Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. XXIII.: of national assemblies - An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. II.
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CHAP. XXIII.: of national assemblies - William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. II. 
An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, vol. 2 (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1793).
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of national assemblies
they produce a fictitious unanimity—an unnatural uniformity of opinion.—causes of this uniformity.—consequences of the mode of decision by vote—1. perversion of reason—2. contentious disputes—3. the triumph of ignoranceandvicex2014societyincapableofactingfromitselfx2014ofbeingwellconductedbyothersx2014conclusionx2014modificationofsion.—modification of democracy that results from these considerations.
book v. chap. xxiiI They produce a fictitious unanimity:In the first place the existence of a national assembly introduces the evils of a fictitious unanimity. The public, guided by such an assembly, acts with concert, or else the assembly is a nugatory excrescence. But it is impossible that this unanimity can really exist. The individuals who constitute a nation, cannot take into consideration a variety of important questions, without forming different sentiments respecting them. In reality all matters that are brought before such an assembly are decided by a majority of votes, and the minority, after having exposed with all the power of eloquence and force of reasoning of which they are capable the injustice and folly of the measures adopted, arebook v. chap. xxiii obliged in a certain sense to assist in carrying them into execution. Nothing can more directly contribute to the depravation of the human understanding and character. It inevitably renders mankind timid, dissembling and corrupt. He that is not accustomed exclusively to act upon the dictates of his own understanding, must fall infinitely short of that energy and simplicity of which our nature is capable. He that contributes his personal exertions or his property to the support of a cause which he believes to be unjust, will quickly lose that accurate discrimination and nice sensibility of moral rectitude which are the principal ornaments of reason.
Secondly, the existence of national councils produces a certainan unnatural uniformity of opinions. species of real unanimity, unnatural in its character, and pernicious in its effects. The genuine and wholsome state of mind is, to be unloosed from shackles, and to expand every fibre of its frame according to the independent and individual impressions of truth upon that mind. How great would be the progress of intellectual improvement, if men were unfettered by the prejudices of education, unseduced by the influence of a corrupt state of society, and accustomed to yield without fear to the guidance of truth, however unexplored might be the regions and unexpected the conclusions to which she conducted us? We cannot advance in the voyage of happiness, unless we be wholly at large upon the stream that would carry us thither: the anchor, that we at first looked upon as the instrument of our safety, will book v. chap. xxiii at last appear to be the means of detaining our progress. Unanimity of a certain species will be the result of perfect freedom of enquiry, and this unanimity would, in a state of perfect freedom, become hourly more conspicuous. But the unanimity, that results from men's having a visible standard by which to adjust their sentiments, is deceitful and pernicious.
Causes of this uniformity. In numerous assemblies a thousand motives influence our judgments, independently of reason and evidence. Every man looks forward to the effects which the opinions he avows will produce on his success. Every man connects himself with some sect or party. The activity of his thought is shackled at every turn by the fear that his associates may disclaim him. This effect is strikingly visible in the present state of the British parliament, where men, whose faculties are comprehensive almost beyond all former example, are induced by these motives sincerely to espouse the most contemptible and clearly exploded errors.
Consequences of the mode of decision by vote: 1. perversion of reason: Thirdly, the debates of a national assembly are distorted from their reasonable tenour by the necessity of their being uniformly terminated by a vote. Debate and discussion are in their own nature highly conducive to intellectual improvement; but they lose this salutary character the moment they are subjected to this unfortunate condition. What can be more unreasonable, than to demand, that argument, the usual quality of which is gradually and imperceptibly to enlighten the mind, should declare its effect in the close of a single conversation? No sooner does thisbook v. chap. xxiii circumstance occur than the whole scene changes its character. The orator no longer enquires after permanent conviction, but transitory effect. He seeks rather to take advantage of our prejudices than to enlighten our judgment. That which might otherwise have been a scene of philosophic and moral enquiry, is changed into wrangling, tumult and precipitation.
Another circumstance that arises out of the decision by vote,2. contentious disputes: is the necessity of constructing a form of words that shall best meet the sentiments and be adapted to the preconceived ideas of a multitude of men. What can be conceived of at once more ludicrous and disgraceful, than the spectacle of a set of rational beings employed for hours together in weighing particles and adjusting commas? Such is the scene that is perpetually witnessed in clubs and private societies. In parliaments this sort of business is usually adjusted before the measure becomes a subject of public inspection. But it does not the less exist; and sometimes it occurs in the other mode, so that, when numerous amendments have been made to suit the corrupt interest of imperious pretenders, the Herculean task remains at last to reduce the chaos into a grammatical and intelligible form.
The whole is then wound up with that intolerable insult upon3. the triumph of ignorance and vice. all reason and justice, the deciding upon truth by the casting up of numbers. Thus every thing that we have been accustomed book v. chap. xxiii to esteem most sacred, is determined, at best by the weakest heads in the assembly, but, as it not less frequently happens, by the most corrupt and dishonourable intentions.
Society incapable of acting from itself: In the last place, national assemblies will by no means be thought to deserve our direct approbation, if we recollect for a moment the absurdity of that fiction by which society is considered, as it has been termed, as a moral individual. It is in vain that we endeavour to counteract the immutable laws of necessity. A multitude of men after all our ingenuity will still remain no more than a multitude of men. Nothing can intellectually unite them short of equal capacity and identical perception. So long as the varieties of mind shall remain, the force of society can no otherwise be concentrated, than by one man for a shorter or a longer term taking the lead of the rest, and employing their force, whether material or dependent on the weight of their character, in a mechanical manner, just as he would employ the force of a tool or a machine. All government corresponds in a certain degree to what the Greeks denominated a tyranny. The difference is, that in despotic countries mind is depressed by an uniform usurpation; while in republics it preserves a greater portion of its activity, and the usurpation more easily conforms itself to the fluctuations of opinion.
of being well conducted by others. The pretence of collective wisdom is the most palpable of all impostures. The acts of the society can never rise above the suggestions of this or that individual who is a member of it. Letbook v. chap. xxiii us enquire whether society, considered as an agent, can really become the equal of certain individuals of whom it is composed. And here, without staying to examine what ground we have to expect that the wisest member of the society will actually take the lead in it, we find two obvious reasons to persuade us that, whatever be the degree of wisdom inherent in him that really superintends, the acts which he performs in the name of the society will be both less virtuous and less able, than under other circumstances they might be expected to be. In the first place, there are few men who, with the consciousness of being able to cover their responsibility under the name of a society, will not venture upon measures, less direct in their motives, or less justifiable in the experiment, than they would have chosen to adopt in their own persons. Secondly, men who act under the name of a society, are deprived of that activity and energy which may belong to them in their individual character. They have a multitude of followers to draw after them, whose humours they must consult, and to whose slowness of apprehension they must accommodate themselves. It is for this reason that we frequently see men of the most elevated genius dwindle into vulgar leaders, when they become involved in the busy scenes of public life.
From these reasonings we are sufficiently authorised to conclude,Conclusion. that national assemblies, or in other words assemblies instituted for the joint purpose of adjusting the differences book v. chap. xxiii between district and district, and of consulting respecting the best mode of repelling foreign invasion, however necessary to be had recourse to upon certain occasions, ought to be employed as sparingly as the nature of the case will admit. They should either never be elected but upon extraordinary emergencies, like the dictator of the ancient Romans, or else sit periodically, one day for example in a year, with a power of continuing their sessions within a certain limit; to hear the complaints and representations of their constituents. The former of these modes is greatly to be preferred. Several of the reasons already adduced are calculated to show, that election itself is of a nature not to be employed but when the occasion demands it. There would be no difficulty in suggesting expedients relative to the regular originating of national assemblies. It would be most suitable to past habits and experience, that a general election should take place whenever a certain number of districts demanded it. It would be most agreeable to rigid simplicity and equity that an assembly of two or two hundred districts should take place, in exact proportion to the number of districts by whom that measure was desired.
Modification of democracy that results from these considerations. It cannot reasonably be denied that all the objections which have been most loudly reiterated against democracy, become null in an application to the form of government which has now been delineated. Here is no opening for tumult, for the tyranny of a multitude drunk with unlimited power, for political ambition on the part of the few, or restless jealousy and precaution on thebook v. chap. xxiii part of the many. Here no demagogue would find a suitable occasion for rendering the multitude the blind instrument of his purposes. Men in such a state of society would understand their happiness and cherish it. The true reason why the mass of mankind has so often been made the dupe of knaves, has been the mysterious and complicated nature of the social system. Once annihilate the quackery of government, and the most homebred understanding will be prepared to scorn the shallow artifices of the state juggler that would mislead him.