The Ashburton Guardian. Magna est Veritas, et Prevalebit. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 1882. The Problem of Democracy.
The pioblem of democracy has received, notwithstanding all the hot political discussions of English people at Home and in the colonies, very little thoughtful consideration. Perhaps this has been mainly because the steady growth of the democratic principle is regarded with bitter hostility, disguised or undisguised, by one class, and hailed with unbounded enthusiasm, or, at the least, with complete satisfaction by another section of the community. As to the fact of the enormous growth of democracy in the politics of to-day, there can be no question whatever. More than two centuries ago, Spinosa, the deepest philosopher of his time, asserted that in every country in Europe there was a tendency towards democracy ; but probably he himself scarcely foresaw how completely his words would become true. The Sultan, the Pope, and the Czar at the beginning of this century were looked on as despotic monarchs. |To-day the Sultan, bereft of half his dominions, only owning a foot of territory in Europe, through the mutual jealousies of the Continental powers, and himself the puppet of the Ulema of Constantinople, has less of personal freedom than an English railway navvy ; the Pope is landless out of Rome, and according to his own account, is a prisoner in the Vatican, liable to be insulted or stoned if he leaves his home ; and the Autocrat of all the Russias is so beset with the Nihilists that he has to get away from St. Petersburg under false pretences, and be (crowned in a cellar, so the scoffers say, in some unknown place in
Moscow. France is a republic, Spain has been one lately, and may be again any day; and in Germany even the strong-minded Bismarck is bearded in his Parliament by an overwhelming majority, who dispute both his powers and his master’s to violate the constitution. Who, that knows anything of history, can doubt of the enormous strides democracy has been making? The question for philosophical statesmen to consider is this : The power of democracy is overwhelming, but what is there to guarantee that that power shall be used rightly? Aristotle’s scheme of a good government, which has been adopted as an ideal ever since his time, was that of one which should be for the advantage of every class in the community. But the difficulty about the popular governments of to-day, if not in Great Britain, certainly in the Australasian colonies, is this, that the proletariat class, the working men, the masses, or the multitude, by whatever name they may be called, have practically unlimited power, if they only chose to exercise it, and yet that they have every inducement to exercise that power for their own special advantage and to the detriment of the moneyed andjanded classes in the community, which should equitably possess equal rights with their own. We do not blame the democratic working men much for this. Experience has proved that kings, aristocracies, and peoples alike make a bad use of power as soon as that power becomes absolute. A despotism under Louis XIV. of France, an oligarchy under the Council of Ten at Venice, and a democracy under the Convention and the Reign of Terrror are scarcely types of Government which an Englishman now would admire. To provide against such evils as these the English Constitution, which has served as the model for the Governments of her colonies, was based on a complete system of checks by the three Estates of the realm— King, Lords, and Commons —upon the encroachments of any one of the three upon the rights of either of the other two. In the case of the two first the check was likely, in a free country, very soon to be effective. The masses in the last resort could extort all their rights by a revolution, and their numbers would be irresistible. But supposing the masses themselves to get the upper hand, who is to stop them from abusing their power ? _ In Engit has not yet come to that; it has in some of the colonies, and probably will in all before long. Victoria has been the first among the group to whichthis colony belongs to experience the despotism of a democracy. New Zealand will probably be the next. If the powers of the Governor, moneyed, landed, and learned class, and “ working men” be all three equal, surely it is an encroachmenton the rightsofthe second of these when the mere possession of property, no matter to what extent, is made penal. When, for instance, a Bill is brought forward for the express purpose of “ bursting-up the large estates,” and a scale of taxation on on property, not uniform, but graduated, is imposed on those who have large possessions, the question naturally comes from every right-minded man, if property has duties, which it certainly has, surely it has also rights ? So also with regard to the lawful rights of that House of the Legislature which is supposed to represent, and was actually intended to represent the rights of property, the Upper House. Twice, at any rate in Victoria, the attempt has been made to render the Legislative Council practically a nonentity. On the first occasion, in 1868, there was a legislative deadlock, payments to all the creditors of the Government were suspended for ten months, and the whole machinery of the legislature thrown into confusion—because the Upper House had thrown out a Bill granting to Lady Darling, the Governor’s wife, as a bribe to her husband to favor the party of the majority in the Assembly. It was not pretended by any one that the estimable but common, place lady who was to be the nominal receiver of the gift, had done any special service to the State. Yet, in this case, sectional animosity in the colony was so intense that even the very forms desired for keeping each of the estates of the realm in its just position, were directed so as to serve an exactly opposite end, and this Bill for giving a bribe to the Governor, in order that its passing might be assured, was tacked on to the Appropriation Bill for the year, so that there might be no discussion in the Upper House as to its propriety. A similar attempt might at any time be made in New Zealand; only hitherto fortunately, from various causes, the majority in the popular House have better preserved their sobriety of mind, or been better kept in check than their brethren in the sister colony. Yet there have been plenty of signs of tendencies in a similar direction. Sir George Grey last session proposed to render the Legislative Council powerless by making it necessary, in case of any difference of opinion from the House of Representatives, to refer 'the matter to a plebiscite, obviously an appeal to one estate of the realm at the expense of the other two. Bills for bursting up the large estates of the colony, and for a progressive land tax have been often talked about and urged, and will probably before long be generally supposed to be within the range of practical politics. And if it should be the will of the “ Liberal ” party to agree to the proposal of a progressive land tax, how long could it be successfully opposed, right or wrong ? The landless many are the majority, and the majority are all-powerful. To assert, as is often done, that the minority must bow to the majority, is a sound enough principle if the majority and minority belong to a homogeneous body, not otherwise. In a mixed community of men and horses, were such a thing possible—as it actually is on a squatter’s run—and the horses in a majority, the vote would certainly be for unlimited oats and very limited work. The human minority might think differently, but not like to give way, perhaps ought not.