William Godwin on the need to simplify and reduce the power of the state (1793)

William Godwin

Found in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. II.

The English radical political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (1756-1836) thought that human beings were not naturally “vicious” but were made so by complex political institutions which rewarded predatory behavior:

But this necessity (to resort to violence) does not arise out of the nature of man, but out of the institutions by which he has already been corrupted. Man is not originally vicious. He would not refuse to listen, or to be convinced by the expostulations that are addressed to him, had he not been accustomed to regard them as hypocritical, and to conceive that, while his neighbour, his parent and his political governor pretended to be actuated by a pure regard to his interest, they were in reality, at the expence of his, promoting their own. Such are the fatal effects of (political) mysteriousness and complexity.

In 1792-93 when the French Revolution was still in its more liberal phase, the English radical William Godwin was contemplating what powers should a new national assembly have and what should its relation be with local political bodies (or “juries” as he called them) at the district level. He believed that complex and intrusive political bodies in the past had brought out the worst in human behaviour and that citizens had therefore concluded that politicians and their favored groups were hypocritical, self-serving, and ready to plunder the broader community whenever they had the chance. Under his new system, in which “the political machine,” “that brute engine” of ‘vice” and “mischief,” had been radically simplified (i.e. reduced in size and scope), there would be much less need for violence and coercion, there would be opportunities for more rational discussion, persuasion, and non-violent solutions to social problems. His hope was that eventually, this radically decentralized political power would become so “simplified” that it would lead to the “dissolution” and perhaps even “annihilation” of “political government” (as opposed to other forms of government).