"I talk with the authority of failure." So said Scott Fitzgerald in one of his notebooks. The statement did, of course, ignore Fitzgerald’s magnificent achievement in at least one novel, The Great Gatsby, and in several perfect short stories, but it did point to the author’s sense of wasted time and his inability to carry through with great projects.
In the Fitzgeraldian sense Lord Acton, the leading British nineteenth century exponent of what Leonard Read calls the "freedom philosophy," could also speak with the authority of failure. As Robert Schuettinger makes plain in his excellent Lord Acton: Historian of Liberty (Open Court, P.O. Box 599, LaSalle, Illinois 61301, $12.50), Acton never finished any of the grand works he hoped to write. A British liberal Catholic who, in his heart, doubted the theory of papal infallibility, he wanted to do a history of the Popes. What came out of it was a three-installment article published in a short-lived magazine in the Eighteen Sixties.
As a young man, a friend of James Bryce, Acton resolved to write a history of the origins of the American Constitution, comparing the American experience with that of the democracies of the ancient world. A vast amount of research was expended on the subject, but the result of it all was an article on "The Political Causes of The American Revolution" and a subsequent lecture on the meaning of the American Civil War.
This set the pattern of Acton ‘s life in the years before he became Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. As the gifted son of an English baronet and a FrenchGerman-Italian mother, Acton could read scholarly books in three languages. He planned a work on German history (he spent much of his time at a family residence in the Bavarian mountains), but nothing important came of it.
He thought of a massive work on Johann von Dollinger, his old teacher who was excommunicated by the Vatican for saying the Pope had gone against Christ’s warning against establishing a kingdom in this world. But the end of this was a forty-four page article in the English Historical Review.
His study of Machiavelli led to the collection of forty-five editions of Il Principe, or The Prince, and countless books and manuscripts on sixteenth-century Italy. After weeks and, indeed, years of mulling over the immorality of Machiavelli’s advice to rulers, Acton finally contented himself with a twenty-one page introduction to still another edition of Il Principe.
The greatest of Acton‘s nonbooks was his History of Liberty, to which he devoted a lifetime of thinking and talking. Mary Gladstone, the daughter of England ‘s great Liberal Prime Minister, was fascinated to hear Acton discuss his history. But the history never took formal shape. Nor did Acton ‘s planned book on federalism, or his history of the Reformation, or his study of James II, the last Catholic king of England and Scotland.
Sowing the Seeds
A visitor to the Acton library at Aldenham came away with a report to John Morley that he had "beheld the most pathetic sight of wasted labor that ever met human eyes." This was a not uncommon reaction to Acton‘s "failure" at the time. But Robert Schuettinger thinks it is wrong to think of Acton as a "failed" book writer. If Acton had concentrated on any one period such as the Reformation or the America of the Founding Fathers, he would never have succeeded in tossing off a thousand-and-one apercus that have been the seed of hundreds of volumes on liberty written by other men.
Actually, Acton ‘s published writings (not counting a prodigious correspondence) came to 5,000 printed pages, or enough to fill ten big volumes. Schuettinger solves the Riddle of Acton by concluding that he was "one of those brilliant and insightful scholars whose multitude of interests were insufficiently disciplined by an orderly sense of priorities." Acton himself knew, by his fortieth year, that he was a man who "seized upon a passionate interest for several months or a year, wrote an incisive essay on the subject, and then went on to another problem to be approached for an equally short time with an equal amount of enthusiasm."
A Growing Influence
Without ever writing a single big book Acton has had an influence that is still growing in the eighth decade of the Twentieth Century.
Britishers who are disillusioned by the Welfare State are just now catching up with a letter written by Acton in 1862 in which he criticized welfarism for nursing "a classless community which, instead of being absorbed in its own places, is permanently relying on the State to provide for it… depriving it of the possibility of becoming independent and self-supporting." Acton feared the philosophy of welfarism would end liberty by creating "the need of a strong hand perpetually saving society and converting dictatorship into a regular form of government."
Acton ‘s warning against conscription is as eloquent as anything listed in Martin Anderson’s Conscription: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California 94305, $15.00). "A people," so Acton wrote, "that relies on a permanent system of compulsory military service resembles the statesman who declared himself ready to sacrifice not only a part, but the whole of the constitution, in order to preserve the remainder. It is a system by which one great liberty is surrendered and all are imperilled, and it is a surrender not of rights only, but also of power."
A Letter to Creighton
The most famous quotation in which Acton speaks to our times comes from a private letter which he wrote to his good friend Mandell Creighton, the Anglican Bishop of London. Bishop Creighton had argued that kings and popes, unlike other men, should be given the benefit of the doubt when there were suspicions of wrong-doing. "I cannot accept your canon," so Acton wrote, "… historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority."
This single statement, tossed off as an obiter dictum, has been worth all the books that Acton talked about but didn’t get around to doing. Acton has been accused of using "freedom" as a meaningless "hurrah-word." But his own definition of liberty is precise. "By liberty," he wrote, "I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion."
In a larger sense, so Schuettinger concludes, all of Acton ‘s writings can be read as forming a large and continuous "History of Liberty." We would have lost this bigger book if Acton had given his life to a single work on the papacy, or the history of the Reformation, or whatever.
by Sir Henry Sumner Maine
With an Introduction by George W. Carey
(Liberty Classics, 7440 North Shade-land, Indianapolis, Ind. 46250, 1976) 254 pages.
Reviewed by Henry Hazlitt
All students of politics owe a debt of gratitude to Liberty Classics for bringing Sir Henry Maine’s Popular Government back into print. First published in 1885, with several early reprintings, the book has been out of print for many years. Yet this work deserves to rank with John Stuart Mill’s Representative Government and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Maine‘s Ancient Law is accorded such a rank; but Popular Government is usually passed over in embarrassed silence.
It is not difficult to account for this neglect. Maine questioned the virtues and inevitability of democracy when it was approaching the apex of its prestige. That prestige, it s true, had not yet reached the eight it was to reach in 1917, when Woodrow Wilson took the United states into war "to make the world safe for democracy." The word "Fascist" did not yet exist to throw at anyone who expressed the slightest misgivings about the complete wisdom of all existing democratic institutions. But it was already almost fatal to the election of any politician, or even to the reputation of any political philosopher, to question the contention that Vox Populi was practically Vox Dei.
Yet a closer study than was apparently accorded it on its original appearance reveals that Sir Henry Maine’s book is by no means the sweeping condemnation of democracy it was long assumed to be. He several times remarks that "the best Constitutions are those in which there is a large popular element" (p. 182). But he did contend that: "Of all forms of government, Democracy is the most difficult" (p. 103). And he argued also that it was "characterized by an extreme fragility" (p. 90).
Though regarded by most others as "propelled in a continuous progress by an irresistible force," Maine saw democracy as "the product of a whole series of accidents" (p. 99). Historically, "from the reign of Augustus Caesar to the establishment of the United States, it was Democracy which was always, as a rule, on the decline, nor was the decline arrested till the American Federal Government was founded" (p. 98). As an example of the fragility of democratic government, he cited the experience in Latin America, and was able to point out, as early as 1884, that "out of fourteen Presidents of the Bolivian Republic, thirteen have died assassinated or in exile" (p. 44).
What, apart from its instability, did Maine see as the chief vices of democracy? He deplored the kind of men it tended to bring to the top, and quoted Sir James Stephen: "In a pure democracy, the ruling men will be the Wire-pullers and their friends… In some ages, a powerful character, in others cunning, in others power of transacting business, in others eloquence, in others a good hold upon commonplaces and a facility of applying them to practical purposes, will enable a man to climb on his neighbors’ shoulders and direct them this way or that" (p. 53). To which Maine adds his own comment: The democratic Hero is "debarred by his position from the full practice of the great virtues of veracity, justice, and moral intrepidity" (p. 58).
"Universal suffrage," Maine thought, had it existed at the time, "would certainly have prohibited the spinning-jenny and the power-loom. It would certainly have forbidden the threshing-machine" (p. 58).
The "beneficent prosperity" in America in his own day, he held, reposed "on the sacredness of contract and the stability of private property" (p. 71). Fortunately, he added, "The Americans [of 1884] are still of opinion that more is to be got for human happiness by private energy than by public legislation" (p. 71).
"It is perfectly possible", however, he wrote at another point, "to revive even in our day the fiscal tyranny which once left even European populations in doubt whether it was worth while preserving life by thrift and toil. You have only to tempt a portion of the population into temporary idleness by promising them a share in a fictitious hoard lying (as Mill puts it) in an imaginary strong box which is supposed to contain all human wealth. You have only to take the heart out of those who would willingly labor and save, by taxing them ad misericordiam for the most laudable philanthropic objects… Here then is the great question about democratic legislation, when carried to more than moderate length" (p. 69).
And he remarks at still another point that "there are two kinds of bribery. It can be carried out by promising or giving to expectant partisans places paid out of the taxes, or it may consist in the directer process of legislating away the property of one class and transfer ring it to another" (p. 119).
A still further tendency of democracy to which Maine called attention was the overlegislation that ii seemed inevitably to breed. "It is no. often recognized how excessively rare in the world was sustained legislative activity till rather more than fifty years ago…. A Revolution is regarded as doing all its work at once. Legislation, however, is contemplated as never-ending. (p. 140)… It is rapidly becoming the practice for parties to outbid one another in the length of the tale of legislation to which they pledge themselves in successive Royal Speeches… Neither experience nor probability affords any ground for thinking that there may be an infinity of legislative innovation, at once safe and beneficent" (p. 157).
Can we honestly say today that Maine ‘s fears of more than ninety years ago have proved unwarranted? Or that his picture of the typical democratic leader is not disquietingly recognizable?
His fears, in fact, fell short of today’s actualities. Practically every country in the world is now suffering from monetary inflation. Balanced budgets are the exception, not the rule. Taxes have reached near-confiscatory levels nearly everywhere. Politicians do not dare to raise them further for fear revenues will actually decrease. Congress today turns out an average of 500 new laws a year—new prohibitions, new changes of the rules, the creation of new crimes. In the 94th Congress, there were 3,899 bills introduced in the Senate and 15,863 introduced in the House. The record of many State legislatures is far worse.
But with all his distrust of democracy, what has Maine to suggest in its place? His answer, to the extent that he offers any, is far from clear. Of the three possible forms of rule—of the Many, the Few, or the One, he proposes neither of the latter. In fact, at one point he tells us that "whenever government of the Many had been tried, it had ultimately produced monstrous and morbid forms of government by the One, or of government by the Few" (p. 204).
What Maine does do is to insist on the necessity of the erection of safeguards to the unrestricted rule of the Many. Of the four essays that make up this book, the entire last one is devoted to praise of the American Constitution and to its explicit separation and limitation of powers. He contrasts this constantly with what he sees as the capricious and unchecked power of the British Cabinet. He distrusts the very "flexibility" so admired by Bagehot, and he quotes in the original French and adds his own italics to the remark of Tocqueville that: "In England, the Constitution can change constantly; or rather, it doesn’t exist" (p. 236).
What he did not foresee is that many of the safeguards set up in the original American Constitution would be in time removed or ignored. Instead of the appointment of Senators by their respective State legislatures, which he admired, direct election would be substituted. The central government would assume increasingly powers left by the original Constitution to the individual States. The qualifications required for voters—property ownership, tax-payment, education, literacy, a minimum age of 21—would be successively removed.
But a much wider question emerges from this book, never explicitly mentioned by Maine. Is the real problem that confronts us merely that of democratic government? Or is it not rather that of all government? And isn’t this the problem that has so far proved intractable? Writers from time immemorial have tried to solve it with facile and question-begging phrases. Aristocracy must be the best form of government, because it means government by the wisest and the best. Ah yes; but how do you get the people to recognize and choose and put into power the wisest and the best? Well then, in any case, the government, however chosen, should be given only very limited powers, so it cannot abuse them. Ah yes, again. But what powers? Can we draw a precise line around them? Can we get enough people to agree on that line? And even if we can once draw such a line, giving neither too little nor too much, how can we prevent whoever the government is from using whatever powers it already has, to extend its powers still further?
We come back to a fundamental dilemma: To prevent chaos, violence, rapine, or rule by the gangsters, somebody must be trusted with some power; but nobody can be completely trusted with much power.
Perhaps the political problem is not insoluble. But where and when in human history has it been for any long period satisfactorily solved?