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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