Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Vulnerability In Numbers -- Or The Danger Of It

“Where the sovereign power is reserved by the collected body, it appears unnecessary to think of additional establishments for securing the rights of the citizen. But it is difficult, if not impossible, for the collective body to exercise this power in a manner that supersedes the necessity of every other political caution.  If popular assemblies assume every function of government; and if, in the same tumultuous manner in which they can, with great propriety, express their feelings, the sense of their rights, and their animosity to foreign or domestic enemies, they pretend to deliberate on points of national conduct, or to decide questions of equity and justice; the public is exposed to manifold inconveniencies; and popular governments would, of all others, be the most subject to errors in administration, and to weakness in the execution of public measures.

“To avoid these disadvantages, the people are always contented to delegate part of their power.  They establish a senate to debate, and to prepare, if not to determine, questions that are brought to the collective body for a final resolution.  They commit the executive power to some council of this sort, or to a magistrate who presides in their meetings.  Under the use of this necessary and common expedient, even while democratical forms are most carefully guarded, there is one party of the few, another of the many.  One attacks, the other defends; and they are both ready to assume in their turns.  But though, in reality, a great danger to liberty arises on the part of the people themselves, who, in times of corruption, are easily made the instruments of usurpation and tyranny; yet, in the ordinary aspect of government, the executive carries an air of superiority, and the rights of the people seem always exposed to encroachment.

“Though, on the day that the Roman people were assembled, the senators mixed with the crowd, and the consul was no more than the servant of the multitude; yet, when this awful meeting was dissolved, the senators met to prescribe business for their sovereign, and the consul went armed with the axe and the rods, to teach every Roman, in his separate capacity, the submission which he owed to the state.  Thus, even where the collective body is sovereign, they are assembled only occasionally; and though, on such occasions, they determine every question relative to their rights and their interests as a people, and can assert their freedom with irresistible force; yet they do not think themselves, nor are they in reality, safe, without a more constant and more uniform power operating in their favour. The multitude is every where strong; but requires, for the safety of its members, when separate as well as when assembled, a head to direct and to employ its strength....”

“In democratical establishments, citizens, feeling themselves possessed of the sovereignty, are not equally anxious, with the subjects of other governments, to have their rights explained, or secured, by actual statute.  They trust to personal vigour, to the support of party, and to the sense of the public.  If the collective body perform the office of judge, as well as of legislator, they seldom think of devising rules for their own direction, and are found still more seldom to follow any determinate rule, after it is made.  They dispense, at one time, with what they enacted at another; and in their judicative, perhaps even more than in their legislative, capacity, are guided by passions and partialities that arise from circumstances of the case before them.”

- Adam Ferguson, from An Essay on the History of Civil Society

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