Review of “Democracy and Reaction” by Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse

You can find this book here. There’s some background on the author here. It also wouldn’t hurt to refresh the old knowledge of Cobden before you dive in.

The book begins by laying out the following questions:

Is it that the Democratic State, the special creation of the modern world, and the pivot of the humanitarian movement, has itself become an obstruction to progress? Does popular government, with the influence which it gives to the Press and the platform, necessarily entail a blunting of moral sensibility, a cheapening and vulgarisation of national ideals, an extended scope for canting rhetoric and poor sophistry as a cover for the realities of the brutal rule of wealth? Are these evils of popular government essential and inevitable, and if so, does it mean that the work of generations of reformers must be undone?

Hobhouse is criticizing the decline of liberalism – what we would now call classic liberalism – and the triumph of reaction. I think his use of reaction is confusing as his time was not seeing a return to the old order, but the rise of a new order. From his perspective however, the liberal advancements made in the arenas of peace, free trade and freedom to Britain’s colonies (among others) were being lost. Hobhouse saw democracy as the cause of some of these losses.

The socialistic development of Liberalism paved the way for Imperialism by diminishing the credit of the school which had stood most stoutly for the doctrines of liberty, fair dealing, and forbearance in international affairs. So nonintervention abroad went by the board along with laissez faire at home; national liberty was ranked with competitive industrialism as an exploded superstition; a positive theory of the State in domestic affairs was matched by a positive theory of Empire, and the way was made straight for Imperialism . . .

Foremost among them stands the method of handing over public money or, what is the same thing, assigning relief from public burdens, first to one and then to another group of supporters of the Government in power. It is hardly possible under a popular suffrage to legislate in the interests of one class or one interest alone. But unfortunately a system of log-rolling is quite feasible, by which first one interest and then another gets “value received ” for its political support, and the invention of this system is a heavy blow to popular government. And this is not the only blow that has fallen. . . .

the Cobdenist ideas turned, as it were, inside out. There we saw that Free Trade, peace, retrenchment, self-government, democratic progress were mutually dependent principles. In their reversal we see the same truth. Aggrandisement, war, compulsory enlistment, lavish expenditure, Protection, arbitrary government, class legislation, follow naturally one upon the other. They move along the same line of thought . . .

More on the problems of democracy:

That the people as a whole have learnt to read has no doubt had the result that a certain portion of them have read the literature that is worth reading. Another result has been that the output of literature that is not worth reading has vastly increased. Once again, to suit the man-in-the-street, everything must be chopped up into the smallest possible fragments to assist digestion; even the ordinary article of the old journalism has proved far too long and too heavy; it must be cut up into paragraphs, punctuated by frequent spaces, and spiced with epigrammatic absurdities to catch attention on the wing. It must be diversified with headlines and salted with sensationalism; if it is to sell, it must appeal to the uppermost prejudices of the moment. As to news, mere fidelity to fact ceases to be of moment when everything is forgotten within twenty-four hours, and when people do not really read in order that they may know, but in order that their attention may be momentarily diverted from the tedium of the train or the tramcar. Such a public may be swayed by pity, as by other obvious and easy emotions, provided no prejudice stands in the way of its humanity, but for the most part it takes its daily toll of bloodshed in the news paragraphs as a part of the diurnal repast, and if there were no real wars, murders or sudden deaths, would probably expect the enterprising journalist to invent them.

A lesson for modern libertarians:

Popular sovereignty for instance was an article of the Liberal creed. Put into practice, popular sovereignty has not been very kind to Liberals, nor—which is more to the point for us—has it dealt very tenderly with some other Liberal ideas.

On the new reaction:

No social revolution will come from a people so absorbed in cricket and football. Should the beginnings of a movement appear, society has an easy way of dealing with it. In old days they hanged the leaders of popular movements. Now they ask them to dinner—a method of painless extinction which has proved far more effective.

Hobhouse has a firm belief that “right” should triumph over might in government and society. He doesn’t, unfortunately tell us how to identify “right” or how, precisely, it should triumph against might. Along, the way, he leads us on a weird explanation of evolution, for example:

Utilitarianism thus paved the way for the biological theory of society in which, as we have seen, the notion of right gives place altogether to that of force.

And if things were bad for Hobhouse, they’ve only gotten worse:

Men are intelligent enough and public-spirited enough to vote down a policy which is palpably ruining their own neighbourhood. Even in the most corrupt American cities when the misgovernment passes the tolerable the voters rouse themselves and suppress it.

Alas, this is no longer true. Just look at Detroit.

Back to democracy:

In its most obvious meaning, democracy implies a direct participation of the mass of ordinary citizens in the public life of the commonwealth, an idea most nearly realised, perhaps, in the great assemblies and large popular juries of Athens. This idea is held by observers to have materially influenced American public life, and not to have influenced it for good. It has lent support to the superstition that the highest and most difficult of public functions can be safely entrusted to the ordinary honest and capable citizen without the need of any special training as a preliminary.

. . .

With the formation of a regular civil service democracy in its first and most obvious form disappears. There remains the second idea, the idea of ultimate popular sovereignty. In this conception [of democracy] the part played by the individual man becomes less important than the part played by the people as a whole. It is held that the details of government are for the expert to arrange, but the expert administrator holds from the people, receives their mandate, and stands or falls by their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the result. The people are the ultimate authority, but only the ultimate authority. An immediate power is delegated to politicians who make a business of public affairs, and through them to civil servants with a professional training in administration.

. . .

It is admitted that the popular judgment can only be formed on the broad results of policy, and must be as much a judgment of persons as of things.

. . .

Finally, every form of government must be held responsible for the type of man whom it tends to bring to the front, and he who would weigh the merits and defects of democracy must take into account the character of the democratic leader. He must measure the power of brazen self-assertion and unblushing advertisement to bring a man to the front in a society like ours; he must allow that the capacity of gaining power depends more on the effective use of the rapier or the bludgeon in debate than on any proof of capacity to serve the country, while the art of maintaining power resolves itself into the art of so keeping up appearances as always to maintain the show of success for the moment, trusting to the levity of the public and the shortness of political memories to let the real final reckoning go by without close inquiry. A popular leader is not wont to take long views. He seldom looks farther than the next General Election. It would sometimes seem that he looks no further than the next Parliamentary division, and as long as he keeps his majority, thinks little of the effect his words may produce—it may be, on the future of a historic party; it may be, on the broad interests of the nation; it may be, in deepening the wretchedness of some persecuted people in a distant land. If sufficiently endowed with sophistical skill and debating readiness, a democratic ruler may become a very irresponsible being.

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