Review of "Popular Government" by Sir Henry Maine

This book was sought to analyze Democracy just like it was any other political system.  Such an undertaking is bound to provoke some hostile feelings as everyone today believes in Democracy.  I was actually expecting Mr Maine's essays to be a little more controversial – the book sort of turns into a defense of the American post-Civil War government, with its systems of checks and balances.  The controversial aspects come from Mr Maine's examinations of some common beliefs about Democracy.  Mr Maine finds that our beliefs are not as historically accurate as we assume.
In the first essay Mr Maine claims that unbiased reading of history will lead to the conclusion that Democracies are not a particularly stable form of government.  He cites all sorts of ephemeral Democratic governments outside of the US and England.  He almost reaches the conclusion that Democracies are inherently unstable outside the US and England.  This instability is often created by people who adhere to their political beliefs with a religious fervor:
Irreconcileables are associations of men who hold political opinions as men once held religious opinions.  They cling to their creed with the same intensity of belief, the same immunity from doubt, the same confident expectation of blessedness to come quickly, which characterises the disciples of an infant faith.  They are doubtless a product of democratic sentiment.
In the second essay, Mr Maine argues that democracy is the most difficult form of government.  Some of the difficulty stems from the prejudices of the people:
The legislative infertility of democracies springs from permanent causes.  The prejudices of the people are far stronger than those of the privileged classes; they are far more vulgar; and they are far more dangerous, because they are apt to run counter to scientific conclusions.
The idea that Democracy will be easy and stable is based on an overestimation of human intelligence (he particularly accuses Bentham of this overestimation, though Rousseau pops up throughout as well).  Here's more on the people's ignorance:
It is that if you place power in men's hands, they will use it for their interest.  Applying this rule to the whole of a political community, we ought to have a perfect system of government; but, taking it in connection with the fact that multitudes include too much ignorance to be capable of understanding their interest, it furnishes the principal argument against Democracy.
One more:
The truth is, that the modern enthusiasts for Democracy make one fundamental confusion.  They mix up the theory, that the Demos is capable of volition, with the fact, that it is capable of adopting the opinions of one man or of a limited number of men, and of founding directions to its instruments upon them.
To overcome these obstacles, Mr Maine believes that Democracy requires the assistance of certain forces, namely party, corruption, and generalization.  The purpose of politics is to seize power and the vehicle through which power is seized in a Democracy is the party.  Corruption is necessary to allocate the spoils of victory – why else would anyone vote for a party?  Generalization is the process in which problems and ideas are dumbed down for the Democratic political process.
In the third essay, Mr Maine explains how Democracy is opposed to human nature (besides it vast overestimation of human intelligence).  Mr Maine believes that most people in the world value stability.  Democracy, on the other hand, needs constant "reform."  Mr Maine believes that change will succeed only when it is evolutionary in nature – i.e. a process of slow subtle changes extending over a long period of time as opposed to large, sudden, revolutionary changes.  Mr Maine believes that true Democracy cannot change in the former way.  Hence, checks on Democracy must be used to slow its propensity for rapid changes.  Mr Maine leaves us with a word of warning:
The question however, will not long or deeply trouble those who, like me, have the strongest suspicion that, if there really arise a conflict between Democracy and Science, Democracy, which is already taking precautions against the enemy, will certainly win.
In the fourth essay, Mr Maine gives his views on the US Constitution.  He notes that US Constitution brought back republics, which had fallen out of favor for a long time prior to the end of the 18th Century.  He analyzes US checks and balances and finds that the President was created to be like British King at the time the Constitution was written.  He likes the non-democratic nature of the Senate, as well as the divided nature of the legislative branch, which acts to slow down Democratic tendencies.  He notes that US was the first to truly divide government into executive, legislative and Judaical functions.  Mr Maine goes to great lengths to make clear that the US Constitution was drafted to be very much like the British Constitution as it was understood at the time the Constitution was written.  The differences were required by the structure, nature and history of the US.  He notes that the only failing of the US Constitution – The Civil War – was due to the fact that "the authors of the Constitution declined of set purpose to apply their political wisdom to a subject which they know to be all-important, the result was the bloodiest and costliest war of modern times."
This book was worth a read if only because Mr Maine is willing to analyze Democracy without all the baggage that is often associated with Democracy.  He is unafraid to question basic assumptions about Democracy.  That said, his conclusion – that Continental forms of more direct Democracy will not be as effective as their British counterpart which in turn will not be as effective as the American form – is hardly radical.

2 Responses to Review of "Popular Government" by Sir Henry Maine

  1. […] Foseti (April 2008) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: