ricardo to trower
[Reply to 287.—Answered by 304]
Gatcomb Park 20th. Decr. 1818
My dear Trower
I was sure that I was not mistaken in judging of your sentiments by my own. I was sure that you would not have a worse opinion of me because I differed in opinion with you on a subject on which we had neither of us any interest to come to a wrong decision, and yet I am glad that I stated this conviction in my last letter, because it has drawn from you an assurance of your regard and friendship, which has given me great satisfaction. I shall proceed now without fear to consider the different arguments contained in your last letter, and first I must observe that in an enquiry into measures which are likely to produce good government, we must not confine ourselves to the question whether parliamentary reform would or would not endanger the establishment of King, Lords, and Commons. We must look steadily to the end of all government, which we agree, is the happiness of the people. As we both think that the establishment above mentioned is best calculated to secure the object which we have in view, we should if we were legislators, acting under the proper influence, make it our endeavor to establish it; but still it must be considered only as means to an end, and those regulations are the best which give us the greatest security that the end will be obtained. It is surely unwise to make the means the end, and thereby limit our enquiry to whether we may chance to strengthen or weaken one of the branches of our constitution.
I want to get all the wisdom and virtue of the country to act in the Government. Whether that end can be attained by a parliamentary reform is a different question, and remains for discussion, but your argument is that even if it could be attained you would not make use of it. Why? because it would endanger the independence of the monarchical and aristocratical branches of the constitution. Is not this saying “I think a certain form of government the best, and on this point I will not admit the wisdom and virtue of the country to decide.” Now I am a more warm admirer of our constitution than you are, for I am so persuaded of its excellence that I have no fear of putting it in the power of the wise and good to overturn it. Instead of so using this power they would more firmly establish it. Without being aware of it you are guilty of a species of intolerance, and on the same principles, you might insist on any particular system of religious belief —any particular doctrines in political economy, or any other opinions that you may have justly or unjustly imbibed. You might say these opinions appear to me essential to the people’s happiness and I will not admit even wisdom and virtue to decide upon them. I think that you will agree I am justified in these remarks when I call to your recollection the following passage in your letter. “But even admitting the electors should become as qualified for the discharge of their important duty, as could reasonably be expected, under any circumstances, still I contend that if you were to let loose in the House of Commons the full force of the popular part of our constitution it would be impossible for the other branches to preserve for a continuance, any thing beyond a mere nominal authority...unless the influence of the other branches was silently suffered to operate, to a certain extent in that House the whole form of the constitution would be changed...it would be merely a mixed government in form, but a Republic in substance.” You appear to me to have changed the subject in discussion—it is no longer an enquiry into the best means of making the people happy, but into the best means of preserving the monarchical and aristocratical branches of the constitution, for you admit that if the practice of the constitution conformed to its theory—if the people were really represented in their house of parliament and were free from the influence of the other branches, irregularly and corruptly applied, they would be the only real and efficient power in the state. Is not this admission at variance with another part of your letter, where you speak of this government being formed on a principle of the due balance of powers, the preservation of which you say is essential to its existence? If influence is necessary to the preservation of this balance—influence too not defined, nor capable of being either defined or controlled,—which you yourself say “should be measured and regulated to prevent its undue preponderance,” how can there be in the constitution itself a due balance of powers? No;—depend upon it there is no check in the constitution against this influence—it will be used at all times for the benefit of those who happen to be in possession of it, and will be under no other controul than that of their own views of advantage. The check is not in the constitution—it is as I said before in public opinion, expressed through the medium of the press—in the trial by jury—in the published speeches of a few popular members of parliament, who have no influence by their votes, but by their tongues, and in the right of convening public meetings and thereby organizing opposition—these are the checks to which we owe all the happiness and liberty we enjoy. You may think that this is the most eligible mode for the people to control their government,—I should differ with you, but this is the real question to be discussed with those who are friends to a reform of parliament, and who wish to extend the elective franchise to such of the people as would make a good use of it. It is to this point I want to conduct our argument. I want those who oppose me to acknowledge candidly that the people are not represented, and that they do not think it expedient that they should be; instead of which I meet daily with people who avow themselves friendly to moderate reform, but when they explain their views it becomes manifest that they wish for no reform at all, for they say that it would be impossible for government to proceed to any good purpose, if the people had even a majority in the House of Commons, whatever precautions you might take in bestowing the elective franchise. This is Malthus’s argument, who has been staying with me for a few days, and has just left me. I could not however bring him to confess that he really wished for no reform at all.
It must I think be admitted without qualification that there is no such thing as a balance of the three powers in our government. If it could for a moment exist it would disappear immediately that either of two out of the three powers should combine their interests against the third. In our government the mutual interest of the monarchy, and the aristocracy to combine cannot admit of a doubt, one possessing the privelege of bestowing every place of honour and emolument, and in a degree never possessed perhaps by any former government, —the other having an overwhelming influence in the legislature, which may be advantageously disposed of to the minister. No reform would be effectual to counteract this powerful combination but such a real representation of the people as should give them a majority in the house of commons.
In one part of your letter you were disposed to yield the substance of all that I am contending for, but you suddenly recollected that it might endanger the independence of the monarchy and aristocracy, and you withdrew your concession. You say that if my scheme of reform went further you would be more disposed to go along with me. You call upon me to “limit the right of voting at Elections to such persons who by their education have the ability to decide correctly” and then you would have fewer objections to reform. In other words you would require security for a good choice of representatives and this is precisely what I want. If I can not obtain it without limiting the elective franchise to the very narrowest bounds, I would so limit it; but I am persuaded that we should most securely get our object, and should be less exposed to hazards of a different kind, by extending the elective franchise,—not indeed universally to all the people, but to that part of them which cannot be supposed to have any interest in overturning the rights of property. Come back to this admission, and our difference will not be very difficult to settle, but do not mock us with the name of a representative government, denying us all the advantages which may be derived from that form.
The report that you have heard respecting my daughter’s approaching marriage is true, but it is not a subject of congratulation to me.
Every body joins in lamenting the untimely end of Sir S. Romilly, he was a very useful man, and would have laboured effectually in procuring for us an amelioration of the criminal law.
The second edition of my book is in the press. I have made very few alterations in it. Murray has just received a copy of a French translation of the first edition,—the only copy in London, with notes by M. Say . I have looked over the notes—they may be considered as M. Say’s defence of those opinions of his on which I have animadverted. It would not be becoming in me to decide which of us is nearest to the truth, I must leave impartial readers to do that. They are written in perfect good temper, and where his conscience will allow him to praise me, he does it in the most flattering manner. The French edition is in two volumes.
Malthus came over from Bath and stayed with me at Gatcomb for a very few days. We have neither of us lost our interest in the discussion of questions which we have so often debated before. His work will not appear till the end of next year.
Mrs. Ricardo joins with me in kind regards to Mrs. Trower.
Ever truly Yours