Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXIX: the money power in politics - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXIX: the money power in politics - 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 money power in politics
Philip, King of Macedon, was wont to boast that he could take any city into which he could drive an ass laden with gold. Many statesmen from Philip's time down to our own have spoken to the like effect. So long as private property exists, there will be rich men ready to corrupt, and other men, rich as well as poor, ready to be corrupted, for “the love of money is the root of all evil.” This has been so under all forms of government alike. The House of Commons in the days when Walpole, looking round its benches, observed, “All these men have their price,” was no worse than were most of the Jacobin leaders among the French revolutionaries, and the fact that Robespierre's influence rested largely on his epithet “the Incorruptible” tells its own tale. Two absolute monarchies, Russia under the Tsars and China under the Manchu Emperors, were the countries in which corruption was seen in its most shameless luxuriance in our own time. The power money can exert upon Governments is to be specially feared in countries where two conditions, naturally connected, coincide, the existence both of large fortunes and of opportunities for making fortunes which the State, through its various organs, can grant or can withhold. Of many forms in which money can exert its power, corruption is only one, but as it is the most palpable and direct, it may come first in a summing up of the results which the survey of modern democratic governments contained in previous chapters has provided. “Corruption” may be taken to include those modes of employing money to attain private ends by political means which are criminal or at least illegal, because they induce persons charged with a public duty to transgress that duty and misuse the functions assigned to them.
Four classes of persons owing a duty to the public may be thus led astray, viz. (a) Electors, (b) Members of a Legislature, (c) Administrative Officials, (d) Judicial Officials.
(a) Electors.— The bribery of voters is a practice from which few countries have been exempt. To-day it is hardly discoverable in Switzerland, in Australia, and in New Zealand. Uncommon in France, not extinct in Belgium and Holland, and found also in Italy, it is pretty frequent in parts of Canada and of the Northern United States, where even well-to-do farmers are not ashamed to take a few dollars for their vote, sometimes excusing themselves on the ground that they ought to be paid for the time they spend in going to the poll; and it is also reported from the cities, chiefly among negro voters. The practice was a flagrant scandal in England till the enlargement of constituencies and a stringent law (passed in 1884) reduced it to a few towns in the southern counties. In Spanish America it was scarcely needed, because the Governments of most of the republics have been accustomed to take charge of the elections and secure such results as they desire, while in the cities of ancient Greece, it appeared chiefly in the bribing of orators to influence the general assembly of the citizens. But at Rome it became in the later days of the Republic so gross as to be one of the causes of the Republic's fall. Rich men bought consulships and praetorships from the lower class of citizens whose votes in the Comitia conferred these offices and more than reimbursed themselves for what they had spent in bribes by the spoils of the provinces which they were sent in due course to govern.
(b) Members of a Legislature.— Legislative power necessarily includes the power to pass measures, general or special, which involve some pecuniary gain or loss to individuals. A customs tariff, especially if designed to protect domestic industries, may enrich one man or impoverish another. The grant of what is called in America a franchise, e.g. the right to construct a railroad or tramway, may have vast possibilities of gain. A vote for the making of some public work may so raise the price of landed property in a particular spot as to make it well worth the while of the owner of such property to persuade the legislature to pass the vote. Where a member of a legislature has influence with administrative officials, as, for instance, with those who have contracts at their disposal, or who administer State possessions in a Colony, the member may be bribed to exert his influence. In these and other ways members of the legislature hold in their gift benefits sufficient to expose them to temptations from rich men willing to pay high. As on a rocky sea-shore one can tell how far the tide has fallen by observing how many limpets adhering to the rocks are to be seen above the level of the water, so the healthiness of public life may be judged by seeing how many rich men or their agents are found slipping into the halls of a legislature and approaching persons who can bring political influence to bear.
Bills affecting particular localities or persons have been, in American legislatures, and especially in those of the more populous States, a source of corruption surpassed only by the prostitution of their legislative functions by the members of municipal councils. In one such State the question “What sort of a legislature have you got?” elicited the reply “As good a one as money can buy.” In France such abuses have arisen chiefly over contracts or business operations in connection with public undertakings, sometimes in the colonies; and in Canada some of the Provincial assemblies are similarly suspected, but the adoption, in the self-governing Dominions, of British Parliamentary rules enacted seventy years ago regarding the treatment of private bills, have generally protected their legislatures from exposure to temptation.
(c) Administrative Officials.— An examination of the Civil Service in France, the United States, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand shows that in all these countries the highest ranks of this service maintain a good standard of honesty, though lower down, where salaries are small and the corporate tradition of purity is less strong, the seductions of wealth may sometimes prevail, especially where a secret commission is offered upon a naval or military contract.
Fifty years ago some Cabinet Ministers in the United States were compromised in scandals, as have been more recently some Canadian Ministers, especially in the Provinces. In neither country are the municipal officials of some large cities spotless. A frequent form of corruption is seen in those American municipalities where business firms bribe the police to wink at breaches of municipal regulations. Payments so made to escape prosecution have been in New York no inconsiderable source of emolument to officers in the police force and to the great political club of which most of those officers are honoured members.
(d) Judicial Officials.— Of all kinds of corruption that of the judiciary is the most odious, being one of the commonest ways in which the rich man gets the better of the poor. In the countries hereinbefore described one hears no charge of venality brought against the higher National judges. Frenchmen, however, do not seem to place implicit trust in their lower Courts; and in some States of the American Union the Bench is now and then discredited by the presence of men known to have been elected by the influence of great incorporated companies, or to be under the control of powerful politicians; and there are cities where some lawyers have made a reputation for “fixing a jury.”1 Neither are judges trusted in most countries of Portuguese or Spanish America, though there it is a family or personal friendship rather than money that is apt to pervert justice. In the British self-governing Dominions the traditions of purity brought from the mother country have been carefully preserved.
The means by which corruption is effected have, with the march of civilization, become in most countries more delicately elusive. Many are the devices available, many the cases that can be imagined in which there may be strong grounds for suspicion while the proof of a corrupt inducement is too weak to warrant prosecution. No coin, nor always even paper, need pass. Were Philip now seeking to capture a city council instead of a city, he would not load the ass with gold, but would intimate that shares in a company being formed to work a copper mine were to be allotted below par to some good friends and would certainly go to a premium in a few weeks. In Russia under the Tsars a Minister, who was asked by some one from Western Europe for official sanction to a perfectly legitimate enterprise calculated to benefit the country, was accustomed, while inventing one objection after another, to rattle a drawer containing some loose roubles until the hint was taken; but in democratic countries, where a higher standard of purity is expected and the press as well as political opponents are prompt to detect and expose those who fall below it, more subtle methods are needed. Such methods often succeed.
From distinctly illegal modes of employing money in politics we may pass to others which are for any reason undesirable, as calculated to warp the spontaneous action of the citizens' minds and wills, or as giving to rich men an advantage which is undue, because derived from wealth and not from any superior fitness to serve the community. Some classes of such cases the law can reach; others it leaves untouched, perhaps because the motive that prompted the act may have been doubtful, perhaps because legal intervention would do more harm than good. A few illustrations may be given, beginning with cases wherewith the law has sought to deal.
Election Expenses.—In countries where power is conferred by the votes of the people the efforts of parties and candidates are chiefly directed to the winning of elections. Now Elections cost money. Money may legitimately be spent on them, but if it is spent lavishly, an advantage is given to the rich candidates and to the party which has the larger campaign fund. Hence, though there is nothing intrinsically wrong in flooding a constituency with canvassers, circulating an immense mass of printed matter intended to influence the electors, and spending money in conveying electors to the polls,1 British legislation restricts the total expenditure which a candidate may incur, the amount being determined by the number of electors in a constituency. Similar statutes have been passed in the United States also as respects Federal elections, and in some States for State elections; and in the United States the political parties have also been required to furnish statements of their total National campaign funds. These funds had often received large contributions from great manufacturing or trading companies, usually because such companies had an interest in the provisions of the protective tariff and expected the party to whose fund they subscribed to repay the service by giving them the kind of tariff they desired. Such practices come pretty near to bribing, not indeed the voters, but a political organization which might be able to “deliver the goods,” so they have now been forbidden by law.
These laws relate to elections. But golden seed intended to bear fruit may be sown at other times also. In England, and to a less extent in Scotland, a habit has grown up and spread widely of expecting members of Parliament to subscribe to local purposes, and not only to charitable purposes, such as hospitals, but also to all sorts of associations formed for amusement, such as football and cricket and swimming clubs. Rich men have been known to spend many hundreds of pounds annually in such subscriptions, and prospective candidates have also begun to do so, the practice being called “nursing the constituency.” It would be difficult to forbid these things, for if the member or candidate resides within the constituency, he would naturally subscribe to some of these objects in his quality of a resident, while if non-residents only were forbidden so to do, this might be held to give an advantage to residents. The practice, however, tends to demoralize the electorate and the candidate, and to deter men of limited means from offering themselves.
Another regrettable habit visible at present only in the United States, because it is only there that party organizations exercise a practically controlling influence on the selection of candidates for any post, is the use of pecuniary inducements to influence a Boss, or any leading wire-pullers, in the selection as candidate for office of an aspirant whom the party that selected him is bound to support with its solid vote. Here no offence is committed because a Boss, having no legal position, has no statutory duty and responsibility, being merely a private citizen to whose counsels other private citizens are wont to defer. American legislation, though it provides penalties for bribery or other misfeasance in the conduct of nominating meetings, can hardly go so far as to recognize a Boss and surround his action, influential as it is, with safeguards, not to add that it would seldom be possible to pry into the dark corners where the spider spins his web.
The practice of “Lobbying,” i.e. besetting and worrying members of legislatures with persuasions to vote for or against a bill which promises gain or threatens loss to some business enterprise, while occasionally discernible in France, and perhaps not unknown in some British countries, attains dangerous dimensions only in the precincts of American legislatures. When the lobbyist bribes he is of course punishable, but the employment of a crowd of professional agents, though it secures advantages for those who can afford to employ them, cannot well be forbidden. There is nothing wrong in persuasion per se; and who shall fix the limits of reasonable persuasion?1 Lobbyists might, however, be recognized as a sort of profession and subjected, like parliamentary agents in England, to disciplinary rules.
The granting by railway companies of free passes over their lines, a practice formerly common in the United States, was in itself legitimate and often well employed. Ministers of religion, and sometimes others also whose journeys seemed useful for the community, such as University professors, received this privilege, which was, however, so much abused by the companies as a means of propitiating influential persons, especially members of legislatures, that it was forbidden by law.
These various forms in which the power of wealth has been felt and to some extent curbed, count for less than another which appears to defy all regulation. This is the manufacture of public opinion. A group of rich men who have a special business project or class interest, be it legitimate or deleterious, may combine to start a press propaganda on behalf of their interest or project, partly by pamphlets or books, partly by influencing or capturing journals, so as to deluge the public with facts and arguments advocating their schemes or helping a party whose chiefs are secretly committed to the support of those schemes. Such a group may, by its control of a large part of the press, succeed in impressing its views on a public easily misled because one side only of the case has been constantly and ably presented to them while the opposing arguments are ignored or decried. The aim may be unobjectionable, but even if it be sordid, even if the facts be garbled and the arguments fallacious, how can such a propaganda be arrested? The only remedy, in a free country, is to disprove the facts and refute the fallacies. But it may not be worth anybody's while to incur the expense of a press opposition.
The great firms that manufacture munitions of war have been frequently accused of using their revenues to foster a warlike spirit and thereby dispose nations and their legislatures to spend immense sums in military preparations. I know of no evidence to show that this has happened in France or the United States or England, but it is generally believed to have happened in Germany, and might no doubt happen anywhere. There have certainly been cases in which unscrupulous men have, from selfish motives, used the press to push a nation into war.
The methods here enumerated are only some among the ways in which wealth can make itself felt in politics. It commands social influences. It can put politicians under personal obligations. It can by subscriptions to party funds obtain, as has often happened in England, titles of rank, which carried, till they began to be lavishly distributed, some social influence. Large sums may be expended for purposes sinister but not illegal, and where these tactics succeed, a bad precedent is set and the standard of honour is lowered. The most conspicuous example of a State demoralized and brought to ruin by the power of money is afforded by the history of the later Roman Republic. The saying of the Numidian Jugurtha was prophetic: “The City is up for sale, and will perish if some day it finds a purchaser.”
Among modern democracies the two which have been the purest, the best administered, and the most truly popular in spirit have been Switzerland and the Orange Free State as it was in 1895 before the South African War.1 They were those in which there were no rich men. On the other hand, those free countries in which wealth has been most powerful are the United States, France, and Canada. In the United States the swift growth of prodigious fortunes, and the opportunities for increasing them by obtaining favours from the governments of States and cities, had coincided with the building up of party organizations through whose help these favours could be obtained. The influence of what is called “Big Business,” wealth concentrated in a few hands and finding its tools in politicians and party organizations, was for many years a fruitful source of mischief, exploiting the resources of the country for its selfish purposes. These abuses provoked a reaction. “Big Business” began to be bitted and bridled, and though it still shows fight, can hardly recover the dominance it enjoyed thirty years ago, for public opinion has grown more sensitive and vigilant.
To estimate the harm done in France by the power of finance is more difficult, because the breezes of publicity do not blow so freely as in America over the field of politics, and where the facts are seldom ascertainable, rumour and suspicion are all the more active. It is, however, beyond doubt that Frenchmen believe the hidden influence of the heads of some great undertakings, industrial and financial, to be a potent force, manipulating the press, raising or depressing the fortunes of statesmen, and by one device or another turning the machinery of government to serve private ends. I speak not as knowing but only as reporting what is believed.
In Canada there have been fewer charges and complaints, but the close contact between finance, especially railway finance, and the political parties has caused disquietude. In Australia the rich are supposed to support party funds, but so far as I could learn, from political rather than directly personal motives.
In England it has thrice happened that a group of men who had made great fortunes abroad tried to use that wealth for political ends. The first instance was that of the so-called Nabobs, men who had brought back wealth from the East in the days of King George III. They bought electorates, and formed a group which, after rousing hostility by its prominence for some years, had vanished long before the Reform Act of 1832 abolished pocket-boroughs. The two other instances are too near our own times to be fit subjects for comment here. They did not permanently injure political life, but they disclosed some of the weak spots which wealth may assail. Apart from these passing, and in two instances pernicious, manifestations of the insidious influence money can bring to bear on the formation of opinion, England has not suffered from the malady since 1832, which never thereafter, not even while electoral corruption was frequent, seriously threatened its vital organ, the House of Commons. Were the centre of vital force to pass from the House of Commons to the press, there would be ground for anxiety. In every country unscrupulous wealth can, by artificially “making opinion,” mislead and beguile the people more easily and with less chance of detection than in any other way.
Democracy has no more persistent or insidious foe than the money power, to which it may say, as Dante said when he reached in his journey through hell the dwelling of the God of Riches,1 “Here we found Wealth, the great enemy.” That enemy is formidable because he works secretly, by persuasion or by deceit, rather than by force, and so takes men unawares. He is a danger to good government everywhere, no more active, no more mischievous in popular than he is in other governments. Why then are we more shocked when we find him active and successful in a democracy? Is it because we are prepared to expect selfishness in monarchies and oligarchies, but not in States which live by public spirit and where the common good is the common aim? The hope that public spirit will guarantee purity is one which, however often disappointed, no one would like to lose. Yet why should it be supposed that the ordinary failings of mankind will be materially lessened by the form of government any men live under? Can democracy do more than provide restraints and impose penalties less liable to be evaded than those tried elsewhere? Has not experience shown that safeguards may be more easily evaded where authority is vested in the multitude, for it is likely to be less vigilant, less prompt in detection and punishment, than is a well-organized bureaucracy?
The truth seems to be that democracy has only one marked advantage over other governments in defending itself against the submarine warfare which wealth can wage, viz. Publicity and the force of Public Opinion. So long as ministers can be interrogated in an assembly, so long as the press is free to call attention to alleged scandals and require explanations from persons suspected of an improper use of money or an improper submission to its influences, so long will the people be at least warned of the dangers that threaten them. If they refuse to take the warning, they are already untrue to the duties freedom prescribes.
The two safeguards on which democracy must rely are law and opinion. Laws, though they cannot cover all the cases in which the power of wealth is exerted against the public interest, and though strict proof may be wanting where the offence admits of little doubt, always render a service in providing a test and setting a standard by which men can recognize a temptation when it is presented to them. They help to keep the conscience of the people at a high level.
Public opinion is, however, even more important than law, since more flexible and able to reach cases not amenable to legal process. Opinion forms in public life that atmosphere which we call Tone and on whose purity the honour and worth of public life depend. Opinion is sometimes strangely lenient, with a standard purely conventional. The England of a century ago smiled at the candidate who gave a bribe, but despised the elector who took it. The habit was an old one, but so was the habit of duelling, so was the habit of intoxication, neither condemned by the code of custom. Those who conduct the affairs of a nation ought to be held to a standard of honour in some points higher and more delicate than any which law can set. Tone can decline as it declined at Rome, but it can also rise, as it rose among English politicians in the days of Chatham; and so has it also risen in the United States since 1890, where modes of gaining and using wealth once taken as part of the game are now under the ban of opinion. Money will always have power, because the rich man has something to give which others are glad to receive, so Power cannot be dissevered from wealth so long as wealth exists. All that democracy can do is to watch its action with ceaseless attention, restraining its predatory habits, respecting its possessor only so far as he devotes it to purposes beneficial to the community, and regarding as “undesirable citizens” those who use it to gain something from the public for their own benefit.
That we hear little or nothing about the bribing of Athenian juries may be attributed to the great size of these bodies (see Vol. I. Chap. XVI). But the numbers of the juries who sat in the Roman indicia publica to try criminal cases did not prevent bribery. It was, as we gather from Cicero, practised on a magnificent scale. and sometimes enabled notorious offenders to escape.
In Britain the conveyance of voters in vehicles hired for the purpose is prohibited, but as the conveyance in vehicles belonging to the candidate or his friends is still permitted, the possession by him of a large number of sympathisers who own and will lend motor cars is supposed to improve his chances.
A like difficulty has been found in distinguishing “peaceful picketing” in a strike of workmen from a picketing which becomes coercion.
It is now a part of the self-governing Dominion called the Union of South Africa.
“Quivi trovammo Pluto il gran nemico,” Inf. Canto VI. 1. 115. There can be little doubt that Pluto is to be here taken to mean Plutua the Roman God of Wealth, but perhaps his name was confused with that of Pluto, the king of the nether world, who represents in Roman mythology the Homeric ´νaξ ∊ν∊ρων 'Aïδων∊υs. H. F. Tozer's note in his eminently judicious Commentary on the Divina Commedia inclines to this view, which is also that of Mr. Paget Toynbee.