The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 20

The Legislature

§2. The reasons above given for constituting a representative assembly as the whole or chief part of the organ of legislation are those that have usually been most prominently put forward by its advocates. But some writers of repute appear to attach still more importance to what I may call the educative effect of representative or popular government. The alleged educative advantages are partly intellectual---the training given by participation in the management of public affairs; partly moral---the ``invigorating effect of freedom on the character'', in developing patriotism and public spirit, self-reliance and energetic self-help. As regards the first kind of advantage, this argument, if valid at all, seems to make more strongly for the direct participation of the people in legislation than for representative government; since the mere choice of a legislator is not likely to exercise and train the intellect so effectively as the effort to estimate the grounds for and against any proposed law. Still, in proportion as choice implies supervision and criticism of the legislator's work, the argument may be used in favour of either form of popular government. But in neither case does it seem to be a strong reason for giving legislative functions---either directly or indirectly---to persons whose minds are as yet incompetent to perform the intellectual processes required for coming to rational conclusions on the questions with which a modern legislature has to deal. There are, I fear, but slender grounds for thinking that such persons will receive valuable intellectual training through mere experience of the effects of their decisions; since it requires a certain grasp of the right method of dealing with any class of problems to be able to derive instruction from one's mistakes: and the political blunderer can generally, without manifest absurdity, attribute the bad consequences of his blunders to circumstances incapable of being foreseen, or to the perversity and stupidity of other men.

The consideration of the moral advantages of ``free'' government requires us again to note the confusion which the common use of the word ``Freedom'' is apt to cause. When a writer speaks of ``Free'' institutions he sometimes means to imply that the government leaves the individual alone to look after his own affairs; sometimes that the private members of the community collectively exercise an effective control over the government: sometimes he seems to imply both together, apparently assuming a necessary connection between the two facts, which we may conveniently distinguish as ``civil'' and ``constitutional'' freedom respectively. But there is no certainty that a representative legislature, chosen by universal suffrage, will not interfere with the free action of individuals more than an absolute monarch would: the essential difference is merely, that under absolute monarchy a majority of sane adults may be forced to submit to laws that they permanently dislike, whereas if a popularly elected assembly is supreme in legislation, this coercion can only be applied to a minority. To this extent constitutional freedom affords a security for civil freedom; but a priori reasoning and experience combine to show that there is no further necessary connection between the two. For instance, I understand that Government does nothing to prevent a man from getting as drunk as he likes in Russia: whereas the vigorous democracy of North America has established in several States severely restrictive liquor-laws.

Distinguishing, then, between constitutional and civil freedom, I think we may fairly infer, from our general knowledge of human nature, that the possession of the former will tend to develop patriotism and public spirit. Men who have a share in the control of public business are more likely to feel that it is their own business, and to exert themselves, and make sacrifices when required, to promote the welfare of the State. But there is no similar reason why constitutional freedom should make individuals more self-reliant and self-helpful in the management of their private affairs: it would be paradoxical to maintain that the proper method of rousing persons to energetic effort in the promotion of their private interests is to require them to attend to public interests, and to hold out to them the hope of persuading or compelling Government to improve their circumstances. Perhaps we may say that while active, self-helpful, self-reliant peoples are most likely to have some system of popular control over their government in effective working, it is rather true, that a people of this character will want such a control and will agitate till they get it, than that the exercise of the franchise will tend to give them these qualities. In any case, when a nation of this kind has once obtained the influence over legislation, which is given by the establishment of a representative legislature, it is likely to be very difficult to bring it into a condition of permanent general contentment with any legislature that has no popular element:---at least until it had had prolonged and bitter experience of the disasters arising from popular government. What we have practically to consider in laying down principles of governmental construction for such a nation is not whether it is to have a representative assembly as a main part of the legislative organ, but in what way the deficiencies of such an assembly may best be remedied or minimised.

To sum up, I accept the general practical conclusion---widely regarded as the most fundamental principle of modern constitutions---that the persons who compose the legislative organ should be appointed, wholly or to a great extent, by popular election. But I do not accept it on the ground of any supposed ``natural right'' of each individual to refuse submission to laws to which he has not ``consented personally or through his representatives''; but for reasons analogous to, though not identical with, those which led us to the adoption of Individualism as the main principle for determining the proper functions of government. I therefore accept it not as an absolute principle of constitutional equity, but merely as a rule based on generalisations with regard to human nature which I do not maintain to be universally true, and the force of which may be outweighed by other considerations. It still remains open to argument whether the whole, or an important part, of a given community is not in such an intellectual and moral condition that its interests will be better promoted by a legislature over which it has no control than by one which it is allowed to elect. All that can be fairly contended on the general grounds here taken is that the burden of proof should be distinctly laid on those who wish to withhold the security for suitable legislation that such control affords.

Further, if---in accordance with usage---we speak of the principle thus defined as that of ``Representative'' Government, it should be borne in mind that we do not adopt the method of popular election, in the view that the elected legislators will or ought to vote as on any particular question the persons electing them would vote; but in the view that the persons so chosen will be more likely to promote the real interests of the community---which are the interests of an aggregate of individuals, now existing or to exist hereafter---than persons otherwise appointed.

Taking this view, let us try to determine in accordance with the principle thus defined the chief questions that arise when we attempt to work out in detail this mode of appointing legislators.

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