The people should not have been asked

Suppose there were a kingdom where divorce and blasphemy were illegal.  The king foolishly decides to reform the government in a democratic direction.  Radicals agitate for, and get, a popular vote on the divorce and blasphemy laws.  The public votes to abolish them, and the country sinks into an Americanized sewer.  Conservatives lament, “If only we had not voted on the divorce and blasphemy laws, we would still have a faithful and pious people.”  Liberals retort, “The fact that the public voted to abolish your laws proves that they were already unfaithful and impious, but were only prevented by force from acting on their vices.  What you miss was only an illusion.”

No doubt we’ve all heard arguments like this.  It sounds convincing, but it’s wrong.  First, it assumes that only freely-chosen good behavior is valuable, but that’s obviously not the case.  Often, bad actions have bad effects, and we make laws to avoid the bad consequences of others’ misbehavior, regardless of what’s going on in their souls.  We might wish to preserve a pious public space even when most of the public doesn’t appreciate it; we might wish to protect children from the effects of divorce that their parents are too selfish or stupid to see.  In addition to this, I would say that the public affirmation of the good, and condemnation of the bad, has moral value in itself.

But there’s another reason why these sorts of arguments are wrong.  We assume that, because people voted for X when they got a chance, they were in favor of X before it became a political issue.  I think, though, that the very act of putting something to public vote and making it a matter of public debate alters the perception of the populace.  A population that has a vote on whether to keep its monarchy has already abolished its monarchy, because a king who exists only by popular desire is no king.  If a people debates whether to embrace chastity or hedonism, it has already chosen hedonism.  The moment one steps outside the demands of chastity and considers, between the chaste and hedonistic ways of life, which one gives us the most benefits, that moment one has already adopted the hedonistic perspective.  We may not judge chastity; chastity judges us, or it is not chastity.  A nation may, to a man, be willing to lay down their lives to defend their king, because they see it as their God-given duty.  When revolutionary forces overthrow the monarch, revolutionary media agitate for a democracy, and the public is asked to vote, they may very well choose democracy.  The very act of being asked has made them democrats.  I would say, because I think being a democrat is a bad thing, that an injustice has been done to them.  The nation is left with a poorer sense of authority than it had before.  The people should not have been asked.  As de Maistre said, a people should be surrounded by dogmas, i.e. unquestioned truths.

Why does the public always vote for some branch of the revolutionary party?  Why is it unthinkable that a genuine conservatism could be electorally successful?  It’s because, when the public is asked to vote on things that should be independent of popular will, it has already adopted the liberal stance.  If tradition and natural law are not binding, they can only be justified as advantageous to our private preferences.  But a society designed to satisfy our private preferences is liberalism.

Does public opinion exist before polls and voting booths measure it?  I suspect in many cases that it doesn’t.  The media, and democracy–the means by which the media rules, creates opinions by framing them and prompting them.  Then they announce triumphantly that the majority of the population supports, say, sodomitical civil unions.  Even if the media did not themselves manufacture this opinion (and, of course, they did), the reporting of it creates a new social fact.  The sexual libertarians are thrilled to find their opinion ratified by the populace, and those who don’t think perversion should receive any positive recognition learn how marginalized they are.

9 Responses

  1. Since just about everything is up to a vote here in the USA, even before people imagine voting on it, I’d say we are living in the Ultimate Nihilist States of America.

  2. I thought of this after reading your post:

    Now I want to visit Liechtenstein more than ever. Thankfully it looks like the voters were going to reject it anyway:

  3. I am not sure I agree. As Walter Bagehot says:
    “The nature of a constitution, the action of an assembly, the play of parties, the unseen formation of a guiding opinion, are complex facts, difficult to know and easy to mistake. But the action of a single will, the fiat of a single mind, are easy ideas: anybody can make them out, and no one can ever forget them. When you put before the mass of mankind the question, “Will you be governed by a king, or will you be governed by a constitution?” the inquiry comes out thus–“Will you be governed in a way you understand, or will you be governed in a way you do not understand?” The issue was put to the French people; they were asked, “Will you be governed by Louis Napoleon, or will you be governed by an assembly?” The French people said, “We will be governed by the one man we can imagine, and not by the many people we cannot imagine.””

    That, of course, is the strength of monarchy.

  4. I take this to be a defense of dogma and prejudice, and insofar as it is, I agree with what you say. But I think you are dangerously close to a procedural defense of dogma and prejudice, and so to making the same mistake liberals do in their procedural defense of choice. You are correct to say that a freely chosen bad is no better for having been freely chosen, but it is no less true that a bad held as a prejudice is no less bad for having been received on authority. Goods are substantive, not procedural. I take this to be the hard core of conservatism. A conservative will, of course, add that a substantive good is better when it is received as prejudice, because its enjoyment is not vitiated by the fear that it is a sub-optimal choice.

    For instance, natural law says that marriage is a substantive good. It is not good because it was chosen, but because what was chosen is good. In a culture with a strong prejudice in favor of marriage–in which marriage is the norm–the goodness of marriage can, moreover, be enjoyed more fully because the married have little occasion to wonder if it is good, indeed better, to live single. The thought never occurs to them.

    I, for one, prefer to be given a plate of food, whatever it is, and then to enjoy it for what it is, than to order from a menu and then spend the whole mean distracted by doubts whether I chose wisely. Should I really have ordered the shrimp? Choice leads to doubt, and doubt clouds enjoyment, even of substantive goods. I enjoy an apple less when I’ve taken it from a bowl of mixed fruit than when I’ve taken it from a bowl of apples: Boy, those pears sure looked good!

    I think this speaks to your larger question of democratic politics. What I want are good policies, not policies democratically chosen. If I can get good policies undemocratically, they will be better policies because I can enjoy their effects without distracting thoughts about what effects I might be enjoying if I had chosen the other policy.

  5. Goods are substantive, not procedural. I take this to be the hard core of conservatism.

    Very well put.

  6. What I miss in this post is an inquiry into what conditions were like in the hypothetical kingdom before the vote was held. Was it a genuinely virtuous place, or was the “public affirmation of the good” merely an empty charade? When divorce and blasphemy were illegal, was it the case that the citizens loved their wives and spoke respectfully of God?

    I guess the nub of my disagreement comes down to the question of whether it is true that “only freely-chosen good behavior is valuable”.

    Massive props to Mr P-S for quoting Bagehot, one of the truly great British constitutionalists of modern times.

  7. I am curious: do you believe it is a good for a depraved people to have the ability choose depraved laws? (Leaving to the side, for the moment, the question of who or what “the people” are, and what it means for them to “choose.”)

    I hope the question does not give offense, I am honestly interested in what your concern with authenticity or genuineness is, or what role you think it has to play.

  8. No offence taken, fsq. My response would be to question that there is such a thing as “a depraved people”. A “people” is not a moral agent – individuals are responsible for their own actions, and, ultimately, for their own souls. Lady Thatcher famously once said, “there is no such thing as society – there are men and women and there are families”. I don’t endorse Lady Thatcher’s Hayekian individualism, but I think she was absolutely right on that point.

    Take Bonald’s example of divorce – I am no lover of divorce, but I don’t kid myself that banning it will make men love their wives and put an end to adultery. Human behaviour cannot be engineered by government policy in that way. At the most, it might force more people to stay in unhappy marriages than would otherwise be the case, but I doubt that God gives the individuals concerned much credit for behaving morally because the government forces them to do so.

  9. Mr Perrin is right that, once the question of divorce is raised, as happened in France, for example, at the time of the Revolution, then there can be legitimate differences as to the rôle of the civil law.

    Portalis, for example, a devout Catholic and one of the principle authors of the Code Napoléan, argued that the “Christianity, which speaks only to the conscience, guides the elect in the way of perfection,” whilst the civil law is designed to “repress the unruly passions of bad men.” This might be called the Augustinian view, not untinged with Jansenism.

    The opposing view, that of Tronchet, another Catholic, was the importance of « l’ordre publique » and the notion that “legislators make laws and then laws make a people” ; the importance, in other words, of the climate of opinion that laws create. I fancy Tronchet, the great defender of the customary law, took a rather more organic view of society that Mr Perrin allows.

    The two opposing views represent deep-seated theological and political views that have legitimately been held by orthodox Catholics

    Of course, both were dealing with the situation where the question is already a live issue, which I take to be Boland’s point.

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