To-day democracy takes the form of representative government in civilised countries; and for representative government contend the nations and peoples seeking democracy.
The weak spots in all popular electoral systems are obvious, and the election of representatives is always a subject for jokes and satire. It could hardly be otherwise. For the best machinery in the world needs some sort of sympathetic intelligence in the person who manipulates it, and the machinery of popular elections can only be worked successfully with a large measure of sincerity and good will. In the hands of the ambitious, the self-seeking, and the unscrupulous, democratic politics are a machine for frustrating popular representation, and as this state of things is always prevalent somewhere, the humorist and the satirist naturally treat politics without respect.
But in spite of all its faults and failings—glaring as these are—mankind can at present devise nothing better than representative government, and the abuse of power, the cunning, roguery, and corruption that too often accompany popular elections and democratic administration, rather stir honest men to action.
The present notion about representative government is that it makes possible the expression of popular will, and can ensure the fulfilment of that will. When we get the beginnings of representative government, there is no question of the people making positive proposals in legislation, but there is a distinct belief that the consent of the governed ought to be obtained by the ruling power.
The theory of a pact or contract between the Government and the people became the favourite assumption of political writers from the sixteenth century onward, and it was this theory that Rousseau popularised in his "Social Contract," the theory, too, which triumphed for a season in the French Revolution.
Primitive man was born with enlightened views on civil government, and that for the greater well-being of his tribe or nation he deposited the sovereign authority which belonged to himself, in a prince or king—or in some other form of executive government—retaining the right to withdraw his allegiance from the government if the authority is abused, and the contract which conferred sovereignty violated. It was not maintained that the contract was an actually written document; it was supposed to be a tacit agreement. The whole theory seems to have sprung from the study of Roman law and the constitutions of Athens and Sparta. Nothing was known of primitive man or of the beginnings of civilisation till the nineteenth century. The classical literature of Greece and Rome are all concerned with civilised, not primitive, man, and with slaves and "heathens" who are accounted less than men. The "sovereign people" of Athens and Sparta became the model of later republican writers, while choosing of a king sanctioned the idea that sovereignty was originally in the people.
Holding the great end of government to be happiness, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) made out that natural man lived in savage ill-will with his fellows. To secure some sort of decency and safety men combined together and surrendered all natural rights to a sovereign—either one man, or an assembly of men—and in return civil rights were guaranteed. But the sovereignty once established was supreme, and to injure it was to injure oneself, since it was composed of "every particular man." The sovereign power was unlimited, and was not to be questioned. Whether monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy was the form of government was unimportant because popular assemblies were unstable and apt to need dictators. Civil laws were the standard of right and wrong. Only when the safety of the state was threatened was rebellion justifiable.
At bottom, the objection to the theories of Hobbes is the same objection that must be taken to the theories of Locke and Rousseau. Society is the result of growth: it is not a fixed and settled community. Mankind proceeds experimentally in forms of government. To Hobbes and his followers, security of life and property was the one essential thing for mankind—disorder and social insecurity the things to be prevented at all cost. Now, this might be all very well but for evolution. Mankind cannot rest quietly under the strongest and most stable government in the world. It will insist on learning new tricks, on thinking new thoughts, and if it is not allowed to teach itself fresh habits, it will break out in revolt, and either the government will be broken or the subjects will wither away under the rule of repression.
John Locke (1632-1704) rejects Hobbes' view of the savagery of primitive man, and invents "a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance and preservation"—equally, as we know to-day, far from the truth. Locke's primitive men have a natural right to personal property—"as much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property"—but they are as worried and as fearful as Hobbes' savages. So they, too, renounce their natural rights in favour of civil liberty, and are happy when they have got "a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected on it."
According to Hobbes, once having set up a government, there was no possible justification for changing it—save national peril; and a bad government was to be obeyed rather than the danger of civil war incurred.
But Locke never allows the government to be more than the trustee of the people who placed it in power. It rules by consent of the community, and may be removed or altered when it violates its trust. Hobbes saw in the break-up of a particular government the dissolution of society. Locke made a great advance on this, for he saw that a change of government could be accomplished without any very serious disturbance in the order of society or the peace of a nation. Hobbes did not believe that the people could be trusted to effect a change of government, while Locke had to justify the change which had just taken place.
Mankind is compelled to adopt some form of government if it is to sleep at nights without fear of being murdered in its bed, or if it wishes to have its letters delivered by the postman in the morning. As the only purpose of government is to secure mutual protection, mankind must obey this government, or the purpose for which government exists will be defeated. But the powers of government must be strictly limited if this necessary consent of the governed is to continue, and if the government has ceased to retain the confidence that gives consent, then its form may be changed to some more appropriate shape.
The average man grumbles, but only under great provocation is he moved to violent political activity. As a nation, we have acknowledged the right of the majority to make the political changes that have brought in democracy, and we have accepted the changes loyally. Occasionally, since Locke, the delay of the government in carrying out the wishes of the majority has induced impatience, but, generally, the principle has been acted upon that government is carried on with the consent of the governed, and that the Parliamentary party which has received the largest number of votes has the authority from the people to choose its ministry, and to make laws that all must obey.
The power of the people is demonstrated by the free election of members of Parliament, and, therefore, democracy requires that its authority be obeyed by all who are represented in Parliament. There is no social contract between the voter and the government; but there is a general feeling that it is not so much participation in politics as the quiet enjoyment of the privileges of citizenship that obliges submission to the laws. The extension of the franchise was necessary whenever a body of people excluded from the electorate was conscious of being unrepresented and desired representation. Otherwise the consent of the voteless governed was obviously non-existent, and government was carried on in defiance of the absence of that consent.
Locke's influence has been less dynamic than static; it has helped to preserve a moderation in politics; to be content with piecemeal legislation, because to attempt too much might be to alienate the sympathies of the majority; to keep our political eye, so to speak, on the ebb and flow of public opinion—since it is public opinion that is the final court of appeal; to tolerate abuses until it is quite plain a great number of people are anxious to have the abuse removed; and above all to settle down in easy contentment under political defeat, and make the best of accomplished reforms, not because we like them, but because a Parliamentary majority has decreed them.
Locke's teaching has helped to produce a deference almost servile to political majorities and to public opinion, a reluctance to make any reform until public opinion has pronounced loudly and often in favour of reform, and an emphatic assurance that every reform enacted by Parliament is the unmistakable expression of the will of the people. Locke has discouraged us from hasty legislation and from political panics.
A return to nature, a harking back to an imaginary primitive happiness of mankind, the glorification of an ideal of simplicity and innocence,—supposed to have been the ideal of early politics—the restoration of a popular sovereignty built up on natural rights alleged to have been lost: these were the articles of faith Rousseau preached with passionate conviction in his "Discourses" and in the "Social Contract." Individual man was born naturally "free," and had become debased and enslaved by laws and civilisation. "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," is the opening sentence of the "Social Contract." The business of man was to recover the lost happiness of the childhood of the world, to bring back a golden age of liberty and equality. Locke's "state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance, and preservation" is to be the desire of nations.
We have learnt something of the struggle for existence in nature, something of the habits and customs of primitive man, and something of man's upward growth. But Locke and Rousseau were born before our limited knowledge of the history of man and his institutions had been learnt; before science, with patient research, had revealed a few incidents in the long story of man's ascent. While we can see the fallacy in all the eighteenth century teaching concerning the natural happiness of uncivilised man, we must at the same time remember it as a doctrine belonging to a pre-scientific era. The excuse in France, too, for its popularity was great. Civilisation weighed heavily on the nation. The whole country groaned under a misrule, and commerce and agriculture were crippled by the system of taxation. It seemed that France was impoverished to maintain a civilisation that only a few, and they not the most useful members of the community, could enjoy.
How mankind had passed from primitive freedom to civilised slavery neither Locke nor Rousseau inquired. "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," cries Rousseau. Any assembly or community of people necessarily involves mutual consideration and forbearance which are at once restrictive. Man is born with free will to work out political freedom or to consent to servitude. He is born to acquire by law political rights.
Rousseau's writings depicted, with a clearness that fascinated the reader, the contrast between the ideal state that man had lost and the present condition of society with its miseries and corruption; and by its explanation of the doctrines of a contract and the sovereignty of the people, suggested the way to end these miseries and corruptions. The "Social Contract" became the text-book of the men who made the French Revolution, and if the success of the Revolution is due to the teaching of Rousseau more than to that of any other French philosopher, the fruit of the Revolution are directly to be traced to his influence, and this in spite of Rousseau's deprecation of violence.
The one thing of permanent value in The "Social Contract" is the conception that the State represents the "general will" of the community. How that "general will" finds expression and gets its way is of great importance to democracy. Even more important is the nature of that "general will." Individualist as Rousseau was in his views about personal property (following Locke in an apparent ideal of peasant proprietorship), he insisted on the subjection of personal rights to the safety of the Commonwealth.
(From The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Rise of the Democracy, Chapter VI, by Joseph Clayton)