The Wisdom of William Hazlitt

From his essay “What Is The People” (1817):

That Government is instituted for the benefit of the governed, there can be little doubt; but the interests of the Government (when once it becomes absolute and independent of the people) must be directly at variance with those of the governed. The interests of the one are common and equal rights: of the other, exclusive and invidious privileges. The essence of the first is to be shared alike by all, and to benefit the community in proportion as they are spread: the essence of the last is to be destroyed by communication, and to subsist only–in the wrong of the people. Rights and privileges are a contradiction in terms: for if one has more than his right, others must have less. The latter are the deadly nightshade of the commonwwealth, near which no wholesome plant can thrive,–the ivy clinging round the trunk of the British oak, blighting its verdure, drying up its sap, and oppressing its stately growth. The insufficient checks and balances opposed to the overbearing influence of hereditary rank and power in our own Constitution, and in every Government which retains the least trace of freedom, are so many illustrations of this principle, if it need any. The tendency in arbitrary power to encroach upon the liberties and comforts of the people, and to convert the public good into a stalking horse to its own pride and avarice, has never (that we know) been denied by any one but ‘the professional gentleman’, who writes in The Day and New Times. The great and powerful, in order to be what they aspire to be, and what this gentleman would have them, perfectly independent of the will of the people, ought also to be perfectly independent of the assistance of the people. To be formally invested with the attributes of Gods upon earth, they ought first to be raised above its petty wants and appetites: they ought to give proofs of the beneficence and wisdom of Gods, before they can be trusted with the power. When we find them seated above the world, sympathizing with the welfare, but not feeling the passions of men, receiving neither good nor hurt, neither tilth nor tithe from them, but bestowing their benefits as free gifts on all, they may then be expected, but not till then, to rule over use like another Providence.

He’s a little hoppy with the revolutionary spirit of his times, but he seems to have a solid grasp on how an aristocracy sees its relative position, a lesson which is sadly too familiar to twenty-first century readers.

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