Donisthorpe stakes his claim for democracy, both the general trend of history and the first step to a more individualistic world.

Donisthorpe's Individualism: A System of Politics, Part 4

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

In his first chapter of Individualism: A System of Politics, Donisthorpe began to sketch a vision for modern democracy in a highly integrated, technologically advanced world. He concluded by arguing that modern countries should include myriad—perhaps innumerable—interlocking and overlapping institutions to establish the various limits of individual powers and rights.

Now, he begins by distinguishing between the science and the art of politics just as one might distinguish between mechanical science and mechanical design. The “cloistered economists” may think that politics is a problem of data—if only we had enough information, collected and analyzed by experts, enforced by a single entity with absolute authority, we could solve all of society’s problems from the state house. In fact, though, as societies reached greater heights of what Donisthorpe called “civilization,” they became better situated to govern themselves through decentralized institutions of questionable authority but unquestionable efficiency. Great wealth, ease of communication, sophistication of concepts, and wider cultural sentiments empowered people to organize themselves in ways simply unavailable to most premodern people, including many of those under the control of Donisthorpe’s own nation, the British Empire.

Humanity’s natural tendency toward home‐ or self‐​rule, then, was of particular importance to him. In some cases, he notes, Britain has forced forms of modern governance on people not yet “ripe” for them (he cites land reform in Ireland and Bengal); in others, Britain acted merely with cruel imperiousness and lack of real concern for any sort of civilized behavior. Over time, the combination created a general crisis of “colonial questions” pressing themselves on the Empire in flashpoints all over the world. Our author proceeds to offer his own contributions to the debate by delineating the co‐​dependent general tendencies toward centralization, democratization, and individualization in states over the long course of history. After a bit of an anthropology lesson, our author decidedly stakes his claim for democracy, “but the doctrine is subject to this qualification—that the function of the citizen is the safeguarding of his own liberties, and not the manufacture of restraints on the liberty of his fellows.”

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By Wordsworth Donisthorpe
London: MacMillan and Co. 1889.

Individualism: A System of Politics

CHAPTER II: The Structure of the State

The science of politics and the art of politics are two distinct branches of study, and should he kept so; just as the science of mechanics is a very different matter from the art of engineering. One may be an adept in the science, and yet utterly unskilled in the art—quite unable to apply the conclusions of the science to the art. So also we may be expert at an art, and yet be more ignorant than we should be of the science on which that art is based….

Now the science of politics, by whatever name known, is very little studied at the present day by our statesmen. They even affect to despise it. On the other hand men of science, or as they have been styled, “cloistered economists,” are prone to imagine themselves capable of solving all kinds of political problems simply by the aid of scientific research, without any practical experience whatever of the facts and conditions of the situation. Let me give an illustration; sociologists have reached the conclusion that the end towards which civilisation is moving, the goal which it bids fair to attain, is a system of self‐​government. In other words, self‐​government is the government of the future, and presumably therefore the best government. But it is for the practical statesman to decide when any particular nation is ripe for the application of the principle.

Few will deny that England has reached this stage of development; but when we look farther afield, when we pass even to India, where the people are indeed in a comparatively high degree of civilisation, we find grave doubts whether they are yet fit to exercise the functions of a self‐​governing nation. Certain doctrinaires in this country, but quite inexperienced in Indian affairs, are indeed anxious to thrust it upon them, but those who have more practical knowledge of the inhabitants are of a contrary opinion. And even those book‐​learned but inexperienced young statesmen would shrink from imposing free institutions on such races as the Zulus. We all remember the reception accorded by the Turks to Midhat’s paper constitution. It remained a dead letter. Free institutions are no doubt good, but they are good only for peoples who demand them.

If this is true of uncivilised races, of semi‐​civilised races, and even of races which like the Hindu have reached a fairly high degree of civilisation, it follows that there must have been a time in our own course of development when we also were unripe for free institutions. When was that date passed? Again, the same people is ready for one form of freedom before it is ripe for another. A nation is not suddenly transformed from a despotism into a free democracy; it acquires its liberties one by one, and at dates separated by long intervals of time. Hence it is quite conceivable that there are some forms of freedom for which even the English people are not yet prepared. We are therefore compelled to qualify the general and too‐​sweeping proposition “Self‐​government is good” to this effect, “Self‐​government is good for those peoples which are ripe for it,” or in other words, it is good for those for whom it is good. And for whom is it good? To this question the cloistered economist has no answer. It is a question of experience, a question for the practical statesman.

Again, philosophical jurists have detected a distinct tendency in the laws of civilised nations towards individual ownership, in land as in other things. All forms of common ownership operate in restraint of transfer. And this is true not only of tribal and family ownership, but also in a less degree of what is called dual ownership, where the interests of the two parties are diverse. But, although the tendency towards separate ownership is strongly marked, it by no means follows that any particular people is ripe for it. In the case of Ireland, the English land system was thrust upon a nation which had not yet emerged from the stage of tribal ownership, and the effects of the shock have not yet spent themselves. The same thing was done again in Bengal a century ago. Lord Cornwallis’s arguments in favour of his scheme of land reform are unimpeachable, the one flaw in them was this: basing his predictions as to the effect of the separate system in Bengal on his experience of the working of that system in his own country, he overlooked the extreme unlikeness between the two peoples. The immediate consequences were injury to the Zemindars, cruelty to the Ryots, and permanent loss of revenue to the Government. And at the present day the question seems to be whether it will not be deemed necessary to modify the arrangement, even at the cost of England’s honour (no very high price they say nowadays). Here, again, is a problem for the practical statesman: must we refit the boot to the foot, or leave the foot to grow to the boot? It is merely a question as to how far one or other process has been already in part effected. But the sociologist has said his last word, namely, the highest civilisation will adopt the system of separate or individual ownership.

I have dwelt at some length on the distinction between the art and the science of politics, because we are at the present moment exposed to two dangers—the one is the rule‐​of‐​thumb politician, who turns a deaf ear to all the teachings of science; the other is the “professor,” who hastens to apply the inductions of science to cases which do not supply the requisite conditions.

In order to understand political institutions, to track their general tendencies, and to predict their future we must study them from their origin, from the earliest times of which we have any records. The germs of all existing laws and institutions will be found far back in the days when our ancestors were in that stage of civilisation which is called the “patriarchal stage.” In the archaic independent family all our modern complex institutions existed in embryo, just as the little acorn contains within itself all the potentialities of a spreading oak. The earliest form of the State is the family with its internal despotism and its external independence; for it must be remembered that the family was amenable to no law from without…The father was king, priest, and judge, and the whole system was an absolute despotism. The early Hebrew records furnish us with pictures of these little independent nomad families, wandering about over the face of the earth at war with all mankind. It is from this period that the institution of monarchy dates.

But when these families came to group themselves together in clans and tribes for mutual protection and advantage there was a tendency for the heads of the families so compounded to claim an equal voice in the management of the general concerns. Thus resulted what is called an oligarchy, or, in the language of the rulers themselves, an aristocracy. It is true that there are forces at work which for a very long period tend to cause the reins of government to pass into the hands of some member of the ruling body—some man of great force of character or natural superior power. The point to note now is that from the date at which families first began to compound themselves into houses or “gentes,” we have the possibility of aristocratic government. As we have seen, these houses or clans again recompound themselves into tribes, which in process of time aggregate into the larger group called the nation.

A tendency has been observed by historians for the government of the nation to gravitate steadily into the hands of larger and larger numbers of the people, till the ruling body comes to comprise all the individual members of the community. It is not urged that this state has ever yet been reached, but that such is the observable tendency. This tendency has been styled democratic. There are many forces in society operating in a contrary direction, but as social development proceeds, the forces acting in the direction of democracy increasingly prevail. This is a well‐​based political induction. We are not now concerned with the causes of this tendency—the fact is patent….

Is the tendency a good one? Is it a tendency to be desired or merely one to be put up with as a necessary evil? I believe the very best friends of democracy have admitted its inherent weakness and vices….

The practical question for us all is whether, in spite of its inherent faults, we are to accept the principle of democracy, or to fall back on some system of aristocracy or monarchy, or as Lord Brougham himself advocates, on some mixed system? Seeing that to democracy applies the old proverb, “Too many cooks spoil the broth,” seeing that divided counsels result in delay and sometimes in disaster, seeing that democratic government is wanting in continuity of purpose, is shifty and inconstant, swayed by sudden gusts of popular impulse, and above all, that it embodies the will rather of the ignorant than of the wise: admitting all these charges, shall we in despair look elsewhere for the form of government of the future, or shall we rather seek to discover the several causes of these observed diseases, and if possible the cure?

I hardly feel called upon to furnish illustrations of these observed vices of popular government. Those who care to see them fully exposed may be referred to the late Sir Henry Maine’s very able work on the subject. But to take one very recent instance: I do not say that the Conservative Government was wrong some few years ago to commence laying down the Quetta Railway with a view to improving our defences against the threatened Russian advance upon Afghanistan. And I do not here say that the Liberals were wrong to pull it up again; but I do say most emphatically that the country was wrong which permitted such a piece of extravagant fooling as the combination of the two acts. What would be thought of an employer of labour who set one gang of men to dig a hole and another gang to fill it up again? As we should regard this man, so the other civilised countries of Europe probably regard us. And are they not justified?

Instances might be cited in which democracies have gone nigh to committing political suicide, as for example where carried away by temporary enthusiasm or hero‐​worship they have voluntarily abdicated in favour of a dictator; arming him with sufficient powers to enable him to defy the quickly‐​repentant will of the people. Both Cicero and Tacitus, who knew something of democratic impulsiveness and instability, have been cited in favour of a mixed form of government…Either he [Brougham] fails to see, or he wilfully shuts his eyes to the price that must necessarily be paid for this complex arrangement. In order to perpetuate what he would call our present mixed form of democratic monarchy we must be prepared to stereotype what is left of caste among our people, we must respect hereditary privilege, we must arrest the growing tendency in the direction of civil equality. No; the advantages may be great, but the price is too high for an Englishman.

I have said that the strongest argument of all against pure democracy is the apparent absurdity of putting the reins of government into the hands of the most ignorant classes of the community. Is it expedient, feasible, or even safe to place the inexperienced masses (no fault of theirs) at the helm of the State? Recently we have extended the franchise to the agricultural labourer, and I ask any unprejudiced person whether he is honestly of opinion that Hodge is really qualified to make laws either immediately or vicariously? Would he accept Hodge’s ruling on a delicate question of morals? Is he prepared to lend a wistful and a wondering ear to the inspired utterances of the modern Elisha? “Vox populi vox Dei.” Good; but the voice of the people is not necessarily the howl of the numerical majority. Apart from all false sentiment, apart from mob flattery (the maudlin foible of the day), apart from democratic bias, everybody knows, and honest men admit, that Hodge’s several views on things in general are not of the most enlightened character. And I for one positively decline to submit passively to his dictation in all the numerous concerns of life which are usually regarded as falling within the province of the law‐​giver. Let us face this problem fairly and squarely. Not on the one hand by falling back in dismay into the arms of a doomed class despotism, nor on the other hand by falsely attributing to the uneducated or half‐​educated untold faculties of intuition which in our inmost hearts we know well they do not possess.

The art of legislation is a very difficult and complicated study; much more so than farming or boot‐​making for example. And yet, as has been remarked with amazement by thinkers of the weight of Socrates, Shakespeare, and Spencer, whereas a lifetime is required for the mastery of the humblest handicrafts, almost any ignorant busybody is credited with intuitively understanding that most intricate art, legislation. The sole qualifications of a past master seem to be noisy self‐​assertion, burning class‐​envy, and fanatical faith in some social nostrum. Were I to walk into an engine‐​room and point out to the engineer the intolerable waste of steam entailed by a hole in the boiler, and urge him promptly to stop it, he might turn upon me with some such reply as this: “Sir, that hole is called the safety‐​valve; if you would bring your mighty brain‐​power to bear on some subject with which previous study has qualified you to deal, without making an ass of yourself, you might be doing more good to the community and less harm to me. Good morning.” And yet this same engineer will walk into the great legislative laboratory where the complex parts of the machinery of State are forged, and with the serenest self‐​confidence take off his coat and set to work. What is the explanation of this anomalous state of things?

The functions of the legislator are twofold. Under a democratic system therefore the functions of the citizen are twofold; for every citizen is by hypothesis a legislator. The first is that of making laws; the second is that of safeguarding liberties. These are clearly two different functions. And I am at once prepared to admit and to contend that every citizen is not only morally justified but also morally bound to take his share in legislation so far as this duty of safeguarding his own liberty is concerned. The process of breaking his own fetters is a very different process from that of forging shackles for his neighbours. I am aware that the two are usually confounded and spoken of as though they were one and the same thing. But a very little reflection, is required to see that they are two very different things. It does not need a bootmaker to find out where the shoe pinches: the wearer is competent to do that. It takes a bootmaker to make a boot that will not pinch. Hence every citizen has a clear right to a voice in the legislature, if by that is meant the right to safeguard his own liberty against all law-makers—to see that no law is passed which infringes upon his own rights and liberties. And under a representative system it is the duty of the representative to see that no law is passed which infringes upon the rights of his constituents. That is his duty. Hodge, therefore, has as good a right as any other citizen to watch the course of legislation on his own behalf, and to move for the repeal of any existing law which unduly interferes with his freedom of action. This is surely a very different matter from worrying and harassing other people.

And here is another argument for democracy. The end, aim, and test of all government—such is human nature—is the welfare of the ruling class. All history proves it. Human nature is such that it is absolutely impossible to provide against it. Hence aristocracies always have made laws for the good of the aristocratic class, and only indirectly and mediately for the good of the whole people. When the whole people has the making of the laws, then the test of the laws is necessarily the welfare of the whole people. Bad laws may of course be passed, but they will tend to fall into abeyance and finally to perish. The welfare of the whole people being the object of those who have the making of the laws, a defective system has a tendency to readjust itself. Good institutions will survive; bad institutions will die. By a bad institution is meant bad for the ruling class—the law‐​making class. And that is the reason why it tends to perish. Little by little those who suffer from it come consciously to see or unconsciously to feel the true cause of the mischief, and to uproot it accordingly; just as our own upper‐​class rulers have learnt the harmfulness to their own order of many early laws of their own creation, and have, during the last five or six centuries, made great strides in the direction of freedom by removing many State restrictions which impeded their own liberty of action. These reforms have also incidentally benefited the whole people in many instances; but such was not, in truth, the end and cause of reform. As evidence of this it can be shown that that which is good for the aristocratic class is not always good for the people; but that so long as the ruling class actually does benefit by it as a class, so long it will continue to survive. And this constitutes a real danger for the people. A protective duty on corn did undoubtedly benefit the landowners, and its reimposition would undoubtedly benefit them now; and although the repeal of the corn‐​laws has been an unmixed blessing to the people, we may safely say that it would never have been brought about but for the swamping of the landowning vote by the Reform Act of 1832. The country might have suffered for years, but the stimulus to remove the evil did not exist in the class which then ruled the land.

If this reasoning be sound we have reached the conclusion that the democratic form of government is not only defensible, but also highly desirable, and even essential to social evolution; but the doctrine is subject to this qualification—that the function of the citizen is the safeguarding of his own liberties, and not the manufacture of restraints on the liberty of his fellows.

Each new layer added to the electorate seems to have to learn the lesson do novo that sweet as it is to bully others, it is sweeter still not to be bullied oneself. About thirty years ago the more powerful section of the ruling body had learnt the lesson thoroughly, or nearly so; but since then we have had two extensions of the franchise, and in each case it has become increasingly manifest that the lesson has been unlearnt by the new recruits. This we may regret; but it is a comfort to reflect that they are of the same metal as their predecessors. and will doubtless show an equal aptitude for self‐​government. They will speedily learn the great lesson of liberty. It is only an abundant faith in the destiny of the race, the fullest confidence in the stuff of which this people is made, and a reasoned conviction of the truth of the democratic principle, that can buoy any honest and thoughtful person up at the present time to help forward the popular movement. Indeed, some of the proposals emanating from the new contingent are so wild, so dishonest, so silly, and withal so impracticable, that it is no wonder if some of even the faithful begin to waver. Fortunately, in the conflict of opposing interests lies the salvation of liberty. The principle of true Liberalism is, in the words of Mr. Gladstone, “trust in the people, qualified by prudence; the principle of Conservatism is mistrust of the people, qualified by fear.” This is the true spirit of enlightened democratism. It is because of faith in the destiny of our race that we may look without dread on its temporary aberrations. We see that hitherto they have marched steadily forward, not without turnings and even backslidings, it is true, but still, in the long run, forward on the path of progress. Clinging to this faith we may look not with fear but with confidence to the indefinite extension of the franchise, in the belief that whatever may be the temptations held out to them by place‐​seekers and dishonest demagogues, there is ingrained in the inmost nature of Englishmen an inherited love of justice and a consuming zeal for freedom which, in the long run, must prevail.

There seem to be but three reasons which any one is justified in adducing for not accepting the democratic principle: 1. Because he does not know what is meant by the term. 2. Because he lacks faith in the destiny of his own people. 3. Because he is consciously actuated by class interest, and is a traitor to his country.