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The Cynosure

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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.




Quantity of administration necessary to be 
maintained.  -- Objects of administration:
national glory -- rivalship of nations.  --Infer-
ences: 1. complication of government unneces-
sary. -- 2.extensive territory superfluous -- 3.
 constraint, its limitations. -Project of govern-
 ment: police -- defence.

THUS we have endeavoured to unfold and establish certain general principles upon the subject of legislative and executive power. But there is one interesting topic that remains to be discussed. How much of either of these powers does the public benefit require us to maintain?

We have already seen1 that the only legitimate object of political institution is the advantage of individuals. All that cannot be brought home to them, national wealth, prosperity and glory, can be advantageous only to those self-interested impostors who, from the earliest accounts of time, have confounded the understandings of mankind, the more securely to sink them in debasement and misery.

The desire to gain a more extensive territory, to conquer or to hold in awe our neighbouring states, to surpass them in arts or arms, is a desire sounded in prejudice and error. Usurped authority is a spurious and unsubstantial medium of happiness. Security and peace are more to be desired than a national splendour that should terrify the world. Mankind are brethren. We associate in a particular district or under a particular climate, because association is necessary to our internal tranquillity, or to defend us against the wanton attacks of a common enemy. But the rivalship of nations is a creature of the imagination. If riches be our object, riches can only be created by commerce; and the greater is our neighbour's capacity to buy, the greater will be our opportunity to sell. The prosperity of all is the interest of all.

The more accurately we understand our own advantage, the less shall we be disposed to disturb the peace of our neighbour. The same principle is applicable to him in return. It becomes us therefore to desire that he may be wise. But wisdom is the growth of equality and independence, not of injury and oppression. If oppression had been the school of wisdom, the improvement of mankind would have been inestimable, for they have been in that school for many thousand years. We ought therefore to desire that our neighbour should be independent. We ought to desire that he should be free; for wars do not originate in the unbiased propensities of nations, but in the cabals of government and the propensities that governments inspire into the people at large.2 If our neighbour invade our territory, all we should desire is to repel him from it,3 and, for that purpose, it is not neccessary we should surpass him in prowess, since upon our own ground his match is unequal.4 Not to say that to conceive a nation attacked by another, so long as its own conduct is sober, equitable and moderate, is an exceedingly improbable suppositions.5

Where nations are not brought into avowed hostility, all jealousy between them is an unintelligible chimera. I reside upon a certain spot because that residence is most conducive to my happiness or usefulness. I am interested in the political justice and virtue of my species because they are men, that is, creatures eminently capable of justice and virtue; and I have perhaps additional reason to interest myself for those who live under the same government as myself because I am better qualified to understand their claims, and more capable of exerting myself in their behalf. But I can certainly have no interest in the infliction of pain upon others, unless so far as they are expressly engaged in acts of injustice. The object of sound policy and morality is to draw men nearer to each other, not to separate them; to unite their interests, not to oppose them.

Individuals ought, no doubt, to cultivate a more frequent and confidential intercourse with each other than at present subsists; but political societies of men, as such, have no interests to explain and adjust, except so far as error and violence may tender explanation necessary. This consideration annihilates, at once, the principal objects of that mysterious and crooked policy which has hitherto occupied the attention of governments. Before this principle, officers of the army and the navy, ambassadors and negotiators, all the train of artifices that has been invented to hold other nations at bay, to penetrate their secrets, to traverse their machinations, to form alliances and counter-alliances, sink into nothing. The expense of government is annihilated, and, together with its expense, the means of subduing and undermining the virtues of its subjects.6

Another of the great opprobriums of political science is, at the same time, completely removed, that extent of territory, subject to one head, respecting which philosophers and moralists have alternately disputed whether it be most unfit for a monarchy, or for a democratical government. The appearance which mankind, in a future state of improvement, may be expected to assume is a policy that, in different countries, will wear a similar form, because we have all the same faculties and the same wants but a policy the independent branches of which will extend their authority over a small territory, because neighbours are best informed of each others concerns, and are perfectly equal to their adjustment. No recommendation can be imagined of an extensive rather than a limited territory, except that of external security.

Whatever evils are included in the abstract idea of government, they are all of them extremely aggravated by the extensiveness of its jurisdiction, and softened under circumstances of an opposite nature. Ambition, which may be no less formidable than a pestilence in the former, has no room to unfold itself in the latter. Popular commotion is like the waters of the earth, capable where the surface is large, of producing the most tragical effects, but mild and innocuous when confined within the circuit of a humble lake. Sobriety and equity are the obvious characteristics of a limited circle.

It may indeed be objected 'that great talents are the offspring of great passions, and that, in the quiet mediocrity of a petty republic, the powers of intellect may be expected to subside into inactivity'. This objection, if true, would be entitled to the most serious consideration. But it is to be considered that, upon the hypothesis here advanced, the whole human species would constitute, in some sense, one great republic, and the prospects of him who desired to act beneficially upon a great surface of mind would become more animating than ever. During the period in which this state was growing, but not yet complete, the comparison of the blessings we enjoyed with the iniquities practising among our neighbours would afford an additional stimulus to exertion.7

Ambition and tumult are evils that arise out of government, in an indirect manner, in consequence of the habits, which government introduces, of concert and combination extending themselves over multitudes of men. There are other evils inseparable from its existence. The object of government is the suppression of such violence, as well external as internal, as might destroy, or bring into jeopardy, the well being of the community or its members; and the means it employs are constraint and violence of a more regulated kind. For this purpose the concentration of individual forces becomes necessary, and the method in which this concentration is usually obtained is also constraint. The evils of constraint have been considered on a former occasion.8 Constraint employed against delinquents, or persons to whom delinquency is imputed, is by no means without its mischiefs. Constraint employed by the majority of a society against the minority, who may differ from them upon some question of public good, is calculated, at first sight at least, to excite a still greater disapprobation.

Both these exertions may indeed appear to rest upon the same principle. Vice is unquestionably no more, in the first instance,than error o judgethent, and nothing can justify an attempt to correct it by force, but the extreme necessity of the case.9 The minority, if erroneous, fall under precisely the same general description, though their error may not be of equal magnitude. But the necessity of the case can seldom be equally impressive. If the idea of secession, for example, were somewhat more familiarized to the conceptions of mankind, it could seldom happen that the secession of the minority from difference of opinion could in any degree compare, in mischievous tendency, with the hostility of a criminal offending against the most obvious principles of social justice. The cases are parallel to those of offensive and defensive war. In putting constraint upon a minority, we yield to a suspicious temper that tells us the opposing party may hereafter, in some way, injure us, and we will anticipate his injury. In putting constraint upon a criminal, we seem to repel an enemy who has entered our territory, and refuses to quit it.

Government can have no more than two legitimate purposes, the suppression of injustice against individuals within the community, and the common defence against external invasion. The first of these purposes, which alone can have an uninterrupted claim upon us, is sufficiently answered by an association, of such an extent, as to afford room for the institution of a jury to decide upon the offences of individuals within the community, and upon the questions and controversies respecting property which may chance to arise. It might be easy indeed for an offender to escape from the limits of so petty a jurisdiction; and it might seem necessary, at first, that the neighbouring parishes,10 or jurisdictions, should be governed in a similar maner, or at least should be willing, whatever was their form of government, to co-operate with us in the removal or reformation of an offender whose present habits were alike injurious to us and to them. But there will be no need of any express compact, and still less of any common centre of authority, for this purpose. General justice, and mutual interest, are found more capable of binding men than signatures and seals. In the meantime, all necessity for causing the punishment of the crime, to pursue the criminal would soon, at least, cease, if it ever existed. The motives to offence would become rare: its aggravations few: and rigour superfluous. The principal object of punishment is restraint upon a dangerous member of the community; and the end of this restraint would be answered by the general inspection that is exercised by the members of a limited circle over the conduct of each other, and by the gravity and good sense that would characterize the censures of men, from whom all mystery and empiricism were banished. No individual would be hardy enough in the cause of vice to defy the general consent of sober judgement that would surround him. It would carry despair to his mind, or, which is better, it would carry conviction. He would be obliged, by a force not less irresistible than whips and chains, to reform his conduct.

In this sketch is contained the rude outline of political government. Controversies between parish and parish would be, in an eminent degree, unreasonable, since, if any question arose, about limits, for example, the obvious principles of convenience could scarcely fail to teach us to what district any portion of land should belong. No association of men, so long as they adhered to the principles of reason, could possibly have an interest in extending their territory. If we would produce attachment in our associates, we can adopt no surer method than that of practising the dictates,of equity and moderation; axid, if this failed in any instance, it could only fail with him who, to whatever society he belonged, would prove an unworthy member. The duty of any society to punish offenders is not dependent upon the hypothetical consent of the offender to be punished, but upon the duty of necessary defence.

But however irrational might be the controversy of parish with parish in such a state of society, it would not be the less possible. For such extraordinary emergencies therefore, provision ought to be made. These emergencies are similar in their nature to those of foreign invasion. They can only be provided against by the concert of several district declaring and, if needful, enforcing the dictates of justice.

One of the most obvious remarks that suggests itself, upon these two cases, of hostility between district and district, and of foreign invasion which the interest of all calls upon them jointly to repel, is that it is their nature to be only of occasional recurrence, and that therefore the provisions to be made respecting them need not be, in the strictest sense, of perpetual operation. In other words, the permanence of a national assembly, as it has hitherto been practised in France, cannot be necessary in a period of tranquillity, and may perhaps be pernicious. That we may form a more accurate judgement of this, let us recollect some of the principal features that enter into the constitution of a national assembly.



1Chap. XVI, p. 508; Chap.XX, p. 531.
2Chap. XVI.
3Chap. XVII.
4Chap. XVIII.
5Chap. XVI.
6Hume's Essays, Part I, Essay V.
7This objection will be fully discussed in the eight book of the present work.
8Book II, Chap. VI.
9Book II, Chap. VI: Book IV, Chap. VIII.
10The word parish is here used without regard to its origin, and merely in consideration of its being a word descriptive of a certain small portion of territory, whether in population or extent, which custom has rendered familiar to us.


To Book V, Chapter 23.
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