Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXVIII: types of democratic government - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXVIII: types of democratic 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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types of democratic government
The forms which popular government have taken are many, and the future may see the emergence of others, though mankind shows singularly little inventiveness in this field of action compared to the resourceful ingenuity it evinces in adapting the forces of nature to its service.
This chapter may be confined to representative Frames of Government, since the direct rule of popular assemblies, universal in the ancient world, but applicable only to very small communities, has disappeared except in the Swiss Forest Cantons, while the direct action of the people by voting in large areas has been dealt with already. Among representative Governments three specially deserve to be studied — the Parliamentary and Cabinet System of Britain, which, reproduced in the British self-governing Dominions and France, has been more or less imitated in other European countries, the Presidential system of the United States, adopted in many of the other American republics, and the Executive Council system of Switzerland. As each of these has been described in the chapters of Part II. dealing with France, America, and Switzerland, this chapter is intended only to compare each with the others in respect of characteristic merits and defects. All these Frames have in common certain features, viz.:
The distinctive features of each of these systems or Frames of Government may be concisely stated as follows:
I. The. Cabinet or Parliamentary system has for its organs of government:
II. The Presidential System consists of:
III. The Executive Council System, which for brevity's sake I shall call the Swiss, consists of:
In all these equally democratic forms of government the sovereign power of the people is delegated, being in the Parliamentary form delegated entirely to the Legislature, in the Presidential form delegated partly to the Legislature, partly to the (elected) Executive and partly reserved to the People when they act by amending the Constitution, while in the Swiss form it is divided between the Legislature and the People acting on the occasions when they are summoned to vote by Initiative or Referendum.1
In comparing the aforesaid types three points have to be regarded:
The presence of Ministers in a Legislature has two other advantages. Being in constant contact with members of the Opposition Party as well as in still closer contact with those of their own, they have opportunities of feeling the pulse of the Assembly, and through it the pulse of public opinion, and can obtain useful criticism, given privately in a friendly way, of their measures, while the members can by their right of questioning Ministers call attention to any grievances felt by their constituents and can obtain information on current public questions. Like other things, the right to interrogate is frequently abused, but any one who has been a Minister in the British House of Commons values the means it gives him of correcting or contradicting erroneous statements, of refuting calumnies, of explaining the reasons for his administrative acts without being obliged to seek the aid of the newspapers.
This system is therefore calculated to secure swiftness in decision and vigour in action, and enables the Cabinet to press through such legislation as it thinks needed, and to conduct both domestic administration and foreign policy with the confidence that its majority will support it against the attacks of the Opposition. To these merits there is to be added the concentration of Responsibility. For any faults committed the Legislature can blame the Cabinet, and the people can blame both the Cabinet and the majority. In the long run the enforcement of Responsibility depends on the activity and sanity of public opinion in each party and the strength of its outside party. This Parliamentary system renders an incidental service in bringing able men to the front, giving them a position from which they can catch the ear of the nation and show themselves qualified for office. Power of speech is what first attracts notice, but if to that they add solid qualities of character — good sense, industry, loyalty, honesty — their colleagues in the Legislature come to respect them, and to trust them when they rise to be Ministers. Moreover, the alternation of power from one party to another provides in the leaders of the Opposition men who can criticize with knowledge the policy of their successors, and who if called upon to succeed those successors, bring in their turn some experience with them.
As the actual working Executive has necessarily a party character, it is a merit of this system that the Nominal Executive, be he King or President, should stand outside party, and represent that permanent machinery of administration which goes on steadily irrespective of party changes. An elected President cannot so easily fill this rôle as can a hereditary king, though some Presidents have filled it well in France. When a Cabinet falls, the transfer of power to another is a comparatively short and simple matter. The Executive Head (i.e. in England the Crown, in France the President, in Canada or Australia the Governor-General) commissions the leader of the Opposition to form a new Ministry; the occupants of the chief offices are promptly changed, and the ship, having put about, is soon under way on her new course, commanded by a new captain, and all this may happen without the worry and cost of an election.
These merits of the Parliamentary system are balanced by serious defects.
The system intensifies the spirit of party and keeps it always on the boil. Even if there are no important issues of policy before the nation there are always the Offices to be fought for. One party holds them, the other desires them, and the conflict is unending, for immediately after a defeat the beaten party begins its campaign to dislodge the victors. It is like the incessant battle described as going on in the blood-vessels between the red corpuscles and the invading microbes. In the Legislature it involves an immense waste of time and force. Though in theory the duty of the Opposition is to oppose only the bad measures and to expose only the misdoings of the Administration, in practice it opposes most of their measures and criticizes most of their acts. Legislation is either, as in France, apt to be sacrificed to “interpellations” intended to damage the Cabinet, or, as in England, to be delayed and clogged by the interposition of party conflicts.
Debates over measures admittedly good are often vexatiously protracted merely in order to prevent the Ministry from carrying other measures which are disliked, or an angry Opposition may seek to damage it by so obstructing all business as to force them to present at the end of the session a sorry harvest of statutes.
Crediting the close association of Executive and Legislature with the merit of avoiding friction, it is also true that where either organ dominates the other, the consequences may be unfortunate. In the eighteenth century the Ministry commanded a large section of the British House of Commons by means of pocket boroughs which the Crown held, or could obtain the use of from their owners. In England, whenever a Ministry has a strong party organization at its beck and call, it can put pressure upon members through the local party committees in their constituencies; and it has happened in Italy that a Minister may in one way or another obtain control by unseen methods over a large section of the representatives. In France, on the other hand, it is Ministries that suffer, for members are able to extort all sorts of favours for their constituencies from Administrations whose instability compels them to angle for every possible vote; and in Australia a Labour Ministry is a passive instrument in the hands of a parliamentary caucus which is itself controlled by an organization outside Parliament. A subservient Ministry loses the respect of the nation, as a dominant one lowers the credit of the Legislature.
A system which makes the life of an Administration depend upon the fate of the measures it introduces disposes every Cabinet to think too much of what support it can win by proposals framed to catch the fancy of the moment, and to think too little of what the real needs of the nation are; and it may compel the retirement, when a bill is defeated, of men who can ill be spared from their administrative posts.
The Cabinet system grew up in Britain when there were only two parties. When between 1876 and 1906, there appeared a third and, somewhat later, a fourth, it worked less well. The same thing happened in Australia after 1900, has since then happened in South Africa, and is now happening in Canada. In Trance for many years past no Ministry has been able to hold office except by getting several groups to unite so as to form a majority of the whole Chamber. Group alliances are what chemists call an unstable compound, and when they dissolve, down goes the Ministry.1
Lastly, the very concentration of power and swiftness with which decisions can be reached and carried into effect is a source of danger. There is no security for due reflection, no opportunity for second thoughts. Errors may be irretrievable.
The Presidential or American system on the other hand was built for safety, not for speed. Founded on the doctrine that the Executive and Legislative departments ought to be kept separate, because only thus could the liberty of the citizen be secured, it not only debars the Executive Head and his Ministers from sitting in the Legislature, but in the United States permits the latter both to narrow by law the President's field of action and to refuse him the money needed for carrying out any policy they disapprove. He is helpless against them, except in the narrow sphere which the Constitution reserves to him, and in that sphere the Senate can hamper him in the selection of his high officials.2 These well-meant provisions, grounded on fears for liberty, have proved inconvenient by impeding the co-operation of representatives and administrators. The former cannot question the latter, except by means of Committees. The latter have not, unless through a Committee, the means of conveying the needs of their departments to the representatives. Delay, confusion, much working at cross purposes are the result: and this is particularly felt in the sphere of finance where the legislature may refuse money when the Executive needs it, and may grant money for no better purpose than to purchase the political support of powerful sections or clamorous constituencies. The “Separation of Powers” has for some purposes turned out to be not the keeping apart of things really distinct but the forcible disjunction of things naturally connected. There is, moreover, no certainty that the Legislature will carry out the wishes of the Administration, however reasonable. They may even decline to pass the statutes needed to give effect to treaties duly ratified.1
The Presidential system leaves more to chance than does the Parliamentary. A Prime Minister is only one out of a Cabinet, and his colleagues may keep him straight and supply qualities wanting in him, but everything depends on the character of the individual chosen to be President. He may be strong or weak, wise or short-sighted. He may aim at standing above party and use his authority and employ his patronage with a single eye to the nation's welfare, or may think first of his own power and his party's gain, and play for his own re-election. The re-eligibility of the President has so often been supposed to unduly affect his action that many Americans think he should be legally disqualified for a second continuous term of office.2 In some republics such a provision exists.
The United States has best shown the strength and weakness of the system, but just as it works differently in the hands of different men, so is it a different thing in different countries. In nearly all of the republics of Latin America racial and social conditions throw larger powers into the hands of the Executive chief than would be permitted to him in the United States. This has been seen in constitutional Argentina and Uruguay, as well as in those disorderly States where a President is usually a military dictator. Legally the powers may seem the same: practically they are wider in the countries where constitutional traditions are still new and public opinion still weak or divided into sections by an economic or religious antagonism.
For administrative purposes it is a gain that the members of the Cabinet are not, like those of Britain, obliged to give constant attendance in the Legislature, and that when a Minister starts a promising policy he can count on carrying it on without being upset by a sudden change of government. The Legislature, too, since it cannot displace the President, nor even a Minister, is not distracted from the work of legislation by debates intended to discredit the existing and install a new administration.
Two other merits may certainly be credited to the Presidential scheme. Under it legislatures are less dominated by party spirit than those of Britain and France, of Belgium and Australia and Canada, for party discipline is not so strict at Washington as at Westminster, though the party organizations are stronger.1 Under it there is also a greater sense of stability, partly because a shifting of the political balance can take place only at elections, points fixed by law, partly because the legislature can by withholding funds check the Executive in any project thought to be risky, while the Executive can by its veto arrest the legislature in a dangerous course. In either case, the appeal is to the judgment of the nation, to be given, if not forthwith by public opinion, then before long at the next general election. The moderate elements in the country need not fear a sudden new departure: the demagogue cannot carry his projects with a run.2
Is Responsibility to the People, a cardinal merit in every form of free government, better secured under the Parliamentary or under the Presidential system? Apparently under the former, because there is more unity, the Cabinet having over the whole policy and administration of the country that full power which their majority in the Legislature has granted them. If they err by omission or by commission, they cannot shift the blame to Parliament, for if they do not receive from it the necessary support they can either dissolve it or resign office, transferring responsibility to it or to their successors.
Under the Presidential scheme the President is responsible, except where the Legislature fails either to pass at his request the laws, or to supply the money needed to carry out the policy he recommends, in which case it is not he but the Legislature that becomes answerable for any resulting evil. The majority in a Legislature which prevents a President from acting of course incurs a responsibility attaching to the party which has elected it: and a party may so suffer, but it is a responsibility far less definite than that attaching to a Cabinet, or to the leaders of an Opposition, in a Parliamentary country.1 When President and Legislature belong to the same party, it is to him that the nation looks, for he can ask the Legislature for all that the conjuncture requires, be it statutes or grants of money. But when he and the Legislature are at odds, and the country is not evidently with the one or the other, there is nothing for it but to bear with the deadlock and await the next ensuing election.
In the Presidential system the man chosen to be Head of the Government becomes more definitely Head of the Nation than does a Prime Minister in a Parliamentary country like France, Canada, or England. The eyes of the whole people are fixed upon him even if he be a man of less than first-rate quality, whereas in Parliamentary countries it is only striking personalities such as Pitt or Cavour or Bismarck that excite a similar interest and exert a similar authority. An American President stands high above others, meaning more to the people than leaders in Congress do, and always sure to command attention when he speaks. He need not consult his Cabinet nor regard its advice as must a French or British Prime Minister. To his Cabinet he is a Master, to a French or British Cabinet only a Chief. A Prime Minister may fall at any moment if the Assembly tires of him: a President stands firm, and has to be taken by the nation for better or worse while his term lasts. Hence the method of choosing the Irremoveable Head becomes proportionately more important. No perfect method has been found, but this much may be said for popular election that whereas the method of natural selection from the Assembly in parliamentary countries gives a perhaps undue advantage to oratorical brilliance, the method of deliberate choice by a legal act of the whole people affords a wider field of choice for persons of other gifts, for men like George Washington, or of the type to which in their different ways such strong personalties as Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt belonged. It often fails to find the fittest men, but it has, at least in the United States, excluded the unworthy.1 American experience cannot, however, be taken as a general guide. There are in Europe, as well as in those Spanish American republics in which a popular election without violence is now possible, countries where election by an Assembly is the safer method.2 This was the view of those who framed the present Constitution of France.3
These two types of government so far resemble one another, having both sprung from the common root of a feudal monarchy, that it has been necessary to consider them together.4 The third or Swiss type has a very different source, for Switzerland was never ruled by a single sovereign, and its legislature grew out of the diplomatic conferences in which the delegates of thirteen little States met to discuss their common foreign policy.1 The mainspring of the Constitution is the National Assembly, which controls the Executive and in which the whole power of the People is embodied, except in so far as the Constitution limits legislative action and in so far as the people have a final voice in legislation by the Referendum and Initiative. The Swiss system has the advantage of simplicity and of a concentration of authority. The National Assembly chooses and supervises the small Federal Council which carries on administration. Both are watched by public opinion, and can be overruled if necessary by popular vote. Policy, both foreign and domestic, is continuous, moves with an even step, the ideas the same, the men the same. No time is wasted in party strife. Economy and efficiency are secured. The unchecked power which the people can exercise when by the Initiative their votes amend the constitution or enact a law, has not proved dangerous in a country with a population so shrewd, cool, and accustomed to the use of freedom. There are few prizes ambition can strive for beyond the respect and trust of fellow-citizens. A humdrum State, but it is prosperous and contented, and nowhere does patriotism glow with so steady a flame.
Can the advantages which this type of government has bestowed on Switzerland be secured elsewhere by like institutions? The conditions are peculiar: a small nation, its citizens not indeed poor, but very few of them rich, highly intelligent, long trained by local self-government, little distracted by party spirit. It is hard to suppose in any other country a coincidence of these conditions sufficient to give such an institution as the Swiss Federal Council a like chance of success. Nevertheless, we may imagine that even in a country twice the size of Switzerland, a small Cabinet Council appointed by and in the closest touch with the Legislature, and itself appointing and supervising the heads of administrative departments might, in quieter times than the present, carry on public business with less friction and at less cost than has been found possible under either the Parliamentary or the Presidential system. An Administration not immersed in the whirlpool of party politics might devote itself to the task of bettering the condition of the masses of the people by measures none the less effective because they were not designed to win the momentary support of any section. Politics would be less spectacular: but after all politics were made for men, not men for politics. It would be hard to introduce such a system in any country where the passing of laws has been long associated with party strife, and where the distrust of opponents, intensified in our days by class sentiment, makes each side suspect whatever proceeds from the other; but since alike in France, in America, and in England the constitutional machinery that exists for investigating, preparing, and enacting legislation upon economic and industrial topics has failed to give satisfaction, light upon the problem of improving that machinery ought to be sought in every quarter.
Other schemes of government than the three here described might be invented, and one such, that of a series of local Assemblies, each sending one or more of its best men to a higher Assembly till they culminate in a Central Executive and a Central Council, has taken a sort of shape in the scheme of Russian Soviets. Many paths might be cut in the forest, but for the present it is enough to indicate those that are well trodden.
If we return to the questions whence we started, it would seem that of the three types examined the people's will receives a fuller and prompter effect under the Parliamentary system and the Swiss system than under the Presidential. The distinctive quality of this last which some would call a fault and others a merit, lies in the fact that by dividing power between several distinct authorities, it provides more carefully than does the Parliamentary against errors on the part either of Legislature or Executive, and retards the decision by the people of conflicts arising between them. The Swiss, guarding themselves against mistakes committed by the Legislature but placing no check on the direct action of the people, seem to take the greatest risks; but they are really the most conservative in spirit of all the nations, and make the least use of the wide powers reserved to the citizens. Efficiency is most likely to be secured by the Parliamentary system, because whatever the Executive needs it is sure to obtain from its majority in the Assembly, subject, of course, to any check which the existence of a Second Chamber may provide.
As between these two systems the Parliamentary seems to be preferred by the new States which have arisen in Europe during the last hundred years, the newest adopting it in the French rather than in the British form. The Presidential system has found favour among the Latin American republics which drew their ideas of self-government from the United States, and has in most of them allowed the Executive a wider power, going so far as in the Argentine Federation to permit a President to supersede the elected officials of a State on the ground that this is necessary to secure a fair election, no party trusting its adversary to conduct elections fairly. So far as the experience hitherto acquired warrants any general conclusion, that conclusion would be that while the Parliamentary has many advantages for countries of moderate size, the Presidential, constructed for safety rather than promptitude in action, and not staking large issues on sudden decisions, is to be preferred for States of vast area and population, such as are the United States and Germany.
Those who hold the chief merit of a scheme of government to lie in the amplitude of its provisions for the expression of the popular will may observe that the Swiss system is the only one which brings out that will in an unmistakable and unpervertible form, viz. by an Initiative or Referendum vote, whereas under the other two systems a vote given at an election, being given primarly for a candidate, not for a law or executive act, does not convey the people's judgment on any specific issue.1
That is true, but the cumbrousness and cost of any frequent use of the Referendum in a large country are practically prohibitive, and the party which possessed a strong and ubiquitous organization would have an unfair advantage at a voting. The opinion delivered would be for half or more of the citizens not their own, but an opinion imposed upon them by others. If the Will of the People means the personal mind and purpose of each individual citizen, to search for it is to search for the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow.
In Chile the Ministers axe deemed to be responsible to the Legislature.
A similar Frame of Government exists in all the States of the American Union with the difference that in nearly all the States there are, instead of a Cabinet appointed by the State Governor, various administrative officials elected by the people, and that in some States the people can legislate by Initiative and reject laws by Referendum.
With this Swiss system may be compared a kind of government occasionally occurring in revolutionary times, that of a Legislature ruling through or along with an Executive Committee chosen from its own body. This was tried by the Long Parliament in England and by the French Convention in 1793 with the Committee of Public Safety, and later with the Directory overthrown by Bonaparte in 1799
Other interesting types of free constitutional government existed in the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal) before the South African War of 1899. In these the President, Head of the Executive, was elected by the citizens, could be removed by the Legislature, could and constantly did address it, but had no vote in it, and was assisted by a small Council elected by the Legislature. The scheme worked extremely well in the Free State, which had a small population of intelligent landowners scattered over a wide area. A description of these Constitutions may be found in the Author's Studies in History and Jurisprudence, published in 1901.
See as to France Vol. I. Chap. XX. In Australia Ministries have been singularly unstable, Vol. II. Chap. XLVII.
The custom has been not to exert this power in the case of Cabinet Ministers, but it is applied to all other officers (including ambassadors and judges), and used to put pressure upon the President in matters of general policy. The reader need hardly be reminded that the President has against Congress the formidable power of veto.
This happened recently in the United States when Congress neglected to pass the legislation required to give effect to a treaty for regulating the fisheries in the Great Lakes which had been accepted by the Senate and which promised real benefits to the United States as well as to Canada.
The American tradition which forbade a person to be chosen President more than twice seems to have recently lost nearly all its influence.
See as to this the figures as to voting collected by Mr. Lawrence Lowell from the records of divisions in the House of Commons and the House of Representatives respectively, in his Government of England, vol. ii. pp. 76–89.
That the demagogic bacillus seems to be less rife or less harmful in the United States than in some European countries may be partly due to the fact that the American people (omitting recent immigrants) have by their experience of more than a century become more “immune” than are the European masses.
Says Mr. Lawrence Lowell: “In countries where power is divided among a number of bodies, or hidden away in Committees, responsibility is intangible. Every one can throw it off his shoulders and it may become the subject of a game of hide-and-seek” (Government of England, vol. ii. p. 532).
The method of Nomination by party caucuses in Congress was tried and abandoned, but the attempt to make nominations truly popular has not succeeded.
One risk incident to an election by the nation instead of by an Assembly appeared in the United States in 1876 when a controversy arose over the results of the voting in several States which there was no authority capable of deciding. The American system of counting all the votes of a State for the candidate who obtains a majority, however small, in that State tends to concentrate the efforts of a party on those States in which parties are nearly equally divided, and makes a resort to illegal methods of influencing the electors or harvesting the results more likely.
Election by a vote of the people had been discredited there by the two “plebiscites” taken under universal suffrage, which created in 1852 and renewed in 1870 the Empire of Louis Napoleon: yet it must be remembered that in both those cases no alternative was presented to the people; they had to choose between confirming the existing ruler and an entirely uncertain future which might have been one of civil war.
The British Cabinet has inherited the old powers of the feudal king; the American President was created on the model of the English Executive, as it stood in the days of George III, modified by being made not hereditary but elective for a short term of years; the statesmen who framed the American Constitution not having realized how far effective power had been even by 1787 transferred from the Crown to the Cabinet. They did not see, says Bagehot, that the Sovereign had become “a cog in the mechanism of the British Constitution.”
The territories that now form the Swiss Confederation were all parts of the old Romano-Germanic Empire, but neither the Cantons nor the Confederation trace their origin to government of the Emperor or any other monarch.
See Chaps. LIX and LXV.