The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 20

The Legislature

§7. So far we have been considering the allotment of the right to elect. I pass to consider restrictions on eligibility. These will reasonably coincide to a great extent with the limitations on the ``active'' right. Thus crime, infamous trade, loss of economic independence, extreme poverty and ignorance, should disqualify equally in both cases: and if a minimum of age higher than that of ordinary legal maturity be adopted for electors, it will be reasonable to put the same restriction on candidates. Other important limitations---such as the incompatibility of legislative functions with employment in the executive departments---will be more conveniently considered in a subsequent chapter. Apart from these, the most important question under this head is whether it is desirable to require a legislator to possess an income, or show evidence of intellectual attainments, considerably above the minimum---if any---imposed as a condition of exercising the franchise. The arguments both for and against such a regulation are partly similar to those already discussed in considering the weighted vote. On the one hand it is fairly urged that legislation is an art that can hardly be fittingly undertaken except by persons of high intellectual culture: and that only those whose income is above the average are likely to have had the time and means necessary for the acquisition of such culture. On the other hand it may be replied that legislation is an art that is yet in a very rudimentary condition, in respect of the application of science and systematic method: that the knowledge and intellectual training, really useful for purposes of practical politics, which an ordinary legislator from the ranks of cultivated society has obtained from schools and colleges and books, is not very important in extent; nor beyond what an intellect of exceptional vigour can acquire in any class of society, in spite of the disadvantages of a short education and a life spent in manual labour. It may be urged further that the limitation of eligibility to a minority of comparatively wealthy persons is incompatible with an adequate realisation of the general aims of representative government; since, in order to obtain the varied empirical knowledge and the sympathetic insight into the needs of all sections of society, which we saw to be the characteristic merit of this form of government, it is necessary that every class of electors should be free to choose its own members. Moreover, the limitation must have a tendency to diminish the interest taken by the poorer classes in the election of legislators, and to weaken their confidence in the legislators elected.

These arguments seem to me very strong against any formal limitation of eligibility by the requirement of definite pecuniary or educational qualifications: but they do not apply with anything like equal force to an arrangement which without excluding any class would yet operate very decidedly in favour of candidates possessing such qualifications. And this result, I conceive, may be simply attained by attaching no salary to the post of legislator. In this case, it will still be possible for any class in the community to select representatives from its own ranks: only if they have no independent means they will require to be supported by voluntary contributions: and the electors are hardly likely to tax themselves for this purpose unless they have a very decided preference for such candidates.

I admit that it may be necessary to provide public remuneration for the work of legislation in poor communities, in which it would be difficult without payment to find fit persons to undertake it. But in societies as wealthy as modern states generally are, it cannot be difficult to find an adequate number of persons, qualified by nature and training and enjoying pecuniary independence, to devote themselves to this important and interesting work: which, if public opinion is in a healthy state, they will regard as at once a duty and an honour. And if the representative assembly is in the main composed of such persons, another very important advantage will be gained: it will tend to maintain a higher standard of pecuniary incorruptibility than would, ceteris paribus, be likely to be found in an assembly of paid professional legislators,---unless they were paid much more highly than has ever been proposed. I do not mean that it would ever be possible---or desirable---to compose a legislature entirely of persons whose mere wealth renders them unlikely subjects for corruption: but in a body whose members are to a great extent drawn from this class it will generally be easier to keep up a severe tone of public opinion in reference to the pecuniary temptations to which a legislator is exposed. If it be said that an assembly in which comparatively rich men preponderate will tend, in framing legislative measures, to have special regard to the class-interests of the rich, I should reply that this tendency, in a country where the suffrage is widely extended, may reasonably be regarded not as a drawback, but as a valuable security for just legislation; in view of the grave danger already noticed that the apparent interests of the poor, who form the numerical majority, will be preferred to the real ultimate interests of the whole community.

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