J. Alan Smith takes a closer look at the Gettysburg Address

:..that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth’ (Abraham Lincoln, Address at the Dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, 19 November 1863).

As with much of the Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer, the eloquence of the language used in the Gettysburg Address can divert our attention from its meaning. In this article I should like to analyse the three concepts in its concluding sentence quoted above.

The problem

‘Government of the people’ merely defines the subject under discussion. We are talking about the governance of human societies and not the control of farm animals or the administration of a wild-life park. ‘Government for the people’ conveys more information. It asserts that the object of government is to act in the interests of all the people and not of one person, a small group, or an exclusive subset of the people. In practice, different groups may honestly disagree how to interpret the interests of the people, but their intention should be to serve all the people. ‘Government by the people’ is the problem. It is my contention that government by the people is not possible. The best we can aim at is government with the consent of the people.

Not necessarily rational

First there is the point that a group of rational people does not necessarily behave in a rational manner. E.J. Nanson’s voting paradox considers a committee of three people asked to choose one of three courses of action: A; B; and C. The first prefers A to B and B to C and therefore A to C. The second prefers B to C and C to A and therefore B to A. The third prefers C to A, A to B and therefore C to B. If the committee were asked to choose between each pair of options in turn, it would choose, by a two-to-one majority in each case, A to B, B to C, and C to A, which is irrational.

A similar point is made by another example. A group of 12 must choose one candidate from a set of three: X; Y; and Z. Suppose 5 electors prefer candidate X; 4 electors prefer candidate Y; and 3 electors prefer candidate Z. Suppose, further, that the selection starts with a motion to select a particular candidate. If it is passed, that candidate is selected and the process is completed. Otherwise, further motions are moved to select another candidate until either one particular candidate is selected or all candidates are rejected; whether or not a candidate is selected depends on whether those whose candidate is rejected behave rationally and vote against all other candidates or whether they feel that they must choose from among the remaining candidates. In this particular example, it is clear that whichever candidate is proposed for selection first will be rejected. This reveals a flaw in the process in that the result will depend on the sequence in which the candidates are considered. The fact that, in this case, a more rational procedure would be to have successive votes, eliminating the lowest each time, until one candidate achieved an overall majority does not detract from the point that a flawed process could have been chosen.

Second. there is the point that governance requires that the set of all decisions that still apply should be consistent. Members of a group who vote on motions that are put to them do not necessarily all check for consistency.


Despite these examples, would it be possible to devise a system through which the UK could be governed directly by its people? At present, we have a representative democracy in which the people choose members of the House of Commons which exercises the choice of which group should form the government. Yet the people do not govern and the House of Commons does not govern. An essential element of government, whether by one man or by a cabinet bound by the doctrine of collective
responsibility, is to ensure that the set of active decisions are consistent.

It could be argued that the problems of travel and communication across the country have been overcome by technological developments and that representative democracy is no longer required. The internet could be used to determine popular opinion on a daily basis and, less frequently, referenda could be used to settle major questions.

Role of referenda

Putting aside the technical problems of collating the opinions of millions of people through the internet, there is the more fundamental problem of who would pose the questions: as the old saying has it, The hand that writes the agenda rules the world’. Further, there is no guarantee that the results of such a process would be coherent. A cynic would suggest that there would, for example, be support for reduced taxes and increased expenditure.

There is a role for referenda. However, their use should be limited to giving the people an opportunity to stop a government from doing something that could not easily be reversed. A referendum to instruct a government to do something it does not want to do would be futile: it would invite the reply that Humpty Dumpty received from his piscine correspondents: We cannot do it, Sir, because .