Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that the arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice. This geometry lesson was used to illustrate a belief that history is pulled gravitationally towards freedom.
One of the early “moral arcs” occurred 807 years ago this month when the Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede. This critical event would set in motion several important concepts now ingrained in our system of government. Perhaps the most important ideas acknowledged by the Magna Carter were that the British monarchs were not above the law, and their powers were neither limitless nor were they able to impose rules that violated established legal customs.
One custom that seems to attract universal interest is the power to tax and exploit from others their property to benefit the prevailing concept of the common good. Even in 1215 people had a tolerance for an acceptable level of taxation, but they also had a concept of excessive taxation, which was always a source of acrimony between the governed and civil authority.
While the Magna Carta addressed several issues, arbitrary taxation set in motion a fundamental concept that would be refined over time to require a process allowing taxpayers to consent or otherwise participate in the approval of any new taxes.
To curtail the King’s power to tax was significant. The King, like any sovereign, depended on taxes to support his palace, prerogatives, and policies. Indeed, one hallmark of absolutism is the ability to squeeze as much revenue from as many people to create a government directed solely by the monarch and accountable to no one.
Limiting the purse of the ruler was a mark along the road to greater liberty and freedom. It would be a stretch to argue that the Barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta were the first economic supply-siders. They were merely tired of funding royal initiatives that offered no local benefit while siphoning money and commodities out of their community.
The effect of the Magna Carta was a step toward limiting the government and allowing communities to retain their crops, gold, and property. Kings, like any other authority, chaff at having their financial plans approved by others. In King John’s case, he reluctantly signed the Magna Carta and later repudiated it, which started a war with his nobles. This civil war ended only after his successor, King Henry III, agreed to confirm the terms of the Magna Carta and reissued it to show royal assent.
The Magna Carta, by requiring some form of consent to levy and collect tax, indirectly created the need for a parliament to approve the King’s explanation of what taxes were necessary and why. Few societies in the 13th Century had any notion of assembling people together so the King could confirm his limited power by asking his subjects for taxes.
The uniqueness of this system would create an expectation of a relationship to balance the interests of the government and the governed. As the arc of history moved forward with Parliament, the powers of the King eroded, and greater power was ceded to a representative body.
While Parliament grew in authority, later, it too would come under scrutiny when it abused power and failed to recognize that it no longer represented the governed.
With the industrial revolution and the growth of a middle class, the power in Parliament became more reflective of an elite class with little attention to changes in the country. And so it was that 190 years ago this month, the Great Reform Act was passed to correct how members of Parliament were elected.
As Parliament developed, there was no uniformity in what constituted a district to elect a representative. In some cases, districts might be relatively small with limited land and population, while other districts would be much larger. In the same token, there was no set requirement of just who was eligible to vote in a district. Qualifications varied, which allowed the hierarchy to control both the voting district and the voters.
So, in the 1830s, rather than a voice of the people, Parliament had become more like King John in 1215 and lost touch with the population. It now abused its power by imposing laws, taxes, and a system that had no accountability to an industrialized country. Like the nobles, the growing middle class wanted a say in how government impacted their lives.
Proving once again the dynamic of the English system, Parliament reformed itself. In an appeal to liberty and the good will of all citizens, and believing in representative government, in 1832, Parliament accomplished two critical things in bending the arc of history toward justice.
First, the act changed how districts were allocated within cities and counties. Gone were the abusive boroughs controlled by an elite, and in their place were districts with similar populations and interests. Though not even remotely approaching the concept of “one man, one vote,” it still served as the genesis of voting districts with proportional representation.
Second, the franchise was expanded to allow a lower threshold of property ownership for eligibility to vote. This increased the eligible voting population more than 55 percent. While women were not allowed to vote and lower classes continued to be excluded, in the march toward greater participation in government, it was a clear step toward justice.
The act also created an objective system of voter registration that was the primary responsibility of local government. Additionally, boards were established to hear appeals for disputes about qualifications to vote, which further established a notion of due process by defusing power to allow a review of voting eligibility by a higher authority.
Both the Magna Carta in 1215 and the 1832 Reform Act continued a process to allow greater liberty, more freedom, and expanded justice, and these two initiatives served as bright beacons along the arc of history moving civilization towards greater self-determination.