Front Page Titles (by Subject) LEGISLATION BY CLAMOR - The Challenge of Facts and other Essays
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
LEGISLATION BY CLAMOR - William Graham Sumner, The Challenge of Facts and other Essays 
The Challenge of Facts and other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
LEGISLATION BY CLAMOR
LEGISLATION BY CLAMOR
It is already evident that one feature of the “new time” into which we are hastening will be the subjection of legislatures to the pressure of groups of persons who are capable of controlling newspapers or combining votes. Under the old notions of legislation, the duty of legislators was to study carefully the details of proposed legislation, to debate and discuss measures, and so, by deliberation, to arrive at decisions as to what should be enacted. The notion was that the statesman should know what he intended to do and should consider the proper means of reaching the desired result. This theory of legislation never has been very thoroughly put into practice anywhere, but now the idea seems to be that it is antiquated, that we do not intend to seek a more complete realization of it as a reform in legislation, but that we abandon it altogether. At the same time, therefore, that there is a vast extension of the field of legislation, we abandon all sound traditions as to the method of legislative activity. Legislative bodies not only lay themselves open to be acted upon by outside influences, but they submit to clamor more than to any other influence. The tendency can be traced through the legislation of France, England, and the United States, during the last twenty years. If a faction of any kind assails the legislature with sufficient determination, they carry their point although the sincere opinion of nearly all who vote for the measure may be that it is foolish, or idle, or mischievous, or crude, or irrational, or extravagant, or otherwise improper.
Opinions differ greatly as to what it is that is “falling” or “going to decay” just at present. These phenomena support the notion that it is “the state” which is passing away. On the one hand, the highest wisdom of those who want anything now is to practice terrorism, to make themselves as disagreeable as possible, so that it shall be necessary to conciliate them, and those who appeal to reason find themselves disregarded. On the other hand, the public men seek peace and quiet by sacrificing any one who cannot or does not know enough to make a great clamor in order to appease a clamorous faction. It is thought to be the triumph of practical statesmanship to give the clamorers something which will quiet them, and a new and special kind of legislative finesse has been developed, viz., to devise projects which shall seem to the clamorous petitioners to meet their demands, yet shall not really do it.
The most important case of legislation of this kind which has been passed in this country is the Bland Silver Bill. It contains no rational plan for accomplishing any purpose whatever. It never had any purpose which could be stated intelligibly. It does not introduce the double standard, does not help debtors, and if it favors silver-miners at all, does so in an insignificant degree. It satisfies the vanity of a few public men, quiets the clamor of a very noisy faction who did not know what they wanted and do not know whether they have got it or not, complicates the monetary system of the country, and contains possibilities of great mischief or great loss. It was passed as a patched-up compromise under the most rhythmical and best sustained clamor ever brought to bear on a public question. Those who raised the clamor went off content because they thought that they had obtained something, and they now resist the repeal of the law because they would feel that they had lost something.
The oleomargarine law is another case. The scientific evidence submitted to the committee of Congress was clear and uniform, that oleomargarine is a substitute for butter, just as maple sugar is a substitute for cane sugar; that it is not adulterated and not unwholesome. If it had been regarded as unwholesome, in spite of this evidence, or if it had been the purpose to make it recognizable, measures having these purposes in view, however ridiculous (like Senator Blair's proposition to color it red or blue), or however mischievous, would at least have been rational. The law to tax it two cents a pound was not rational, even with the object of practicing protectionism in favor of the dairymen. If the assertions made about the profits of the manufacture, and about the supply and demand of butter in the market, are even approximately true, then the tax comes out of the manufacturers, and is simply a toll levied by the state on the manufacture of a new commodity. It cannot avail to limit the production; the state simply mulcts the producers of a part of their profits. The enactment was a case of sacrificing to a clamorous faction the rights and interests of others who were absent.
The doctors of the Koran, at Mecca and Medina, were told that coffee, when the plant was yet new to them, was deleterious. They straightway forbade the faithful to drink it, and obedience or disobedience to this law embittered the strife of sects. History is full of similar prejudice against what is new and similar state interposition against improvement. If anybody who finds butter beyond his means wants to use oleomargarine, it is an improvement to give him the chance to do so.
The laws about convict labor are other instances. The Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the clamor is a proof that something is wrong, and that the clamorers are not bound to solve the problem or propose a remedy; that they need only present their objections to what is and demand that the powers that be find a remedy. The labor bureaus themselves might be offered as a case of legislation by clamor; the necessity of justifying their own existence, and of conciliating the laborers, makes labor bureau literature one of the trials of the day. The doctrine that clamor is a proof of a grievance is so easy and summary that it is sure to be popular, and its broad availability for the purposes of the world-betterers need not be pointed out. It is also characteristic of this school of thought that the legislature is commanded to find a remedy for the alleged grievance. A legislature, if it acts rightly, has to reconcile interests and adjust rights. In so doing it can rarely give to any one interest a clear and prompt remedy for what that interest chooses to consider a grievance. Are convicts to be idle? Are the tax-payers to be indefinitely burdened? These are parts of the problem of convict labor; but, so far from having made a comprehensive solution of the convict labor question, including these elements of it, the people who have assumed to direct legislation show that they have not even mastered the comparison of the three plans proposed for using prison labor.
The Illinois Commissioner says that a wrong ought not to be overlooked because it is a little wrong. That is a thoroughly sound doctrine, and it would be easy to bring from labor bureau literature illustrations of the wrong of neglecting it; but business competition is not a wrong at all, and convict labor legislation is not based on any established grievance of free laborers, nor is it adapted to remedy any grievance, if one existed.
The latest case of legislation by clamor is the Inter-State Railroad Act. Clamor has forced through a crude measure. What does it aim at? What are the means by which it attempts to attain its object? These are the questions which should go before legislation. No one can answer them in regard to this bill. Something has been done, and the clamor subsides. To act in this way is to set all reason and common sense at defiance. Thousands of voters would no doubt have been incensed at Congress if it had done nothing. They will not read the bill, and could not understand it if they did; but they are satisfied that something has been done. To do a bad thing in legislation is far worse than to do nothing.
People who study the railroad law, and who cannot understand it, say that it will be all right if the President only appoints a good commission, and that the law will mean whatever the commission interprets it to mean. We have come very far away from old and sound traditions of good government if we pin our faith for the adjustment of rights on the wisdom and integrity of men, and not on impersonal institutions. Where has the President this reserve of wise, good, and competent men? Where did he get them? Where does he keep them? The railroads, banks, insurance companies, and factory owners of the country are all eagerly looking for just that kind of men, and are ready to pay them from ten to thirty thousand dollars a year. The President must keep them close, therefore, for the state only pays from three to eight or ten thousand. To read the current discussion of this law one would think that our railroad system only needed to be put into the hands of five men whom the President can pick out in a few weeks and who will be able to solve all the problems, when the fact is that the railroads have expended energy and money without stint for years to do just that very thing, and have themselves employed commissioners at high salaries to try to solve their problems for them. It is true that they did not look for their commissioners among ex-members of Congress.
In all these cases it is immaterial what opinion one may hold as to the subject matter of the legislation or what view one may think correct about the questions involved. The point is that this legislation by clamor fits no consistent idea of the matter, proceeds on no rational plan, settles no question, but only produces new confusion and new evils, carrying the difficulties forward in constantly increasing magnitude as the consequences of legislative blunders are added to the original ills.