Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/December 1884/The Problem of Universal Suffrage


THERE are three principal theories of suffrage. It may be regarded, first, as the final shape assumed by the struggle for existence among mankind. Since it is necessary, sooner or later, to come to a treaty of peace, let us make it before the battle, instead of afterward; let us put ballots in the place of gun-shots. We can thus gain an economy of men and strength, and a reserve of living power. Universal suffrage may be defined, from this point of view, as a device of modern society to make a canvass of its forces, and learn what proportion of them is arrayed on the one side or on the other.

The second theory is based on considerations of utility and common welfare. Modern nations, in their advancing freedom, are happy only as they do definitively what they wish, as they recognize in their present condition the result of their present will, while they reserve the power of modifying their situation on changing their wish. Though the opinion of all may not be the best possible, it is at least the most fit to satisfy everybody, and experience will teach wherein it may need amending. But what if it is too late to amend? Some experiments may lead to the loss of a province, or to the ruin of the nation, Mr, Spencer, indeed, tells us that as the vote of each individual is the expression of the wants that he feels, so the votes of the nation are the product of a generally felt want. But we reply that individuals can not feel or account for general wants, especially when they concern international affairs. Even in the internal affairs of a nation, a general want is not the simple sum of particular wants. There are superior interests, not intellectual, esthetic, and moral only, but economical and political ones also, of which individuals as a mass can have neither knowledge nor the mere feeling. On this point Mr. Spencer remarks that, although the vote of the people is not the expression of absolute utility and truth, it is the expression of the people's understanding of hem, and of what they are ready to maintain. True; but is the present moment all? Must we not think of to-morrow? The fault of the masses is want of foresight. They are instinctive, not reflective. To calculate the remote effects of a measure, to rise to the point of view of future generations, to be moderate now, to give up immediate pleasures for future good, perhaps for the sake of an idea that will never be realized, passes the scope of average minds. The fate of democracy is, then, subordinated to the existence of a real public and impersonal spirit in the majority of the individuals: if this spirit does not exist, universal suffrage is only a strife of individual interests—it dissolves the masses into their atomic elements, then arbitrarily gathers up the atoms, and scatters them to the winds. It may be said, and with truth, that the best means of developing a genuine public spirit in a nation is to call the whole people to political life, and that the participation of all in power is an exercise useful to all, and one that develops knowledge of the national affairs in all. But an important distinction must be made in the matter. It is the conquest of power, not its completed acquisition, that gives the most lively stimulus to progress in political intelligence. While the people are contending for their rights against oppression, their intelligence is growing; when the masses have become preponderant, the current sets in in the contrary direction. Those who have the supreme power, whether it be one, a few, or many, have no longer need of the arms of reason; they can make their mere will prevail. Men who can not be resisted are generally too well satisfied with their own opinions to be disposed to change them, or to be told without impatience that they are in the wrong. John Stuart Mill was right in conceiving that the best interest of democracy consisted in giving the different classes force enough to make reason prevail, but not enough to prevail against reason. The existing organization of suffrage is far from securing this guarantee.

The third theory of universal suffrage, higher and more correct than the theories of force and interest, is based on right. Public freedom is above public force and public interest, and is founded on individual freedom. The individual has no right to alienate, for the benefit of another, his own liberty and that of his descendants. The object of universal suffrage is to reserve the will of generations to come, and for that reason it involves the suppression of hereditary privileges, of aristocracies and monarchies, and of everything that shackles present and future freedom.

This principle is morally incontestable; but the consequences derivable from it do not seem to be generally comprehended. From the point of right, suffrage seems to us to imply—1. A power over one's self. 2. A power over others. 3. A public function exercised in the name of the whole nation. Most democratic theorists see only the first of these characteristics. The function of preserving individual liberty within the state is, indeed, one of the ends of suffrage; but, in voting, I not only vote for myself, I also exercise a power over the domain of other persons as they do over mine, just as much as though the question were one of the conveyance of an estate, or the division of its proceeds. This power over another, multiplied by the number of the voters, or of the majority, may become something formidable. Hence arises a second opinion that regards suffrage as a part of the power allotted by a reciprocal contract to each associate in the great civil and political society. Although this conception has a relative degree of truth, it appears to us to rest on an incomplete idea of the state. The state is not an arbitrary association, but one in which the members are bound in an historical and organic solidarity. Suffrage further acquires a third character, and appears as a social function, or a function of the collective consciousness. By means of it, we may say, all the cells of the political body are invoked to take their part in the intellectual and voluntary life. But the idea of function involves the idea of capacity to perform the function.

To see in suffrage, as is nearly always done, only a single aspect—whether it be the individual, or the contractual, or the social side—is to lose sight of one of its three constituent relations; the relation of the individual to himself, that of the individual to other individuals as such, or that of the individual to the state as an organic whole. In these three points of view, the right supposes a capacity—1. To govern one's self; 2. To exercise by the ballot a power over another; and, 3. To exercise a social function in the name of the state. This, if we are not mistaken, is the real and complete conception that embodies in the germ the whole philosophy of universal suffrage.

The part of the state is not generally better comprehended than that of the individual. The omnipotence of the state, falsely asserted by the radical school, becomes in practice the omnipotence of majorities. Actual democracies are simply the government of all by the largest number, instead of the government of all by all. The confusion which democrats here make of the universal right of suffrage with the practical expedient of majorities involves grave consequences and deserves to be examined.

The ideal of a perfectly free society would be that every law in it be the work of the unanimous will. Unanimity, the only adequate form of general liberty, already exists upon a number of points. We all desire to live in society, and to enter into the social contract; and we all prefer to live in that particular society which constitutes our nationality. There are also some things within that nationality on which unanimity exists. We all want roads and railroads; and, excepting the thieves, we all want police and courts. But there is a point where divergences arise, and conflicts of opinions, interests, and rights. What are the means, when we come to divide at this point, of still securing the greatest agreement of liberties, and, in consequence, the highest degree of justice?

The points on which opinions are divided may be not incompatible with each one following his own choice, or they may be irreconcilable. In the former case there need be no difficulty in arriving at practical solutions, the scope of which should be extended as much as possible. By an intelligent decentralization, society may be broken up into groups, smaller and smaller, one after the other, without ceasing to be united at the common points. But who is to control in these circumstances, when the different wills are absolutely incompatible? Partisans of aristocracy say, those who have reason and right on their side. But how are we to ascertain who they are? We have no criterion for recognizing the bad and incapable as we have for distinguishing the infirm, the lame, and the diseased. Education is not a sufficient criterion of political capacity, for it does not do away with prejudices or with selfishness. Restricted suffrage, according to the lessons of experience, has exhibited the same vices as the suffrages of the greater number—corruptibility, prejudice, vanity, ignorance, distrust of liberty, and dependence. The middle and upper classes have no right to consider themselves better than the populace. Like the populace, they have their egotistical—or, as Bentham styles them, their "sinister"—interests, in opposition to the general interest. Wicked and incapable persons are as often met with in oligarchies as in the mass of the nation. History shows that all aristocracies have perished by their vices and incapacities, and that those who are assumed to be the best are frequently the worst. In calling all the citizens to power, under suitable conditions of capacity, we are doubtless exposed to the danger of calling in some worthless men, but we are still more exposed to it if we confer a privilege upon particular classes. The only difference is that, if the evil element exists in a close aristocracy, it soon corrupts the whole body; while, if it is scattered in a mass always open and mobile, it suffers dilution, and finally elimination. We are obliged, therefore, in the question of suffrage, to consider solely the quality of man and citizen aside from mental and moral qualities. As we can not weigh heads, we must count them. It is logical, when there is conflict, for numbers to decide, not because they are numbers, but because they represent the preponderance of rights and wills: "We unanimously agree to be governed by the majority." Those who do not approve this decision must submit, or step down and out. That is the principle on which the recognized right of majorities rests. But, although a necessary convention rules here, there is nothing in it to justify the pride of triumphant majorities, and the pretense that they represent, by the mere fact of their numbers, the national sovereignty. Majorities should be taught to comprehend that they are only a provisional and feeble substitute for the universal will. They should not be allowed to persuade themselves that they necessarily represent truth and justice. And they should always remember that they were a minority before they became a majority. It is a law of history that every true and progressive opinion was at first that of a single man, then that of a minority, before it became that of the largest number. There are, then, great chances that the opinion of the future may be residing in one of the minorities that have been overcome by the majority; but in which? It is impossible to know. The error that is passing away and the truth that is coming are both in a minority; and it is precisely because we have no sufficient criterion to distinguish the dawn from the twilight that we content ourselves with the average opinion as offering the least chances of error and the most perfectible elements.

When a decision is to be made, the views of the majority and the minority can not, as we have seen, be reconciled; but, while the matter is under deliberation, they can be compared by giving a representation of all the opinions and permitting their expression. The brain can not decide for two contrary things at once, but it can deliberate over the conflicting views. The case is the same with the kind of national brain called a parliament. Mirabeau has compared representative assemblies to geographical maps, which should reproduce all the elements of the country with their proportions, without permitting the more considerable elements to overshadow the less considerable ones. Now, how far ought the proportionality of representation in such bodies to go? Should it aim at a nearly mathematical exactness, as the partisans of Mr. Mill and Mr. Hare demand? It may help us, in answering this question, to examine the nature and function of the different parties, of which we propose to assure the exact representation. In the view of social science, two kinds of forces are indispensable to the body politic, as well as to every living organism—conservative and progressive forces. These forces are personified in the two great parties that prevail in all modern states—the conservative liberal and the progressive liberal parties. Instead of mutually hating each other, these parties ought to comprehend that they are necessary one to the other, and both to the whole. From a psychological point of view, the state, which is an exaggerated man, and condenses in itself all the living forces of the man, should include simultaneously parties distinguishable from one another by differences corresponding to the successive ages of the individual. M. Bluntschli has constructed a fine psychology of parties, which, however, goes a little too far. Childhood is represented by radicalism. All the thoughts of childhood are for the future. A new world is opened before it, which it believes it can organize according to its fancy. Every formula taught in school seems to childhood a universally applicable truth; the radical thinks the same, and ascribes a magical power to his laws and institutions. The child loves to push things to extremes, and, armed with his petty logic, goes from destruction to destruction without concerning himself about obstacles. How many theorists have reconstructed the state in the same manner! Universal suffrage should never forget that radicals may be good opponents, but are detestable governors. Unfortunately, in the real world of the ballot, even the violence of the radicals has a chance of success with the masses, to whom often it is enough to promise everything, to get everything from them.

The liberal progressive spirit corresponds with the age of youth and early manhood, which is especially distinguished by the development of the productive forces. The young man endeavors to assert himself, to produce, to take his place in the world. Liberal natures offer the same character, and the organizing power which they show is the infallible sign of true liberalism. The liberal loves liberty above everything else; but he suspects liberties that are granted or gotten up for the occasion. He has faith only in liberty that is innate, or that has been conquered by labor and effort. Progress is his aim.

The conservative liberal is the man, some forty or fifty years old, who is less concerned about acquiring new possessions than about improving and expanding those that he has. The conservative is less enthusiastic than the progressist, not that he does not appreciate his ideas, but because he more clearly sees the difficulty of realizing them. As the progressist above all loves liberty, the conservative loves pre-eminently the law which gives force and stability to relations that are recognized as necessary. Further, he attaches himself particularly to historic right, of which he maintains even the traditional form. He wishes the movement toward the future to respect the rights of the past. Thus he is little aggressive, and his particular force is the defensive. His natural place is after a revolution, or a fundamental transformation, when the living question is to preserve the conquests that have been made, and secure them against new abuses. Great legislators are generally progressists; great jurists are for the most part conservatives. Reactionary absolutism corresponds with old age, when life is declining and approaching its end, and the passive elements become preponderant. Its ideal is passive obedience; but, if its tranquillity is disturbed, it becomes irritable and cruel.

While we may recognize the part of truth in such a psychology of the parties, we need not believe that each age is rigorously analogous to any of the characters mentioned; the affair is one simply of general tendencies and means, which do not exclude individual differences. The progress of the state will be regular and consistent with a just conservation of acquired results, if the national representation is composed of two great liberal parties, one progressive and the other conservative, with a few elements of radicalism counterbalanced by a spice of absolutism. The two extremes are gradually becoming more restricted, to the advantage of moderate and liberal tendencies, and suffrage should be organized so as to prepare for this result. It should be the object of democracy to accord the right of deliberation to all the constitutional parties in proportion to their strength, and to lodge the right of making a decision in the progressive liberal, counterpoised by the conservative liberal element. It is, however, not easy to achieve a practical realization by mathematical processes of the ideal of proportional representation; and the separation of the power of deliberation and the power of decision is hardly practicable under existing constitutions, by which the same assembly deliberates and decides. Philosophers should, nevertheless, continue to point out the end to be sought.

Besides the opposition of the majority and the minority bringing about a conflict of the constitutional parties, universal suffrage embodies another antinomy no less disquieting—that of the number and the quality of the votes. The problem of reconciling numerical superiority with mental superiority is a squaring of the circle for democracy. As approximative solutions, it has been proposed to express intellectual superiority by a numerical valuation, and allow a plural vote to the educated man; and so to instruct and enlighten the whole mass that the number of the suffrages shall, on the whole, coincide with their quality. John Stuart Mill has insisted upon the former method, or "plural suffrage," but the system is not without its dangers. It opens the door to arbitrary selections. Particular classes, assuming too many votes for themselves, would finally become oligarchies, the more probably because the educated classes are also those in easier circumstances. The only case in which a plurality of suffrages would be, in our view, at all admissible, would be that in which the individual really represented several persons, as the father of a family, who might, in virtue of his wife and children, have two votes. The best means of resolving, in part if not entirely, the antinomy of right and capacity is, in our view, education; but its character should be rightly understood.

By the theory of universal suffrage, the mass of the citizens should desire the general good rather than their particular interests, and they should have a sufficient discernment of it to impress good direction on their policy. Education should, then, develop, as the two essential qualities of the citizen, moral disinterestedness and political sense. Our present system of education does not seem to respond, in any of its departments, to this double requirement. We owe much to the mathematical and physical sciences that are now held in so much honor, but we have no reason for believing that they arc competent to make citizens morally disinterested or politically capable. Purely scientific instruction has proved no better for this than that which is purely grammatical. Criminal statistics has not shown that any great advantage accrues even to those who simply know how to read, write, and reckon; but it has revealed more criminality among working-men than among peasants, even though the working-men may be the better instructed. Some statisticians have remarked that the moral influence of knowledge begins to be real at the moment when learning ceases to be a tool to become a work of art. To exert a moral influence is, in fact, to raise minds above egotist views and purely material interests, toward general ideas and impersonal sentiments. For that reason, instruction should be not only professional, and technical or scientific, but literary and æsthetic as well.

The citizen of a democracy must, further, have precise knowledge in public polity, and this should be made obligatory. It may be that a man has a right to be and continue incapable in matters that concern himself alone, but that can not be allowed in affairs that concern all. Society as a whole must demand some guarantees from the associated individuals—a certain maturity, not of age alone, but also of intelligence and education. John Stuart Mill says that the elector ought to be able to copy a few lines of English, and do a sum in the rule of three. We have not much faith in the virtue, in this matter, of the rule of three. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are double-edged blades; everything depends on what one reads and how he uses his arithmetic. Mr. Spencer remarks with much force that the multiplication-table will not help one to comprehend the falsity of the socialist dogmas. What good does the laborer's ability to read do him if he only reads what confirms him in his delusions? The higher grades of instruction are doubtless more efficacious than the primary; but they are far from being of themselves competent to develop political capacity. Mr. Spencer, having shown how poorly prepared is the Engglish university graduate, with his knowledge of Homer and Sophocles, to perform his duties as a member of Parliament, adds that to prepare a person for political life he ought to be given education in politics, while the contrary is done. Yet, when we wish to teach our daughters to become good musicians, we do not furnish them with a painter's apparatus, but seat them in front of a piano. The classical studies, so much criticised, have at least an æsthetic and moral influence, if they do not develop the political sense; but the study of the sciences, as it is ordinarily pursued, has neither of these advantages. Our courses are overcharged with historical and scientific studies, the tendency of which is to overload the memory of the pupils, without developing their judgment or elevating their character, and the result has been deplorable. Courses charged with calculations, analyses, and classifications, can not even contribute to the moral and intellectual elevation of the mind. There should be taught, besides the elementary and practical principles, the most speculative principles, and the most general results of the sciences, or, in short, their philosophy. In this way only has science an educational virtue; in this way it lifts the mind instead of merely furnishing the memory, and is liberal instead of servile and military. As usually taught, it serves only to prepare, for examination-day, answers the most of which will be forgotten a month afterward.

But we are asked, Is not science the investigation of truth, and does not this imply a love of truth, a disinterested love fruiting in abnegation and sacrifices? Oh, yes, a great scientific man has said that truth surrenders to the patience of students, to simplicity and devotion as well as to genius. But the search for truth is one thing, and truth already discovered and taught passively is another thing. In scientific instruction, as it is commonly given, only acquired results are presented to the pupils, without teaching at the cost of what efforts they have been gained—only truths that have been cooled off, lifeless truths and soulless formulas. For moral effect, we should give the history of science and of scientific men, intermixed with the exposition of the sciences; but we prefer to teach a hundred more theorems or formulas, which our pupils hasten to forget. Thus taught, separated from philosophy and history, science has neither moral virtue nor civil import. It degrades instead of elevating, makes machines and not men, still less citizens. A considerable part should, then, be given, in teaching of every grade, to letters, the arts, and the moral, social, and political sciences. On this point Mr. Spencer and M. Bluntschli agree in the assertion that there can be no liberty, no vote in democracies, without a good political education. The child can hardly grasp the idea of the state, and can only receive extremely vague and dull notions respecting the political constitution. He should be inspired with ideas of public morals, civic virtues, and patriotism, and rather by examples than by precepts. This political instruction should be continued in a higher and more practical but always unpartisan form for youth who are approaching the time when they will exercise the right of suffrage. It is as dangerous to thrust into political life young persons who are strangers to all political knowledge as it is to send soldiers into battle without having drilled them in military exercises. Defense against the assaults of internal barbarians is as essential in democracies as defense against foreign invasions. Examinations have, been instituted in Belgium for candidates for admission to participation in the right of suffrage, and the example might be a good one to follow.[1] Not only should primary political instruction be extended and fortified, but a secondary and superior political instruction should be created, for they do not exist in France. We some years ago made a demand for the introduction of political economy. It has since obtained a modest place in the course. It is now time to demand political and juridical instruction. Superior political instruction is in the most incomplete condition in France. In Germany, chairs of Public Law and Social Science are established in all the universities. The same is the case in Holland, Belgium, and Italy. M. Bluntschli occupies a chair of this kind at Heidelberg; can it be otherwise than that a professor of his talents should have rendered great services in so important a course? A free school of political science has been successfully organized in Paris, to fill the want of superior political instruction which is so apparent. It has been well said that France, more than any other country, ought to have professors charged with the duty of studying the conditions of the best government, and communicating the results of their labors to the public, for France overthrows its government and looks for a better one every twenty years. The scientific study of political questions would doubtless moderate this ardor for change, by showing to all how difficult the questions are. Lacking this, we have to be contented with plans of social organization improvised by journalists. In Belgium, the state has instituted a diploma for political sciences, which is a title of preference to administrative functions. As M. de Laveleye remarks, this is the only means of securing a sufficient contingent of assiduous pupils, and of diffusing the serious knowledge of political science through the country. The classes called superior must become worthy of their name. The movement will have to come from them and be spread through the totality. Moved and directed by them, popular suffrage will be, as has been said, useful by means of its sheer inertia, as the fly-wheel of a machine regulates and augments the force of the motor.

In the struggle of the nations for existence, the future will assure the triumph to the people who best comprehend that the highest intellectual, moral, and social culture is also the most necessary to its grandeur and power. The more democratic a nation is, the more it is inclined to be utilitarian, and yet it must not be wholly utilitarian. It wants an abundance of the moral and æsthetic. The true means of resolving the antinomies of universal suffrage is the widest possible distribution of the highest possible instruction. In this, society has only to follow the example of Nature, which causes unequal beings to rise from the equality of the mean. Of seeds under the same cultivation, those which are fruitful are sifted from those which are sterile. Two men, of nearly like intelligence, are working in a field; instruct

them, and while one continues a laborer, the other may become a great light, a Laplace or a Faraday. Your equal instruction has freed the latent forces of superiority. The same is the case in the political field. Joined to a universal instruction, the effect of the equal right of suffrage will be, not to suppress the directive power of the whole, the superior authority, but to constitute it by an intelligent selection. While universal suffrage still leaves the door open for natural superiorities, these in their turn finally bring about a new equality with the level higher than before. This is the principal difference between the struggle for existence in the animal kingdom and competition in the human kingdom. The animal, which, by selection, has acquired a better dentary system, transmits its superiority to its own line, but not to other animals. It produces a kind of aristocracy. With mankind, however, a discovery made by one people is finally spread to other peoples. The error of demagogism and socialism consists in their not asking whether the present inequality, which raises certain superior individuals or classes above the crowd, when it is natural and not factitious, may not be the germ of an equal advancement in the future for all. True democracy aims at universal elevation, not universal depression, and to make power accessible to all superiorities, whoever may be the man or whatever class may have produced him. If our people receive such a superior instruction as we have proposed, we shall have Chambers composed of men versed in political economy, politics, history, and jurisprudence. We can not in this matter rely upon the spontaneity of individuals, any more than upon primary instruction. At present, the more easy classes are almost as deficient in true social and political knowledge as the masses. We complain of the incontestable mediocrity of our governments. It comes much more from the governors than from the governed. It is due to the defective education of those who have the duty of directing, to our poverty in superior men. But they say democracy is jealous. Envy is a vice of aristocracy as well as of democracy. Has democracy in France ever held out long against genius and talents when they have manifested themselves? Did it repel M. Thiers while he was living? Where to-day are any great political talents to which universal suffrage has refused its commission? Knowledge, justice, and truth, exercise a natural and inevitable ascendency over all peoples who are not composed of barbarians. Individuals and the masses only ask to obey whenever a natural authority exists and manifests itself. Wherever superior forces do not govern, it is because they do not exist; where ignoramuses make the law, it is most frequently because no men versed in politics are at hand. Where vice is the master, it is because the civic virtues described by Montesquieu are rare or have disappeared. If universal suffrage supposes men at the base capable of choosing, it still more supposes men at the top fit to be chosen.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.

    Belgian, sixty-seven per cent cited foreign notabilities of all kinds and from various places, and twenty per cent could name only Leopold I or Leopold IL Such were the insignificant effects of the Belgian law of 1842 on primary instruction.

  1. The new electoral law of Belgium establishes, as the basis of the electorate, a standard of mental and moral capacity. A jury subjects the candidates to an "electoral" examination upon simple questions of morals, Belgian history, constitutional institutions, reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography. Before coming to this point, experiments were made upon the results of primary instruction. Cadets, who had been five or six years at school, were put to the test of an extremely simple examination. They were asked, for example, to tell the four large cities of the country, and the rivers on which they are situated. Thirty-five per cent made no answer, and forty-nine per cent only made a partial answer. To the question. By whom are the laws made? fifty per cent had nothing to say; twenty-eight per cent replied. They arc made by the king, or by the king and queen, or by the ministers, or by the Government, or by the Senate; and fifteen per cent answered with knowledge. When asked to name an illustrious