An argument for working for change through our present political institutions, rather than aiming to abolish and replace them.
The following text is Chapter 5 of Political Justice: A Traditional Conservative Case for an Alternative Society by Arktos author A. J. Illingworth. In this book, the author presents a philosophical defence of traditional conservatism through a critique of the work of William Godwin’s Enlightenment tract An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.
It is the opinion of many on the left that political institutions serve little but to defend the interests of those few into whose hands is concentrated the vast majority of wealth and property. In Godwin’s time, as is becoming more and more true today, the disparity of wealth between those at the bottom and those at the top of our societies was profound. Whilst those at the top are no longer the aristocracy of despotic monarchies of Europe, we have created for ourselves a new aristocracy who continue to hold the majority of the world’s wealth. Celebrity, politician and similar exalted social concepts are all guilty of this. Of course, there are also many differences now to Godwin’s time: we have a much more generous social welfare system, the standard of living of those in poverty is much more hygienic and tolerable than it was in the late 18th century, and government is much more representative than it was, considering the expansion of the voting franchise to all. But Godwin’s criticism of the inequality of property is not necessarily fair on political institutions.
It would not be fair to criticise political institutions for protecting the wealthy from the crimes of others. Whilst many of the poor of Godwin’s time were driven to crime in order to survive, that is indicative of wider social problems with poverty and the failure of governance rather than the failure of political institution itself. The court cannot be blamed for upholding the law. As we have discovered in the previous chapter, it is perfectly reasonable for the rule of law to be enforced, and the thief, no matter what his motives, does not excuse his crime purely because he suffers from poverty. Given the differences in the poverty of Godwin’s day and today’s relative poverty, we may also make the argument for economic inequality in general. It has generally been proved that the free market (in its truest sense of being generally free) has benefitted the citizens of the world most effectively when all have the freedom to participate in such markets and when trade in those markets is conducted in a virtuous way. The latter statement is crucial: a market cannot, in fact, be free if those conducting trade within it are not virtuous. It is therefore disappointing to look upon many modern markets and see the outward unfair trading that goes on. But within any truly free market, a degree of economic inequality is required for there to be any incentive to trade in the first place. The very concept of economy relies on certain people having something that others want; otherwise, there would be no reason for the ones wanting to strive to obtain what they want. To quote the famous actor Morgan Freeman in a recent interview in response to the assertion that certain people could not bring themselves out of poverty because of the place and situation in which they were brought up: ‘Man, the bus runs every day.’1
Godwin goes on to describe what he considers to be the ‘tyranny’ of the rich, enforced by their creation and administration of the law. He claims that the rich are ‘directly or indirectly the legislators of the state’. He is correct in the sense that the wealthy have a great deal of influence on legislation, and they always have. However, we can contend that what Godwin is describing is not a free society. The wealthy may be able to pressure and influence political institutions in order to corrupt them and swing them towards their influence, but many constitutions explicitly stipulate a separation of powers in order to prevent much of this corruption, and it is the right of every citizen today to lobby their government or their representatives. It is only when the wealthy begin to exclude the rest of the population from lobbying or legal and political representation that Godwin’s criticism becomes pertinent. This sort of society is not a free society, but the political institutions under which Godwin lived certainly operated relatively freely in Britain. So whilst the assertion that political institutions only serve the interests of the rich is false, it is also true that we should take some heed of Godwin’s assertion and consider it a warning for the future. The abolition of institutions such as legal aid by modern government should be opposed seriously and considerately, since this is certainly a sign that we are on the path which leads the rich to exclude poorer citizens from using the institutions created to serve the interests and security of all.
Many of the laws which Godwin cites as favouring the rich over the poor, such as the game laws forbidding a farmer from shooting an animal from a rich man’s estate which is preying on livestock from his farm, have since been abolished and replaced in favour of the farmer, and rightly so. Such is the nature of men’s realisation of political justice. Nevertheless, there is one further point worth considering: that regarding opinion and wealth. It is as much the case today as it was in the age of Godwin that there is a certain extant snobbery which considers the opinions of those without certain items of property or without wealth in general to be less relevant than the opinions of those who are wealthy and therefore might be considered by some to be better educated in political matters. The prevalence of this worldview has been seen very recently in the general elections of 2015 and 2017 as well as the European Union membership referendum of 2016. It is unfortunate that a sizeable number of people, as seen most obviously in the ‘anti-Brexit marches’ in London following the referendum result, were of the opinion that those who disagreed with them were ‘exploited’ and ‘misinformed’. In political discourse, no matter what the opinions of the individual are, such snobbery is an active danger to a democratic system. Soon enough, might not the time come when such individuals consider silencing those whom they consider to be the source of such ‘misinformation’? As we have already affirmed, to ban the literature or opinions of those who hold differing opinions can only serve the hindrance of progress in political justice.
Monopolies held on political opinion and economic control can never allow for a clear path to a free and just society, and in this respect, Godwin is correct. More often than not, it is those who are wealthier who are quicker to jump on opportunities to silence and control those beneath them who express dissent. However, the solution is not the destruction of our political institutions and the creation of new ones from square one, or none at all in their place. We cannot blame political institutions for upholding and representing the law as they were set up to do; it is merely the actions within or upon those institutions which can do damage to our quest for political justice. So it is the duty of citizens seeking such justice to operate against such forces within the framework of political institutions. Such institutions, as we have said before, have been inherited by us from our ancestors in order to serve the interests of all in the nation. Let us then make use of those institutions created to serve us, and work to achieve more political justice from whatever (however little) has been left to us, rather than destroy them and be left with no justice whatsoever.
1 Morgan Freeman in an interview with Don Lemon of CNN, 3rd June 2014.