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POLITICAL AND SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS





The idea that institutions can remedy the defects of societies,
that national progress is the consequence of the improvement of
institutions and governments, and that social changes can be
effected by decrees-- this idea, I say, is still generally
accepted. It was the starting-point of the French Revolution,
and the social theories of the present day are based upon it.

The most continuous experience has been unsuccessful in shaking
this grave delusion. Philosophers and historians have
endeavoured in vain to prove its absurdity, but yet they have had
no difficulty in demonstrating that institutions are the outcome
of ideas, sentiments, and customs, and that ideas, sentiments,
and customs are not to be recast by recasting legislative codes.
A nation does not choose its institutions at will any more than
it chooses the colour of its hair or its eyes. Institutions and
governments are the product of the race. They are not the
creators of an epoch, but are created by it. Peoples are not
governed in accordance with their caprices of the moment, but as
their character determines that they shall be governed.
Centuries are required to form a political system and centuries
needed to change it. Institutions have no intrinsic virtue: in
themselves they are neither good nor bad. Those which are good
at a given moment for a given people may be harmful in the
extreme for another nation.

Moreover, it is in no way in the power of a people to really
change its institutions. Undoubtedly, at the cost of violent
revolutions, it can change their name, but in their essence they
remain unmodified. The names are mere futile labels with which
an historian who goes to the bottom of things need scarcely
concern himself. It is in this way, for instance, that
England,[9] the most democratic country in the world, lives,
nevertheless, under a monarchical regime, whereas the countries
in which the most oppressive despotism is rampant are the
Spanish-American Republics, in spite of their republican
constitutions. The destinies of peoples are determined by their
character and not by their government. I have endeavoured to
establish this view in my previous volume by setting forth
categorical examples.



recognise this fact. The American magazine, The Forum, recently
gave categorical expression to the opinion in terms which I
reproduce here from the Review of Reviews for December, 1894:--

"It should never be forgotten, even by the most ardent enemies of
an aristocracy, that England is to-day the most democratic
country of the universe, the country in which the rights of the
individual are most respected, and in which the individual
possesses the most liberty."



To lose time in the manufacture of cut-and-dried constitutions
is, in consequence, a puerile task, the useless labour of an
ignorant rhetorician. Necessity and time undertake the charge of
elaborating constitutions when we are wise enough to allow these
two factors to act. This is the plan the Anglo-Saxons have
adopted, as their great historian, Macaulay, teaches us in a
passage that the politicians of all Latin countries ought to
learn by heart. After having shown all the good that can be
accomplished by laws which appear from the point of view of pure
reason a chaos of absurdities and contradictions, he compares the
scores of constitutions that have been engulfed in the
convulsions of the Latin peoples with that of England, and points
out that the latter has only been very slowly changed part by
part, under the influence of immediate necessities and never of
speculative reasoning.

"To think nothing of symmetry and much of convenience; never to
remove an anomaly merely because it is an anomaly; never to
innovate except when some grievance is felt; never to innovate
except so far as to get rid of the grievance; never to lay down
any proposition of wider extent than the particular case for
which it is necessary to provide; these are the rules which have,
from the age of John to the age of Victoria, generally guided the
deliberations of our two hundred and fifty Parliaments."

It would be necessary to take one by one the laws and
institutions of each people to show to what extent they are the
expression of the needs of each race and are incapable, for that
reason, of being violently transformed. It is possible, for,
instance, to indulge in philosophical dissertations on the
advantages and disadvantages of centralisation; but when we see a
people composed of very different races devote a thousand years
of efforts to attaining to this centralisation; when we observe
that a great revolution, having for object the destruction of all
the institutions of the past, has been forced to respect this
centralisation, and has even strengthened it; under these
circumstances we should admit that it is the outcome of imperious
needs, that it is a condition of the existence of the nation in
question, and we should pity the poor mental range of politicians
who talk of destroying it. Could they by chance succeed in this
attempt, their success would at once be the signal for a
frightful civil war,[10] which, moreover, would immediately bring
back a new system of centralisation much more oppressive than the
old.



political dissensions which separate the various parties in
France, and are more especially the result of social questions,
and the separatist tendencies which were manifested at the time
of the Revolution, and began to again display themselves towards
the close of the Franco-German war, it will be seen that the
different races represented in France are still far from being
completely blended. The vigorous centralisation of the
Revolution and the creation of artificial departments destined to
bring about the fusion of the ancient provinces was certainly its
most useful work. Were it possible to bring about the
decentralisation which is to-day preoccupying minds lacking in
foresight, the achievement would promptly have for consequence
the most sanguinary disorders. To overlook this fact is to leave
out of account the entire history of France.



The conclusion to be drawn from what precedes is, that it is not
in institutions that the means is to be sought of profoundly
influencing the genius of the masses. When we see certain
countries, such as the United States, reach a high degree of
prosperity under democratic institutions, while others, such as
the Spanish-American Republics, are found existing in a pitiable
state of anarchy under absolutely similar institutions, we should
admit that these institutions are as foreign to the greatness of
the one as to the decadence of the others. Peoples are governed
by their character, and all institutions which are not intimately
modelled on that character merely represent a borrowed garment, a
transitory disguise. No doubt sanguinary wars and violent
revolutions have been undertaken, and will continue to be
undertaken, to impose institutions to which is attributed, as to
the relics of saints, the supernatural power of creating welfare.
It may be said, then, in one sense, that institutions react on
the mind of the crowd inasmuch as they engender such upheavals.
But in reality it is not the institutions that react in this
manner, since we know that, whether triumphant or vanquished,
they possess in themselves no virtue. It is illusions and words
that have influenced the mind of the crowd, and especially
words-- words which are as powerful as they are chimerical, and
whose astonishing sway we shall shortly demonstrate.





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Previous: TRADITIONS



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