Reflections on the Revolution in France "A Perfect Democracy Is The Most Shameless Thing In The World"

Edmund Burke

"A Perfect Democracy Is The Most Shameless Thing In The World"

Context: Burke was one of the greatest political philosophers England has ever produced. As a member of Parliament he expressed sympathy for the American Colonies both before and during their Revolution, for he considered that they were defending established and traditional rights. The French Revolution, on the other hand, he regarded as a violent, vicious, and dangerous repudiation of all sane and traditional principles of liberty and orderly government; and extensive English sympathy for that Revolution led him to publish his criticisms of it in these Reflections. In this section he points out that monarchs are limited by those through whom they must operate and their own concern for fame and reputation; with the rulers of a democracy the case is quite different:

. . . But where popular authority is absolute and unrestrained, the people have an infinitely greater, because a far better founded confidence in their own power. They are themselves, in a great measure, their own instruments. They are nearer to their objects. Besides, they are less under responsibility to one of the greatest controlling powers on earth, the sense of fame and estimation. The share of infamy that is likely to fall to the lot of each individual in public acts, is small indeed; the operation of opinion being in inverse ratio to the number of those who abuse power. Their own approbation of their own acts has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favour. A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world. As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless. No man apprehends in his person he can be made subject to punishment. . . .