July 08, 2006

Walter Bagehot on (1) Fanaticism, (2) The Wisdom of Crowds

Why, oh why, did it take me so long to finally get to Walter Bagehot’s book The English Constitution? As of the halfway mark, every single page is good. The man is the very soul of common sense and cool, mature realism.

At one point he is discussing the fact that the English monarch retains, in theory, the capacity to order parliament dissolved. But, Bagehot notes, such a dire threat is never used any longer. Nor, he goes on, should any monarch ever believe that any idea of his is so important or valuable that he would even want to make, let alone, exercise such a threat:

To wish to be a despot, "to hunger after tyranny," as the Greek phrase had it, marks in our day an uncultivated mind. A person who so wishes cannot have weighed what Butler calls the "doubtfulness things are involved in". To be sure you are right to impose your will, or to wish to impose it, with violence upon others; to see your own ideas vividly and fixedly, and to be tormented till you can apply them in life and practice, not to like to hear the opinions of others, to be unable to sit down and weigh the truth they have, are but crude states of intellect in our present civilisation. We know, at least, that facts are many; that progress is complicated; that burning ideas (such as young men have) are mostly false and always incomplete. The notion of a far-seeing and despotic statesman, who can lay down plans for ages yet unborn, is a fancy generated by the pride of the human intellect to which facts give no support.

I will say in bristling partisan spirit that such “uncultivated minds” are growing rankly and thickly on the ground in the Left blogosphere nowadays. But in fairness I must with alacrity add, with some regret, that such uncivil over-assuredness also, from time to time, occurs even amongst those of us on the side of the angels, here in the conservative/libertarian provinces of the great kingdom of Blogistan.

Perhaps a more profound insight is this:

The House of Commons is a scene of life if ever there was a scene of life. Every member in. the throng, every atom in the medley, has his own. objects (good or bad), his own purposes (great or petty); his own notions, such as they are, of what is; his own notions, such as they are, of what ought to be. There is a motley confluence of vigorous elements, but the result is one and good. There is a “feeling the House,” a “sense” of the House, and no one who knows any thing of it can despise it. A very shrewd man of the world went so far as to say that “the House of Commons has more sense than any one in it.”

Our learned colleague James McCormick has suggested that harnessing the "wisdom of crowds" has been the Anglosphere's "secret weapon". Bagehot's description of the strength of the House of Commons is certainly consistent with that insight. (I do not have and have not read the Surowiecki book, and the index is not online at Amazon. Does anyone know if he cites this passage from Bagehot?)

Cross-posted on ChicagoBoyz.

Posted by Lexington Green at July 8, 2006 09:31 AM

"Nor, he goes on, should any monarch ever believe that any idea of his is so important or valuable that he would even want to make, let alone, exercise such a threat..."

This is a hilarious statement, because exercising the power to dissolve parliament over some ludicrous issue he imagines to be popular is exactly the sort of idiotic grandstanding step the current Prince Charles is likely to find irresistible, should he ever get his hands on the crown.

Posted by: ZF at July 8, 2006 01:45 PM

Well, Bagehot wrote that in 1872. 134 years later the Monarch is a shadow of what Victoria was in terms of perceived authority or public esteem. If Charles were foolish enough to try it, he will succeed in doing what his mother has fended off for 50 years -- sweep the monarchy into the trash can. I think Charles is a lightweight, but I think a person of even average intelligence, about what he probably has, will see this. The prince of Wales can run around saying all kinds of things. Once he is crowned, I will bet that he becomes much more circumspect about what he says and does, if only for the sake of his sons, one of whom will in turn be King some day.

Posted by: Lex at July 8, 2006 03:48 PM

The speech transcripts on the Prince's website seem thoughtful to me. But obviously he will have to be more circumspect as king.

One interesting point is that in constitutional terms the Crown is still quite important in the former Dominions. The Governor-General's dismissal of the Whitlam government in Australia in 1975 was a reminder of royal prerogative, and South Africa's return to the Commonwealth since 1994 can be read as at least a renewed symbolic association with the Crown as well. It is really in the United Kingdom that the influence of the monarchy, perhaps because its incumbents are hereditary rather than appointed like the Governors-General, have been much more reluctant to exercise what residual constitutional powers they have. I believe there have been a few occasions when the Queen came close to being imposed upon to do so but it would certainly damage the constitution if it happened with any frequency.

Posted by: David Billington at July 9, 2006 04:35 PM

For all that the heirs to the Throne are lightweights doesn't mean that the residual powers of the Throne aren't important, particularly the power to dissolve Parliament.

The wishes of the public can be fickle things, and in the heat of the moment in a general election, the public can give a party an overwhelming majority in Parliament. Labor, after 1997, was said to have an "elective dictatorship" in that no matter the results in various by-elections, its majority was so large that it could do as it pleased until the very end of the Parliament's life (2002).

In the event that a party gets another such overwhelming majority, and is tempted to get dictatorial, the Crown's power to dissolve Parliament and force a new general election is a check on the power of an over-mighty party.

It's my hope that the British people have the brains to understand that.

My two cents' worth....

Posted by: Hale Adams at July 9, 2006 06:08 PM

The Australian precedent is interesting, becuase the Parlaimaent was dissolved to resolve a constitutional standoff. Of one could try to generate a descriptive rule about the use of the power in this instance, it might be "Use of the Crown power to dissolve Parliament is only permissible when the Parliament's actions are constitutionally questionable, and where the action will refer the decision back to the people themselves."

One could see the crown power eing used in this manner in Britain at a future point in which an undemocratic element has intruded into the system -- the most likely candidate, of course, being Brussels.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at July 10, 2006 04:35 PM

Ronald Scott

Posted by: asteh at January 23, 2007 05:03 AM
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