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Spencer on voting as a poor instrument for protecting our rights to life, liberty, and property (1879)

The English radical individualist philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) distinguished between “rights properly so-called” (such as the rights to life, liberty and property) and “political rights so-called” (such as the right to vote). In his mind the latter were merely an “appliance” or an “instrument” for achieving the former. By 1879 Spencer was convinced that voting was not a very good way to preserve our rights but rather a means to put ourselves “in bondage” to the state:

… 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 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…

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.

…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.

About this Quotation:

In his major work on political philosophy, The Principles of Ethics (1879), Herbert Spencer makes a clear distinction between our fundamental rights (or rights properly understood) to such things as life, liberty, and property, and other derivative or instrumental “rights” (or “so-called rights”) which were used to create political structures or “appliances” designed to protect and guarantee those fundamental rights. Voting and representative governments were thus in his view such rights protecting “appliances.” Unfortunately, the way in which voting and representative governments had evolved in Britain, France, and the United States by 1880 had shown that they were fast losing their original purpose of protecting rights and were becoming new forms of statism designed to violate the rights of the many for the benefit of a ruling few. Spencer particularly mentioned the U.S. in this regard with its corruption of local government by “wirepullers” and political “bosses,” the enacting of “blue laws”, and the imposition of tariffs.

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