The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 19

Methods and Intruments of Government

§9. In conclusion, before we pass to discuss the details of governmental construction, it may be well to consider a general doubt as to the utility of the whole discussion, similar to that which met us in treating of international relations. It is thought by some that---granting the value of clear principles for determining how governments ought to act---no similar gain can reasonably be expected from any general conclusions as to the manner in which they ought to be constructed. For political constitutions, it is said, like other organic structures, grow and are not made: if ever they appear to be made, the appearance is illusory: the new constitution in such cases---with whatever deliberation and precision it may be laid down in a fundamental statute---has never real vitality except so far as it expresses the result of a natural process of social change, which determines its fundamental character. The most that a statesman can do is, by watching carefully these natural processes, to mitigate and shorten the organic disturbances which they are liable to cause in the body politic at critical stages. In short, principles of ordinary legislation may be useful as rules of diet are; but there can be no practical advantage in considering how the fundamental structure either of the individual or the social organism might be improved.

There is an element of truth in this view: but on the whole it must be regarded as a hasty generalisation from certain parts of political history to the neglect of other parts; and, especially, it fails to apprehend the distinctive characteristics of political change in the present stage of development of European states and their colonies. In this stage---initiated more than a century ago---the ``natural process of organic growth'' in states takes, to an important extent, the form of a movement of opinion: and, in the great majority of the countries sharing West European civilization, large and fundamental changes in polity, in a great measure determined by this movement of opinion, have been introduced in the ``constitution-making century'' which is now (1896) approaching its termination. No doubt such changes, even when most extensive, are only partial, and leave large portions of the previous organisation of government unaltered; but experience shows that there is no important organ, central or local, which they may not affect; and a careful consideration of the principles on which they ought to be made, seems as likely to be beneficial here as in the case of ordinary legislation. Again, it is quite true that new governmental institutions, hastily introduced without due regard to the special characteristics and previous history of the people for whom they are designed, are apt to have no stability; and either not to work at all, or to work otherwise than was intended. But this is in some measure the case with ordinary legislation under similar conditions: and I conceive that the proper inference to be drawn from it is that which I have drawn in Chap. I.:---viz. that before practical conclusions are drawn from any general theoretical discussion of these topics, the results of such discussion should be carefully combined with the results of a more special study of the political conditions and history of the state in question.

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