Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LX: the executive in a democracy - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER LX: the executive in a democracy - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
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 executive in a democracy
As men are apt to estimate the merits of a religion by the influence it exerts on the conduct of those who profess it, so a form of government may he judged by what it does for the peace and welfare of the people who live under it. In applying this test to democracy, which purports to be a “government of the laws and not of men,” we have to ask how far its legislative machinery succeeds in making good laws, its judicial machinery in providing for their just application, its executive machinery in carrying them out efficiently and in enforcing respect for them. The Legislature and the Judiciary have been already considered. It remains to examine the Executive or Administrative Department.
As freedom had been won by resistance to arbitrary monarchs, the Executive power was long deemed dangerous to freedom, watched with suspicion, and hemmed in by legal restraints, but when the power of the people had been established by long usage, these suspicions vanished, so that now it is only in countries where constitutional government is not well settled, as is still the case in most of the republics of Spanish America and in the small kingdoms of southeastern Europe, that the head of the Executive, be he President or King, can venture to aim at a dictatorship or can, as did the Kings of Greece and Bulgaria, betray the nation into a policy it disapproves. Only in France does enough of the old apprehension remain to make the people fear to extend the powers of their President. Thus it is unnecessary to treat here of the Executive as a danger to democracy. The world asks to-day, not how far that branch of government hankers after mastery but — how far is it an efficient servant, capable and honest?
The Executive Department has been often described as the weak point in popular governments. In them, as compared with oligarchies or autocracies, it is said to lack continuity in policy, promptitude in action, courage to enforce its decisions, judgment in the selection of officials, and the possession of that special knowledge and technical skill which administration requires in our day. To estimate the truth of these allegations let us examine such evidence to support or rebut them as is supplied by the six countries whose governments have been described in Part II. That examination may be taken under four heads — first, the quality of the Ministers, i.e. the political heads of Executive Departments, in the countries aforesaid; secondly, the subordinate officials, i.e. the civil service of the nation, which conducts all internal administration; thirdly, the departments concerned with national defence, army, navy, and air fleet.
A fourth head, the conduct of foreign affairs, presents different problems, and to it a separate chapter is devoted.
I. In all the countries described, except Switzerland, the ministerial chiefs of the departments of State are politicians, members of a party, entering or quitting office as their parties gain or lose power. There are always among them men of some prominence and generally of talent, who have risen either in the representative assembly by the gift of speech or by a service to their party which marks them out for promotion. Thus every ministry, especially in Parliamentary countries like France, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, is sure to contain four or five, or possibly more, leading figures in the ruling party, and they may turn out capable administrators. But ministerial posts, even important posts, are often conferred upon mediocre men whom the Prime Minister, or (in the United States) the President, finds it well to include in his Cabinet for political reasons of various kinds, perhaps because they have influence in some particular part of the country or with some particular section of opinion. In none of these six countries is much regard paid either to special knowledge or to aptitude for administration, save that in the legal posts professional skill and eminence are essential. Otherwise political considerations come first, though in Trance it has been usual to choose as Minister of War a General, and as Minister of Marine an Admiral. Switzerland stands by itself as not changing its Ministers, for they are elected for five years and almost always re-elected. They are selected from politicians who have had legislative experience, and are chosen rather in respect of their general capacity and the confidence their character inspires than on the score of their special fitness for any particular kind of administrative work.
This method of choice (in the five first-named countries) is based on the idea that as the Government is a party government kept in office by a party whose policy is that of the majority in the legislature (or, in the United States, that of the party to which the President belongs), the departments must be administered on the lines of this policy, and be defended in the legislature (except in the United States) by men who are experts in politics if in nothing else. The two disadvantages of the system are that the Minister may have no special competence, and that, however competent, he will, when his party loses power, be ejected from the office he has successfully filled; but against these may be set the advantage that an able incoming Minister can bring in new ideas and help to keep his department in touch with the movements of public opinion. In France, England, Canada, and Australia there is the further merit of securing that there shall almost always be some competent critics in the ranks of the Opposition. On the whole, the system described gives good results, and would give better if more weight were allowed in constructing a Cabinet to the qualifications, general or special, of the politicians selected, and less to merely political reasons. This remark applies to England also, where, though family favouritism and social influence now count for very little, political considerations still take precedence of expert knowledge and skill.
II. In all the six countries described the working staff of the departments, i.e. the administrative Civil Service of the country, is outside politics, and posts in it are held (except to some extent in the United States) irrespective of the transfer of power from one party to another. Partisan influences have, however, their influence on promotions, especially in the higher grades. In all the six countries the civil servants are as a class competent and honest, equal to those to be found in any European monarchy, and of course incomparably superior to those of Tsarist Russia, where corruption flourished like a green bay tree from the top to the bottom of the official hierarchy. Nowhere, however, were they so admirably trained as was the German bureaucracy; nowhere was so large a proportion of the nation's ability to be found in the nation's service. Democracy has given a better if not a more economical administration in France than did the monarchies that preceded it, and in Britain a much better administration than was that of the oligarchy before 1832. The British service contains plenty of ability in its higher grades, and all grades work loyally for their chiefs to whatever party the latter belong.
III. National defence against attacks from without has been well cared for in France and Switzerland. If much less was done in the United States, that was because the risk of war with any powerful State had seemed negligible down till 1915. The administrative work of the naval and military departments has been everywhere efficiently, and for the most part honestly done, though malpractices have from time to time occurred in connection with naval contracts in France and in the United States. To examine the reproach sometimes levelled at democratic Governments of neglecting their armies is not here possible, for it would require an enquiry into the circumstances in each several case where neglect has been alleged. The wolf does sometimes come unexpected, but how often has the cry of “Wolf” been raised when he was nowhere in the neighbourhood! For a nation to be unprepared because it has itself no aggressive spirit is unwise, but to be so over-prepared as to grow aggressive and launch an unjustified attack may have a still worse ending.
Among modern democracies France and Switzerland alone impose compulsory military service. In the other countries and in Britain the need for it is matter of controversy. The United States imposed it when she entered the Great War in 1917, and so did Great Britain in 1915 after about three millions of men had volunteered, as did New Zealand and Canada also. The Australian people, twice consulted by way of Referendum, refused. Australia and New Zealand had before 1914, and with little opposition, prescribed a certain measure of military training in peace-time. On the whole, democracies seem at present disposed to peace, but the ancient and mediaeval republics were fond of fighting, and the United States, to-day the most pacifically minded among great States, was in 1846 and in 1898 drawn into wars which might easily have been avoided.
IV. Now comes a more difficult and controversial question, viz. the effect of democracy upon the enforcement of the laws and especially on the maintenance of public order. Some have argued that governments installed by the votes of the multitude will fear to resist and suppress manifestations of popular feeling even when they pass into violence and rioting. Others have replied that no government can so well afford to show firmness as one which stands solidly planted on the people's will. Where a monarch or an oligarchy may stumble or halt lest it provoke a revolution, men chosen freely by the nation may go boldly forward.
There are facts to support both these contentions. Much may depend upon the circumstances of the particular case, much upon the character either of the Government in power or of the particular official who is charged with the duty of maintaining public order. In the United States the National Government has almost always shown the requisite firmness. President Cleveland during the Chicago riots of 1894 quelled an outbreak by sending in Federal troops. So recently as 1919 the action of a Governor of Massachusetts, who had dealt energetically with a strike of the Boston police, was, when he stood for re-election, endorsed by an enormous vote coming from both political parties. On the other hand, there have been Australian cases in which State Governments — usually but not always Labour Governments — have shown timidity, leaving it to the action of private citizens to preserve order, and to bring a strike to an end by themselves undertaking the work of running tram-cars or discharging ships' cargoes which strikers were trying to impede.1 In France a Ministry whose head was himself in sympathy with Socialist views showed great vigour and, aided by public sentiment, saved a dangerous strike situation. Like energy was shown in a like case in Switzerland in 1918, the great bulk of the nation approving the energetic action of the Federal Council. The same may be said of Canada, which has faithfully preserved the British traditions which make the vindication of the law the first duty of the Executive. Strikes which pass into violence are in our own day the most frequent causes of trouble, and the most difficult to deal with, because, although workmen on strike admittedly possess the right of endeavouring to induce those whom employers are trying to hire in their place not to accept the work offered, “Peaceful Picketing” is apt to pass into threats or something more than threats, nor is it easy to draw the line.1
In some of the American State Governments there has been laxity on the part of officials and slackness in action by the citizens when summoned to aid in preserving order. Lynching prevails extensively in several of the Middle as well as in most Southern States, and, though the opinion of thoughtful men condemns the practice, some Governors or Mayors who have tried to repress it did not receive the support they deserved. It is also stated that locally elected officials are often remiss in enforcing the payment of taxes, and prone to acquiesce in minor breaches of the law lest they should incur enmities which would endanger their re-election.2
In trying to answer the broad question from which this chapter started, whether a democratic Executive can be a strong Executive, let us distinguish two different senses which the question may bear. An Executive is strong against the citizens when the law grants it a wide discretionary authority to command them and override their individual rights. There is nothing to prevent a democracy from vesting any powers over the private citizen it pleases in its elected magistrates. This kind of strength, strictly limited in English-speaking countries, has been allowed to remain not only in Italy, Belgium, and Spain, but in France, where the Republican parties, though sometimes admitting that individual liberty is not duly safeguarded, do not like to part with a power they may need for crushing plots directed against the Republic.
But there is another sense in which the strength of an Executive is measured by its relation to the other powers in the State. The people may make- it independent of the legislature, choosing it by their own vote, possibly for a long term of years. They may enable it to defend itself against the legislature by giving it a veto and a sole initiative in foreign affairs. The United States has gone furthest in this direction, and its President, independent of Congress for a four years' term, is the least fettered of all Executives in free countries, though his power declines in moral authority as that term draws to its end, and though the temptation to seek re-election may unduly affect his independence. Continuity in policy is hard to secure where the representative assembly and the Executive are liable to be changed by frequently recurring elections. Ministers who may be swept out of office by a hostile vote of the legislature, or may see the legislature itself pass under the control of the party opposed to their own, are often deterred from bold action by the fear that it may endanger their own position, or may be reversed by their successors. They are unwilling to propose measures, however salutary, that are likely to be unpopular, and tempted to bid for support by promising bills whose chief merit is their vote-catching quality. This sort of instability and discontinuity is the price which must be paid for that conformity to the popular will of the moment which democracy implies. It is of course more harmful where the people itself is inconstant or capricious. Such have been some democratic peoples, such may be some of those that are now starting on their career as independent States. But it so happens that none of the nations we have been studying presents this character. In all of them there often comes a “swing of the pendulum” from one party to another at a general election, and sometimes the change rises into what Americans call a “tidal wave.” These oscillations are, however, mostly due not to changes of opinion on large principles, but to displeasure with errors committed by the Ministry. Even the French, supposed to be of an excitable temper, are at bottom a conservative nation, safely anchored some to one, some to another set of ideas and beliefs. Nowhere are changes of Ministry so frequent as in France; nowhere do they mean so little. Nevertheless, it remains true that the uncertain tenure of any particular Ministry both there and in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — and this is true of England also — does operate to disturb the course of administration as well as legislation.
The results of this enquiry may be summed up as follows:
Ministries in democratic countries are no better in their composition, so far as ability is concerned, than they are elsewhere, for political reasons may do as much to prevent the selection of the fittest men, as secret intrigues do in monarchies or oligarchies. They are, however, more generally honest, being exposed to a more searching criticism than other forms of government provide.
The principle of equality has had the useful result of securing free access for all to the permanent Civil Service of the State and of restraining the tendency to favouritism in promotions. The United States, where patronage was most abused, has by degrees fallen into line with other democracies, and its Civil Service is correspondingly improving. Democratic governments, not being militaristic in spirit, are reluctant to vote money for war preparations, but when convinced that there is a danger of aggression, they rise to the emergency. The Executive in a parliamentary democracy suffers from its slippery foothold, which often prevents it from carrying through those legislative or administrative schemes of reform, the success of which depends on their maintenance for a course of years.1 Uncertainty of tenure deters it from action, however otherwise desirable, that is likely to offend any body of voters strong enough to turn the balance against it at an election. So, too, Opposition leaders who hope to overthrow and replace the holders of power are apt to trim or “hedge” in order to win the favour of a section that may turn the scale in their favour.1 On the other hand, a Ministry can usually count upon the support of the great majority of the people in a war, or at any other grave crisis, and will then be quickly invested with exceptional powers. Even on less serious occasions, a democratic community, be it the nation or such a unit as an American State or city, will usually rally to a courageous chief who gives it a strong lead. Politicians fail more often by timidity than by rashness.
As regards general domestic administration, democracies have nothing to be ashamed of. We have found the civil servants are fairly competent in all the six democracies examined — perhaps least so in the United States, where the results of the Spoils System are still felt — and the average of honesty is higher than it was in the less popular governments of the past. They are doubtless less efficient than was the bureaucracy of Germany before 1914, but efficiency was purchased at a price which free peoples cannot afford to pay.
It is particularly difficult in Australia for a Labour Government which is ruled by a caucus of representatives pledged to act together, and is largely controlled by an outside labour organization, to do all it might otherwise feel bound to do to prevent strikers from resorting to violence.
Leniency to law-breakers is by no means confined to labour unions or radical democrats. It was observed in England on two recent occasions that the law-respecting spirit is only skin deep, once when during the South African war attacks by mobs upon the houses of persons believed to be opposed to that war were palliated by persons of high official standing, and again when between 1907 and 1912 the destruction of churches (including the exploding of a bomb in Westminster Abbey) and the setting fire to houses by militant suffragettes were defended or excused by many members of the “most respectable” classes.
See Vol. II., Chap. XLIII. ante.
No one can sit in a British Cabinet without being struck by the amount of time it spends in discussing parliamentary tactics, and especially how best to counter a hostile motion in the House of Commons. These things, small as they may seem, are urgent, for the life of the Cabinet may be involved, so the larger questions of legislation have to stand over, perhaps to be lost for the session.
These phenomena may be studied in the history of British political parties in their dealings with Ireland, especially since the rise of the Irish Home Rule party in 1875–8.