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REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT—WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? (1857) - Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom 
The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, introduction by Albert Jay Nock (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981).
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REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT—WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? (1857)
This essay was first published in The Westminster Review for October 1857 and was reprinted in Spencer’s Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative (London and New York, 1892, in three volumes.
Shakespeare’s simile for adversity—
might fitly be used also as a simile for a disagreeable truth. Repulsive as is its aspect, the hard fact which dissipates a cherished illusion, is presently found to contain the germ of a more salutary belief. The experience of every one furnishes instances in which an opinion long shrunk from as seemingly at variance with all that is good, but finally accepted as irresistible, turns out to be fraught with benefits. It is thus with self-knowledge: much as we dislike to admit our defects, we find it better to know and guard against than to ignore them. It is thus with changes of creed: alarming as looks the reasoning by which superstitions are overthrown, the convictions to which it leads prove to be healthier ones than those they superseded. And it is thus with political enlightenment: men eventually see cause to thank those who pull to pieces their political air-castles, hateful as they once seemed. Moreover, not only is it always better to believe truth than error; but the repugnant-looking facts are ever found to be parts of something far better than the ideal which they dispelled. To the many illustrations of this which might be cited, we shall presently add another.
It is a conviction almost universally entertained here in England, that our method of making and administering laws possesses every virtue. Prince Albert’s unlucky saying that “Representative Government is on its trial,” is vehemently repudiated: we consider that the trial has long since ended in our favour on all the counts. Partly from ignorance, partly from the bias of education, partly from that patriotism which leads the men of each nation to pride themselves in their own institutions, we have an unhesitating belief in the entire superiority of our form of political organization. Yet unfriendly critics can point out vices that are manifestly inherent. And if we may believe the defenders of despotism, these vices are fatal to its efficiency.
Now instead of denying or blinking these allegations, it would be wiser candidly to inquire whether they are true; and if true, what they imply. If, as most of us are so confident, government by representatives is better than any other, we can afford to listen patiently to all adverse remarks: believing that they are either invalid, or that if valid they do not essentially tell against its merits. If our political system is well founded, this crucial criticism will serve but to bring out its worth more clearly than ever; and to give us higher conceptions of its nature, its meaning, its purpose. Let us, then, banishing for the nonce all prepossessions, and taking up a thoroughly antagonistic point of view, set down without mitigation its many flaws, vices, and absurdities.
Is it not manifest that a ruling body made up of many individuals, who differ in character, education, and aims, who belong to classes having antagonistic ideas and feelings, and who are severally swayed by the special opinions of the districts deputing them, must be a cumbrous apparatus for the management of public affairs? When we devise a machine we take care that its parts are as few as possible; that they are adapted to their respective ends; that they are properly joined with one another; and that they work smoothly to their common purpose. Our political machine, however, is constructed upon directly opposite principles. Its parts are extremely numerous: multiplied, indeed, beyond all reason. They are not severally chosen as specially qualified for particular functions. No care is taken that they shall fit well together: on the contrary, our arrangements are such that they are certain not to fit. And that, as a consequence, they do not and cannot act in harmony, is a fact nightly demonstrated to all the world. In truth, had the problem been to find an appliance for the slow and bungling transaction of business, it could scarcely have been better solved. Immense hindrance results from the mere multiplicity of parts; a further immense hindrance results from their incongruity; yet another immense hindrance results from the frequency with which they are changed; while the greatest hindrance of all results from the want of subordination of the parts to their functions—from the fact that the personal welfare of the legislator is not bound up with the efficient performance of his political duty.
These defects are inherent in the very nature of our institutions; and they cannot fail to produce disastrous mismanagement. If proofs be needed, they may be furnished in abundance, both from the current history of our central representative government, and from that of local ones, public and private. Let us, before going on to comtemplate these evils as displayed on a great scale in our legislature, glance at some of them in their simpler and smaller manifestations.
We will not dwell on the comparative inefficiency of deputed administration in mercantile affairs. The untrustworthiness of directorial management might be afresh illustrated by the recent joint-stock-bank catastrophies: the recklessness and dishonesty of rulers whose interests are not one with those of the concern they control, being in these cases conspicuously displayed. Or we could enlarge on the same truth as exhibited in the doings of railway-boards: instancing the malversations proved against their members; the carelessness which has permitted Robson and Redpath frauds; the rashness perseveringly shown in making unprofitable branches and extensions. But facts of this kind are sufficiently familiar.
Let us pass, then, to less notorious examples. Mechanics’ Institutions will supply our first. The theory of these is plausible enough. Artisans wanting knowledge, and benevolent middle-class people wishing to help them to it, constitute the raw material. By uniting their means they propose to obtain literary and other advantages, which else would be beyond their reach. And it is concluded that, being all interested in securing the proposed objects, and the governing body being chosen out of their number, the results cannot fail to be such as were intended. In most cases, however, the results are quite otherwise. Indifference, stupidity, party-spirit, and religious dissension, nearly always thwart the efforts of the promoters. It is thought good policy to select as president some local notability; probably not distinguished for wisdom, but whose donation or prestige more than counterbalances his defect in this respect. Vice-presidents are chosen with the same view: a clergyman or two; some neighbouring squires, if they can be had; an ex-mayor; several aldermen; half a dozen manufacturers and wealthy tradesmen; and a miscellaneous complement. While the committee, mostly elected more because of their position or popularity than their intelligence or fitness for cooperation, exhibit similar incongruities. Causes of dissension quickly arise. A book much wished for by the mass of the members, is tabooed, because ordering it would offend the clerical party in the institution. Regard for the prejudices of certain magistrates and squires who figure among the vice-presidents, forbids the engagement of an otherwise desirable and popular lecturer, whose political and religious opinions are somewhat extreme. The selection of newspapers and magazines for the reading-room, is a fruitful source of disputes. Should some, thinking it would be a great boon to those for whom the institution was established, propose to open the reading-room on Sundays, there arises a violent fight; ending, perhaps, in the secession of some of the defeated party. The question of amusements, again, furnishes a bone of contention. Shall the institution exist solely for instruction, or shall it add gratification? The refreshment-question, also, is apt to be raised, and to add to the other causes of difference. In short, the stupidity, prejudice, party-spirit, and squabbling, are such as eventually to drive away in disgust those who should have been the administrators; and to leave the control in the hands of a clique, who pursue some humdrum middle course, satisfying nobody. Instead of that prosperity which would probably have been achieved under the direction of one good man-of-business, whose welfare was bound up with its success, the institution loses its prestige, and dwindles away; ceases almost entirely to be what was intended—a mechanics’ institution; and becomes little more than a middle-class lounge, kept up not so much by the permanent adhesion of its members, as by the continual addition of new ones in place of the old ones constantly falling off. Meanwhile, the end originally proposed is fulfilled, so far as it gets fulfilled at all, by private enterprise. Cheap newspapers and cheap periodicals, provided by publishers having in view the pockets and tastes of the working-classes; coffee-shops and penny reading-rooms, set up by men whose aim is profit; are the instruments of the chief proportion of such culture as is going on.
In higher-class institutions of the same order—in Literary Societies and Philosophical Societies, etc.—the like inefficiency of representative government is generally displayed. Quickly following the vigour of early enthusiasm, come class and sectarian differences, the final supremacy of a party, bad management, apathy. Subscribers complain they cannot get what they want; and one by one desert to private book-clubs or to Mudie.
Turning from non-political to political institutions, we might, had we space, draw illustrations from the doings of the old poor-law authorities, or from those of modern boards of guardians; but omitting these and other such, we will, among local governments, confine ourselves to the reformed municipal corporations.
If, leaving out of sight all other evidences, and forgetting that they are newly-organized bodies into which corruption has scarcely had time to creep, we were to judge of these municipal corporations by the town-improvements they have effected, we might pronounce them successful. But, even without insisting on the fact that such improvements are more due to the removal of obstructions, and to that same progressive spirit which has established railways and telegraphs, than to the positive virtues of these civic governments; it is to be remarked that the execution of numerous public works is by no means an adequate test. With power of raising funds limited only by a rebellion of ratepayers, it is easy in prosperous, increasing towns, to make a display of efficiency. The proper questions to be asked are: Do municipal elections end in the choice of the fittest men who are to be found? Does the resulting administrative body, perform well and economically the work which devolves on it? And does it show sound judgement in refraining from needless or improper work? To these questions the answers are by no means satisfactory.
Town-councils are not conspicuous for either intelligence or high character. There are competent judges who think that, on the average, their members are inferior to those of the old corporations they superseded. As all the world knows, the elections turn mainly on political opinions. The first question respecting any candidate is, not whether he has great knowledge, judgement, or business-faculty—not whether he has any special aptitude for the duty to be discharged; but whether he is Whig or Tory. Even supposing his politics to be unobjectionable, his nomination still does not depend chiefly on his proved uprightness or capacity, but much more on his friendly relations with the dominant clique. A number of the town magnates, habitually meeting probably at the chief hotel, and there held together as much by the brotherhood of conviviality as by that of opinion, discuss the merits of all whose names are before the public, and decide which are the most suitable. This gin-and-water caucus it is which practically determines the choice of candidates; and, by consequence, the elections. Those who will succumb to leadership—those who will merge their private opinions in the policy of their party, of course have the preference. Men too independent for this—too far-seeing to join in the shibboleth of the hour, or too refined to mix with the “jolly good fellows” who thus rule the town, are shelved; notwithstanding that they are, above all others, fitted for office. Partly from this underhand influence, and partly from the consequent disgust which leads them to decline standing if asked, the best men are generally not in the governing body. It is notorious that in London the most respectable merchants will have nothing to do with the local government. And in New York, “the exertions of its better citizens are still exhausted in private accumulation, while the duties of administration are left to other hands.” It cannot then be asserted that in town-government, the representative system succeeds in bringing the ablest and most honourable men to the top.
The efficient and economical discharge of duties is, of course, hindered by this inferiority of the deputies chosen; and it is further hindered by the persistent action of party and personal motives. Not whether he knows well how to handle a level, but whether he voted for the popular candidate at the last parliamentary election, is the question on which may, and sometimes does, hang the choice of a town-surveyor; and if sewers are ill laid out, it is a natural consequence. When, a new public edifice having been decided on, competition designs are advertised for; and when the designs, ostensibly anonymous but really identifiable, have been sent in; T. Square, Esq., who has an influential relative in the corporation, makes sure of succeeding, and is not disappointed: albeit his plans are not those which would have been chosen by any one of the judges, had the intended edifice been his own. Brown, who has for many years been on the town-council and is one of the dominant clique, has a son who is a doctor; and when, in pursuance of an Act of Parliament, an officer of health is to be appointed, Brown privately canvasses his fellow-councillors, and succeeds in persuading them to elect his son; though his son is by no means the fittest man the place can furnish. Similarly with the choice of tradesmen to execute work for the town. A public clock which is frequently getting out of order, and Board-of-Health water-closets which disgust those who have them (we state facts), sufficiently testify that stupidity, favouritism, or some sinister influence, is ever causing mismanagement. The choice of inferior representatives, and by them of inferior employés, joined with private interest and divided responsibility, inevitably prevent the discharge of duties from being satisfactory.
Moreover, the extravagance which is now becoming a notorious vice of municipal bodies, is greatly increased by the practice of undertaking things which they ought not to undertake; and the incentive to do this is, in many cases, traceable to the representative origin of the body. The system of compounding with landlords for municipal rates, leads the lower class of occupiers into the erroneous belief that town-burdens do not fall in any degree on them; and they therefore approve of an expenditure which seemingly gives them gratis advantages while it creates employment. As they form the mass of the constituency, lavishness becomes a popular policy; and popularity-hunters vie with one another in bringing forward new and expensive projects. Here is a councillor who, having fears about his next election, proposes an extensive scheme for public gardens—a scheme which many who disapprove do not oppose, because they, too, bear in mind the next election. There is another councillor, who keeps a shop, and who raises and agitates the question of baths and wash-houses; very well knowing that his trade is not likely to suffer from such course. And so in other cases: the small direct interest which each member of the corporation has in economical administration, is antagonized by so many indirect interests of other kinds, that he is not likely to be a good guardian of the public purse.
Thus, neither in respect of the deputies chosen, nor the efficient performance of their work, nor the avoidance of unfit work, can the governments of our towns be held satisfactory. And if in these recently-formed bodies the defects are so conspicuous, still more conspicuous are they where they have had time to grow to their full magnitude: witness the case of New York. According to The Times correspondent in that city, the New York people pay “over a million and half sterling, for which they have badly-paved streets, a police by no means as efficient as it should be, though much better than formerly, the greatest amount of dirt north of Italy, the poorest cab-system of any metropolis in the world, and only unsheltered wooden piers for the discharge of merchandise.”
And now, having glanced at the general bearings of the question in these minor cases, let us take the major case of our central government; and, in connexion with it, pursue the inquiry more closely. Here the inherent faults of the representative system are much more clearly displayed. The greater multiplicity of rulers involves greater cumbrousness, greater confusion, greater delay. Differences of class, of aims, of prejudices, are both larger in number and wider in degree; and hence arise dissensions still more multiplied. The direct effect which each legislator is likely to experience from the working of any particular measure, is usually very small and remote; while the indirect influences which sway him are, in this above all other cases, numerous and strong; whence follows a marked tendency to neglect public welfare for private advantage. But let us set out from the beginning—with the constituencies.
The representative theory assumes that if a number of citizens, deeply interested as they all are in good government, are endowed with political power, they will choose the wisest and best men for governors. Seeing how greatly they suffer from bad administration of public affairs, it is considered self-evident that they must have the will to select proper representatives; and it is taken for granted that average common sense gives the ability to select proper representatives. How does experience bear out these assumptions? Does it not to a great degree negative them?
Several considerable classes of electors have little or no will in the matter. Not a few of those on the register pique themselves on taking no part in politics—claim credit for having the sense not to meddle with things which they say do not concern them. Many others there are whose interest in the choice of a member of Parliament is so slight, that they do not think it worth while to vote. A notable proportion, too, shopkeepers especially, care so little about the result, that their votes are determined by their wishes to please their chief patrons or to avoid offending them. In the minds of a yet larger class, small sums of money, or even ad libitum supplies of beer, outweigh any desires they have to use their political powers independently. Those who adequately recognize the importance of honestly exercising their judgements in the selection of legislators, and who give conscientious votes, form but a minority; and the election usually hangs less upon their wills than upon the illegitimate influences which sway the rest. Here, therefore, the theory fails.
Then, again, as to intelligence. Even supposing that the mass of electors have a sufficiently decided will to choose the best rulers, what evidence have we of their ability? Is picking out the wisest man among them, a task within the range of their capacities? Let any one listen to the conversation of a farmer’s market-table, and then answer how much he finds of that wisdom which is required to discern wisdom in others. Or let him read the clap-trap speeches made from the hustings with a view of pleasing constituents, and then estimate the penetration of those who are to be thus pleased. Even among the higher order of electors he will meet with gross political ignorance—with notions that Acts of Parliament can do whatever it is thought well they should do; that the value of gold can be fixed by law; that distress can be cured by poor-laws; and so forth. If he descends a step, he will find in the still-prevalent ideas that machinery is injurious to the working-classes, and that extravagance is “good for trade,” indices of a yet smaller insight. And in the lower and larger class, formed by those who think that their personal interest in good government is not worth the trouble of voting, or is outbalanced by the loss of a customer, or is of less value than a bribe, he will perceive an almost hopeless stupidity. Without going the length of Mr. Carlyle, and defining the people as “twenty-seven millions, mostly fools,” he will confess that they are but sparely gifted with wisdom.
That these should succeed in choosing the fittest governors, would be strange; and that they do not so succeed is manifest. Even as judged by the most common-sense tests, their selections are absurd, as we shall shortly see.
It is a self-evident truth that we may most safely trust those whose interests are identical with our own; and that it is very dangerous to trust those whose interests are antagonistic to our own. All the legal securities we take in our transactions with one another, are so many recognitions of this truth. We are not satisfied with professions. If another’s position is such that he must be liable to motives at variance with the promises he makes, we take care, by introducing an artificial motive (the dread of legal penalties), to make it his interest to fulfil these promises. Down to the asking for a receipt, our daily business-habits testify that, in consequence of the prevailing selfishness, it is extremely imprudent to expect men to regard the claims of others equally with their own: all asseverations of good faith notwithstanding. Now it might have been thought that even the modicum of sense possessed by the majority of electors, would have led them to recognize this fact in the choice of their representatives. But they show a total disregard of it. While the theory of our Constitution, in conformity with this same fact, assumes that the three divisions composing the Legislature will severally pursue each its own ends—while our history shows that Monarch, Lords, and Commons, have all along more or less conspicuously done this; our electors manifest by their votes, the belief that their interests will be as well cared for by members of the titled class as by members of their own class. Though, in their determined opposition to the Reform-Bill, the aristocracy showed how greedy they were, not only of their legitimate power but of their illegitimate power—though, by the enactment and pertinacious maintenance of the Corn-Laws, they proved how little popular welfare weighed in the scale against their own profits—though they have ever displayed a watchful jealousy even of their smallest privileges, whether equitable or inequitable (as witness the recent complaint in the House of Lords, that the Mercantile Marine Act calls on lords of manors to show their titles before they can claim the wrecks thrown on the shores of their estates, which before they had always done by prescription)—though they have habitually pursued that self-seeking policy which men so placed were sure to pursue; yet constituencies have decided that members of the aristocracy may fitly be chosen as representatives of the people. Our present House of Commons contains 98 Irish peers and sons of English peers; 66 blood-relations of peers; and 67 connexions of peers by marriage; in all, 231 members whose interests, or sympathies, or both, are with the nobility rather than the commonalty. We are quite prepared to hear the doctrine implied in this criticism condemned by rose-water politicians as narrow and prejudiced. To such we simply reply that they and their friends fully recognize this doctrine when it suits them to do so. Why do they wish to prevent the town-constituencies from predominating over the county-ones; if they do not believe that each division of the community will consult its own welfare? Or what plea can there be for Lord John Russell’s proposal to represent minorities, unless it be the plea that those who have the opportunity will sacrifice the interests of others to their own? Or how shall we explain the anxiety of the upper class, to keep a tight rein on the growing power of the lower class, save from their consciousness that bona fide representatives of the lower class would be less regardful of their privileges than they are themselves? If there be any reason in the theory of the Constitution, then, while the members of the House of Peers should belong to the peerage, the members of the House of Commons should belong to the commonalty. Either the constitutional theory is sheer nonsense, or else the choice of lords as representatives of the people proves the folly of constituencies.
But this folly by no means ends here; it works out other results quite as absurd. What should we think of a man giving his servants equal authority with himself over the affairs of his household? Suppose the shareholders in a railway-company were to elect, as members of their board of directors, the secretary, engineer, superintendent, traffic-manager, and others such. Should we not be astonished at their stupidity? Should we not prophesy that the private advantage of officials would frequently override the welfare of the company? Yet our parliamentary electors commit a blunder of just the same kind. For what are military and naval officers but servants of the nation; standing to it in a relation like that in which the officers of a railway-company stand to the company? Do they not perform public work? Do they not take public pay? And do not their interests differ from those of the public, as the interests of the employed from those of the employer? The impropriety of admitting executive agents of the State into the Legislature, has over and over again thrust itself into notice; and in minor cases has been prevented by sundry Acts of Parliament. Enumerating those disqualified for the House of Commons, Blackstone says:
No persons concerned in the management of any duties or taxes created since 1692, except the commissioners of the treasury, nor any of the officers following, viz, commissioners of prizes, transports, sick and wounded, wine licences, navy, and victualling; secretaries or receivers of prizes; comptrollers of the army accounts; agents for regiments; governors of plantations, and their deputies; officers of Minorca or Gibraltar; officers of the excise and customs; clerks and deputies in the several offices of the treasury, exchequer, navy, victualling, admiralty, pay of the army and navy, secretaries of state, salt, stamps, appeals, wine licences, hackney coaches, hawkers and pedlars, nor any persons that hold any new office under the crown created since 1705, are capable of being elected, or sitting as members.
In which list naval and military officers would doubtless have been included, had they not always been too powerful a body and too closely identified with the dominant classes. Glaring, however, as is the impolicy of appointing public servants to make the laws; and clearly as this impolicy is recognized in the above-specified exclusions from time to time enacted; the people at large seem totally oblivious of it. At the last general election they returned 9 naval officers, 46 military officers, and 51 retired military officers, who, in virtue of education, friendship, and esprit de corps, take the same views with their active comrades—in all 106: not including 64 officers of militia and yeomanry, whose sympathies and ambitions are in a considerable degree the same. If any one thinks that this large infusion of officialism is of no consequence, let him look in the division-lists. Let him inquire how much it has had to do with the maintenance of the purchase-system. Let him ask whether the almost insuperable obstacles to the promotion of the private soldier, have not been strengthened by it. Let him see what share it had in keeping up those worn-out practices, and forms, and mis-arrangements, which entailed the disasters of our late war. Let him consider whether the hushing-up of the Crimean Inquiry and the whitewashing of delinquents were not aided by it. Yet, though abundant experience thus confirms what common sense would beforehand have predicted; and though, notwithstanding the late disasters, exposures, and public outcry for army-reform, the influence of the military caste is so great that the reform has been staved-off; our constituencies are stupid enough to send to Parliament as many military officers as ever!
Not even now have we reached the end of these impolitic selections. The general principle on which we have been insisting, and which is recognized by expounders of the constitution when they teach that the legislative and executive divisions of the Government should be distinct—this general principle is yet further sinned against; though not in so literal a manner. For though they do not take State-pay, and are not nominally Government-officers, yet, practically, lawyers are members of the executive organization. They form an important part of the apparatus for the administration of justice. By the working of this apparatus they make their profits; and their welfare depends on its being so worked as to bring them profits, rather than on its being so worked as to administer justice. Exactly as military officers have interests distinct from, and often antagonistic to, the efficiency of the army; so, barristers and solicitors have interests distinct from, and often antagonistic to, the cheap and prompt enforcement of the law. And that they are habitually swayed by these antagonistic interest, is notorious. So strong is the bias, as sometimes even to destroy the power of seeing from any other than the professional stand-point. We have ourselves heard a lawyer declaiming on the damage which the County-Courts-Act had done to the profession; and expecting his non-professional hearers to join him in condemning it there for! And if, as all the world knows, the legal conscience is not of the tenderest, is it wise to depute lawyers to frame the laws which they will be concerned in carrying out; and the carrying out of which must affect their private incomes? Are barristers, who constantly take fees for work which they do not perform, and attorneys, whose bills are so often exorbitant that a special office has been established for taxing them—are these, of all others, to be trusted in a position which would be trying even to the most disinterested? Nevertheless, the towns and counties of England have returned to the present House of Commons 98 lawyers—some 60 of them in actual practice, and the rest retired, but doubtless retaining those class-views acquired during their professional careers.
These criticisms on the conduct of constituencies do not necessarily commit us to the assertion that none belonging to the official and aristocratic classes ought to be chosen. Though it would be safer to carry out, in these important cases, the general principle which, as above shown, Parliament has itself recognized and enforced in unimportant cases; yet we are not prepared to say that occasional exceptions might not be made, on good cause being shown. All we aim to show is the gross impolicy of selecting so large a proportion of representatives from classes having interests different from those of the general public. That in addition to more than a third taken from the dominant class, who already occupy one division of the Legislature, the House of Commons should contain nearly another third taken from the naval, military, and legal classes, whose policy, like that of the dominant class, is to maintain things as they are; we consider a decisive proof of electoral misjudgement. That out of the 654 members, of which the People’s House now consists, there should be but 250 who, as considered from a class point of view, are eligible, or tolerably eligible (for we include a considerable number who are more or less objectionable), is significant of anything but popular good sense. That into an assembly established to protect their interests, the commonalty of England should have sent one-third whose interests are the same as their own, and two-thirds whose interests are at variance with their own, proves a scarcely credible lack of wisdom; and seems an awkward fact for the representative theory.
If the intelligence of the mass is thus not sufficient even to choose out men who by position and occupation are fit representatives, still less is it sufficient to choose men who are the fittest in character and capacity. To see who will be liable to the bias of private advantage is a very easy thing: to see who is wisest is a very difficult thing; and those who do not succeed in the first must necessarily fail in the last. The higher the wisdom the more incomprehensible does it become by ignorance. It is a manifest fact that the popular man or writer, is always one who is but little in advance of the mass, and consequently understandable by them: never the man who is far in advance of them and out of their sight. Appreciation of another implies some community of thought. “Only the man of worth can recognize worth in men. ... The worthiest, if he appealed to universal suffrage, would have but a poor chance. ... Alas! Jesus Christ, asking the Jews what he deserved—was not the answer, Death on the gallows!” And though men do not now-a-days stone the prophet, they, at any rate, ignore him. As Mr. Carlyle says in his vehement way:
If of ten men nine are recognisable as fools, which is a common calculation, how, ... in the name of wonder, will you ever get a ballot-box to grind you out a wisdom from the votes of these ten men? ... I tell you a million blockheads looking authoritatively into one man of what you call genius, or noble sense, will make nothing but nonsense out of him and his qualities, and his virtues and defects, if they look till the end of time.
So that, even were electors content to choose the man proved by general evidence to be the most far-seeing, and refrained from testing him by the coincidence of his views with their own, there would be small chance of their hitting on the best. But judging on him, as they do, by asking him whether he thinks this or that crudity which they think, it is manifest that they will fix on one far removed from the best. Their deputy will be truly representative;—representative, that is, of the average stupidity.
And now let us look at the assembly of representatives thus chosen. Already we have noted the unfit composition of this assembly as respects the interests of its members; and we have just seen what the representative theory itself implies as to their intelligence. Let us now, however, consider them more nearly under this last head.
And first, what is the work they undertake? Observe, we do not say the work which they ought to do, but the work which they propose to do, and try to do. This comprehends the regulation of nearly all actions going on throughout society. Besides devising measures to prevent the aggression of citizens on one another, and to secure each the quiet possession of his own; and besides assuming the further function, also needful in the present state of mankind, of defending the nation as a whole against invaders; they unhesitatingly take on themselves to provide for countless wants, to cure countless ills, to oversee countless affairs. Out of the many beliefs men have held respecting God, Creation, the Future, etc., they presume to decide which are true; and authorize an army of priests to perpetually repeat them to the people. The distress resulting from improvidence, they undertake to remove: they settle the minimum which each ratepayer shall give in charity, and how the proceeds shall be administered. Judging that emigration will not naturally go on fast enough, they provide means for carrying off some of the labouring classes to the colonies. Certain that social necessities will not cause a sufficiently rapid spread of knowledge, and confident that they know what knowledge is most required, they use public money for the building of schools and paying of teachers; they print and publish State-school-books; they employ inspectors to see that their standard of education is conformed to. Playing the part of doctor, they insist that every one shall use their specific, and escape the danger of small-pox by submitting to an attack of cow-pox. Playing the part of moralist, they decide which dramas are fit to be acted and which are not. Playing the part of artist, they prompt the setting up of drawing-schools, provide masters and models; and, at Marlborough House, enact what shall be considered good taste and what bad. Through their lieutenants, the corporations of towns, they furnish appliances for the washing of peoples’ skins and clothes; they, in some cases, manufacture gas and put down water-pipes; they lay out sewers and cover over cesspools; they establish public libraries and make public gardens. Moreover, they determine how houses shall be built, and what is a safe construction for a ship; they take measures for the security of railway-travelling; they fix the hour after which public-houses may not be open; regulate the prices chargeable by vehicles plying in the London streets; they inspect lodging-houses; they arrange for burial-grounds; they fix the hours of factory hands. If some social process does not seem to them to be going on fast enough, they stimulate it; where the growth is not in the direction which they think most desirable, they alter it; and so they seek to realize some undefined ideal community.
Such being the task undertaken, what, let us ask, are the qualifications for discharging it? Supposing it possible to achieve all this, what must be the knowledge and capacities of those who shall achieve it? Successfully to prescribe for society, it is needful to know the structure of society—the principles on which it is organized—the natural laws of its progress. If there be not a true understanding of what constitutes social development, there must necessarily be grave mistakes made in checking these changes and fostering those. If there be lack of insight respecting the mutual dependence of the many functions which, taken together, make up the national life, unforeseen disasters will ensue from not perceiving how an interference with one will affect the rest. That is to say, there must be a due acquaintance with the social science—the science involving all others; the science standing above all others in complexity.
And now, how far do our legislators possess this qualification? Do they in any moderate degree display it? Do they make even a distant approximation to it? That many of them are very good classical scholars is beyond doubt: not a few have written first-rate Latin verses, and can enjoy a Greek play; but there is no obvious relation between a memory well stocked with the words spoken two thousand years ago, and an understanding disciplined to deal with modern society. That in learning the languages of the past they have learnt some of its history, is true; but considering that this history is mainly a narrative of battles and plots and negotiations and treacheries, it does not throw much light on social philosophy—not even the simplest principles of political economy have ever been gathered from it. We do not question, either, that a moderate percentage of members of Parliament are fair mathematicians; and that mathematical discipline is valuable. As, however, political problems are not susceptible of mathematical analysis, their studies in this direction cannot much aid them in legislation. To the large body of military officers who sit as representatives, we would not for a moment deny a competent knowledge of fortification, of strategy, of regimental discipline; but we do not see that these throw much light on the causes and cure of national evils. Indeed, considering that war fosters anti-social sentiments, and that the government of soldiers is necessarily despotic, military education and habits are more likely to unfit than to fit men for regulating the doings of a free people. Extensive acquaintance with the laws, may doubtless be claimed by the many barristers chosen by our constituencies; and this seems a kind of information having some relation to the work to be done. Unless, however, this information is more than technical—unless it is accompanied by knowledge of the ramified consequences which laws have produced in times past and are producing now (which nobody will assert), it cannot give much insight into Social Science. A familiarity with laws is no more a preparation for rational legislation, than would a familiarity with all the nostrums men have ever used be a preparation for the rational practice of medicine. Nowhere, then, in our representative body, do we find appropriate culture. Here is a clever novelist, and there a successful maker of railways; this member has acquired a large fortune in trade, and that member is noted as an agricultural improver; but none of these achievements imply fitness for controlling and adjusting social processes. Among the many who have passed through the public school and university curriculum—including though they may a few Oxford double-firsts and one or two Cambridge wranglers—there are none who have received the discipline required by the true legislator. None have that competent knowledge of Science in general, culminating in the Science of Life, which can alone form a basis for the Science of Society. For it is one of those open secrets which seem the more secret because they are so open, that all phenomena displayed by a nation are phenomena of Life, and are dependent on the laws of Life. There is no growth, decay, evil, improvement, or change of any kind, going on the body politic, but what has its cause in the actions of human beings; and there are no actions of human beings but what conform to the laws of Life in general, and cannot be truly understood until those laws are understood.
See, then, the immense incongruity between the end and the means. See on the one hand the countless difficulties of the task; and on the other hand the almost total unpreparedness of those who undertake it. Need we wonder that legislation is ever breaking down? Is it not natural that complaint, amendment, and repeal, should form the staple business of every session? Is there anything more than might be expected in the absurd Jack-Cadeisms which disgrace the debates? Even without setting up so high a standard of qualification as that above specified, the unfitness of most representatives for their duties is abundantly manifest. You need but glance over the miscellaneous list of noblemen, baronets, squires, merchants, barristers, engineers, soldiers, sailors, railway-directors, etc., and then ask what training their previous lives have given them for the intricate business of legislation, to see at once how extreme must be the incompetence. One would think that the whole system had been framed on the sayings of some political Dogberry: “The art of healing is difficult; the art of government easy. The understanding of arithmetic comes by study; while the understanding of society comes by instinct. Watchmaking requires a long apprenticeship; but there needs none for the making of institutions. To manage a shop properly requires teaching; but the management of a people may be undertaken without preparation.” Were we to be visited by some wiser Gulliver, or, as in the “Micromegas” of Voltaire, by some inhabitant of another sphere, his account of our political institutions might run somewhat as follows:
“I found that the English were governed by an assembly of men, said to empbody the ’collective wisdom.’ This assembly, joined with some other authorities which seem practically subordinate to it, has unlimited power. I was much perplexed by this. With us it is customary to define the office of any appointed body; and, above all things, to see that it does not defeat the ends for which it was appointed. But both the theory and the practice of this English Government imply that it may do whatever it pleases. Though, by their current maxims and usages, the English recognize the right of property as sacred—though the infraction of it is considered by them one of the gravest crimes—though the laws profess to be so jealous of it as to punish even the stealing of a turnip; yet their legislators suspend it at will. They take the money of citizens for any project which they choose to undertake; though such project was not in the least contemplated by those who gave them authority—nay, though the greater part of the citizens from whom the money is taken had no share in giving them such authority. Each citizen can hold property only so long as the 654 deputies do not want it. It seemed to me that an exploded doctrine once current among them of ’the divine right of kings,’ had simply been changed into the divine right of Parliaments.
I was at first inclined to think that the constitution of things on the Earth was totally different from what it is with us; for the current political philosophy here, implies that acts are not right or wrong in themselves but are made one or the other by the votes of law-makers. In our world it is considered manifest that if a number of beings live together, there must, in virtue of their natures, be certain primary conditions on which only they can work satisfactorily in concert; and we infer that the conduct which breaks through these conditions is bad. In the English legislature, however, a proposal to regulate conduct by any such abstract standard would be held absurd. I asked one of their members of Parliament whether a majority of the House could legitimize murder. He said, No. I asked him whether it could sanctify robbery. He thought not. But I could not make him see that if murder and robbery are intrinsically wrong, and not to be made right by decisions of statesmen, that similarly all actions must be either right or wrong, apart from the authority of the law; and that if the right and wrong of the law are not in harmony with this intrinsic right and wrong, the law itself is criminal. Some, indeed, among the English think as we do. One of their remarkable men (not included in their Assembly of Notables) writes thus:
To ascertain better and better what the will of the Eternal was and is with us, what the laws of the Eternal are, all Parliaments, Ecumenic Councils, Congresses, and other Collective Wisdoms, have had this for their object. ... Nevertheless, in the inexplicable universal votings and debatings of these Ages, an idea or rather a dumb presumption to the contrary has gone idly abroad; and at this day, over extensive tracts of the world, poor human beings are to be found, whose practical belief it is that if we “vote” this or that, so this or that will thenceforth be. ... Practically, men have come to imagine that the Laws of this Universe, like the laws of constitutional countries, are decided by voting. ... It is an idle fancy. The Laws of this Universe, of which if the Laws of England are not an exact transcript, they should passionately study to become such, are fixed by the everlasting congruity of things, and are not fixable or changeable by voting!
But I find that, contemptuously disregarding all such protests, the English legislators persevere in their hyperatheistic notion, that an Act of Parliament duly enforced by State-officers, will work out any object: no question being put whether Laws of Nature permit. I forgot to ask whether they considered that different kinds of food could be made wholesome or unwholesome by State-decree.
One thing that struck me was the curious way in which the members of their House of Commons judge of one another’s capacities. Many who expressed opinions of the crudest kinds, or trivial platitudes, or worn-out superstitions, were civilly treated. Follies as great as that but a few years since uttered by one of their ministers, who said that free-trade was contrary to common sense, were received in silence. But I was present when one of their number, who, as I thought, was speaking very rationally, made a mistake in his pronunciation—made what they call a wrong quantity; and immediately there arose a shout of derision. It seemed quite tolerable that a member should know little or nothing about the business he was there to transact; but quite in-tolerable that he should be ignorant of a point of no moment.
The English pique themselves on being especially practical—have a great contempt for theorizers, and profess to be guided exclusively by facts. Before making or altering a law it is the custom to appoint a committee of inquiry, who send for men able to give information concerning the matter in hand, and ask them some thousands of questions. These questions, and the answers given to them, are printed in large books, and distributed among the members of the Houses of Parliament; and I was told that they spent about £100,000 a year in thus collecting and distributing evidence. Nevertheless, it appeared to me that the ministers and representatives of the English people, pertinaciously adhere to theories long ago disproved by the most conspicuous facts. They pay great respect to petty details of evidence, but of large truths they are quite regardless. Thus, the experience of age after age has shown that their state-management is almost invariably bad. The national estates are so miserably administered as often to bring loss instead of gain. The government ship-yards are uniformly extravagant and inefficient. The judicial system works so ill that most citizens will submit to serious losses rather than run risks of being ruined by law-suits. Countless facts prove the Government to be the worst owner, the worst manufacturer, the worst trader: in fact, the worst manager, be the thing managed what it may. But though the evidence of this is abundant and conclusive—though, during a recent war, the bunglings of officials were as glaring and multitudinous as ever; yet the belief that any proposed duties will be satisfactorily discharged by a new public department appointed to them, seems not a whit the weaker. Legislators, thinking themselves practical, cling to the plausible theory of an officially-regulated society, spite of overwhelming evidence that official regulation perpetually fails.
Nay, indeed, the belief seems to gain strength among these fact-loving English statesmen, notwithstanding the facts are against it. Proposals for State-control over this and the other, have been of late more rife than ever. And, most remarkable of all, their representative assembly lately listened with grave faces to the assertion, made by one of their high authorities, that State-workshops are more economical than private workshops. Their prime minister, in defending a recently-established arms-factory, actually told them that, at one of their arsenals, certain missiles of war were manufactured not only better than by the trade, but at about one-third the price; and added, ’so it would be in all things.’ The English being a trading people, who must be tolerably familiar with the usual rates of profit among manufacturers, and the margin for possible economy, the fact that they should have got for their chief representative one so utterly in the dark on these matters, struck me as a wonderful result of the representative system.
I did not inquire much further, for it was manifest that if these were really their wisest men, the English were not a wise people.”
Representative government, then, cannot be called a success, in so far as the choice of men is concerned. Those it puts into power are the fittest neither in respect of their interests, nor their culture, nor their wisdom. And as a consequence, partly of this and partly of its complex and cumbrous nature, representative government is anything but efficient for administrative purposes. In these respects it is manifestly inferior to monarchical government. This has the advantage of simplicity, which is always conducive to efficiency. And it has the further advantage that the power is in the hands of one who is directly concerned in the good management of national affairs; seeing that the continued maintenance of his power—nay, often his very life—depends on this. For his own sake a monarch chooses the wisest councillors he can find, regardless of class-distinctions. His interest in getting the best help is too great to allow of prejudices standing between him and a far-seeing man. We see this abundantly illustrated. Did not the kings of France take Richelieu, and Mazarin, and Turgot to assist them? Had not Henry VIII his Wolsey, Elizabeth her Burleigh, James his Bacon, Cromwell his Milton? And were not these men of greater calibre than those who hold the reins under out constitutional régime? So strong is the motive of an autocrat to make use of ability wherever it exists, that he will, like Louis XI, take even his barber into council if he finds him a clever fellow. Besides choosing them for ministers and advisers, he seeks out the most competent men for other offices. Napoleon raised his marshals from the ranks; and owed his military success in great part to the readiness with which he saw and availed himself of merit wherever found. We have recently seen in Russia how prompt was the recognition and promotion of engineering talent in the case of Todleben; and know to our cost how greatly the prolonged defence of Sebastopol was due to this. In the marked contrast to these cases supplied by our own army, in which genius is ignored while muffs are honoured—in which wealth and caste make the advance of plebeian merit next to impossible—in which jealousies between Queen’s service and Company’s service render the best generalship almost unavailable; we see that the representative system fails in the officering of its executive, as much as in the officering of its legislative. A striking antithesis between the actions of the two forms of government, is presented in the evidence given before the Sebastopol Committee respecting the supply of huts to the Crimean army—evidence showing that while, in his negotiations with the English Government, the contractor for the huts met with nothing but vacillation, delay, and official rudeness, the conduct of the French Government was marked by promptitude, decision, sound judgement, and great civility. Everything goes to show that for administrative efficiency, autocratic power is the best. If your aim is a well-organized army—if you want to have sanitary departments, and educational departments, and charity-departments, managed in a business-like way—if you would have society actively regulated by staffs of State-agents; then by all means choose that system of complete centralization which we call despotism.
Probably, notwithstanding the hints dropped at the outset, most have read the foregoing pages with surprise. Very likely some have referred to the cover of the Review, to see whether they have not, in mistake, taken up some other than the “Westiminster” ; while some may, perhaps, have accompanied their perusal by a running commentary of epithets condemnatory of our seeming change of principles. Let them not be alarmed. We have not in the least swerved from the confession of faith set forth in our prospectus. On the contrary, as we shall shortly show, our adhesion to free institutions is as strong as ever—nay, has even gained strength through this apparently antagonistic criticism.
The subordination of a nation to a man, is not a wholesome but a vicious state of things: needful, indeed, for a vicious humanity; but to be outgrown as fast as may be. The instinct which makes it possible is anything but a noble one. Call it “hero-worship,” and it looks respectable. Call it what it is—a blind awe and fear of power, no matter of what kind, but more especially of the brutal kind; and it is by no means to be admired. Watch it in early ages deifying the cannibal chief; singing the praises of the successful thief; commemorating the most blood-thirsty warriors; speaking with reverence of those who had shown undying revenge; and erecting altars to such as carried furthest the vices which disgrace humanity; and the illusion disappears. Read how, where it was strongest, it immolated crowds of victims at the tomb of the dead king—how, at the altars raised to its heroes, it habitually sacrificed prisoners and children to satisfy their traditional appetite for human flesh—how it produced that fealty of subjects to rulers which made possible endless aggressions, battles, massacres, and horrors innumerable—how it has mercilessly slain those who would not lick the dust before its idols;—read all this, and the feeling no longer seems so worthy an one. See it in later days idealizing the worst as well as the best monarchs; receiving assassins with acclamation; hurrahing before successful treachery; rushing to applaud the processions and shows and ceremonies wherewith effete power stengthens itself; and it looks far from laudable. Autocracy presupposes inferiority of nature on the part of both ruler and subject: on the one side a cold, unsympathetic sacrificing of other’s wills to self-will; on the other side a mean, cowardly abandonment of the claims of manhood. Our very language bears testimony to this. Do not dignity, independence, and other words of approbation, imply a nature at variance with this relation? Are not tyrannical, arbitrary, despotic, epithets of reproach? and are not truckling, fawning, cringing, epithets of contempt? Is not slavish a condemnatory term? Does not servile, that is, serf-like, imply littleness, meanness? And has not the word villain, which originally meant bondsman, come to signify everything which is hateful? That language should thus inadvertently embody dislike for those who most display the instinct of subordination, is alone sufficient proof that this instinct is associated with evil dispositions. It has been the parent of countless crimes. It is answerable for the torturing and murder of the noble-minded who would not submit—for the horrors of Bastiles and Siberias. It has ever been the represser of knowledge, of free thought, of true progress. In all times it has fostered the vices of courts, and made those vices fashionable throughout nations. With a George IV on the throne, it weekly tells ten thousand lies, in the shape of prayers for a “most religious and gracious king.” Whether you read the annals of the far past—whether you look at the various uncivilized races dispersed over the globe—or whether you contrast the existing nations of Europe; you equally find that submission to authority decreases as morality and intelligence increase. From ancient warrior-worship down to modern flunkeyism, the sentiment has ever been strongest where human nature has been vilest.
This relation between barbarism and loyalty, is one of those beneficent arrangements which “the servant and interpreter of nature,” everywhere meets with. The sub-ordination of many to one, is a form of society needful for men so long as their natures are savage, or anti-social; and that it may be maintained, it is needful that they should have an extreme awe of the one. Just in proportion as their conduct to one another is such as to breed perpetual antagonism, endangering social union: just in that proportion must there be a reverence for the strong, determined, cruel ruler, who alone can repress their explosive natures and keep them from mutual destruction. Among such a people any form of free government is an impossibility. There must be a despotism as stern as the people are savage; and, that such a despotism may exist, there must be a superstitious worship of the despot. But as fast as the discipline of social life modifies character—as fast as, through lack of use, the old predatory instincts dwindle—as fast as the sympathetic feelings grow; so fast does this hard rule become less necessary; so fast does the authority of the ruler diminish; so fast does the awe of him disappear. From being originally god, or demi-god, he comes at length to be a very ordinary person; liable to be criticized, ridiculed, caricatured. Various influences conspire to this result. Accumulating knowledge gradually divests the ruler of those supernatural attributes at first ascribed to him. The conceptions which developing science gives of the grandeur of creation, as well as the constancy and irresistibleness of its Omnipresent Cause, make all feel the comparative littleness of human power; and the awe once felt for the great man is, by degrees, transferred to that Universe of which the great man is seen to form but an insignificant part. Increase of population, with its average percentage of great men, involves the comparative frequency of such; and the more numerous they are the less respect can be given to each: they dwarf one another. As society becomes settled and organized, its welfare and progress become more and more independent of any one. In a primitive society the death of a chief may alter the whole course of things; but in a society like ours, things go on much as before, no matter who dies. Thus, many influences combine to diminish autocratic power, whether political or other. It is true, not only in the sense in which Tennyson writes it, but also in a higher sense, that:
... the individual withers, and world is more and more.
Further, it is to be noted that while the unlimited authority of the greatest man ceases to be needful; and while the superstitious awe which upholds that unlimited authority decreases; it at the same time becomes impossible to get the greatest man to the top. In a rude social state, where might is right, where war is the business of life, where the qualities required in the ruler, alike for controlling his subjects and defeating his enemies, are bodily strength, courage, cunning, will, it is easy to pick out the best; or rather—he picks himself out. The qualities which make him the fittest governor for the barbarians around him, are the qualities by which he gets the mastery over them. But in an advanced, complex, and comparatively peaceful state like ours, these are not the qualities needed; and even were they needed, the firmly-organized arrangements of society do not allow the possessor of them to break through to the top. For the rule of a settled, civilized community, the characteristics required are—not a love of conquest but a desire for the general happiness; not undying hate of enemies but a calm dispassionate equity; not artful manoeuvring but philosophic insight. How is the man most endowed with these to be found? In no country is he ordinarily born heir to the throne; and that he can be chosen out of thirty millions of people none will be foolish enough to think. The incapacity for recognizing the greatest worth, we have already seen illustrated in our parliamentary elections. And if the few thousands forming a constituency cannot pick out from among themselves their wisest man, still less can the millions forming a nation do it. Just as fast as society becomes populous, complex, peaceful; so fast does the political supremacy of the best become impossible.
But even were the relation of autocrat and slave a morally wholesome one; and even were it possible to find the fittest man to be autocrat; we should still contend that such a form of government is bad. We should not contend this simply on the ground that self-government is a valuable educator. But we should take the ground that no human being, however wise and good, is fit to be sole ruler over the doings of an involved society; and that, with the best intentions, a benevolent despot is very likely to produce the most terrible mischiefs which would else have been impossible. We will take the case of all others the most favourable to those who would give supreme power to the best. We will instance Mr. Carlyle’s model hero—Cromwell. Doubtless there was much in the manners of the times when Puritanism arose, to justify its disgust. Doubtless the vices and follies bequeathed by effete Catholicism still struggling for existence, were bad enough to create a reactionary asceticism. It is in the order of Nature, however, that men’s habits and pleasures are not to be changed suddenly. For any permanent effect to be produced it must be produced slowly. Better tastes, higher aspirations, must be developed; not enforced from without. Disaster is sure to result from the withdrawal of lower gratifications before higher ones have taken their places; for gratification of some kind is a condition to healthful existence. Whatever ascetic morality, or rather immorality, may say, pleasures and pains are the incentives and restraints by which Nature keeps her progeny from destruction. No contemptuous title of “pig-philosophy” will alter the eternal fact that Misery is the highway to Death; while Happiness is added Life and the giver of Life. But indignant Puritanism could not see this truth; and with the extravagance of fanaticism sought to abolish pleasure in general. Getting into power, it put down not only questionable amusements but all others along with them. And for these repressions Cromwell, either as enacting, maintaining, or allowing them, was responsible. What, now, was the result of this attempt to dragoon men into virtue? What came when the strong man who thought he was thus “helping God to mend all,” died? A dreadful reaction brought in one of the most degraded periods of our history. Into the newly-garnished house entered “seven other spirits more wicked than the first” . For generations the English character was lowered. Vice was gloried in, virtue was ridiculed; dramatists made marriage the stock-subject of laughter; profaneness and obscenity flourished; high aspirations ceased; the whole age was corrupt. Not until George III reigned was there a better standard of living. And for this century of demoralization we have, in great measure, to thank Cromwell. Is it, then, so clear that the domination of one man, righteous though he may be, is a blessing?
Lastly, it is to be remarked that when the political supremacy of the greatest no longer exists in an overt form, it still continues in a disguised and more beneficent form. For is it not manifest that in these latter days the wise man eventually gets his edicts enforced by others, if not by himself. Adam Smith, from his chimney-corner, dictated greater changes than prime ministers do. A General Thompson who forges the weapons with which the Anti-Corn-Law battle is fought—a Cobden and a Bright who add to and wield them, forward civilization much more than those who hold sceptres. Repugnant as the fact may be to statesmen, it is yet one not to be gainsayed. Whoever, to the great effects already produced by Free-trade, joins the far greater effects which will be hereafter produced, must see that the revolution initiated by these men is far wider than has been initiated by any potentate of modern times. As Mr. Carlyle very well knows, those who elaborate new truths and teach them to their fellows, are now-a-days the real rulers—” the unacknowledged legislators” —the virtual kings. Thus we have the good which great men can do us, while we are saved from the evil.
No; the old régime has passed away. For ourselves at least, the subordination of the many to the one has become alike needless, repugnant, and impossible. Good for its time, bad for ours, the ancient “hero-worship” is dead; and happily no declamations, be they never so eloquent, can revive it.
Here seem to be two irreconcileable positions—two mutually-destructive arguments. First, a condemnatory criticism on representative government, and then a still more condemnatory criticism on monarchical government: each apparently abolishing the other.
Nevertheless, the paradox is easily explicable. It is quite possible to say all that we have said concerning the defects of representative government, and still to hold that it is the best form of government. Nay, it is quite possible to derive a more profound conviction of its superiority from the very evidence which appears so unfavourable to it.
For nothing that we have urged tells against its goodness as a means of securing justice between man and man, or class and class. Abundant evidence shows that the maintenance of equitable relations among its subjects, which forms the essential business of a ruling power, is surest when the ruling power is of popular origin; notwithstanding the defects to which such a ruling power is liable. For discharging the true function of a government, representative government is shown to be the best, alike by its origin, its theory, and its results. Let us glance at the facts under these three heads.
Alike in Spain, in England, and in France, popular power embodied itself as a check upon kingly tyranny, that is—kingly injustice. The earliest accounts we have of the Spanish Cortes, say that it was their office to advise the King; and to follow their advice was his duty. They petitioned, remonstrated, complained of grievances, and supplicated for redress. The King, having acceded to their requirements, swore to observe them; and it was agreed that any act of his incontravention of the statutes thus established, should be “respected as the King’s commands, but not executed, as contrary to the rights and privileges of the subject.” In all which we see very clearly that the special aim of the Cortes was to get rectified the injustices committed by the King or others; that the King was in the habit of breaking the promises of amendment he made to them; and that they had to adopt measures to enforce the fulfilment of his promises. In England we trace analogous facts. The Barons who bridled the tyranny of King John, though not formally appointed, were virtually impromptu representatives of the nation; and in their demand that justice should neither be sold, denied, nor delayed, we discern the social evils which led to this taking of the power into their own hands. In early times the knights and burgesses, summoned by the King with the view of getting supplies from them, had for their especial business to obtain from him the redress of grievances, that is—the execution of justice; and in their eventually-obtained and occasionally-exercised power of withholding supplies until justice was granted, we see both the need there was for remedying the iniquities of autocracy, and the adaptation of representative institutions to this end. And the further development of popular power latterly obtained, originated from the demand for fairer laws—for less class-privilege, class-exemption, class-injustice: a fact which the speeches of the Reform-Bill agitation abundantly prove. In France, again, representative government grew into a definite form under the stimulus of unbearable oppression. When the accumulated extortion of centuries had reduced the mass of the people to misery—when millions of haggard faces were seen throughout the land—when starving complainants were hanged on “a gallows forty feet high” —when the exactions and cruelties of good-for-nothing kings and vampire-nobles had brought the nation to the eye of dissolution; there came, as a remedy, an assembly of men elected by the people.
That, considered a priori, representative government is fitted for establishing just laws, is implied by the unanimity with which Spanish, English, and French availed themselves of it to this end; as well as by the endeavours latterly made by other European nations to do the like. The rationale of the matter is simple enough. Manifestly, on the average of cases, a man will protect his own interests more solicitously than others will protect them for him. Manifestly, where regulations have to be made affecting the interests of several men, they are most likely to be equitably made when all those concerned are present, and have equal shares in the making of them. And manifestly, where those concerned are so numerous and so dispersed, that it is physically impossible for them all to take part in the framing of such regulations, the next best thing is for the citizens in each locality to appoint one of their number to speak for them, to care for their claims, to be their representative. The general principle is that the welfare of all will be most secure when each looks after his own welfare; and the principle is carried out as directly as the circumstances permit. It is inferable, alike from human nature and from history, that a single man cannot be trusted with the interests of a nation of men, where his real or imagined interests clash with theirs. It is similarly inferable from human nature and from history, that no small section of a nation, as the nobles, can be expected to consult the welfare of the people at large in preference to their own. And it is further inferable that only in a general diffusion of political power, is there a safeguard for the general welfare. This has all along been the conviction under which representative government has been advocated, maintained, and extended. From the early writs summoning the members of the House of Commons—writs which declared it to be a most equitable rule that the laws which concerned all should be approved of by all—down to the reasons now urged by the unenfranchised for a participation in political power, this is the implied theory. Observe, nothing is said about wisdom or administrative ability. From the beginning, the end in view has been justice. Whether we consider the question in the abstract, or whether we examine the opinions men have entertained upon it from old times down to the present day, we equally see the theory of representative government to be, that it is the best means of insuring equitable social relations.
And do not the results justify the theory? Did not our early Parliaments, after long-continued struggles, succeed in curbing the licentious exercise of royal power, and in establishing the rights of the subject? Are not the comparative security and justice enjoyed under our form of government, indicated by the envy with which other nations regard it? Was not the election of the French Constituent Assembly followed by the sweeping away of the grievous burdens that weighed down the people—by the abolition of tithes, seignorial dues, gabelle, excessive preservation of game—by the withdrawal of numerous feudal privileges and immunities—by the manumission of the slaves in the French colonies? And has not that extension of our own electoral system embodied in the Reform-Bill, brought about more equitable arrangements?—as witness the repeal of the Corn-Laws, and the equalization of probate and legacy duties. The proofs are undeniable. It is clear, both a priori and a posteriori, that representative government is especially adapted for the establishment and maintenance of just laws.
And now mark that the objections to representative government awhile since urged, scarcely tell against it at all, so long as it does not exceed this comparatively limited function. Though its mediocrity of intellect makes it incompetent to oversee and regulate the countless involved processes which make up the national life; it nevertheless has quite enough intellect to enact and enforce those simple principles of equity which underlie the right conduct of citizens to one another. These are such that the commonest minds can understand their chief applications. Stupid as may be the average elector, he can see the propriety of such regulations as shall prevent men from murdering and robbing; he can understand the fitness of laws which enforce the payment of debts; he can perceive the need of measures to prevent the strong from tyrannizing over the weak; and he can feel the rectitude of a judicial system that is the same for rich and poor. The average representative may be but of small capacity, but he is competent, under the leadership of his wiser fellows, to devise appliances for carrying out these necessary restraints; or rather—he is competent to uphold the set of appliances slowly elaborated by the many generations of his predecessors, and to do something towards improving and extending them in those directions where the need is most manifest. It is true that even these small demands upon electoral and senatorial wisdom are but imperfectly met. But though constituencies are blind to the palpable truth that if they would escape laws which favour the nobility at the expense of the commonalty, they must cease to choose representatives from among the nobility; yet when the injustice of this class-legislation is glaring—as in the case of the Corn-Laws—they have sense enough to use means for getting it abolished. And though most legislators have not sufficient penetration to perceive that the greater part of the evils which they attempt to cure by official inspection and regulation would disappear were there a certain, prompt, and cheap administration of justice; yet the County-Courts-Act and other recent law-reforms, show that they do eventually recognize the importance of more efficient judicial arrangements. While, therefore, the lower average of intelligence which necessarily characterizes representative government, unfits it for discharging the complex business of regulating the entire national life; it does not unfit it for discharging the comparatively simple duties of protector. Again, in respect of this all-essential function of a government, there is a much clearer identity of interest between representative and citizen, than in respect of the multitudinous other functions which governments undertake. Though it is generally of but little consequence to the member of Parliament whether state-teachers, state-preachers, state-officers of health, state-dispensers of charity, etc., do their work well, it is of great consequence to him that life and property should be secure; and hence he is more likely to care for the efficient administration of justice than for the efficient administration of anything else. Moreover, the complexity, incongruity of parts, and general cumbrousness which deprive a representative government of that activity and decision required for paternally-superintending the affairs of thirty millions of citizens; do not deprive it of the ability to establish and maintain the regulations by which these citizens are prevented from trespassing against one another. For the principles of equity are permanent as well as simple; and once having been legally embodied in their chief outlines, all that devolves on a government is to develop them more perfectly, and improve the appliances for enforcing them: an undertaking for which the slow and involved action of a representative government does not unfit it. So that while by its origin, theory, and results, representative government is shown to be the best for securing justice between class and class, as well as between man and man, the objections which so strongly tell against it in all its other relations to society, do not tell against it in this fundamental relation.
Thus, then, we reach the solution of the paradox. Here is the reconciliation between the two seemingly-contradictory positions awhile since taken. To the question—What is representative government good for? our reply is—It is good, especially good, good above all others, for doing the thing which a government should do. It is bad, especially bad, bad above all others, for doing the things which a government should not do.
One point remains. We said, some distance back, that not only may representative government be the best, notwithstanding its many conspicuous deficiencies; but that it is even possible to discern in these very deficiencies further proofs of its superiority. The conclusion just arrived at, implying, as it does, that these deficiencies tend to hinder it from doing the things which no government should do, has already furnished a key to this strange-looking assertion. But it will be well here to make a more specific justification of it. This brings us to the pure science of the matter.
The ever-increasing complexity which characterizes advancing societies, is a complexity that results from the multiplication of different parts performing different duties. The doctrine of the division of labour is now-a-days understood by most to some extent; and most know that by this division of labour each operative, each manufacturer, each town, each district, is constantly more and more restricted to one kind of work. Those who study the organization of living bodies find the uniform process of development to be, that each organ gradually acquires a definite and limited function; there arises, step by step, a more perfect “physiological division of labour.” And in an article on “Progress: its Law and Cause,” published in our April number, we pointed out that this increasing specialization of functions which goes on in all organized bodies, social as well as individual; is one of the manifestations of a still more general process pervading creation, inorganic as well as organic.
Now this specialization of functions, which is the law of all organization, has a twofold implication. At the same time that each part grows adapted to the particular duty it has to discharge, it grows unadapted to all other duties. The becoming especially fit for one thing, is a becoming less fit than before for everything else. We have not space here to exemplify this truth. Any modern work on physiology, however, will furnish the reader with abundant illustrations of it, as exhibited in the evolution of living creatures; and as exhibited in the evolution of societies, it may be studied in the writings of political economists. All which we wish here to point out is, that the governmental part of the body politic exemplifies this truth equally with its other parts. In virtue of this universal law, a government cannot gain ability to perform its special work without losing such ability as it had to perform other work.
This then is, as we say, the pure science of the matter. The original and essential office of a government is that of protecting its subjects against aggression external and internal. In low, undeveloped forms of society, where yet there is but little differentiation of parts, and little specialization of functions, this essential work, discharged with extreme imperfection, is joined with endless other work: the government has a controlling action over all conduct, individual and social—regulates dress, food, ablutions, prices, trade, religion—exercises unbounded power. In becoming so constituted as to discharge better its essential function, the government becomes more limited alike in the power and the habit of doing other things. Increasing ability to perform its true duty, involves decreasing ability to perform all other kinds of actions. And this conclusion, deducible from the universal law of organization, is the conclusion to which inductive reasoning has already led us. We have seen that, whether considered in theory or practice, representative government is the best for securing justice. We have also seen that, whether considered in theory or practice, it is the worst for all other purposes. And here we find that this last characteristic is a necessary accompaniment of the first. These various incapacities, which seem to tell so seriously against the goodness of representative government, are but the inevitable consequences of its more complete adaptation to its proper work; and, so understood, are themselves indications that it is the form of government natural to a more highly-organized and advanced social state.
We do not expect this consideration to weigh much with those whom it most concerns. Truths of so abstract a character find no favour with senates. The metamorphosis we have described is not mentioned in Ovid. History, as at present written, makes no comments on it. There is nothing about it to be found in blue-books and committee-reports. Neither is it proved by statistics. Evidently, then, it has but small chance of recognition by the “practical” legislator. But to the select few who study the Social Science, properly so called, we commend this general fact as one of the highest significance. Those who know something of the general laws of life, and who perceive that these general laws of life underlie all social phenomena, will see that this dual change in the character of advanced governments, involves an answer to the first of all political questions. They will see that this specialization in virtue of which an advanced government gains power to perform one function, while it loses power to perform others, clearly indicates the true limitations of State-duty. They will see that, even leaving out all other evidence, this fact alone shows conclusively what is the proper sphere of legislation.