Friday, 1 July 2011

Sir Henry Sumner Maine on universal suffrage and referendums

From Popular Government (1886):

"Let us now suppose the competition of Parties... to have produced an electoral system under which every adult male has a vote, and perhaps every adult female.... There is hardly any experience of the way in which such a system would work, except in the eyes of those who believe that history began since their own birth.... But one of the strangest of vulgar ideas is that a very wide suffrage could or would promote progress, new ideas, new discoveries and inventions, new arts of life. Such a suffrage is commonly associated with Radicalism; and no doubt amid its most certain effects would be the extensive destruction of existing institutions; but the chances are that, in the long-run, it would produce a mischievous form of Conservatism.... For to what end, towards what ideal state, is the process of stamping upon law the average opinion of an entire community directed? The end arrived at is identical with that of the Roman Catholic Church, which attributes a similar sacredness to the average opinion of the Christian world. "Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus," was the canon of Vincent of Lerins. "Securus judicat orbis terrarum," were the words which rang in the ears of Newman.... But did anyone in his senses ever suppose that these were maxims of progress? The principles of legislation at which they point would probably put an end to all social and political activities, and arrest everything which has ever been associated with Liberalism.... Universal suffrage, which to-day excludes Free Trade from the United States, would certainly have prohibited the spinning-jenny and the power-loom. It would certainly have forbidden the threshing-machine. It would have prevented the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar; and it would have restored the Stuarts. It would have proscribed the Roman Catholics with the mob which burned Lord Mansfield's house and library in 1780, and it would have proscribed the Dissenters with the mob which burned Dr. Priestley's house and library in 1791.

There are possibly many persons who, without denying these conclusions in the past, tacitly assume that no such mistakes will be committed in the future, because the community is already too enlightened for them, and will become more enlightened through popular education. But without questioning the advantages of popular education under certain aspects, its manifest tendency is to diffuse popular common-places, to fasten them on the mind at the time when it is most easily impressed, and thus to stereotype average opinion. It is of course possible that universal suffrage would not now force on governments the same legislation which it would infallibly have dictated a hundred years ago; but then we are necessarily ignorant what germs of social and material improvement there may be in the womb of time, and how far they may conflict with the popular prejudice which hereafter will be omnipotent."

"The delusion that Democracy, when it has once had all things put under its feet, is a progressive form of government, lies deep in the convictions of a particular political school; but there can be no delusion grosser. It receives no countenance either from experience or from probability. Englishmen in the East come into contact with vast populations of high natural intelligence, to which the very notion of innovation is loathsome; and the very fact that such populations exist should suggest that the true diflference between the East and the West lies merely in this, that in Western countries there is a larger minority of exceptional persons who, for good reasons or bad, have a real desire for change. All that has made England famous, and all that has made England wealthy, has been the work of minorities, sometimes very small ones. It seems to me quite certain that, if for four centuries there had been a very widely extended franchise and a very large electoral body in this country, there would have been no reformation of religion, no change of dynasty, no toleration of Dissent, not even an accurate Calendar. The threshing-machine, the power-loom, the spinning-jenny, and possibly the steam-engine, would have been prohibited. Even in our day, vaccination is in the utmost danger, and we may say generally that the gradual establishment of the masses in power is of the blackest omen for all legislation founded on scientific opinion, which requires tension of mind to understand it and self-denial to submit to it.

The truth is, that the inherent difficulties of democratic government are so manifold and enormous that, in large and complex modem societies, it could neither last nor work if it were not aided by certain forces which are not exclusively associated with it, but of which it greatly stimulates the energy. Of these forces, the one to which it owes most is unquestionably Party."

This line of argument is still encountered today.  See, for example, the report on referendums in the UK of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution:

"45. Some witnesses viewed referendums less as a “protective device” than as a “conservative device”: a block on progress. Dr Blick asserted that in the UK, referendums were most often conceived of as “a means of placing a brake on certain developments”, such as European integration (p 110). Steve Richards told us that, with referendums, “the status quo can often seem more reassuring and less threatening than ... change” (Q 151).

46. Peter Kellner pointed out that, in Switzerland, women were not given the vote until 1971, because male voters had rejected votes for women in a referendum in 1959 (Q 43). Professor Williams stated that the Australian system, where a majority of states, as well as a majority of voters, are required to vote in favour of a change in order for a constitutional amendment to be carried, has made change to the constitution extremely difficult, if not impossible (p 150)."