DEMOCRACY AND RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT
DEMOCRACY AND RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT
The notion seems to be widely and more or less definitely held that in civil government men may invent any institutions they please, unchecked by any such restraints as govern mechanical inventions. It seems to be believed, also, that the aim of political science is to invent some scheme of government which, when once found, will put an end to all troubles in the art of government and, being universally introduced, will make all men happy forever after. The notion seems to be more widely held that it is possible for us to make changes in political institutions, so as to hold fast all the advantages we have gained, and by successive amendments to advance toward perfection. It seems to be believed, furthermore, that any man may easily invent new political institutions or devise improvements on old ones, without any particular trouble.
I must preface what I have now to say about Democracy and Responsible Government by denying the truth of every one of these notions, because they will be apt, whenever they exist, to prevent a correct understanding of what I have to say.
ErrorsofPolitical Judgment. It is in utopias only that men have ever invented new political institutions. They have never put their utopian institutions to the experiment for the simple reason that every utopia begins with the postulate that the world must be made over again, from what it is into that kind of a world which the utopia needs in order to be practicable. The a priori philosophers, who began with a state of nature, and assumed such a state and such men in it as suited their notions, got so far as to try, in the French Revolution, for instance, to put some of their plans into practice. Those plans failed, however, and their failure involved disaster. Many people believe that American institutions were invented by the fathers, and I presume that this is one reason why the belief is so strong that men can invent institutions of civil government. The truth is that the fathers devised some expedients in governmental machinery, all of which have failed of the objects they aimed at or have been distorted to others; but American institutions are striking illustrations of the doctrine that political institutions which endure and thrive always are the product of development and growth, that they grow out of the national character and the national circumstances, and that the efforts of men to control or limit them are restricted within very narrow limits and even at that require an immense exertion of force for the results attained. This fact with regard to American institutions will demand our attention further on.
ErrorsofPolitical Philosophy. We must also abandon all hopes of finding an absolutely “best” system of government or one which will alter any of the conditions of human life, except by undoing the mischief which mistaken effort may have done. If we study human nature and human history, we find that civil institutions are only “better” and “best” relatively to the people for whom they exist, and that they can be so called only as they are more closely adjusted to the circumstances of the nation in question. The a priori philosophers have led men astray by their assumptions and speculations, teaching them to look into the clouds for dreams and impossibilities instead of studying the world and life as they are, so as to learn how to make the best of them. We shall discover or invent no system of government which we can carry from nation to nation, counting upon uniform action and results everywhere, as we do, for instance, with a steam engine or a telescope.
Furthermore, experience shows that the hope of steady improvement by change is a delusion. All human arrangements involve their measure of evil; we are forever striking balances of advantage and disadvantage in our social and political arrangements. If by a change we gain more advantage on one side, we lose some on another; if we get rid of one evil we incur another. The true gains are won by slow and difficult steps; they consist only in better adjustments of man to his circumstances. They are never permanent because changes in men and in their circumstances are continually taking place; the adjustments must be continually re-established and the task is continually renewed.
Great Principles Falsely So Called. In this view the worst vice in political discussions is that dogmatism which takes its stand on “great principles” or assumptions, instead of standing on an exact examination of things as they are and human nature as it is. The commonest form of this error is that which arises from discontent with things as they are. An ideal is formed of some “higher” or “better” state of things than now exists, and almost unconsciously the ideal is assumed as already existing and made the basis of speculations which have no root. At other times a doctrine which is true in a measure, as true as its author intended it, is converted into a popular dogma and made the subject of mischievous inferences. Thus I have heard a man who did not know what a syllogism was, reason that a city ought to give work to unemployed laborers, as follows: “Isn't government for the greatest good of the greatest number? We are the greatest number, and therefore, it is for us.” Other examples of dogmatism based on “great principles” which are either fallacies or mischievous half-truths or empty phrases which people want to force to vigorous realization, are common in French history and in our own. I shall have to refer to our experience of them again. I wish to say, at this point, only that the social sciences are, as yet, the stronghold of all this pernicious dogmatism; and nowhere does it do more harm than in polities. The whole method of abstract speculation on political topics is vicious. It is popular because it is easy; it is easier to imagine a new world than to learn to know this one; it is easier to embark on speculations based on a few broad assumptions than it is to study the history of states and institutions; it is easier to catch up a popular dogma than it is to analyze it to see whether it is true or not. All this leads to confusion, to the admission of phrases and platitudes, to much disputing but little gain in the prosperity of nations.
Fundamental Definitions. The science of politics consists in such study of history as shall discern the nature and laws of civil society and the general principles for obtaining its ends. The art of politics consists in finding means for the ends of civil society as the needs arise, under the general rules which the science has derived from the study of a long and wide experience; it is practical business in which special training, tact, skill, sagacity, and acumen are valuable, just as they are in the other practical affairs of life. Poetry, romance, tradition, feeling, and emotion have much weight in national life and in the development of political institutions, but pathos, rodomontade, vituperative declamation, and glittering generalities are only vicious.
It must also be observed that the only thing which we can ever accomplish by labor and forethought in the way of altering institutions to fit new needs is to follow the course of events, perceive the natural tendencies of the institutions themselves, and alter the arbitrary and artificial portions of our institutions at the proper moment and in the proper way to meet the requirement. Even this comparatively modest task requires the very highest statesmanship; to invent a new adjustment of civil institutions is not easier than to invent a new machine, but far more difficult.
Radicalism Repudiated. I do not, therefore, now propose anything so ambitious as an invention for the readjustment of our political institutions; what I do propose may be set forth by pursuing one step further the analogy of mechanical inventions. It often happens that some art is checked in its development by the want of a machine to perform one simple, specific task. Before the steam-hammer was invented, it was possible to build steamships of any size, except.for the difficulty that a mass of iron could not be forged for the shaft of an engine exceeding a certain size. The exact need was thus specified and the invention speedily followed. I desire to define and specify where we stand with our political institutions, and what we need in order that we may gain some advantage of position for the ultimate solution of the problem; and I desire to remember all the time that the duty of the good citizen is to support the existing institutions of his country as long as he can and to try to make them succeed, and that it is not his duty to find fault with them and to try to see what changes he can make in them.
The Political Growth of America. There is one observation with regard to the position of this country as compared with older countries which is not often made but which seems to me very important for our present purpose. As a young nation, springing up on a new continent, our history consists of a growth from the most rudimentary form of society to the stature of a great civilized nation. The first settlers brought here the traditions of English social and political order as they existed at the time of the migration; these traditions were the most favorable to liberty then existing. The colonists were able to leave what they did not want, and to bring what suited their purpose; we have had no old abuses to contend against, no vested interests to destroy, no old privileges to break down in the interest of liberty. In the old countries whose history we study the struggle has been away from excessive regulation towards liberty; whereas we began with the extreme of liberty and have gone on towards more and more regulation, as the growth of population, and the development of society have made it necessary. The two courses of development are, therefore, opposite to one another, and the fears and hopes, warnings and encouragements derived from European history, have often found an inverted application here. It is especially in regard to the development of institutions that this observation is important: a new country moving forward to greater complexity of social and civil organization will be forced to modify its institutions in the way of development, because they will be found inadequate, while an old country has to modify its institutions in the way of simplification and flexibility, because they tend to become stiff and restrictive. The two situations are distinct and require each its appropriate methods.
The Earliest State of Our Nation. The first colonists of the United States found themselves on a substantial equality as regards property, education, and social antecedents. There was no opportunity for any to secure the position of landlords; there was no need for any to be peasant laborers. The inherited traditions of liberty found easy application here, for the need for political regulation was as slight as it ever can be in a civilized community. All were alike proprietary farmers. The republican method of electing public officers offered itself as the only suitable method of obtaining such officers. There were few old traditions, or venerable prejudices, or vested interests, or inherited abuses, to block the way to the freest possible organization of society. The political institutions of the colonies were therefore democratic in their character, republican in their form. They could not be anything else; there was no place for any monarchical institutions here; an aristocracy of title and descent would have been absurd under the circumstances. If it had not been for the intrinsic impossibility of the thing, the English government would have created a colonial aristocracy as a bond to hold the colonies to their allegiance. The colonists made no express choice of democratic institutions; they could not, in their circumstances, adopt any other. All were equal before the law, according to English law; all men were as nearly equal in their circumstances as men ever can be in this world, unless they belonged to the inferior races, Indians or negroes. Hence the great doctrine of political equality, to men in whose circumstances and experience it was true, seemed to be true universally. The struggle for existence took on none of its dark colors in a country where land was so plentiful and population so scanty that there was no social friction, while, on the other hand, the higher developments which come from intense social competition were wanting. The division of labor was very imperfect; the professions were only partially differentiated. The external dangers which generally promote the integration of states were here slight, although we find that wars with Indians and wars with the French had the same effect here which foreign wars have had elsewhere. When the danger passed, disintegration again prevailed.
Slavery. The doctrine of equality for white men was held without any apparent feeling of inconsistency with the notion that colored men were not the equals of whites. It has often been thought that these two notions involved an inconsistency so glaring that it must have been present to the minds of all men, and that the Southern slave owners were strangely classed as the strongest democrats of all. There does not seem to have been anywhere any feeling of inconsistency in the matter in the colonial times. If we look at the feelings now entertained by a great number amongst us in regard to Indians and Chinese I think that this inconsistency can be more easily understood. Indeed I am not sure but that a still closer explanation of it is furnished by the laboring man who declaimed against the emancipation of the negroes, asking angrily, “Who then will be under us?”
The Union and the Constitution. The union of the colonies was also the product of social forces which made it necessary. Whenever the wars with the French or Indians involved great danger and large effort, united action became necessary, and proposals for a permanent union were made; and the exigency of the struggle with the mother-country finally brought about such a union, under difficulties and in spite of great reluctance. The union was formed on the model of the United Netherlands and was not a completely new device. It took experience of the faults of the confederation to force the new constitution of 1787, not because anybody had proved that it would be speculatively better but because the old system had become intolerable. The constitution of the United States is as much an historical growth as any political institution in existence. Its framers did not invent it at all; they took what lay before them. The Union was a fact and a necessity — no one dared to break it up and leave the thirteen colonies to get on, as best they could, as independent members of the family of nations. The republican character of the government was given in the habits and the existing institutions of the colonies. The new union was chiefly distinguished from the old by greater integration of the central power. The need of power to levy taxes had been distinctly felt; the need of a federal supreme court had been experienced and experience had even indicated the character which the tribunal must have. The federal executive offered greater difficulty, and for this the constitution-makers went back to the English constitution as they understood it, that is, to the conception of the English Whigs of the first half of the last century. The student of the English constitution finds the germs of the peculiar features of the present English constitution in the reigns of William and Anne, but it is not strange that American statesmen of the time of George III did not recognize the force and tendency of English constitutional arrangements which never reached their full operation until the nineteenth century.
GoodandBad Law-Making. So far, therefore, our constitution-makers were guided by history and experience. Their contests, as is well known, took place over the adjustment of local interests and not over theories of government — there is no ground in history for the notion that they evolved out of their own wisdom the form of government under which we live. They really showed their wisdom by throwing aside all political dogmatism and making a plain, practical plan for attaining the necessary ends of civil government for the nation. They put in no definitions, no dogmas, no phrases, no generalities. We have not indeed been free from political dogmatism; we have had a great deal of it, but its source is not in the constitution. It is in the Declaration of Independence, where broad propositions containing no meaning, or any meaning each man chooses, stand in singular incongruity by the side of plain and business-like specifications of the grounds for declaring independence. It is not without reason that some have talked about bringing the constitution into accord with the Declaration of Independence; they did not find in the former document the dogmatic assumptions which they wanted. They had to seek them in the latter document, where they are as much to the purpose as the resolutions of a reform club about things in general would be, If appended to a statute.
Take, for instance, the latest case of political dogmatism. The mismanagement of cities has become intolerable and it has been proposed in order to check the abuse to give property especial power in municipal affairs. This is opposed on the ground that it would limit the suffrage. The dogmatic assumption here is that the privilege of all men to vote on all subjects is of sacred and inviolable and absolute right, which the state may not infringe upon on any grounds of expediency. In truth there are no such absolute rights at all in the individual. The community has a right to good government; this is the fixed and paramount consideration in politics and the question as to who may share, or how, in the public affairs, depends on what arrangement will best conduce to good government. A wide suffrage is based on the experience that it conduces more to good government than a narrow one. Those who hold any other doctrine must justify, as they can, the exclusion of women, children, idiots, felons, paupers, and those who cannot read, those who pay no poll-tax, or other exclusions which the laws of various states provide for.
Anticipatory Laws. The proposition I have laid down, that institutions and political arrangements cannot be arbitrarily created, finds its proof also in the attempt which the constitution-makers did make to foresee political exigencies and to provide for them by special devices. Most of these were devices against democracy, and every one of them has been brought to naught. The fathers never intended to have the President elected by a grand democratic plébiscite, for they were under impressions which were hostile to democracy, would have held any such project dangerous, if practicable, and would not have judged it likely to produce a good selection. They adopted the device of the electoral college to prevent this. At the fourth election, the first one at which there was a real contest, their plan broke down. It was amended in detail, but in its subsequent working a mass of tradition and unwritten law has grown up upon it which has made it accomplish, only under state limitations, just what they meant to prevent. Thus impossible is it for law-makers to foresee the operation of arbitrary constitutional provisions, or to set any fetters to the development of the natural forces which lie in the genius or the circumstances of the nation.
In regard to patronage, again, the constitution-makers held utopian ideas in regard to the zeal and purity in the public service which might be expected in the republic. They had inherited the traditional European dread of the executive, a dread which never had any true foundation here, and so they gave the Senate power to confirm the appointments of the President, an arrangement which has been widely copied in our state constitutions and city charters. The idea was to restrain executive patronage, but the arrangement has been the source of great abuses of patronage, and has developed special abuses of its own, not known in foreign experience. Technical usages and unwritten laws here also have defeated the original intention.
On the other hand, many of the provisions which were fought for with the greatest zeal, such as the provision about direct taxes, have proved powerless against advancing opinion. In other respects arrangements which some of the fathers thought essential to the prosperity of the union, such as securing the adherence of the wealthy or attracting the ambitious by titles and orders, have proved of no importance. Still again, they failed to provide for the growth of the confederation in territory by purchase or treaty, so that the old Federalists were always able to denounce the admission of new frontier states as a violation of the original intention. Thus it has been proved, on all sides, that the organic law must move with the life of the nation. Either words change their contents, or interpretations vary, or roundabout methods are invented — in one way or another the nation fits its institutions in spite of all enactments or any pedantic rules of interpretation to its faiths, its tastes, and its needs.
A Senator, in a recent publication, has expressed the opinion that the constitution-makers, in these antidemocratic devices, failed to trust the people, and that this is why their devices failed; he also says that it is not the people who have wanted changes, but the philosophers. There seems to me to be here a great deal of that confusion which has been so mischievous in our own political discussions. The philosophers have philosophized after their manner and the world has paid just as much heed to them as it thought they deserved. Many of their suggestions have fallen dead and harmless, others have stimulated thought, and some have influenced the insensible growth of institutions and the accomplishment of great reforms. As for trusting the people, if we have any infallible oracle, whether it be the people, or the Pope, or a priest of Apollo, or Brigham Young, we make a fatal mistake not to trust it. In fact we have no oracle to solve our problems for us. The people is not such an oracle, because it has no organ even if it had the knowledge; the people is ourselves — you and I. The very root of the trouble is that I do not trust myself to solve the hard questions. When any number of us are added together, our folly and ignorance are added as well as our wisdom and knowledge; the people is no mysterious entity and numbers have no force where ideas are concerned. We are thrown back upon the necessity of bringing reason and judgment to bear upon those tasks and problems which are not physical in their nature. This, however, is just where we started, and when we have asked the people for an answer, we have only asked ourselves, it may be in a very loud voice. The questions of politics are always questions as to what we shall do. It is we, the people, who must decide, we who must act, we who must bear the consequences; to talk about trusting ourselves, therefore, is to use a meaningless phrase. The constitution-makers did not distrust the people, and did not intend to make anything but a system of popular self-government; they did not believe in democracy, but they meant to make a republic with a wide basis and constitutional limitations. The existing circumstances of the country produced democracy in spite of them and their limitations have all been swept away or made of no effect.
Furthermore, the scores of amendments to the Constitution which have been proposed by members of Congress have not been the work of the philosophers; it has been the people who have forced those changes which I have described, on the spirit and actual operation of the Constitution.
Pure Democracy. The changes which time has brought about in the working of the Constitution of the United States have altered its character. Our government has been called a representative democracy and, although the term is open to criticism, it is substantially a correct description. De Tocqueville, who studied our institutions during Jackson's administration, saw the American government in the full flower of that stage of its development, and he sought the germ of American institutions, rightly enough, in the New England township. A town democracy has its peculiar features which well repay study, and it is easy to discern in our system the theories and practices which belong to the town democracy but have been transferred to the national system.
There is in the town democracy no government, properly speaking; there are no institutions, or the institutions are of a very rudimentary character. The officers are only administrative functionaries; their powers are closely defined and limited, they act under immediate direction, they exercise routine functions, have no initiative and little discretion. In the town meeting the initiative lies with the individual citizen; that body also retains in its own hands the whole formative process and acts by committees when it is necessary to form measures which the mass meeting cannot conveniently do. The execution of special undertakings is also entrusted to committees or commissions created for the purpose.
The notion of special fitness for public functions is here contracted to its narrowest scope, both because the functions are reduced to their lowest form and because the members of the town meeting are so nearly on a level of fitness that the selection for fitness would not be important.
Pure Democracy in Cities. This arrangement is well adapted for a small and simple community where public duties are light, where the occupations and interests are substantially the same and equal, where the population is homogeneous, and where responsibility to the public opinion of neighbors and friends is great because universal observation follows every public detail. As soon, however, as the town increases in mere physical size, difficulties arise which multiply rapidly as the increase goes on. A large town has a large town meeting. The division of labor and the introduction of diverse occupations break up the old simplicity and uniformity; the requirements increase so rapidly that public affairs become far more important; universal acquaintance no longer exists amongst all townsmen; supervision is not close or continuous and responsibility declines. As soon therefore as the town meeting reaches a certain size it becomes an arena for chicanery and faction. Busy citizens cannot attend so as to make the meeting full, and the opportunity for “packing” a meeting is offered; the town is therefore the prey of any energetic faction with a well defined purpose which it is determined to accomplish. Private and special interests find an arena of conflict in the town meeting and in their conflicts with each other the conception of public interest is lost. The notion that the people desire only to have the public good provided for is a delightful political dogma which it would be pleasant to believe but which is contradicted by the observation of town democracies. The people do not positively want what is for the public good; they want, in a positive and active sense, what is for their interest. The vague and benevolent preference for the public good which men feel when their own interests are not involved does not rise high enough to produce self-sacrifice, work, and conflict.
Hence the public interest needs guarantees in constitutions, institutions, popular prejudices, and in the character of public men whose reputation and professional success lie in the defence of the public interest. The town democracy is weak in all these things and is therefore at the mercy of private interests; it is open to the instability which comes from impulse and passion and short-sighted motives. In the best case it has to limit itself by arbitrary rules which, if they prevent abuses on one side, restrain also the freedom of action which is necessary on another. If the town is a part of a larger civil body, the town meeting becomes the arena of the agitator, the wirepuller, and the petty demagogue. Party spirit reaches its worst forms in the rancorous strifes of a small neighborhood with no wide interests, and this is what furnishes the opportunity of all the political parasites.
The Evils of Overgrown Towns. In such a political system, skill in party warfare becomes the most highly prized political ability; the talents which are the most valuable are knowledge of men and shrewdness in managing them. The struggle for majority becomes a conflict in which there is nothing to temper the arbitrary will of the victors and in which no rights of the vanquished are recognized. No leaders are openly recognized, much as the results may be governed by a few, and there is no room for the idea of a statesman. In fact the first requisite in a leader is that he shall deprecate leadership; he must at least feign modesty. To say that he wants office is to condemn the candidate; no one may offer himself to the suffrages of his fellow-citizens simply because he thinks that he can serve them and is willing to abide by their decision as to whether they think so too or not. Such action, which is open, honest, and honorable, seems egotistic, and the candidate is driven to secret manoeuvres and to hypocritical professions. This comes from the conception of offices as honors or privileges granted by the state, when, in truth, offices are duties and trusts, that is, burdens. In like manner a man who shows independent zeal in public affairs is thought to put himself forward; he is watched with keen jealousy lest he be presuming in wealth or education or position. Finally, it may be added that town democracies always develop a fondness for technicalities and a great zest for tactics in the conduct of public or political conflicts.
These are the faults and imperfections of town-democracies when communities outgrow them. They have been declining here for thirty or forty years, and have been supplanted by incorporated cities or absorbed in a higher organization of the state. Where they still remain, in conjunction with city organizations, they are purely mischievous.
The Town Superseded. The first step in advance, therefore, consists in the adoption of representative government, not in its fullness as a separate political organization but as a makeshift to avoid the difficulties which come from physical size. This is the representative democracy. The representative of a democracy, however, is only a delegate; a representative is properly a man selected because he represents, and is endowed with independence and responsibility. The delegate of a democracy is an agent to perform a specific duty, for the democracy does not part with its sovereignty to the delegates nor leave them to use its sovereignty for it. It binds them by pledges and it claims to control them by instructions. The delegates are agents of local and other interests who are sent into an arena where interests are lost or won, to fight for particular ones. They do not, therefore, form a great council of the nation, but a body of struggling and scrambling attorneys. The public interest is a vague and indefinable notion which finds little expression amongst them and has little chance of prevailing, except so far as the local and private interests may neutralize each other. A man who went not long ago to a state capital to try to get something done, came back very much dissatisfied with the representative from his district, who had refused to help him; he said that the representative “was utterly unpractical”— that he kept referring to something which he called the “public interest,” which was hostile to what he was asked to do.
Democratic Fears. The public interest, however, is the thing for which government exists. It is not the sum of private interests, nor a compromise between them, but a distinct conception by itself; and it is the true object of the statesman. It is neutral and impartial as to all private interests; it simply creates equal conditions under which private interests may develop.
In its relations with the executive the democratic legislature jealously guards its independence. Open and honest relations, which would therefore necessarily be proper, it will not allow. It preserves the initiative and restrains the executive to empty recommendations; it breaks up into committees as its only practical means of investigating facts and performing the drudgery of preparing business. The great guarantee of publicity suffers from this withdrawal of the public business into the committee room, while the same plan also offers facilities for private relations and doubtful influence on the part of the executive.
The democracy, in its dread of executive power, knows no better means of weakening it than to divide it amongst independent officers. It fears above all a “one man power” and sacrifices to this fear the efficiency of the administration. It insists also on electing all officers, or as many as possible, by popular vote, although it is impossible that the mass of voters can ever form any judgment as to the qualifications of candidates for purely administrative offices. The “ring” is a distinct outgrowth of this arrangement of executive power; an officer who is responsible for his subordinates never makes a ring with them; a ring is only possible between independent and co-ordinate officers.
As for the executive officers, under this system they are scarcely more than clerks or administrative officers. Their powers and functions are limited far below the point of efficiency. Official discretion is jealously forbidden, although, as a nation grows and its interests become diversified and complex, it must be that occasion will often arise for action on the part of executive officers which may be most timely and beneficial, although it has been ordained by no act of the legislature; and such action ought to be taken under responsibility to the representatives of the people. This, indeed, is what government means; it does not mean the mere mechanical execution of routine functions. It is the more urgently necessary because the present system affords opportunity for irresponsible action within the limits of routine duty which may not be sanctioned by the nation. A striking instance of this was furnished by the admission of Texas to the Union.
Lingering Evils of Popular Democracy. The extension of the notions of the town-democracy to the administrative service of the nation excludes therefrom the conception of greater or less fitness. The traditional notion of public functions, as within the powers of any citizen, remains. The doctrine of equality, which no one believes in anywhere else, is supposed to be the great principle of politics. I presume that the great popular indifference to or dislike of civil service reform arises from the fact that the notion of comparative fitness or unfitness for office sins against the doctrine of equality, and the sincere inability of many to comprehend what is meant when it is said that civil appointments ought to be made on business principles comes from the long tradition that politics belong to another sphere from business and ought to be controlled by other principles. As the people have not yet learned to apply the test of fitness to elected officers, they can hardly complain that it is not yet applied to appointed ones. The right to be chosen to office, or the passive electoral right, is valued by every citizen, and if rightly understood it ought to be valued. A moment's reflection will show, however, that there is no absolute right of the kind. The only right which exists is that of every man, without regard to birth, wealth, or other conditions of life, to qualify himself for public honor and trust, and to be privileged of election or appointment if he be qualified. If the absolute right be affirmed without the condition, the state must continually suffer from bad service simply to gratify the vanity and ambition of certain men. It is only natural, however, that men should forget or ignore the troublesome condition, and when they do the dogmas of rotation in office and of frequent elections naturally follow. Those men, therefore, who said there were a thousand men in a certain county who were as good as the incumbent of a certain office, and that he ought to be turned out on that account, spoke with perfect good faith; the same notion has prevailed in all democracies and it has always led inevitably to the distribution of offices by lot.
Sovereigntyof theMajority. The sovereignty, in the meantime, remains with the popular majority. In any true conception of the nation the sovereignty of the majority is a different thing from the sovereignty of the people. The sovereignty of the people is an expression for the assent of the nation to the course of national affairs, for the power of the people to give direction to those affairs or, if it chooses, to arrest them. The people, in this expression, is the nation as a great community of men, women, and children, knit together by a thousand bonds, having diverse interests, various abilities, manifold diversities of circumstance, but yet held to one common movement by the great laws which govern human life. In this sense the nation, as a whole, has wishes, power, will, passions, motives, and purposes, just like a man. But the sovereignty of the majority is not the equivalent for the sovereignty of the people, nor yet an expression of it; it is only the assumption by a part of the prerogatives which belong to the whole. Majority rule is based on no rational principle; it is not a permanent form of self-government; it is only a very imperfect practical expedient, for want of some better method of turning public opinion into a practical determination as to what shall be done. It is quite probable that some better device for the same end may yet be invented. No fallacies in politics are more pernicious than those which transfer to a popular majority all the old claims of the king by divine right, and lead people to believe that the notions of arbitrary and irresponsible power are not wrong, but only that they were wrong when applied to kings or aristocracies and not when applied to popular majorities.
This fallacy of course inheres in democracy by its definition. The majority profits by the subtlety of the conception of the sovereignty of the people and enjoys power without the responsibility which always follows any king, however absolute he may be. The majority cannot be called to account, not because, like a constitutional king, it has no power, but, first, because it cannot be found or seized, and second, because, like an autocrat, it will submit to no accountability. It has often been remarked that the sovereign people has clothed itself with all the old prerogatives and is as tenacious of them as any other depository of political sovereignty ever was. The sovereign majority will not submit to criticism; it punishes criticism more harshly than by any press laws; it is as eager for flattery as any monarch and as inaccessible to harsh truths; it will not be sued for its debts; it claims the prerogative of deciding on its own obligations and sometimes shows an obliquity of conscience in this regard as great as that of some of the absolute monarchs of history. It is as tenacious of its honor, in the sense of demanding all due respect, as any other form of the state, but it is not always careful of its honor, in the sense of responsibility to itself, to do and to give all which may fairly be demanded of it — it is not always sensitive to its international reputation.
Popular Dislike of All Aristocracy. We are here engaged, however, more particularly with the behavior of democracy under representative institutions. Here it is marked by a jealous desire to hold in reserve as much power as possible and to delegate only what it cannot keep; one of its maxims, accordingly, is “measures, not men,” expressing its desire to pass upon measures at the polls, when the mass meeting is no longer possible. In its jealousy of aristocracy it condemns, under that name, any prestige of wealth or education; it prefers to rob itself of useful forces rather than to recognize in those forces any contradiction to the notion of equality. The forces nevertheless exist and work out their results. Wealth is power, and knowledge is power; if it were not so we men would never work as we do to secure wealth and knowledge. When, therefore, wealth is denied any public recognition as a real and honorable force, which, like other forces, needs only to be regulated to be properly and honorably useful, it avenges itself by recourse to secret methods, to dishonorable uses, and exercises corrupt influence. Knowledge has no more honorable application than to the service of the state; its power, in open and public use, brings the highest gratification to its possessor, while it is ennobled by such application. If, however, we regard the superiority of knowledge in public affairs with suspicion and distrust, we rob ourselves of its service while it remains honorable, or we drive it, when employed in political life, into hypocritical humility and petty devices of cunning.
When it comes to actual political activity, the great practical need of a democracy is organization. As we saw, the town-democracy is made up of an unorganized body with good intentions but few positive convictions and well formed wishes; hence it is a prey to a united and determined minority. The union of all the good, a union long talked about and long looked for, would no doubt defeat all selfish factions; but the union of all the good lacks cohesive force and dissipates its energies in fruitless discussions. Now when the democracy is large, and no longer local, organization takes the place of acquaintance, sympathy, and personal influence; parties rise into the highest importance. To be in the minority is to be nothing; to be in the majority is to enjoy power and dignity and honor. Party success depends upon organization; every exertion to secure unity and singleness of determination is demanded in a close division, and party loyalty and party effort are prized as the highest political virtues. The severe party discipline and party warfare which belong to a legislature are here transferred to the mass of electors, who ought to be critics and judges — or rather, perhaps, jurors — and they are engaged beforehand as advocates to support or attack the majority or the opposition in its course.
Officious Managers. The need of organization and the value of organization rise as the constituencies become more and more heterogeneous and contain more and more uneducated classes. They reach a maximum where the population consists of two classes or, worse still, of two races, of very unequal culture. Where organization is called for the organizer will not long be wanting. He comes with his inventions, the primary, the caucus, the convention, and the party committee — machinery which does not belong to the town-democracy or to any other form of government but which is the peculiar product of the representative democracy and is essential to the operation of that system.
The combination of the organizer with the civil officer comes next in order of development. We are gravely told that the government cannot be carried on unless there are men to arrange the machinery, do the drudgery, and work up the interest; that the civil offices ought to be given to men who are capable of doing this work, and that their services ought to be secured in that way. It must be conceded that such a class is essential to the working of a representative democracy, but if we are to go on in this way it would be wise and economical to recognize such functionaries as a part of the political system, to have them regularly appointed and regularly paid, on the principle that every open and recognized activity tends to come under proper restraints while every subterfuge tends to abuse. If, however, any one means to say that the excitement and agitation of last year, which we now recognize as largely the work of the political janissaries, tended to any good, or that the government could not be carried on and our needs in the way of political action could not be met without going through what we went through last year to reach the point at which we stand to-day, he will find it very difficult to prove it. It is not self-government to have Congressmen appoint local civil officers and civil officers secure the election of Congressmen in perpetual reiteration. I call it a self-perpetuating oligarchy. It is not civil liberty to walk in processions and cast ballots once in a while under such a system. When we are told that we cannot govern ourselves except by this machinery, it seems a worse insult than to say that we cannot govern ourselves without a king, or a privileged class, or titles and ribbons, or pensions and parliamentary corruption. The people who make such assertions pique themselves on being “practical” when they are only base and vulgar; but it remains to be proved that the people need to be debauched with their own money and by their own servants, in order to carry on a government whose boast it is that it has thrown away all the old instruments of political debauchery. If it is true, then let us try to govern ourselves awhile or do without government until we have better. We may, at any rate, hazard the experiment.
The Spoils System. The spoils doctrine arises from the corrupt conception of the civil service joined with the notion of party politics at war. The parties in a democracy carry on their contests as if there were no limits to the privileges of the victory — hardly those which humanity imposes in war; the current phraseology of parties is a series of war-metaphors. Autocrats and democratic majorities strike down opposition as criminal; they allow little room for the conception of constitutional opposition. It is thought that to be heroic is to be radical, and that when victory is won in a political battle nothing, least of all the protests of the minority, ought to arrest the self-will of the victors. There is a vigor and ruthlessness which is totally out of place in politics. When it has been established that the power or the legal right to do a thing exists, it is considered pusillanimous to have scruples about exercising the power. Such notions are hostile to any true conceptions of party or party rule, and they lead to those victories to win which parties destroy institutions.
Now when parties have definite principles, this conception leads to sweeping and tyrannical attempts to realize their theories in fact. When they have few or no principles, their contests degenerate into struggles for power and place, and victory means that we or you shall take the offices. Wm. L. Marcy was by no means one of the bad men who have been prominent in American politics, and the education which could make such a man enunciate the bold doctrine that “to the victors belong the spoils” in the unblushing way in which he uttered it is worth studying. Men of decent character and good education do not invent such doctrines and spring them on sedate deliberative bodies on the spur of the moment, and the notion that Marcy invented the spoils doctrine or that Jackson, out of his own evil determination, set out to demoralize the civil service, is both historically false and philosophically absurd. These twin abuses were the culmination of a long history. When Marcy said, “To the victors belong the spoils,” he only gave new, distinct, and dogmatic expression to the theories in which he had been educated, and the context of his speech shows that he was not conscious of uttering anything which ought to shock any one of those who heard him. He thought that the victors ought to undertake the administration of the government, which is not disputed by any one; he had grown up, however, in conflicts which hinged on no principles of administration or policy, but chiefly on questions of who were to have the offices. He had grown up in a young and loose society where there were few great interests or important questions at stake; the people of New York in his day had no wearing political anxieties, no hard problems of internal or external policy, no heavy taxation, no old abuses, no stubborn vested interests. It was possible to gratify any man's ambition or vanity by giving him public office, with its light and meager duties; it would involve no heavy risks and he could do, at most, but little harm. Of a consequence parties formed around leaders and more as alliances to secure certain objects of interest and ambition; and to win the political battle was, of course, to win these objects. It is idle, therefore, to indulge in denunciation of the spoils doctrine; it is a phenomenon, with its own development and history; it demands our study for its causes and its meaning. The causes lie in the nature of parties amongst us, in the social and political circumstances of our communities, in the prevailing conception of party warfare, and in the importance of organization under our political system.
The Imbecility of Our Present Organization. The greatest fault of this representative democracy, aside from its inadequateness for the needs of a great nation, is its weakness in the face of local demands and interested cliques. A system which is a representative of interests looks upon the effort to get what one wants as natural and in the order of things, to be resisted by those only whose interests may be threatened. The conflict of politics therefore degenerates into a struggle of will-force measured by votes; arguments are thrown away in all battles — when two bodies of men with opposing determinations meet, then force of the kind suited to the arena must decide. Hence the weakness of the representative democracy, in its inability to give support to the public interest, or the national welfare, or a permanent policy, or a far-sighted benefit, in the face of a sectional demand, or a temporary and shortsighted desire of a large number, or the selfish purpose of a strong clique. This weakness is especially apparent in face of the effort of a powerful corporation which can influence a large number of votes and has an interest strong enough to make it use money freely. The deepest disgrace which has ever come upon us as a nation has come from this source, and we are threatened with more. It does not seem possible that our previous experience, which so fully occupied the public mind only a few years ago, can have failed to make its due impression upon us.
General Irresponsibility. The last observation I have to make on the representative democracy is that it nowhere involves political responsibility. The constitutional struggles of English history have consisted in the effort to bring the crown under responsibility to the nation in the exercise of sovereign powers. With us the sovereign powers are in the hands of a popular majority—but is it possible to make the majority responsible to the whole? Some think that the majority need not be made responsible, in other words, that the power and rights of the majority are in the nature of prerogative. Others think that the only responsibility which is necessary is that of a party. A party, however, is an abstraction; it cannot be held responsible or punished; if it is deprived of power it fades into thin air and the men who composed it, especially those who did the mischief and needed discipline, quickly reappear in the new majority. The responsibility of a party is only the responsibility of the nation to itself, or of an old majority to a new one, and it has no other form than a new election, for which it is only another expression.
PartiesareIrresponsible. Party responsibility is not, however, any guarantee of civil liberty nor any bond for the organization of governmental organs. It could not be very serviceable to good government unless parties were very free in their formation and dissolution and the public criticism of party politics very active. It is in this connection that the fast organization of parties, which seem, as we have seen, essential to democracy, is most mischievous, for it neutralizes the only form of responsibility which exists in a democracy. In our experience it has been proved that the Presidential election rallies and confirms party organizations every four years and that in the interval they decline and tend to freer combinations. The legislature, elected partly at these intervals and elected by detached constituencies in which the varieties and minor fluctuations of public opinion find expression as they do not in the great mass vote for President, constitutes a far more satisfactory exponent of national feeling and will than the executive. I do not hesitate to express the opinion that the government would to-day stand on a much higher plane of purity, energy, and efficiency than it now does, if it had followed the lines indicated in Congressional elections, without the periodical shocks of the Presidential elections. We define the functions of our public offices, and elect men to perform those functions for limited times. If we do not elect good ones we have no one to blame but ourselves. This is the only conception of responsibility which the system seems to admit, and the consequence of the political education which it gives is that people scarcely seem to understand what the notion of responsibility in government is.
The Democracy Needed. I have not made this analysis and exposition of democracy with the idea that any amount of criticism could overthrow democracy or lead to the abandonment of it; on the contrary, when I see that institutions are rooted in the character of the people and in the circumstances of the country, I take them as they are. There is no fighting against them, if any one wanted to do it. Democracy has grown here, as I have especially attempted to show, because every condition favored it; we never could have had anything else; we cannot have, for a long time to come, any government in which the democratic element does not preponderate. Neither can I see that any other form of institutions, in spite of all the faults of democracy, would be, on the whole, so well adapted for us in our present circumstances. We are forty millions of people who, a little while ago, had nothing; and in the countries from which we came we had little chance of ever getting anything. They tell us that we have only a material civilization and that we appreciate nothing but the dollar. In the main the charge is true, but we are yet busy in accumulating the material capital which is the first condition of civilization and material greatness — we are laying the foundations of a great nation, and if we are laying them in the mud, that is where all foundations have to rest. Those who have accumulated capital complain, with great justice, that the democratic system throws on them exceptional burdens while it practically excludes them from the higher political privileges; those who want to pursue science, literature, and art complain of the unfavorable atmosphere for their work, and their complaint is just. These points of view only bring out the various aspects of our position — its advantages and disadvantages. We must take them both together and make the best of them.
DemocracyandWealth. Democratic institutions have had no positive effect in assisting this material development; it has rested on economic causes; but democratic institutions, by their looseness and simplicity, have left social competition free to act. That is the way they have involved a large measure of liberty, set against the conventional barriers of birth, rank, and social position. Under this régime merit has been able to find its level everywhere but in politics; in other words, liberty has tended to destroy equality in other spheres, and since the doctrine of equality prevailed in politics, the contradictions between political and social development are readily explained. That merit should prevail under free competition, where it relies only on itself, more easily than under an electoral system, where it relies on the recognition of men, is not strange.
The belief that democratic institutions have had positive efficacy in connection with material prosperity, and that it is due to them that conventional barriers have had so little standing here, has had much to do with the affection of the people, in times past, for those institutions. I have had in view, however, in my present undertaking, the discontents which mark the rise of a political skepticism which was unknown here twenty years ago. Doubts about American institutions have arisen in quarters where there was the fullest faith; lamentations over degeneracy and corruption have become common — they will be renewed at the end of the first year of the new Presidential term, which is always our golden age. In my contact with young men I am continually and painfully struck by the fact that, although they have a great deal of feeling and enthusiasm for parties and men, they do not respect the institutions of their country and deem it no shame to express contempt for Congress or for state legislatures. When I turn to the newspapers it seems to me that a stranger who read them would think that, throwing aside all incidental and unimportant matters, the three essential organs of the American government are the President, the politicians, and the people, and that the practical question of our politics is: Which two of these will combine against the other? I have, therefore, attempted to set forth both the strength and the limitations of the American representative democracy. I regard it as a necessary stage in the political development of the country; I regard it as inadequate for the needs of the nation which is growing up; I regard the inferences which have been drawn from it in regard to the abstract goodness of democracy as entirely fallacious; I do not see how democracy, in an old country, can ever be anything but a short road to Cæsarism.
The Future. With regard to the future development of our system, we may be sure that it will take place steadily and necessarily. We shall not make any great reforms or sweeping changes. All that comes about will have to proceed out of our past history, be built upon it, and be consistent with it. No constitutional or other changes can be brought about by congresses of learned men or by voluntary organizations which are not in accord with the genius of the election and its circumstances. The revisions which have been made in state constitutions during the last twenty-five years have shown a distinct tendency to introduce conservatism, higher organization (especially of the executive departments), longer terms of office, and so on. The democratic tendency has passed its culmination, and experience has shown the limitations of certain of its dogmas and the error of others. Many of the provisions of these later constitutions show that the people do not trust themselves; they put away from themselves certain powers which they have abused. These provisions are like total abstinence pledges, needful as a prop to self-control when it is weak, but, when made by states, destructive of a liberty which it may, upon occasion, he very necessary to exercise.
It is a popular opinion that popular institutions are the only good ones and the only ones necessary. This is an error; civil liberty cannot exist without the institutions of power and authority as well as the institutions which secure popular rights. Civil liberty is a form of national life which can be secured in its true equilibrium only by a great body of institutions, which are good only when all together and all in their due proportion. Without their due proportion, nations fluctuate between the liberty of the guillotine and the order of Cæsarism, but never find the steady path of civil liberty; with the due proportion of these institutions nations may enjoy civil liberty according to the traditions and tastes of each, under monarchical or aristocratic or democratic institutions. We have hitherto had popular institutions in abundance, and our popular institutions are strong, but our institutions of order, authority, organization, and responsibility have been weak. Our circumstances, both internal and external, have been such that we have not felt the need; but those foreigners who infer from our experience that an old country can dispense with its institutions of order and authority and get on without them as well as we, manifest a very shallow philosophy.
Necessary Modifications. It is safe to say now that our future development will be in the way of extending and modifying our institutions so as to fit the needs of a great nation. The Civil War has had a great effect in hastening on this necessity and hastening the maturity of the nation, for it has overloaded our institutions with new and startling difficulties. To carry on a great civil war, to finish it and return to peace and order, seemed a great triumph for democracy; it now appears that that achievement was a comparatively slight one. No political system which has ever existed is so powerful or can develop so much physical force as a democracy when it is composed of a large, eager, and compact majority, animated by a spontaneous resolve for a single purpose. Its power is so great that it would be unendurable if it were possible to form any such majority by artificial organization.
The War. The War, however, carried us on to another stage of civil life; it left us a large number of abuses such as are inseparable from war; it afforded an opportunity for great interests to become vested; it opened a new and wider arena to the demagogue, and in fact produced a differentiation in demagogues. The questions at issue in politics had their moral, religious, ethnological, emotional, and economical, as well as their political phases, and groups of persons were formed who seized upon such of these phases as came easiest to them, and obscured the questions while they befogged the public mind by superficial comments. The limits of political discussion were naturally obliterated and the correct conception of what are properly political considerations was lost. So far has this gone that some people seem to think it low and degrading to discuss political questions by political arguments, but make a merit of mixing up benevolence and business, patriotism and engineering enterprise, charity and civil government, emotion and legislation, sentiment and the administration of justice, the rights of man and police control, education and punishment, moral training and criminal law, equality and the supervision of industry, religion and sanitary regulation, humanity and the repression of vice.
This confusion has been anything but helpful in the solution of the great problems which the altered state of things has brought with it. In the old ante-war times this confusion would have made little difference, because there was little occasion to put any theories into practice on such a scale as to do great harm; but with a large debt, a depreciated currency, heavy taxation, a new order of things to create in the South, and wasted capital to replace, this confusion in political methods and in the sphere of the various institutions amongst which social work is divided has been most mischievous.
We have also reached, since the War, that stage in many of our industries at which the organizing activity of government becomes important to recognize and give legal sanction to usages, to collect information, and to furnish general public facilities. It is evident that the possible advantages from the Bureaus of Agriculture, Education, Statistics, the Census, and the Signal Service, from explorations of the new territories and from scientific expeditions, increase every year with the development of the nation, and that the loss is greater every year if the management is not enlightened.
If we look at another department of public life we find the same thing true. Our notion of what a modern city ought to be has expanded very much within twenty years, and to satisfy this notion there is a demand for great technical knowledge and skill, a permanent policy steadily pursued, and a large expenditure of money. The notion that any man can do anything, that any man is good enough to serve the public, does more mischief here, perhaps, than anywhere else.
Reform. The effect of all these observations, as they force themselves one after another upon the attention of the people, must be to establish the conviction that our institutions are, in some respects, inadequate to the needs of to-day, and especially that the public tasks cannot be adequately performed save by competent men. The agitation for the reform of the civil service, little as it has as yet accomplished, bears witness that the public mind is already moving and that it has found its true point of attack. The most fatal breach in all existing abuses would be the separation of the office-holders from the work of organizing parties and managing elections, and any civil service reform which does not make that its aim is a delusion. With this reform accomplished, a chance will be opened for a better public opinion to act upon the elections and to make itself felt in the choice of legislators. Here, however, is where public opinion itself needs further development; in view of the great tasks which weigh upon us in public affairs, we shall have to abandon the notion that we can all solve those problems as easy incidents to our ordinary occupations. We shall have to do as we do elsewhere, adopt a new division of labor and a higher organization; we shall have to select men, who, if they are not already specially trained, enjoy our confidence in regard to their ability to investigate and decide, if they undertake this as a special duty. Such men will no longer be democratic delegates but true “representatives”; a body of such men selected from various constituencies would “represent” the nation or the state as no popular majority ever does. They would present the state in miniature; and any one who wanted to deal with the state would have to deal with them. For all practical purposes, they would be the state, would embody its wisdom and its will, and would decide on its action. They would constitute the great council of the nation; they would have to act on their judgment and at their discretion and would therefore necessarily be independent. They would be under the observation of the people, who would judge by the result who were wise and who were foolish, who were worthy of confidence and who were not, who were capable of filling the trust laid upon them and who were not. Such representatives would find their reputation and their professional advancement dependent on their success in promoting the permanent welfare of the state; the public interest would be their chief charge as against all private interests.
Responsible Government. All associations of men form their own code, their rules of etiquette, and their esprit du corps. They are guided in this by a common interest which leads them to form such rules as will assist each member in what is necessary to success and protect each member against the most probable dangers. The code of any legislative body in the country, under existing circumstances, will serve to illustrate this. In such a body as I have described the code would adjust itself to the circumstances. The members would sustain each other against assaults which threatened the reputation of the body or the independence of members. The great desire of all public servants is for approval; re-election is desired oftener for this than for any other reason, and the fear of disapproval, or what we call political responsibility, offers a check upon such a body in favor of the true control of the people, which is perfect in its action and complete for the purpose. Such a system would indeed be a barrier to empty vanity and petty ambition, but it would give better government; and it will come when we learn, perhaps by bitter experience, that we cannot do without it. It would call the leisure class into the service of the state, for it is they who owe the state public service. The wealthy class, in this country at any rate, show by the acquisition of capital that they possess talent and force; they moreover possess independence, without which no man is a politician. Their employment in the public service would help to bring about the balance of burdens and privileges, rights and duties, power and responsibility, without which a highly developed state cannot enjoy permanent civil order. The decay of the old doctrine of “instructions” seems to me to mark some progress, if only slight, towards an independent and responsible legislature.
Statesmen. It is, furthermore, in a body of independent and responsible legislators that statesmen are developed — I mean by a statesman a man who plans practical measures for rendering well-tested principles actually active for the welfare of a state. He always needs, also, to be able to defend his measures and to recommend them to people who are not yet convinced of their excellence. It is not possible that parliamentary eloquence which, in spite of all the sneers at it, is the grand educator of the nation under free institutions, should flourish under a system of committee legislation. That is a system which calls for intrigue and personal influence, leaves full opportunity for the abuses which flourish when sheltered from publicity, and allows public speaking to degenerate into a perfunctory performance. Parliamentary debate, when properly conducted, consists of discussion — of the conflict of mind with mind in all the exercises which tend to develop correct thinking and to force examination of a subject in all its bearings, so that the measure adopted truly represents the best wisdom of the body which passed it. This debate develops an eloquence of its own, pure, clear, simple, and business-like — as free from bombastic rhetoric as from pedantry; a deliberative body which practices it is a school of statesmen. I notice no tendency which seems to me more to be regretted than the apparent loss to the public mind of the true notion of a free discussion.
The principle of responsibility has its bearing also upon the opposition. The opposition has a peculiar function, under constitutional government, to criticize, resist, and bring out opposing considerations; it enforces care and deliberation. Its great danger is lest it become factious and reckless; and the great safeguard against this is the requirement that the opposition, if successful, shall assume the administration and the responsibility and make its criticisms good. With this prospect before it, it is forced to moderation and reflection. It is sometimes said of a public man that he would be spoiled if he took administrative office, but it would be impossible to pass a more complete condemnation upon a person in such a career. It stamps him as a mere vulgar agitator.
The Executive. The executive must also be brought under the principle of responsibility. How this is to be accomplished under our system is not yet clear. That the executive must be brought into open and honorable relations to the legislature for the development of good government is certain; but how to engraft the English plan on our system I do not see. The man who should devise an expedient as well suited to our system as the English plan is to theirs would deserve to rank amongst the greatest public benefactors.
At present the President of the United States has both too much power and too little. He has more than any man ought to have without responsibility, and he has less than a competent head of the nation needs to have, if he is responsible for its exercise only by the continuance or loss of power. He needs to act often with a wide discretion on his judgment of the public interest. He also wants an organ for influencing public opinion to secure support or deprecate opposition. Formerly this need led him to have a newspaper under his control; now he has recourse to the unworthy and untrustworthy expedient of the interview or an irresponsible utterance to a correspondent. He needs also a means of communicating with Congress other than the tedious and lifeless message or the private interview with members.
The old writers thought that good government could be secured by a division of departments and by a system of checks and balances. But the division of departments — if it means that we need only make them sufficiently independent of one another and then that they will be sure to go right — is an empty dogma; and the system of checks and balances, if it were perfect, would bring equilibrium — that is, no movement at all. The more difficult task is to secure harmonious action, in due proportion, without friction — in other words, to give to political organs an organic instead of a mechanical activity. The principle of responsibility fulfills this purpose; it allows freedom with control. There is no fear whatever that there will be abuses of power, no matter how great, in law and theory, the power may be, if there is responsibility. Every public man dreads responsibility and it is the mark of a great statesman to step forward and assume it bravely when the occasion demands. The best critics of the English Constitution agree that its weakness is in the lack of independence in the executive. Ministers who have to face Parliament are only too anxious to do nothing which they can help, and to accomplish what they do accomplish, not as they think it ought to be done, but so as to hold their majority together. The principle of a strong executive, held to strict responsibility, may be set down as the great gain of the last century in the science of politics; it is essential to the good government of a great nation with complicated interests.
The initiative in legislative matters belongs to individual representatives, but it is best exercised by the executive. The executive as the permanent part of the government, charged with its administration, acquires familiarity with its workings, its excellencies, its faults, and its needs. This department, therefore, is in the best position to prepare and lay before the legislature measures which shall be well drafted and correctly adapted to what is needed. Where individual members introduce bills as their whims or their vanity dictates, instances of crude and incoherent legislation continually occur. An executive cannot be expected to give very efficient administration to laws which he disapproves or whose mischievous action he sees, and he cannot be held responsible for legislation about which he was never consulted or which he has resisted. All this has especial reference to the financial administration, which can never combine efficiency with economy unless the reputation of those who have the immediate control of it is at stake to bring about that combination. If your ships of war go to the bottom the Secretary of the Navy tells you that he spent all the money Congress would give him, and that they did not give him what he wanted; if extravagant sums are spent on the navy, you are told that Congress appropriated and ordered it. But if you try to vent your disapproval on Congress, you find that you are dealing with a body for whom responsibility has no meaning. Can you search for the votes? Can you find out who was to blame? Can you go to committee room deliberations to search for the real parties in fault? Can you reach any Congressman but your own representative? Will changing your party satisfy your desire to disapprove? It is these difficulties which render responsibility unknown to us. It is only when you confer on a man power to do something that you can bring reward or blame home to him when the thing is done well or ill; and it is only when you bring blame home to a man that you can inflict consequences which bear upon the future.
Some critics of responsible government have said that everybody was responsible to everybody else throughout the whole system but that there was no starting point, or point of reaction, for the whole. This is, in fact, its great merit. There is no irresponsible authority or arbitrary power in it; it embodies the idea which the old writers were trying to express in their theory of checks and balances. The true system of self-government for a nation comes nearest to self-government in a man; the man who governs himself must find the resources for reform, resolution, and self-control in himself, and the great system of responsible self-government in a nation is, in like manner, only a part of the national life with its springs, motives, and forces in the nation itself. The analogy with a machine is false; the true analogy is with organic life.
To sum up, then, the suggestions which I have endeavored to make: there is no absolutely “best” system of government; democracy is grounded in the circumstances of this country and has been so suited to the people and their needs that no other system has been possible; democracy is only available as a political system in the simple society of a new country — it is not adequate for a great nation; we have reached a point at which its faults and imperfections are mischievous, and, in the growth and advance of the nation, these evils must become continually more apparent; the remedy will lie in a greater division of labor and higher organization, produced by such modifications as are germane to our popular feelings and prejudices and consistent with our history; they will consist in conservative institutions, and the first of these will be a body of statesmen or public men trained to their work; and further development will consist in a well organized system of government, held within due limits and harmonious action by responsibility to the representatives of the people and to the people themselves.