One of the worst moral evils that grow up in democratic countries is the excessive tendency to time-serving and popularity hunting, and the danger is all the greater because in a certain sense both of these things are a necessity and even a duty. Their moral quality depends mainly on their motive. The question to be asked is whether a politician is acting from personal or merely party objects or from honourable public ones. Every statesman must form in his own mind a conception whether a prevailing tendency is favourable or opposed to the real interests of the country. It will depend upon this judgment whether he will endeavour to accelerate or retard it; whether he will yield slowly or readily to its pressure, and there are cases in which, at all hazards of popularity and influence, he should inexorably oppose it. But in the long run, under free governments, political systems and measures must be adjusted to the wishes of the various sections of the people, and this adjustment is the great work of statesmanship. In judging a proposed measure a statesman must continually ask himself whether the country is ripe for it—whether its introduction, however desirable it might be, would not be premature, as public opinion is not yet prepared for it?—whether, even though it be a bad measure, it is not on the whole better to vote for it, as the nation manifestly desires it?
In aristocratic governments such as existed in England during the eighteenth century, temptations to corruption were especially strong. To build up a vast system of parliamentary influence by rotten boroughs, and, by systematically bestowing honours on those who could control them, to win the support of great corporations and professions by furthering their interests and abstaining from all efforts to reform them, was a chief part of the statecraft of the time. Class privileges in many forms were created, extended and maintained, and in some countries—though much less in England than on the Continent—the burden of taxation was most inequitably distributed, falling mainly on the poor.
In democratic governments the temptations are of a different kind. Popularity is there the chief source of power, and the supreme tribunal consists of numbers counted by the head. The well-being of the great mass of the people is the true end of politics, but it does not necessarily follow that the opinion of the least instructed majority is the best guide to obtaining it. Party leaders measure legislation mainly by its immediate popularity, and its consequent success in adding to his voting strength. In some countries this tendency shows itself in lavish expenditure on public works which provide employment for great masses of workmen and give a great immediate popularity in a constituency, leaving to posterity a heavy burden of accumulated debt. Much of the financial embarrassment of Europe is due to this source, and in most countries extravagance in government expenditure is more popular than economy. Sometimes it shows itself in a legislation which regards only proximate or immediate effects, and wholly neglects those which are distant and obscure. A far-sighted policy sacrificing the present to a distant future becomes more difficult; measures involving new principles, but meeting present embarrassments or securing immediate popularity, are started with little consideration for the precedents they are establishing and for the more extensive changes that may follow in their train. The conditions of labour are altered for the benefit of the existing workmen, perhaps at the cost of diverting capital from some great form of industry, making it impossible to resist foreign competition, and thus in the long run restricting employment and seriously injuring the very class who were to have been benefited.
When one party has introduced a measure of this kind the other is under the strongest temptation to outbid it, and under the stress of competition and through the fear of being distanced in the race of popularity both parties often end by going much further than either had originally intended. When the rights of the few are opposed to the interests of the many there is a constant tendency to prefer the latter. It may be that the few are those who have built up an industry; who have borne all the risk and cost, who have by far the largest interest in its success. The mere fact that they are the few determines the bias of the legislators. There is a constant disposition to tamper with even clearly defined and guaranteed rights if by doing so some large class of voters can be conciliated.
Parliamentary life has many merits, but it has a manifest tendency to encourage short views. The immediate party interest becomes so absorbing that men find it difficult to look greatly beyond it. The desire of a skilful debater to use the topics that will most influence the audience before him, or the desire of a party leader to pursue the course most likely to be successful in an immediately impending contest, will often override all other considerations, and the whole tendency of parliamentary life is to concentrate attention on landmarks which are not very distant, thinking little of what is beyond.
There are other temptations of a different kind with which party leaders have to deal. One of the most serious is the tendency to force questions for which there is no genuine desire, in order to restore the unity or the zeal of a divided or dispirited party. As all politicians know, the desire for an attractive programme and a popular election cry is one of the strongest in politics, and, as they also know well, there is such a thing as manufactured public opinion and artificially stimulated agitation. Questions are raised and pushed, not because they are for the advantage of the country, but simply for the purposes of party. The leaders have often little or no power of resistance. The pressure of their followers, or of a section of their followers, becomes irresistible; ill-considered hopes are held out; rash pledges are extorted, and the party as a whole is committed. Much premature and mischievous legislation may be traced to such causes.
Another very difficult question is the manner in which governments should deal with the acts of public servants which are intended for the public service, but which in some of their parts are morally indefensible. Very few of the great acquisitions of nations have been made by means that were absolutely blameless, and in a great empire which has to deal with uncivilised or semi-civilised populations acts of violence are certain to be not infrequent. Neither in our judgments of history nor in our judgments of contemporaries is it possible to apply the full stringency of private morals to the cases of men acting in posts of great responsibility and danger amid the storms of revolution, or panic, or civil war. With the vast interests confided to their care, and the terrible dangers that surround them, measures must often be taken which cannot be wholly or at least legally justified. On the other hand, men in such circumstances are only too ready to accept the principle of Macchiavelli and of Napoleon, and to treat politics as if they had absolutely no connection with morals.
the primary duty of every statesman is to his own country. His task is to secure for many millions of the human race the highest possible amount of peace and prosperity, and a selfishness is at least not a narrow one which, while abstaining from injuring others, restricts itself to promoting the happiness of a vast section of the human race. Sacrifices and dangers which a good man would think it his clear duty to accept if they fell on himself alone wear another aspect if he is acting as trustee for a great nation and for the interests of generations who are yet unborn. Nothing is more calamitous than the divorce of politics from morals, but in practical politics public and private morals will never absolutely correspond. The public opinion of the nation will inevitably inspire and control its statesmen. It creates in all countries an ethical code which with greater or less perfection marks out for them the path of duty, and though a great statesman may do something to raise its level, he can never wholly escape its influence. In different nations it is higher or lower—in truthfulness and sincerity of diplomacy the variations are very great—but it will never be the exact code on which men act in private life. It is certainly widely different from the Sermon on the Mount.
In domestic as in foreign politics the maintenance of a high moral standard in statesmanship is impossible unless the public opinion of the country is in harmony with it. Moral declension in a nation is very swiftly followed by a corresponding decadence among its public men, and it will indeed be generally found that the standard of public men is apt to be somewhat lower than that of the better section of the public outside. They are exposed to very special temptations.
The constant habit of regarding questions with a view to party advantage, to proximate issues, to immediate popularity, which is inseparable from parliamentary government, can hardly fail to give some ply to the most honest intellect. Most questions have to be treated more or less in the way of compromise; and alliances and coalitions not very conducive to a severe standard of political morals are frequent.
every parliament contains its notorious agitators, intriguers and self-seekers, men who have been connected with acts which may or may not have been brought within the reach of the criminal law, but have at least been sufficient to stamp their character in the eyes of honest men. Such men cannot be neglected in party combinations. Political leaders must co-operate with them in the daily intercourse and business of parliamentary life—must sometimes ask them favours—must treat them with deference and respect. Men who on some subjects and at some times have acted with glaring profligacy, on others act with judgment, moderation and even patriotism, and become useful supporters or formidable opponents. Combinations are in this way formed which are in no degree wrong, but which tend to dull the edge of moral perception and imperceptibly to lower the standard of moral judgment. In the swift changes of the party kaleidoscope the bygone is soon forgotten. The enemy of yesterday is the ally of to-day; the services of the present soon obscure the misdeeds of the past; and men insensibly grow very tolerant not only of diversities of opinion, but also of gross aberrations of conduct. The constant watchfulness of external opinion is very necessary to keep up a high standard of political morality.
Public opinion, it is true, is by no means impeccable. The tendency to believe that crimes cease to be crimes when they have a political object, and that a popular vote can absolve the worst crimes, is only too common; there are few political misdeeds which wealth, rank, genius or success will not induce large sections our society to pardon, and nations even in their best moments will not judge acts which are greatly for their own advantage with the severity of judgment that they would apply to similar acts of other nations. But when all this is admitted, it still remains true that there is a large body of public opinion which carries into all politics a sound moral sense and which places a just and righteous policy higher than any mere party interest. It is on the power and pressure of this opinion that the high character of our government must ultimately depend.
(Excerpts from The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Map of Life, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky, E-text prepared by Delphine Lettau, Martin Pettit,
and the Project Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team)