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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Public Responsibility and
the Ballot (S110: 1865)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed on page 517 of the 6 May 1865 number of the London review The Reader. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S110.htm

    In the review, headed as above, in your last number, and signed "J. S. M.,"* the well-known writer does not appear to me to have been quite successful in answering the arguments of the pamphlet he criticizes. Indeed, on the most important point, his own reasoning seems equally applicable to the opposite side of the question. I beg leave, therefore, to make a few observations on what appears to me, as I doubt not it must to many of your readers, a very inconclusive part of his article.

    Mr. Mill truly says, that a voter is rarely influenced by "the fraction of a fraction of an interest, which he as an individual may have, in what is beneficial to the public," but that his motive, if uninfluenced by direct bribery or threats, is simply "to do right," to vote for the man whose opinions he thinks most true, and whose talents seem to him best adapted to benefit the country. The fair inference from this seems to be, that if you keep away from a man the influences of bribery and intimidation, there is no motive left but to do what he thinks will serve the public interest--in other words, "the desire to do right." Instead of drawing this inference, however, it is concluded that, as the "honest vote" is influenced by "social duty," the motive for voting honestly cannot be so strong "when done in secret, and when the voter can neither be admired for disinterested, nor blamed for selfish conduct." But Mr. Mill has not told us what motive there can possibly be to make the man, voting in secret, vote against his own conviction of what is right. Are the plaudits of a circle of admiring friends necessary to induce a man to vote for the candidate he honestly thinks the best; and is the fear of their blame the only influence that will keep him from "mean and selfish conduct," when no possible motive for such conduct exists, and when we know that, in thousands of cases, such blame does not keep him from what is much worse than "mean and selfish conduct," taking a direct bribe?

    Perhaps, however, Mr. Mill means (though he nowhere says so) that "class interest" would be stronger than public interest--that the voter's share of interest in legislation that would benefit his class or profession, would overbalance his share of interest in the welfare of the whole community. But if this be so, we may assert, first, that the social influence of those around him will, in nine cases out of ten, go to increase and strengthen the ascendency of "class interests," and that it is much more likely that a man should be thus induced to vote for class interests as against public interests, than the reverse. In the second place, we maintain that any temporary influence whatever, which would induce a man to vote differently from what he would have done by his own unbiassed judgment, is bad--that a man has a perfect right to uphold the interests of his class, and that it is, on the whole, better for the community that he should do so. For, if the voter is sufficiently instructed, honest, and far-seeing, he will be convinced that nothing that is disadvantageous to the community as a whole can be really and permanently beneficial to his class or party; while, if he is less advanced in social and political knowledge, he will solve the problem the other way, and be fully satisfied that in advancing the interests of his class he is also benefiting the community at large. In neither case, is it at all likely, or indeed desirable, that the temporary and personal influence of others' opinions at the time of an election, should cause him to vote contrary to the convictions he has deliberately arrived at, under the continued action of those same influences, and which convictions are the full expression of his political knowledge and honesty at the time?

    It seems to me, therefore, that if you can arrange matters so that every voter may be enabled to give his vote uninfluenced by immediate fear of injury or hope of gain (by intimidation or bribery), the only motives left to influence him are his convictions as to the effects of certain measures, or a certain policy, on himself as an individual, on his class, or on the whole community. The combined effect of these convictions on his mind will inevitably go to form his idea of "what is right" politically, that idea which, we quite agree with Mr. Mill, will in most cases influence his vote, rather than any one of the more or less remote personal interests which have been the foundation of that idea. From this point of view, I should be inclined to maintain that the right of voting is a "personal right" rather than a "public duty," and that a man is in no sense "responsible" for the proper exercise of it to the public, any more than he is responsible for the convictions that lead him to vote as he does. It seems almost absurd to say that each man is responsible to every or to any other man for the free exercise of his infinitesimal share in the government of the country, because, in that case, each man in turn would act upon others exactly as he is acted upon by them, and thus the final result must be the same as if each had voted entirely uninfluenced by others. What, therefore, is the use of such mutual influence and responsibility? You cannot by such means increase the average intelligence or morality of the country; and it must be remembered, that the character and opinions, which really determine each man's vote, have already been modified or even formed by the long-continued action of those very social influences which it is said are essential to the right performance of each separate act of voting. It appears to me that such influences, if they really produce any fresh effect, are a moral intimidation of the worst kind, and are an additional argument in favour of, rather than against, the ballot.

    Two other questions remain. Is the ballot necessary to prevent bribery and intimidation? Is it so injurious to independence of character as to overbalance its undoubted utility? I think Mr. Berkeley's letter in the Times in reply to Mr. Mill, and the experience of every general election, are sufficient to answer the first question in the affirmative. The answer to the second entirely depends upon the state of civilization and independence to which we have arrived; and it seems to me that in the days of standing armies, of an elaborate Poor Law, of State interference in education, of the overwhelming influence of wealth and the Priesthood, we have not arrived at that stage of general advancement and independence of thought and action in which we ought to give up so great and immediate a benefit to thousands as real freedom of voting, for the infinitesimal advantage to the national character which might be derived from the independent and open voting of the few who would feel it compatible with their duty to their families to struggle against unfair influence and unjust intimidation.

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Editor's Note

*John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), English economist

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