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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Decision by lot, its origin -- Founded in the system of discretionary rights -- Implies the desertion of duty. -- Decision by ballot -- Inculcates timidity -- And hypocrisy. -- Decision by vote, its recommendations.
{683} What has been here said upon the subject of qualifications, naturally leads to a few important observations upon the three principal modes of conducting election, by sortition, by ballot or by vote.

The idea of sortition was first introduced by the dictates of superstition. It was supposed that, when human reason piously acknowledged its insufficiency, the Gods, pleased with so unfeigned a homage, interfered to guide the decision. This imagination is now exploded. Every man who pretends to philosophy will confess that, wherever sortition is introduced, the decision is exclusively guided by the laws of impulse and gravitation. Strictly speaking there is no such thing as contingence. {684} But, so far as relates to the exercise of apprehension and judgment on the particular question to be determined, all decision by lot is the decision of contingence. The operations of impulse and gravitation either proceed from a blind and unconscious principle; or, if they proceed from mind, it is mind executing general laws, and not temporising with every variation of human caprice.

All reference of public questions and elections to lot includes in it two evils, moral misapprehension and cowardice. There is no situation in which we can be placed that has not its correspondent duties. There is no alternative that can be offered to our choice, that does not include in it a better and a worse. The idea of sortition derives from the same root as the idea of discretionary rights. Men, undebauched by the lessons of superstition, would never have recourse to the decision by lot, were they not impressed with the notion of indifference that they had a right to do any one of two or more things offered to their choice; and that of consequence, in order to rid themselves of uncertainty and doubt, it was sufficiently allowable to refer the decision of certain matters to accident. It is of great importance that this idea should be extirpated. Mind will never arrive at the true tone of energy, till we feel that moral liberty and discretion are mere creatures of the imagination, that in all cases our duty is precise, and the path of justice single and direct. {685}

But, supposing us convinced of this principle, if we afterwards desert it, this is the most contemptible cowardice. Our desertion either arises from our want of energy to enquire, to compare and to decide, or from our want of fortitude to despise the inconveniences that might attend upon our compliance with what our judgment dictates.

Ballot is a mode of decision still more censurable than sortition. It is scarcely possible to conceive of a political institution that includes a more direct and explicit patronage of vice. It has been said, 'that ballot may in certain cases be necessary to enable a man of a feeble character to act with ease and independence, and to prevent bribery, corrupt influence and faction.' Vice is an ill remedy to apply to the diminution of vice. A feeble and irresolute character might before be accidental; ballot is a contrivance to render it permanent, and to scatter its seeds over a wider surface. The true cure for a want of constancy and public spirit is to inspire firmness not to inspire timidity. Truth, if communicated to the mind with perspicuity, is a sufficient basis for virtue. To tell men that it is necessary they should form their decision by ballot, is to tell them that it is necessary they should be vicious.

If sortition taught us to desert our duty, ballot teaches us to draw a veil of concealment over our performance of it. It points out to us a method of acting unobserved. It incites us to make {686} a mystery of our sentiments. If it did this in the most trivial article, it would not be easy to bring the mischief it would produce within the limits of calculation. But it dictates this conduct in our most important concerns. It calls upon us to discharge our duty to the public with the most virtuous constancy; but at the same time directs us to hide our discharge of it. One of the most admirable principles in the structure of the material universe, is its tendency to prevent us from withdrawing ourselves from the consequences of our own actions. Political institution that should attempt to counteract this principle, would be the only true impiety. How can a man have the love of the public in his heart, without the dictates of that love flowing to his lips? When we direct men to act with secrecy, we direct them to act with frigidity. Virtue will always be an unusual spectacle among men, till they shall have learned to be at all times ready to avow their actions and assign the reasons upon which they are founded.

If then sortition and ballot be institutions pregnant with vice, it follows, that all social decisions should be made by open vote; that wherever we have a function to discharge, we should reflect on the mode in which it ought to be discharged; and that, whatever conduct we are persuaded to adopt, especially in affairs of general concern, should be adopted in the face of the world.