Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXVII: comparison of the six democratic governments examined - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXVII: comparison of the six democratic governments examined - 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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comparison of the six democratic governments examined
The examination contained in Part II. of the institutions which Democracy has given itself in different countries and of the phenomena which their working in each has shown needs to be completed by a comparison of those phenomena, for the rule of the people, taking in each different forms, has shown resemblances as well as diversities, both in the spirit which the institutions evoked and in the tangible results that have followed. No democratic government is typical; each has its merits, each its faults; and a judgment on democratic institutions in general can be formed only by observing which faults are most frequent, and how far each of these is specially characteristic of Democratic government, or rather belongs to Human Nature as displayed in politics. This chapter is meant to present the comparison in three ways:
First by noting the salient features of popular government in each of the six countries examined, and what each has contributed to political science in the way of example or warning.
Next by showing in which of those countries and to what extent in each the faults commonly charged on democratic government exist.
Thirdly by noting the presence in each country of what may be called the mental and moral coefficients, viz. those qualities in a people that help democracy to work its institutions in the right way, so as to obtain in the largest measure the benefits which governments have been established to secure.
I begin with a brief statement of the features most characteristic of each country.
I. Summary View of Salient Features
In France administration is highly centralized, much business which is in English-speaking countries left to local authorities being managed by officials who are appointed by and take their orders from the central government, so local self-government, narrowly circumscribed in its functions, and exciting little interest, does comparatively little for the political education of the people. France, having so far as methods of administration go, preserved the inheritance of the old monarchy, is the least democratic of democracies, for State authority is strong against the individual citizen. Yet although Government is strong, Ministries are unstable, because dependent on majorities in the legislature which fluctuate under the influence, sometimes of party passion, sometimes of personal intrigues. The legislature, or rather its directly elected branch, the Chamber of Deputies, is master of the political situation, and its individual members control individual Ministers, obtaining from them as the price of their support favours for their respective constituencies, and by means of these favours holding their own seats. In matters of moment the Second Chamber, largely composed of able and experienced men with a longer tenure of their seats, exerts a useful guidance or restraint, and the high average quality of the Civil Service makes administration efficient.
Behind both deputies and Ministers stand the great financiers, powerful through their wealth and the influence it enables them to exert upon the newspapers. Their influence, though sometimes steadying, can also be baneful, for it may induce the sacrifice of national interests to private interests, and it has sometimes enveloped public men in a mist of suspicions. The sky is seldom free from signs of storm, for fifty years of republican government have not assuaged the bitterness which divides the various parties, yet the faults of politics which sometimes seem to be a game played in the legislature by a comparatively small class, have not seriously affected the strength and progress of the nation.1 Foreigners have judged France too much by its politics and its politicians, underrating its spirit and vitality and stability.
The emergence of strong organizations advocating communistic doctrines, and accentuating antagonism between classes, are phenomena now visible all over the world, and the revolutionary movements thence arising would be more threatening under a less popular constitution. French democracy, with difficulties to face greater than any that have tested the other countries we have surveyed, has nevertheless brought the nation safely through a time of unprecedented perils.
Switzerland presents a striking contrast. Nowhere is administration so decentralized, for functions and powers are parcelled out not only between the Federal and the Cantonal Governments, but also betwen the Cantons and the Communes. The people are called upon to take a more direct and constant part in public work than any other State requires from its citizens, being accustomed to review by their votings the measures passed by their legislatures; and the citizens can, by the Initiative, put forward, without consulting those bodies, legislative proposals which popular voting adopts or rejects. The practice of local self-government has trained the people to fulfil these functions efficiently, keeping their attention fixed upon those who represent them in their assemblies or are entrusted with official business. Party spirit is comparatively free from virulence; elections have aroused little passion; the same member is returned time after time to the legislatures; the same members are retained for many years in the Administrative Councils. The less agreeable side of what may be called “small scale politics” appears in the petty intrigues which affect elections to minor posts in some communes and Cantons. Though the absence of corruption, both in the Federal and in Cantonal Governments, and the high standard maintained in public life for many years, are partly due to the absence of those temptations which men of great wealth can apply to politicians, much must also be ascribed to the vigilance of public opinion in small communities. In no democracy has the power of money counted for so little, in none has political life had so few prizes to offer. But after all, the most interesting lesson it teaches is how traditions and institutions, taken together, may develop in the average man, to an extent never reached before, the qualities which make a good citizen — shrewdness, moderation, common sense and a sense of duty to the community. It is because this has come to pass in Switzerland that democracy is there more truly democratic than in any other country.
As France shows at its maximum the power of the legislature,1 and Switzerland the power of the body of citizens voting directly, so the United States is the best example of the strength which party organizations can attain and the control they can wield. Legal authority, divided between the Federal Government and the Governments of the several States, is in both divided also between the elected Executive and the two elected houses of the legislature, the frequently recurring differences between which complicate both administration and legislation. Such co-operation as is needed to make the machinery work is created by the party organizations, which nominate for election both the representatives and (in the several States) the higher officials in each State as well as its Executive head; and as persons elected in the same area at the same time usually belong to the same party, both officials and representatives are expected to carry out its policy. The work which the organizations have to discharge has called into being a large class of professional politicians who live off the offices which they are able to secure for themselves and the various gains which fall to those who can exert private influence. Next to the power of Party, the most salient features of the United States system are the wide application of popular election to the choice of officials, including judges, and the recent introduction in many States of direct popular legislation in the form of Initiative and Referendum, as also of direct popular action on administration in the provisions for the Recall of executive and judicial officials by popular vote. Thus the inordinate number of elections throws on the voter more work than he can properly discharge.
Two of the faults charged on government in the United States are due to exceptional causes. That the Money Power has attained such huge proportions as to assail the virtue of officials and demoralize some State legislatures, must be largely ascribed to the prodigious fortunes which the swift development of a new country's resources created, the possessors of which found it worth while to buy favours from politicians who had them to sell. Similarly, the worst scandals of municipal misgovernment appeared where a sudden influx of old-world immigrants flooded cities that were already growing fast, phenomena unforeseen by those who granted universal suffrage to ignorant crowds who had no interest in honest and economical administration. These supervenient factors have told heavily against the working of democratic institutions. As against the evils they have caused must be set two points in which the institutions of the country have won the praise of foreign observers. One is the action of the Federal Courts in so interpreting and prudently developing the Constitution as to enable it to work well under new conditions that have imposed a heavy strain upon it. Another is the practice of local self-government which, diffusing an amount of political knowledge and creating a sense of civic responsibility, is surpassed only in Switzerland. It has helped to develop that public spirit which has from time to time, and notably in recent years, carried through movements of sweeping reform by which the political atmosphere has been purified.
Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have in common the English frame of parliamentary government, but their economic and social conditions are sufficiently dissimilar to have imprinted a different character on its working in each country.
In Canada two-thirds of the population live by work on the land, and nearly all the farmers own the soil they till. This has given stability to political parties and to the government as a whole. Ministries last on an average ten times as long as does a Ministry in France or in Australia. The legislatures, especially in the Provinces, have not fully maintained the best traditions received from England, for both they and some members of the administrations they install in power have been suspected of abusing their position. Responsibility is, however, pretty well secured by the power of questioning and dismissing Ministers, justice is honestly administered, order is effectively maintained over a vast and thinly peopled Western territory, and the difficulties which the presence of two races speaking different languages presents have been surmounted.
In Australia, where nearly half the population is gathered into a few great cities, the wage-earning class has been fully organized and obtained a political power which in other countries it is still only seeking. The rich, among whom there are no millionaires, take little part, at least openly, in politics. Frequent and hard-fought strikes have roused class antagonisms. The Labour Party created in the legislatures caucuses which, working along with the Trade Councils outside, obtained complete control of the Federal Parliament, and at one time or another of each of the State Parliaments; and their action has shown how the essence of parliamentary government may be destroyed with an apparent respect for its forms. Bold experiments in extending State action to industrial undertakings and in fixing wages by State authority have been tried by Labour Ministries and by others which depended on Labour support, but, except during strikes, law and order as well as a creditable standard of administrative efficiency and judicial purity have been maintained.
New Zealand has an agricultural landowning population larger in proportion to the whole than in Australia, but smaller than in Canada. The urban hand-workers, though they have never obtained a majority in Parliament, have been strong enough to secure legislation which in some points anticipated that of Australia in extending State functions, fixing wages, and taking over branches of business or industrial production. Parties, less organized than in Australia, have been less strictly disciplined. As the dominance of the parliamentary caucus has been Australia's most distinctive contribution to the art of politics, so has State Socialism been the contribution of New Zealand. Ministries have been stable, and public business not ill managed, though with scant regard to economy and a tendency to purchase parliamentary support by improvident grants to local purposes. Apart from this form of jobbery, government has been honest, and except among the wage-earners who show their discontent by frequent strikes, a spirit of general good-will bears witness to the country's prosperity.
In these three British Self-governing Dominions members of the legislatures receive salaries, but no class of professional politicians has arisen except in so far as the officials of Trade or Labour Unions, occupying themselves with politics as well as with purely industrial matters, can be so described.
II. Defects Observable in the Six Governments
(a) Instability of the Executive Government owing to frequent changes.
This, most conspicuous in France, has been conspicuous in Australia also, both in the Commonwealth and the State Governments. In the United States it is prevented by the constitutional arrangements which install an administration for a fixed period. It is not seen in Canada and New Zealand, and least of all in Switzerland.
(b) Failure of the Executive to maintain law and order.
In America this is evident in some only of the States, where lynching and other disorders have been tolerated. Against none of the other democracies is it chargeable. Strike riots have been frequent in Australia, France, and New Zealand, to a less extent in Canada; and though such breaches of the law occur in all countries, they are doubtless more frequent and more serious where the fear of losing votes by offending strikers deters an Executive from action.
(c) Administrative extravagance.
Economy, once expected to be among the strong points of democracy, has proved to be its weakest. Financial waste is worst in the United States National Government, owing to the desire to win votes by grants from the public treasury to localities, but the same evil is rampant in Canada and New Zealand, and to a less extent in France and Australia.
(d) Want of honesty in Administrators, Legislators, and Voters.
Though no democracy has sunk so low as either the ancient republics or many autocracies, such as those of Russia, Turkey, and China, the atmosphere has not been altogether wholesome in France, in Canada, and in many of the American States. In the United States Federal Government the tone is now satisfactory. Bribery occurs sporadically in the United States and Canada, but to a less extent than it did in England before that country had been democratized. Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland have a good record.
(e) Faulty Administration of Justice.
In many of the American States where the Judicial Bench is filled by popular election, the Judges are far from competent; and in a few they are suspected of corruption. Everywhere the administration of criminal justice is so defective that a very high authority has called it “a disgrace to American civilization.”1 In France the inferior judges are not altogether trusted. In the other four countries the character of the Bench stands high.
(f) The spirit and power of Party.
Party spirit is no stronger in these democracies than it has often been under other governments, and it everywhere rises and falls according to the circumstances of the time. Party organization is a comparatively new phenomenon, first developed in the United States, where a strong and skilfully constructed system grew up between 1826 and 1860. It has rendered some services, but far greater disservices, in the land of its birth, and has been more or less imitated in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Great Britain, in all of which it is possibly the source of more evil than good. In France it counts for little, and in Switzerland for less.
(g) Professionalism in Politics.
The growth of a class which makes its living out of politics, due partly to the number of persons needed to work a party organization and partly to the existence of legislative and administrative posts sought as a livelihood and obtainable by party patronage, tends to pervert and even debase politics by making it a business occupation, in which the motive of civic duty is superseded by the desire of private gain. The class, large in the United States, exists in the other democracies, again excepting Switzerland, but is nowhere numerous, though it may increase with that raising of legislative salaries, recently effected in France and Australia, and now demanded in Britain, which makes a seat in the legislature more desired.
(h) The power of wealth.
Democracy was expected to extinguish this ancient evil, for every citizen is interested in preventing men from using money to secure gains for themselves at the expense of the community. It has, however, proved as noxious in republics as it was in the days when the favourites of kings could be bribed, though the methods now in use are less direct. Of the six countries, the United States has been that in which money has been most generally powerful during the last sixty years, France that in which it is probably most powerful now, while Canada comes next, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland being practically exempt, though of course a party or a group of men with ample funds for elections and able to run newspapers in its interest enjoys everywhere an advantage.
III. Presence or Absence of Favouring Conditions
We have so far been considering the results which democratic institutions, differing more or less in their features, have produced in six countries. These results have, however, been due not merely to the greater or less excellence either of the institutions or of the external conditions of the countries described, but also to the intellectual capacity and public spirit of the peoples that work them. Let some paragraphs be therefore given to this branch of the comparison.
(a) The intelligence of the Average man, and the sense of civic duty which leads him to try to understand and vote honestly upon the questions submitted at elections, are most largely developed in Switzerland, next in the United States, in Canada, and in New Zealand, with Australia perhaps a little behind. In France it is certainly not intelligence that is deficient, but a feeling among the peasantry and petite bourgeoisie that every citizen ought to make his opinion felt and his voice heard. As nothing approaching an absolute quantitative test can be applied to determine the volume of the health-giving ozone of public spirit in the atmosphere, one can do no more than conjecture whether it is increasing. In all the countries, France included, it seemed to me to be growing, though slowly, while improvement is perhaps most evident in the United States, where a reforming spirit is abroad.
(b) The extent to which the best-educated class, including many besides those who would be called the intellectual élite of the nation, exert themselves in public affairs, is to be measured not merely by their taking a hand in legislative or administrative work, but also by the contributions they make to thought on public questions and by their influence in the formation of national opinion.
Here the results of observation are disappointing. The extension of the functions of government and the increasing magnitude and complexity of the subjects falling within those functions have not elicited a corresponding will to serve the community on the part of those best fitted to serve it. In some countries one is told of a decline: but this may be because the want is more felt, not because the supply has fallen off: there is not less water, but more thirst. It is in France that public life seems to draw out most brilliance of talent, in Switzerland the most of sober wisdom. In none of the other countries does the traveller feel that the class to which wealth or knowledge or capactiy gives social influence is doing its full duty to the State. Administrative work attracts a fair number of competent men, but neither the legislatures nor more than a few of the Ministers seem equal to their tasks. The causes of this, already explained in the accounts given of each country, are much the same everywhere, but have in some been increased by the disposition to require from candidates a pledge to speak and vote with the majority of their party, whatever their individual opinion, a pledge which men of spirit refuse to give. It was thought, fifty years ago, that the extension of the suffrage and the growth of the sentiment of equality, coupled with the diffusion of education and the cheapening of elections, would draw new streams of talent, energy, and unselfish patriotism into the service of the State. But this has nowhere happened. Though the number of those who, belonging to classes formerly excluded, have now entered the legislatures, has increased, and though legislation is everywhere directed far more than formerly towards ameliorating the conditions of health and labour, there is no more talent, no more wisdom, no more of the disinterested zeal which subordinates all other interests to the common good. The more educated class, to whatever political party they belong, are in many countries heard to complain that public life is being vulgarized, that the laws which determine national prosperity are being misunderstood or ignored because abstract theories and vague sentimentalities fill the public mind, and that social classes are being alienated from one another for want of mutual understanding and the sense of a common interest. If and so far as there is any truth in these complaints, is not a principal cause to be found in the failure of the most educated and most thoughtful to take the part that belongs to them in public life?
(c) The existence of a sentiment of national unity and of an intelligently active public opinion. These two things go together, for if the former be weak, if the clashing of sectional interests and tenets diverts each section from its loyalty to the common good, sympathy is chilled and reciprocal comprehension lessened. I have dwelt in a previous chapter (Chapter XV.) on the advantages of government by Public Opinion as compared with the mechanical though indispensable methods of government by voting, and have sought to show that the value of Public Opinion depends on the extent to which it is created by that small number of thinking men who possess knowledge and the gift of initiative, and on the extent to which the larger body, who have no initiative but a shrewd judgment,1 co-operate in diffusing sound and temperate views through the community, influencing that still larger mass who, deficient both in knowledge and in active interest, follow the lead given to them. Taking the rule of Opinion in this sense, it is most fully developed in Switzerland and the United States, rather less so in Canada and New Zealand. In France, great as is the devotion to national glory and the Sacred Soil, the assimilative and unifying influence of opinion is weakened by the sharp divisions on religious questions, as it is in Australia by a like division upon Labour and class issues, a source of acerbity which has begun to appear also in such countries as Belgium, Holland, and Italy. The diffusion from one country into another of new types of economic doctrine and new schemes for the regeneration of society preached by enthusiastic missionaries has increased those forces that disunite nations, as in the sixteenth century there were Protestants who renounced their loyalty to a Roman Catholic king, and Roman Catholics prepared to revolt against a Protestant. Such phenomena may be transient, but for the present they disintegrate national opinion and subject democracy to an unexpected strain.
Neither the presence nor the absence of the three conditions just enumerated can be ascribed to democratic institutions, for much depends on the racial qualities and the history of each people, but their presence or absence is nevertheless a credit or discredit to those institutions, because it indicates how far they tend to accompany and strengthen democracy, enabling the machinery to play freely and smoothly without shocks and jars. It is a sign that something is wrong with a government if it fails to attract to its service enough of such talent as the country possesses; it is an evidence of its excellence if the will of the people is amply and clearly brought to bear on the governing authorities through the means by which opinion expresses itself in the intervals between the moments when it is delivered at the polls.
The examination and comparison made above have shown that however marked the differences are between one modern democracy and another, all have some defects in common. Wherever rich men abound the power of money is formidable in elections and in the press, and corruption more or less present. I will not say that wherever there is money there will be corruption, but true it is that Poverty and Purity go together. The two best-administered democracies in the modern world have been the two poorest, the Orange Free State before 1899 and the Swiss Confederation. In every country but Switzerland financial administration is wasteful, and that form of political jobbery which consists in angling for political support by grants of money to constituencies is conspicuously rife. So, too, the rise of a class of professional politicians must be expected if large salaries are paid to representatives. Such a class grows in proportion to the work party organizations have to do, and patronage is misused for party purposes wherever lucrative posts or so-called honours are at the disposal of a party Executive. These phenomena are all natural, the inevitable result of tendencies sure to operate where circumstances invite their action; and only two, the habit of buying support by grants to localities and by bills intended to capture votes from some section of the voters, are directly due to the system of party government by the votes of the masses. The existence of a class who make their living by politics, though ascribed to democratic government, is no worse than was the bestowal of places and pensions on Court favourites, or on the relatives or friends of Ministers, in monarchies or oligarchies. Unscrupulous selfishness will have its way under one system as well as another.
These observations may be summed up by saying that the chief faults observable in the democracies described are the following:
Of these faults, the first three have been observed in all governments, and the first not worse under Universal suffrage than it is to-day, though the forms of all three are now different and their consequences more serious; for the number of useless or undeserving persons who lived off the public revenue under the English oligarchy of the eighteenth century was smaller in proportion to the population than that of persons of the same type who live off it in the United States to-day, and the waste of public money in favours bestowed on constituencies and individuals under that English oligarchy or under the Prussian oligarchy down to 1914 was less in proportion to the total revenue than it is now in France or the United States or Canada. As the third fault is in Switzerland not visible, and the second only in a slight degree, these are plainly inseparable from democratic institutions. The evils attributable to the fourth, fifth, and sixth sources may be more definitely connected with popular government. The new democracies in particular suffer from an insufficient appreciation of the need in modern States of legislative and administrative knowledge and skill, an error particularly unlucky in nations which have been piling upon the State new functions for the discharge of which knowledge and skill are required. The years of rapid constitutional development in Australia and New Zealand coincided with the spread of new ideas in populations less well equipped for constructive work than were the older nations, and class antagonisms sprang up before a thoughtful and enlightened public opinion, able to profit by the lessons of experience, had time to establish itself as a ruling force. These things, however, may come: the defects of new countries are less disheartening than the declensions of old countries.
Democracy has opened a few new channels in which the familiar propensities to evil can flow, but it has stopped some of the old channels, and has not increased the volume of the stream. No institutions can do more than moderate or mitigate these propensities, but that which they can do is sufficient to make it worth the while of those who frame constitutions or lead reforming movements to study the institutions which have in one country or another given good results.
Two dangers threaten all these six countries, and indeed all modern democracies. One is the tendency to allow self-interest to grasp the machinery of government and turn that machinery to its ignoble ends. The other is the irresponsible power wielded by those who supply the people with the materials they need for judging men and measures. That dissemination by the printed word of untruths and fallacies and incitements to violence which we have learnt to call Propaganda has become a more potent influence among the masses in large countries than the demagogue ever was in the small peoples of former days. To combat these dangers more insight and sympathy, as well as more energy and patriotism, are needed than the so-called upper and educated classes have hitherto displayed.
I speak of France as it was in 1914, for the time that has passed since the Great War ended has been too short to judge what effect it has had upon politics.
In Britain also the legislature, or, rather, the House of Commons, is legally supreme, but in practice it is much controlled by the Cabinet, who can dissolve it, and can appeal to the party organizations over the country to require members to render steady support. Though, as Bagehot observed, a committee of Parliament, they are a Ruling Committee.
President Taft speaking at Chicago in 1909, quoted in Mr. Moor-field Storey's book, The Reform of Legal Procedure.
As to this distinction see Pericles as reported by Thucydides in Book II, chap. 40.