Front Page Titles (by Subject) THINKING GOVERNMENT. ( From The Saturday Review, 19 th April, 1856.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THINKING GOVERNMENT. ( From “ The Saturday Review, ” 19 th April, 1856.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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What mankind really wish to economise is thought. Admirable speculators publish beautiful eulogiums on the employment of the faculties, and the universal creed is, that the exertion of the reason is the highest and truest of human enjoyments; yet if a steady observer really looks at actual life, he will see that men never think if they can help it—that they require to be goaded towards it—that they invent devices to avoid it—that, however greedy of enjoyment in other ways, they decline, if possible, to enjoy themselves in this.
One of these devices is activity. People rush to and fro. They are never still. They go to eight committees in a day, taking care to be pretty late at each—they look at their watches the moment they get there—they spurt out rapid errors. If you suggest a little reflection before doing anything, they say, “Don’t bother about that now”; and when all has gone wrong, they have the ready plea, “I was so occupied, I could not give it a thought”. In their own circles, such men are always considered wonderful men of business. It is natural their wives and families should believe in them; for they spend so much toil and trouble, they make everybody so uncomfortable, in order to boil a pea, that those who know no better of course suppose that the pea is boiled. Nevertheless it is not—this impetuous activity is content with the boiling apparatus, and does not regard the useful result. It is among our middle classes, who are often held up as the sole models of men of action, that this kind of error is most rife. Place an active uneducated man in miscellaneous affairs, and it is nearly certain that he will commit this mistake. He will begin to do something—he will state that he is a “practical man”—it will never strike him that there is an essential preliminary to wise exertion. His mind has not been trained to observe the varied relations of complicated phenomena, or to unravel the knotty thread of tangled topics; and so he will be apt to work ten hours a day at what it is scarcely necessary to do at all. He will leave undone the one little, essential, difficult matter—the one point of judgment—on which alone it was necessary to act or to decide. We do not say that the middle classes manage their own affairs on this principle, though there is a great deal more of it, even in them, than a charitable philosopher would be ready to suspect. Still they have habit, and bringing up, and arithmetic to control them. The ledger guides the mind—the sense of responsibility, of actual definite money-loss, represses undue activity, and compels men to a certain discretion. But if such persons—and they are exactly those whom a Government, if compelled to select, would, from their conspicuousness, choose as the representative men of the middle classes—were placed among great national affairs, and not paid a percentage on those affairs, but an inevitable salary from the indestructible taxation, they would act as very busy Members of Parliament now act. They would run quickly from committee to committee, and make a tour of great questions.
In our administrative departments, happily, this state of things does not prevail. A certain aristocratic laissez aller rather pervades them. In a public office, it would be indecorous to rush like a mighty wind. Yet it would be a great error to imagine that, in so large a department of human life, no expedient to economise thought and to dispense, pro tanto, with the pain of reflection, had been discovered and adopted. That resource is what is called business habits. There is such a thing as the pomp of order. In every public office there is a grave official personage who is always neat, whose papers are always filed, whose handwriting is always regular, who is considered a monster of experience, who can minute any proceeding, and docket any document. There is no finer or more saving investment of exertion than the formation of such habits. Under their safeguard, you may omit anything, and commit every blunder. The English people never expect any one to be original. If it can be said, “The gentleman whose conduct is so harshly impugned is a man of long experience, who is not wont to act hastily—who is remarkable for official precision—in whom many Secretaries of State have placed much reliance,” that will do; and it will not be too anxiously inquired what such a man has done. The immense probability is that he has done nothing. He is well aware that, so long as he can say anything is “under consideration,” he is safe—and so long as he is safe, he is happy. His education, too, has not fitted him for much exertion. He entered the office young—he copied letters for five years—he made an index of papers for nine months—he made analyses of documents for five years more. When he commenced at last to transact business, it was of a strictly formal character; and he was upwards of twenty years in the public service before he ever decided on anything of essential importance. No wonder that he was unwilling to decide anything—that he refers everything—that he corresponds in his best handwriting with another public office—that when you want him you find him entering a minute, “That after mature deliberation, my Lords have postponed the consideration of what has taken place”. In actual life, it is really very difficult not to over-estimate the usefulness of such a man. His appearance is so regular—his habits so precise—he has such a command of the instruments of utility—that it is difficult to imagine he does nothing. Only after considerable observation can it be learnt that it is this very command over the forms of action which enables him safely to neglect its essence—that it is his very familiarity with the rules of experience that enables him to apply them mechanically to instances to which they have only an outward reference and no real applicability. It is odd how some of the most gifted of our Administrative Reformers mistake the true point. The honourable member for Tynemouth, for example, who is a man of business, brought a great charge against the Admiralty that they did not keep the accounts duly and precisely. Of course Sir James Graham had no difficulty in showing that the figures were excellently summed, that the ledger was for ever posted, that all the entries were made most legibly and with extreme care. The more plausible charge would have been precisely the contrary; for it is the tendency of official men to regard what goes on within the office as always more important than what takes place without it. The more probable assumption would have been, that the entries were most correct, but that the transactions were wrong—that the book-keeping was admirable, but the affairs recorded feeble and insufficient. Arithmetic is indeed one of the established devices of the pseudo-official mind. When he is much pressed, he commonly adds up something. The mechanical nature of the operation rather suits him—he does it quite right—and his notion of figures rather resembles that of a celebrated actuary, whose wife observed, “Isn’t it very odd that the Government could send out things three thousand miles, and that Fielder could not get them up six,” and who replied, “My dear, how you talk, consider the figures, it was only an error of one-fifth per cent”. Very many sums are commonly done, and publicly quoted, which have no more real relation to the subject-matter than that of this gifted gentleman.
Our constitution presents us with yet another contrast to that simple and patient reflection which would naturally seem to be the habit of mind fitted for the judicious conduct of political affairs. All politicians are required to have all opinions. A voting acquaintance with all topics is required from every member of Parliament. From those in high places much more is exacted—they are required to have a ready, producible, defensible view of all great questions. Mr. Macaulay, who has been placed in a position to observe, tells us that, in his judgment, the effects of this are the most serious set-off to the advantages of free government. The habit of debating, and the necessity of making a speech, compel the finest intellects in the country to put forward daily arguments such as no man of sense would think of putting into a scientific treatise. He might have gone further, and said that the habit of always advancing a view commonly destroys the capacity for holding a view. The laxity of principle imputed to old politicians is, by the time they are old, as much intellectual as moral. They have argued on all sides of everything, till they can believe on no side of anything. A characteristic of the same sort has been observed in journalism. One of our most celebrated contemporaries was asked his opinion on ten great subjects in succession, and on its appearing that he had no opinion, he said, apologetically, “You see, Ma’am, I have written for The Times”.
We are well aware that something of this kind is inevitable. We do not expect from a professional politician the elaborate consideration of a closet philosopher—their ends are different, and their responsibilities are different. We do not wish to abolish official form, and to abandon the most delicate of practical matters to the sudden rush of the uncultivated mind. We admit—if need were, we would maintain—that there are many settled habits—that there is a certain exterior show and seeming—the possession of which is, in this world, a necessary preliminary to important employment. People will not trust you to act well unless you seem to be a person who would act well. Nor do we forget that business is an affair of body as well as of mind. In our objection to a precipitate and unthinking strength, we have no desire to reduce the public service to a sole dependence on feeble thought—on pale and inexecutive ability. We would only stipulate that, previously to all action, in the midst of the correct forms, and without respect to the exigencies of debate, our public men should find room for some painful thought—should give themselves at least a reasonable time for patient and anxious reflection.