Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XII: local self-government - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XII: local self-government - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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The beginnings of popular government were in small areas, rural communities and tiny cities, each with only a few hundreds or possibly thousands of free inhabitants. The earliest form it took was that of an assembly in which all the freemen met to discuss their common affairs, and in which, although the heads of the chief families exerted much influence, the mind and voice of the people could make itself felt. Such assemblies marked the emergence of men from barbarism into something approaching a settled and ordered society. In many places these communities lay within a monarchy, in others (as in Iceland) they were independent, but everywhere they accustomed the people to cherish a free spirit and learn to co-operate for common aims. First among these was joint defence against a neighbouring and hostile community. A second, important for the prevention of internal strife, was the settlement, by some kind of judicial method, of disputes between the members, frequently arising from the demand of compensation for the killing of some one whose kinsfolk were bound by custom to avenge his death, such blood-money being awarded by the assembly, or the elders, to the kin, who thereupon desisted from revenge.1 A third was the disposal and management of land belonging to the local community (whether forest or pasture) not allotted in severalty to the members, or of arable land in which there were usually rights assigned to each individual, even if only for a limited period and subject to re-allotment when the period has expired. This was frequent among peoples of South Slavonic stock. It existed till quite recently in the Russian Mir, and still exists in many parts of India.
This self-governing assembly, though there are some races (such as the Celtic) in which we find little or no trace of it, was widely diffused, though its power or influence was greater in some countries than in others. A familiar example may be found in the Agora of Homeric Greece, in the Comitia of Rome, in the meeting of the People (Folk Mot) of the Angles and Saxons in England, in the Thing of the Norsemen in Norway and Iceland. That it is an institution not confined to any one stock of mankind appears from its presence among the Bantu races of South Africa, where it maintains a vigorous life in the Pitso of the Basutos and Bechuanas.1
In the process of time nations were formed by the expansion of these small communities, or by their fusion, or by their absorption into larger units. The other functions of the assembly were either assumed by the whole nation (as was defence) or transferred to special authorities. In the ancient Greek and Italic republics regular courts were set up. In most parts of Europe judicial functions passed to the feudal landowners, and ultimately, first in England and later in Scotland, to the king. Thus popular self-government came to lose what may be called its political (including its military) and its judicial side. But it usually retained the right of managing whatever land belonged to the community; and in some countries functions connected with the parish church, while afterwards other matters of local welfare came under its care. The only country in which the small autonomous unit of the thirteenth century held its ground as a political unit was Switzerland, and particularly those Alpine valleys in which Swiss freedom had its origin. In a few cantons the Landesgemeinde or primary assembly of the whole canton continues to meet to-day.2 In England the Parish, originally similar to the Commune of continental Europe as an ecclesiastical unit and land-holding body, had retained a feeble life, but for ecclesiastical purposes only, until it received a re-grant of limited civil functions by a statute of 1894, while beyond the Atlantic the self-government of small areas had a new birth among the English who settled in the States of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. The Town (rural as well as urban) became a strong organism, drawing life not only from the English traditions which the colonists brought with them, but also from the daily needs of a people dispersed in small groups over a wild country, who had to help one another in many ways, and defend themselves against native tribes. Thus the old Teutonic form of self-government has continued to flourish and to spread out over all the northern States of the American Union.1
The small communities here described may be called the tiny fountain-heads of democracy, rising among the rocks, sometimes lost altogether in their course, sometimes running underground to reappear at last in fuller volume. They suffice to show that popular government is not a new thing in the world, but was in many countries the earliest expression of man's political instincts. It was a real misfortune for England — and the remark applies in a certain sense to Germany also — that while local self-government did maintain itself in the county and borough it should in both have largely lost the popular character which once belonged to it, as it was a misfortune for Ireland and for France that this natural creation of political intelligence should not have developed there. Many things that went wrong in those four countries from the end of the sixteenth century onwards might have fared better under institutions like those of Switzerland or the Northern United States.
Of the part to be assigned to Local Government in a modern democracy, of its relations to the Central Government, and of the forms in which it works best, I propose to speak in a later chapter, following upon those which describe the working of democracy in six modern countries. Here, however, a few words may be said as to the general service which self-government in small areas renders in forming the qualities needed by the citizen of a free country. It creates among the citizens a sense of their common interest in common affairs, and of their individual as well as common duty to take care that those affairs are efficiently and honestly administered. If it is the business of a local authority to mend the roads, to clean out the village well or provide a new pump, to see that there is a place where straying beasts may be kept till the owner reclaims them, to fix the number of cattle each villager may turn out on the common pasture, to give each his share of timber cut in the common woodland, every villager has an interest in seeing that these things are properly attended to. Laziness and the selfishness which is indifferent to whatever does not immediately affect a man's interests is the fault which most afflicts democratic communities. Whoever learns to be public-spirited, active and upright in the affairs of the village has learnt the first lesson of the duty incumbent on a citizen of a great country, just as, conversely, “he that is unfaithful in the least is unfaithful also in much.” The same principle applies to a city. In it the elector can seldom judge from his own observation how things are being managed. But he can watch through the newspapers or by what he hears from competent sources whether the mayor and councillors and their officials are doing their work, and whether they are above suspicion of making illicit gains, and whether the taxpayer is getting full value for what he is required to contribute. So when the election comes he has the means of discovering the candidates with the best record and can cast his vote accordingly.
Secondly: Local institutions train men not only to work for others but also to work effectively with others. They develop common sense, reasonableness, judgment, sociability. Those who have to bring their minds together learn the need for concession and compromise. A man has the opportunity of showing what is in him, and commending himself to his fellow-citizens. Two useful habits are formed, that of recognizing the worth of knowledge and tact in public affairs and that of judging men by performance rather than by professions or promises.
Criticisms are often passed on the narrowness of mind and the spirit of parsimony which are visible in rural local authorities and those who elect them. These defects are, however, a natural product of the conditions of local life. The narrowness would be there in any case, and would affect the elector if he were voting for a national representative, but there would be less of that shrewdness which the practice of local government forms. Such faults must be borne with for the sake of the more important benefits which self-government produces. The main thing is that everybody, peasant and workman as well as shopkeeper and farmer, should join in a common public activity, and feel that he has in his own neighbourhood a sphere in which he can exercise his own judgment and do something for the community. Seeing the working, on a small scale, of the principle of responsibility to the public for powers conferred by them, he is better fitted to understand its application in affairs of larger scope.
These good results have been sometimes wanting in municipal governments, especially in Transatlantic cities where the rapid growth of enormous populations has created abnormal conditions, making it impossible for the citizens to have such a knowledge of one another as is needed to secure a wise choice of councils or administrative officials. Of these I shall speak elsewhere. Meanwhile it is enough to observe that the countries in which democratic government has most attracted the interest of the people and drawn talent from their ranks have been Switzerland and the United States, especially those northern and western States in which rural local government has been most developed. These examples justify the maxim that the best school of democracy, and the best guarantee for its success, is the practice of local self-government.
Cf. Iliad, Book ix. 1. 628 and xviii. 498, with which compare the laws of the West Saxon King Ine; and many references in the Icelandic Sagas (see the author's Studies in History and Jurisprudence, Essay on Primitive Iceland). The custom of blood revenge, which is as old as the Pentateuch, is still alive in Albania and among the Pathans. Only recently did it vanish from Corsica, and it long remained among the peasantry of Ireland.
An account of the Pitso may be found in the author's Impressions of South Africa.
See Chapters on Switzerland in Part II., post.
See Chapters on United States, Part II., post. The word “Town “includes a rural as well as an urban area.