Friday, February 24, 2017

Discussions on Democracy

The battle between Professor Blackie and Mr. Ernest Jones about democracy and its merits and demerits, was, we think, much more creditable to their fluency and to the interest taken by their audience in political discussion than to the philosophy of either lecturers or hearers.  Professor Blackie denounced the evils of democracy and quoted Aristotle and other authorities against it, and Mr. Ernest Jones sang its praises upon Christian and miscellaneous principles, as if the question whether a nation at a given time should or should not be a democracy was one which it was possible to decide upon a comparison of the advantages of various forms of government.  Upon us the whole discussion produces the effect of a debate on the question whether it is a good thing to grow old, or whether the climate of the temperate is or is not to be preferred to that of the torrid zone.  Acts of Parliament and popular discussions are likely to have about as much influence on the question whether England shall or shall not be democratic, as upon the question whether Mr. Blackie and Mr. Jones shall be of this age or that.  Democracy is not a form of government, but a state of society; and it exists, and always will exist, whether there is a general equality of conditions amongst the bulk of the population.  A society in which there is one law for all, in which every man has fair play for his talents, and is free to acquire as much wealth, comfort, and distinction as he can get, in which political authority is minutely subdivided, and in which no one is excluded from it by an insuperable barrier, is, in fact and in substance, a democracy, whatever may be the form of its government.  The most powerful nations of Western Europe, including amongst the rest our own country, are democracies in this sense of the word, and it would be utterly idle and absurd to think of trying to alter that fact.  The real question for us, as for other, is not whether the country shall or shall not be a democracy, but how we are to bring our political institutions into harmony with the actual condition and constitution of society.  The amount of change which may be required for this purpose is, of course, a question open to any quantity of discussion, and we have heard, and are no doubt destined to hear, endless debates on the proper way of making it; but no one has a right to pretend to statesmanship who does not perceive that it is simply idle to discuss the question whether the condition of society with which we have to deal is a good one or a bad one.  It is what it is, and our business is simply to cut our coat to our cloth.  It appears to us about equally silly to lament over the supposed evils of democracy or to extol it as the translation of Christianity into politics.  It is simply the material with which we have to deal, and if we are wise we shall do what we can to make the best of it, without exaggeration on any side of the question.

If any one should seriously doubt this view of the case, and should be disposed in opposition to it to dwell on the fact that the Constitution of the country still includes a Queen and a House of Lords, and still excludes a considerable majority of the adult male population from all direct share in political authority, he would do well to ask himself what is the tenure on which the Queen, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, as at present constituted, hold their power, and what is in truth the extent of that power?  In point of law they are omnipotent, and their sovereignty is complete. If they choose to do the most monstrous things there is no one beyond them by whose will their proceedings can be limited; but is any one weak enough to imagine that this is true not only in law but also in substance?  Could either the Queen or the House of Lords venture for one instance to use their legal authority avowedly in the interest of any class, and in direct open opposition to the wishes of the great bulk of the people? The question answers itself, and that so obviously and completely that no one will ever think of even asking it.  Whatever may be the exact limits of the power of our existing Legislature, the fact that it has limits none the less real because they are not exactly defined, is one which cannot be doubted, and which is altogether inconsistent with the notion that the form of the government is any real index to the state of the society which is governed.  In essentials, in matters of really vital interest and importance, England is at the present day as much of a democracy as universal suffrage could make it if it were established to-morrow.  The expression of the will of the mass of the people might be made more easy and rapid than it is, and its connection with the practical results of legislation might be made closer; but the real power which any large numerical majority possesses in the long run and might exert in case of absolute necessity, cannot be increased; for no one can doubt that if the great majority of the English people were thoroughly determined upon any course of conduct whatever, no existing institution would be strong enough to prevent them from having their way, or to do more than compel them to get it by violent instead of legal means.  It is of course open to any one to lament this, and to regret that the government of the country is not in the hands of a superior race, as is the case in India; or that it does not rest on overwhelming military power, as for many years was the case in the north of Italy; or that it does not represent the superiority of a nation over a province, as was once the case in Ireland; or that it is not in the hands of a privileged class, such as the white planters formed in the Southern States of the Union; but whether it is or is not a matter of congratulation, there can be no doubt at all as to the matter of fact.  The real ruler of England is the English people, and the only relevant question for inquiry is whether our existing form of government properly represents the manner in which political power -- not the fitness for political power, but the political power itself -- is actually distributed through the nation.  To hear many people talk one might suppose that political power meant nothing else than legal authority, and that inasmuch as an Act of Parliament can decide whether a man is or is not to have a vote, it can also decide whether or not a class shall have more or less political power.  This is an entire mistake.  Laws are founded on power, not power on laws.  What the Legislature can decide upon is whether the power of a given class or a given man shall be officially recognized, not whether or not it shall exist. Suppose, to take an extreme case, an Act were to be passed disfranchising all the boroughs with upwards of 5,000 inhabitants, confining the franchise to persons living in houses worth $150 a year, and re-establishing the rotten boroughs -- would such an Act increase the power of the rich?  It wants very little discernment to see that, instead of doing so, it would produce a revolution which might destroy, or at least weaken for centuries the class intended to be benefited.  Physical force is power; education is power; and when these powers become conscious of their own existence they will know how to make themselves felt if the law refuses to recognize them.

It is the want of all perception of this fact which makes Professor Blackie’s denunciations of democracy, and his plans -- which are a pretty fair specimen of bushels of others -- for giving an artificial importance to lawyers, doctors, and others who resemble himself in point of education and social standing, unspeakably dreary and as unreal as the Constitution-making ascribed to the AbbĂ© Sieyes.  The power which a class possesses is a fixed quantity, and if you attempt to increase it artificially by legislation you diminish its stability as you increase its nominal extent.  Louis Napoleon is in some respects an absolute sovereign, but he is powerful because he represents, and in so far as he represents, the will of the great bulk of the French people. He rules only as their agent, and he never forgets that fact, and it is because he bears it in mind and knows his place that he is so powerful.  Lawyers in this country are a powerful class, but it is perfectly clear in what their power consists, and how far it can be extended.  In the first place they are a body of active vigorous-minded men, connected together by a strong esprit de corps, and well acquainted with all manner of business.  In the next place, they have an almost exclusive possession of a particular branch of knowledge of great practical importance; and in the third place, from their knowledge of affairs and of law, they have in many cases enormous influence over great numbers of private persons.  These facts, and others of the same sort, constitute their political power, and by reason of them they always will, in every free country, and under every legal form of government, be one of the most powerful members of the body corporate.  To try to increase their power artificially by giving them in their professional capacity additional votes or the like is only to put them in an invidious position, and to diminish to that extent the influence which they at present possess.  Look at the Roman Catholic priests in Ireland.  Would their political power be increased in the least degree if in their character of priests every man of them were to get three votes instead of one?  Their power depends upon their spiritual and secular influence over the people, and legislation will neither increase nor diminish it.

The real importance of Reform Bills and other constitutional changes in countries in which the broad principles of legal government and equal legal rights are fully recognized, consists not in the fact that they alter its distribution of political power, but in the fact that they render its working safe and regular, and provide a legal channel for its exercise.  Hence the case for an alteration is made out if it be shown that a large number of persons who do actually possess the power of affecting in various ways the management of public affairs are not recognized by the law of the land as possessing it, and no alteration will be satisfactory or lasting which does not give such persons a share of recognized power proximately proportionate to the real power, which in the last resort and in a case of absolute necessity, they could exert.

Pall Mall Gazette, January 10, 1867.

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