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Bruce Smith on the misconceived and harmful legislation produced by voting as an inevitable though temporary case of “measles” (1887)

The Australian barrister and radical individualist thinker Bruce Smith (1851-1937) warned that the new form of democracy sweeping the Enlgish-speaking world would introduce a new form of “class privilege” via the ballot box:

If there is any truth in these reflections, then the masses, having deprived kings of their despotic power, and the aristocracy and wealthy classes of any privileges they may have enjoyed, seem to be inclining now towards the creation of privileges for themselves, as against the propertied classes. To demand such advantages, or, if obtained, to persist in holding them, is simply to turn round on their own principles; for the author of “The Radical Programme” says that the “preservation of class privileges” is “the fundamental doctrine and uniform aim of Conservatism.”

In the last chapter I explained my reasons for believing that English-speaking communities will have yet to pass through a long period of well-meant but misconceived and abortive legislation—the inevitable “measles,” as it were, of democratic or popular government. I see no escape from the conclusion that, quite apart from the popular ignorance of the political science, so long as the masses pin their faith to the belief I have just mentioned, or to the bald principle of “majority” voting as a test of wisdom, the chances of legislation, beneficial to society as a whole, are well-nigh hopeless…

It is truly appalling to contemplate what life would become if each of these, and the hundred and one other wild and immature theories which are now in the air, were allowed to be carried into practice. Life would indeed be unbearable. Yet reflection will show that we are fast tending in that direction; for if we turn our eyes towards impending legislation, whether regarding commercial or social matters, we find that our individual liberty is being slowly but surely curtailed in a manner which will not for a moment stand the test of criticism, by the light of true principles.

If there is any truth in these reflections, then the masses, having deprived kings of their despotic power, and the aristocracy and wealthy classes of any privileges they may have enjoyed, seem to be inclining now towards the creation of privileges for themselves, as against the propertied classes. To demand such advantages, or, if obtained, to persist in holding them, is simply to turn round on their own principles; for the author of “The Radical Programme” says that the “preservation of class privileges” is “the fundamental doctrine and uniform aim of Conservatism.”

In the last chapter I explained my reasons for believing that English-speaking communities will have yet to pass through a long period of well-meant but misconceived and abortive legislation—the inevitable “measles,” as it were, of democratic or popular government. I see no escape from the conclusion that, quite apart from the popular ignorance of the political science, so long as the masses pin their faith to the belief I have just mentioned, or to the bald principle of “majority” voting as a test of wisdom, the chances of legislation, beneficial to society as a whole, are well-nigh hopeless. That conclusion I think unavoidable, even as an abstract deduction; but we are not dependent upon conclusions so obtained, for already the air is full (and the statute-books are fast becoming so) of legislative schemes from which their authors vainly anticipate results of the most truly Utopian character.

These alone are sufficient to show the direction which legislation will take in the future. On the one hand we have schemes for artificially creating a peasant proprietary, by which “smiling homesteads” are to be scattered over a land, in which the condition of the agricultural industry is at present too depressed to render such holdings even self-supporting. Yet all of this is to be done by the magic influence of an act of parliament, compelling landowners to sell their property at such a valuation as will constitute what Mr. Joseph Chamberlain has lately spoken of as a “ransom” from the propertied classes. Another visionary would—again by act of parliament—put an end to private ownership in land by “nationalising” the proprietary. The advocates of this scheme would convert the country into an immense public estate, and burden the people with an enormous “Lands Department,” which would cost an endless amount of money to manage or mismanage, as the case might be; and, by this means, it is vainly hoped that the poor would be made better off. A third dreamer would found a national system of insurance, by which every citizen would be compelled to make provision for those about him; unmindful of the contingency that he might be lacking the means to provide for himself. Others, equally unpractical, would compel society, by act of parliament, to confine itself to eight hours' work per day, from which it might soon follow (if applied to domestic servants) that fires and lights would have to be extinguished at about the old Curfew Bell hour. Another class of enthusiasts would pass an act of parliament to prohibit the use of all spirits and fermented liquors; while a further section of extremists would return to the old law which enforced strict Sunday observance.

It is truly appalling to contemplate what life would become if each of these, and the hundred and one other wild and immature theories which are now in the air, were allowed to be carried into practice. Life would indeed be unbearable. Yet reflection will show that we are fast tending in that direction; for if we turn our eyes towards impending legislation, whether regarding commercial or social matters, we find that our individual liberty is being slowly but surely curtailed in a manner which will not for a moment stand the test of criticism, by the light of true principles.

About this Quotation:

Bruce Smith was being rather optimistic when he predicted that the new form of democracy which was being introduced into Britain and some of its colonies such as Australia in the late 19th century would introduce only a temporary but inevitable case of political “measles” as voters demanded legislation to solve their problems. He singled out the call for land redistribution via forced sales, land nationalization, a national system of insurance, the introduction by Parliament of the 8 hour working day, the prohibition of the sale of alcohol, and enforced church attendance on Sundays. He thought that this legislation enacted on the principle of majority voting would create a new system of “class privilege” which he described as “appalling”, “unbearable”, and an unjust curtailment of our liberty. Smith thought society would have to go through a long period of “misconceived and abortive legislation” or what he wittily called the inevitable political bout of “measles”, until the people realised their mistake. But I think even he would say that 123 years is rather a long bout of this affliction.

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