Ethics of Democracy

Part 6, Democratic Government
Chap. 1, Self-Government

Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

- Speech at Gettysburg; by Abraham Lincoln

Many politicians of our time are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim.

- Essay on Milton by Macaulay

I will have never a noble,
No lineage counted great;

Fishers and choppers and ploughmen
Shall constitute a state.

"Boston Hymn," by Ralph Waldo Emerson

So long as a single one amongst your brothers has no vote to represent him in the development of the national life, so long as there is one left to vegetate in ignorance where others are educated, so long as a single man, able and willing to work, languishes in poverty through want of work to do, you have no country in the sense in which country ought to exist - the country of all and for all.

- On the Duties of Man by Mazzini

I charge thee, Love, set not my aim too low;
If through the cycling ages I have been
A partner in thy ignorance and sin,

So through the centuries that ebb and flow

I must, with thee, God's secrets seek to know.
Whate'er the conflict, I will help to win
Our conquest over foes without - within -

And where thou goest, beloved, I will go.

Set no dividing line between the twain
Whose aim and end are manifestly one;

Whate'er my loss, it cannot be thy gain
Wedded the light and heat that make Life's sun.

Not thine the glory and not mine the shame.

We build the world together in one Name.

'The New Eve to the Old Adam," by - Annie L. Muzzey, in Harper's Magazine

O blood of the people! changeless tide, through century, creed and race!

Still one as the sweet salt sea is one, though tempered by sun and

The same in the ocean currents, and the same in the sheltered

Forever the fountain of common hopes and kindly sympathies;

Indian and Negro, Saxon and Celt, Teuton and Latin and Gaul-

Mere surface shadow and sunshine; while the sounding unifies all!

One love, one hope, one duty theirs! No matter the time or ken,

There never was separate heart-beat in all the races of men!

But alien is one - of class, not race - he has drawn the line for himself;

His roots drink life from inhuman soil, from garbage of pomp and pelf;

His heart beats not with the common beat, he has changed his life-stream's hue;

He deems his flesh to be finer flesh, he boasts that his blood is blue:

Patrician, aristocrat, tory - whatever his age or name,

To the people's rights and liberties, a traitor ever the same.

The natural crowd is a mob to him, their prayer a vulgar rhyme;

The freeman's speech is sedition, and the patriot's deed a crime.

Wherever the race, the law, the land, - whatever the time, or throne,

The tory is always a traitor to every class but his own.

Thank God for a land where pride is clipped, where arrogance stalks apart;

Where law and song and loathing of wrong are words of the common heart;

Where the masses honor straightforward strength, and know, when veins are bled,

That the bluest blood is putrid blood - that the people's blood is red.

- "Crispus Attucks," by John Boyle O'Reilley

Patricians and plebeians, aristocrats and democrats, have alike stained their hands with blood in the working out of the problem of politics. But impartial history declares also that the crimes of the popular party have in all ages been the lighter in degree, while in themselves they have more to excuse them; and if the violent acts of revolutionists have been held up more conspicuously for condemnation, it has been only because the fate of noblemen and gentlemen has been more impressive to the imagination than the fate of the peasant or the artisan.

- Froude's Caesar, Ch. VIII.

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The Ethics of Democracy

by Louis F. Post

Part 6, Democratic Government
Chapter 1, Self-Government

WHEN the American colonies had determined to secede from Great Britain, and, as they expressed it, "to assume among the nations of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature's God" entitled them, they formally stated the causes that impelled them to the separation; and in justification of their revolutionary purpose, they proclaimed certain principles which they held to be self-evident truths. The document in which they did this is known to every American school boy as the Declaration of Independence.

In so far as that document states the causes that impelled the colonies to throw off a foreign yoke, it is to us of this generation only a historical monument. However oppressive, however arrogant, however tyrannical the policy of George III may have been towards the British colonies in America, that policy is to this generation of Americans of no vital concern. It belongs with the dead and buried past. But in so far as the Declaration of Independence enunciates what its signers characterized as self-evident truths, it is more than a mere landmark of history. In that respect it is the pole star of our national career, the chart by which our ship of state must steer or be pounded on the rocks, the breath of national life which God breathed into the nostrils of our republic. Those truths are indeed self-evident, and they are as vital now as ever. Incontestable inferences from the all-embracing principle of the universal Fatherhood of God and the consequent brotherhood of man, and therefore denied only by avowed or virtual atheists, they make the Declaration of Independence immortal, and place this nation, to the degree that it faithfully holds to them, in the van of human progress.

First among the self-evident truths which the founders of our nation thus proclaimed is the equality of all men. This is the tap root of democracy. It always has been and always must be. It is the antithesis of the doctrine of the "divine right of kings." Not that all are created equal in size, or strength, or intellect, or will. That is not the implication. But that all are endowed equally by their Creator, as the Declaration of Independence goes on to explain, "with certain unalienable rights," among which "are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It is equality of natural rights, therefore, and not uniformity of personal characteristics, with which all men are held by democracy to be endowed.

Proceeding from this primary truth, the Declaration of Independence next proclaims the rightful origin and scope of government. By what right do we place any part of man's conduct under governmental control? and whence comes authority to govern? The answer of the Declaration of Independence is plain. Government is for the protection of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, already asserted; and it originates with the people themselves. "To secure these rights," says the Declaration, "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Just powers of government, then, are derived from the consent of the governed; governmental powers not so derived are unjust. This fundamental proposition is also an indispensable corollary of the primary principle that "all men are created equal"; for if all are created equal, none can have been born to govern the rest. 

Self-government is the only natural government. It is the only kind of government that all were intended for. This is well enough proved by the fact that no one has ever come into the world with a divine commission, not a legible one at any rate, to govern others. All claims of natural right to govern others without their consent have rested upon might instead of right, and have turned out in the end to be only claims to misgovern.

The autocratic plea that some peoples are unfit for selfgovernment was riddled by Macaulay when he said: "There is only one cure for the evils which newly acquired freedom produces; and that cure is freedom. When a prisoner first leaves his cell he cannot bear the light of day; he is unable to discriminate colors or recognize faces. But the remedy is not to remand him into his dungeon, but to accustom him to the rays of the sun. The blaze of truth and liberty may at first dazzle and bewilder nations which have become half blind in the house of bondage. But let them gaze on, and they will soon be able to bear it."

The democratic doctrine of self-government is the lifegiving principle of the American polity. Not only is it proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence, but it is woven into our national history. True, we have not been strictly faithful to it. Manhood suffrage did not begin with the Declaration of Independence, and woman suffrage has not begun yet except in some of our more progressive States. These faults, however, like the continued recognition of the slave trade, the persistent protection of chattel slavery for three-quarters of a century, and the perpetuation, of land monopoly even to this day, are to be accounted for rather as short-comings than as evidence of national hostility to national ideals. They were not deliberately adopted in defiance of the Declaration of Independence; they merely survived the regime which it abolished, and lapped over into the better one which it instituted. Inconsistencies of that sort are but as the wriggling of the snake's tail after the snake is killed.*

Fundamentally, government is of two kinds - government by all the governed, and government by superior force. And government by force is not government by right. The plausibility of the theory that power to govern implies right to govern, may be conceded. But the theory is plausible only; it is really without validity. Nothing could be more repugnant to moral principle than this idea that might makes right. Though might and right may often coincide, yet might is no more right than weakness is, which also often coincides with right. Might never coincides with right except by accident. Mere force cannot possibly give a moral right to govern. We must, therefore, either exclude government wholly from the domain of morals, or else conclude that it rests fundamentally not upon force but upon the consent and participation of the governed.

This conclusion is in accord with the natural law of morals. For harmonious moral adjustment in the social sphere implies equilibrium of rights and duties. The duty of every one not to steal or murder, springs from and is balanced by the right of everyone else not to be murdered or stolen from. In these respects the rights of each correlate with corresponding duties of the others. And so with all other rights and their correlative duties, among which is the right of each to be free within the limitations of like freedom to all - limitations which are defined by the corresponding duty of all to respect the freedom of each. As to rights and duties, therefore, all persons are naturally equal. And where all are naturally equal, none can coerce by force as matter of natural right.

In this view of the moral law, government by superior force has no warrant. Such government as may exist at all by natural right, must be government in which the governed participate.

The same conclusion follows from the more definite premise that rights to life and liberty are natural. No moral philosophy worthy the name would deny the natural quality of these rights. Nor does any political philosophy which defends government at all deny that its primary function is to protect them. Yet government by  is the only kind of government that essentially recognizes the natural right of all to life and liberty.

There is no intention here to ignore the atheistic objection to the idea of natural rights. Many learned men deny natural moral law. They contend that questions of righteousness are questions of expediency; and that in nature, including human nature, there is no such thing as a right to be claimed or a duty to be performed. They profess to recognize no absolute moral standards, holding only that to be right which from experience appears to them to be wise. Such men are atheists. Though they preach from pulpits or teach in the class rooms of pious universities, they are atheists nevertheless. To deny the eternal sway of invariable moral law is to deny God. It is impossible, consistently with sincere recognition of a Supreme Ruler of the moral as well as material universe, to regard problems of right and wrong as mere questions of expediency. Though moral laws may be discovered by experience, it is not out of experience that they take their rise, nor do they vary with its variations. Just as the physical laws of gravitation existed and operated with unvarying constancy during all the time before Newton's experiments, so the moral law must have existed before it was discovered by experience or formulated by philosophy. It must be coeval with that personification of infinite justice which men call God, and be as immutable. It was as truly a violation of moral law to steal before Moses promulgated the eighth commandment as after some social experimenter discovered that honesty is the best policy.

But it is not to atheists, either of the pious or the impious sort, that these considerations regarding self-goverment are addressed. Those of them who do not believe in natural rights at all, are in no mental condition to reflect upon an argument for natural principles of government. Let us revert, then, to the main point. Which kind of government is natural - government by the governed, or government by superior force?

Under an absolute monarchy, when life or liberty is at stake the only appeal is to the individual generosity of the monarch. His beneficent acts are not dictated by any recognition of another's right; they are prompted solely by his own grace. If he recognizes rights and duties at all, it is only as rights and duties between master and slave are recognized - the monarch has rights and the subject owes duties. The great fundamental natural rights to life and liberty are not guaranteed, either in fact or theory, by absolute monarchy. The conception is wholly foreign to that system. Absolute monarchies, therefore, are not natural.

Of oligarchies the same thing is true. Though oligarchies, like monarchies, might give security to life and liberty, it would be as matter of grace and not in recognition of a natural right.

No less comprehensive a system than government by all can secure those rights as natural rights. That is the only system which essentially recognizes them as natural, and under which every person is armed with the best weapon of peace yet known for protecting them. Where all are accorded an equal voice in government as matter of right, no one is likely in practice to be denied equal consideration with reference to his life or his liberty; and no one can be denied it consistently with the principles of such a government.

The question of self-government would be very much simplified, if a clear distinction were drawn with reference to the legitimate functions of government. No form of government has any right to coerce an individual regarding his individual concerns. Coercion of individuals in individual concerns is an invasion, an aggression; and it does not cease to be such because the invader and aggressor is a government instead of another individual or a mob. This is as true of government by all as of government by one.

The first consideration in this connection is the self-evident proposition that in human society there are two classes of rights those pertaining to the individual, and those pertaining to the community. Of course these rights have their corresponding duties. Duties and rights are reciprocal. There can be no right without a correlative duty, nor any duty without a correlative right. In human society, therefore, there are rights and duties which attach to the individual as an individual, and other rights and duties which attach to him as a member of the community. For convenience these rights and duties may be distinguished, the one class as "individual" and the other as "communal."

Individual rights and duties are to be considered as if there were no community. They inhere and are complete in the individual. Every man has, for instance, a right to live. It is a right, to be sure, that he may forfeit. If he threatens another's equal right to live, the other may in self-defense deprive him of his own right; and what the threatened individual may rightfully do, other individuals, or the community as a whole, may assist him in doing. Hence one individual may forfeit his own right to live by menacing the equal right to life of any other. But primarily, he has a right to live. And as a corollary of that right it is the duty of all others to let him live, as it is his duty to let them live. This right is not subject to the will of a majority of the community. It would be as despotic for a majority in a republic arbitrarily to vote away the life of a fellow, as for one person upon a throne to decree the death of a subject. Majorities may vote away lives, as monarchs decree them away; but in either case the act is one of brute force and not of right. Over the lives of individuals not forfeited by their aggressions upon the rights of others, the community, whether through the force of unlimited monarchy or of popular majorities, has no just jurisdiction. The right to live is an individual right. It is a right that belongs to the individual as such. He, and of all men he alone, has the right to dispose of it. The only just limitation upon any man's right to life is that he shall respect the right to life of every other. And as with the right to life, so with the right to all other things relating to individuals in their individual capacity. As every man has the right to life, subject only to the equal right to life of all other men, so has every man the right to live his own life in hisown way, subject only to the equal right of all other men to live their own lives in their own way. His liberty in this respect is bounded justly only by his duty to allow equal liberty to everyone else. This class of rights is individual, not communal. And self-government as to individual rights can only mean the government of each by himself, free from all meddling interference whether malevolent or benevolent.

But the other class of rights, those which attach to individuals as members of communities, are not so absolute. As to them there can be no individual disposition. They attach not to each person individually, but to all persons jointly or in common. These common or communal rights relate to the preservation of the public peace, the regulation of highways and of land tenures generally, and the administration of the common income. They are communal, as distinguished from individual, rights. It is the community as a whole, and not each individual, that has the right, for example, to determine the locality or character of a highway, the terms from time to time of land tenure, and the expenditure of the common income. The individual, therefore, has not the same right of determination as to such matters that he has as to rights that are exclusively individual. His rights here are merged in the rights of his fellows, so as to create a new right that of the community as a whole. The community must act as to this right in its corporate capacity.

But how can the community so act? Shall it require a unanimous vote? Shall it submit to the will of a few who assume to be better qualified or more deeply interested than the rest? Or shall it listen to all who offer advice, and act in obedience to the will of the majority? Those are the three choices, and the last alone commends itself. To require a unanimous vote, would be to place communal judgment under the veto of any single individual who chose to exercise it. To submit to the will of a few, would deprive all the rest of a voice in common affairs. But by giving a voice to all and acting upon the decision of the majority, the nearest practicable approach is made to securing the judgment of the community as a whole. It is here majorities have their proper place. By means of majorities, communal as distinguished from individual rights are decided. Self-government as to communal rights, therefore, requires that all be heard and that the majority determine.

Summarizing the foregoing analysis, we find that self-government implies that as to individual rights each individual shall govern himself in his own way, free from all governmental interference, upon the sole condition that he respect the equal rights of other individuals; and that as to communal rights, each individual shall have a voice, and the majority vote shall be taken as the corporate expression.

* Same subject further considered in Part VII, Chapter II, "Patriotic Ideals."

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