Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXVI: the relation of central to local government - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXVI: the relation of central to local government - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the relation of central to local government
In an earlier chapter (Chapter XIII.) something has been said of the origin of self-government in small communities, and of the service it renders to democracy by implanting a sense of civic duly in the citizens and training them to discharge it. We have here to consider in the light of the facts described as existing in the several countries dealt with in Part II., but without repeating details there given, (a) what it is that a large democratic State may gain from the existence within it of a system of local self-government; (b) how governmental functions should be distributed as between the Central and the Local Authorities; (c) what is the best form in which democratic principles can be applied to the creation of the latter authorities, and (d) what defects in the working of local governments need to be guarded against.
In countries which, like France, Britain, and Australia, are governed by representative assemblies it is desirable to relieve, so far as possible, the strain upon the Central Government. A practically omnipotent legislature is liable to sudden fluctuations of opinion, and the fewer are the branches of administration which such fluctuations disturb, the more regular and stable will be the general course of affairs. Those of national importance must of course be dealt with by the National legislature, but there are many matters in which uniformity is not required, and the more these are left to local control the less will representatives be drawn away from national work. Where local discontents arise, it is better for them to find vent in the local area rather than encumber the central authority. Under a federal system of government, such as that of the United States, Canada, Switzerland, where many matters are left to be settled by State, or Provincial, or Cantonal assemblies, controversial issues are divided between those assemblies and the central national legislature, and a political conflict in the latter need not coincide with other conflicts in the former. The same principle holds true with regard to local authorities in smaller areas, such as the county or municipality. Men opposed in national politics may work together harmoniously in the conduct of county or municipal business, as happens in Switzerland and England, and to a large extent in the United States also.
The wider the scope of a central government's action, so much the larger is the number of the persons employed in the administrative work it directs, and the larger therefore the patronage at its disposal. Patronage is a powerful political engine, certain to be used for party purposes wherever admission to the civil service and promotion therein are not controlled by rules which secure competence through examinations administered by a non-partisan authority. The fewer temptations to the abuse of patronage are left within the grasp of the central authority, necessarily partisan in all the countries we have been studying, the fewer abuses will there be. The United States suffered until recent years from the so-called Spoils system, applied in municipalities as well as in the Federal service, but the evils would have been even greater had the same party been steadily supreme at the same time in the National Government and in the local governmental areas.
Elementary education is a branch of administration assigned in some countries to a central, in others to a local authority. The argument for giving it to the latter is strong because the interest of parents in the instruction of their children ought to be stimulated by the function of choosing the local school authority as well as by the right of representing to it any local need or grievance. This function they have enjoyed in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, as well as in Switzerland and Great Britain, but to a much smaller extent in France, Australia, and Ireland. Reformers, impatient with the slackness and parsimony common among local authorities, have, however, been everywhere advocating State intervention, insisting that the reluctance of the local citizen to spend freely makes it necessary to invoke the central government, both to supervise schools and to grant the money from the national treasury for the salaries of teachers and various educational appliances. Here, as is often the case, the choice is between more rapid progress on the one hand and the greater solidity and hold upon the average citizen's mind which institutions draw from being entrusted to popular management.
In some countries possessing a highly trained civil service each department tends to lay undue stress upon uniformity, becomes attached to its settled habits, dislikes novelties, contracts bureaucratic methods, and may assume towards the private citizen a slightly supercilious air. Progress is retarded because experiments are discouraged. Popular interest flags because popular interference is resented, and officials fall out of touch with general sentiment. The more the central bureaucracy controls local affairs, the wider will be the action of these tendencies.
Lastly we come to another benefit, of a more theoretical aspect, yet with real value, which local self-governing institutions may secure. They contribute to the development of local centres of thought and action. Many a country has had reason to dread the excessive power of its capital city.1 There ought to be many cities, each cherishing its own traditions, each representing or embodying a certain type of opinion, and each, instead of taking its ideas submissively from the capital, supporting journals of the first excellence in point of news supply and intellectual force. Such cities will be all the more useful in forming independent centres of opinion if they have also strong local governments which enlist the active service of their leading citizens of all classes. France has in Lyons, Marseilles, and Bordeaux cities capable of fulfilling this function; and in the German Empire the influence of Berlin was qualified or counterbalanced by that of Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig, Dresden, Cologne.
Upon the much-debated question whether the construction of public works not of evident national importance should be left to local authorities, their cost being defrayed out of local taxation, or whether this duty and burden should be undertaken by a central government, some light is thrown by the experience of France, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. In all these countries a wide door has been opened to political intrigue and corruption by the practice of voting large sums for so-called “local improvements” from the national treasury in order to win support for the representative who presses for the grant of money and for the ministry which proposes or supports it. In the United States immense sums are wasted annually in this way, demoralizing both the legislature and the constituencies. Nobody is the better off in the end, but each locality, desiring to throw upon the State the cost of a work which it would otherwise have to pay in local taxation, forgets that in the long run it pays as much by the additional national taxation to which it contributes, indeed perhaps pays more, because it frequently happens that the “improvements” asked for are not needed, and are being undertaken for political reasons only. This is a habit to which democratic governments are specially prone, because the keepers of the public purse yield to the demands which representatives make. The principle that the cost of works undertaken solely for the benefit of a locality ought, in the interest of economy, to be defrayed out of local funds, would seem irresistible were it not for the fact that in many great cities a large majority of the voters, since they pay no local taxes, have no interest in thrifty management, and willingly support a council which spends lavishly on local purposes and wins popularity thereby. Where this happens the tax-paying class may think itself safer in the hands of the Central Government.
In the six countries examined in Part II. all the higher judges are appointed by the Central Government, as they are in Britain, but in some States of the American Union counties and cities are allowed to choose their judges, which they do by popular election, with results not always satisfactory. The detachment of the Bench not only from party politics but from all local influences is so evidently desirable that the choice of judges by local voting is a risky experiment.
Of such public institutions as prisons, reformatories, and lunatic asylums it is enough to say that their management by a central Government is likely to be more scientific and skilful than that of most local authorities would be, while not less economical. The questions that relate to pauperism are more difficult. Where the indigent have a legal claim to relief, to throw the cost of that relief on national funds while leaving the administration of it in local hands would be to invite extravagance and waste. If the locality dispenses the locality ought to pay, especially if outdoor relief is given. This question, which was a grave one for England ninety years ago, has fortunately little importance in other English-speaking countries or in Switzerland.
Whether the maintenance of public order should be entrusted to a national force, such as the gendarmerie in France and Italy and the Royal Constabulary in Ireland, or to local county and municipal authorities as in most English-speaking countries, is a question which will be answered according to the varying conditions of each nation. Experience seems to show that the less the police acquire the character of an army the better, and that character is more easily avoided when they are (as in England) raised, controlled, and paid by local authorities. There have, however, been in America city governments in which politics had so much infected police management that the State felt itself obliged to create within a city a police force under its own orders. Apart from this case, and the exceptional case of Ireland, the practice of English-speaking countries seems justified by the results.1
The composition or organization of local authorities in rural areas needs only a few sentences, for in all English-speaking countries, except the United States, and also in France and Switzerland, the plan of elected councils has been adopted; whereas in many States of the American Union there is no elected council for a county, each executive official being chosen by direct popular election for a particular branch or branches of work, his duties wherein are prescribed by the laws of the State. This plan has the disadvantage of disjoining from each other the various administrative departments, and leads to laxity in administration, because the only means of enforcing responsibility is by prosecuting an offending official.1 The smaller unit called the Town (corresponding to the smaller communes of Continental Europe) is better provided for, because although each branch of local business is handled by elected officers, who may act independently, the area is so small that their conduct can be watched and reviewed in the annual Town meeting, a popular primary assembly.2 In other English-speaking countries the counties, and any small areas such as the parish, are administered by elected councils, who appoint and supervise the officials. This is also the case in Switzerland and in France, where, however, the Central Government exercises a large measure of control.3
Municipal government presents more difficult problems, especially where the poorer sections of a large population inhabit one part or parts of the city, while the richer live in other parts or in the suburbs. In Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as in Great Britain, boroughs and cities are governed by popularly elected councils, while the mayor is chosen by the council (except in some Canadian cities where he is elected by the people), and administration is carried on by committees of the council directing the officers whom it appoints. This system has, as a rule, been worked efficiently and honestly in Great Britain and New Zealand, while in Canada and (to a less extent) in Australia there have been occasional lapses into corruption or malversation. In Germany also there are elected councils, but their duty is not themselves to administer, but to supervise the trained permanent officials who handle the departments. The economy and practical success of this method are unquestioned, but some observers deem it too bureaucratic.
The Swiss system, which resembles that of Great Britain and her Dominions in assigning management to elected councils, differs therefrom by its free use of the direct popular vote or Referendum, by which measures of importance are submitted to the people for their approval or rejection. This plan works well, the cities being of moderate size, none with a population exceeding 200,000. Administration is efficient, economical, and honest. In France also every commune (a city as well as a rural area is a commune) has its popularly elected council, the authority of which is, however, limited by a right of interference allowed to the National Government. The abuses which have occurred in a few of the largest cities furnish justification for this check.1
It is in the United States cities that we find the most numerous and striking illustrations of the maladies to which democratic government is liable, but he who seeks to draw general conclusions from the scandals which have occurred there must remember how exceptional their circumstances have been. The cities have grown with extraordinary swiftness by the influx of masses of ignorant immigrants from Europe, and these immigrants, having no experience of politics and no social ties with the native American population, become an easy prey to the wiles of the unscrupulous leaders of party organizations. Having started with a system which left all power in the hands of elected councils upon whose members it was hard to fix responsibility, the Americans have been driven to withdraw power from these large bodies, and transfer it either to a popularly elected mayor possessing a wide discretionary authority or to small commissions acting (in many cases) through a business manager whom they appoint. These experiments are valuable contributions to the science of practical politics. Let it be added that American reformers prefer the plan of electing the commissioners by a general vote over the city to the other method, generally followed in the British Dominions, of elections in wards (divisions of the city), holding that the “general ticket” gives less scope for intrigue and secures better men.
Party organization and the microbe of party spirit, apparently endemic in National governments where large issues of policy have to be decided at elections, would be transient and practically negligible phenomena in local government were it not for the habit, old and strong in the United States, and often found in the municipalities of France and England, of fighting local elections on the issues of National party politics, even when these have nothing to do with the work of the councils to be chosen at those elections. This habit exists in the elections to the councils of departments and arrondissements in Trance, but scarcely at all in those of county councils in Great Britain, or of communal authorities in Switzerland. Three results which have proved harmful in America naturally follow. The minds of the electors are diverted from the personal merits of the candidates and from the local questions which the candidates, if elected, will have to deal with, to national partisan issues. The members of councils when elected are apt to act together as parties in those bodies, and such patronage as lies in the gift of a council is liable to be misused for partisan purposes, i.e. bestowed upon persons because they have served the party rather than because they are qualified to serve the city.
The plan has, however, been defended on the ground that it draws men of ability and ambition into local affairs, gives them a chance of showing their quality, opens a door to success in national politics. Without party guidance, moreover, the voter will not, at least in large populations, know whom to vote for, and the guidance which the party gives is worth something, since it must, for the sake of its own credit, put forward reputable candidates. Since a chief difficulty incident to municipal government is the reluctance of the leading men to devote their time and labour to work which interferes with the conduct of their own business and has little promise of any reward beyond the good of the city and the gratitude of fellow-citizens, the motive which party spirit and the prospect of an opening in national politics supply must be appealed to.1 Nothing but the wish to serve his political party or to make his way in public life will suffice to induce a man, tired by a long day's work in his office, to take up a further burden and give his evenings to municipal committees in the centre of the town instead of seeking repose in his home far off in the suburbs. Many of the men who have risen highest in American politics, and a few who have attained like distinction in England, have begun in local politics a career which led them far.
There is weight in these arguments, yet on the balance of considerations it is better that bodies whose proper functions lie in local matters should be kept free from the disturbing influence of questions foreign to their sphere. One of the values of local self-government lies in the habit it forms among the inhabitants of a town or district of bringing their knowledge and capacities into common stock for the benefit of the whole community, maintaining those friendly personal relations which befit neighbours, and not distracted by a desire for ulterior gains to their political party. When such gains become a motive, men are less scrupulous, suspicion thickens the air, a contentious spirit is engendered.
There has emerged in recent years one question of national moment which, since it belongs also to the sphere of local government, furnishes grounds for party action there. Where the State has assumed some functions previously either uncared for or left to private action, such as the conduct of a business, the housing of the poor, the supply of milk, the provision of music or theatrical entertainments, the law may permit a local authority to carry out policies of this nature at the expense of the local taxpayers. When a Socialist or Labour Party runs its candidates for local office as well as for the national legislature upon a platform including these policies, other political parties who resist such policies put forward their candidates also and use their party organizations in the electoral campaign, so that the elections inevitably take a party colour. If it is suggested that the national legislature should determine by general statutes the principles involved, and leave to local authorities only the mode of carrying them out, it may be answered that even in the application of such laws many concrete cases must arise on which Socialists and Individualists will differ, so that each party will have a legitimate motive for trying to secure the election of its own adherents.
The experience of the United States, conspicuous by the number and variety of experiments tried in local government, suggests some conclusions fit to be considered in Europe, in Canada, and in Australasia.
It is possible to have too many elections. When there are many posts to be filled, whether elective offices or seats in administrative councils, the number of pollings and the number of persons to be chosen at the polls becomes so large that the voter, unable to give an independent and intelligent vote, either stays away in weariness or votes blindly at his party's bidding.
Municipal administration has become more and more a business matter for experts in such sciences as sanitation and engineering. The chief duty of an elected council has therefore come to be that of appointing and supervising the permanent officials, and for this a comparatively small council can well suffice even in a large city.
The American and Swiss practice of submitting questions of moment to a popular Referendum has worked with results generally if not always satisfactory, and might if applied in Europe, at least in municipalities not exceeding a million of population, stimulate public interest and help towards a better definition of policy in municipal administration.
Human nature being what it is, favouritism and jobbery may always be expected, and the larger and richer communities grow, the greater will temptations be, so the one thing needful is to fix the constant attention of the people on the conduct of their affairs. Vigilance! unceasing Vigilance! What was said in an English city where the management of the police by a Committee of the Council had given occasion for criticism, “Watch the Watch Committee,” may be said of all Councils and Committees.
In European cities the duty of watching and criticizing municipal councils and officials is usually left to the press, but in American cities there are frequently associations of men, belonging to all political sections, who being well known and respected for their judgment and probity, render to the community the service not only of keeping an eye on municipal authorities, but that of recommending candidates to the citizens as worthy of confidence. Such a service is needed in those large European cities where the bulk of the electors do not and cannot know for whom to cast their votes in local contests.
It was in small communities that Democracy first arose: it was from them that the theories of its first literary prophets and apostles were derived: it is in them that the way in which the real will of the people tells upon the working of government can best be studied, because most of the questions which come before the people are within their own knowledge. The industrial and commercial forces which draw men together into large aggregations seem to forbid the hope that small self-governing units may reappear within any period to which we can look forward. Yet who can tell what may come to pass in the course of countless years? War and the fear of war were the chief causes which destroyed the little States. If the fear of war could be eliminated there might be some chance of their return.
Exceptions are the United States and Canada, in which the opinion of the capital cities is practically that only of the legislatures and officials, and Australia, where the future political capital (Canberra) is still a mere village.
The police of London are directed by the Central Government, but this is due partly to the immense size of that city, whose suburbs stretch far out into four counties, partly to its being the capital of the country.
See Vol. II. p. 98.
See Vol. II. p. 14.
See Vol. I. p. 281.
See as to French cities, Vol. I. p. 282.
It may be suggested that some marks of honour might be bestowed on citizens who have rendered exceptionally good unpaid public service; but there are, unfortunately, few countries in which the National Government could be trusted to award such distinctions in a non-partisan spirit.