Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXX: responsibility - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXX: responsibility - 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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Popular Government rests upon the principle that it is every citizen's business to see that the community is well governed. Each man, rich or poor, learned or ignorant, is alike bound to discharge his duty as a voter, or a representative, or an official, or a juryman, according to the measure of his powers. In this concentration of all the disinterested activity and wisdom the community possesses the strength of democracy was expected to lie.
Its weakness was long ago noted in the saying that What is everybody's business is nobody's business. In an oligarchy or a monarchy the few rulers have, because few, a comparatively strong and direct interest in seeing that State affairs are efficiently managed. The personal interest of an individual may sometimes override that of the privileged class, but the share of each member of that comparatively small class in whatever weal or woe befalls the community is larger than that of the citizen in a democracy. “Where there are a hundred shareholders in a company each has more interest in the dividend than each has where there are a thousand. The citizen in a democracy of millions is prone to measure his own duty by his neighbour's, reducing his own obligations down to the level of the less conscientious, rather than raising them to the level of the most conscientious among his fellows. “Why,” he thinks, “should I take more trouble about public affairs than I see my next-door neighbour do? He minds his own business and prospers; so will I. Let somebody else with more time to spare work for the public. The office-holders are paid to do it. I am not.” He forgets that among those who profess to work for the public, officeholders and others, there will be many working for their personal interests only, perhaps to his detriment and that of the community.
The first and nearest duty of a citizen is to bear his part in selecting good men, honest and capable, to do the work needed by the community, and to make sure that they do it. In a small community like a little Swiss Canton or a New England Town this was a simple matter, because everybody knew everybody else and could see whether the work was being done or neglected, and if an officer neglected his work he was dismissed. A century ago the Town of Concord in Massachusetts met once a year, chose its Treasurer to gather and keep the scanty revenue, and its Road Superintendent, and its Hog Reeve — an office which local tradition says was discharged by Ralph Waldo Emerson. But when the work to be done for the State of Massachusetts or for the National Government of the United States had to be provided for, it became necessary to delegate the selection of officials and the supervision of their conduct to persons chosen for that purpose, i.e. representatives in an assembly, and these representatives again might have to delegate both selection and supervision to persons whom they appointed for those functions. Direct oversight by the citizens in Concord and the other Towns being impossible, there was constructed for the purpose machinery of securing wise choice and efficient oversight, a system of what is called a Frame of Government, representative and administrative, and one of its prime objects was to provide for all the citizens, as the ultimate rulers of the State, full means of knowing and judging how each part of the State's work was being done, carefully or negligently. Since they cannot personally oversee the work, they must know whether it is duly overseen by the persons appointed to this function, and whether these persons are in their turn watched and judged by those others placed above them, either official administrators or representatives, to whom has been entrusted the duty of overseeing the first set of overseers. There is thus created a chain of responsibility connecting every State employee of lower or higher rank with the People as the ultimate sovereign. If any link in this chain is weak, the right of the people to see that their work is duly carried out is infringed, and their power to secure efficient administration is reduced or destroyed. This is what we call the Principle of Responsibility, everywhere indispensable to good government. Each State servant, from a stoker at the furnace of a battleship up to the Secretary of the Navy, has his job, and is accountable to his immediate superior, who is in turn accountable to his superior, and so on. If his work, be it manual labour or direction and supervision, is done well, he is praised and continued or promoted. If it is ill done, he is warned or dismissed. Experience has shown that this principle, on which every private business is conducted, is the only guarantee of efficiency, for it relies on and uses motives common to all men. There are persons who work hard from a sense of duty. There are others who work hard because they like their job, and have an intellectual pleasure in seeing things well done. But far more numerous are those whose motives are chiefly self-regarding. They fear dismissal, they desire continuance or promotion. Fear, as well as whatever sense of duty they may have, helps them to resist temptation. Most people work better for the hope of some reward: everybody works better for knowing that he is watched and may suffer for default, for as an American philosopher has observed: True as it is that the wicked fleeth when no man pursueth, he makes better time when he knows that some one is after him. So let each State employee have his job. Let him be watched at his job. Let the watcher be himself watched to make sure that the watching is duly done, and let there be thus a line of responsibility all the way from the Minister at the one end to the weekly wage-earner at the other, so that when any fault is alleged to have been committed, there shall always be some one whose business it is to meet the charge, and the people shall always have some one to blame if the fault be proved.
In olden days the autocrat secured responsibility by Fear, which Montesquieu calls “the principle of Despotism,” a sentiment echoed by a member of the French Convention when he said: “By Responsibility I mean Death.” The people stand in the place of the monarch and must, in such a world as the present, rely upon Fear as well as Conscience to enforce Responsibility.1
All this is common sense and common practice in commercial and industrial life, and so it is also inside any properly organized department of public administration. Every Frame of Government contemplates and purports to recognize it, but some Frames have failed to apply it thoroughly, and with unfortunate results. To understand these failures let us compare the arrangements already described (Chapter LXVII.), which exist in France and in the United States.
In France, as in England and in the British self-governing Dominions whose constitutions reproduce that of England, every member of the civil administration is responsible for the proper discharge of his duties to some superior in that department and ultimately to the Minister at the head of the department. The Minister is responsible to the legislative assembly, in which he sits and where he can be questioned in any matter relating to his department. If the explanation or defence he tenders for his own conduct or that of any of his subordinates is unsatisfactory, the assembly may express its disapproval, or demand an enquiry. If the matter is one of some consequence, and the Minister is censured, he resigns: if it is very serious and the Ministry as a whole support him, they will as a Cabinet resign.1 This they will also do if their collective policy on any important subject is disapproved of by the Chamber of Deputies, since to it the Cabinet is responsible. The system works well inside each department, and pretty well as regards the relations between the Administration and the Legislature, though it sometimes happens that an error goes uncensured because nobody in the Chamber calls attention to it at the time, or because the majority in that body is unwilling to weaken the Ministry which it desires to keep in office,2 and in that case the Chamber, by supporting the Administration, assumes a part of their responsibility. But the legislature is a large body, and the majority includes so many members that the share of each is small. Responsibility accordingly practically falls only to a small extent upon the members of the majority, and more fully on the Cabinet who are the leaders of the party. If the nation is displeased, it is primarily the Cabinet and secondarily its supporters in the Chamber that are the persons to be blamed.
To whom is the Chamber responsible? Only to the electors; and this responsibility can be enforced only at a general election. It is therefore possible for laws to be passed or executive action sanctioned by a vote of the representative assembly which the majority of the people would disapprove if they could be consulted. But as general elections cannot be ordered whenever a question as to the real wish of the people arises, this is an inevitable evil, the only remedy for which would be the taking of a Referendum as in Switzerland, or the Recall of members of the Legislature, as in some American States.1
Turn now to the United States. In its National or Federal Government the President is not responsible to the legislature, and his only responsibility to the people consists in the general approval or disapproval which his action evokes. Their favour is of course what every President strives to win for his party as well as for himself. But he cannot be practically deemed accountable for the incompetence or errors of his official subordinates, not even of that comparatively small number who belong to the higher grades, unless he has made so many unfortunate appointments as to discredit his capacity for selection. Nor are his Ministers responsible, for they are merely his servants, and do not sit in the Legislature. Committees of Congress may be appointed to investigate their conduct, but dismissal rests with the President only, and Congress cannot compel it. In many branches of his duties he needs the help which Congress can render by legislation and by votes of money, but these he may be unable to obtain, for in one or other house of Congress the party opposed to him may hold a majority. Thus when things go wrong and the people complain, it is not clear who is at fault, for the President can throw the blame on Congress, and Congress on the President. Furthermore, the equality in legislative power of the two houses of Congress may make it difficult to fix upon either responsibility for the failure to legislate, since one party may hold a majority in the Senate while the other party holds it in the House. Add to this that the fate of most bills is decided in committees whose proceedings are not public, and it will be seen how hard it may be to apportion blame. Broadly speaking, and regarding only comparatively large issues, it is the political parties on whom responsibility can be most easily fixed. They can be punished by losing votes and seats at the next election, but individual culpability may escape any penalty except that which public displeasure inflicts on prominent figures.
Here the defect to be noted is the subdividing of responsibility till it almost disappears. In the several States of the Union another defect is visible. The chief officials of each State are, including the judges, not appointed by the Governor, as the Federal Ministers and judges are by the President. The wish to make these officials responsible dictated the assignment of their election to the people's vote, choosing them, as the Governor is chosen, for short terms, so that they may not forget their dependence on the people. They are not responsible either to the Governor or to the State Legislature, but to the people only, and in this sense only, that they may be rejected if they offer themselves for another term of office. This constitutional arrangement, adopted in order to recognize the sovereignty of the people and make the officials feel themselves directly accountable to the citizens, has had the exactly opposite effect. The people, having neither the knowledge requited to select nor the time and knowledge needed to supervise these officials, have left the nomination of them to the party Organizations; each organization repays by a nomination those of its adherents who have worked for it, and the candidates whom their party carry at the elections owe their posts and their obedience to it and not to the people. So far as they safely can, they work for the party, looking to it for renomination or some other favour, and the party, so long as they are loyal, stands by them if attacked. Thus the plan which was meant to create responsibility to the citizens has made such responsibility a sham, while creating a real responsibility to the secret and non-legal authority, the Organization or “Party Machine,” which can reward or punish. Inside that non-legal organization Responsibility is strictly enforced by a system of rewards and punishments, so obedience and efficiency are secured.
The enforcement of Responsibility is a comparatively easy thing in the sphere of administration where individual men are concerned, and each has his specified work to do. As in a great manufacturing industry the foreman supervises the workmen, and the head of each department supervises the foremen, and the General Manager supervises the heads of departments, and the Board of Directors, or proprietor, supervises the General Manager, so in a government department the Minister, aided by the permanent secretary, can keep everybody up to the mark by punishing default and rewarding merit. It is when bodies of men are concerned that difficulties emerge. A mob is dangerous because each man in it feels that his own responsibility for a breach of the law is lessened by the participation of many others. A representative assembly in which most men wait for some one else to give a lead, each feeling that he will be blamed no more than others for indolence or timidity, does not enforce accountability on offenders so well as can an individual Minister, who knows that others are looking to him, and this is especially true of the Minister in a monarchy or oligarchy who has usually a freer hand as well as a more direct liability to censure than any politician holding power by the favour of an assembly can have. Still more difficult is it to enforce the responsibility of a representative assembly to the people. The members are many; who can fix blame upon any in particular? The people is a vast indeterminate body; who can speak for it or get it to speak for itself? This explains why the trend of opinion in the United States has latterly been to vest larger and larger powers in a State Governor and in the Mayor of a city or a very small Board. The citizens can watch him or them; they cannot so well watch a set of elected officials, or the aldermen in a municipal council. Like considerations have made thinking men tolerate party organizations, with all their defects. The Party is usually the only power that can be relied on to induce the people to inflict by their votes a penalty for misdoing, and upon the Parties some measure of responsibility can be fixed, for each has a motive for enforcing responsibility upon its opponents, and makes itself to some extent responsible if it fails in that enforcement. A “party in power” has a motive for avoiding gross scandals and maintaining a tolerable standard of competence in administration, because if offences are too flagrant, the people will rise and turn it out. A “party in opposition” has at least as strong a motive for detecting and exposing all the offences of the party in power whose fall will install it in office. Thus, whatever be the motives, the public interest is not wholly neglected, and abuses which might escape notice under a careless monarch or be hushed up by a selfish oligarchy have a chance of being corrected.
It remains true, nevertheless, that the enforcement of accountability on those appointed to serve the State is one of the abiding difficulties of democracy. Attempts have been made to control the member who represents a constituency in an assembly by exacting pledges and fettering him by instructions. Such a plan involves evils greater than those it could remove. Some American States have tried the experiment of giving to the citizens a power of ejecting from office, before the expiry of his term, an official or a representative, but reasons have already been given which dissuade this device of the so-called Recall. Experience has so far pointed out only one path worth following, that of making the way plain and simple by laying on the ordinary citizen only such tasks as he can be expected to perform. He cannot give much of his thought and attention to public affairs which for him come only in the third or fourth or fifth rank of his interests in life. To ask from him too much is to get from him too little. He can, however, concentrate his thoughts upon the election of a few men to do public work, and may try to watch these few, making each of them feel that he is being held responsible whether it be for what he does himself or for what he does in watching and directing others. Keep the searchlight steadily playing upon the few conspicuous figures, be it in a larger or a smaller area of government, in city or county, in State or nation, so that each person charged with public duties shall never forget that he has an account to render.
I have dwelt on this subject, familiar as it is, because the neglect to fix responsibility has been one of the most fertile sources of trouble in popular governments. There is no better test of the value of institutions than the provisions they contain for fixing and enforcing it upon every one who serves the State.
I quote this from a valuable little book by the late Mr. Arthur Sedgwick entitled The Democratic Mistake.
They may in Britain and the self-governing Dominions dissolve Parliament, but this course is infrequent and in France very rare.
Upon one point there has been some difference of opinion and practice in the British House of Commons. Is it the duty of the Ministry to oppose bills brought in by private members of which they disapprove? In 1880 that duty was generally recognized. The House was deemed to be entitled to the advice of a Minister, and it was only he who could be relied on to see that if it was a bad bill it should not go through because there was not enough resistance from non-official members to defeat it. Nowadays private members' bills have little chance of passing, so the question seldom arises, but it would seem that Ministries are less disposed to recognize and discharge their responsibility for stopping such bills if mischievous.
As to Swiss administration and the position of the Federal Council, which, though responsible to the Chambers, differs otherwise from administrations in France and England, see Vol. I., chapters on Switzerland.