Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 22.: Political Rights–So-Called - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 22.: Political Rights–So-Called - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 2.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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342. Every day yields illustrations of the way in which men think only of the proximate and ignore the remote. The power of a locomotive is currently ascribed to steam. There is no adequate consciousness of the fact that the steam is simply an intermediator and not an initiator–that the initiator is the heat of the fire. It is not perceived that the steam engine is in truth a heat engine, differing from other heat engines (such as those in which gas is employed) only in the instrumentality employed to transform molecular motion into molar motion.
This limitation of consciousness to direct relations and ignoring of indirect relations, habitually vitiates thinking about social affairs. The primary effect produced by one who builds a house, or makes a road, or drains a field, is that he sets men to work; and the work, more prominent in thought than the sustenance obtained by it, comes to be regarded as itself a benefit. The imagined good is not increase in the stock of commodities or appliances which subserve human wants, but the expenditure of the labor which produces them. Hence various fallacies–hence the comment on destruction by fire that it is good for trade; hence the delusion that machinery is injurious to the people. If instead of the proximate thing, labor, there were contemplated the ultimate thing, produce, such errors would be avoided. Similarly is it with currency fallacies. Coins, which may be exchanged for all kinds of desired things, come themselves to be connected in men's minds with the idea of value, rather than the things they will purchase; which, as satisfying desires, are the truly valuable things. And then promises to pay, serving in place of coins, intrinsically valueless though they are, are, by daily experience of their purchasing power, so associated with the idea of value that abundance of them becomes identified in thought with wealth; and there results the belief that it only needs a profusion of banknotes to insure national prosperity: errors which would be avoided were the reasoning carried on in terms of commodities, instead of being carried on in terms of these symbols. This usurpation of consciousness by the proximate and expulsion from it of the remote–this forgetting of the ends and erecting the means into ends, is again shown us in education. The time was when knowledge anciently acquired having ceased to be current, the learning of Latin and Greek, in which that knowledge was recorded, became indispensable as a means to acquirement of it; and it was then regarded as a means. But now, long after this ancient knowledge has been rendered accessible in our language, and now, when a vastly larger mass of knowledge has been accumulated, this learning of Latin and Greek is persisted in; and, moreover, has come to be practically regarded as the end, to the exclusion of the end as originally conceived. Young men who are tolerably familiar with these ancient languages, are supposed to be educated; though they may have acquired but little of what knowledge there is embodied in them and next to nothing of the immensely greater amount of knowledge and immensely more valuable knowledge which centuries of research have established.
343. With what view is here made this general remark, thus variously illustrated? With the view of preparing the way for a further illustration which now concerns us. Current political thought is profoundly vitiated by this mistaking of means for ends, and by this pursuit of the means to the neglect of the ends. Hence, among others, the illusions which prevail concerning “political rights.”
There are no further rights, truly so-called, than such as have been set forth. If, as we have seen, rights are but so many separate parts of a man's general freedom to pursue the objects of life, with such limitations only as result from the presence of other men who have similarly to pursue such objects, then, if a man's freedom is not in any way further restricted, he possesses all his rights. If the integrity of his body is in no way or degree interfered with; if there is no impediment to his motion and locomotion; if his ownership of all that he has earned or otherwise acquired is fully respected; if he may give or bequeath as he pleases, occupy himself in what way he likes, make a contract or exchange with whomsoever he wills, hold any opinions and express them in speech or print, &c., &c., nothing remains for him to demand under the name of rights, as properly understood. Any other claims he may have must be of a different kind–cannot be classed as rights. Many times and in various ways we have seen that rights, truly so called, originate from the laws of life as carried on in the associated state. The social arrangements may be such as fully recognize them, or such as ignore them in greater or smaller degrees. The social arrangements cannot create them, but can simply conform to them or not conform to them. Such parts of the social arrangements as make up what we call government, are instrumental to the maintenance of rights, here in great measure and there in small measure; but in whatever measure, they are simply instrumental, and whatever they have in them which may be called right, must be so called only in virtue of their efficiency in maintaining rights.
But because of this tendency to occupation of the mind by the means and proportionate exclusion of the ends, it results that those governmental arrangements which conduce to maintenance of rights come to be regarded as themselves rights–nay, come to be thought of as occupying a foremost place in this category. Those shares of political power which in the more advanced nations citizens have come to possess, and which experience has shown to be good guarantees for the maintenance of life, liberty, and property, are spoken of as though the claims to them were of the same nature as the claims to life, liberty, and property themselves. Yet there is no kinship between the two. The giving of a vote, considered in itself, in no way furthers the voter's life, as does the exercise of those various liberties we properly call rights. All we can say is that the possession of the franchise by each citizen gives the citizens in general powers of checking trespasses upon their rights: powers which they may or may not use to good purpose.
The confusion between means and ends has in this case been almost inevitable. Contrasts between the states of different nations, and between the states of the same nation at different periods, have strongly impressed men with the general truth that if governmental power is in the hands of one, or in the hands of a few, it will be used to advantage the one or the few; and that the many will be correspondingly disadvantaged. That is to say. those who have not the power will be subject to greater restraints and burdens than those who have the power–will be defrauded of that liberty of each, limited only by the like liberties of all, which equity demands–will have their rights more or less seriously infringed. And as experience has shown that a wider distribution of political power is followed by decrease of these trespasses, maintenance of a popular form of government has come to be identified with the maintenance of rights, and the power of giving a vote, being instrumental to maintenance of rights, has come to be regarded as itself a right–nay, often usurps in the general apprehension the place of the rights properly so-called.
How true this is we shall learn on observing that where so-called political rights are possessed by all, rights properly so-called are often unscrupulously trampled upon. In France bureaucratic despotism under the Republic, is as great as it was under the Empire. Exactions and compulsions are no less numerous and peremptory; and, as was declared by English trade-union delegates to a congress in Paris, the invasion of citizens' liberties in France goes to an extent which “is a disgrace to, and an anomaly in, a Republican nation.” Similarly in the United States. Universal suffrage does not prevent the corruptions of municipal governments, which impose heavy local taxes and do very inefficient work; does not prevent the growth of general and local organizations by which each individual is compelled to surrender his powers to wire-pullers and bosses; does not prevent citizens from being coerced in their private lives by dictating what they shall not drink; does not prevent an enormous majority of consumers from being heavily taxed by a protective tariff for the benefit of a small minority of manufacturers and artisans; nay, does not even effectually preserve men from violent deaths, but, in sundry states, allows of frequent murders, checked only by law officers who are themselves liable to be shot in the performance of their duties. Nor, indeed, are the results altogether different here. Far from having effected better maintenance of men's rights properly so-called, the recent extensions of the franchise have been followed by increased trespasses on them–more numerous orders to do this and not to do that, and greater abstractions from their purses.
Thus both at home and abroad the disproof is clear. From the extreme case in which men use their so-called political rights to surrender their power of preserving their rights properly so called, as by the plebiscite which elected Napoleon III, to the cases in which men let themselves be coerced into sending their children to receive lessons in grammar and gossip about kings, often at the cost of underfeeding and weak bodies, we find none of the supposed identity. Though the so-called political rights may be used for the maintenance of liberties, they may fail to be so used, and may even be used for the establishment of tyrannies.
344. Beyond that confusion of means with ends, which as we here see is a cause of this current misapprehension, there is a further cause. The conception of a right is composite, and there is a liability to mistake the presence of one of its factors for the presence of both.
As repeatedly shown, the positive element in the conception is liberty; while the negative element is the limitation implied by other's equal liberties. But the two rarely coexist in due proportion, and in some cases do not coexist at all. There may be liberty exercised without any restraint; resulting in perpetual aggressions and universal warfare. Conversely, there may be an equality in restraints which are carried so far as practically to destroy liberty. Citizens may be all equally coerced to the extent of enslaving them, by some power which they have setup–may, in pursuance of philanthropic or other ends, be severally deprived by it of large parts of that freedom which remains to each after duly regarding the liberties of others. Now the confusion of thought above pointed out, which leads to this classing of so-called political rights with rights properly so-called, arises in part from thinking of the secondary trait, equality, while not thinking of the primary trait, liberty. The growth of the one has so generally been associated with the growth of the other, that the two have come to be thought of as necessary concomitants, and it is assumed that if the equality is obtained the liberty is ensured.
But, as above shown, this is by no means the case. Men may use their equal freedom to put themselves in bondage; failing as they do to understand that the demand for equality taken by itself is fulfilled if the equality is in degrees of oppression borne and amounts of pain suffered. They overlook the truth that the acquirement of so-called political rights is by no means equivalent to the acquirement of rights properly so-called. The one is but an instrumentality for the obtainment and maintenance of the other; and it may or may not be used to achieve those ends. The essential question is–How are rights, properly so-called, to be preserved–defended against aggressors, foreign and domestic? This or that system of government is but a system of appliances. Government by representation is one of these systems of appliances; and the choosing of representatives by the votes of all citizens is one of various ways in which a representative government may be formed. Hence voting being simply a method of creating an appliance for the preservation of rights, the question is whether universal possession of votes conduces to creation of the best appliance for preservation of rights. We have seen above that it does not effectually secure this end; and we shall hereafter see that under existing conditions it is not likely to secure it.
But further discussion of this matter must be postponed. We must first deal with a more general topic–the nature of the state.