Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter xxviii.: dangers and inconveniences of institutional self-government. - On Civil Liberty and Self-Government
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chapter xxviii.: dangers and inconveniences of institutional self-government. - Francis Lieber, On Civil Liberty and Self-Government 
On Civil Liberty and Self-Government, 3rd revised edition, ed. Theodore D. Woolsey (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1883).
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dangers and inconveniences of institutional self-government.
Institutional self-government has its dangers and inconveniences, as all human things have, and if its success requires the three elements necessary for all success of human action—common sense, virtue and wisdom, it must be added that, while Self-Government accepts the ancient saying: Divide and rule, in a sense different from that in which it was originally meant, the opposite is equally true: Unite and rule, as history and our own times abundantly prove.
It has been stated that nothing is more common than governments which, fearing the united action of the nation, yet, being obliged to yield in some manner to the demand for liberty, try to evade it and to deceive the people by granting provincial representations or estates. In these cases division is indeed resorted to for the greater chance of ruling the people, because when separate they are weak, and one portion may be played off against the other, as the marines and sailors neutralize one another on board the men-of-war. In no period probably has this conduct of continental governments more strikingly shown itself than in that which began with the downfall of Napoleon and ended with the year 1848. But it must not be forgotten that by institutional self-government a polity has been designated that comprehends institutions of self-government for all the regions of the political actions of a society, and it includes the general and national self-government as well as the minute local self-government.
The self-government of a society, be this a township or a nation, must always be adequate to its highest executive; and when any branch is national, all the three branches must be national. The very nature of civil liberty, as we have found it, demands this. They must work abreast, like the horses of the Grecian chariot, public opinion being the charioteer. Had England, as she has now, a general executive, but not, as now, a general parliament, the self-government of the shires and towns, of courts and companies, would soon be extinguished. Had we a president of the United States and no national legislature, it is evident that either the president would be useless, and there would be no united country, or if the executive had power, there would be an end to the state self-governments, even if the president were to remain elective. Liberty requires union of the whole, whatever this whole, or Koinon, as the Greeks styled it, may be, as has been already mentioned. Wisdom, practice, political forbearance, and manly independence can alone decide the proper degree of union, and the necessary balance.
One of the dangers of a strongly institutional self-government is that the tendency of localizing may prevail over the equally necessary principle of union, and that thus a disintegrating sejunction may take place, which history shows as a warning example in the United States of the Netherlands. I do not allude to their Pact of Utrecht, which furnished an inadequate government for the confederacy, and upon which the framers of our federal constitution so signally improved, after having tried a copy of it in the articles of the confederation. I refer to the Netherlandish principle, according to which every limited circle and even most towns did not only enjoy self-government, but were sovereign, and to each of which the stadtholder was obliged to take a separate oath of fidelity. The Netherlands presented the very opposite extreme of French centralism. The consequence has been that the real Netherlandish greatness lasted but a century, and in this respect may almost be compared to the brevity of Portuguese grandeur, though it resulted from the opposite cause.1
The former constitution of Hungary, according to which each comitate had the right to vote whether it would accept or not the law passed by the diet,1 is an instance of the ruinous effect of purely partial self-government. The nation, as nation, must participate in it; and Hungary lost her liberty, as Spain and all countries have done which have disregarded this part of self-government.
Another danger is that with reference to the domestic government, the local self-government may impede measures of a general character. Instances and periods of long duration occur, which serve as serious and sometimes as alarming commentaries on the universal adage, that what is everybody's business is nobody's business. The roads, considered by the Romans so important that the road-law found a place on the twelve tables, and sanitary regulations, frequently suffer in this way. The governments of some of our largest cities furnish us with partial yet striking illustrations.
It might be added that one of the dangers of self-government lies in this, that the importance of the institutional character may be forgotten, that the limitations may be considered as fetters, and that thus the people may come to forget that part of self-government which relates to the being governed, and only remember that part which consists in their governing. If this takes place, popular absolutism begins, and one part rules supreme over the other.
We reply to these objections that it is a characteristic of absolutism that it believes men can be ruled by formulas and systems alone. The scholar of liberty knows that important as systems and institutions, principles and bills of rights are, they still demand rational and moral beings, for which they are intended, like the revelation itself, which is for conscious man alone. Everything in this world has its dangers. In this lies the fearful responsibility of demagogues. “Take power, bear down limitation,” is their call on the people, as it was the call of the courtiers on Louis XIV. Their advice of political intemperance resembles that which is given on the tomb of Sardanapalus, regarding bodily intemperance: “Eat, drink, and lust; the rest is nothing.”1
We must the more energetically cling to our institutional government, and the more attentively avoid extremes. At the same time, the question is fair whether other systems avoid the danger or do not substitute greater evils for it; and, lastly, we must in this, as in all other cases, while honestly endeavoring to remedy or prevent evil, have an eye to the whole and see which yields the fairest results. Nothing, moreover, is more dangerous than to take single brilliant facts as representatives of systems. They prove general soundness as little as brilliant deeds necessarily prove general morality.
It is these dangers that give so great a value to constitutions, if conceived in the spirit of liberty. The office of a good constitution, besides that of pronouncing and guaranteeing the rights of the citizen, is that, as a fundamental law of the state, it so defines and limits he chief powers, that, each moving in its own orb, without jostling the others, it prevents jarring and grants harmonious protection to all the minor powers of the state.2
A constitution, whether it be an accumulative one, as that of Great Britain, or an enacted one, as ours, is always of great importance, as indeed all law is important wherever there is human action; but, from what has been stated, it will be readily perceived that constitutions are efficient toward the obtaining of their main ends, the liberty of the citizen, only in the same degree as they themselves consist of an aggregate of institutions; as, for instance, that of the United States, which consists of a distinct number of clearly devised and limited as well as life-possessing institutions, or as that of England, which consists of the aggregate of institutions considered by him who uses the term British Constitution, of fundamental and vital importance. It will, moreover, have appeared that these constitutions have a real being only if founded upon numerous wide-spread institutions, and feeding, as it were, upon a general institutional spirit. Without this, they will be little more than parchment; and, important as our constitutions are, it has already been seen that the institution of the Common Law, on which all of them are based, is still more important. It cannot be denied that occasional jarring takes place in a strongly institutional government. It is, as we have called it, of a co-operative character, and all co-operation may lead to conflict. There is, however, occasional jarring of interests or powers, wherever there are general rules of action.
This jarring of laws, and especially of institutions, so much dreaded by the absolutists, whose beau-ideal is uncompromising and unrelieved uniformity, is very frequently the means of development, and of that average justice which constitutes a feature of all civil liberty. If there be anything instructive in the history of free nations, and of high interest to the student of civil liberty, it is these very conflicts, and the combined results to which they have led. It must also be remembered that liberty is life, and life is often strife, in the social region as in that of nature. If, at times, institutions lead to real struggles, we have to decide between all the good of institutional liberty with this occasional inconvenience, and absolutism with all its evils and this occasional avoidance of conflicting interests; for even under an absolutism it is but occasional. What domestic conflicts have there not been in the history of Russia and Turkey!
The institution unquestionably results in part from, and in turn promotes, respect for that which has been established or grown. This leads occasionally to a love of effete institutions, even to fanaticism; but fanaticism, which consists in carrying a truth or principle to undue length, irrespective of other truths and principles, equally important, besets man in all spheres. Has absolutism not its own bigotry and fanaticism?1
When an institution has become effete; when nothing but the form is left; when its life is fled—in one word, when the hull of an institution remains, and it has ceased to be a real institution, it is inconvenient, dangerous, or it may become seriously injurious. Nothing, as I stated before, is so convenient for despotism, as the remaining forms of an obsolete freedom, or forms of freedom purposely invented to deceive. A nobility stripped of all independence, and being nothing but a set of court retainers, the Roman senate under the emperors, the court of peers under Henry VIII., representative houses without power or free action, courts-martial dictated to by a despot, elections without freedom, are fearful engines of iniquity. They bear the responsibility, without free agency. They are in practice what syllogism is without truthfulness. But this is no reproach to the institution in general, nor any reason why we ought not to rely upon it. Many an old church has served as a den for robbers. Shall we build no churches? If the institution is effete, let it be destroyed, but do it, as Montesquieu says of laws in general, “with a trembling hand,” lest you destroy what only appeared to your onesided view as effete.
Still more vigorously must the battering-ram be directed against institutions which from the beginning have been bad, or which plainly are hostile to a new state of things. There are institutions as inconsistent with the true aim of society, though few are as monstrous, as the regularly incorporated prostitutes of ancient Geneva were. They must be razed. All historical development contains conservatism, progress, and revolution, as Christianity itself is most conservative and most revolutionary. The vital question is, when they are in place. And from all that has been stated, it must have appeared that the institution greatly aids in the best progress of which society is capable, that which consists in organic changes, changes which lie in the very principles of continuity and conservatism themselves.
There are no countries on the European continent where such constant and vast changes are going on, in spite of all their outer revolutions, as in the United States and England, for the very reason that they are institutional governments—that there exists self-government with them; yet they move within their institutions. This truth is symbolically exemplified in Westminster Abbey and the Champ-de-Mars. Century after century the former has stood, and what course of historical development has flowed through it! What representative festivities, on the other hand, from the feast of the universal federation of France in 1790 to the distribution of eagles to the army in May, 1852, have succeeded each other on the latter—revolutionary, conventional, republican, imperial, royal, imperial-restorational, again Bourbonian, Orleanistic, socialistic, and uncrowned-imperialist and imperial—yet centralism has worked its steady dis-individualizing way through all.1 There are “sermons in stones,” and sermons in places.
[1.]We may also mention as a want of union, the fact that unanimity of all the states was required for all the most important measures, such as taxation and war
[1.]The author of the famous Oceana proposed a similar measure for England, as St. Just, “the most advanced” follower of Robespierre, did for France.
[1.]“The epitaph inscribed upon the tomb of Sardanapalus, ‘Sardanapalus, the son of Anacyndaraxos, built Anchiola and Tarsos in one day: eat, drink, and last; the rest is nothing,’ has been quoted for ages, and its antiquity is generally admitted.”—Layard's Nineveh, vol. ii. p. 478.
[2.]Constitutions, therefore, must not be changed too easily or too frequently; for, if a constitution be almost periodically changed, by the sovereign power of the people, it is obvious that the absolute power of the people in a degree enters as an element of government. Absolutism, therefore, is approached. Parliament is theoretically omnipotent in a political sense; the people, with us, are politically omnipotent; and if the people enact new constitutions every five or ten years, the convention sits, in reality, as an omnipotent parliament.
[1.]I have expressed my view on this subject in an address to a graduating class. I copy the passage here, because I believe the truth it contains important
[1.]The following is taken from a late (1852) French paper. It is of sufficient symbolic interest to find a place in a note: