Essay 6

The Indepdendence of Parliament

by David Hume

Political writers have a maxim: In contriving any system of government and fixing the checks and controls of the constitution, every man should be supposed a knave, and have only private interest in all his actions.

By this interest we must:

  • govern him
  • make him co-operate to public good despite his insatiable avarice and ambition

Without this, we shall:

  • in vain boast of the advantages of any constitution
  • find, in the end, that we have no security for our liberties or possessions, except the good-will of our rulers; that is, we shall have no security at all.

Therefore, it is a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave.

Though at the same time, it is [43] strange that a maxim should be true in politics, which is false in fact. But to satisfy us on this head, we may consider, that men:

  • are generally more honest in their private than in their public capacity, and
  • will go greater lengths to serve a party, than when their own private interest is alone concerned.

Honour is a great check upon mankind. But where a considerable body of men act together, this check is removed since a man is sure to be approved of by his own party, for what promotes the common interest; He soon learns to despise the clamours of adversaries. Every court or senate is determined by the greater number of voices;

  • If self-interest influences only the majority, (as it will always does b) the whole senate:
    • follows the allurements of this separate interest and
    • acts as if it contained not one member, who had any regard to public interest and liberty.

We should always consider the separate interest of each court and each order when:

  • when there offers to our censure and examination, any plan of government, real or imaginary
  • when the power is distributed among several courts,° and several orders of men

we find that, by the skilful division of power, this interest concurs with public, we may pronounce that government is wise and happy.

If, on the contrary, separate interest be not checked, and be not directed to the public, we ought to look for nothing but faction, disorder, and tyranny from such a government.

This is justified by:

  • experience
  • the authority of all ancient and modern philosophers and politicians

It have surprised such a genius as Cicero, or Tacitus, to have been told that in a future age, there should arise a very regular system of mixed government.

Such a government has authority so distributed, that one rank, whenever it pleased, might swallow up all the rest, and engross the whole power of the constitution.

Such a government, they would say, will not be a mixed government. For so great is the natural ambition of men, that they are never satisfied with power; and if one order of men, by pursuing its own interest, can usurp upon every other order, it will certainly do so, and render itself, as far as possible, absolute and uncontrollable.

But, in this opinion, experience shews they would have been mistaken.

For this is actually the case with the British constitution. The share of power, allotted by our constitution to the house of commons, is so great. It absolutely commands all the other parts of the government. The king’s legislative power is plainly no proper check to it. Tthe king has a negative in framing laws. But it is of so little moment. Whatever is voted by the two houses, is always sure to pass into a law. The royal assent is little better than a form. The principal weight of the crown lies in the executive power. But even the executive power in every government is subordinate to the legislative The exercise of this power requires an immense expence The commons have assumed to themselves the sole right of granting money.

Therefore, how easy would it be for that house to wrest from the crown all these powers, one after another by:

  • making every grant conditional, and
  • choosing their time so well, that their refusal of supply should only distress the government, without giving foreign powers any advantage over us?

Did the house of commons depend in the same manner on the king, and had none of the members any property but from his gift, would not he command all their resolutions, and be from that moment absolute?

The house of lords is a very powerful support to the Crown, so long as they are supported by it in turn. But they have not enough force nor authority to maintain themselves alone, without such support.

How, therefore, shall we solve this paradox?

How is this member of our constitution confined within the proper limits; since, from our very constitution, it must necessarily have as much power as it demands, and can only be confined by itself? How is this consistent with our experience [45] of human nature? I answer, that:

  • the interest of the body is here restrained by that of the individuals
  • the house of commons stretches not its power, because such an usurpation would be contrary to the interest of the majority of its members.

The crown has so many offices at its disposal. When assisted by the honest and disinterested part of the house, it will always command the resolutions of the whole, as to preserve the ancient constitution from danger. We may call this influence as ‘corruption’ and ‘dependence’.

But some degree and some kind of it are:

  • inseparable from the very nature of the constitution, and
  • necessary to the preservation of our mixed government.

Instead then of asserting1 absolutely, that the dependence of parliament is an infringement of British liberty, the country-party should have:

  • made some concessions to their adversaries, and
  • only examined what was the proper degree of this dependence, beyond which it became dangerous to liberty.

such a moderation is not to be expected in party-men of any kind.

After a concession of this nature, all declamation must be abandoned. A calm enquiry into the proper degree of court-influence and parliamentary dependence would have been expected by the readers. The advantage, in such a controversy, might remain to the country-party. Yet the victory would not be so complete as wished for.

A true patriot would not have given an entire loose to his zeal, for fear of running matters into a contrary extreme, by also reducing 2 far the crown’s influence.

Therefore, it was thought best to deny, that:

  • this extreme could ever be dangerous to the constitution, or
  • the crown could ever have too little influence over members of parliament.

All questions on the proper medium between extremes are difficult to be decided because:

it is not easy to find words proper to fix this medium, and the good and ill, in such cases, run so gradually into each other, as even to render our sentiments doubtful and uncertain.

there is a peculiar difficulty in the present case, which would embarrass the most knowing and most impartial examiner.

The power of the crown is always lodged in a single person, either king or minister. This person may have either a greater or less degree of ambition, capacity, courage, popularity, or fortune, the power.

It might be too great in one hand or too little in another.

In pure republics, the authority is distributed among several assemblies or senates. The checks and controls are more regular in their operation because the members of such numerous assemblies are always nearly equal in capacity and virtue. It is only their number, riches, or authority, which enter into consideration. But a limited monarchy does not have such stability. It is not possible to assign to the crown such a determinate degree of power, as will, in every hand, form a proper counterbalance to the other parts of the constitution. This is an unavoidable disadvantage, among the many advantages, attending that species of government.

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