Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
essays

March 1880

General Principles in Politics

An Excerpt from "The Choices Between Personal Freedom and State Protection"

Auberon Herbert argues that politics must be based on general principles grounded in an understanding of human nature.

Now politics are essentially one part of the science of human nature, and it is the same human nature, neither more nor less, as that with which we come in contact every hour of our lives. This simple truth is often forgotten in presence of the machinery of Parliaments, public offices, parties, organizations, caucuses, and all the other instruments of political life, but we cannot go back in mind too often to the fundamental facts, first, that we are dealing with the simple human nature of every day, and, second, that human nature must be studied and understood—its facts must be classified—like causes connected with like effects, furnishing us with their own special generalizations—then these effects connected with other effects furnishing us with their own special generalizations—then these effects connected with other effects furnishing us with wider generalizations—if we are to act as successfully upon it as we do upon any of the materials that we use in our manufactures. It seems almost like urging the importance of study of the alphabet to urge that all successful political conduct must be founded upon the classification of those facts that affect human nature, of those conditions which as we learn from the common everyday experience of life, either aid or impede its development. Is proof required that in our views of human nature we recognize general principles? Si quaeris signa, circumspice! A speech that wins the applause of its hearers, a character skillfully drawn in a novel, a successful play bear witness to the self-evident proposition that men have classified certain facts regarding their own selves, and recognized what are called laws of human nature. Otherwise we could not by a sort of common agreement praise the skill and truth of the artist; the effect upon each of us would be purely personal, subjective and accidental. We should be without that common standard of reference which we now possess and of which our common judgments of praise and blame are the evidence. And yet the very words “general principles” cause a sort of horror to those who are ingaged in politics. There is a vague superstitious dread about the use of them; and men feel, when an appeal is made in their name, almost as if they were asked to give up the study of facts and to return to those verbal explanations of earlier days, which merely supplied a new clothing of words and left the matter itself standing where it did before.

But amongst the objectors to general principles in politics will be found some men of cautious and exact thought whose mental inclination will be to hand over each question as it arises to the decision of those who have given special attention to it, and may be looked on as authorities in the matter. These men will deny that there is at present sufficient material to justify the laying down of wide general principles; they will be on the side of experiment; they will wish each question to be separately treated, and treated according to the recommendations of those most familiar with it; they will attach immense importance to special knowledge and special experience, and exceedingly little importance to knowledge and experience of a wider kind. I cannot attempt to reply at length here to such objections, which must however be treated with respect. It is sufficient to point out that those great advances in knowledge, which cause mental and moral revolutions, are more often made by those men who fit themselves to connect existing groups of facts, than by those who add one more group to the many thousand groups now in existence. Without undervaluing the gain of a new fact in any department of life, I think one is justified in saying that at present the accumulation of facts is in advance of the power of using and connecting facts, and that the balance seems likely to be still further inclined in this direction; especially as regards the science of human nature the mass of unused facts is enormous. Every history, every novel, every newspaper, every household is full of them; but they are lost to the world for want of careful attempts to follow their connections and to introduce order amongst them. I must also urge as against following the advice of political specialists, that they are seldom if ever men who have studied the body politic as a whole, or who have given much thought to the effect on the general system of the local remedy they would apply. A specialist in medicine is only really deserving of confidence if, in addition to his knowledge of the part, he has thorough knowledge of the whole system, but our local advisers in politics, who are often men of great thoroughness and worthy of all respect for their own special knowledge, would generally disclaim such wider knowledge. In politics quite as much as in medicine the local evil is often but a symptom of the systematic evil, and only to be removed when some condition of life, at first sight unconnected with it, is altered.

But it may be urged that the acceptance of general principles in politics would lead to an idle way of thinking. All questions would be dismissed from political consideration at the dictation of an assumed formula which, as it is remarked, might not be true after all. No doubt there is a saving of intellectual labor. So there is when an astronomer takes the law of gravitation for granted; or a mechanician the properties of the lever; or a chemist the laws of the combining weights of the elements; or a physiologist the law that work implies waste. No worker in any of these departments would be grateful for the obligation to do such work over again on each occasion for himself. He would complain that a science that was not in possession of certain accepted generalizations, could not be treated as a science at all, but as a mere aggregate of floating facts. As regards the objection that incalculable harm might follow from the acceptance of a false general principle, we must bear in mind that every wide generalization that continues to live and gather strength in the world, bears in itself a certain evidence of its truth. It is so far true, that presumably the existing generation of men have not the requisite knowledge to disprove it. The wider it is, the more exposed to attack it is in many places and at many times. It stands in the presence of all men, always inviting attack. The wider it is spread amongst an intelligent people, the more probable it becomes that if not true in itself, the experience of some person or other will provide the weapon for its destruction. Unless, as some persons believe, the human race is born to err, it is as nearly certain as can be that the doom of refutation sooner or later will descend upon any false first principle that has been exalted into a law of conduct.

We must also remember that in seeking for a guide for conduct, we have not really the choice of either consistently following general principles, or being guided in each case by special knowledge. Few men can have special knowledge on many subjects, and what are those to do who are not amongst the happy few? Follow the specialists? but generally the specialists are divided. The more carefully we examine the springs which move those who reject the guidance of general principles, the more clearly we shall see that either they are swayed by general principles, which they have never examined, and are scarcely conscious of, and which in such a case are degenerated into mere prejudices (prejudice being I think a general principle that has never been submitted to the examination of reason), and therefore that they are likely to select that specialist as their guide who most agrees with their ordinary way of thinking; or else that they leave themselves at the mercy of that chapter of accidents, popular excitement, private interest, advantage of party, contagion of emotion, or whatever it may be which is responsible for so many of our actions, and which explains why our actions so often present startling contrasts between themselves.

Last, it must be said, that those who object to general principles in politics and disclaim their supremacy, are themselves betrayed by their incautious caution—nimium premendo littus iniquum—into making a generalization of a very wide and rash character. Those like effects which follow from like causes—that unbroken interdependence of every group of facts with every other group of facts—that order and that arrangement which prevail everywhere else in the world—these things are suddenly and miraculously to be suspended in the political world, here alone in the whole realm of nature, for the benefit of the politician who wishes to have no further embarrassment than those of the present time, and to fulfill from hour to hour of his shifting course, the maxim “sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” This is the startling general principle to which we find ourselves committed in our vain attempt to discover a region behind the north wind. I have spent much of your time today in trying to show that our great work in politics, as in every other science, is to bring facts into groups, or to use the more common expression, under law, to connect these groups with each other, until from them we establish the great principles which are to be the guides of our action. I believe until this is done, whatever work of reform we undertake for special objects is in a great measure wasted. You break off today with infinite labor the chains that fasten one limb, to find tomorrow that chains of the same kind have been placed on another limb. At present in England no reform can be attempted until the part affected is in an acute state of suffering and the effects are visible to all men. No reform has the least chance of success which appeals to abstract justice, and which simply says, “Evil must follow, because the primary laws are broken.” I do not wish to undervalue the fair-mindedness of Englishmen; we have some small measure of that quality which is scarcely as yet at all developed amongst civilized men, the power of being convinced; but I wish to attack the self-complacency with which Englishmen regard their present state of mental disorder, and their satisfaction at placing their convictions at the mercy of the chapter of accidents. Half the evils in politics arise from our being obliged, whenever and wherever a reform is needed, to show that the immediate (and I may say the lower) interests of some class are involved in the matter; until at last, thanks to such constant appeals, the feeling arises in those classes that their immediate interest is the right standpoint from which to view every political question. If, instead of such appeals, we stood on those great and primary principles which underlie every group of political facts, then there would be an ennobling and transforming influence in politics, because the sense of direct personal interest would be put on one side, and men would seek to interpret rightly in each case the universal law. The universal law cannot be disregarded without injury to every part of society, and it is a truer method to regard political questions from this point of view, than to attempt to balance the loss or profit which will accrue to some special class.