The most strange fact, though the most certain in nature, is the unequal development of the human race.
If we look back to the early ages of mankind, such as we seem in the faint distance to see them — if we call up the image of those dismal tribes in lake villages, or on wretched beaches-scarcely equal to the commonest material needs, cutting down trees slowly and painfully with stone tools, hardly resisting the attacks of huge, fierce animals — without culture, without leisure, without poetry, almost without thought — destitute of morality, with only a sort of magic for religion; and if we compare that imagined life with the actual life of Europe now, we are overwhelmed at the wide contrast — we can scarcely conceive ourselves to be of the same race as those in the far distance. There used to be a notion — not so much widely asserted as deeply implanted, rather pervadingly latent than commonly apparent in political philosophy — that in a little while, perhaps ten years or so, all human beings might, without extraordinary appliances, be brought to the same level. But now, when we see by the painful history of mankind at what point we began, by what slow toil, what favourable circumstances, what accumulated achievements, civilized man has become at all worthy in any degree so to call himself — when we realize the tedium of history and the painfulness of results — our perceptions are sharpened as to the relative steps of our long and gradual progress. We have in a great community like England crowds of people scarcely more civilized than the majority of two thousand years ago; we have others, even more numerous, such as the best people were a thousand years since. The lower orders, the middle orders, are still, when tried by what is the standard of the educated “ten thousand,” narrow-minded, unintelligent, incurious. It is useless to pile up abstract words.
Those who doubt should go out into their kitchens. Let an accomplished man try what seems to him most obvious, most certain, most palpable in intellectual matters, upon the housemaid and the footman, and he will find that what he says seems unintelligible, confused, and erroneous — that his audience think him mad and wild when he is speaking what is in his own sphere of thought the dullest platitude of cautious soberness. Great communities are like great mountains — they have in them the primary, secondary, and tertiary strata of human progress; the characteristics of the lower regions resemble the life of old times rather than the present life of the higher regions. And a philosophy which does not ceaselessly remember, which does not continually obtrude, the palpable differences of the various parts, will be a theory radically, false, because it has omitted a capital reality — will be a theory essentially misleading, because it will lead men to expect what does not exist, and not to anticipate that which they will find. [Bagehot, The English Constitution (2nd ed.), p. 46]
Fortunately, it is possible to reconstruct Bagehot’s main argument without relying on this idea of poor people being degenerates…