over it:—comes the persecution of the G—, the monarchy is now cut up:—and now the salutiferous plant, established in its own roots, cleared of every weed that had choked it, shines in all its purity,—rears and spreads itself, with matchless, and enviable, and envied, and hated, and dreaded vigour. By the mere passing from the one country to the other—oh what a host of plagues and miseries in detail—major each in itself, minor compared with the two capital ones—did it not leave behind! Well worth taking and holding up to view would be the list of these abuses: but, for any such task, the present is no place.
No:—but for the English Constitution, democracy, the only democracy worth the name, never could have been known. Oh rare English Constitution!—there, there is thy greatest—there thy only lasting praise!
Balance? equality? No: I cannot say equality, when what I mean is ascendency. Palsied would be this hand—motionless this pen—if, for the first time in a life, already of some length, it were to attempt deception. Ascendency—this I do mean, nothing less: more I do not mean—indeed I do not. The monarch may, for aught I know, plunge his hangman’s knife in my bowels; but I am not for “cashiering kings.” The one thing needful and sufficient for the purpose—this I would have if I could: this I would have if I could, whatever were its name. More than this—not being in my view needful for the purpose—more I would not have if I could. For any more than for myself—for any more than myself—no title have I to speak. In speaking thus for myself, I speak what I should expect to find the sense—so long as it were the quiet sense—of a vast majority of the people—in two at least of the three kingdoms—high and low, rich and poor together. But, should the only remedy be refused, oppression continue, and exasperation rise against it, then it is not quiet sense that will speak, but exasperation: and, as to what exasperation may say or do, who is there that can undertake to measure it?
[* ]Existence, however, it has, and—viz. at Hone’s, 55, Fleet-street, and 67, Old Bailey; Hone being editor of the Reformer’s Register—that existence may even at this day be had for twopence. The title is—The Right of the People to Universal suffrage and Annual Parliaments, clearly demonstrated by the late Duke of Richmond.—In this LETTER of his, the Duke is against secresy of suffrage. By a sort of sentimentality, with perhaps a little of self-regarding interest, perceived or unperceived, at the bottom of it, was his objection—for such as it is, there is but one—dictated. A little further on, it may be seen what a contrast the Duke’s logic on this head makes with that which had dictated what he has said on the two others. As to his bill—date of it anno 1780, it is not to be found in the Parliamentary Register, but was published by itself, first (it is said) by Ridgway, and just now (Feb. 1817,) by Hone.
[* ]Reader, mark well the following parallel: when read, go back a few pages, apply it to pages 5 and 6. I.
a the actual receipts of revenue at the treasury, including the balance at the commencement of the year, and excluding the proceeds of loans and treasury notes, will amount to about the sum of 47 millions of dollars: that, during the same year, the actual payments at the treasury, including the payment of the arrearages of the war department, as well as the payment of a considerable excess beyond the annual appropriation, will amount to about the sum of 38 millions of dollars; and that consequently at the close of the year, there will be a surplus in the treasury of about the sum of 9 millions of dollars . . . . . The floating debt of treasury notes and temporary loans, will soon be entirely discharged. The aggregate of the funded debt, composed of debts incurred during the wars of 1776 and of 1812, has been estimated with reference to the 1st of January next (1817,) at a sum not exceeding one hundred and ten millions of dollars.