Front Page Titles (by Subject) I.—A CONVERSATION: October 20, 1882. - Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative, vol. 3
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I.—A CONVERSATION: October 20, 1882. - Herbert Spencer, Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative, vol. 3 
Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative. Library Edition, containing Seven Essays not before republished, and various other Additions (London: Williams and Norgate, 1891). Vol. 3.
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I.—A CONVERSATION: October 20, 1882.
Has what you have seen answered your expectations?
It has far exceeded them. Such books about America as I had looked into had given me no adequate idea of the immense developments of material civilization which I have everywhere found. The extent, wealth, and magnificence of your cities, and especially the splendour of New York, have altogether astonished me. Though I have not visited the wonder of the West, Chicago, yet some of your minor modern places, such as Cleveland, have sufficiently amazed me by the results of one generation's activity. Occasionally, when I have been in places of some ten thousand inhabitants where the telephone is in general use, I have felt somewhat ashamed of our own unenterprising towns, many of which, of fifty thousand inhabitants and more, make no use of it.
I suppose you recognize in these results the great benefits of free institutions?
Ah! Now comes one of the inconveniences of interviewing. I have been in the country less than two months, have seen but a relatively small part of it, and but comparatively few people, and yet you wish from me a definite opinion on a difficult question.
Perhaps you will answer, subject to the qualification that you are but giving your first impressions?
Well, with that understanding, I may reply that though the free institutions have been partly the cause, I think they have not been the chief cause. In the first place, the American people have come into possession of an unparalleled fortune—the mineral wealth and the vast tracts of virgin soil producing abundantly with small cost of culture. Manifestly, that alone goes a long way towards producing this enormous prosperity. Then they have profited by inheriting all the arts, appliances, and methods, developed by older societies, while leaving behind the obstructions existing in them. They have been able to pick and choose from the products of all past experience, appropriating the good and rejecting the bad. Then, besides these favours of fortune, there are factors proper to themselves. I perceive in American faces generally a great amount of determination—a kind of “do or die” expression; and this trait of character, joined with a power of work exceeding that of any other people, of course produces an unparalleled rapidity of progress. Once more, there is the inventiveness which, stimulated by the need for economizing labour, has been so wisely fostered. Among us in England, there are many foolish people who, while thinking that a man who toils with his hands has an equitable claim to the product, and if he has special skill may rightly have the advantage of it, also hold that if a man toils with his brain, perhaps for years, and, uniting genius with perseverance, evolves some valuable invention, the public may rightly claim the benefit. The Americans have been more far-seeing. The enormous museum of patents which I saw at Washington is significant of the attention paid to inventors’ claims; and the nation profits immensely from having in this direction (though not in all others) recognized property in mental products. Beyond question, in respect of mechanical appliances the Americans are ahead of all nations. If along with your material progress there went equal progress of a higher kind, there would remain nothing to be wished.
That is an ambiguous qualification. What do you mean by it?
You will understand me when I tell you what I was thinking the other day. After pondering over what I have seen of your vast manufacturing and trading establishments, the rush of traffic in your street-cars and elevated railways, your gigantic hotels and Fifth Avenue palaces, I was suddenly reminded of the Italian Republics of the Middle Ages; and recalled the fact that while there was growing up in them great commercial activity, a development of the arts, which made them the envy of Europe, and a building of princely mansions which continue to be the admiration of travellers, their people were gradually losing their freedom.
Do you mean this as a suggestion that we are doing the like?
It seems to me that you are. You retain the forms of freedom; but, so far as I can gather, there has been a considerable loss of the substance. It is true that those who rule you do not do it by means of retainers armed with swords; but they do it through regiments of men armed with voting papers, who obey the word of command as loyally as did the dependants of the old feudal nobles, and who thus enable their leaders to override the general will, and make the community submit to their exactions as effectually as their prototypes of old. It is doubtless true that each of your citizens votes for the candidate he chooses for this or that office, from President downwards; but his hand is guided by an agency behind which leaves him scarcely any choice. “Use your political power as we tell you, or else throw it away,” is the alternative offered to the citizen. The political machinery as it is now worked, has little resemblance to that contemplated at the outset of your political life. Manifestly, those who framed your Constitution never dreamed that twenty thousand citizens would go to the poll led by a “boss.” America exemplifies at the other end of the social scale, a change analogous to that which has taken place under sundry despotisms. You know that in Japan, before the recent Revolution, the divine ruler, the Mikado, nominally supreme, was practically a puppet in the hands of his chief minister, the Shogun. Here it seems to me that “the sovereign people” is fast becoming a puppet which moves and speaks as wirepullers determine.
Then you think that Republican institutions are a failure?
By no means: I imply no such conclusion. Thirty years ago, when often discussing politics with an English friend, and defending Republican institutions, as I always have done and do still, and when he urged against me the ill-working of such institutions over here, I habitually replied that the Americans got their form of government by a happy accident, not by normal progress, and that they would have to go back before they could go forward. What has since happened seems to me to have justified that view; and what I see now, confirms me in it. America is showing, on a larger scale than ever before, that “paper Constitutions” will not work as they are intended to work. The truth, first recognized by Mackintosh, that Constitutions are not made but grow, which is part of the larger truth that societies, throughout their whole organizations, are not made but grow, at once, when accepted, disposes of the notion that you can work as you hope any artificially-devised system of government. It becomes an inference that if your political structure has been manufactured and not grown, it will forthwith begin to grow into something different from that intended—something in harmony with the natures of the citizens, and the conditions under which the society exists. And it evidently has been so with you. Within the forms of your Constitution there has grown up this organization of professional politicians altogether uncontemplated at the outset, which has become in large measure the ruling power.
But will not education and the diffusion of political knowledge fit men for free institutions?
No. It is essentially a question of character, and only in a secondary degree a question of knowledge. But for the universal delusion about education as a panacea for political evils, this would have been made sufficiently clear by the evidence daily disclosed in your papers. Are not the men who officer and control your Federal, your State, and your Municipal organizations—who manipulate your caucuses and conventions, and run your partisan campaigns—all educated men? And has their education prevented them from engaging in, or permitting, or condoning, the briberies, lobbyings, and other corrupt methods which vitiate the actions of your administrations? Perhaps party newspapers exaggerate these things; but what am I to make of the testimony of your civil service reformers—men of all parties? If I understand the matter aright, they are attacking, as vicious and dangerous, a system which has grown up under the natural spontaneous working of your free institutions—are exposing vices which education has proved powerless to prevent?
Of course, ambitious and unscrupulous men will secure the offices, and education will aid them in their selfish purposes. But would not those purposes be thwarted, and better Government secured, by raising the standard of knowledge among the people at large?
Very little. The current theory is that if the young are taught what is right, and the reasons why it is right, they will do what is right when they grow up. But considering what religious teachers have been doing these two thousand years, it seems to me that all history is against the conclusion, as much as is the conduct of these well-educated citizens I have referred to; and I do not see why you expect better results among the masses. Personal interests will sway the men in the ranks, as they sway the men above them; and the education which fails to make the last consult public good rather than private good, will fail to make the first do it. The benefits of political purity are so general and remote, and the profit to each individual is so inconspicuous, that the common citizen, educate him as you like, will habitually occupy himself with his personal affairs, and hold it not worth his while to fight against each abuse as soon as it appears. Not lack of information, but lack of certain moral sentiment, is the root of the evil.
You mean that people have not a sufficient sense of public duty?
Well, that is one way of putting it; but there is a more specific way. Probably it will surprise you if I say the American has not, I think, a sufficiently quick sense of his own claims, and, at the same time, as a necessary consequence, not a sufficiently quick sense of the claims of others—for the two traits are organically related. I observe that they tolerate various small interferences and dictations which Englishmen are prone to resist. I am told that the English are remarked on for their tendency to grumble in such cases; and I have no doubt it is true.
Do you think it worth while for people to make themselves disagreeable by resenting every trifling aggression? We Americans think it involves too much loss of time and temper, and doesn't pay.
Exactly; that is what I mean by character. It is this easy-going readiness to permit small trespasses, because it would be troublesome or profitless or unpopular to oppose them, which leads to the habit of acquiescence in wrong, and the decay of free institutions. Free institutions can be maintained only by citizens, each of whom is instant to oppose every illegitimate act, every assumption of supremacy, every official excess of power, however trivial it may seem. As Hamlet says, there is such a thing as “greatly to find quarrel in a straw,” when the straw implies a principle. If, as you say of the American, he pauses to consider whether he can afford the time and trouble—whether it will pay, corruption is sure to creep in. All these lapses from higher to lower forms begin in trifling ways, and it is only by incessant watchfulness that they can be prevented. As one of your early statesmen said—“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” But it is far less against foreign aggressions upon national liberty that this vigilance is required, than against the insidious growth of domestic interferences with personal liberty. In some private administrations which I have been concerned with, I have often insisted that instead of assuming, as people usually do, that things are going right until it is proved that they are going wrong, the proper course is to assume that they are going wrong until it is proved that they are going right. You will find continually that private corporations, such as joint-stock banking companies, come to grief from not acting on this principle; and what holds of these small and simple private administrations holds still more of the great and complex public administrations. People are taught, and I suppose believe, that the heart of man “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked;” and yet, strangely enough, believing this, they place implicit trust in those they appoint to this or that function. I do not think so ill of human nature; but, on the other hand, I do not think so well of human nature as to believe it will go straight without being watched.
You hinted that while Americans do not assert their own individualities sufficiently in small matters, they, reciprocally, do not sufficiently respect the individualities of others.
Did I? Here, then, comes another of the inconveniences of interviewing. I should have kept this opinion to myself if you had asked me no questions; and now I must either say what I do not think, which I cannot, or I must refuse to answer, which, perhaps, will be taken to mean more than I intend, or I must specify, at the risk of giving offence. As the least evil, I suppose I must do the last. The trait I refer to comes out in various ways, small and great. It is shown by the disrespectful manner in which individuals are dealt with in your journals—the placarding of public men in sensational headings, the dragging of private people and their affairs into print. There seems to be a notion that the public have a right to intrude on private life as far as they like; and this I take to be a kind of moral trespassing. Then, in a larger way, the trait is seen in this damaging of private property by your elevated railways without making compensation; and it is again seen in the doings of railway autocrats, not only when overriding the rights of shareholders, but in dominating over courts of justice and State governments. The fact is that free institutions can be properly worked only by men, each of whom is jealous of his own rights, and also sympathetically jealous of the rights of others—who will neither himself aggress on his neighbours in small things or great, nor tolerate aggression on them by others. The Republican form of government is the highest form of government; but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature—a type nowhere at present existing. We have not grown up to it; nor have you.
But we thought, Mr. Spencer, you were in favour of free government in the sense of relaxed restraints, and letting men and things very much alone, or what is called laissez faire?
That is a persistent misunderstanding of my opponents. Everywhere, along with the reprobation of Government intrusion into various spheres where private activities should be left to themselves, I have contended that in its special sphere, the maintenance of equitable relations among citizens, governmental action should be extended and elaborated.
To return to your various criticisms, must I then understand that you think unfavourably of our future?
No one can form anything more than vague and general conclusions respecting your future. The factors are too numerous, too vast, too far beyond measure in their quantities and intensities. The world has never before seen social phenomena at all comparable with those presented in the United States. A society spreading over enormous tracts, while still preserving its political continuity, is a new thing. This progressive incorporation of vast bodies of immigrants of various bloods, has never occurred on such a scale before. Large empires, composed of different peoples, have, in previous cases, been formed by conquest and annexation. Then your immense plexus of railways and telegraphs tends to consolidate this vast aggregate of States in a way that no such aggregate has ever before been consolidated. And there are many minor co-operating causes, unlike those hitherto known. No one can say how it is all going to work out. That there will come hereafter troubles of various kinds, and very grave ones, seems highly probable; but all nations have had, and will have, their troubles. Already you have triumphed over one great trouble, and may reasonably hope to triumph over others. It may, I think, be concluded that, both because of its size and the heterogeneity of its components, the American nation will be a long time in evolving its ultimate form, but that its ultimate form will be high. One great result is, I think, tolerably clear. From biological truths it is to be inferred that the eventual mixture of the allied varieties of the Aryan race forming the population, will produce a finer type of man than has hitherto existed; and a type of man more plastic, more adaptable, more capable of undergoing the modifications needful for complete social life. I think that whatever difficulties they may have to surmount, and whatever tribulations they may have to pass through, the Americans may reasonably look forward to a time when they will have produced a civilization grander than any the world has known.