The text is taken from my copy of the fourth edition, 1842. This version of Political Justice, originally published in 1793, is based on the corrected third edition, published in 1798.
OF OPINION CONSIDERED AS A SUBJECT OF POLITICAL INSTITUTION
GENERAL EFECTS OF THE POLITICAL SUPERINTENDENCE OF OPINION
Arguments in favour of this superintendence.
-- Answer. -- The exertions of society in its
corporate capacity are, 1. unwise -- 2. incapable
of proper effect. -- Of sumptuary laws, agrarian
laws and rewards. -- Of spies. -- Political degen-
racy not incurable. -- 3. superfluous -- in com-
merce -- in speculative enquiry -- in morality --
4- pernicious -- as undermining the 'best
qualities of the mind -- as hostile to its future
improvement. -- Conclusion.
A PRINCIPLE which has entered deeply into the systems of the writers on political law is that of the duty of governments to watch over the manners of the people. 'Government, say they, 'plays the part of an unnatural step mother, not of an affectionate parent, when she is contented by rigorous punishments to avenge the commission of a crime, while she is wholly inattentive beforehand to imbue the mind with those virtuous principles which might have rendered punishment unnecessary. It is the business of a sage and patriotic magistracy to have its attention ever alive to the sentiments of the people, to encourage such as are favourable to virtue, and to check, in the bud, such as may lead to disorder and corruption.
How long shall government be employed to display its terrors without ever having recourse to the gentleness of invitation? How long shall she deal in retrospect and censure to the utter neglect of prevention and remedy?' These reasonings have, in some respects, gained additional strength by means of the latest improvements, and clearest views, upon the subject of political truth. It is now more evident than it was in any former period that government, instead- of being an object of secondary consideration, has been the principal vehicle of extensive and permanent evil to mankind. It was unavoidable therefore to say 'since government can produce so much positive mischief, surely it can do some positive good'.
But these views, however specious and agreeable they may in the first instance appear, are liable to very serious question. If we would not be seduced by visionary good, we ought here, more than ever, to recollect the fundamental principles laid down and illustrated in the work, 'that government is, in all cases, an evil', and 'that it ought to be introduced as sparingly as possible'. Man is a species of being whose excellence depends upon his individuality; and who can be neither great nor wise but in proportion as he is independent.
But, if we would shut up government within the narrowest practicable limits, we must beware how we let it loose in the field of opinion. Opinion is the castle, or rather the temple, of human nature; and, if it be polluted, there is no longer anything sacred or venerable in sublunary existence.
In treating of the subject of political obedience,1 we settled, perhaps with some degree of clearness, the line of demarcation between the contending claims of the individual and of the community. We found that the species of obedience which sufficiently discharged the claims of the community was that which is paid to force, and not which is built upon a sentiment of deference; and that this species of obedience was, beyond all others, least a source of degeneracy in him that paid it. But, upon this hypothesis, whatever exterior compliance is yielded, opinion remains inviolate.
Here then we perceive in what manner the purposes of government may be answered, and the independence of the individual suffer the smallest degree of injury. We are shown how government, which is, in all cases, an evil, may most effectually be limited as to the noxiousness of its influence.
But, if this line be overstepped, if opinion be rendered a topic of political superintendence, we are immediately involved in a slavery to which no imagination of man can set a termination. The hopes of our improvement are arrested; for government fixes the mercurialness of man to an assigned station. We can no longer enquire or think; for enquiry and thought are uncertain in their direction, and unshackled in their termination. We sink into motionless inactivity and the basest cowardice; for our thoughts and words are beset on every side with penalty and menace.
It is not the business of government, as will more fully appear in the sequel, to become the preceptor of its subjects. Its office is not to inspire our virtues, that would be a hopeless task; it is merely to check those excesses which threaten the general security.
But, though this argument ought perhaps to be admitted as sufficiently decisive of the subject under consideration, and cannot be set aside but upon grounds that would invalidate all the reasonings of this work, yet the prejudice in favour of the political superintendence of opinion has, with some persons, been so great, and the principle, in some of its applications, has been stated with such seeming plausibility, as to make it necessary that we should follow it in these applications, and endeavour in each instance to expose its sophistry.
In the meantime it may not be improper to state some further reasons in confirmation of the general unfitness of government as a superintendent of opinion.
One of these may be drawn from the view we have recently taken of society considered as an agent.2 A multitude of men may be feigned to be an individual, but'they cannot become a real individual. The acts which go under the name of the society are really the acts now of one single person and now of another. The men who by turns usurp the name of the whole perpetually act under the pressure of encumbrances that deprive them of their true energy. They are fettered by the prejudices, the humours, the weakness and the vice of those with whom they act; and, after a thousand sacrifices to these contemptible interests, their project comes out at last, distorted in every joint, abortive and monstrous. Society therefore, in its corporate capacity, can by no means be busy and intrusive with impunity, since its acts must be expected to be deficient in wisdom.
Secondly, they will not be less deficient in efficacy than they are in wisdom. The object at which we are supposing them to aim is to improve the opinions, and through them the manners, of mankind; for manners are nothing but opinions carried out into action: such as is the fountain, such will be the streams that are supplied from it. But what is it upon which opinion must be founded? Surely upon evidence, upon the perceptions of the understanding. Has society then any particular advantage, in its corporate capacity, for illuminating the understanding? Can it convey, into its addresses and expostulations a compound or sublimate of the wisdom of all its members, superior in quality to the individual wisdom of any? If so, why have not societies of men written treatises of morality, of the philosophy of nature, or the philosophy of mind? Why have all the great steps of human improvement been the work of individuals?
If then society, considered as an agent, have no particular advantage for enlightening the understanding, the real difference between the dicta of society and the dicta of individuals must be looked for in the article of authority. But authority is, by the very nature of the case, inadequate to the task it assumes to perform. Man is the creature of habit and judgment; and the empire of the former of these, though not perhaps more absolute, is one at least more conspicuous. The most efficacious instrument I can possess for changing a man's habits is to change his judgments. Even this instrument will seldom produce a sudden, though, when brought into full operation, it is perhaps sure of producing a gradual revolution. But this mere authority can never of. Where it does most in changing the characters of men, it only changes them into base and despicable slaves. Contending against the habits of entire society, it can do nothing. It excites only contempt of its frivolous endeavours. If laws were a sufficient means for the reformation of error and vice, it is not to be believed but that the world, long ere this, would have become the seat of every virtue. Nothing can be more easy than to command men to be just and good to love their neighbours, to practise universal sincerity, to be content with a little, and to resist the enticements of avarice and ambition. But, when we have done, will the actions of men be altered by our precepts? These commands have been decreed that every man should be hanged that violated them, it is vehemently to be suspected that this would not have secured their influence.
But it will be answered 'that laws need not deal thus in generals, but may descend to particular provisions calculated to secure their success. We may institute sumptuary laws, limiting the expense of our citizens in dress and food. We may institute agrarian laws forbidding any man proclaim prizes as the rewire of acts of justice, benevolence and public virtue'. And, when we have done this, how far are we really advanced in our career? If the people are previously inclined to moderation of expense, the walls are a superfluous parade. If they are not inclined, who shall execute them, or prevent their evasion? It is the misfortune in these cases that regulations cannot be executed but by the individuals of that very people they are meant to restrain. If the nation at large be infested with vice, who shall secure us a succession of magistrates that are free from the contagion? Even if we could surmount this difficulty, still it would be vain. Vice is ever more ingenious in evasion than authority in detection. It is absurd to imagine that any law can be executed that directly contradicts the propensities and spirit of the nation. If vigilance were able fully to countermine the subterfuges of art, the magistrates who thus pertinaciously adhered to the practice of their duty could scarcely fail to become the miserable victims of depravity exasperated into madness.
What can be more contrary to all liberal principles of human intercourse than the inquisitorial spirit which such regulations imply? Who shall enter into my house, scrutinize my expenditure, and count the dishes upon my table? Who shall detect the stratagems I employ, 'to cover my real possession of an enormous income, while I seem to receive but a small one? Not that there is really anything unjust and unbecoming, as has been too often supposed, in my neighbour's animadverting with the utmost freedom upon my personal conduct.3 But that all watchfulness that proposes for its object the calling in of force as the corrective of error is invidious. Observe my conduct; you do well. Report it as widely as possible, provided you report it fairly; you are entitled to commendation. But the heart of man unavoidably revolts against the attempt to correct my error by the infliction of violence. We disapprove of the superior, however well informed he may be who undertakes, by chastisement, to induce me to alter in my opinion, or vary in my choice; but we disapprove still more, and we do well, of the man who officiates as the Argus of my tyrant; who reports my conduct, not for the purpose of increasing my wisdom and prudence, not for the purpose of instructing others, but that he may bring down upon me the brute, the slavish and exasperating arm of power.
Such must be the case in extensive governments: in governments of smaller dimensions opinion would be all-sufficient; the inspection of every man over the conduct of his neighbours, when unstained with caprice, would constitute a censorship of the most irresistible nature. But the force of this censorship would depend upon its freedom, not following the positive dictates of law, but the spontaneous decisions of the understanding.
Again, in the distribution of rewards who shall secure us against error, partiality and intrigue, converting that which was meant for the support of virtue into a new engine for her ruin? Not to add that prizes are a very feeble instrument for the generation of excellence, always inadequate to its reward where it exists, always in danger of being bestowed on its semblance, continually misleading the understanding by foreign and degenerate motives of avarice and vanity.
The force of this argument, respecting the inefficacy of regulations, has often been felt, and the conclusions that are deduced from it have been in a high degree, discouraging. 'The character of nations,' it has been said, 'is unalterable, or at least, when once debauched, can never be recovered to purity. Laws are an empty name when the manners of the people are become corrupt. In vain shall the wisest legislator attempt the reformation of his country when the torrent of profligacy and vice has once broken down the bounds of moderation. There is no longer any instrument left for the restoration of simplicity and frugality. It is useless to declaim against the evils that arise from inequality of riches and rank, where this inequality has already gained an establishment. A generous spirit will admire the exertions of a Cato and a Brutus; but a calculating spirit will condemn them, as inflicting useless. torture upon a patient whose disease was irremediable. It was from a view of this truth that the poets derived their fictions respecting the early history of mankind; well aware that, when luxury was introduced, and the springs of intellect unbent, it would be a vain expectation that should hope to recall men from passion to reason, and from effeminacy to energy.'4 But this conclusion from the inefficacy of regulations is so far from being valid that in reality,
A third objection to the positive interference of society in its corporate capacity for the propagation of truth and virtue is that such,interference is altogether unnecessary. Truth and virtue are competent to fight their own battles. They do not need to be nursed and patronized by the hand of power.
The mistake which has been made in this case is similar to the mistake which is now universally exploded upon the subject of commerce. It was long supposed that, if any nation desired to extend its trade, the thing most immediately necessary was for government to interfere, and institute protecting duties, bounties and monopolies. It is now generally admitted by speculative enquirers that commerce never flourishes so much as when it is delivered from the guardianship of legislators and ministers, and is conducted upon the principle, not of forcing other people to buy our commodities dear, when they might purchase them elsewhere cheaper or better, but of ourselves feeling the necessity of recommending them by their intrinsic advantages. Nothing can be at once so unreasonable and hopeless as to attempt, by positive regulations, to supersede the dictates of common sense, and the essential principles of human understanding.
The same truth which has gained such extensive footing under the article of commerce has made some progress in its application to speculative enquiry. Formerly it was thought that the true religion was to be defended by acts of uniformity, and that one of the first duties of the magistrate was to watch the progress of heresy. It was truly judged that the connection between error and vice is of the most intimate nature; and it was concluded that no means could be more effectual to prevent men from deviating into error than to check their wanderings by the scourge of authority. Thus writers whose political views in other respects have been uncommonly enlarged have been found to maintain 'that men ought indeed to be permitted to think as they please, but not to propagate their pernicious opinions; as they may be permitted to keep poisons in their closet, but not to offer them to sale under the denomination of cordials'.5 Or, if humanity have forbidden them to recommend the extirpation of a sect which has already got footing in a country, they have however earnestly advised the magistrate to give no quarter to any new extravagance that might be attempted to be introduced.6 The reign of these two errors, respecting commerce, and theoretical speculation, is nearly at an end; and it is reasonable to believe that the idea of teaching virtue through the instrumentality of regulation and government will not long survive them.
All that we should require on the part of govemment, in behalf of morality and virtue, seems to be a clear stage upon which for them to exert their own energies, and perhaps some restraint, for the present, upon the violent disturbers of the peace of society, that the operations of these principles may be permitted to go on uninterrupted to their genuine conclusion. Who ever saw an instance in which error, unallied to power, was victorious over truth? Who is there that can bring himself to believe that, with equal arms, truth can be ultimately defeated? Hitherto it seems as if every instrument of menace or influence had been employed to counteract her. Has she made no progress? Has the mind of man the capacity to choose falsehood, and reject truth, when evidence is fairly presented? When it has been once thus presented, and has gained a few converts, does she ever fail to go on increasing the number of her votaries? Exclusively of the fatal interference of government, and the violent irruptions of barbarism threatening to sweep her from the face of the earth, has not this been, in all instances, the history of science?
Nor are these observations less true in their application to the manners and morals of mankind. Do not men always act in the manner which they esteem best upon the whole, or most conducive to their interest? Is it possible then that evidence of what is best, or what is most beneficial, can be stated to no purpose? The real history of the changes of character they experience in this respect seems to be this. Truth for a long time, spreads itself unobserved. Those who are the first to embrace it are little aware of the extraordinary events with which it is pregnant. But it goes on to be studied and illustrated. It increases in dearnessand amplitude of evidence. The number of those by whom it is embraced is gradually enlarged. If it have relation to their practical interests, if it show them that they may be a thousand times more happy and more free than at present, it is impossible that, in its perpetual 'Increase of evidence and energy, it should not, at last, break the bounds of speculation, and become an operative principle of action. What can be less plausible than the opinion which has so long prevailed 'that justice, and an equal distribution of the means of happiness, may appear, with the utmost clearness, to be the only reasonable basis of social institution, wihout ever having a chance of being reduced into practice? that oppression and misery are draughts of so intoxicating a nature that, when once tasted, we can never afterwards refuse to partake of them? that vice has so many advantages over virtue as to make the reasonableness and wisdom of the latter, however powerfully exhibited, incapable of obtaining a firm hold upon our affections?'
While therefore we demonstrate the inefficacy of naked and unassisted regulations, we are far from producing any discouragement in the prospect of social improvement. The true tendency of this view of the subject is to suggest indeed a different, but a more consistent and promising, method by which this improvement is to be produced. The legitimate instrument of effecting political reformation is knowledge. Let truth be incessantly studied, illustrated and propagated, and the effect is inevitable. Let us not vainly endeavour, by laws and regulations, to anticipate the future dictates of the general mind, but calmly wait till the harvest of opinion is ripe. Let no new practice in politics be introduced, and no old one he anxiously superseded, till the alteration is called for by the public voice. The task which, for the present, should occupy the first rank in the thoughts of the friend of man is enquiry, communication, discussion. The time may come when his task shall appear to be of another sort. Error indeed, if, with unaltered constancy to sink into unnoticed oblivion, without almost one partisan adventurous enough to intercept her fall. Such would probably be the event were it not for the restless and misjudging impetuosity of mankind. But the event may be otherwise. Political change, advancing too rapidly to its crisis, may be attended with commotion and hazard; and it may then be incumbent on the generous and disinterested man, suspending, to a certain degree, general speculations, and the labours of science, to assist in unfolding the momentous catastrophe, and to investigate and recommend the measures which the pressure of temporary difficulties shall appear successively to require. If this should at any time be the case, if a concert of action can become preferable to a concert of disquisition, the duty of the philanthropist will then change its face. Instead of its present sober, cheerful and peaceable character, it will be full of ardurousness, solicitude and uncertainty, evils which nothing but an assured simplicity and independence of conduct can ever purify or relieve. -- To return.
In the fourth place, the interference of an organized society, for the purpose of influencing opinions and manners, is not only useless, but pernicious. We have already St found that such interference is in one view of the subject ineffecutal. But here a distinction is to be made. Considered with a view to the introduction of any favourable changes in the state of Society, it is altogether impotent. But, though it be inadequate to change it, it is powerful to prolong. This property is political regulation is so far from being doubtful that to it alone we are to ascribe all the calamities that government has inflicted on mankind. When regulation coincides with the habits and propensities of mankind at the time it is introduced, it will be found capable of maintaining those habits and propensitites, in the greater part, unaltered for centruies. In this view it is doubly entitled to jealousy and distrust.
To understand this more accurately, let us apply it to the case of rewards, which has always been a favourite topic with the advocates of an improved legislation. How often have we been told 'that talents and virtues would spring up spontaneously in a country, one of the objects of whose constitution should be to secure to them an adequate reward'? Now, to judge of the propriety of this aphorism, we should begin with recollecting that the discerning of merit is an individual, not a social capacity. What can be more reasonable than that each man, for himself, should estimate the merits of his neighbour? To endeavour to institute a general judgement in the name of the whole, and to melt down the different opinions of mankind into one common opinion, appears, at first sight, so monstrous an attempt that it is impossible to augur well of its consequences. Will this judgement be wise, reasonable or just? Wherever each man is accustomed to decide for himself, and the appeal of merit is immediately to the opinion of its contemporaries, there, were it not for the false bias of some positive institution, we might expect a genuine ardour in him who aspired to excellence, crca ting and receiving impressions in the preference of an impartial audience. We might expect the judgement of the auditors to ripen by perpetual exercise, and mind, ever curious and awake, continually to approach nearer to its genuine standard. What do we gain in compensation for this, by setting up authority as the oracle, from which the active mind is to inform itself what sort of excellence it should seek to acquire, and the public at large what judgement they should pronounce upon the efforts of their contemporaries? What should we think of an act of parliament appointing some individual president of the court of criticism, and judge in the last resort of the literary merit of dramatic compositions? Is there any solid reason why we should expect better things from authority usurping the examination of moral or political excellence?
Nothing can be more unreasonable than the attempt to retain men in one common opinion by the dictate of authority. The opinion thus obtruded upon the minds of the public is not their real opinion; it is only a project by which they are rendered incapable of forming an opinion. Whenever government assumes to deliver us from the trouble of thinking for ourselves, the only consequences it produces are torpor and imbecility. This point was perhaps sufficiently elucidated when we had occasion directly to investigate the principle of the right of private judgement.7
We shall be still more completely aware of the pernicious tendency of positive institutions if we proceed explicitly to contrast the nature of mind, and the nature of government. One of the most unquestionable characteristics of the human mind has appeared to be its progressive nature. Now, on the other hand, it is the express tendency of positive institution to retain that with which it is conversant for ever in the same state. Is then the perfectibility of understanding an attribute of trivial importance? Can we recollect, with coldness and indifference, the advantages with which this quality seems pregnant to the latest posterity? And how are these advantages to be secured? By incessant industry, by a curiosity never to be disheartened or fatigued, by a spirit of enquiry to which a philanthropic mind will allow no pause. The circumstance most indispensably necessary is that we should never stand still, that everything most interesting to the general welfare, wholly delivered from restraint, should be in a state of change, moderate and as it were imperceptible, but ontinual. Is there anything that can look with a more malignant aspe t upon the general welfare than an institution tending to give permanence to certain systems and opinions? Such institutions are two ways pernicious; first, which is most material, because they render the future advances of mind inexpressibly tedious and operose; secondly because, by violently confining the stream of reflection and holding it for a time in an unnatural state, they compel it at last to rush forward with impetuosity, and thus occasion calamities which, were it free from restraint, would be found extremely foreign to its nature. If the interference of positive institution had been out of the question, would the progressof intellect, in past ages, have been so slow as to have struck the majority of ingenuous observers with despair? The science of Greece and Rome upon the subject of politics was, in many respects, extremely imperfect: yet could we have been so long in appropriating their discoveries, had not the allurements of reward, and the menace of persecution, united to induce us not to trust to the direct and fair verdict of our own understandings?
The just conclusion from the above reasonings is nothing more than a confirmation, with some difference in the mode of application, of the fundamental principle that vernment is little capable of affording benefit of the first importance to mankind. It is calculated to induce us to lament, not the apathy and indifference, but the inauspicious activity of government. It incites us to look for the moral improvement of the species, not in the multiplying of regulations, but in their repeal. It teaches us that truth and virtue, like commerce, will then flourish most when least subjected to the mistaken guardianship of authority and laws. This maxim will rise upon us in its importance in proportion as we connect it with the numerous departments of political justice to which it will be found to have relation. As fast as it shall be adopted into the practice of mankind, it may be expected to deliver us from a weight, intolerable to mind, and, in the highest degree, hostile to the progress of truth.
1Book III, Chap. VI
2Book V, Chap. XXIII, p. 550.
3Book II, Chap. V, p. 194.
4Book I, Chap. VII
5 Gulliver's Travels, Part II, Chap. VI
6Mably, de la legislation, Liv. IV, Chap. III: des Etats Unis d'Amerique, Lettre III
7Book II, Chap. VI.