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CHAPTER V: In which an Inquiry is made, whether it would be an Advantage to public Liberty, that the Laws should be enacted by the Votes of the People at large. - Jean Louis De Lolme, The Constitution of England; Or, an Account of the English Government 
The Constitution of England; Or, an Account of the English Government, edited and with an Introduction by David Lieberman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007).
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In which an Inquiry is made, whether it would be an Advantage to public Liberty, that the Laws should be enacted by the Votes of the People at large.
But it will be said, whatever may be the wisdom of the English Laws, how great soever their precautions may be with regard to the safety of the individual, the People, as they do not themselves expressly enact them, cannot be looked upon as a free People. The Author of the Social Contract carries this opi-nion even farther; he says, that, “though the people of England think they are free, they are much mistaken; they are so only during the election of Members for Parliament: as soon as these are elected, the People are slaves—they are nothing” (a) .
Before I answer this objection, I shall observe that the word Liberty is one of those which have been most misunderstood or misapplied.
Thus, at Rome, where that class of Citizens who were really Masters of the State, were sensible that a lawful regular authority, once trusted to a single Ruler, would put an end to their tyranny, they taught the People to believe, that, provided those who exercised a military power over them, and overwhelmed them with insults, went by the names of Consules, Dictatores, Patricii, Nobiles,1 in a word, by any other appellation than that horrid one of Rex, they were free, and that such a valuable situation must be preserved at the price of every calamity.
In the same manner, certain Writers of the present age, misled by their inconsiderate admiration of the Governments of ancient times, and perhaps also by a desire of presenting lively contrasts to what they call the degenerate manners of our modern times, have cried up the governments of Sparta and Rome, as the only ones fit for us to imitate.2 In their opinions, the only proper employment of a free Citizen is, to be either incessantly assembled in the forum, or preparing for war.—Being valiant, inured to hardships, inflamed with an ardent love of one’s Country, which is, after all, nothing more than an ardent desire of injuring all Mankind for the sake of that Society of which we are Members—and with an ardent love of glory, which is likewise nothing more than an ardent desire of committing slaughter, in order to make afterwards a boast of it, have appeared to these Writers to be the only social qualifications worthy of our esteem, and of the encouragement of law-givers (a) . And while, in order to support such opinions, they have used a profusion of exaggerated expressions without any distinct meaning, and perpetually repeated, though without defining them, the words dastardliness, corruption, greatness ofsoul, and virtue, they have never once thought of telling us the only thing that was worth our knowing, which is, whether men were happy under those Governments which they so much exhorted us to imitate.
Nor, while they thus misapprehended the only rational design of civil Societies, have they better understood the true end of the particular institutions by which they were to be regulated. They were satisfied when they saw the few who really governed every thing in the State, at times perform the illusory ceremony of assembling the body of the People, that they might appear to consult them: and the mere giving of votes, under any disadvantage in the manner of giving them, and how much soever the law might afterwards be neglected that was thus pretended to have been made in common, has appeared to them to be Liberty.
But those Writers are in the right: a Man who contributes by his vote to the passing of a law, has himself made the law; in obeying it, he obeys himself,—he therefore is free. A play on words, and nothing more. The individual who has voted in a popular legislative Assembly, has not made the law that has passed in it; he has only contributed, or seemed to contribute, towards enacting it, for his thousandth, or even ten thousandth share: he has had no opportunity of making his objections to the proposed law, or of canvassing it, or of proposing restrictions to it, and he has only been allowed to express his assent, or dissent. When a law is passed agreeably to his vote, it is not as a consequence of this his vote that his will happens to take place; it is because a number of other Men have accidentally thrown themselves on the same side with him:—when a law contrary to his intentions is enacted, he must nevertheless submit to it.
This is not all; for though we should suppose that to give a vote is the essential constituent of liberty, yet, such liberty could only be said to last for a single moment, after which it becomes necessary to trust entirely to the discretion of other persons, that is, according to this doctrine, to be no longer free. It becomes necessary, for instance, for the Citizen who has given his vote, to rely on the honesty of those who collect the suffrages; and more than once have false declarations been made of them.
The Citizen must also trust to other persons for the execution of those things which have been resolved upon in common: and when the assembly shall have separated, and he shall find himself alone, in the presence of the Men who are invested with the public power, of the Consuls, for instance, or of the Dictator, he will have but little security for the continuance of his liberty, if he has only that of having contributed by his suffrage towards enacting a law which they are determined to neglect.
What then is Liberty? Liberty, I would answer, so far as it is possible for it to exist in a Society of Beings whose interests are almost perpetually opposed to each other, consists in this, that, every Man, while he respects the persons of others, and allows them quietly to enjoy the produce of their industry, be certain himself likewise to enjoy the produce of his own industry, and that his person be also secure. But to contribute by one’s suffrage to procure these advantages to the Community,—to have a share in establishing that order, that general arrangement of things, by means of which an individual, lost as it were in the croud, is effectually protected,—to lay down the rules to be observed by those who, being invested with a considerable power, are charged with the defence of individuals, and provide that they should never transgress them,—these are functions, are acts of Government, but not constituent parts of Liberty.
To express the whole in two words: To concur by one’s suffrage in enacting laws, is to enjoy a share, whatever it may be, of Power: to live in a state where the laws are equal for all, and sure to be executed (whatever may be the means by which these advantages are attained) is to be free.
Be it so; we grant that to give one’s suffrage is not liberty itself, but only a means of procuring it, and a means too which may degenerate to mere form; we grant also, that it is possible that other expedients might be found for that purpose, and that, for a Man to decide that a State with whose Government and interior administration he is unacquainted, is a State in which the People are slaves, are nothing, merely because the Comitia of ancient Rome are no longer to be met with in it, is a somewhat precipitate decision.3 But still we must continue to think, that liberty would be much more complete, if the People at large were expressly called upon to give their opinion concerning the particular provisions by which it is to be secured, and that the English laws, for instance, if they were made by the suffrages of all, would be wiser, more equitable, and, above all, more likely to be executed. To this objection, which is certainly specious, I shall endeavour to give an answer.
If, in the first formation of a civil Society, the only care to be taken was that of establishing, once for all, the several duties which every individual owes to others, and to the State,—if those who are intrusted with the care of procuring the performance of these duties, had neither any ambition, nor any other private passions, which such employment might put in motion, and furnish the means of gratifying; in a word, if looking upon their function as a mere task of duty, they were never tempted to deviate from the intentions of those who had appointed them, I confess that in such a case, there might be no inconvenience in allowing every individual to have a share in the government of the community of which he is a member; or rather I ought to say, in such a Society, and among such Beings, there would be no occasion for any Government.
But experience teaches us that many more precautions, indeed, are necessary to oblige Men to be just towards each other: nay, the very first expedients that may be expected to conduce to such an end, supply the most fruitful source of the evils which are proposed to be prevented. Those laws which were intended to be equal for all, are soon warped to the private convenience of those who have been made the administrators of them:—instituted at first for the protection of all, they soon are made only to defend the usurpations of a few; and as the People continue to respect them, while those to whose guardianship they were intrusted make little account of them, they at length have no other effect than that of supplying the want of real strength in those few who have contrived to place themselves at the head of the community, and of rendering regular and free from danger the tyranny of the smaller number over the greater.
To remedy, therefore, evils which thus have a tendency to result from the very nature of things,—to oblige those who are in a manner Masters of the law, to conform themselves to it,—to render ineffectual the silent, powerful, and ever active conspiracy of those who govern, requires a degree of knowledge and a spirit of perseverance, which are not to be expected from the multitude.
The greater part of those who compose this multitude, taken up with the care of providing for their subsistence, have neither sufficient leisure, nor even, in consequence of their more imperfect education, the degree of information requisite for functions of this kind. Nature, besides, who is sparing of her gifts, has bestowed upon only a few Men an understanding capable of the complicated researches of Legislation; and, as a sick Man trusts to his Physician, a Client to his Lawyer, so the greater number of the Citizens must trust to those who have more abilities than themselves for the execution of things which, at the same time that they so materially concern them, require so many qualifications to perform them with any degree of sufficiency.
To these considerations, of themselves so material, another must be added, which is if possible of still greater weight. This is, that the multitude, in consequence of their very being a multitude, are incapable of coming to any mature resolution.
Those who compose a popular Assembly are not actuated, in the course of their de-liberations, by any clear and precise view of any present or positive personal interest. As they see themselves lost as it were in the croud of those who are called upon to exercise the same function with themselves,—as they know that their individual votes will make no change in the public resolution, and that, to whatever side they may incline, the general result will nevertheless be the same, they do not undertake to enquire how far the things proposed to them agree with the whole of the laws already in being, or with the present circumstances of the State, because Men will not enter upon a laborious task, when they know that it can scarcely answer any purpose.
It is, however, with dispositions of this kind, and each relying on all, that the Assembly of the People meets. But as very few among them have previously considered the subjects on which they are called upon to determine, very few carry along with them any opinion or inclination, or at least any inclination of their own, and to which they are resolved to adhere. As however it is necessary at last to come to some resolution, the major part of them are determined by reasons which they would blush to pay any regard to, on much less se-rious occasions. An unusual sight, a change of the ordinary place of the Assembly, a sudden disturbance, a rumour, are, amidst the general want of a spirit of decision, the sufficiens ratio4 of the determination of the greatest part (a) ; and from this assemblage of separate wills, thus formed hastily and without reflection, a general will results, which is also void of reflection.
If, amidst these disadvantages, the Assembly were left to themselves, and no body had an interest to lead them into error, the evil, though very great, would not however be extreme, because such an assembly never being called upon but to determine upon an affirmative or negative, that is, never having but two cases to choose between, there would be an equal chance for their choosing either; and it might be hoped that at every other turn they would take the right side.
But the combination of those who share either in the actual exercise of the public Power, or in its advantages, do not thus allow themselves to sit down in inaction. They wake, while the People sleep. Entirely taken up with the thoughts of their own power, they live but to increase it. Deeply versed in the management of public business, they see at once all the possible consequences of measures. And as they have the exclusive direction of the springs of Government, they give rise, at their pleasure, to every incident that may influence the minds of a multitude who are not on their guard, and who wait for some event or other that may finally determine them.
It is they who convene the Assembly, and dissolve it; it is they who offer propositions, and make speeches to it. Ever active in turning to their advantage every circumstance that happens, they equally avail themselves of the tractableness of the People during public calamities, and its heedlessness in times of prosperity. When things take a different turn from what they expected, they dismiss the Assembly. By presenting to it many propositions at once, and which are to be voted upon in the lump, they hide what is destined to promote their own private views, or give a colour to it, by joining it with things which they know will take hold of the minds of the People (a) . By presenting in their speeches, arguments, and facts, which Men have no time to examine, they lead the People into gross, and yet decisive errors; and the commonplaces of rhetoric, supported by their personal influence, ever enable them to draw to their side the majority of votes.
On the other hand, the few (for there are, after all, some) who, having meditated on the proposed question, see the consequences of the decisive step which is just going to be taken, being lost in the croud, cannot make their feeble voices to be heard in the midst of the universal noise and confusion. They have it no more in their power to stop the general motion, than a Man in the midst of an army on a march, has it in his power to avoid marching. In the mean time, the People are giving their suffrages; a majority appears in favour of the proposal; it is finally proclaimed as the general will of all; and it is at bottom nothing more than the effect of the artifices of a few designing Men, who are exulting among themselves (a)
In a word, those who are acquainted with Republican Governments, and, in general, who know the manner in which business is transacted in numerous Assemblies, will not scruple to affirm, that the few who are united together, who take an active part in public affairs, and whose station makes them con-spicuous, have such an advantage over the many who turn their eyes towards them, and are without union among themselves, that, even with a middling degree of skill, they can at all times direct, at their pleasure, the general resolutions;—that, as a consequence of the very nature of things, there is no proposal, however absurd, to which a numerous assembly of Men may not, at one time or other, be brought to assent;—and that laws would be wiser, and more likely to procure the advantage of all, if they were to be made by drawing lots, or casting dice, than by the suffrages of a multitude.
[(a) ]See M. Rousseau’s Social Contract, chap. xv. [[De Lolme provides an incomplete reference to Rousseau’s famous dismissal of English political freedom; see The Social Contract, book 3, chapter 15.]]
[1. ]“Consuls, dictators, patricians, nobles.” Patricians comprised a privileged class of Roman citizens who monopolized many important religious and civic offices during the period of Rome’s early development. For the other institutions, see above, book 2, chapter 2, p. 151, note 1.
[2. ]Although Rousseau served as a special target in De Lolme’s criticism of those theorists who equated liberty with popular legislative bodies, he here makes clear that his comments were designed to address the larger body of early modern republican theorists.
[(a) ]I have used all the above expressions in the same sense in which they were used in the ancient Commonwealths, and still are by most of the Writers who describe their Governments.
[3. ]The Roman Republic contained several assemblies, or comitia, each of which had legislative power: the comitia centuriata and the comitia tributa (both comprising the entire body of citizens) and the concilium plebis (comprising only plebeians).
[4. ]“Sufficient reason.”
[(a) ]Every one knows of how much importance it was in the Roman Commonwealth, to assemble the People, in one place rather than another. In order to change entirely the nature of their resolutions, it was often sufficient to hide from them, or let them see, the Capitol.
[(a) ]It was thus the Senate, at Rome, assumed to itself the power of laying taxes. They promised, in the time of the war against the Veientes, to give pay to such Citizens as would inlist; and to that end they established a tribute. The people, solely taken up with the idea of not going to war at their own expence, were transported with so much joy, that they crouded at the door of the Senate, and laying hold of the hands of the Senators, called them their Fathers—Nihil unquam acceptum à plebe tanto gaudio traditur: concursum itaque Curiam esse, prehensatasque exeuntium manus, Patres vere appellatos, &c. See Tit. Liv. book iv. [[De Lolme cites Titus Livius (Livy), Ab Urbe Condita, book 4.60.1–2. The full passage reads: “Nothing, it is said, was ever welcomed by the plebs with such rejoicing. Crowds gathered at the Curia and men grasped the hands of the senators as they came out saying that they were rightly called Fathers, and confessing that they had brought it to pass that no one, so long as he retained a particle of strength, would grudge his life’s blood to so generous a country.”]]
[(a) ]I might confirm all these things by numberless instances from ancient History; but, if I may be allowed, in this case, to draw examples from my own Country, & celebrare domestica facta [[“And to record events familiar to me.”, I shall relate facts which will be no less to the purpose. In Geneva, in the year 1707, a law was enacted, that a General Assembly of the People should be held every five years, to treat of the affairs of the Republic; but the Magistrates, who dreaded those Assemblies, soon obtained from the Citizens themselves the repeal of the law; and the first resolution of the People, in the first of these periodical Assemblies (in the year 1712) was to abolish them for ever. The profound secrecy with which the Magistrates prepared their proposal to the Citizens on that subject, and the sudden manner in which the latter, when assembled, were acquainted with it, and made to give their votes upon it, have indeed accounted but imperfectly for this strange determination of the People; and the consternation which seized the whole Assembly when the result of the suffrages was proclaimed, has confirmed many in the opinion that some unfair means had been used. The whole transaction has been kept secret to this day; but the common opinion on this subject, which has been adopted by M. Rousseau in his Lettres de la Montagne, is this: the Magistrates, it is said, had privately instructed the Secretaries in whose ears the Citizens were to whisper their suffrages: when a Citizen said, approbation, he was understood to approve the proposal of the Magistrates; when he said, rejection, he was understood to reject the periodical Assemblies. De Lolme refers to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1764 Lettres de la montagne (Letters from the mountain), which analyzed and attacked the same political developments in Geneva treated by De Lolme here, by which the Council of the Twenty-Five frustrated the 1707 effort to restore the political capacity of the General Assembly. For these institutions, see above, book 2, chapter 4, pp. 160–61, note a.