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George Grote on the difficulty of public opinion alone in curbing the misuse of power by “the sinister interests” (1821)

The Philosophic Radical George Grote (1794-1871) wrote this defence of democratic reform of the British electoral system in 1821. He noted the special problem posed by the concentration of political benefits being concentrated in a few hands and the costs being dispersed over very many individuals:

The wrongs of a Government, which conducts its measures with any degree of policy, are, from their nature, such as stimulate our sympathies most feebly. It does not inflict any grievous injury upon a single individual. Its extortions impose but a trifling privation on each member of the community; and, though the amount of wrong may be enormous, when this petty privation is multiplied into the numerous assemblage on whom it falls, yet this is a circumstance which does not submit itself to our view, and kindle our sensibilities, but seems to belong rather to the province of cool subsequent reflection. Our feelings are dissipated and crumbled away amidst so scattered a multitude, nor can we stop to compute the immensity of a sum total which has been craftily subdivided into units.

But is it in truth a point so manifest and undeniable, that popular opinion ever could exercise a restraint so effectual as that which has been conceded? Do we not overrate its efficacy, when we imagine it capable of defeating one half of those noxious projects, which the sinister interest of the Administration will continually originate?

If we inspect the machinery of the social system in other cases, we find the value assigned to this check far less considerable. The universal necessity and construction of laws unequivocally attest the comparative impotence of that bridle which they are destined to reinforce. …

Now mark the enormous deductions which must be made, on all these five counts, from the efficacy of this check, when it is intended to subdue the sinister interest prevalent in a government.

First, the page of history, and the general tone of conversation, decidedly evince the indulgence and even admiration, with which we view robbery and murder when perpetrated on a grand scale; how entirely our feelings abandon the injustice of a war, and the accumulated death and desolation which accompanies it, to partake in the triumph of the general, and to extol the terrific power by which the result has been accomplished. When, therefore, the majesty of power can veil from our eyes the real character of its most flagrant enormities, we cannot wonder that it should completely whitewash all the more insignificant minutiæ of oppression. We might anticipate the gentle and reluctant diapproval by which the creation of useless places, the promotion of improper agents, and the enhancement of unnecessary burthens, would be marked. Again, there are numbers into whose bosoms the still small voice of expectation will insinuate its predictions, and suggest the prospect that they, or their friends, or their connexions, may one day draw the prize. At any rate, [37] no one knows what may happen, and it is unwise to talk despitefully of the man in power.

Secondly, The wrongs of a Government, which conducts its measures with any degree of policy, are, from their nature, such as stimulate our sympathies most feebly. It does not inflict any grievous injury upon a single individual. Its extortions impose but a trifling privation on each member of the community; and, though the amount of wrong may be enormous, when this petty privation is multiplied into the numerous assemblage on whom it falls, yet this is a circumstance which does not submit itself to our view, and kindle our sensibilities, but seems to belong rather to the province of cool subsequent reflection. Our feelings are dissipated and crumbled away amidst so scattered a multitude, nor can we stop to compute the immensity of a sum total which has been craftily subdivided into units.

Thirdly, The acts, which public opinion will be called upon to mark, are, in the highest degree, difficult of detection. How can it keep steadily in view the nice and ever-varying boundary between necessary and unnecessary taxation?—How unravel the subtle pretexts, with which the Government will continually preface their factitious demands?—How seize on the precise instant, when a once useful placeman is no longer required? Nor should we forget that, in order to constitute a perfect coercive, it should likewise be able to review the negative acts of the Government. But how shall it hunt out all the cases [38] in which unpatronised merit has been rejected or dismissed?

Fourthly, Public opinion is, in this case, introduced to act upon a number of individuals, forming the most opulent, powerful, and best instructed class of the community. Their number greatly extenuates the responsibility of each, and lessens the dread both of censure and resistance. Their mutual interest creates and circulates among them a train of peculiar feeling, and a perverted language of praise and blame, which becomes the standard of their conduct, and renders them insensible to the reproach of others, at least until it swells into the loudest pitch. To prove in any degree effectual, a languid disapprobation, on the part of the public, will be very insufficient. The feeling must be kindled into animosity and menace, and England must be stimulated into a clamorous effervescence, from the Thames to the Tay. …

Fifthly, The abuses introduced by a bad Government seldom press very signally upon any one individual, or upon any small knot of persons. Consequently, the nature of the wrong is not such as to designate and draw forth of itself any leader, to whose zeal and devotion in the cause, volunteer assistants would confidently look up. Public opinion, therefore, must organize itself in desultory detachments, and is stripped of that invincible ardour and inspiration, which the guidance of a person keenly smitten and aggrieved would have communicated to it.

About this Quotation:

In this the first of two tracts defending the extension of the franchise and the reform of the British Parliament which George Grote wrote in the 1820s, he argues that public opinion by itself is not strong enough to prevent the “sinister interests” which controlled the Parliament from benefitting from it financially. The whole system had to be reformed and their power eliminated. He gives 5 reasons why these interests have been able to avoid being held accountable for their actions: the people have been duped by “the majesty of power” and can no longer see “the real character of its most flagrant enormities”; the benefits of their rule are concentrated in a few hands while the costs are disbursed among many; the beneficiaries are hard to identify publicly; the ruling elite are used to having power over others and are “insensible to the reproach of others”; and the people lack a leader or a “small knot of persons” who could take up their cause. It was precisely the group of Philosophic Radicals like himself whom he thought would make up the “small knot of persons” who would reform the British political system, which they did in 1832.

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