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

George Grote

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.

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.