E. Belfort Bax

Democratic Control and Individual Right

(November 1919)

E. Belfort Bax, Democratic Control and Industrial Right, English Review, November 1919, pp.440-447.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The problem of the individual conscience and the individual judgment in relation to majority conscience and majority judgment is the perennial crux of the sociologist, psychologist, and political thinker; the value of the majority judgment as such is being continually asserted and as continually called in question. The late war with its conscription has led some enthusiastic patriots to challenge the validity, as final arbiter, of the individual conscience in matters of conduct and ethical conviction. This last with special regard to the conscientious objector. Some such would like to dethrone the individual conscience in favour of authority, as represented by the majority of the given society into which the individual enters. The ruthlessness of their detestation of the “conscientious objector” has even led some of these to set up the count-of-heads majority as a kind of God to whom quasi-religious deference must be paid, and whose behests or judgments must only be criticised in an attitude of reverential awe.

As a matter of fact, anyone who considers the matter closely can see that it is impossible in any case to get rid of individual conscience or individual judgment as the final arbiter in matters of conduct or conviction. Even if you follow the multitude to do evil or good, to think rightly or wrongly, unless you do so mechanically, as a mere matter of thoughtless habit, your following of them is the result of your individual conscience or judgment deciding that it is the right thing to do. Look at the matter as we will, there is no getting away from the fact that, in so far as consciousness is individual, individual judgment in matters of the right and the wrong, the true and the false, must be the sole ultimate, and (if you will) autocratic, arbiter.

Apart from the above consideration, the history of opinion in matters ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, or what not, conclusively shows that the majority, i.e., the “count of-heads” majority, of any given society, is far more often wrong than right in its judgments and assumptions.

It is a commonplace that every new truth is at first ridiculed and then argued against before it is accepted by the “count-of-heads” majority of mankind. And even when it is accepted, this truth, as reflected in the minds of the majority, through the very fact of being accepted by this majority, loses its vitality and becomes lifeless and mechanical. It deteriorates into what the Germans call a Schablone. An idea, as hardened by majority-acceptation, loses the ripeness and living force that it had when it was the possession of a minority, with a hostile majority up against it. Such being the case, the fact that an opinion is held by the majority would seem to be the very last recommendation for its acceptance as truth.

The above, it is needless to say, applies in its full extent only to a promiscuous “count-of-heads” majority of mankind. The case of an opinion held respecting a particular subject by persons specially qualified to judge on that subject is, of course, a different matter. One would naturally, as laymen, defer to the opinion held by the majority (say) of astronomers as to the truth or falsehood of a theory in astronomy, or of chemists as to that of a theory in chemistry, etc. But even here history abounds in cases in which the individual or a small minority from among the circle of especially qualified persons has proved to be in the right as against the majority of such circle.

Again, individual conscience in ethical matters may he perverted, just as individual judgment in other matters, may be faulty or unbalanced, but to preach the surrender of individual judgment or convictions, or even the dictates of individual conscience – on the ground that neither the one nor the other is infallible – to any external authority, be that external authority a dogmatic creed or a Church claiming to be infallible, or a “count-of-heads” majority of the population into which, faute de mieux, a spurious kind of infallibility is sought to be read, is fatal to all progress. All advancement hitherto has consisted in the breaking clown of these external standards of authority in favour of the installation of individual conscience and individual reason, defective as admittedly they are, as autocratic for the individual himself. Mankind is certainly safer in the keeping of individual conscience and reason, fallible though they may be, rather than in that of any authority external thereto.

Mill’s essay on Liberty is now largely out of date. Mill had little notion of the wider bearing of Democracy or of Socialism as we understand these terms to-day. His mental background was always the so-called Manchester School doctrines of the early and mid-nineteenth century. Nevertheless, it is only due to Mill to say that he was one of the first to place this particular problem on the broad and general basis of individual right as such. Locke and most of his successors who had approached the subject had in their discussion confined the subject mainly to toleration in the region of speculative or religious opinion. The more immediately pressing claims of economic reconstruction and of the more superficial aspects of political machinery have since then thrown this question into the background. Since Mill and his immediate followers it can hardly be said to have been discussed even in general terms, and not at all with any thoroughness in its application to the modern social outlook and its changed conditions. Yet it has recently been raised in a typically acute form by the democracy of the United States, where the majority of the North American citizen population would enforce total abstinence from alcohol on the minority. There is no doubt that, technically speaking, the late vote on the anti-alcohol issue was in perfect accordance with the most approved democratic precedent, and there is just as little doubt that it has aroused the indignation of many sections of the population. The point here raised is really the old question formulated by Mill: Has a majority the right to coerce a minority or even a single individual in such actions as Mill termed “self-regarding”? When it does so is it not as guilty of tyranny as any autocratic power? This is the first part of the problem.

The second part consists in the definition of those self-regarding actions in the performance of which it is claimed that the organised community as such has no right of interference or control.

Questions as to value have been dealt with already in the first part of this article: the question, namely, as to the value of a count-of-heads majority over a minority, which carries with it the further question of the intrinsic justification of the domination of majorities. These questions go, of course, in a sense, to the root of the whole theory of democracy. The immediate and practical raison d’etre of the acknowledgment of the authority of a majority lies undoubtedly in the force majeure that, other things being equal, usually resides in the majority. It is the basis historically, without doubt, of the assumed right of the majority to control public affairs, and to claim for its judgment the deference of minorities and individuals. But with this general consideration we are not specially concerned here. We postulate, for the purposes of our argument, the democratic position as generally understood, that a majority has the right, up to a certain point at all events, to impose its will on minorities and individuals.

The problem raised by Mill and confronting us to-day is as to the limits, if any, of the boundary line which divides the justifiable from the unjustifiable interference of the collective force of the organised community with the individual or with social groups. What class of action is it which legitimately lies out of control of this coercive force of the community as represented by the “count-of-heads” majority of its population and the invasion of which, in the form of coercion by that collective force, constitutes tyranny. The most concise answer, as I take it, is that it consists in that class of action which only directly affects the individual or individuals immediately concerned, and can never directly affect the community in its collective capacity, or other independent individuals. That it may conceivably do so indirectly is not to the point. For there is no action, however private its nature and however admittedly harmless it may be, which might not under certain conceivable combinations of circumstances prejudicially affect others or the community generally. If I go out for my necessary and harmless constitutional walk and get involved in a train of thought which preoccupies me, I may inadvertently knock down a child or run up against a blind man or elderly person, happenings which might result in serious consequences to those concerned. My constitutional walk, however harmless in itself, might thus constitute a public danger indirectly. And yet no one would presumably suggest coercive legislation against constitutional walks because of indirect consequences such as these. The act of taking a walk would be universally regarded as a self-regarding one in Mill’s sense, and as indefeasibly appertaining to individual rights, to do or to abstain from which would generally be recognised. Neither the taking of walks nor the falling into absorbing trains of thoughts in the course of them could be deemed matters coming within either the legislative or the executive functions of the community or its organs.

The question then arises: Has the community or its organ, the Public Authority, the right to coerce the individual in respect of actions which, while admittedly not affecting the community directly (or hardly, perhaps, even indirectly), yet which, in the opinion of the majority, prejudicially affect the individual perpetrating them? Has the community – i.e., the “count-of-heads” majority of a given society – the right forcibly to coerce the individual for his own good, or what such majorities may deem to be his own good? This question, of course, strikes at the root of all individual freedom whatever in a democracy. To admit the affirmation in so many words is to surrender the whole principle of personal liberty. We then get back to the doctrine of the mediaeval Inquisition, according to which the Public Authority had the right and duty of killing the body of the heretic for the good of his soul. But, as a matter of fact, few persons in the present day would defend the principle when stated in so many words. The notion of the sacredness of personal liberty is pretty generally accepted in a vague and loose way. So much for theory. But when it comes to questions of practice – especially well-defined questions of practice – the theory is very apt to go by the board. The questions of practice referred to concern certain acts especially abhorrent to the Puritan soul, or what is now known as the “Nonconformist Conscience.”

These actions refer to matters which are viewed by the Puritan as bordering on vice, if not actual vice itself, or as likely to lead to vicious habits, such as alcohol, irregular sexual connections, in some cases smoking, gambling, and possibly other things as well that are dear to the natural heart of man. In such matters as these there is a widespread opinion, even among those calling themselves democrats, that the “count-of-heads” majority of the population, acting through the Public Authority, has the right to adopt prohibitive measures and compel abstinence upon those who object to the ascetic views of the said majority. A flagrant instance of this is the recent attempt of the American total abstainers to force all citizens of the United States to “go dry.” Taking into consideration the vagueness and oftentimes inconsistency in opinion prevailing on this question of the rights of the individual to personal liberty, and of the rights of the community to the control of the forces necessary to the continued existence and the development of the life of the community, it is of paramount importance, at a time when social reconstruction is in the air, that the question of the delimitation of the rights of the individual to independence, or, as it is termed, to “lead his own life,” and that of the collectivity to control forcibly the individual, should be once for all threshed out and decided. Toleration has gained the day in the matter of the holding and the promulgation of matters of opinion; no one would propose nowadays to re-establish, say, religious persecution, but in matters of conduct it is different. There are many who would think themselves fully justified in employing the power of the community to enforce abstention from practices which, in their opinion, are injurious to the individual performing them and indirectly to the collectivity. They do not see that the coercion in the one case rests on essentially the same basis as in the other. Compulsion to abstain from a particular religious cult or to conform to another, would shock them as the invasion of religious liberty and the individual right of opinion in religious matters. But they regard as unquestionable their justification in enforcing upon all their own opinion and its practice in matters of individual hygiene and private amusement. Hence, while it is inadmissible to suppress any particular form of worship, it is perfectly legitimate to suppress the drinking of alcohol and the indulging in games of chance.

The argument for coercive puritanical legislation is perfectly simple. Says the Puritan: “The drinking of alcohol is injurious to the individual, and if I can I am going to prevent him injuring his health by its consumption. Further, it may also cause him to get drunk, in which case he might become a danger to the community.” Now, this argument, as above said, runs precisely parallel to the justification by the Church and the Inquisition for the burning heretics. Said the medieval Catholic: “I believe the ecclesiastical dogma to be the truth necessary to the salvation of men. Hence I will if I can suppress, and if needful kill the man that thinks differently, and this for the benefit of his soul. The least I will do will be to prohibit the propagation of writings embodying heretical opinions, to the end that others should not fall into the danger of being led astray by such doctrines.” Now, it is obvious that this is precisely the line of argument adopted by the “Anti-Alcohol League” to justify its “dry” legislation. It is enabled to realise its aims through the machinery of a democratic vote, i.e., by the decision of a “count-of-heads” majority of the population. The intolerance of the “Anti-Alcohol League” has thus a democratic sanction, which the intolerance of the mediaeval Church could dispense with, but in the result there is no essential difference. Nay, more, there is little doubt that the medieval Church could in most cases have succeeded in getting its intolerant acts ratified by a similar “count-of-heads” majority of the population of that age, had it been the practice of those days to take democratic votes. We can thus see the question is essentially not directly concerned with democracy or anti-democracy, but it is a question of the right of the community or its de facto representative, irrespective of its political form or machinery, to coerce the individual, it matters not whether directly or indirectly, in things immediately concerning himself alone. And it is precisely this question upon which the man-in-the-street needs to acquire clear and logical views.

Whatever the democracy of the future may be, the democracy of the present time and the recent past has acquired certain ideas, to which it tenaciously clings. While it has comparatively recently arrived at the point of recognising with fair completeness toleration in matters of opinion, yet in matters affecting conduct, as already pointed out, it is still very far from doing so. The logical basis of its toleration is not yet Mill’s right of the individual to his personal liberty in self-regarding matters. It is still under the influence of the notions in certain departments of conduct, having their ascendancy in the urban middle class; I say their ascendancy, for though they may have been nominally recognised by other classes, it was the urban middle class which took them most seriously.

In Britain they date largely from the Puritanism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and their aftermath to-day is seen in the “Nonconformist Conscience,” of Britain and America.

The democracy of this country embraces the small middle class and a not unimportant fringe of the working class still imbued with the Puritan small middle-class tradition. The point of view of this tradition is, therefore, for the most part still dominant in English manners and legislation, as we constantly see.

Until the principle of the sacredness of personal liberty in matters directly concerning the person alone, in some such general formula as that propounded by Mill in his essay On Liberty, is recognised, we shall go floundering along without rudder or compass in questions involving the limits of the right of interference on the part of the community and its organs of authority with such personal liberty. And, further, these limits as to the right of interference must be recognised as applying as much to democracy as to any other form of government. The notion that a “count-of-heads” majority of the population has the right, by virtue of its numerical preponderance, to interfere with the purely personal habits and relations of the individual citizen, is a notion which is au fond logically incompatible with any security for individual liberty at all.

It must never be forgotten in this connection that democracy is, after all, as old Friedrich Engels used to point out, only the last and highest form of the coercion of persons involving, it is true, the minimum of coercion – but still, like all government, based on the conception of the coercion of men, and not, like a Socialist Commonwealth, founded on the conception of the administration of things. It is for this latter that many of us hope democracy will prepare the way, or, shall we say, into which it will itself ultimately develop. Meanwhile, it behoves us to keep watch and ward, so long as government, in the sense of coercion as opposed to administration, is still necessary, over the limits within which such coercion may justly be exercised.


Last updated on 15.1.2005