Front Page Titles (by Subject) THOUGHTS ON DEMOCRACY. ( Written in Early Youth. ) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 8 (Physics and Politics, Currency Monopoly, and Essays)
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THOUGHTS ON DEMOCRACY. ( Written in Early Youth. ) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 8 (Physics and Politics, Currency Monopoly, and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 8.
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THOUGHTS ON DEMOCRACY.
There is little use in attempting to deduce the superior advantages of liberal government from long and obscure metaphysical reasonings about the social contract, framed when men were in the fishing and hunting state; for I cannot but think it very doubtful whether anything like the whole mass of mankind were ever in that condition at once, and if they were not, the contract could not have been agreed to by the whole race, and consequently cannot be binding on them.
The deductions from the social contract are exactly adapted to be set-off against those from the divine right of kings, and in the following part of this paper it is by no means my purpose to rely on either. One great distinction, often lost sight of, but by calm enquirers necessary to be kept in view, is that between democracy and autocracy, between the rule of the people and the rule of the mob. But these two have very little in common, scarcely anything in fact but that the mob are often persuaded by their demagogue rulers to carry on their designs under the name of the people. Democracy, in its proper sense, is that form by which a wise and enlightened nation govern themselves; it is a government which guarantees equal political rights to all its members; it is a government which effectually provides for the equitable dispensation of justice, and grants, even to the most outrageous political criminal, a fair trial and an opportunity for defence. Autocracy, on the other hand, can scarce be called a government, since it provides no trial, no fair hearing for any criminal—tumultuary prejudice is to be the judge, tumultuary violence the executioner; in it there is no deliberation. The people disdain to govern themselves by the laws, they make their unstable whims their only guide. It is so far from being a free government that it is the only uncontrolled despotism in existence, for in the most unlimited monarchical despotisms there is the restraint, and it may be a very powerful one, that the people will take up arms to resist the tyranny of their sovereign; but when a mob rules, who can take up arms against them? whence can relief come? where must help be sought? I am aware that this is the topic most enormously insisted on by the opponents of political freedom in general; they reason as if all popular government must generally be of this nature, but I see not why. I do not see why a whole people should not be as likely to govern themselves well as a small knot of individuals could govern them: much more so indeed, for “in proportion as a greater amount of intelligence is directed to a subject” the more light is thrown on it. Those ideas which remained dormant as long as the mind in which they were destined to originate continued solitary may be struck out by the contact of different minds. Can a subject be darkened instead of illuminated by having the light of reason directed to it? does political science differ in this respect from all other sciences? would astronomical science have ever advanced so far if only the labour of one mind had been directed to it? One man must indeed be severally devoted to a particular branch of knowledge, but in a well-constituted mind this will never be to the exclusion of all others. Take the most favourable instance conceivable: Man was sent into the world to govern himself, but intense and exclusive devotion to that object would end in making us all maniacs. It is one great advantage of free government that it opens the way to eminence, to talent, in whatever station it be placed. This advantage is inestimable. Adversity is so much the best and most effectual instructor, that even absolute monarchs, when they have had opportunities of judging, have discovered that ministers selected from the lower ranks were in general more able to be useful in the prosecution of their designs than those whose noble birth and consequent high station have given to them an exemption from its teachings. But how can this choice which may depend on whim, very likely influenced by personal appearance, a gift so fortuitous as never to be relied on by any in the common affairs of life, how can such a choice be compared with that judicious selection of merit which must be the confidence of that merit showing itself? There are certainly certain qualities, certain classes of merit more adapted than others to gain popular favour: but where the predilection for these is the result of calm deliberation and not of hasty whim these qualities will generally be found to be the ones most useful for their stations. What members are of most estimation in the House of Commons? those whose capacity for business is most fully relied on, and the luminous clearness of whose statements immediately places that assembly and the country in a position to judge of their conduct and puts them in immediate possession of the knowledge requisite for deciding on the condition of affairs brought before them and for determining on the course to be pursued. Can it not be believed that these qualities are the ones of greatest utility in managing public business. The reservation which I made in the last paragraph, namely, “that the decision must be the result of calm deliberation, not of hasty whim,” contains matter of considerable importance. To secure this is said to be impossible. I deny the fact. The people will be more likely to judge rightly than a small body of individuals, if they can but be brought to give due attention to the subject. They are notoriously more liable to be led away from the path of their true interest, but if they are allowed time for lengthened consideration, they will soon return to it: this can only be secured by delegating to an assembly of moderate members those powers which a whole people cannot in a state of considerable diversity conveniently exercise; if the measures adopted by this assembly be good, when submitted to the judgment of the people they will be applauded. I say when submitted to the people, by this meaning when, as in the English House of Commons, by periodical elections the constituents are called to decide on the conduct of their members, whether they will or will not continue to be represented by them. In this way the decision of the people is the ultimate tribunal before which the rulers must be weighed, by which decision they must stand or fall.