Liberty and Liberalism
By Bruce Smith
Biographical Remarks on Arthur Bruce Smith (1851-1937)
by David M. HartBruce Smith was an Australian Barrister (a lawyer who is qualified to argue before a judge) and a Member of the Parliament of New South Wales when it was still a self-governing colony before it became one of the states in the federal Commonwealth of Australia (1901). He also went on to have a parliamentary career after Federation. I first came across Smith’s name while doing research on 19th century French free trade thought in the Mitchell Library (the State Library of NSW). One of the issues that had made the debates over Federalism so bitter in Australia was the fact that the state of New South Wales (capital of Sydney) was very pro-free trade, while the state of Victoria (capital city Melbourne) was very protectionist. Unfortunately for Australian economic history, the new Federal government adopted Victorian-style protectionism and free-trading NSW had to abandon its position if it wished to join the Federation. Thus for nearly 75 years, until deregulation became government policy again in the 1970s, Australia was a strongly protectionist nation. However, as a result of NSW’s strong 19th century free trade tradition the State Library had a very impressive collection of free trade writings in both the English and French languages, hence my interest in their holdings. It was while doing research on
Gustave de Molinari and other French classical liberals that I came across Smith’s book “Liberty and Liberalism”. Upon closer examination I realised that Smith was one of the very few (perhaps the only one) Spencerite liberals in the Australian colonies. As he says in his introduction, while doing research for this book he came across the writings of the English “Liberty and Property Defence League” which was a group of radical individualists and free traders who had among their members
Thomas Mackay and Auberon Herbert (whose books we have online at Econlib). Although he was not a member of the League, their guiding spirit was
Herbert Spencer. Smith came to share many of their ideas as the book will show. We present it online as part of our ongoing series of critiques of socialist thought.
David M. Hart
May 3, 2004
First Pub. Date
London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
“In order to win the masses, it is
necessary to understand
what the masses want, and to
offer it to them as the
prize of victory.“—
Truth (Radical Journal).
“The English masses are
nearly impervious to political ideas…. They know
The Radical Programme.
“If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the
unlimited authority of the majority, which may, at some future time, urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force…. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by
“The tyranny of the legislature is really the danger most to be feared, and will continue to be so for many years to come.”—JEFFERSON.
right of the people is almost always sophistically confounded with their
BEFORE proceeding to deal with the numerous illustrations of modern and “impending” legislation, of the spuriously “Liberal” order, which I have to lay before my readers, I deem it necessary to treat of some infirmities of the existing form of government in English-speaking communities, from which form that order of legislation is resulting, and is still more likely to result in the near future. As I have already shown, the instances of the same class, which are handed down to us from historic times, are traceable to the fact that economic principles had not, in
that age, been either widely or thoroughly investigated; as a consequence of which, those who were then entrusted with the government of the English people—whether at the time monarchical or parliamentary power was paramount—inflicted upon their contemporaries, and in some cases on their remote posterity, endless injury, loss, inconvenience, and misery, as the penalty of their incompetence. History, which, as Bolingbroke says, is “philosophy teaching by example,” has supplied us, of the nineteenth century, with a large amount of data from which to generalise; and, for those who are inclined to devote themselves to a careful study of such records, it is possible to obtain a code of principles of a tolerably scientific character, which will enable them to test the wisdom or unwisdom of such legislation, with almost as much accuracy as can be obtained in connection with sciences of an apparently much more exact nature.
The political experience, which is thus obtainable, has been acquired, as I have said, at the expense and inconvenience, principally, of our ancestors, but, in some cases, of ourselves; inasmuch as the various interferences with social evolution have retarded the whole progress of human institutions. A study of history will show, indeed, that the great bulk of the earlier legislation (excepting of course the few great movements with which I have dealt in previous chapters) has altogether failed to produce good results, for either the generations which enacted them, or, for us, their posterity.
*2 Since those early times, the wisdom of any particular legislation has been found (that is, by those who have some knowledge of the science,) to depend upon its greater or less conformity to certain clearly recognised economic laws. A knowledge of the more fundamental of those laws has been imparted to
most men of fair education; but it is to be feared that, in the majority of cases, they have been learnt without being retained; and, as a consequence, it is no uncommon experience to meet men in the higher walks of life who, for want of interest in and application to the subject, are placed at the mercy of every “wind of (political) doctrine” which is blown upon the public ear by a class of politicians whom Macaulay has aptly stigmatised as “shallow empirics.” There is, of course, in every community, a large portion of the franchised classes who are completely ignorant
*3 of the existence of such a science as that of “political economy,” or “politics” in the broader sense; and, strange to say, many of the less responsible of politicians, in their reckless ardour for such theories as “human equality,” are eager to confer political power upon this latter class in the very face of their knowledge of that ignorance. The author of “The Radical Programme,” for instance, has said, and with a somewhat triumphant air, that whereas the parliament of 1880 was elected by “three millions of electors,” of whom ”
one-third were of the working classes,” the present House is elected by “five millions of men, of whom
three-fifths belong to the labouring population.” Yet, in the same publication, he admits, with the most unsophistical candour, that “the English masses are
nearly impervious to political ideas,” and only ”
know vaguely what they want.”
Unfortunately only an infinitesimal proportion of “the people” can be said to really understand the political science; and that proportion is by no means powerful enough to turn the scale in the matter of adopting or
rejecting much of the wild and dangerous political doctrine which is thrown, like so much “sop,” to what the Radical author would call the “impervious” masses. It therefore behoves every thoughtful man to consider, carefully, the position of affairs under the circumstances; to reflect upon the extent of the difficulties to be dealt with under a democratic form of government; and, if possible, to analyse the source of those difficulties, with a view of determining how best to meet them as they confront society in the immediate future.
I have already spoken of the misconceived interpretations which have been frequently placed upon the term “Liberalism,” by the masses of the people; and I have endeavoured to trace those misconceptions to the fact that the Liberalism of the past has so invariably had the effect of conferring its good results, almost exclusively, upon the working-classes, that that section of society (now forming a large majority of the governing body) has been brought to the belief that the bestowal of such advantages upon its own members is not merely a
result, but the absolute
aim and purpose of “Liberalism.” It is anything but a pleasant conclusion to arrive at, yet it is one from which there is no escape, that, under the existing form of government, as administered in Great Britain and her colonies, there is very little hope, for some generations to come, of wiser counsel prevailing in the broad field of legislation. In historic times, as I have said, economic laws were unknown, and the most uncompromising of them were, consequently, ignored, with such results as we have seen; this, too, notwithstanding that the government was, to a great extent, in the hands of the wealthy and better-educated classes. In the present day, the more fundamental of the economic laws are not only known, but have, as I have said, become familiar to many educated persons. In the meantime, however, the preponderance of the legislative power
has passed from the hands of the better-educated classes, into those of the masses, a number of whom are doubtless highly intelligent and fairly capable of taking part in legislative matters, but the remainder of whom (comprehending the great majority) are completely ignorant of the subject in its higher bearings. The result of this cannot be otherwise than injurious to any community, for the following reasons:—We have seen that society is capable of suffering much harm by means of the passing of short-sighted and misconceived laws, that is to say by means of what is popularly known as “over-legislation.” Such a balance of power as that indicated above must, then, work incalculable injury to the whole social organism. Society, in fact, can, by unwise legislation, just as surely inflict serious injury upon itself as an organism, as a child can upon its body by an ignorant handling of a surgical instrument. In both cases the instrument by which the injury is inflicted is capable of producing much good, if used at the proper time, and by those who understand how to wield it. In both cases, also, a want of knowledge converts the instrument into an engine of destruction, according to the confidence with which, and the extent to which it is wielded. To obviate these injurious results it would be necessary to confine the legislature to its proper limits, and to insure its non-interference with the evolution of society, beyond the lines at which that interference is essential to the evolution itself. In order to attain these results, in an ideal degree, it would be necessary that those entrusted, directly or indirectly, with the government of a country should possess and utilise a practical and scientific knowledge of their subject—that is to say, should be capable of forming a correct judgment as to the immediate and ultimate effects of every measure, and be content to exercise that judgment, irrespective of personal interest or sympathetic leaning towards any class. So perfect a government is scarcly obtainable, as humanity is
constituted; and, even if, by chance, such an ideal condition of things could be secured, it would be inadvisable to constitute any such government a permanent one, inasmuch as it would, in time, be certain to drift, like all permanent governments, into an abuse of its exclusive power. There is no reason, however, why society should not set up an ideal in this, as in other matters, in order that it may be in possession of the highest possible standard to which it may be ever approximating. Under the most favourable circumstances, legislative errors will be frequently committed; for who could be invariably wise in predicting results in connection with a science which Edmund Burke has said “requires
more experience than any person can gain
in his whole life,” and which another profound student has admitted to be “so complex that only those who give themselves
wholly to the study can be acquainted with any
considerable part of it.” Even a modicum of these high qualifications is possessed by only a very small proportion of men, and it follows that the opinion of the majority of those who are entrusted with the selection of our legislators is, except on the most simple of political questions, next to useless; indeed, in many cases, affirmatively injurious to themselves. We are, in fact, brought to this extraordinary conclusion that, inasmuch as the governments of the day in Great Britain and her colonies are regulated by the opinion of the majority, subject only to certain modifying and counter-acting influences, which I shall hereafter mention, the chances are
greatly in favour of the direction, which any legislation may take, being the
wrong or unwise one. This conclusion, moreover, is not wanting in confirmation in the facts which now surround us; for at the present moment there is already being forced upon society, and there is also every symptom of a continuance of a class of legislation which is excessive; which is directed towards some immediate object, without regard to ultimate results; and which is already
working incalculable injury to commercial, industrial and social interests, by checking individual enterprise and energy; shaking confidence in the security of property; and grievously demoralising the people in their self-helping and independent citizenship.
These charges, I am aware, constitute an extremely weighty indictment against democratic government; but I am prepared, I think, to offer the dicta of unexceptionable authorities in support of every step of my argument. If that be done, it must be admitted that democracy has
yet to justify itself by results, as a
equitable form of government. It is not, of course, my intention to examine every feature of democratic government, or to suggest, what many, who differ from me, may claim that I am bound to do—a better permanent form. I merely desire to lay my finger upon some of the most prominent infirmities of the existing one, in order to support my charge of legislative incompetence. “It would seem,” says the
Times, in referring to the proceedings of an English Trades’ Union Congress, “from a good many of the speeches and resolutions, that the time is at hand, at which the working-classes are to exercise an undisputed sway, and that nothing will remain for other people to do, except to make a note of the workmen’s wishes, and to carry them out with all speed. This idea runs through almost every line of the election address, and gives a somewhat needless solemnity to it. It is the language of men on whom the entire cares of empire are henceforward to rest.”
*5 This tendency is by no means confined, for evidences of its strength and distinctness, to the utterances of the working-classes. The legislation of our own day is already deeply dyed with the colour of the new school; and, unfortunately, the working-classes themselves do not appear to anticipate that such a state of things involves any danger to the social fabric. If the majority arrive at a certain
conclusion, it should, in their opinion, be at once registered by the legislature as embodying the latest results of political wisdom. “In our own day,” says Sir Henry Maine, “a movement appears to have very distinctly set in towards unmodified democracy, the government of a great multitude of men, striving to take the bulk of their own public affairs into their own hands…. The ruling multitude will only form an opinion by following the opinion of somebody; it may be of a great party leader—it may be of a small local politician—it may be of an organised association—it may be of an impersonal newspaper.”
*6 I have already mentioned what I conceive to be the chief cause which has led to the masses taking so hasty and erroneous a view of the term “Liberalism,” or rather, so incorrect an estimate of the essential principles of that school of politics. Besides that particular cause (viz., the belief that it should always be accompanied by some advantages for their own class) which, in my opinion, has been the primary one, there are others which are tending to preserve and render more permanent the misconception. I shall, therefore, enumerate them, and offer some observations upon each as it arises.
It must be apparent to every one who has come into practical contact with the working-classes, over political matters, that they, as a body, judged from their utterances, absolutely decline to acknowledge the scientific aspect of that subject. They regard it, indeed, with all the confidence of experts; and, not recognising any fixed general principles upon which to base their investigations, they naturally, and without seeming aware of its unfairness, make a constant use of the criterion of “self,” in determining upon any question which is submitted to them for answer or solution.
It is, of course, only natural that men should feel disinclined to confess their inability to exercise, with judgment or accuracy, a power for which they have so long struggled.
When the franchise was so substantially extended in 1832;
*7 and again, when manhood suffrage was demanded as one of the “points” in the Chartist movement of 1848, there were not wanting sanguine spirits who predicted that nothing but good could come out of such a reform; and, no doubt, much good has come out of it (for the working classes) where it exists, though it will not be difficult to show hereafter that many foolish and retrogressive steps have been taken, and more are now impending, as the results of an unwise use or direction of the power which such an extension of the franchise conferred. I have already mentioned that when Macaulay was addressing the House of Commons in 1842, on the subject of the “people’s charter,” which counted, among its six “points,” manhood suffrage, he used extremely strong language in denunciation of that proposal, and even went so far as to predict that its establishment, as an institution of the country, would be found inconsistent and incompatible, not only with property, but with civilisation itself; “for,” he said, “on the security of property civilisation depends;” and he added, “If it be admitted that on the institution of property the wellbeing of society depends, it follows, surely, that it would be madness to give supreme power in the state to a class which would not be likely to respect that institution.” This may seem now-a-days—upwards of forty years later—somewhat extreme language to use regarding an institution which has worked with no revolutionary results, so far, in the United States, and in many of England’s colonies; but it must be remembered that Macaulay had in his mind, at the time, the extravagant expressions of opinion contained in the Charter itself, in which paper money, machinery, land, the public press, and religion were characterised as “existing monopolies,” arising, “with a host of others, too numerous to mention,” from class legislation. Macaulay may, therefore, be taken to have
been expressing his opinion regarding “manhood suffrage,” as applicable to the particular times which produced such wild doctrines as those included in the Charter. But, although manhood suffrage has not as yet actually led to revolution, it is, as I shall show, producing, in our own day, much retrogressive and injurious legislation; because, unfortunately, the people who have acquired the power of governing, either greatly underestimate the complexities of the science, or else, while recognising them, neglect to require a knowledge of it in those whom they choose to represent them; and, themselves, neglect to give the subject that amount of study which is indispensable to its being even partially understood. “The people,” said Macaulay, in reviewing Mitford’s “History of Greece,” “are to be governed for their own good; and that they may be governed for their own good, they must not be governed by their own ignorance. There are countries in which it would be as absurd to establish popular government as to abolish all the restraints in a school, or to untie all the strait-waistcoats in a madhouse.” The essay in which this is contained was published in 1824; but, observe the correctness of the following prediction, which also is contained in it:—”Freetrade,” he says, “one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on a people, is, in almost every country, unpopular. It may be well doubted whether a Liberal policy with regard to our commercial relations would find any support from a parliament elected by universal suffrage.” Since that was written, the people of the United States, in which manhood suffrage has become firmly established, have treated freetrade as an exploded theory; and, out of the half-dozen or so of English colonies in which the franchise is equally extensive, four at least have already adopted protective doctrines, and the other two are now undergoing periodical agitations in favour of a reversion to the older theory. I am dwelling thus at length on this branch of my
subject—the abuse of majority-government—because I conceive it to be the very tap-root, from which springs that class of legislation which I term “spurious” Liberalism.
As I have mentioned, in an earlier portion of this volume, the political science, above all others, has this peculiarity; that, in practice, its results are almost invariably contrary to those which a superficial judgment would look for. This, indeed, is one of the most subtle difficulties which the legislator has to deal with. Moreover, legislation needs to be carefully watched for its ultimate effects, much more so than for those which are immediate. The immediate effects are at once observable, and it is by those that the “masses” are apt to be influenced and prompted. The ultimate results, however, need infinitely more careful search and investigation; and, when found, they cannot be correctly guaged and valued, except after considerable knowledge of sociological laws. This knowledge the masses do not possess; and, as a consequence, they are liable to be swayed from one extreme to another, according as immediate benefits can be foreshadowed, or conjured into prominence, by the omnipresent self-seeking political juggler.
A well-known writer, of great ability, has lately published some weighty comments upon the most modern results of universal, or, more correctly speaking, manhood suffrage. “There is,” he says, “just enough evidence to show that even now there is a marked antagonism between
democratic opinion and
scientific truth, as applied to human societies…. On the complex questions of politics, which are calculated in themselves to task to the utmost all the powers of the strongest minds, but are in fact vaguely conceived, vaguely stated, dealt with for the most part in the most haphazard manner, by the most experienced statesmen, the common determination of a multitude is a chimerical assumption; and, indeed, if it were really possible to extract an opinion upon them from a great mass of men,
and to shape the administrative and legislative acts of a state upon this opinion as a sovereign command, it is probable that the most ruinous blunders would be committed, and all social progress would be arrested.”
*8 The same author has, like Macaulay, expressed his opinion concerning the effect of universal suffrage upon national progress, but with this difference, that he speaks
after, whereas Macaulay spoke
before the event. “Universal suffrage (he says), which to-day excludes freetrade from the United States, would certainly have prohibited the spinning-jenny and the power-loom. It would certainly have forbidden the threshing machine.” And, again, he says:—”It seems to me quite certain that, if for four centuries there had been a very widely-extended franchise, and a very large electoral body in this country, there would have been no reformation of religion; no change of dynasty; no toleration of dissent; not even an accurate calendar. The threshing machine, the power-loom, the spinning-jenny, and, possibly, the steam engine, would have been prohibited. Even in our own day, vaccination is in the utmost danger; and we may say, generally, that the gradual establishment of the masses in power is of the
blackest omen for all legislation founded on scientific opinion, which requires
tension of mind to understand it and self-denial to submit to it.”
I by no means wish to be understood as going the whole way with Sir Henry Maine; for I have seen the rights of manhood suffrage exercised in certain British colonies by a body of men who, though, for the most part, falling under Macaulay’s prediction in ignoring the principle of Freetrade as an exploded theory, nevertheless in other respects wielded their political power with tolerable judgment—in matters, sometimes requiring more than the minimum of discernment.
It will be necessary for me in a subsequent chapter (“Application of Liberal Principles”) to discuss the question of the
right of the people to manhood suffrage, as distinguished from the
expediency of granting it, while the bulk of those for whom it is intended are still in a condition of ignorance regarding the science which a wise use of that franchise involves. That question I therefore reserve. I have now dwelt upon two of the causes by which I conceive the true principles of Liberalism are being, and are liable to be still further abused. They are (1) the habit of considering “Liberalism” synonymous with legislation for the benefit of the working classes; (2) the non-recognition of the scientific side of politics, and the consequent unwise use of the power which an extended franchise has placed in the hands of the masses. There are, yet, two other causes to which I desire to refer—the inevitable reference to “self” as the only known criterion of what is desirable in legislation; and, lastly, the passive acknowledgment of, or, in some cases, the blind belief in the wisdom of the voice of the majority. I shall now deal with these two latter causes.
I find in the preface to the official report of the Inter-colonial Trades’ Union Congress, published in the colony of Victoria in 1884, the following ill-considered passage, which will at once show how prominent a factor is “self” in the deliberations of such bodies, and, at the same time, give some idea of the readiness to attribute the same motive to others, however high-minded and “above suspicion”:—”It may be said of freetrade and protection that whatever suits the individual or country is the
right fiscal policy for him or for it. As, for instance, when Messrs. Cobden and Bright, those great apostles of freetrade, started their agitation in respect to the repeal of the Corn-laws, they were really
only working to secure protection for their own interests, as opposed to those of the landowners, and for this reason; the forty per cent. duty on corn kept the labour of England
engaged in producing cereals, and so enhanced the value of landed property; but, so soon as the duty was abolished, the labour hitherto employed in growing corn was available to the manufacturing class, of which the freetrade champions were members. Thus, therefore, Messrs. Bright and Cobden
wisely protected themselves while clamouring for freetrade.” The logic and the principle of this piece of composition is certainly unique.
In the same publication, I find a reported debate upon the subject of “The amalgamation of trades unions,” in which one of the speakers, who had evidently forgotten the benefits which he himself had derived from settling in the colonies, said: “One of the
dangers always menacing us is the importation of labour from other parts of the world; but this would be nullified if the trades were united.” It would be interesting to know how this gentleman would have regarded a combination of trades unions which should have precluded, or, at least discouraged himself and his family from settling in the colonies in his
own early days, and thus bettering his position in life.
In the debate upon the subject of “Legalisation of the eight hours system,” one speaker said, regarding the future of his particular colony: “The laws by which it shall be governed are in
our own hands; and surely it should be the desire of every true Australian to have all our regulations framed so as to make it in reality what America was some time ago in name, viz., a
working man’s paradise.” “What,” said the same speaker, “do we send our representatives into parliament for? Surely we expect them to legislate for
our interest.” Another speaker on the same subject said: “It was quite useless to leave these matters to members of parliament, who
did not understand them from the
working-class point of view.” During a debate upon “Payment of members of parliament,” one delegate said: “It should be the object of the delegates to break down
the monopoly of representation, so as to have direct representation
in the interests of the working-classes.“
Under the heading of “Direct representation” I find one delegate moving “That this congress desires to urge upon labour organisations, in the various colonies, to at once elect a parliamentary committee…. whose duty it shall be to assist in passing through parliament measures for the
benefit of labour.” As a result of this regard for self being so entertained by electors, it naturally transmits itself to candidates for their representation.
I have before me three electioneering addresses which have appeared in a Victorian newspaper whilst I am writing on this feature of my subject. In each case the candidate claims to be qualified for the seat on the ground of
his interests being identical with those of the constituency. One says:—”
My interests and yours are identical.” A second says: “Being a
practical farmer, and now carrying on farming operations,
my interests are in every way in accordance with your own.” The third says: “I have grown up in the district, and hold a
considerable interest and stake therein.” It can be more easily imagined than stated how much legislators of this kind would be influenced by purely national considerations where the interests of their district were involved. What a fall, too, is observable here from the high-minded and lofty principle which prompted Edmund Burke to say to his Bristol constituents: “You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member for Bristol, but he is a member of
parliament. If the local constituents should have an interest, or should form a hasty opinion, evidently
opposite to the real good of the
rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be
as far as any other from any endeavour to give it effect.”
I might quote many other instances in connection with the colonies, to show how completely the working-classes regard
parliament as a sort of scramble for benefits, and how continuous are their efforts to secure legislation in their own interests. Let me now enumerate a few of the instances which have occurred in Great Britain and the United States. I have before me a report of the proceedings of a Trades’ Congress, held at Hull (England), in September, 1886. Mr. Joseph Arch, in supporting a resolution in favour of labour representation, considered it indispensable that such representatives should “support
its interests thoroughly,” and that they should find fault with those who failed to
do their duty. Mr. Arch himself is a labour representative, and one is only strictly logical in inferring from this utterance that the ultimate test, with him, of all legislation concerning which he is called upon to express an opinion in parliament, is that it must be “in
its (the working-class) interest.” In adopting such a guage, as distinguished from that of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” he is, in his own opinion, only doing “his duty”! A second delegate present at the same congress—a “conservative working-man”—justified his party loyalty on the ground that the Conservatives had “done as much
for the working classes as the Liberal party.”
A third delegate, speaking on the subject of co-operation, predicted that “if they—co-operators and trades-unionists—
joined hands, there was
no power to prevent them, in the next sixty years, becoming
entire possessors of the soil of the country.” Mr. Broadhurst, who can be accepted as an authorised exponent of the undercurrent of feeling among the English masses, from which he himself has honourably sprung, uses the following significant, if not threatening language:—”Dare democracy to the utmost; then all experience teaches us that the terms dictated will certainly not be such as they otherwise might be.” It is to be hoped that this serious infirmity is capable of gradual cure, as I believe it is in certain countries, where other local circumstances tend
to enable the working classes to become, themselves, even in a small way, property-holders. Yet, so great a Liberal as Lord John Russell has spoken of universal suffrage as “the grave of all temperate liberty, and the parent of tyranny and license.”
*10 And it is a remarkable fact that Plato and Aristotle went to so impracticable an extreme as to advocate the exclusion of the whole of the labouring classes from taking part in public questions, on the ground that they had no leisure to form opinions concerning them.
*11 The tendency among the masses to regard such a course of class legislation as harmless in its results, even if not successful in the direction anticipated, is rather encouraged than otherwise by even prominent statesmen. Mr. Gladstone himself, in the heat of party strife, only lately made a bold effort to win a general election, by inciting the masses against what he termed “the classes,” and Mr. Chamberlain, a short time since, told the masses that “there is no longer anything to fear in state interference, because they themselves had become the state.”
*12 An American writer records that in Chicago this feeling is so deeply rooted that a journal was established, a few years ago, by some working men, for the advocacy of their rights, and, in a preliminary manifesto, the following principle was (among others) laid down:—”There are no rights but the rights of labour.” It requires no stretch of imagination to picture the class of legislation which such a journal, or those who established it, would consider satisfactory. The same author adds:—”We find American writers dwelling upon the dangers of democracy, with an earnestness which ought to convince theorists, elsewhere, that there is,
after all, some danger in intrusting the larger share of political power to the least educated classes.” And he concludes by saying that “in America, the truth has long been admitted, that democracy is insatiable. Its demands increase in volume and in vehemence with every attempt to set them at rest.”
Now, it cannot be doubted that the effect of so powerful a body as the working-classes constantly urging on matters which will confer some benefit upon themselves, is seriously calculated to lead to a constantly recurring onesidedness in legislation, which is bound, in its turn, to be resented by the capitalist class, so soon as an opportunity is afforded; and, thus, there might very soon be produced a sort of traditional policy of retaliation between the two interests.
But, there is yet another reason for this neglect of the true principles of legislation to which I have referred. There is, as I have said, a widely-acknowledged belief in the wisdom of the majority. I do not refer merely to the conclusion at which many people have arrived, as to the vote of a majority being the
only practical way of arriving at a decision where heads are
numbered instead of being
valued. The conclusions arrived at by that method have frequently to be accepted, though obviously contrary to all true and equitable principles. But there is a large mass of one’s fellow-men, who actually believe that whatever a majority determines is correct and just, and should, in fact, be carried into practice without question of any kind.
De Tocqueville, indeed, commences one of his most valuable chapters by the statement that “the greatest dangers of the American Republics proceed from the unlimited power of the majority;”
*13 and he follows up that statement by another, to the effect that “if ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the unlimited
authority of the majority, which may, at some future time, urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force…. Anarchy,” he adds, “will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism,” that is to say, the despotism of the majority. Here, we have the abuse of Liberalism shown, as arising out of what is
supposed to be one of the most important developments of Liberalism itself, viz., government by the people. Liberalism of the true type would avert this extreme; for, as the Marquis of Lorne has wisely said, in his definition of the leading principle of that school: “Freedom from
mob or monarch will be the safeguard of its future triumphs.”
It will be, I know, rather surprising to many so-called “Liberals” to be informed that much of the “Liberalism” which they are daily approving and advocating, is really a spurious article, and calculated, if passed into law, to curtail rather than extend, the civil liberty concerning which we now pride ourselves. The United States, to most democrats of the less reflective class, suggests Liberalism of the most completely developed order; yet, if the truth be known, and the institutions of that extensive community analysed with any degree of scientific accuracy, it will be found that this blind belief in the actual
wisdom and justice of majorities has given birth to a despotism of the most dangerous and unbearable character. Says De Tocqueville: “I know no country in which there is
so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion. In any constitutional state in Europe, every sort of religious and political theory may be advocated and propagated abroad; for there is no country in Europe, so subdued by any single authority, as not to contain citizens who are ready to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth, from the consequences of his hardihood. If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are upon his
side; if he inhabits a free country, he may find a shelter behind the authority of the throne if he require one. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But, in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organised like those of the United States, there is but
one sole authority, one single element of strength and of success, with nothing beyond it.” And then comes the melancholy confession:—”In America, the majority raises very formidable barriers to the liberty of opinions.”
I have already quoted, elsewhere, Mr. Frederick Harrison on this subject, in which he told an audience of working men what he thought of the wisdom of the opinion of the masses on political matters. He put the question as to the wisdom of majorities in a very conclusive way, by asking his hearers what sort of military success would be likely to attend an army, every move of which had to be determined by a vote of the majority of the rank and file; and he has added that the political science is not one whit less difficult than that of military tactics. This uncompromising belief in the voice of the majority has the most injurious effects upon other features of society, besides that of its freedom. It would seem to exercise a considerable influence upon the tone and character of public life, by reason of the ever-present necessity for any one who desires political eminence, to cultivate the tastes, whims, and fickle tendencies of the masses, who alone have the power to lift him into that position to which he aspires. “I am inclined,” says De Tocqueville, speaking of America, “to attribute the singular paucity of distinguished political characters to the ever-increasing activity of the despotism of the majority,” and he says, elsewhere: “Democratic republics extend the practice of
currying favour with the many.” Again: “In that immense crowd which throngs the avenues of power in
the United States, I found very few men who displayed any of that
manly candour, and that
masculine independence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times, and which constitutes the leading feature in distinguished characters, wheresoever they may be found.”
No one, probably, in modern times, gave more attention to, and brought more ability to bear upon democratic institutions than this great authority. His conclusions are therefore of the very greatest value. Here is one of a very general character: “I hold it to be an impious and an execrable maxim that, politically speaking, a people has a right to do
whatsoever it pleases…. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people, or upon a king, upon an aristocracy, or a democracy, a monarchy, or a republic, I recognise the
germ of tyranny.”
I might quote from innumerable authors, and many even of great repute, to show how strong is the tendency of a democracy to exercise, by means of a majority, as despotic and tyrannical a power as any Eastern monarch. Nor is this danger any new development of popular government; for we find Aristotle, even, condemning the belief in the wisdom of the many. “Who should possess supreme power in the state?” he asks. “If the poor,” he adds, “because they are a majority, they may
divide among themselves what belongs to the rich; is not this unjust?” “If,” he says further, “the many seize into their own hands everything which belongs to the few, it is evident that
the state will be at an end. Therefore,” he concludes, “such a law can
never be right.“
It is scarcely likely that there are many intelligent persons who really believe that the mere fact of a majority favouring a particular proposal will, in itself, give it the character of a just measure; for if it were so, it would be possible to provide
a justification for the most atrocious acts of democratic government which it is possible for the mind to conceive; and it would immediately be stamped with the seal of virtue on account of its having been favoured by the necessary preponderance in numbers. No reasonable person, therefore, could believe that an act, which is acknowledged to be unjust in itself, can be rendered just, by reason of its being approved by a majority, but, “although everybody is,” as Sir George Cornewall Lewis says, “aware that numbers are not the test of truth, yet many persons, while they recognise this maxim in theory, violate it in practice, and accept opinions, simply because they are entertained by the people at large.”
*16 Many people, however, go further than the mere acceptance of such opinions—they really believe that the conclusions arrived at by a large number of persons are more likely to be correct than those of an individual or small group of individuals, no matter how wise they (the latter) may be. There are, indeed, several threadbare maxims which pass among the people as conclusive, when the question is raised. “Two heads are better than one,” is by many people accepted as beyond controversy; and again, “In the multiplicity of counsel there is wisdom,” is frequently sufficient with some minds to settle all doubts. Now, as a fact, the joint opinion of a large number of persons is
almost invariably erroneous. A correct opinion on any subject, and particularly on one so complex as are those connected with the political science, necessitates a special knowledge which it takes years to acquire. This special knowledge is possessed by but a small proportion even of educated persons; and among the classes which go to make up the masses of our fellow-men, the percentage of those who possess it is almost infinitesimal.
If the ability to form a correct opinion on any subject necessitates this special knowledge, it follows that those who
do not possess it must (except on such questions as are most easy of solution) entertain erroneous opinions, and it would, therefore, happen that on most occasions upon which a large number of persons, taken at random from the people, are called upon to express their approval or disapproval of any but the most simple of proposals, or to say whether or not such a proposal is based on sound principles, the few who are competent to determine it would be overwhelmed by the many who are not competent, and the conclusion arrived at would be erroneous. This is, in fact, what happens in the majority of cases in which the people are called upon for a correct judgment on any complex question of legislation. Speaking of the opinion of the majority of the people on general subjects, Sir George Cornewall Lewis says, “So numerous are the cases in which the opinion of the multitude conflicts with that of a few competent judges, that a majority of voices has, in questions not involving a legal decision, been considered as a mark of error.”
*17 And he quotes a saying to the effect that “a person ought to be ashamed of finding his opinions approved by the multitude, because the concurrence of the many raises a presumption of being in the wrong.
*18 In sciences and arts,” he says further, “the persons versed in the particular departments of knowledge—in history, historians; in general literature, literary men and poets; in practical questions of law, medicine, architecture, navigation, etc., the men of the respective professions, who form respectively the standard and canon of authority, are but few in number, if set against the body of their fellow-countrymen. Moreover, even with respect to each of these classes, it is principally the ablest, the most learned, the most experienced, the most skilful, whose opinion constitutes authority.”
*19 “In each subject, therefore, the
opinion of the great bulk of the people is, taken as a standard of truth and rectitude, unworthy of consideration, and destitute of weight and authority. It is the opinion of uninformed and inexperienced persons whose incapacity to judge is not cured by the multiplication of their numbers. The mere aggregation of incompetent judges will not produce a right judgment, any more than the aggregation of persons who have no knowledge of a matter of fact will supply credible testimony to its existence.”
These remarks, though not made with any special application to political questions, will, nevertheless, apply with equal force, inasmuch as the political science is acknowledged to be one of the
most complex. It may be thought that what I have said, though very true as far as the deeper problems of political science are concerned, can have no application to the apparently simple questions of every-day occurrence, upon which the bulk of our fellow-citizens are being constantly called upon to express their opinion; but this is not so, for a careful examination of some of the apparently most simple questions which are presented to us will show, to those who understand the difficulties of the political science, that there are extremely few of such questions which do not involve a knowledge of the more complex principles.
If there be any truth in the foregoing statements, it would at first sight appear that there is little chance of arriving at
any correct conclusions, or indeed of producing any rational legislation whatever under a democratic government; but this is not altogether so, for it will be remembered that the masses of the people are not frequently called upon to express their opinion,
directly, on any particular question, but only to say yea or nay to the suitability of the various candidates who present themselves for the honour of their representation. In that, they are limited by
the usual provisions requiring nomination by a certain number of electors, and calling for some slight proof of seriousness in the conditional lodging of a deposit; but, notwithstanding these slight aids to the exclusion of mere adventurers, it is notorious how frequently the one who is full of empty promises is returned, while the substantial man, possessing all the guarantees of rectitude, and displaying, by his proneness to promise little, some of the high principle and good judgment which should recommend him for the position, is suspected of all kinds of so called “Conservative” schemes, and thrust aside as if absolutely unqualified to fill the coveted seat.
Again, out of those, who are, as it were, filtered through the public judgment into the institution of parliament, a limited number, and, as a general rule, the ablest only, are entrusted with the initiation of the more important measures. This constitutes a moderate safeguard to popular rashness and unwisdom; but, nevertheless, the few, more frequently than not, prove unequal to the temptations to win the popular ear; frequently by a sacrifice of the highest principle. Nevertheless, as comparatively little legislation passes criticism without having met with the approval of this further tested few, who form a government, some, at least, of the injurious results of popular ignorance on political matters are obviated, though many, nevertheless, are realised and work their ill effects upon society, as I shall show hereafter. The truth is that “for political and other purposes, in which capacity of a high order is requisite, there must be single persons, possessing that degree of power, in order to arrive at sound practical conclusions. This want cannot be supplied by numbers.”
*21 Unfortunately the tendency in public life is to encourage rather than discourage the popular delusion as to a majority’s wisdom. The character of the machinery by which a decision is now arrived at in political or other public
matters, compels the resort to the system of abiding by the majority; and since, in addition to that method being the almost invariable one, the people experience every day proof of their power to realise, through it, their wishes, so long as they can command a majority to support those wishes, the constant repetition of the method has led to its being regarded as the most just one.
It is quite possible that, notwithstanding all these combined circumstances, which tend to so undesirable an end, those who constitute the majority might in time come to see the danger of acting on the proverbial “little knowledge” in political matters; but the fact that they constitute the stepping-stone to high political place and power brings about the unfortunate result that those who are moved by such aspirations do not hesitate to pander to and flatter the masses, wherever and whenever they meet them, and thus engender a confidence and self-satisfaction, quite proof against the occasional misgivings which might otherwise lead to reflection and modesty of opinion.
The Rev. F. W. Robertson, than whom no man of his day was in closer touch with the working-classes, said, in one of his addresses, delivered on the occasion of the opening of a Working Men’s Institute:—”The people of this country stand in danger from two classes—from those who fear them, and from those who flatter them…. From the platform and the press we now hear language of fulsome adulation, that ought to disgust the working men of this country. The man who can see no other source of law than the will of a majority; who can feel no everlasting law of right and wrong, which gives to all human laws their sanction and their meaning, and by which all laws, whether they express the will of the many or of the few, must be tried; who does not feel that he, single and unsupported, is called upon by a mighty voice within him to resist everything which comes to him claiming his allegiance as the expression
of mere will, is exactly the man who, if he had lived seven centuries ago, would have stood on the sea-sands, beside the royal Dane, and tried to make him believe that his will gave law to the everlasting flood.”
But flattery even, and the raising of false hopes, are by no means the only base influences brought to bear upon the majority, in whose hands the government is practically placed. Political bribes are becoming somewhat common in our day. Who, for instance, can fail to see in the “three-acre” scheme, so lately propounded by Mr. Chamberlain, one of the most impudent and unprincipled bids for popular favour known in modern history. Suddenly, no less than two millions of electors are admitted to the franchise, and, before even the fresh contingent of collective political wisdom (consisting principally of agricultural labourers) has had time to realise its new possession, one of the most prominent of English statesmen deliberately offers to this class, conditional upon his accession to power and their support of his party, the one thing above all others calculated to seduce that class from the path of political rectitude. It is remarkable, too, with what open impudence this politically dishonest practice is utilised. Within the last few months, a London weekly, which prides itself in its extreme Radicalism, and at the time strongly advocated the adoption of the “three-acre” scheme, published the following unprincipled paragraph: “We must organise. We must have a Radical platform, of which Home-Rule will be but one plank. The democracies of
the two islands must give each other the hand. We have our grievances, the Irish have theirs. To remedy both must be our cry…. In order to win the masses it is necessary to understand
what the masses want and
to offer it to them as the
prize of victory.”
The Bishop of Peterborough lately expressed himself on this subject of majority rule. “I hold,” he said, “that there may be as much unwisdom and, what is more, as much injustice and tyranny where the many govern the few as where the few govern the many; and further, that if there be such tyranny, it is the more hopeless and the more universally-present tyranny of the two.”
*24 The same authority quotes the late Lord Shaftesbury as having said, “I cannot say that I repose unlimited confidence in the wisdom of the working classes of this country; and I am not altogether without anxiety when I see them suddenly called on to decide great and difficult social and political problems, which, we are told, have baffled for ages the wisdom of philosophers and statesmen.” The popular delusion (for it can be characterised in no other way) has been tersely put by Mr. Herbert Spencer. “The fundamental assumption, (he says) which is made by legislators and people alike, is that a majority has powers to which no limits can be put. This is the current theory which all accept, without proof, as a self-evident truth. Nevertheless,” he adds, “criticism will, I think, show that this current theory requires a radical modification.”
*25 Whether we suppose that everybody really believes in the opinion of the majority, or, as Sir George C. Lewis says, while not believing in it still accept it because others do, is a matter of not much concern. The practical conclusion is the same—the opinion of the majority is adopted and acted upon, and perhaps it will be said that it is useless to attempt to alter or prevent such a state of things.
But practical statesmen have thought otherwise. The late Lord Beaconsfield was of opinion that such important matters as “the principles of liberty, of order, of law, and of religion ought not to be entrusted to individual opinion, or to the caprice and passion of multitudes, but should be embodied in a form of permanence and power.”
*26 And Mill was an equally strong advocate for some restraint. “It is necessary (said that writer) that the institutions of society should make provision for keeping up, in some form or other, as a corrective to partial views and a shelter for freedom of thought and individuality of character, a perpetual and standing opposition to the will of the majority…. Almost all the greatest men who ever lived have formed part of such an opposition…. A centre of resistance is as necessary when the opinion of the majority is sovereign as when the ruling power is a hierarchy or an aristocracy…. Where no such
point d’appui exists, there the human race will inevitably degenerate; and the question whether the United States, for instance, will in time sink into another China resolves itself, to us, into the question whether such a centre of resistance will gradually evolve itself or not.”
I come round now to the proposition with which I opened this chapter—viz., that the class of legislation, which I have called “spurious” Liberalism, is resulting, in the present day, from the want of political knowledge among the masses, and the consequent unwise use to which their power in the legislature is being turned in the making of laws. I shall now show that society has suffered, is still suffering, and is likely, for a long time, to suffer injury and retrogression as a further consequence; and, what is more important, that the greatest share of that injury is likely to fall on its authors—the working-classes themselves. One
may safely say of the average elector, what Macaulay said of Southey, in his scathing essay on that author’s “Colloquies of Society.” “He conceives that the business of the magistrate is not merely to see that people are secure from attack, but that he ought to be a jack of all trades, architect, engineer, schoolmaster, merchant, theologian, a Lady Bountiful in every parish, a Paul Pry in every house, spying, eavesdropping, relieving, admonishing, spending our money for us, and choosing our opinions for us. His principle is, if we understand it rightly, that no man can do anything so well for himself as his rulers, be they who they may, can do it for him, and that a government approaches nearer and nearer to perfection in proportion as it interferes more and more with the habits and notions of individuals.”
*28 There are many among the masses who recognise no limit whatever to the interference of government in the regulation of society. They would probably acquiesce in the adoption of a state of things such as obtains in China. “There the government publishes a list of works which
may be read, and, considering obedience the supreme virtue, authorises such only as are friendly to despotism. Fearing the unsettling effect of innovation, it allows nothing to be taught but what proceeds from itself. To the end of producing pattern citizens, it exerts a stringent discipline over all conduct, providing rules for sitting, standing, walking, talking, and bowing. Scholars are prohibited from chess, football, flying kites, shuttlecock, playing on wind instruments, training beasts, birds, fishes, or insects, all which amusements, it is said, dissipate the mind and debase the heart.”
*29 What sort of legislation, for instance, might be expected from a man who expresses an opinion that “the first cause of the undue inequalities which at present exist between capital and labour is that
fearful and increasing evil—
*30 “It is,” adds the same authority, “degrading to
employers themselves, it is highly injurious to a country, and cruelly oppressive to the working classes.”
Or, again, what kind of legislation would (if he possessed the power) emanate from a man who, when speaking of the “disadvantages” which the employés in clothing factories had to contend with, affirmed that they had many, “such as sweaters and the introduction of the
most modern machinery;” or from another trades’ unionist who urged a reduction in the quantity of their labour, in order “to maintain the balance, and
defeat the march of machinery“? This senseless tirade against machinery is certainly in striking contrast to that paragraph of the “Knights of labour” programme, in which it is claimed that they should be “enabled to reap the
advantages conferred by the labour-saving machinery which
their brains have created.” It is refreshing, however, to find that one member of the Trades’ Union Congress in question had the courage to express a sounder opinion, in the face of his fellow-delegates. “It appeared to him,” he said, “that some of the speakers wished to go back to the dark ages, when at the ringing of the Curfew Bell every one had to put up his shutters and go to bed.”
Again, at a meeting of “unemployed,” which was held in the colony of Victoria, a short time ago, a resolution was passed to the effect “that as the government could easily find work at remunerative rates for several hundreds of men in the construction of railways and other public works, it should be done as speedily as possible; and that, if they were not willing to help the men to obtain work, they should resign and
make way for others who would
dispense justice to their fellow-men.” It would be easy to multiply instances of this tendency to look to government, as if it were a sort of giant benefactor which could and should do everything for those who failed to do anything for themselves.
This erroneous view of the institution which we call government is, as I have shown, unfortunately encouraged
by the constant flattery which is accorded to the masses by candidates for parliamentary honours. Instead of honestly refusing to further the hundred-and-one ill-digested schemes which are made in the interests of different classes at election times, candidates readily promise to do all in their power to have them carried into practice, and, as a consequence, the proposers of such schemes are led to believe they have made really feasible and equitable suggestions.
“Every candidate for parliament,” says Mr. Herbert Spencer, “is prompted to propose or support some new piece of
ad captandum legislation. Nay, even the chiefs of parties—those anxious to retain office, and those to wrest it from them—severally aim to get adherents by outbidding one another. Each seeks popularity by promising more than his opponent has promised.”
One cannot be surprised either at the working classes becoming more and more confident of their equal ability to legislate, when they set up so low a standard for their parliamentary representatives. In point of comparison they are, as a fact, quite as well qualified as the average run of men whom they do send to parliament. Take, for instance, the following estimate of one of the people’s representatives by a prominent trades-unionist: “When we choose men to represent us, we should pay them
to remain honest, and, if they
did not, they should
be removed. A man in parliament, who had nothing to live on, must either grab or starve, as, if he was not paid for his services, he must
pay himself. In order to have true representation in parliament, it behoves us to agree that members of parliament be paid for their services.”
What a contrast is here offered to the picture presented by Mr. Frederick Harrison, wherein he says to the London workmen: “Choose the best men you can find for your representatives, and then trust them heartily, and strengthen their
hands…. Let no petty criticism on details, let no local divergence of opinion draw you off the main point. Choose men who
know their own minds, and then
give them their head. In politics you cannot have a truly superior leader whom you are
to check and criticise and tutor at every step. Nor can you have one who is simply the
mouthpiece of every noisy clique.”
That all, or even many workmen should follow Mr. Harrison’s advice is too much to expect for many a long year. Before such a state of things is realised, a much higher standard of political knowledge will have to be reached—a standard sufficiently high to lead to a recognition of the difficulties of the political science, and thus produce a much less confident attitude than is now assumed in such matters.
Promises will always go a long way towards winning popular favour. To make them, costs nothing; and the failure to fulfil can be afterwards accounted for on many plausible grounds; even if they fail, the coveted prize of membership has meantime been acquired. The practice of offering such bribes to the public is being carried on under our very noses every day, and we unfortunately become used to it, and many intelligent persons even wink at it.
Perhaps one of the most glaring cases in modern times was that which I have mentioned, in which two millions of newly enfranchised agricultural labourers were, in 1885, offered allotments of three acres of ground, in the event of the Radical party being returned to power.
One of the most important and, at the same time, most unfortunate results of the public confidence in its own political knowledge and judgment, is the widespread belief that every evil which afflicts or may afflict society is capable of cure, and that every good which the mind can conceive is capable of production, by means of an act of
parliament. I have already mentioned that a minister of the crown in the colony of Victoria, on a recent occasion, boasted to his constituents that the government, of which he had been a member, had succeeded in passing measures which
would add three inches to the statute-book. What can be said of such an utterance! It would almost seem as if such a speaker lacked a knowledge of the very fundamental principles of his business; yet he did not, for he was a man who had read and thought widely. He stooped however to the popular delusion, by which it is really believed that the good, or the happiness of a people depends upon the number of its laws—in short, the thickness of its statute-book! Could absurdity go further? The minister in question evidently knew his audience, and touched their most vital part. The truth is, there is a wide-spread belief that an act of parliament is something more than a resolution of the people to do something
for themselves combinedly. There is, in fact, a vague and undefined sort of belief that parliament is a kind of power in itself, quite apart from the people; that it is a power capable of almost anything, and that, as far as ways and means are concerned, it has no known limit to its resources.
“The public collectively,” says Mill, “is abundantly ready to impose, not only its generally narrow views of its interests, but its abstract opinions and even its tastes as laws binding upon individuals.”
*34 And that this readiness would quickly take the shape of acts of parliament, if an opportunity offered, has been sufficiently shown by the numerous efforts of “total abstainers”—”local optionists”—”Sunday observers”—”early closing” enthusiasts—”eight hour” advocates—and others of equally narrow vision. Such people forget, or have never realised that, “in proportion as each individual relies upon the helpful vigilance of the State, he
learns to abandon to its reponsibility the fate and well-being of his fellow citizens.”
In the debate upon “The legalisation of the eight hours system,” which is recorded in the report of the Intercolonial trades union congress, previously referred to, one speaker said, “The eight hour system
might be acquired by Trades unions; but there were people whose circumstances rendered it impossible for them to become members of trades unions. They might be few in number, or they might be many; but they were frequently the people who
required to be protected against themselves, and an act of parliament was the only way in which they could be protected.” Another speaker expressed the hope “that before long it would be the
recognised law of the land that no man or woman should work more than eight hours a day,” and to show how limited a view he took of the probable effects of what he so desired, he added that the legislation in question “would greatly benefit
such a trade as cabinet-making“!
It is quite probable that if each person, who now entertains these fallacious opinions, were to be induced to analyse the source of parliamentary power, he would, on reflection, recognise that it was capable of nothing which the people could not do for themselves; that it, in fact,
was the people, speaking and acting in concert; that every pound which it expended would have, sooner or later, to come out of the pockets of themselves, and that, in order to expend money through it, a very large and astonishing percentage would be lost in the complex machinery of government, through which it is, as it were, filtered. Yet, when all this had been admitted, and apparently believed, the old delusion would show itself in practice, and, from mere association, the bulk of the people would continue to look to parliament for benefits which a moment’s reflection would show that the people
themselves would not be considered
capable of bestowing on one another, apart from that institution.
Another important, even cardinal error, closely connected with the one I have just mentioned, is the neglect to study or even consider, the
ultimate effects of an act of parliament as distinguished from its immediate results. My meaning has been well expressed by Mr. Herbert Spencer in the following passage, regarding what is known as the “practical” politician, “into whose mind there enters no thought of such a thing as political momentum, still less of a political momentum which, instead of diminishing or remaining constant, increases. The theory,” he adds, “on which he (the ‘practical’ politician) daily proceeds is that the change caused by his measure will stop where he intends it to stop. He contemplates, intently, the things his acts will achieve, but thinks little of the remoter issues of the movement his act sets up, and still less its collateral issues.”
*36 Only within the last few months an act of parliament was introduced into the legislature of the colony of Victoria, with the object of providing the country with a national system of irrigation. The scheme will involve some millions of money, yet it was legislated for on the smallest amount of data, of a very flimsy and uncertain character. The following passage, from one of the daily papers of that colony, will give some notion of the hasty and careless manner in which so important a subject is treated; and an idea can readily be formed of the amount of reflection bestowed upon the probable “remoter issues” or “political momenta” (as Mr. Herbert Spencer calls them), which such an act may and probably will produce in the future. ”
Eighty-five clauses of one of the
most momentous measures ever submitted to the legislature are passed in
four and a half hours, or at the rate of about
a clause every three minutes—barely time for the assistant clerk to read over the
provision for the information of members. With such modes of procedure,” adds the organ in question, “in vogue in the parliament of Victoria, is there room for wonder that
some of its enactments prove unworkable, incomprehensible, and the laughing-stock of lawyers?” It is highly probable that some of its enactments will prove equally astonishing to its enactors in its “remoter issues.”
The English election of 1885, which was characterised by the now famous “three-acre” proposals, led to some admirable and instructive expressions of opinion on this subject, by such sound Liberals as the Marquis of Hartington and Mr. Bright.
Mr. Chamberlain had raised, in the mind of the agricultural labourer, hopes of being provided with a home and a means of livelihood, as a return for an electioneering vote; and it remained for such genuine Liberals, as those above mentioned, to dispel the fond illusion which had been pictured for them by less scrupulous statesmen.
Lord Hartington’s treatment of the subject was in every way satisfactory. “I have no doubt,” he said, “that a parliament largely elected by the labouring classes will find a good deal to revise in legislation which has been passed by former parliaments, in which the labouring classes were hardly represented at all. But I am not prepared to tell the working men of this country that I believe that
any legislation, which
any parliament can effect, will suddenly and immediately improve their condition, except by enabling them
by their own efforts to improve it themselves. What is it after all that the working-classes of this country stand in need of? They stand in need of good wages, cheap food, continuous employment, and cheap necessaries and comforts of life. Well I believe that bad laws and bad legislation can do much to
prevent them having those things, but I do not believe
any legislation can certainly
secure them, and they can only be secured by the state of
general activity in trade. I believe also that legislation in favour of any particular class is likely to
prevent the general prosperity, and I believe that legislation, which is directly applied to the improvement of the condition of the labouring-classes, can only be detrimental to other classes, and will be
as likely to injure that prosperity as class legislation of any other kind. I desire therefore not to attract so much the attention of the labouring-classes by promises of legislation intended for their own exclusive benefit, as to ask them to join with us, and with all the other classes of the country, in bringing about that
general state of prosperity which, alone, in my opinion, can improve their condition.”
*37 This quotation is useful in another way, in affording evidence, from one of the greatest among English Liberal statesmen, of the proneness of ill-digested legislation to produce effects directly opposite to those which have been looked for by its authors. The reason of that peculiarity is, as I have already stated, that there is a tendency, and, in fact, a very prevalent practice of looking for and resting satisfied with the immediate effect of a measure, without considering carefully the many ultimate and indirect consequences which do not so readily reveal themselves. The same idea which has been thus expressed by Lord Hartington was touched upon in 1876 by Mr. Gladstone, in a speech delivered upon the centenary of Adam Smith. “With reference to the state of the working-classes,” he said, “I think that we have no right to complain of those who have been so long under the power of others, who were commonly called their betters, in respect to the regulation of wages; but I think it is a primary duty to make this allowance, because
they, above all others, suffer from their want of knowledge. I have,” he adds, “observed this distinction between the working-classes and other classes—that, whereas the sins of the other classes were almost entirely in the interests of their class, and against the
rest of the entire community, the sins of the working-classes, many and great as they were,
were almost entirely against themselves.” And, again, Mr. John Bright, speaking at Taunton as late as last year, said, with evident reference to Mr. Chamberlain’s allotments proposal:—”There is a danger I should like to point out to you—of people coming to the idea that they can pull or drive the government along, that a government can do anything that is wanted, that, in fact, it is only necessary to pass an act of parliament with a certain number of clauses to make any one well off.” And then he adds: “Every man of us, and every woman, may abstain from those things which we generally believe to be hurtful to other people, and I recommend therefore the influencing of the opinions and the actions of private persons, rather than dwelling upon the idea that everything can be done by an act of parliament.
*38 In a like spirit, Macaulay said: “I know that it is possible by legislation to make the
rich poor, but that it is
utterly impossible to make the poor rich.”
With the exception of the last of these quotations, they are all directed against the growing tendency in modern legislation, by which parliament is expected to do for society much of that which it has hitherto endeavoured to do for itself—a tendency, too, not confined to the working-classes, but widely shared by those who might be expected to display more judgment and discrimination. As Sir Henry Maine has said, “There is no doubt that some of the most inventive, most polite and best instructed portions of the human race are, at present, going through a stage of thought, which, if it stood by itself, would suggest that there is nothing of which human nature is so tolerant, or so deeply enamoured, as the transformation of laws and institutions. A series of political and social changes, which, a century ago, no man would have thought capable of being effected, save by the sharp convulsion of revolution, are now contemplated
by the bulk of many civilised communities as sure to be carried out: a certain number of persons regarding the prospect with exuberant hope, a somewhat larger number with equanimity, many more with indifference or resignation.”
I have before me an admirable instance of this tendency. A politician of some importance in his own community—the colony of Victoria—has published his proposals for future legislation, in which he “avails” himself “of the earliest opportunity for placing before the electors” what he terms “the Liberal programme,” upon which he appeals. The proposals are arranged under three heads—”Industrial,” “Social,” and “Political,” and they include, among a large number of others:—The maintenance and perfecting of our protective policy; revision of the tariff
in the interests of agriculture; intercolonial freetrade on the basis of uniform protection against other countries; the conservation of water for irrigating purposes; the search for and development of coal fields; the search for and development of gold deposits; the encouragment of the growth of natural products; the opening up of new markets for surplus products; the cheapening of internal traffic; the establishment of a system of state insurance; the prevention of over-crowding in centres of population; the military training of all citizens up to a given age; the ensuring of eight hours as the legal day’s work for all engaged in
manual labour. Much of this is Liberalism of the most spurious character, and it gives one some idea of the elastic nature of the term in many people’s minds. It is not necessary for me to dwell, at length, upon the probable effects of such a tendency to over-legislate. The Statute-book has already become over-burdened with enactments which sap individual effort; check individual enterprise; remove from certain parts of the industrial organism; wholesome and health-giving competition, which hamper commerce, and, in the end, do more injury than
good to the very interests which they were intended to benefit.
Moreover, were the state to attempt to carry out one-half the business which such a politician seems to desire, it would degenerate quickly into an unwieldy, extravagant, illmanaged organisation, by which much of the work, which is now carried out under the keen influences of competition, would be executed slugglishly, imperfectly, and by no means to the satisfaction of the public.
The popular assumption that what we term “politics” is a matter with which almost everyone is competent to deal, coupled with the blind belief in the powers of an act of parliament as a sort of social panacea, has thus led to an immense amount of commercial and industrial injury. The earlier centuries of English history were, as I have shown, somewhat prolific in falsely-conceived statutes, which were passed under the belief that the natural evolution of society could be permanently checked or improved upon by parliamentary regulation. Time has clearly proved that that belief was a vain one; and, to readers of history, the series of disappointments which so proved it should serve as political beacons for future guidance in similar matters. The abortive legislation of that period was partly the result of a deliberate attempt to conserve the privileges of the aristocracy and moneyed classes of the time, and partly the result of a desire to benefit “the people,” by influencing the values and prices of food. As I shall show, they were in both cases ineffectual in the direction anticipated.
The over-legislation of the present day is equally the outcome of misconception as to results—miscalculations, as it were, in political arithmetic, arising from the before-mentioned habit of regarding the immediate effects of astatute, while ignoring, or else neglecting to give due consideration to those which are less easily discerned. Legislation, of the kind which is being passed in our own day, is claimed to be
“Liberal” in its tendencies; but, as a fact, it fails to comply with the first principles of that school of politics, on account of the ultimate consequences which it produces, and which unfortunately are left unconsidered at the time of enactment.
Observe now what no less an authority than Buckle—referring to the past—has said regarding this class of legislation. I have referred to this before; but as a broad and comprehensive generalisation it cannot be too distinctly impressed upon the mind. “Every great reform,” he says, “which has been effected, has consisted, not in doing something new, but
in undoing so mething old. The most valuable additions made to legislation have been enactments
destructive of preceding legislation; and the best laws which have been passed have been those by which
some former laws were repealed.”
*41 And again, “The whole scope and tendency of modern legislation is to restore things to that natural channel from which the ignorance of preceding legislation has driven them.”
*42 Elsewhere, the same writer says: “Indeed, the extent to which the governing classes have interfered, and the mischiefs which that interference has produced, are so remarkable as to make thoughtful men wonder how civilisation could advance in the face of such repeated obstacles…. To sum up these evils would be to write a history of English legislation; for it may be broadly stated that, with the exception of certain necessary enactments, respecting the preservation of order, and the punishment of crime, nearly everything which has been done, has been done amiss.”
*43 Towards the conclusion of the same chapter, Buckle comes to closer quarters with this injurious class of legislation. “It would,” he says, “be easy to push the enquiry still further, and to show how legislators, in every attempt they have made to protect some particular interests, and uphold some particular principles, have not only failed but have brought about
diametrically opposite to those which they proposed. We have seen,” he adds, “that their laws in favour of industry have injured industry; that their laws in favour of religion have increased hypocrisy, and that their laws to secure truth have encouraged perjury. Exactly in the same way, nearly every country has taken steps to prevent usury, and keep down the interest of money; and the invariable effect has been to
increase usury and
raise the interest of money.”
If more accurate and exact testimony than that of Buckle should be desired, it is supplied in the preceding chapter. An examination of many of those earlier instances of meddling legislation will show that they involved some of the veriest details of personal conduct—matters, in fact, which were subjects rather for parental regulation than for the interference of the legislature. All such legislation had the effect of doing more harm than good. In fact, “the strongest of all arguments against the interference of the public, with purely personal conduct is that, when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place.”
Reflect, now, upon the results of all this meddling with enterprise, with the natural development of commerce, of individualism, of personal character, of intellectual growth; and picture, too, the thousand and one obstacles and hindrances which it has thrown in the very path of progress. Think of the partly realised plans which have been frustrated; of the almost completed commercial schemes which have been destroyed; the hopes and aspirations which, at different periods, have been disappointed and defeated. “We talk glibly of such changes; we think of cancelled legislation with indifference. We forget that before laws are abolished they have generally been inflicting evils more or less serious; some for a few years, some for tens of years,
some for centuries. Change your vague idea of a bad law into a definite idea of it, as an agency operating on people’s lives, and you see that it means so much of pain; so much of illness; so much of mortality.”
These results are all more or less remote—certainly many of them indirect, though none the less real and injurious. But they strike, and will ever strike at the very root of our national progress—viz., the incentive to accumulation, and to the development of individual character, enterprise, and greatness. “The result,” says Joseph Cowen, “of every attempt made to promote the well-being of mankind, by taking the management of their affairs out of their own control, has been to deteriorate, and not to improve their condition. It is through the perpetual gymnastics of political life that national character is purified, elevated, and strengthened. The state is a growth, and not a machine. It should have a free, organic life. It is invested with authority to punish crime, and it cannot, with reason, be denied the power of preventing it. But this ought not to be a justification for meddlesome, inquisitorial, and enervating legislation, which aggravates the evil it is designed to cure. Under its operation society becomes stationary, torpid, and inactive. Uniformity produces monotony and stagnation. The state has no right to attempt to regulate the private actions of individuals, or to entrench upon their primary relations with one another.”
*47 And, again, Mr. Cowen says: “The stereotyping men into systems—encasing them in legal armour; dangling before them material Utopias; making the flesh-pots the pivot on which all their efforts turn, is a prostitution of national aspirations; a violation of human liberty; an encroachment on individual life; and a barrier to progress.”
*48 I need not, I presume, here emphasise the
fact that the author of these words is acknowledged to be one of the most able and consistent Liberal politicians of the present day. It may be, and indeed is, I know, thought by some persons that no great harm would be done to society, as a whole, if men were somewhat discouraged by a lessening of the incentives to accumulation. I venture to think that those persons are committing a cardinal error in such an opinion, as some of the best authorities would show. Sir Henry Maine, who has investigated with the eye of a specialist the records of early history, and the foundations of legal institutions, says: “An experience, happily now rare in the world, shows that wealth may come very near to perishing through diminished energy in the motives of the men who reproduce it. You may, so to speak, take the heart and spirit out of the labourers to such an extent that they do not care to work. Jeremy Bentham observed, about a century ago, that the Turkish government had, in his day, impoverished some of the richest countries in the world, far more by its action on motives, than by its positive exactions; and it has always appeared to me that the destruction of the vast wealth accumulated under the Roman Empire, one of the most orderly and efficient of governments, and the decline of Western Europe into the squalor and poverty of the Middle Ages, can only be accounted for on the same principle…. Here, then, is the great question about democratic legislation when carried to more than a moderate length. How will it affect human motives? What motives will it substitute for those now acting on men? The motives which at present impel mankind to the labour and pain which produce the resuscitation of wealth in ever-increasing quantities, are such as infallibly to entail inequality in the distribution of wealth. They are the springs of action, called into activity by the strenuous and never-ending struggle for existence; the beneficent private war which makes one man strive to climb on the shoulders of another, and remain
there through the law of the survival of the fittest.”
*49 It must be evident, then, to every one who cares to give the matter even a moderate amount of reflection, that all attempts to legislate for the general happiness, which involve an interference with these primary motive-forces in human nature, must gravely jeopardise the soundness and prosperity of the community in which the experiment is tried, as well as the manly vigour and spirit of independence of the people who constitute it. It is quite possible that much of such legislation may be enacted without producing any sudden and easily-discerned effect; but the effect will be there nevertheless. It is in the very nature of such results that they should be gradually produced, and be so remote that, except by careful analysis, the cause and the effect would be scarcely suspected of having any connection with one another. As Mr. Herbert Spencer humorously puts it, in illustration of the frequent remoteness of the results of far removed social disturbances: “You break your tooth with a small pebble among the currants, because the industrial organisation in Zante is so imperfect. A derangement of your digestion goes back for its cause to the bungling management in a vineyard on the Rhine several years ago.”
*50 In many cases, the results of legislative or other interferences with trade or individual action are so far removed from the original cause that, even on the closest study, it would be impossible to trace them. Indeed, it is not only probable but certain that, at the present time, we suffer results from some of the shortsighted legislation of generations back. In the present day, for instance, there are many otherwise rationally-minded and fairly-motived workmen who are disposed to carry their trades-union principles to unreasonable extremes, from no other cause than the unconscious irritation which has been engendered by a knowledge, derived from history, of the repressive
legislation of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries directed against workmen. This, and numerous other instances of legislative cause and effect, with which all students of history are familiar, must sufficiently convince one that it is impossible to say, with any degree of certainty, how long afterwards a negligently-conceived legislative measure may continue to operate injuriously on society, or to what extent those operations may affect its welfare.
What the future will bring forth it would be difficult to say. That the errors I have enumerated will be checked in any way, by wiser counsel, it would, as I have already said, be rather sanguine to expect. It is more than likely that the current of over-legislation will run its course, and that the hastily-conceived and carelessly-digested schemes which are now being, and will, in the near future, be further added to the statute-books of English-speaking communities, will, by virtue of the unalterable and unaccommodating economic laws, throw back on their authors practical and sorrowful proofs of their unwisdom, and thus instil some wholesome lessons for subsequent guidance.
But, meanwhile, there will be needed much care and watchfulness on the part of those to whose lot falls the guidance of public affairs; for, before any such re-action sets in, society will have suffered many shocks of a severe nature.
“If I am in any degree right,” says Sir Henry Maine, “popular government, especially as it approaches the democratic form, will tax to the utmost all the political sagacity and statesmanship of the world to keep it from misfortune.”
I am bound to say that I do not consider the hopeless view of the future of democracy, involved in some of the quotations which I have given, applicable in the same degree to all communities in which it is established. In
Great Britain, there are circumstances which do not augur well for the outcome of the experiment in the event of its being tried; but, in certain of the Australian colonies, as I shall also show, there are strong counter-influences at work, which are likely to lead the working-classes, by and by, into a much less exaggerated view of legislative possibilities. The fortunately better, because more equal, distribution of wealth, brought about by other than legislative means, together with the almost phenomenal development of the building society system, by which almost every workman can, and does in time, become possessed of his own freehold, has produced, in the Australian colonies, a regard for the rights of property, at least, which, so far, has been apparently little felt or experienced in Great Britain.
properly understood…there is no reason why it should not possess the
same degree of certainty which belongs to
other sciences founded on observation.”—
Influence of Authority, p. 289.
four-fifths of the legislation, from the time of Henry III. to the year 1872, has been wholly or partially repealed, and that, even of that passed in the present reign, 650 acts have been similarly treated.
lack of knowledge of them, without regard to other subjects concerning which they may be very well informed.
their own interest, as distinguished from that of the
whole community, is a
perfectly legitimate and honourable basis upon which to rear a legislative edifice.
the direction of its crawling. He who, in this nineteenth century, echoes the cry that the voice of the people is the voice of God, is just the man who, if he had been born two thousand years ago, would have been the loudest and hoarsest in that cringing crowd of slaves who bowed before a prince invested with the delegated majesty of Rome, and cried ‘It is the voice of God, and not of a man.'”—
Lectures, Addresses, and Literary Remains, p. 5.
The Times, October 15, 1885.
versus the State,” p. 82.
versus The State,” p. 31.