Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V: the theoretical foundations of democracy - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER V: the theoretical foundations of democracy - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the theoretical foundations of democracy
“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (American Declaration of Independence, 1776.)
“Men are born and continue equal in respect of their rights.
“The end of political society is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These Rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
“The principle of all Sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body, no individual, can exert any authority which is not expressly derived from it.”
“All citizens have a right to concur personally, or through their representatives in making the law. Being equal in its eyes, then, they are all equally admissible to all dignities, posts, and public employments.
“No one ought to be molested on account of his opinions, even his religious opinions.” (Declaration of the Rights of Man made by the National Assembly of France, August 1791.)
These two declarations, delivered authoritatively by two bodies of men at two moments of far-reaching historical importance, contain the fundamental dogmas, a sort of Apostles' Creed, of democracy. They are the truths on which it claims to rest, they embody the appeal it makes to human reason. Slightly varied in expression, their substance may be stated as follows.
Each man who comes into the world comes into it Free, with a mind to think for himself, a will to act for himself. The subjection of one man to another except by his own free will is against Nature. All men are born Equal, with an equal right to the pursuit of happiness. That each man may secure this right and preserve his liberty as a member of a community, he must have an equal share in its government, that government being created and maintained by the consent of the community. Equality is the guarantee of independence.
These axioms, being delivered as self-evident truths, antecedent to and independent of experience, require no proof. They are propounded as parts of the universal Law of Nature, written on men's hearts, and therefore true always and everywhere.
While the Declarations of the Natural Rights of Man made at Philadelphia and at Paris were resounding through the world there were other thinkers who, like some Greek philosophers more than two thousand years before, were drawing from the actual experience of mankind arguments which furnished another set of foundations on which democracy might rest. Testing the value of a principle by its practical results, they propounded a number of propositions, some of which may be given as familiar examples.
Liberty is a good thing, because it develops the character of the individual, and conduces to the welfare of the community. When one man, or a few men, rule over others, some of the subjects are sure to resent control and rebel against it, troubling the general peace. No one is good enough to be trusted with unlimited power. Unless he be a saint — perhaps even if he be a saint — he is sure to abuse it.
Every man is the best judge of his own interest, and therefore best knows what sort of government and what laws will promote that interest. Hence those laws and that government will presumably be the best for a community as a whole which are desired by the largest number of its members.
Two men are presumably better able than one to judge what is for the common good. Three men are wiser still, and so on. Hence the larger the number of members of the community who have a right to give their opinion, the more likely to be correct (other things being equal) is the decision reached by the community.
Individual men may have selfish aims, possibly injurious to the community, but these will be restrained by the other members of the community whose personal aims will be different. Thus the self-regarding purposes of individuals will be eliminated, and the common aims which the bulk of the community desires to pursue will prevail.
As every man has some interest in the well-being of the community, a part at least of his own personal interest being bound up with it, every man will have a motive for bearing his share in its government, and he will seek to bear it, so far as his personal motives do not collide therewith.
Inequality, by arousing jealousy and envy, provokes discontent. Discontent disturbs the harmony of a community and induces strife. Hence equality in political rights, while it benefits the community by opening to talent the opportunity of rendering good service, tends also to peace and good order.
To sum up, government by the whole people best secures the two main objects of all Governments — Justice and Happiness, Justice, because no man or class or group will be strong enough to wrong others; Happiness, because each man, judging best what is for his own good, will have every chance of pursuing it. The principles of liberty and equality are justified by the results they yield.
From these propositions it follows that the admission on equal terms of the largest possible number of members of a community to share in its government on equal terms best promotes the satisfaction of all the members as individuals, and also the welfare of the community as a whole; and these being the chief ends for which government exists, a government of the people by themselves is commended by the experience of mankind.
Reflective minds in our day will find arguments of this type more profitable than the purely abstract doctrine of Natural Rights, a series of propositions called self-evident, incapable of proof or disproof, interpretable and applicable in whatever sense the believer may please to give them. But these transcendental axioms have in fact done more to commend democracy to mankind than any utilitarian arguments drawn from history, for they appeal to emotion at least as much as to reason. They are simpler and more direct. Their very vagueness and the feeling that man is lifted to a higher plane, where Liberty and Equality are proclaimed as indefeasible rights, gave them a magic power. Rousseau fired a thousand for one whom Benthamism convinced.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century the spirit of reforming change was everywhere in the air. Reforms were long overdue, for the world had been full of tyranny, inequality, and injustice. But the rapacity and cruelty of the Middle Ages had been borne patiently, save at moments of exceptional excitement, because violence and the rule of force were then taken as part of the nature of things. In a quieter time, when ferocity had abated and knowledge had spread among the laity, setting free men's tongues and pens, injustices were more acutely resented, privileges of rank became odious, administrative abuses that had once passed unnoticed began to be felt as scandals. Then the spirit of reform suddenly kindled into a spirit of destruction. The doctrine of Natural Rights overthrew the respect for tradition, for it acted in the name of Justice, sparing neither birth nor wealth, and treating “vested rights” as vested wrongs. This was moreover the age of Illumination, when Authority, heretofore accustomed to enforce its decrees by persecution, had been dethroned that Reason might reign in its stead. Reason, accompanied and inspired by Justice, was expected to usher in a better world, with the sister angel Fraternity following in their train, because human nature itself would be renovated. Inequality and repression had engendered one set of vices in rulers and another in their subjects — selfishness and violence, hatred, perfidy, and revenge. Under good government — and in an age of reason little government would be needed — human nature, no longer corrupted by examples of successful wickedness, would return to the pristine virtues the Creator had meant to implant. With Liberty and Equality the naturally good instincts would spring up into the flower of rectitude, and bear the fruits of brotherly affection. Men would work for the community, rejoicing not merely in their own freedom, but because they desired the welfare of others also. These beliefs were the motive power which for a time made faith in democracy almost a religion. It was a finer spirit than that of later revolutionary extremists, by so much as Hope is better than Hatred, the dream of a moral regeneration more ennobling than the prospect of material advantage.
The blast of destruction which horrified Burke, whose insight perceived what havoc the uprooting of ancient habits and traditions must work, was to the ardent souls of those days a fresh breeze of morning, clearing away the foul vapours that had hung over an enslaved world. They desired to destroy only in order to rebuild upon an enduring foundation, finding that foundation in the imprescriptible Rights of Man. Wordsworth has described the enthusiasm of that time in memorable words: —
To examine and criticize the doctrine of Natural Rights, round which an immense literature has grown up, would be impossible within the limits of this book, nor is such an examination needed, for I am here dealing with the phenomena of democracy, not with its theoretical basis. But it must be remembered that the conception of an Ideal Democracy which emerged in the eighteenth century has continued to affect politics not only on the speculative but on the practical side also. The view that natural justice prescribes this form of government continues to be reinforced by the belief that human nature, enlightened and controlled by Reason, may be expected so to improve under the influences of liberty and equality, peace and education, as to make that ideal a reality. An Ideal Democracy — the expression comes from Plato's remark that a pattern of the perfect State is perhaps stored up somewhere in heaven — may be taken to mean a community in which the sense of public duty and an altruistic spirit fill the minds and direct the wills of the large majority of the citizens, so that the Average Citizen stands on the level of him whom we sometimes meet and describe as the Model Citizen. What then, expressed in the terms of our own day, would such a community be?
In it the average citizen will give close and constant attention to public affairs, recognizing that this is his interest as well as his duty. He will try to comprehend the main issues of policy, bringing to them an independent and impartial mind, which thinks first not of his own but of the general interest. If, owing to inevitable differences of opinion as to what are the measures needed for the general welfare, parties become inevitable, he will join one, and attend its meetings, but will repress the impulses of party spirit. Never failing to come to the polls, he will vote for his party candidate only if satisfied by his capacity and honesty. He will be ready to serve on a local Board or Council, and to be put forward as a candidate for the legislature (if satisfied of his own competence), because public service is recognized as a duty. With such citizens as electors, the legislature will be composed of upright and capable men, single-minded in their wish to serve the nation. Bribery in constituencies, corruption among public servants, will have disappeared. Leaders may not be always single-minded, nor assemblies always wise, nor administrators efficient, but all will be at any rate honest and zealous, so that an atmosphere of confidence and goodwill will prevail. Most of the causes that make for strife will be absent, for there will be no privileges, no advantages to excite jealousy. Office will be sought only because it gives opportunities for useful service. Power will be shared by all, and a career open to all alike. Even if the law does not — perhaps it cannot — prevent the accumulation of fortunes, these will be few and not inordinate, for public vigilance will close the illegitimate paths to wealth. All but the most depraved persons will obey and support the law, feeling it to be their own. There will be no excuse for violence, because the constitution will provide a remedy for every grievance. Equality will produce a sense of human solidarity, will refine manners, and increase brotherly kindness.
Some of the finest minds of Wordsworth's time, both in France and in England, hoped for the sort of community I have outlined. We hear less about it now, for democracy has arrived, and one hundred and thirty years have brought disappointments. New questions regarding the functions of the State have arisen dividing the votaries of democracy into different schools, one of which, denying the “natural right” to hold property proclaimed in 1789, conceives Nature to prescribe equality in property as well as in civic status. But though there is not much talk about Natural Rights, the influence of that old theory is still discernible. It gives strength to the movement for asserting popular sovereignty in the form of direct legislation by the people through the Initiative and Referendum, and their direct action in recalling officials without a vote by the legislature or recourse to courts of law. It was a main factor in securing the extension of the electoral suffrage to women. In England, the argument generally accepted in 1870 that fitness for the exercise of the suffrage should be a pre-condition to the grant of it was in 1918 tossed contemptuously on the dustheap of obsolete prejudices, because a new generation had come to regard the electoral franchise as a natural right. The same tendency appears in the readiness now shown to grant self-government to countries inhabited by races devoid of political experiences, such as the inhabitants of India and the Philippine Islands, and to sweep away the constitutional checks once deemed needful. If restrictions on the power of the people are deemed inconsistent with democracy, it is because democratic institutions are now deemed to carry with them, as a sort of gift of Nature, the capacity to use them well.
It was easy to idealize democracy when the destruction of despotism and privilege was the first and necessary step to a better world. Nowadays any one can smile or sigh over the faith and hope that inspired the successive revolutions that convulsed the European Continent in and after 1789. Any one can point out that men mistook the pernicious channels in which selfish propensities had been flowing for those propensities themselves, which were sure to find new channels when the old had been destroyed. Yet the hopes of Wordsworth's generation were less unwarranted than we are now apt to think them. People felt then, as we cannot so acutely feel to-day, how many evils had been wrought by a tyranny that spared neither souls nor bodies. It was natural to expect not only the extinction of those abuses which the Revolution did extinguish, first for France and thereafter for most West European countries, but something like a regeneration of humanity. Even in sober England, even in America which had never had much to suffer from misgovernment, there were great and good men who pardoned many of the excesses of the Revolution for the sake of the blessings that seemed likely to follow.
The abstract doctrines of the Revolutionary epoch and the visions of a better world that irradiated those doctrines, blurred as they have been in the lapse of years, have never ceased to recommend popular government to men of sanguine temper. But the Vision, the picture of an Ideal Democracy, a government upright and wise, beneficent and stable, as no government save that of the people for the people can be, has had greater power than the abstract doctrines, mighty as was their explosive force when they were first proclaimed. It is the conception of a happier life for all, coupled with a mystic faith in the People, that great multitude through whom speaks the Voice of the Almighty Power that makes for righteousness — it is this that constitutes the vital impulse of democracy. The country where the ideal democracy exists has not yet been discovered, but the faith in its existence has survived many disappointments, many disillusionments. Many more will follow, but them also the faith will survive. From time to time hope is revived by the appearance of a group of disinterested reformers, whose zeal rouses a nation to sweep away abuses and leaves things better than it found them. It is only sloth and torpor and the acquiescence in things known to be evil that are deadly. So we may hope that the Ideal will never cease to exert its power, but continue to stand as a beacon tower to one generation after another.