Review of “A Plea for the Constitution” by John Austin.

The art of states­man­ship, like oth­er high and dif­fi­cult arts, can on­ly be ac­quired by those who make it their prin­ci­pal busi­ness.

– John Austin

The book can be found here. I’m pretty sure this John Austin is the relevant one.

The first version of the book that I can find was written in 1850. Mr Austin is arguing against Parliamentary reform, which would (in general) have made Parliament more democratic. Reforms would also have given more power to the House of Commons, power which would have been taken away from the House of Lords and the Monarch. That’s the overview of the proposed reforms. Of course, Mr Austin’s side eventually lost but all of Mr Austin’s predictions about the consequences of reform were correct. (One notices a pattern in this type of historical reading, which I’ve called Mencius Moldbug’s First Law of History).

Here’s Mr Austin’s summary of his argument:

In the course of the fol­low­ing Es­say, I have ad­vanced opin­ions which are now un­pop­ular, and which may pos­si­bly ex­pose me to some oblo­quy; though I well re­mem­ber the time (for I was then a Rad­ical) when the so-called lib­er­al opin­ions which are now pre­dom­inant ex­posed the few who pro­fessed them to po­lit­ical and so­cial pro­scrip­tion. I have said that the bulk of the work­ing peo­ple are not yet qual­ified for po­lit­ical pow­er; that the low­er class­es of the mid­dle class ought not to pre­dom­inate in the House of Com­mons; that the aris­to­crat­ical in­flu­ences in the present com­po­si­tion of that As­sem­bly are a con­di­tion of the free gov­ern­ment un­der which we are hap­py enough to live. And I have said this, because I think it. I am no worshiper of the great and rich, and have no fan­cy for their style of liv­ing. I am by ori­gin and by my strongest sym­pa­thies, a man of the peo­ple; and I have nev­er de­sired, for a sin­gle mo­ment, to as­cend from the mod­est sta­tion which I have al­ways oc­cu­pied.

The advantages of "aristocratical influences" are as follows:

As the pow­er of the Crown and the Up­per House rests on the at­tach­ment of the na­tion to those in­sti­tu­tions, their ori­gin is re­al­ly as pop­ular as that of the House of Com­mons, though their of­fices are not de­rived from for­mal elec­tion by the peo­ple. If the Pres­ident of the Amer­ican Union is the pop­ular chief of the fed­er­al state, our own Queen is the popular chief of the British Par­lia­men­tary Gov­ern­ment. The dif­fer­ences, in­deed, be­tween the two are de­cid­ed­ly to the ad­van­tage of Eng­land; for the Queen oc­cu­pies the throne by virtue of an hered­itary ti­tle which gives sta­bil­ity to the in­sti­tu­tions of the coun­try; whilst the Pres­ident fills his chair by virtue of a pop­ular elec­tion which pe­ri­od­ical­ly con­vuls­es the coun­try and threat­ens its in­sti­tu­tions with ru­in. It ap­pears, there­fore, that the func­tions of the Crown and of the House of Lords are not un­sub­stan­tial for­mal­ities. Ex­er­cised discreet­ly, they are a high­ly use­ful curb up­on the House of Com­mons. They not on­ly check the temer­ity of the elect­ed branch of the Par­lia­ment, but they pre­vent it from erect­ing the tyran­ny over sub­ject bod­ies and in­di­vid­uals which it would im­pose up­on them if it were vir­tu­al­ly sovereign.

The disadvantages of democracy are as follows:

No man, look­ing at­ten­tive­ly at the re­al­ities around him, can doubt that a great ma­jor­ity of the work­ing class­es are im­bued with prin­ci­ples es­sen­tial­ly so­cial­ist; that their very natural opin­ions on po­lit­ical and eco­nom­ical sub­jects are par­tial ap­pli­ca­tions of the premis­es which are the ground­work of the so­cial­ist the­ories. They be­lieve, for ex­am­ple, very gen­er­al­ly, that the rate of wages de­pends up­on the will of the em­ploy­ers; that the prices of pro­vi­sions and oth­er ar­ti­cles of gen­er­al con­sump­tion, de­pend up­on the will of the sellers; that the wealth of the rich­er class­es is some­how sub­tract­ed from their own; and that cap­ital is not an ad­miri­cle, but an an­tag­onist of labour. We might, there­fore, ex­pect from a House of Com­mons rep­re­sent­ing the prej­udices of the non-​pro­pri­etary class, a min­imum rate of wages, a max­imum price of pro­vi­sions and oth­er nec­es­saries of life, with num­ber­less oth­er re­stric­tions on the ac­tu­al free­dom of con­tract­ing. We might al­so ex­pect from such an as­sem­bly, that they would sad­dle the rich­er class­es, and es­pe­cial­ly the own­ers of so-​called ‘re­al­ized’ prop­er­ty, with the en­tire bur­then of tax­ation; de­stroy­ing or di­min­ish­ing there­by the mo­tives to ac­cu­mu­la­tion, to­geth­er with the ef­fi­cient de­mand for the labour of their own con­stituents

This may sound familiar. The disadvantages continue:

The aris­toc­ra­cies of birth and so­cial po­si­tion, and still more the aris­toc­ra­cy of mind, would be gen­er­al­ly dis­taste­ful to the con­stituen­cies. On fi­nance and po­lit­ical econ­omy, on law and the ad­min­is­tra­tion of jus­tice, on the ed­uca­tion of the low­er and su­pe­ri­or class­es, on the re­la­tions of the coun­try to oth­er in­de­pen­dent states, and on al­most all the subjects of our do­mes­tic and for­eign pol­icy, the con­stituen­cies would think like men who have not con­sid­ered such sub­jects, or have con­sid­ered them slight­ly, and through the medi­um of pop­ular prej­udices. Sound fi­nanciers and po­lit­ical economists, pro­found the­oret­ical and prac­ti­cal lawyers, men em­inent in sci­ence and let­ters, dis­tin­guished jour­nal­ists and philo­soph­ical states­men (such, for ex­am­ple, as Mr. Burke), would not be ap­pre­ci­at­ed by the re­formed con­stituen­cies, or would even be ob­jects of their pos­itive dis­like. Un­less they were skilled in elec­tion tac­tics, or were mas­ters of pop­ular elo­quence and pop­ular histri­on­ic fac­ul­ties, they would have but a poor chance of sit­ting in the House of Com­mons; and to men en­dowed with su­pe­ri­or rea­son and knowl­edge, the ac­qui­si­tion of those arts and fac­ul­ties would be next to im­pos­si­ble, though they were not with­held from ac­quir­ing them by self-​re­spect and taste.

I don’t see how anyone could not agree with this. In a mere 200 years, we’ve gone from this to this (and he was the better option!). At this rate, in 200 more years, we’ll be lucky to be governed by people who can read.

Mr Austin’s book is short, easy to read and insightful. His predictions stand up very well. It’s worth the short time it takes to read the book.

2 Responses to Review of “A Plea for the Constitution” by John Austin.

  1. […] and France” by F.M. Mahony The book can be found here. It goes nicely with this book, so I’ll keep the review […]

  2. […] if three books are all that is required, then I’m already in. You may now refer to me as Deacon […]

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