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 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.