essays

1789

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice: Of National Assemblies

Legislators pretend to be wise, but the legislative process is ill suited to producing wisdom.

Editor’s Note

The United States Senate sometimes styles itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Whatever group actually deserves that title, I am quite certain it is not any sort of legislature. In this selection from his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, William Godwin turns his pen against the pretended wisdom of all national assemblies, but especially the legislature he was most familiar with, the British Parliament.

First, Godwin asks us to consider the effect of making those in the minority go along with the opinion of the majority. This veneer of unanimity debases everyone involved—especially those in the minority opinion. The deepest critics of an idea are made to become apologists for it. “Nothing,” says Godwin, “can more directly contribute to the depravation of the human understanding and character. It inevitably renders mankind timid, dissembling and corrupt.”

What is worse, one’s lodestar in legislative deliberation is not the truth of the matter, but rather political advantage:

In numerous assemblies, a thousand motives influence our judgments, independently of reason and evidence. Every man looks forward, to the effects which the opinions he avows, will produce on his success…This effect is strikingly visible in the present state of the British parliament, where men, whose faculties are comprehensive almost beyond all former example, may probably be found influenced by these motives, sincerely to espouse the grossest and most contemptible errors.

Being in the legislature, says Godwin, makes smart people endorse stupid ideas, because they think expressing those bad opinions will further their agendas. What could be less conducive to the spirit of honest inquiry?

Well, actually, it could be worse: instead of letting the debate reach a natural conclusion, you could artificially terminate the debate by voting, or as Godwin puts it, “that flagrant insult upon all reason and justice, the deciding upon truth by the casting up of numbers.” Because there is a deadline, people are incentivized to adopt persuasive strategies that are most effective in the short term. They are incentivized to appeal to the emotions of their fellow legislators and of the public, rather than their capacities for reason.

Finally, debate in legislatures is corrupted by the very idea of a unitary popular will, and the related idea of what Godwin calls “collective wisdom” and what we sometimes call “the wisdom of crowds.” Godwin takes a hard individualist line: there can be no idea expressed by a collective that cannot be attributed to them individually, and there is no good reason to think that individuals can be made wiser by having them act under the banner of “society.”

Legislative deliberation is the bane of virtue and anathema to truth.

Grant Babcock
Associate Editor

Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness

By William Godwin. 3rd Edition Corrected. London: G.G. and J. Robinson, Paternoster-Row. 1789.

Vol. II.

Book V

Chapter XXIII: Of National Assemblies

In the first place, the existence of a national assembly introduces the evils of a fictitious unanimity. The public, guided by such an assembly, must act with concert, or the assembly is a nugatory excrescence. But it is impossible that this unanimity can really exist. The individuals who constitute a nation, cannot take into consideration a variety of important questions, without forming different sentiments respecting them. In reality, all questions that are brought before such an assembly, are decided by a majority of votes, and the minority after having exposed, with all the power of eloquence, and force of reasoning, of which they are capable, the injustice and folly of the measures adopted, are obliged, in a certain sense, to assist in carrying them into execution. Nothing can more directly contribute to the depravation of the human understanding and character. It inevitably renders mankind timid, dissembling and corrupt. He that is not accustomed, exclusively to act upon the dictates of his own understanding, must fall inexpressibly short of that energy and simplicity of which our nature is capable. He that contributes his personal exertions, or his property, to the support of a cause which he believes to be unjust, will quickly lose that accurate discrimination, and nice sensibility of moral rectitude, which are the principal ornaments of reason.

Secondly, the existence of national councils, produces a certain species of real unanimity, unnatural in character, and pernicious in its effects. The genuine and wholesome state of mind is, to be unloosed from shackles, and to expand every fiber of its frame, according to the independent and individual impressions of truth upon that mind. How great would be the progress of intellectual improvement, if men were unfettered by the prejudices of education, unseduced by the influence of a corrupt state of society, and accustomed to yield without fear, to the guidance of truth, however unexplored might be the regions, and unexpected the conclusions, to which she conducted us? We cannot advance in the voyage of happiness, unless we be wholly at large upon the stream that would carry us thither: the anchor, that we first looked upon as the instrument of our safety, will, at last, be found to be the means of detaining our progress. Unanimity of a certain sort, is the result to which perfect freedom of enquiry is calculated to conduct us; and this unanimity would, in a state of perfect freedom, become hourly more conspicuous. But the unanimity, that results from men’s having a visible standard by which to adjust their sentiments, is deceitful and pernicious.

In numerous assemblies, a thousand motives influence our judgments, independently of reason and evidence. Every man looks forward, to the effects which the opinions he avows, will produce on his success. Every man connects himself with some sect or party. The activity of his thought is shackled, at every turn, by the fear, that his associates may disclaim him. This effect is strikingly visible in the present state of the British parliament, where men, whose faculties are comprehensive almost beyond all former example, may probably be found influenced by these motives, sincerely to espouse the grossest and most contemptible errors.

Thirdly, the debates of a national assembly are distorted from their reasonable tenor, by the necessity of their being uniformly terminated by a vote, Debate and discussion are, in their own nature, highly conducive to intellectual improvement; but they lose this salutary character, the moment they are subjected to this unfortunate condition. What can be more unreasonable, than to demand, that argument, the usual quality of which is gradually and imperceptibly to enlighten the mind, should declare its effect in the close of a single conversation? No sooner does this circumstance occur, than the whole scene changes its character. The orator no longer enquires after permanent conviction, but transitory effect. He seeks rather to take advantage of our prejudices, than to enlighten our judgment. That which might otherwise have been a scene of patient and beneficent enquiry, is changed into wrangling, tumult, and precipitation.

Another circumstance that arises out of the decision by vote, is the necessity of constructing a form of words, that shall best meet the sentiments, and be adapted to the preconceived ideas, of a multitude of men. What can be conceived, at once more ludicrous and disgraceful, than the spectacle of a set of rational beings, employed for hours together, in weighing particles, and adjusting commas? Such is the scene that is incessantly witnessed in clubs and private societies. In parliaments, this sort of business is usually adjusted, before the measure becomes a subject of public inspection. But it does not the less exist; and sometimes it occurs in the other mode, so that, when numerous amendments have been made to suit the corrupt interest of imperious pretenders, the Herculean task remains at last, to reduce the chaos into a grammatical and intelligible form.

The whole is then wound up, with that flagrant insult upon all reason and justice, the deciding upon truth by the casting up of numbers. Thus every thing, that we have been accustomed to esteem most sacred, is determined, at best, by the weakest heads in the assembly, but, as it not less frequently happens, through the influence of the most corrupt and dishonorable intentions.

In the last place, national assemblies will by no means be thought to deserve our direct approbation, if we recollect, for a moment, the absurdity of that fiction, by which society is considered, as it has been termed, as a moral individual. It is in vain that we endeavor to counteract the laws of nature and necessity. A multitude of men, after all our ingenuity, will still remain a multitude of men. Nothing can intellectually unite them, short of equal capacity and identical perception. So long as the varieties of mind shall remain, the force of society can no otherwise be concentrated, than by one man, for a shorter or longer term, taking the lead of the rest, and employing their force, whether material, or dependent on the weight of their character, in a mechanical manner, just as he would employ the force of a tool or a machine. All government corresponds, in a certain degree, to what the Greeks denominated a tyranny. The difference is that, in despotic countries, mind is depressed by an uniform usurpation; while in republics, it preserves a greater portion of its activity, and the usurpation more easily conforms itself to the fluctuations of opinion.

The pretence of collective wisdom is among the most palpable of all impostures. The acts of the society, can never rise above the suggestions of this or that individual, who is a member of it. Let us enquire whether society, considered as an agent, can really become the equal of certain individuals, of whom it is composed. And here, without staying to examine what ground we have to expect, that the wisest member of the society will actually take the lead in it, we find two obvious reasons to persuade us, that, whatever be the degree of wisdom inherent in him that really superintends, the acts which he performs in the name of the society, will be both less virtuous and less able, than the acts he might be expected to perform in a simpler and more unencumbered situation. In the first place, there are few men, who, with the conspicuousness of being able to cover their responsibility under the name of a society, will not venture upon measures, less direct in their motives, or less justifiable in the experiment, than they would have chosen to adopt in their own persons. Secondly, men who act under the name of a society, are deprived of that activity and energy, which may belong to them in their individual character. They have a multitude of followers to draw after them, whose humors they must consult, and to whose slowness of apprehension trey must accommodate themselves. It is for this reason that we frequently see men of the most elevated genius dwindle into vulgar leaders, when they become involved in the busy scenes of public life.

From these reasonings we seem sufficiently authorized to conclude, that national assemblies, or, in other words, assemblies instituted for the joint purpose of adjusting the differences between district and district, and of consulting respecting the best mode of repelling foreign invasion, however necessary to be had recourse to upon certain occasions, ought to be employed as sparingly as the nature of the case will admit. They should either never be elected but upon extraordinary emergencies, like the dictator of the ancient Romans, or else sit periodically, one day for example in a year, with a power of continuing their sessions within a certain limit, to hear the complaints and representations of their constituents. The former of these modes is greatly to be preferred. Several of the reasons already adduced, are calculated to show, that election itself is of a nature not to be employed, but when the occasion demands it. There would probably be little difficulty in suggesting expedients, relative to the regular originating of national assemblies. It would be most suitable to past habits and experience, that a general election should take place, whenever a certain number of districts demanded it. It would be most agreeable to rigid simplicity and equity, that an assembly of two or two hundred should take place, in exact proportion to the number of districts by whom that measure was desired.

It will scarcely be denied, that the objections which have been most loudly reiterated against democracy, become null in application to the form of government which has now been delineated. Here we shall with difficulty find an opening for tumult, for the tyranny of a multitude drunk with unlimited power, for political ambition on the part of the few, or restless jealousy and precaution on the part of the many. Here the demagogue would discover no suitable occasion, for rendering the multitude the blind instrument of his purposes. Men, in such a state of society, might be expected to understand their happiness, and to cherish it. The true reason why the mass of mankind has so often been made the dupe of knaves, has been the mysterious and complicated nature of the social system. Once annihilate the quackery of government, and the most homebred understanding might be strong enough to detect the artifices, of the state juggler that would mislead him.