Monday, February 24, 2014

Woodrow Wilson and Walter Bagehot

Woodrow Wilson
Many people are unaware that Woodrow Wilson was a disciple of Walter Bagehot, who derived his theories in part from Thomas Hobbes, the totalitarian political philosopher. Not surprisingly, then, Wilson was an elitist who had a deep suspicion and mistrust of ordinary people, as well as those he seemed to view as demagogues, such as William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt. Bryan was someone to be used to counter Roosevelt, a sort of a backfire, or (perhaps more consistent with Wilson’s attitude) a thief to catch a thief.

This, of course, raises the issue of Bagehot’s political theories.

Walter Bagehot
Bagehot developed his political and economic theories in light of the abandonment of the natural law and the fixed belief that only existing accumulations of savings can be used to finance new capital formation that characterized the 17th and 18th centuries following Hobbes. According to Bagehot’s analysis, published in 1867 in The English Constitution, a relatively small economic elite (not to be confused with the “Upper Ten Thousand” that ruled “society”) were the real power in the country, having gradually usurped political power since the days of the Tudors, and (according to Bagehot) properly so.

Bagehot carefully distinguished leadership in “society” (meaning parties, balls, race meets, and so on) from leadership in government and the economy. The Queen (a “retired widow”) and the Prince of Wales (“an unemployed youth”) were the leaders of “society” and played an important role in providing the lower classes with the easily understood fallacy that the monarch ruled the country. Bagehot called this the “dignified” aspect of the English Constitution, a social convention to pacify the unintelligent masses.

Thomas Hobbes
The real power, according to Bagehot, resided in the House of Commons, the House of Lords being another “dignified” aspect of the Constitution of the country. The House of Commons was “efficient” as opposed to “dignified,” and, so far as the traditional structures of government allowed, ran the country essentially as a business corporation. The House of Commons, elected by a relatively small number of voters, was, essentially, the board of directors of the country, “a class . . . trained to thought, full of money, and yet trained to business.”

The propertied classes were (in a sense) the shareholders of the national corporation. Common unpropertied people, as well as aristocrats whose wealth and power were in decline as agriculture diminished in relative importance, were to some extent supernumeraries, that is, redundant employees and pensioners of the national corporate State.

Theodore Roosevelt
Contrary to the impression that Bagehot’s claim that ultimate power resided in the House of Commons might give, Bagehot did not support popular sovereignty. The English electorate at the time he wrote, 1867, was extremely small, and composed exclusively of men of property, a financial elite which thereby secured a self-perpetuating political power — the “pocket” or “rotten borough” system. This was only right as far as Bagehot was concerned. He believed that the masses were too stupid to be able to vote or do anything other than take orders:

 “We have in a great community like England crowds of people scarcely more civilized than the majority of two thousand years ago; we have others, even more numerous, such as the best people were a thousand years since. The lower orders, the middle orders, are still, when tried by what is the standard of the educated ‘ten thousand’, narrow-minded, unintelligent, incurious.”

 “We have whole classes unable to comprehend the idea of a constitution.”

 “A free nation rarely can be — and the English nation is not — quick of apprehension.”

William Jennings Bryan
According to Bagehot, “The principle of popular government is that the supreme power, the determining efficacy in matters political, resides in the people — not necessarily or commonly in the whole people, in the numerical majority, but in a chosen people, a picked and selected people.” [Emphasis in original.] Not surprisingly, one of the “defects” Bagehot listed in the American system is the impossibility of a dictatorship in times of national emergency. Another problem is that Americans do not accept the opinions of their betters without question: “They have not a public opinion finished and chastened as that of the English has been finished and chastened.”

Natural rights, the judiciary, — such things are irrelevant. They are unimportant because they are not “efficient,” that is, they do not increase the effectiveness of government, the purpose of which is to protect the interests of the propertied classes who run the country. Weaknesses appear in government to the extent that the State administration departs from the principles of business, e.g., lack of efficient structure, unnecessary redundancy, etc.

The fact that many of these structures were at least initially intended to provide accountability of the government to the citizens is also irrelevant. The capitalist of Bagehot’s day — or, more accurately, the non-owning manager — was not accountable to his workforce or to his customers. It followed that the government should not be accountable to the citizens it governed.


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