It Ain’t Necessarily So

I’ve had absolutely nothing interesting or original to say for several days now. (This happens sometimes; even Rachmaninoff had almost nothing at all to say from 1897 to 1901.) So tonight I’m offering some excerpts from Sir Henry Sumner Maine’s Popular Government, published in 1885.

I’ve mentioned this book several times before. As “red pills” go it is one of the strongest, with an effect that will not wear off. If you, like most people, simply think it obvious that there is something special about Democracy, and that it stands head and shoulders above every other system not just practically but morally, this book should help you get over it. Above all, it will help you to understand that what we should want from government is to be governed well. Everything else is secondary, and as Sir Henry is at pains to point out often in his book, democracy is nothing more and nothing less than a form of government, one among many. As he remarked in his preface, “some assumptions commonly made on the subject must be discarded.”

These excerpts are taken from various places between pages 59 and 106. I have bolded some passages.

Democracy means properly a particular form of government. This truth … is the beginning of wisdom. There is no word about which a denser mist of vague language, and a larger heap of loose metaphors, has collected. Yet, although Democracy does signify something indeterminate, there is nothing vague about it. It is simply and solely a form of government. It is the government of the State by the Many, as opposed, according to the old Greek analysis, to its government by the Few, and to its government by One. The border between the Few and the Many, and again between the varieties of the Many, is necessarily indeterminate; but Democracy not the less remains a mere form of government; and, inasmuch as of these forms the most definite and determinate is Monarchy—the government of the State by one person—Democracy is most accurately described as inverted Monarchy.

… The successive French Republics have been nothing but the later French Monarchy, upside down. Similarly, the Constitutions and the legal systems of the several North American States, and of the United States, would be wholly unintelligible to anybody who did not know that the ancestors of the Anglo-Americans had once lived under a King, himself the representative of older Kings infinitely more autocratic, and who had not observed that throughout these bodies of law and plans of government the People had simply been put into the King’s seat, occasionally filling it with some awkwardness.

… Democracy, the government of the commonwealth by a numerous but indeterminate portion of the community taking the place of the Monarch, has exactly the same conditions to satisfy as Monarchy; it has the same functions to discharge, though it discharges them through different organs. The tests of success in the performance of the necessary and natural duties of a government are precisely the same in both cases. Thus in the very first place, Democracy, like Monarchy, like Aristocracy, like any other government, must preserve the national existence. The first necessity of a State is that it should be durable. Among mankind regarded as assemblages of individuals, the gods are said to love those who die young; but nobody has ventured to make such an assertion of States. The prayers of nations to Heaven have been, from the earliest ages, for long national life, life from generation to generation, life prolonged far beyond that of children’s children, life like that of the everlasting hills. The historian will sometimes speak of governments distinguished for the loftiness of their aims, and the brilliancy of the talents which they called forth, but doomed to an existence all too brief. The compliment is in reality a paradox, for in matters of government all objects are vain and all talents wasted, when they fail to secure national durability. One might as well eulogise a physician for the assiduity of his attendance and the scientific beauty of his treatment, when the patient has died under his care. Next perhaps to the paramount duty of maintaining national existence, comes the obligation incumbent on Democracies, as on all governments, of securing the national greatness and dignity. Loss of territory, loss of authority, loss of general respect, loss of self-respect, may be unavoidable evils, but they are terrible evils, judged by the pains they inflict and the elevation of the minds by which these pains are felt; and the Government which fails to provide a sufficient supply of generals and statesmen, of soldiers and administrators, for the prevention and cure of these evils, is a government which has miscarried. It will also have miscarried, if it cannot command certain qualities which are essential to the success of national action. In all their relations with one another (and this is a fundamental assumption of International law) States must act as individual men. The defects which are defects in individual men, and perhaps venial defects, are faults in States, and generally faults of the extremest gravity. In all war and all diplomacy, in every part of foreign policy, caprice, wilfulness, loss of selfcommand, timidity, temerity, inconsistency, indecency, and coarseness, are weaknesses which rise to the level of destructive vices; and if Democracy is more liable to them than are other forms of government, it is to that extent inferior to them.

… If we turn from the foreign to the domestic duties of a nation, we shall find the greatest of them to be, that its government should compel obedience to the law, criminal and civil. The vulgar impression no doubt is, that laws enforce themselves. Some communities are supposed to be naturally law-abiding, and some are not. But the truth is (and this is a commonplace of the modern jurist) that it is always the State which causes laws to be obeyed. It is quite true that this obedience is rendered by the great bulk of all civilised societies without an effort and quite unconsciously. But that is only because, in the course of countless ages, the stern discharge of their chief duty by States has created habits and sentiments which save the necessity for penal interference, because nearly everybody shares them.

If any government should be tempted to neglect, even for a moment, its function of compelling obedience to law—if a Democracy, for example, were to allow a portion of the multitude of which it consists to set some law at defiance which it happens to dislike—it would be guilty of a crime which hardly any other virtue could redeem, and which century upon century might fail to repair.

On the whole, the dispassionate student of politics, who has once got into his head that Democracy is only a form of government, who has some idea of what the primary duties of government are, and who sees the main question, in choosing between them, to be which of them in the long-run best discharges these duties, has a right to be somewhat surprised at the feelings which the advent of Democracy excites.

… Of all the forms of government, Democracy is by far the most difficult. The greatest, most permanent, and most fundamental of all the difficulties of Democracy, lies deep in the constitution of human nature. Democracy is a form of government, and in all governments acts of State are determined by an exertion of will. But in what sense can a multitude exercise volition? The student of politics can put to himself no more pertinent question than this. No doubt the vulgar opinion is, that the multitude makes up its mind as the individual makes up his mind; the Demos determines like the Monarch. A host of popular phrases testify to this belief. The “will of the People,” “public opinion,” the “sovereign pleasure of the nation,” “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” belong to this class, which indeed constitutes a great part of the common stock of the platform and the press. But what do such expressions mean? They must mean that a great number of people, on a great number of questions, can come to an identical conclusion, and found an identical determination upon it. But this is manifestly true only of the simplest questions. A very slight addition of difficulty at once sensibly diminishes the chance of agreement, and, if the difficulty be considerable, an identical opinion can only be reached by trained minds assisting themselves by demonstration more or less rigorous. On the complex questions of politics, which are calculated in themselves to task to the utmost all the powers of the strongest minds, but are in fact vaguely conceived, vaguely stated, dealt with for the most part in the most haphazard manner by the most experienced statesmen, the common determination of a multitude is a chimerical assumption; and indeed, if it were really possible to extract an opinion upon them from a great mass of men, and to shape the administrative and legislative acts of a State upon this opinion as a sovereign command, it is probable that the most ruinous blunders would be committed, and all social progress would be arrested. The truth is, that the modern enthusiasts for Democracy make one fundamental confusion. They mix up the theory, that the Demos is capable of volition, with the fact, that it is capable of adopting the opinions of one man or of a limited number of men, and of founding directions to its instruments upon them.

That’s enough for now, I think. If your system seems to tolerate it well, you may increase the dosage at your pleasure; for now, at least, this stuff is still available over the counter.

Related content from Sphere


  1. If any government should be tempted to neglect, even for a moment, its function of compelling obedience to law—if a Democracy, for example, were to allow a portion of the multitude of which it consists to set some law at defiance which it happens to dislike—it would be guilty of a crime which hardly any other virtue could redeem, and which century upon century might fail to repair.

    Consider the near-equivalence of the expression “century upon century” and the word “millennium”. Then who, among the well-known government officials of our time, has already committed numerous millennial crimes? Take your time.

    Hint #1: This is not a trick question.

    Hint #2: The answer should be obvious to anyone with an IQ higher than room temperature.

    Posted March 26, 2016 at 10:25 pm | Permalink
  2. djf says

    Maine’s points are well taken. The problem we have, however, is that the elites, political and otherwise, who in fact exercise power in nominally republican polities throughout the West, have gone insane. These are the same elites who would presumably continue to rule if we got rid of the surviving democratic trappings of our system. So I think the problem the West faces is more fundamental than a bad political system. Our culture seems to have become suicidally rotten. I don’t think this was a problem that yet existed in the English speaking world of Main’s time, notwithstanding all the corruption, injustice and bad governance of those days.

    Posted March 27, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    I think the problem the West faces is more fundamental than a bad political system. Our culture seems to have become suicidally rotten.

    It has. The disease hadn’t really begun to take hold in Maine’s time. The viruses had already been introduced, but the infection had barely spread, and our civilization’s immune system was not yet seriously compromised.

    Posted March 27, 2016 at 9:03 pm | Permalink
  4. djf says

    As I think you have noted, Malcolm, the virus has long since turned our civilization’s immune system against the healthy parts of the organism. We now have a civilizational auto-immune disorder.

    One can debate about when the virus was first introduced. I’m not sure I agree that the Puritans were the source. But I agree that the virus was present by Maine’s time, in which period a decadent elite counterculture became evident.

    Posted March 27, 2016 at 9:53 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    No, djf, the Puritans weren’t the source; they were the vector. The source is first the radically antihierarchical and profoundly entropic Reformation, followed by the radical skepsis of the Enlightenment. The latter is what gradually ate away the final basis of all hierarchy and order, namely belief in God.

    From there the religious impulse of the Puritans, deracinated and secularized but retaining its missionary urge and its ostentatious virtue, began its long series of crusades: abolitionism, women’s suffrage, Prohibition, civil rights, the “sexual revolution”, feminism, pacifism, abortion, environmentalism, and, lately, multiculturalism, gun control, “white privilege”, and “climate change”.

    Posted March 27, 2016 at 10:04 pm | Permalink
  6. djf says

    The Puritans arose before the Enlightenment, of course. Your writing could be misconstrued to reverse the order, which I’m sure you didn’t intend.

    I am familiar with the argument about the Puritans’ role that you summarize here, Malcolm. I’m somewhat skeptical about it – virtue signaling, for example, seems to be a common feature of all developed cultures (it is endemic in traditional religious Jewish cultures, for example), and is not pernicious if the “virtue” being signaled is really a virtue (as in expensive charity events). And, maybe I’m mistaken, but I’m not so sure that the Puritans, at least in New England, were such great missionaries – my understanding is that they were primarily concerned with the rectitude of people who were already part of their communities. In the Americas, my understanding is that the Catholics and Anglicans were much more concerned with converting the Indians.

    Of course, if the source of the virus is the Reformation, the source of the Reformation itself was philosophical nominalism that arose after Aquinas, so maybe that the was the ultimate culprit. In any event, I think exactly what went wrong, when, and where, is something that can reasonably be debated.

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 12:13 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    The Puritans arose before the Enlightenment, of course. Your writing could be misconstrued to reverse the order, which I’m sure you didn’t intend.

    You’re right, I didn’t. Thanks. And of course you’re right that virtue-signalling is not in any way exclusive to Puritans; it’s pretty much universal. One has to carefully trace the expanding influence of New England on American political and social history (as, for example, George McKenna does here) to begin to suspect the Puritans as the vector of this highly mutated virus.

    As for being “missionaries”, the Puritans saw themselves as chosen by God for an “errand into the wilderness” (see, for example, this 1670 sermon by Samuel Danforth. They had a job to do, namely to instantiate God’s kingdom on Earth. (If this reminds you of the Dar al-Islam and the Dar al-Harb, I shouldn’t be at all surprised.)

    And the mission continues.

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    I think exactly what went wrong, when, and where, is something that can reasonably be debated.

    Well, sure. I’m just describing what seem to me to be the most likely suspects. And we are talking about awfully complicated systems here.

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  9. …, is something that can reasonably be debated.

    To what benefit, I wonder, other than for historical curiosity?

    I’m just asking …

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    For at least two reasons, Henry:

    1) Because what’s wrong with historical curiosity? (You sound like an applied mathematician talking about theoretical mathematicians.)

    2) Because to know how a disease can be treated, or prevented in future, you need an accurate diagnosis.

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  11. Nothing at all wrong with curiosity, Malcolm. I did not mean to imply that there was. I was just curious what other benefits there might be.

    What’s wrong with applied mathematicians (not that I am one)? As it happens, I was in the Applied Theoretical Physics Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and we did, in fact, talk to one another without rancor.

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    The “Applied Theoretical” division?

    Well, having squared that circle (mirabile dictu), I can see why you might have found my comment puzzling.

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  13. Yes, that was its official title. Within this division, there were sub-divisions, known as “groups”, which focused more on either applied or on theoretical issues, but which engaged to some extent in both.

    Wherefore the sarcasm, Malcolm?

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Not sarcasm at all, just wonderment.

    The tension between applied and theoretical science, or math is not new; Faraday is supposed to have been asked about what possible use his electromagnetic inquiries could ever be put to, and of course non-Euclidean geometry received its fair share of scorn before we realized what it was good for.

    That there was such a division at LANL does make perfectly good sense, of course.

    Your question about why one might study the antecedent causes of our political decline reminded me of the question put to Faraday. “Pure” understanding often has unforeseen practical uses and benefits, and I believe this is as true with regard to history as it is for science and mathematics.

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  15. I see. The expression of wonderment precludes the possibility of sarcasm in the manner that it is expressed. I’m glad we have squared that circle.

    In asking my question (and I was just asking) I did not refer to the word “study” but to the word “debate”. These two words are not synonyms. In my opinion, study is always a good thing (or at least not a bad thing). Whether or not debate is is debatable (also in my opinion).

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 4:17 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    In my opinion debate is helpful, or even essential, for sharpening questions and finding weaknesses in one’s models.

    It’s useless, though, where there isn’t enough common ground for productive discussion. (These comment pages contain some splendid and instructive examples of that, as I am sure you recall.)

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  17. OK, Malcolm. I accept that as a productive response to my original question, which I assure you was asked without insinuation.

    If I may add (without insinuating that you are not already aware of what I’m about to say) I have been among the early adopters of online communication (especially email). It became very clear to me from the start that face-to-face communication is capable of transmitting a richness of nuance that “faceless” communication is incapable of achieving — because body English is not available. This is why emoticons were invented though they are woefully inadequate to the task.

    This is why it is usually inadvisable to infer too much from what is written (or not written) in email or in commentary such as this.

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  18. antiquarian says

    Thanks for the tip-off; I’m always in the market for 19th century political and philosophical theorizing, and Maine’s is a new one to me. It really is amazing how much of today’s world began back then.

    I will remark, though, that for a strong “red pill”, at least upon economic issues, one cannot beat Frederic Bastiat.

    Posted March 28, 2016 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  19. Whitewall says

    “one cannot beat Frederic Bastiat.” Now you’re talking! “The Law” is an excellent little booklet. I have my own copy. His day in France is eerily similar to our time in America.

    Posted March 29, 2016 at 8:33 am | Permalink