Wednesday, March 1, 2017

James Fitzjames Stephen on democracy

The main thrust of Jame Fitzjames Stephen's book, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, was a critique of John Stuart Mill's views from the position of orthodox Utilitarianism.  But Stephen's own views shifted markedly from the orthodox Benthamite position over time.  In March 1867, contemplating the Reform Act being considered by Parliament, he wrote:
"Our case is that the interests of all classes are substantially identical; that the existence of masses of wealth is essential to the employment of labour, and that realized capital forms the fund by which labour is supported and want relieved; that the existence of a large class which has leisure enough to learn to think, to insist upon all that we mean by refinement, and into which any one may by industry and good conduct earn an entrance for himself and his family, is essential not merely as a stimulus to industry, but for the purpose of conducting public business; and these facts, we further say, are as well known to the poor as to the rich, and as little likely to be forgotten or undervalued by them. They are and ought to be regarded as the natural friends and supporters of wealth and education, the willing and intelligent critics and followers of those who possess them. In a word, we regard the whole nation as an organized body, capable, to use Milton’s splendid language, "of the greatest designs that can be attempted to make a church or kingdom happy." Taking this view, it appears to us undignified, cowardly, and narrow-minded in the extreme for the upper classes to be looking out for substitutes for rotten boroughs, and to be admitting that they are altogether incompetent to the task of leading, persuading, and heading a majority. The justification, and the only possible justification, for their existence is that they are the natural leaders of the nation, the natural friends, instructors, and representatives of the poor. They are the officers of the regiment freely chosen by the men, who, as a matter of fact, actually do, and from the nature of things must, have in their hands the final and unquestionable sanction of physical force. Let them try to fill this position worthily, let them, really believe and act on the belief that they are not a privileged minority, but the natural leaders of the majority, and they will find their whole position infinitely strengthened and improved. They will be what they are and always have been, but their power will be held by a more secure tenure, and will rest on a broader basis. What they have to do is to lead the majority, not to admit themselves to form a minority. If they take the first course, they will constitute a natural aristocracy. If they take the second, they will degenerate into a paltry and narrow-minded clique. Nothing is so narrow, so bigoted, so essentially inaccessible to reason as a minority artificially invested with political power."
Leslie Stephen believed his brother "a good deal corrupted by old Carlyle."  Indeed, a few months after this piece was published, contemplating an article Thomas Carlyle on the topic, the tone of his views appear to have shifted substantially.
"The point on which we should be most inclined to agree with Mr. Carlyle is the unfitness of the bulk of the population and of any Government representing them for carrying out arduous schemes in the teeth of difficulties and in spite of opposition by systematic and careful legislation. The essence of legislation by a majority of the whole nation is to let people do as they like as much as possible, and to take a minimum of trouble. Such a democracy as we should have in England would have very little faith in legislation. They would simply turn their backs upon the devices for improving and governing the world which require constant adjustment and elaborate care, and the thing to apprehend would be that, after getting their elbows entirely free, they would settle down in a stolid, rather sluttish condition of ease and indifference. It may well be the destiny of the British empire under its new rulers to dwindle down by degrees to the condition of a larger Holland, prosperous and insignificant."
Yet, at an analytic level, Fitzjames Stephen was consistent in the Tocquevillian belief that: "Democracy is not a form of government, but a state of society" -- arguing that:
"The real importance of Reform Bills and other constitutional changes in countries in which the broad principles of legal government and equal legal rights are fully recognized, consists not in the fact that they alter its distribution of political power, but in the fact that they render its working safe and regular, and provide a legal channel for its exercise."

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