Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXV: the tone of public life - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER XXV: the tone of public life - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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.
the tone of public life
This survey of the persons by whom France is ruled and of the methods which deputies, ministers, and officials are wont to employ, needs to be completed by a few words on public life as a whole, its purity and its general tone. All that foreign observers have said in censure of the two former classes has been surpassed in acrimony by critics who are themselves Frenchmen. The stranger who seeks to discover the truth from books and newspapers feels bound to discount much of what native writers say about their countrymen, as due to that warmth of partisan feeling which has for forty years been more intense here than elsewhere in Europe. Some faults, moreover, which belong to politics in all countries, and were at least as evident under the three preceding monarchies, are now held up to scorn as if peculiar to the present regime. But how much, then, are we to discount the sum total of the iniquities charged against the Third Republic? I have tried to correct the exaggerations of political polemics by the opinions of impartially minded French friends, but while the conclusions to be here stated seem to me generally true, it is with the greatest diffidence that I submit them.
Let us begin with the ordinary citizen. Is his vote at an election purchasable? The Commissions which investigate these matters take evidence laxly, and the Chamber is influenced in its decisions by party motives. But the upshot seems to he that the giving and receiving of bribes is rare. Few candidates can afford to spend money in this way; and though here, as in other countries, the voter may see little harm in making something out of his vote, the process is too costly to be often employed in the large constituencies universal suffrage has created.
As respects members of the Legislature and Ministers, for these classes may be considered together, it is especially hard to speak positively. The resounding explosion of the Panama affair, in which it was proved that immense sums had been diverted from the making of the Canal to private gains, and that some of these had gone to purchasing support in the Chamber, possibly from a few ministers and certainly from some deputies, created an atmosphere of suspicion which lasted for years, like the smoke that continues to hang over the spot where a high explosive shell has struck the ground. A scandal so tremendous seemed to confirm the vague suspicions that had existed before: and it tended to render probable charges subsequently made. That very few persons were ultimately convicted scarcely diminished the effect, because it was known that some of the accused had escaped justice, either for want of evidence or through official connivance, and no one could be sure how many these might be. Nothing similar has occurred since, yet the memory of Panama has remained to be used as a reproach against Parliamentary government, even by those who know that there were scandals in the days of Louis Philippe, when the intellectual character of the Chamber stood high, and more numerous scandals in the eighteen years' reign of Napoleon III. than the Republic has seen during the last fifty.
That there are some corruptible members of the Legisture is probable. Such men are to be found in every large assembly, though in a few the standard of probity has been kept so high that they seldom venture to affront it. Some sources of temptation are absent. Those private Bills, promoted in the interests of some commercial or industrial enterprise, or granting a valuable concession of public rights to private undertakings, which are the chief source of corruption in American legislatures, scarcely exist in Trance. Few new railroads have been constructed of late years: few projects are brought forward which affect business men sufficiently to make it worth their while to approach legislators. Those who seek their own interests in the imposition or reduction of protective duties on imports generally pursue their aims openly. Nevertheless it does happen that large financiers, or firms desiring to develop undertakings abroad, as for instance in Turkey, or in the colonies, do attempt to bring improper influences to bear: and sometimes they succeed. Persons who ought to know assure me that the percentage of purchasable deputies is trifling, but that a good many are not above using their position for gainful purposes, as an advocate may extend his practice by his position in the Chamber, or as a deputy can profit by indirectly helping a commercial company. Some evidence of the anxiety which the connection of senators and deputies with business undertakings has been causing may be found in the bills introduced to declare certain positions incompatible with that of a legislator. The provisions of the existing law declare the ineligibility for a seat of any one who exercises a public function paid by State funds (with a very few exceptions for Ministers and others), of any one who is a member of a “Commission Départmentale,” or of a Conseil Général, and of a director of three great steam-packet companies which hold postal service concessions from the Government. It was proposed by a bill of 1917 to extend this ineligibility to persons discharging either any function paid by the funds of the State, or of a Department, or of a Commune, or of a Colony, or any function to which a person may be nominated by the State in any financial, industrial, or commercial company or enterprise; and the bill would also forbid members of either Chamber, Ministers, and Under Secretaries of State to take part in any bargain or adjudication to which the State, or departments, or communes are parties in respect of work to be done or goods to be supplied. One can conjecture the evils at which such provisions as these are aimed.
The name of a deputy on the directorate of an incorporated company has lost what value it once possessed, because confidence has been shaken. A deputy may possibly, and a minister will usually, know facts enabling him to speculate in stocks with a prospect of success, and the opinion of his fellow-members deals leniently with this form of what is called tripotage. Though it is thought unbecoming for a politician to be mixed up with business matters, a slur on his reputation does not shut the door of office against him. The deputies and ministers who lack private fortune are not those round whom suspicion most frequently hovers, nor has the receipt of a salary lowered the moral standard, except in so far as it creates a further motive for giving an unconscientious vote in order to retain a seat. Public opinion is sensitive on the subject of pecuniary gains by politicians: it is only a talent which approaches indispensability that obtains impunity for transgressors. When stories are profusely circulated censoriousness tends to defeat itself, because if many accusations are made and remain unproved, people begin to treat the subject lightly, giving weight only to a few charges, and not troubling themselves to discriminate between the rest, for in despair of reaching the truth they cease to probe matters to the bottom.
A singularly fair-minded French observer, who tells me that during the last forty years the intellectual level of the deputies has slightly risen, while their moral level has slightly fallen, attributes this to two causes which have little to do with politics. The diffusion of higher education among the middle and lower middle and even the wage-earning classes has enabled a larger proportion than formerly of able men of humble origin to enter Parliament. Such men are less responsive to the standards set by a highly cultivated society because they have never belonged to it. They have brought with them less polished manners and less refined tastes, and they represent that new spirit which, pursuing merely material aims, is indifferent to religious or philosophical principles, a spirit which, though deemed characteristic of the generation that has grown up under the Republic, is not necessarily due to the Republic. There was plenty of irreligion and of licence, as well as plenty of corruption, under the Second Empire. The philosophic enthusiasts who championed liberty against Louis Napoleon believed that the Republic would bring purer morals and a loftier public spirit. But these things the Republic has not yet brought.
As respects the public departments, it has been already observed that their management has been on the whole honest and efficient. The branch in which lavish expenditures, with inadequate results, have most frequently occurred is the navy, but in all countries jobs or peculations may be looked for where large contracts are placed. Even the admirably organized and strictly disciplined public service of Germany has not been exempt. The eagerness to concentrate fire upon Parliamentarism may dispose French critics to spare their Civil Service, but certainly one hears few charges brought against its members. They have a pride in their work and a sense of professional solidarity which makes the upper ranks of the service at any rate feel that every man is the guardian of the honour of the profession as well as of his own.
The same may be said of the Judiciary. It is above pecuniary seductions. Yet the statements heard from many quarters, that judges are sometimes affected by political influences, proceeding either from the government, or from persons in touch with the government, cannot be disregarded. On the other hand, cases are quoted in which governments have demanded from the judges what the latter have refused to give. It would seem that though little harm may have so far resulted there is need for watchfulness. Public opinion is perhaps too tolerant of attempts to affect the impartiality and independence of the Bench. The habit of writing letters to judges about cases that come before them is a dangerous one, and the practice of promoting judges from lower to higher posts creates temptations, since it provides a motive for trying to stand well with the Government.1 Some promotions of course there must be. They exist in England, where the most capable High Court judges of first instance are raised to the Court of Appeal, and in the United States, where District and Circuit judges are sometimes sent to the Supreme Court. But in both these cases the public opinion of the Bar, from which all judges are taken, provides a safeguard against favouritism. As French judges are not drawn from the Bar, it knows less of them and takes less interest in their careers.
When we come to what is called the Tone of public life it is still harder to form a correct estimate. What does the term mean? It can be felt rather than described, being something whose presence is, like a scent, impalpable but unmistakable. It is a quality in the atmosphere, delightful when it stimulates, depressing when it lowers intellectual or moral vitality. It is open-minded, free from prejudice and intolerance, governed by the love of truth. It is also imaginative and emotional, feeling the greatness of a nation's life, gladly recognizing the duty and the privilege of serving the State. It is patriotic in that sense of the word which implies that a nation ought to aim at righteousness as well as at power. Even in ambitious men it restrains the promptings of mere self-interest. It insists that those to whom the people have given their trust as representatives or as officials, should show themselves worthy of a nation's best traditions, sets a high standard for those who come forward as leaders, expects from them not only good taste and decorum, but also honour and a respect for one another's honour, requires them not only to apply the principle of noblesse oblige to themselves, but also to assume that opponents are to be treated with respect till they show themselves unworthy. Whoever has sat for many years in a representative assembly comes to know what its “tone “is by noting what acts or words it permits or condemns, what persons it admires or distrusts, and he learns how to discriminate between the tone of one parliament and another, as an ozonometer might be used to test the health-giving quality of air on a hilltop or in a swamp.
“Tone “in this sense is formed partly by tradition, which has by long observance set up a standard whereto public men are expected to conform, partly by the number and weight in the political life of a country of those who, admitted to be above all mendacity or treachery in the relations of private life, carry the same sense of honour into their public action. Such men are found in every class and every social stratum. They are also wanting in every class, in the socially highest as well as those who would be called the humblest. But as it is those of social standing who are most easily made amenable to the opinion of their own class and to the standards that class recognizes, it is an advantage to a country when such men, possessing also the intellectual gifts which make them eminent, are numerous in its public life,'for they are obliged to respect the rules of conduct imposed by the society in which they move.
The political atmosphere in which French politicians live is not easily described. Everywhere in the world divergent views are expressed regarding the morals and manners of public men, and veterans are prone to note and lament a decline. But in Trance the vehemence of partisanship makes the divergence specially marked, for those who dislike the present political system begin by decrying its products. What does seem tolerably clear is that the public men of today, and especially the deputies, receive less respect and deference than did their predecessors in the first ten years of the Third Republic. The dignity of the Chamber has sunk. Vituperation abounds; injurious charges are bandied to and fro, and seem, because so frequent, to be little resented. The odour of intrigue, never absent from any legislature in any country, seems rank in the Palais Bourbon,1 and the talent for intrigue counts for as much as does oratory or administrative capacity. A man universally distrusted may be among the busiest in contriving combinations to oust successive ministries in the hope that before long his own turn of office will arrive. Whether it is better to have or to want that hypocrisy which has been described as the tribute Vice pays to Virtue, is a question often debated. Here, at any rate, there is little of it Yet corruption, judicially proved, does exclude a man from office, and the possession of a stately and unblemished character commands authority as well as respect. Even those who do not imitate can admire.
A minister who goes touring in the provinces is welcomed with external marks of deference far exceeding those that would be offered to a British or an American official of equal rank, for in France authority is honoured. But the individual man who holds the authority may not receive at other times the confidence and respect of his fellow-citizens. He is assailed — even Presidents have been assailed — in language rare in America and unknown in Switzerland, rare even in England, where personal attacks have been latterly more malignant than they were seventy years ago. Though the conception of the State as a supreme and all-embracing power may inspire in France a sort of awe unknown in those countries, and posts under the State are more eagerly sought, the fact of serving it does not implant a higher sense of responsibility and duty. There are a few religious idealists and a few Socialist idealists, but apart from these and from that reverent devotion which the thought of France and her position in the world inspires, one is struck, no less than in the legislatures of America or Australia, by the pervasively materialistic spirit. In a new country like Australia it is not surprising to find a certain commonness in political life. But France is the country which has at times seemed to live by its ideals, and which in bygone days set to Europe the standard of chivalric honour.
This state of things, often complained of by Frenchmen, is sometimes treated as a result and sometimes as a cause of the comparative paucity among present day politicians of such students, writers, and thinkers as adorned the legislatures of the Restoration, of the Orleans Monarchy, of the Second Republic, and, indeed, of the earlier years of the Third Republic. True it is that neither Congress nor the British House of Commons is richer in such men than is the French Chamber. It is chiefly by comparison with its former brilliance that the latter seems nowadays to shine with faint or few lights of genius. Yet a country so fertile in spiritual independence and keen intellectual activity ought to see more of its most gifted sons seeking to enter its governing assembly. Why do comparatively few enter? Partly, men say, because the position of a deputy no longer carries social distinction outside the district which he represents, while the daily work of a deputy is laborious and humiliating. A scholar, a university professor, a scientific investigator, even an advocate in large practice, would have to renounce his pursuits in order to hold his seat by such arts as are forced on the deputy. Many who would like to enter are practically debarred by the want of local connection, for having their home in Paris they may be unable to recommend themselves elsewhere. Partly also because men of this type have little chance with constituencies. The good graces of local cliques are more easily won by the local doctor or lawyer or business man who will devote himself to local interests, or, where there is room for a stranger, by a wealthy manufacturer or financier from some great city. It is also alleged that in parts of the country a man of old lineage or polished manners suffers from his social status. The rural or small town electors want some one of their own class, while the wage-earners regard a wearer of a black coat as a natural enemy. These tendencies, discouraging to men of refinement or of a philosophic cast of mind, would operate still more widely but for the diversity of social conditions in different parts of the country. The monarchical and Catholic West, for instance, though not more susceptible to ideas than other regions, offers a better chance to members of old landed families, often more independent of their constituents than a member can be where the masonic lodge or other local clique rules.
A veteran statesman, candidate for the Senate, describing himself as “ni libéral ni progressiste, ni radical ni socialiste,” but “tout simple-ment républicain,” wrote in November 1911 as follows: to the electors “Trouvez-vous que la justice soit assez indépendante, l'armée assez protégée contre les influences politiques, la masse grossissante de nos fonc-tionnaires eat-elle assez pénétrée du sentiment de la discipline? Le scep-ticisme et 1'apathie des citoyens paisibles ne font-ils pas de redoutables progrès, et l'audace impunie des autres? … Vous sentez-vous assez gouvernés?”
The building in which the Chamber sits.