Liberty Matters

Bagehot as Aristotle

James Stoner is moderate by nature. (I am particularly grateful for his moderation in critiquing my essay.) He draws on an ancient proponent of moderation—Aristotle—to offer a more moderate reading of Bagehot than my own. Rather than trying to place Bagehot in context, he suggests, why not read Bagehot naively, on his own terms? Bagehot does not think of himself as a pragmatic positivist but rather as a student of the facts on the ground.
Bagehot described Parliament as a deliberative body, though not (or not primarily), it seems, as the place where the people reason together about whether to declare or change the law. Rather, as Stoner aptly puts it, Parliament serves as "an electoral college and an ongoing inquest, ensuring that able ministers are selected and then held accountable." The actions of the Cabinet—of the actual rulers—are the stuff of the English constitution.
Stoner persuasively relates that Bagehot's constitution is a political form, not a higher law. He is concerned with who rules, and desires that they act wisely. But then, why are the people obligated to obey? Bagehot (like Bentham) does not seem concerned with obligation. Whether or not they are obligated, the people are obliged. They have habits of deference and obedience to the fancy parts of the constitution, and that is enough for the effective parts to leverage. Or perhaps the people can be trained to defer to the superior wisdom of their actual rulers, whose constitution they cannot understand but whose operation results in their laws.
Either way, the people do not have the law in them. It descends from above. Stoner's reading of Bagehot in light of Aristotle is therefore instructive. Stoner observes that, like Bagehot's English Constitution, Aristotle's polity is ruled by wisdom. And, Aristotle would hasten to add, not everyone is wise. For Aristotle, excellence rules the polity, rather than reason perfected, so Aristotle's political theory is paternalist.
Stoner does not read Bagehot as a paternalist. He points out that, in Bagehot's account, the "naturally adept," educated aristocracy is accountable to the capable middle classes, who are represented in Parliament. He cites the concern that Bagehot expressed in the preface to the second edition that the working classes be educated before they gain too much political power. And he quotes Bagehot's doubt that the then-new, scientistic way of thinking can capably supplant the older virtue of prudence.
So, the question, Stoner suggests, is whether Bagehot's political science escapes his own indictment of reductionist scientism. It seems to me that much turns on the question of how Bagehot understands wisdom and prudence. And Stoner's own interpretive methods suggest a way to approach that question: by comparison to Aristotle.
Bagehot might have an advantage over Aristotle in his appreciation for modern education. What can education do to instill or develop prudence? Bagehot might be read in different ways. On one hand, his evolutionary account of how some families came to rule over other families suggests a determinism that would place the lowly beyond the reach of all but the most technical enlightenment. On the other hand, his repeated identification of the aristocracy's qualifications with their education, his disparagement of the party system's efficacy to educate the people, and his hope for the education of the working classes, all suggest that prudence might be cultivated.
But is that what education is for? Aristotle distinguished excellence in discerning from excellence in deliberating. And Aristotle distinguished the order of acting from the order of making (a distinction that Aquinas later expanded into his foundational insight about the four-fold operations of reason). To be truly formative, education must be practical and must shape one's habits and dispositions of action. A merely theoretical or merely technical education does not equip one for self-governance.
Bagehot does not distinguish so clearly. So, it is hard to say whether the end of education for Bagehot is primarily technical and scientific or more comprehensively moral and intellectual. Bagehot's pragmatic method suggests the former; Stoner also finds evidence of the latter.
Aristotle has (at least) two additional insights that Bagehot lacks. First, Aristotle has an account of justice. Aristotle perceived that justice consists of two parts, the equitable and the legal. Politically and personally, responsibility to law is a virtue, and it is perfected by responsibility to the requirements of natural justice.
Second, though it might not amount to an account of free choice that would satisfy contemporary analytical philosophers, Aristotle has an incipient account of culpability with respect to law.[1] He distinguishes voluntary lawless acts, which are blameworthy, from involuntary transgressions. In Aristotle's account, it is possible for persons to have justice in them, or not—to be lawful or lawless. And the distinction seems to turn on acts of intention and will. Whether Aristotle would allow that the housemaid and the footman are capable of legal justice I do not know. But I think he would insist that we observe them and judge them by their actions.
Stoner ends with a possible disagreement. He gives failing marks to institutions such as churches and universities. But he is not prepared to send home a report card on our political institutions. He warns that political scientists prematurely reported the failure of American and British political institutions in the 1970s before Reagan and Thatcher emerged to call those institutions to task.
I agree that the institutions of civil society, such as churches, schools, and universities, have failed to elevate minds and prepare people to exercise political responsibility. But I am not prepared to let political institutions off the hook. They often lack accountability to law and to the people. And increasingly, they seem to require extraordinary leadership—a Reagan, Thatcher, or (is it too early to say?) Johnson—to function properly. At least in the American context, our institutions were supposed to serve whether or not enlightened statesmen are at the helm.
The success of our institutions consists in their respective excellences, their realization of the ends for which they are constituted. A well-functioning legislative institution deliberates about the law and the circumstances of society, declares what the law is, and changes particular propositions of law when necessary to achieve the common good. On that measure, the emergence of judicial supremacy in the U.K. and the metastization of judicial supremacy in the U.S. are symptoms of failed legislatures. (They also signify the failure of executives.) That legislatures slough the hard questions off to popular referenda and to administrative agencies also shows that legislatures fail to do what legislatures are for.
Whether the failure is, on the whole, good or bad is a different question. Maybe we are better off living under the rule of judges, administrative agencies, and simple-majority votes of our fellow citizens. Perhaps Parliament is put to better use in assisting government than in declaring the law. Maybe Congress should delegate law-making to administrative agencies.
If so then someone ought to tell the people. On this score, Bagehot deserves credit for candor.
[1.] Aristotle, Ethics III.1-2, V.8.