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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Enumeration of powers -- That of appointing to inferior offices -- Of pardoning offenses -- Of convoking deliberative assemblies -- Of affixing a veto to their decrees. -- Conclusion. -- The title of king estimated. -- Monarchical and aristocratical systems, similarity of their efferts.
{454} Still monarchy it seems has one refuge left. 'We will not,' say some men, 'have an hereditary monarchy, we acknowledge that to be an enormous injustice. We are not contented with an elective monarchy, we are not contented with a limited one. We admit the office however reduced, if the tenure be for life, to be an intolerable grievance. But why not have kings, as we have magistrates and legislative assemblies, renewable by frequent elections? We may then change the holder of the office as often as we please.'

Let us not be seduced by a mere plausibility of phrase, nor employ words without having reflected on their meaning. {455} What are we to understand by the appellation, a king? If the office have any meaning, it seems reasonable that the man who holds it, should possess the privilege, either of appointing to certain employments at his own discretion, or of remitting the decrees of criminal justice, or of convoking and dismissing popular assemblies, or of affixing and refusing his sanction to the decrees of those assemblies. Most of these privileges may claim a respectable authority in the powers delegated to their president by the United States of America.

Let us however bring these ideas to the touchstone of reason. Nothing can appear more adventurous than the reposing, unless in cases of absolute necessity, the decision of any affair of importance to the public, the breast of one man. But this necessity will scarcely be alledged in any of the articles just enumerated. What advantage does one man possess over a society or council of men in any of these respects? The disadvantages under which he labours are obvious. He is more easily corrupted, and more easily misled. He cannot possess so many advantages for obtaining accurate information. He is abundantly more liable to the attacks of passion and caprice, of unfounded antipathy to one man and partiality to another, of uncharitable censure or blind idolatry. He cannot be always upon his guard; there will be moments in which the most exemplary vigilance is liable to surprise. Meanwhile we are placing the subject in much too {456} favourable a light. We are supposing his intentions to be upright and just; but the contrary of this will be more frequently the truth. Where powers beyond the capacity of human nature are intrusted, vices the disgrace of human nature will be engendered. Add to this, that the same reasons, which prove that government, wherever it exists, should be directed by the sense of the people at large, equally prove that, wherever public offices are necessary, the sense of the whole, or of a body of men most nearly approaching in spirit to the whole, ought to decide on their pretensions.

These objections are applicable to the most innocent of the privileges above enumerated, that of appointing to the exercise of certain employments. The case will be still worse if we consider the other privileges. We shall have occasion hereafter to examine the propriety of pardoning offenses, considered independently of the persons in whom that power is vested: but, in the mean time, can any thing be more intolerable than for a single individual to be authorised, without assigning a reason, or assigning a reason upon which no one is allowed to pronounce, to supersede the grave decisions of a court of justice, founded upon a careful and public examination of evidence? Can any thing be more unjust than for a single individual to assume the function of informing a nation when they are to deliberate, and when they are to cease from deliberation? {457}

The remaining privilege is of too iniquitous a nature to be an object of much terror. It is not in the compass of credibility to conceive, that any people would remain quiet spectators, while the sense of one man was openly and undisguisedly set against the sense of the national representative in frequent assembly, and suffered to overpower it. Two or three direct instances of the exercise of this negative could not fail to annihilate it for ever. Accordingly, wherever it is supposed to exist, we find it softened and nourished by the genial dew of pecuniary corruption; either rendered unnecessary beforehand by a sinister application to the frailty of individual members, or disarmed and made palatable in the sequel by a copious effusion of venal emollients. If it can in any case be endured, it must be in countries where the degenerate representative no longer possesses the sympathy of the public, and the haughty president is made sacred, by the blood of an exalted ancestry which flows through his veins, or the holy oil which the representatives of the Most High have poured on his head. A common mortal, periodically selected by his fellow-citizens to watch over their interests, can never be supposed to possess this stupendous virtue.

If there be any truth in these reasonings, it inevitably follows that there are no important functions of general superintendence that can justly be delegated to a single individual. If the office of a president be necessary, either in a deliberative assembly or an administrative council, supposing such a council to exist, his {458} employment will have relation to the order of their proceedings, and by no means consist in the arbitrary preferring and carrying into effect his private decision. A king, if unvarying usage can have given meaning to a word, designs a man upon whose single discretion some part of the public interest is made to depend. What use can there be for such a man in an unperverted and well ordered state? With respect to its internal affairs certainly none. How far the office can be of advantage in our transactions with foreign governments we shall hereafter have occasion to decide.

Let us beware by an unjustifiable perversion of terms of confounding the common understanding of mankind. A king is the well known and standing appellation for an office, which, if there be any truth in the arguments of the preceding chapters, has been the bane and the grave of human virtue. Why endeavour to purify and exorcise what is entitled only to execration? Why not suffer the term to be as well understood and as cordially detested, as the once honourable appellation of tyrant afterwards was among the Greeks? Why not suffer it to rest a perpetual monument of the folly, the cowardice and misery of our species?

In proceeding from the examination of monarchical to that of aristocratical government, it is impossible not to remark that {459} there are several disadvantages common to both. One of these is the creation of a separate interest. The benefit of the governed is made to lie on one side, and the benefit of the governors on the other. It is to no purpose to say that individual interest accurately understood will always be found to coincide with general, if it appear in practice, that the opinions and errors of mankind are perpetually separating them and placing them in opposition to each other. The more the governors are fixed in a sphere distinct and distant from the governed, the more will this error be cherished. Theory, in order to produce an adequate effect upon the mind, should be favoured, not counteracted, by practice. What principle in human nature is more universally confessed than self love, that is, than a propensity to think individually of a private interest, to discriminate and divide objects which the laws of the universe have indissolubly united? None, unless it be the esprit de corps, the tendency of bodies of men to aggrandise themselves, a spirit, which, though less ardent than self love, is still more vigilant, and not exposed to the accidents of sleep, indisposition and mortality. Thus it appears that, of all impulses to a narrow, self-interested conduct, those afforded by monarchy and aristocracy are the greatest.

Nor must we be too hasty and undistinguishing in applying the principle, that individual interest accurately understood will always be found to coincide with general. Relatively to individuals considered as men it is true; relatively to individuals {460} considered as lords and kings it is false. The man will be served by the sacrifice of all his little peculium to the public interest, but the king will be annihilated. The first sacrifice that justice demands at the hand of monarchy and aristocracy, is that of their immunities and prerogatives. Public interest dictates the laborious dissemination of truth and the impartial administration of justice. Kings and lords subsist only under favour of error and oppression. They will therefore resist the progress of knowledge and illumination; the moment the deceit is dispelled, their occupation is gone.

In thus concluding however we are taking for granted that aristocracy will be found an arbitrary and pernicious institution, as monarchy has already appeared to be. It is time that we should enquire in what degree this is actually the case.