The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 20

The Legislature

§5. We have seen that any restriction of the suffrage involves a prima facie danger that the interests of the unenfranchised class will be sacrificed to the interests of the enfranchised. In pointing this out, I did not mean to imply that good legislation is a kind of bargain struck between conflicting class-interests; it is the interest of the whole, which includes justice to all the parts, at which the statesman should aim: and justice, as Mill says, consists in giving a man not the half of what he asks, but the whole of what he ought to have. But good legislation is a result more likely to be attained in a representative assembly in which such class-interests are fairly balanced, as each class is more open to sound reason and impartial consideration of the common good where the interests of others are concerned. For this reason, as we have seen, a widely extended suffrage involves a danger of a different kind: viz. that the ultimate interests of the whole community may be sacrificed to the real or apparent class-interests of the numerical majority of the electors, either through ignorance or through selfishness and limitation of sympathy. Nor is it easy adequately to meet this danger by any such exclusion from the franchise, on the score of poverty and ignorance, as appears to be permanently defensible. But it may be more or less effectively met by giving the wealthier and more educated classes a representation in the legislature out of proportion to their numbers. There are several different methods of effecting this. The plan which---largely for historical reasons---has been most widely adopted in West-European states, is to divide the legislature into two Chambers, and give wealth and, political intelligence a preponderance in the ``Upper'' Chamber, leaving the other to be elected by the citizens at large on the basis of electoral equality. This plan will be discussed in a separate chapter (XXIII.). Assuming for the present that laws are enacted by a single representative assembly, there are still various ways of aiming at the desired end; but it may be most simply and effectively attained either (1) by dividing the community into classes, according to the amount of their income or presumable intelligence, or both combined, and allotting to the higher classes a larger proportional number of representatives than to the lower; or (2) by giving more than one vote apiece to the wealthier and more intelligent electors. The second of these methods is called ``Plural voting''; but both together may conveniently be spoken of as ``Weighted voting''.

In discussing the advantages and drawbacks of either plan of electoral inequality, it is best to separate the considerations of wealth and intelligence; which---as they tend to be combined in any practical scheme---I have so far put together. The argument for weighting the votes of the rich is that, man for man, the rich have more important interests to defend than the poor. In considering this argument, it is important to observe that it is not the larger private interests of rich men than can justify the special protection given by a larger share of electoral power, but the social interests that are normally bound up with them and indirectly defended in defending the private interests. E.g. to throw the whole burden of taxation on accumulated wealth is not objectionable because it would reduce the incomes of the persons taxed, but because by checking the impulse to accumulate wealth it would ultimately diminish the aid rendered by capital to industry. So again, excessive interference, in the interest of labour, with the management of industrial capital is objectionable not because it reduces the profits of individuals, but because it needlessly diminishes the inducements to invest capital in England. The employer or manager of capital has normally far fuller knowledge than his employees, of the conditions favourable and unfavourable to the industry that he directs: and in defending his own interests he will to an important extent indirectly defend the economic interests of society as regards this branch of industry.

This leads us to the second ground for inequality, superior political knowledge and insight. This undoubtedly tends to be possessed on the average by the classes with larger incomes; partly from their more advanced education, and the habits of reading and thought thus acquired, partly from the exercise of intellect involved in the management of property, in the direction of industrial and commercial undertakings, and in the work of the ``learned'' professions and other higher forms of skilled labour. Superiority of this kind, however, does not universally, or at all uniformly, accompany wealth; and may in particular cases be possessed by very poor persons; accordingly, in any system of weighted voting formed on this basis, it is important that it should be open to the poorest to show themselves entitled---by passing examinations or otherwise---to the larger share of electoral power allowed to intellectual superiority.

Both these reasons for electoral inequality appear to me strong; but the difficulties in the way of a satisfactory scheme of weighted voting are very great. In the first place, however fully we admit the general considerations above stated, any scheme for applying them must necessarily be to a great extent arbitrary: we have no means of determining, with any pretence to exactness, how much additional electoral power is due to wealth on account of the implication of social with private interests, or how much properly corresponds to any available evidence of probable superiority in political judgment. Hence any particular plan of electoral inequality will always present plausible grounds for agitation to modify the standards applied: while the interests of classes and parties will always supply strong motives for such agitation. Secondly, in considering balance of interests, it must be borne in mind that it is impossible to divide society into classes which remain identical and equally distinct for all legislative purposes: as we pass from one proposed law to another, we find that the important lines of division are continually changing. In England (e.g.) for some purposes we have the ``agricultural'' opposed to the ``manufacturing interests''; sometimes, again, the conflict of interests is between manual labourers generally and their employers, sometimes between persons to whom fixed money-payments are due and the rest of the community: and no one of these oppositions coincides importantly with either of the other two. Hence any weighting of the vote of wealth must always involve some danger that the private interests of the few may prevail when they are not coincident with social interests: in which case the weighted vote has not only an invidious appearance of aggravating the natural inequalities of a modern industrial society by adding artificial political inequalities to correspond, but tends to cause a real injustice corresponding to this appearance. The weighting of votes on the score of superior intelligence is hardly less difficult and invidious; from the impossibility of finding any satisfactory criterion of the superiority in political knowledge and judgment which constitutes the only valid claim to greater electoral power. For, in the present state of the political art, such superiority is largely derived from personal experience, and reflection on such experience: and in any case requires a steady direction of thought to political questions, of which, in most cases, a satisfactory guarantee is not afforded either by prolonged education, or certificates of scholastic attainments, or the exercise of professional functions. A thoughtful artisan who has only had an elementary education may easily have more political insight---and even knowledge---than e.g. a schoolmaster, physician, or engineer whose intellectual energies are absorbed in his special pursuit.

Further, it must be borne in mind that superior intelligence, directed to political exposition and persuasion, is always likely to have great indirect electoral power by its influence on the votes of others: and this is a natural advantage of the educated classes in the struggle of class-interests, free from the invidiousness and arbitrariness inevitable in any artificial scheme. Similarly, we must recognise that, even without a formal advantage in voting power, men of wealth are likely always to count practically for more than one vote each. We must recognise, as was before said, that bribery cannot be completely prevented: nor, probably, even intimidation. And even apart from bribery, gratitude for services, private or public---and hopes of. similar services in the future---will always be motives operating on the side of wealthy candidates, or candidates with wealthy backers. In one way or another, the economic power which wealth gives is likely always to be available for political ends.

These considerations somewhat reduce the danger that a widely extended suffrage prinm facie involves, of legislation in which the interests of the rich minority are sacrificed to those of the poor majority in a manner disadvantageous to the community as a whole. Still they do not suffice to show the danger to be immaterial; and it is, I think, likely to become more formidable in the future history of Western Europe and America than it has been in the past: since we have not yet seen the working of a thoroughly organised democracy, with a strong urban element, in a crowded country with very marked contrasts of wealth and poverty. It seems to me preferable, if possible, to meet this danger by developing the natural and legitimate influence of wealth, when used as a means of performing social services, and of intelligence, when directed to political instruction and persuasion. But if these prove inadequate, it may be expedient, if the conditions of political opinion in any country admit of it, to have recourse to the method of artificial weighting. If so, the plural vote seems on the whole preferable to the plan of division into classes unequally represented, as the latter method emphasises somewhat more invidiously the class-distinctions which both substantially recognise. In any case, if the weighted vote is to be effective, the standard either of wealth or intellectual attainment should be low, so that the increased electoral power allotted to them may be widely shared, and the invidiousness of heaping votes on a privileged few may be avoided.

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