An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue, Fourth Edition : Book 3, Chapter 04 : Of Political Authority

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(1756 - 1836) ~ Respected Anarchist Philosopher and Sociologist of the Enlightenment Era : His most famous work, An Inquiry concerning Political Justice, appeared in 1793, inspired to some extent by the political turbulence and fundamental restructuring of governmental institutions underway in France. Godwin's belief is that governments are fundamentally inimical to the integrity of the human beings living under their strictures... (From : University of Pennsylvania Bio.)
• "Fickleness and instability, your lordship will please to observe, are of the very essence of a real statesman." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
• "Courts are so encumbered and hedged in with ceremony, that the members of them are always prone to imagine that the form is more essential and indispensable, than the substance." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
• "Anarchy and darkness will be the original appearance. But light shall spring out of the noon of night; harmony and order shall succeed the chaos." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)


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Book 3, Chapter 04

Principles of Government



Common deliberation the true foundation of
government - proved from the equal claims of
mankind - from the nature of our faculties 
from the object of government - from the
effects of common deliberation. - Delegation
vindicatcd. - Difference between the doctrine
here maintained and that of a social contract. -

HAVING rejected the hypotheses that have most generally been advanced as to the rational basis of a political authority, let us inquire whether we may not arrive at the same object by a simple investigation of the obvious reason of the case, without refinement of system or fiction of process.

Government then being first supposed necessary for the welfare of mankind, the most important principle that can be imagined relative to its structure seems to be this; that, as government is a transaction in the name and for the benefit of the whole, every member of the community ought to have some share in the selection of its measures. The arguments in support of this proposition are various.

First, it has already appeared that there is no satisfactory criterion marking out any man, or set of men, to preside over the rest.

Secondly, all men are partakers of the common faculty, reason; and may be supposed to have some communication with the common instructor, truth. It would be wrong in an affair of such momentous concern that any chance for additional wisdom should be rejected; nor can we tell, in many cases, till after the experiment, how eminent any individual may be found in the business of guiding and deliberating for his fellows.

Thirdly, government is a contrivance instituted for the security of individuals; and it seems both reasonable that each man should have a share in providing for his own security; and probable that partiality and cabal will by this means be most effectually excluded.

Lastly, to give each man a voice in the public concerns comes nearest to that fundamental purpose of which we should never lose sight, the uncontrolled exercise of private judgment. Each man will thus be inspired with a consciousness of his own importance, and the slavish feelings that shrink up the soul in the presence of an imagined superior will be unknown.

Admitting then the propriety of each man having a share in directing the affairs of the whole in the first instance, it seems necessary that he should concur in electing a house of representatives, if he be the member of a large state; or, even in a small one, that he should assist in the appointment of officers and administrators1; which implies, first, a delegation of authority to these officers, and, secondly, a tacit consent, or rather an admission of the necessity, that the questions to be debated should abide the decision of a majority.

But to this system of delegation the same objections may be urged that were cited from Rousseau under the head of a social contract. It may be alleged that "if it be the business of every man to exercise his own judgment, he can in no instance surrender this function into the hands of another."

To this objection it may be answered, first, that the parallel is by no means complete between an individual's exercise of his judgment in a case that is truly his own, and his exercise of his judgment in an article where the province of a government is already admitted. If there be something contrary to the simplest ideas of justice in such a delegation, this is an evil inseparable from political government. The true and only adequate apology of government is necessity; the office of common deliberation is solely to supply the most eligible means of meeting that necessity.

Secondly, the delegation we are here considering is not, as the word in its most obvious sense may seem to imply, the act of one man committing to another a function which, strictly speaking, it became him to exercise for himself. Delegation, in every instance in which it can be reconciled with justice, proposes for its object the general good. The individuals to whom the delegation is made are either more likely, from talents or leisure, to perform the function in the most eligible manner, or there is at least some public interest requiring that it should be performed by one or a few persons, rather than by every individual for himself. This is the case whether in that first and simplest of all political delegations, the prerogative of a majority, or in the election of a house of representatives, or in the appointment of public officers. Now all contest as to the person who shall exercise a certain function and the propriety of resigning it is frivolous the moment it is decided how and by whom it can most advantageously be exercised. It is of no consequence that I am the parent of a child when it has once been ascertained that the child will live with greater benefit under the superintendence of a stranger.

Lastly, it is a mistake to imagine that the propriety of restraining me, when my conduct is injurious, rises out of any delegation of mine. The justice of employing force upon certain emergencies was at least equally cogent be fore the existence of society.2 Force ought never to be resorted to but in cases of absolute necessity; and, when such cases occur, it is the duty of every man to defend himself from violation. There is therefore no delegation necessary on the part of the offender; but the community, in the censure it exercises over him, puts itself in the place of the injured party.

From what is here stated, we may be enabled to form the clearest and most unexceptionable idea of the nature of government. Every man, as was formerly observed,3 has a sphere of discretion; that sphere is limited by the coordinate sphere of his neighbor. The maintenance of this limitation, the office of taking care that no man exceeds his sphere, is the first business of government. Its powers, in this respect, are a combination of the powers of individuals to control the excesses of each other. Hence is derived to the individuals of the community a second and indirect province, of providing, by themselves or their representatives, that this control is not exercised in a despotical manner, or carried to an undue excess.

It may perhaps be imagined by some persons that the doctrine here delivered, of the justice of proceeding in common concerns by a common deliberation, is nearly coincident with that which affirms a lawful government to derive its authority from a social contract. Let us consider what is the true difference between them: and this seems principally to lie in the following particular.

The principle of a social contract is an engagement to which a man is bound by honor, fidelity or consistency to adhere. According to the principle here laid down, he is bound to nothing. He joins in the common deliberation because he foresees that some authority will be exercised, and because this is the best chance that offers itself for approximating the exercise of that authority, to the dictates of his own understanding. But, when the deliberation is over, he finds himself as much disengaged as ever. If he conform to the mandate of authority, it is either because he individually approves it, or from a principle of prudence, because he foresees that a greater mass of evil will result from his disobedience than of good. He obeys the freest and best constituted authority, upon the same principle that would lead him, in most instances, to yield obedience to a despotism; only with this difference, that, if the act of authority be erroneous, he finds it less probable that it will be corrected in the first instance than in the second, since it proceeds from the erroneous judgment of a whole people. - But all this will appear with additional evidence when we come to treat of the subject of obedience.

Too much stress has undoubtedly been laid upon the idea, as of a grand and magnificent spectacle, of a nation deciding for itself upon some great public principle, and of the highest magistracy yielding its claims when the general voice has pronounced. The value of the whole must at last depend upon the quality of their decision. Truth cannot be made more true by the number of its votaries. Nor is the spectacle much less interesting of a solitary individual, bearing his undaunted testimony in favor of justice, though opposed by misguided millions. Within certain limits however the beauty of the exhibition may be acknowledged. That a nation should exercise undiminished its function of common deliberation is a step gained, and a step that inevitably leads to an improvement of the character of individuals. That men should agree in the assertion of truth is no unpleasing evidence of their virtue. Lastly, that an individual, how ever great may be his imaginary elevation, should be obliged to yield his personal pretensions to the sense of the community at least bears the appearance of a practical confirmation of the great principle that all private considerations must yield to the general good.


1We shall be led, in a subsequent branch of this inquiry, to investigate how far either of these measures is inseparable from the maintenance of social order. Book V, Chap. XXIV.
2Chap. I, pp. 209-10.

From : Anarchy Archives


November 30, 1792 :
Book 3, Chapter 04 -- Publication.

January 26, 2017 19:06:23 :
Book 3, Chapter 04 -- Added to

February 24, 2020 15:37:51 :
Book 3, Chapter 04 -- Last Updated on


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