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Quotations about Liberty and Power

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In this October 1882 interview which Spencer gave during his successful speaking tour of the United States he spoke about the very great positives which he saw coming out of the Amnerican experiment: he was impressed with the purposeful and entrepreneurial way in which its vast resources were being put to use, the inventiveness of the American people, and the excellent prospects in the future of American civilization. Nevertheless, he was very concerned about the gradual way in which the American people were losing their freedom (this in 1882!). Among these were the open manipulation of elections for private gain, the way in which the “paper constitution” was being undermined, and the propensity of Americans to put up with gradual violations of their liberties without much complaint.

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16 August, 2010

Spencer200

Spencer on voting in elections as a screen behind which the wirepullers turn the sovereign people into a puppet (1882)

Read the full quote in context here.

During his tour of the United States in 1882 the English political philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was interviewed about his thoughts on American liberty and democracy. Among his very positive thoughts were some negative ones about the manipulation of the people by party bosses during elections:

You retain the forms of freedom; but, so far as I can gather, there has been a considerable loss of the substance. It is true that those who rule you do not do it by means of retainers armed with swords; but they do it through regiments of men armed with voting papers, who obey the word of command as loyally as did the dependants of the old feudal nobles, and who thus enable their leaders to override the general will, and make the community submit to their exactions as effectually as their prototypes of old. It is doubtless true that each of your citizens votes for the candidate he chooses for this or that office, from President downwards; but his hand is guided by an agency behind which leaves him scarcely any choice. “Use your political power as we tell you, or else throw it away,” is the alternative offered to the citizen. The political machinery as it is now worked, has little resemblance to that contemplated at the outset of your political life. Manifestly, those who framed your Constitution never dreamed that twenty thousand citizens would go to the poll led by a “boss.” America exemplifies at the other end of the social scale, a change analogous to that which has taken place under sundry despotisms. You know that in Japan, before the recent Revolution, the divine ruler, the Mikado, nominally supreme, was practically a puppet in the hands of his chief minister, the Shogun. Here it seems to me that “the sovereign people” is fast becoming a puppet which moves and speaks as wirepullers determine.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

Spencer: If along with your material progress there went equal progress of a higher kind, there would remain nothing to be wished.

Interviewer: That is an ambiguous qualification. What do you mean by it?

Spencer: You will understand me when I tell you what I was thinking the other day. After pondering over what I have seen of your vast manufacturing and trading establishments, the rush of traffic in your street-cars and elevated railways, your gigantic hotels and Fifth Avenue palaces, I was suddenly reminded of the Italian Republics of the Middle Ages; and recalled the fact that while there was growing up in them great commercial activity, a development of the arts, which made them the envy of Europe, and a building of princely mansions which continue to be the admiration of travellers, their people were gradually losing their freedom.

Interviewer: Do you mean this as a suggestion that we are doing the like?

Spencer: It seems to me that you are. You retain the forms of freedom; but, so far as I can gather, there has been a considerable loss of the substance. It is true that those who rule you do not do it by means of retainers armed with swords; but they do it through regiments of men armed with voting papers, who obey the word of command as loyally as did the dependants of the old feudal nobles, and who thus enable their leaders to override the general will, and make the community submit to their exactions as effectually as their prototypes of old. It is doubtless true that each of your citizens votes for the candidate he chooses for this or that office, from President downwards; but his hand is guided by an agency behind which leaves him scarcely any choice. “Use your political power as we tell you, or else throw it away,” is the alternative offered to the citizen. The political machinery as it is now worked, has little resemblance to that contemplated at the outset of your political life. Manifestly, those who framed your Constitution never dreamed that twenty thousand citizens would go to the poll led by a “boss.” America exemplifies at the other end of the social scale, a change analogous to that which has taken place under sundry despotisms. You know that in Japan, before the recent Revolution, the divine ruler, the Mikado, nominally supreme, was practically a puppet in the hands of his chief minister, the Shogun. Here it seems to me that “the sovereign people” is fast becoming a puppet which moves and speaks as wirepullers determine.

Interviewer: Then you think that Republican institutions are a failure?

Spencer: By no means: I imply no such conclusion. Thirty years ago, when often discussing politics with an English friend, and defending Republican institutions, as I always have done and do still, and when he urged against me the ill-working of such institutions over here, I habitually replied that the Americans got their form of government by a happy accident, not by normal progress, and that they would have to go back before they could go forward. What has since happened seems to me to have justified that view; and what I see now, confirms me in it. America is showing, on a larger scale than ever before, that “paper Constitutions” will not work as they are intended to work. The truth, first recognized by Mackintosh, that Constitutions are not made but grow, which is part of the larger truth that societies, throughout their whole organizations, are not made but grow, at once, when accepted, disposes of the notion that you can work as you hope any artificially-devised system of government. It becomes an inference that if your political structure has been manufactured and not grown, it will forthwith begin to grow into something different from that intended—something in harmony with the natures of the citizens, and the conditions under which the society exists. And it evidently has been so with you. Within the forms of your Constitution there has grown up this organization of professional politicians altogether uncontemplated at the outset, which has become in large measure the ruling power.

[More works by Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) and on 19th Century English Radical Individualists]