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Samizdata quote of the day

Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we formed angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer that question.

- Thomas Jefferson, quoted in a recent book by Christopher Hitchens.

17 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Laird

    Well, in view of the uniformly low quality of politicians we’ve seen elected (and consistently re-elected) throughout the West over the last few decades (all of whom have learned that they can pick our pockets and bribe us with our own money), I’m not so sure that man can be trusted with the government of himself. Here in the U.S., what began as a noble experiment in constitutional republicanism has degenerated almost totally into untrammelled democracy. Perhaps there is something to be said for an hereditary monarchy, if not a full-blown aristocracy. How much worse could it be? At least then we would be spared the unappetizing spectacle of periodic elections where persons possessing monumental egos but mediocre intelligence, nonexistent marketable skills and questionable morals engage in protracted contests over elective offices for which, in a better world, none would be given even passing consideration. It’s worth discussing, anyway.

    A few no-so-random quotations:

    “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” — Winston Churchill

    “The greatest fallacy of democracy is that everyone’s opinion is worth the same.” — Robert A. Heinlein

    “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” – H. L. Mencken

    “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their death.” — James Madison (Federalist No. 10)

    “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” — George Bernard Shaw

  • MDC

    That isn’t what Jefferson said.

    “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself.”

    ie. man must be controlled by a state.

    “Can he then be trusted with the government of others?”

    This is democracy. He is saying that it is silly to say that people cannot manage their own lives, but can democratically control others’ lives.

    “Or have we formed angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer that question.”

    This is other forms of tyranny.

    Jefferson favoured the first option, liberty, over statism, which is why the US was originally a heavily limited constitutional republic, rather than a representative democracy as it is increasingly becoming.

  • Kevin B

    Is this from Vol 1 or Vol 2 of Stuff Jefferson Said as quoted from so often at Ace of Spades.

    (I’d go over to AoS HQ and find a reference but every time I go there I have to clean my cache before I comment here, else I get smitten.)

  • Pa Annoyed

    “It is sometimes said man cannot be trusted with the government of others. Can he then be trusted with the government of himself? Or are we all angels that can only fall from grace when asked to bow down before one another? Let prehistory answer the question.”

    Or, for a real quote,

    “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.… The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

    —from “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

    “Civilisation” is not so much a state of organisation as a state of mind. It is a carefully constructed culture, a profoundly unnatural artefact, and one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

  • renminbi

    Democracy is the worship of jackals by jackasses.

    Democracy is the belief that the average man knows what he wants,and deserves to get it-good and hard.

    H .L. Mencken

  • RRS

    Would it be impertinent to suggest that those who would comment to categorize “democracy,” “republic,” “autocracy” or other forms or governance might do well to further their information and perhaps their knowledge (if it not in conflict too much with prejudice) by absorbing the work of a great English scholar, the late S. E. Finer, contained in;

    The History of Government From the Earliest Time

    Oxford University Press 1997, 3 Vol., ISBN o-19-820664-X

    To the receptive it can bring a sense of humility in recognizing how ill-informed we are as to the flow of human experience in creating and providing governance that has brought us to our present conditions.

  • nick g.

    Perhaps you british can enlighten me- what sort of government is Britain afflicted with? You have a Monarchy, but didn’t Mr. Blair abolish the Upper House, or change its’ workings? Are all Lords appointed by the PM now? Does that make it a meritocracy? I’ve heard it described as a Constitutional Monarchy, but Britain doesn’t have a written Constitution!

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Well, in view of the uniformly low quality of politicians we’ve seen elected (and consistently re-elected) throughout the West over the last few decades (all of whom have learned that they can pick our pockets and bribe us with our own money), I’m not so sure that man can be trusted with the government of himself.

    I think the actual Jefferson quote can be used to attack blind worship of majority rule as much as deference to aristocracy, monarchy and the rest, Laird. As we often point out at this blog, democracy and liberty are not the same things, and sometimes in conflict.

    Perhaps you british can enlighten me- what sort of government is Britain afflicted with? You have a Monarchy, but didn’t Mr. Blair abolish the Upper House, or change its’ workings? Are all Lords appointed by the PM now? Does that make it a meritocracy? I’ve heard it described as a Constitutional Monarchy, but Britain doesn’t have a written Constitution!

    Britain is a parliamentary democracy with significant flaws and features. The old House of Lords no longer has heriditary members who inherit titles and some power from their parents. Instead, members of the Lords are now appointed by the governing party in the House of Commons. As a result, the Lords has become a creature of the HoC, and is seen as having lost much of its independence. It is therefore less effective as a counterweight.

    It most certainly is not a meritocracy, but rather a massive engine of corruption and influence peddling. Britain does not have a single constitutional document but rather a mix of various laws, bills of rights and other acts which make up the system. It is now in a serious mess, and of course UK membership of the EU means that many parliamentary powers have been lost.

    That isn’t what Jefferson said.

    Hitchens’ quote looked pretty accurate to me. He’s hardly likely to have paraphrased it or made it up.

  • amos

    Maybe not. But it is curious, nonetheless, that Hitchens is a self-proclaimed Trotskyite. I like the man, despite his flaws, but if I were sympathetic to Socialism, I don’t know why I would quote that.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Amos, I don’t think Hitch answers to that description these days. He gave up on that political nonsense years ago.

    The quote was taken from a long passage excerpted from one of Jefferson’s articles. It is hardly likely to be fabricated or interfered with. Hitchens wrote a book on the man’s life; if he had made up the quote, his reputation would be in tatters.

    I trust the quote and used it.

  • MarkE

    Nick G:

    I’ve heard it described as a Constitutional Monarchy, but Britain doesn’t have a written Constitution!

    But a constitution does not have to be written. We have a constitutional monarchy defined by practice, precedent and tradition. That is a much a constitution as that of the US or any other country with a written constitution. In practice the monarch provides no restraint on Parliament (I would imagine there is a theoretical “nuclear option” of HM refusing to give royal assent to a measure. It might stop or delay that measure becoming law, but would probably mean the end of the monarchy). That function used to be performed by the upper chamber but that is now in a “transitional” phase where a few heridtary peers still sit, but most are life peers (political appiointments in the gift of the Prime Minister of the day, but not removable by successors). Not so much a meritocracy as a cronyocracy.

    I used, naivley, to believe one advantage of an unwritten constitution was the difficulty of changing such a body of history compared to a written constitution which needs only a force of lawyers and scribes to rewrite it. The last eleven years have changed my mind.

  • Ian B

    Sorry to bang on about this again, but if somebody asks about Britain’s government we need to start dealing in present reality not an illusion based on the past. Discussing the monarchy and parliament is to discuss the method of government we used to have. This system is now largely redundant only describe the system of a largely powerless local provincial government. It is less relevant than, if somebody were to ask a citizen of Arizona about the government of the USA, to discuss the local Arizona state legislature (EU provinces now have less independence in most areas than US states). We should also remember that the next goal is to replace these historical artifacts of provincial governments with a system of EU regional assemblies which are likely to be appointed or only marginally democratic.

    The government of the British pseudo-province is in Brussels. The people of Britain elect a provincial electoral college, who appoint a “prime minister” who is able to enact some local laws, but who primarily imposes the laws made in Brussels, and represents the province to the Brussels government as one of 27 equals who can only attempt to persuade, or horse trade with, the other 26. The primary lawmaking body of our country is the European Commission who are appointed by the provinces but constitutionally owe their loyalty, like the provincial governors, not to their home provinces but to the EU. The Constitution of this country, or tacky empire, call it what thou wilt, is a series of treaties and takes precedence over any former constitutional arrangements of the provinces.

    There is also an in practise irrelevant duma whose job is to applaud the executive (European Commission) etc and provide a figleaf of popular consent. There will soon be a “president of the EU”; the division of responsibilities between this office and that of our current government leader, the president of the Commission is unclear but may either settle into a Presiden/Prime Minister relationship or the jobs will simply be combined at some future date by a canny holder of one of them.

    We really need to start talking in realities, not what used to be or what might have been or what we wish things to be. We are citizens subjects of the European Union, living in a province called the UK, which is due to be broken up and replaced by regions defined by the central government (one suspects that the regions may also be granted their own talking shop chamber of deputies type thing eventually). We also need to understand that this will not be a “federal EU”, since that would require the maintenance of the old states as political entitites. The final state will be a single central government with a little ersatz democracy and with absolute power, and regions with councils implementing its policies.

    As to how to describe this arrangement, one could call it a technocratic oligarchy system.

  • “‘Civilisation’ is not so much a state of organisation as a state of mind. It is a carefully constructed culture, a profoundly unnatural artefact, and one of humanity’s greatest achievements.”

    Compare:

    “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”

    (Ayn Rand, “The Soul of an Individualist”, “For the New Intellectual”, 1961, p. 84)

  • RRS

    The “quotation” of Jefferson is taken from his First Inaugural Address, after which he placed much political philosophy on the shelf and became the Executive for eight years, with a series of results contrasting with that never abandoned philosophy.

    No pedantry intended, but this writer is a beneficiary of three parts of Mr. Jefferson’s University though never becoming a “true Jeffersonian.”

    Jefferson was (my opinion) an intellectual scion of the Scottish Enlightenment, but certainly not of the French.

    For those quibbling over the governments of the British Isles, please refer to S.E. Finer, cited above.

  • Thanks for that quote, Billy Beck. It beautifully captures the basic flaw in Objectivism.

    You can downplay the aspect of communal interaction and the social and cultural fabric only by ignoring basic human psychology. Rand’s philosophy does violence to the human mind, and is appropriate for machines, not men.

  • Gabriel

    Out consitution is an written and unwritten as any other country of roughly our level of civilization. It has not, as yet, been codified, that much is true.

    Jefferson was (my opinion) an intellectual scion of the Scottish Enlightenment, but certainly not of the French.

    Interestingly, that was not his opinion, but I’m sure you know best.

  • Paul Marks

    There is a vast difference between the “government of self” – a person controlling his passions. And “self government” as in the rule of the majority.

    For the rule of the majority is just another form of “rule of others”.

    The John Locke slight of hand where “consent” slips from individual consent (in social interaction in civil society) to majority vote (in politics) is deeply dishonest.

    Not my point and not even a point made by a modern libertarian – I first came upon it in a book written by Gough (Oriel College) written many decades ago.

    Thomas Jefferson was good when he kept to individual consent – for example working to get rid of all internal Federal taxes (because it was taking away people’s money without their individual consent), but bad when he slipped into majority consent.

    The support for French Revolutionary regime was vile – and not just because the regime may not have really had majority consent.

    Even if most people had supported it – vast theft (from individuals and from organizations – such as the Roman Catholic Church), and mass murder (mostly of “ordinary” people as it happens) is not acceptable.

    And to do these things for the purpose of setting up a “people’s government” is no excuse at all.