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chapter 103: How Far American Experience Is Available for Europe - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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How Far American Experience Is Available for Europe
There are two substantial services which the study of history may render to politics. The one is to correct the use, which is generally the abuse, of the deductive or a priori method of reasoning in politics. The other is to save the politician from being misled by superficial historical analogies. He who repudiates the a priori method is apt to fancy himself a practical man, when, running to the other extreme, he argues directly from the phenomena of one age or country to those of another, and finding somewhat similar causes or conditions bids us to expect similar results. His error is as grave as that of the man who relies on abstract reasonings; for he neglects that critical examination of the premises from which every process of reasoning ought to start. The better trained any historical inquirer is, so much the more cautious will he be in the employment of what are called historical arguments in politics. He knows how necessary it is in an attempting to draw any conclusion of practical worth for one country from the political experience of another, to allow for the points in which the countries differ, because among these points there are usually some which affect the soundness of the inference, making it doubtful whether that which holds true of the one will hold true of the other. The value of history for students of politics or practical statesmen lies rather in its power of quickening their insight, in its giving them a larger knowledge of the phenomena of man’s nature as a political being and of the tendencies that move groups and communities of men, and thus teaching them how to observe the facts that come under their own eyes, and what to expect from the men with whom they have to deal. A thinker duly exercised in historical research will carry his stores of the world’s political experience about with him, not as a book of prescriptions or recipes from which he can select one to apply to a given case, but rather as a physician carries a treatise on pathology which instructs him in the general principles to be followed in observing the symptoms and investigating the causes of the maladies that come before him. So, although the character of democratic government in the United States is full of instruction for Europeans, it supplies few conclusions directly bearing on the present politics of any European country, because both the strong and the weak points of the American people are not exactly repeated anywhere in the Old World, not even in such countries as France, Switzerland, and England. The picture given of the phenomena of America in preceding chapters has probably already suggested to the reader the inferences to be drawn from it, and such application as they may have to Europe. I shall therefore be here content with recapitulating in the most concise way the points in which the institutions of the United States and the methods employed in working them seem, if not quite directly, yet most nearly, to touch and throw light upon European problems. America has in some respects anticipated European nations. She is walking before them along a path which they may probably follow. She carries behind her, to adopt a famous simile of Dante’s, a lamp whose light helps those who come after her more than it always does herself, because some of the dangers she has passed through may not recur at any other point in her path; whereas they, following in her footsteps, may stumble in the same stony places, or be entangled in the quagmires into which she has slipped.
This has now been adopted by so many peoples of Europe that they have the less occasion to study its transatlantic aspects. The wisest Americans, while appreciating the strength which it gives to their government, and conceiving that they could hardly have stopped short of it, hold that their recent experiences does not invite imitation by European nations, unless at least Europeans adopt safeguards resembling those they have applied. With those safeguards the abolition of property qualifications has, so far as the native population is concerned, proved successful; but in the hands of the Negroes at the South, or the newly enfranchised immigrants of the larger cities, a vote is, and is now generally admitted to be, a dangerous weapon.
The Civil Service.
To keep minor administrative offices out of politics, to make them tenable for life and obtainable by merit instead of by private patronage, is at present the chief aim of American reformers. They are laboriously striving to bring their civil service up to the German or British level. If there is any lesson they would seek to impress on Europeans, it is the mischief of allowing politics to get into the hands of men who seek to make a living by them, and of suffering public offices to become the reward of party work. Rather, they would say, interdict officeholders from participation in politics; appoint them by competition, however absurd competition may sometimes appear, choose them by lot, like the Athenians and Florentines; only do not let offices be tenable at the pleasure of party chiefs and lie in the uncontrolled patronage of persons who can use them to strengthen their own political position.1
The same observation applies to judicial posts, and with no less force. The American state bench suffers both from the too prevalent system of popular election and from the scanty remuneration allotted. To procure men of character, learning, and intellectual power, and to keep them independent, ample remuneration must be paid, a life tenure secured, and the appointments placed in responsible hands. There is nothing in the English frame of government which thoughtful Americans so much admire as the maintenance of a high level of integrity and capacity in the judges; and they often express a hope that nothing will be done to lower the position of officials on whose excellence the well-being and commercial credit of a country largely depend.2
Character and Working of Legislatures.3
Although the rule of representative chambers has been deemed the most characteristic feature of well-ordered free governments, as contrasted with the impetuous democracies of antiquity which legislated by primary assemblies, it must be confessed that the legislative bodies of the United States have done something to discredit representative government. Whether this result is mainly due, as some think, to the disconnection of the executive from the legislature, or whether it must be traced to deeper sources of weakness, it is not without instruction for those who would in Europe vest in legislatures, and, perhaps, even in one-chambered legislatures, still wider powers of interference with administration than they now possess.
The Americans consider the division of every political legislature into two coordinate bodies to be absolutely necessary; and their opinion, in this respect, is the more valuable because several states tried for a time to work with one chamber, and because they are fully sensible of the inconveniences which the frequent collision of two chambers involves. Their view is, doubtless, tinged by the low opinion which they hold of the quality of their legislators. Distrusting these, they desire to place every possible check upon their action. In cities it does not appear that either the two-chambered or the one-chambered system shows any advantage over the other; but it is now beginning to be seen that city government has altogether been planned too much on political lines, and is conducted too little according to business methods.
Length of Legislative Terms.5
The gain and the loss in having legislatures elected for short terms are sufficiently obvious. To a European, the experience of Congress seems to indicate that the shortness of its term is rather to be avoided than imitated. It is not needed in order to secure the obedience of Congress to the popular will: it increases the cost of politics by making elections more frequent, and it keeps a considerable proportion of the legislators employed in learning a business which they are dismissed from as soon as they have learnt it.
American experience does not commend this device, which, until the establishment of the present mode of choosing the French Senate, was chiefly known from its employment in the Republic of Venice. The choice of the president by electors, chosen for the purpose, has wholly failed to attain the object its authors desired. The election of senators by state legislatures give no better, and possibly worse, men to the Senate than direct popular election would give.
A Rigid Constitution.7
Although several European states have now placed themselves under constitutions not alterable by their legislatures in the same way as ordinary statutes are altered, America furnishes in her state governments, as well as in her federal government, by far the most instructive examples of the working of a system under which certain laws are made fundamental, and surrounded not only with a sort of consecration, but with provisions which make change comparatively difficult. There is nothing in their system with whose results, despite some obvious drawbacks, the multitude as well as the wise are so well satisfied; nothing which they more frequently recommend to the consideration of those Europeans who are alarmed at the progress which democracy makes in the Old World.
Direct Legislation by the People.8
In this respect also the example of the several states—for the federal government is not in point—deserves to be well studied by English and French statesmen. The plan, whose merits seem to me in America to outweigh its defects, could hardly work as well in a large country as it does in communities of the size of the American states, and in the new form of initiative it offers an alluringly easy means of effecting radical changes. The method is useful less by its own merits than by comparison with the faults of the legislatures. The people are as likely to be right in judgment as are those bodies; and they are more honest and more independent, but in countries which have capable and trustworthy legislatures direct legislation might work ill by lowering the dignity and importance of such bodies. It would be an appeal from comparative knowledge to comparative ignorance. This consideration does not apply to its use in local affairs, where it stimulates the activity of the citizen without superseding the administrative body.
Nothing has more contributed to give strength and flexibility to the government of the United States, or to train the masses of the people to work their democratic institutions, than the existence everywhere in the Northern states of self-governing administrative units, such as townships, small enough to enlist the personal interest and be subject to the personal watchfulness and control of the ordinary citizen. Abuses have indeed sprung up in the cities, and in the case of the largest among them, have become formidable, partly because the principle of local control has not been sufficiently adhered to. Nevertheless the system of local government as a whole has been not merely beneficial, but indispensable, and well deserves the study of those who in Europe are alive to the evils of centralization, and perceive that those evils will not necessarily diminish with a further democratization of such countries as Britain, Germany, and Italy. I do not say that in any of the great European states the mass of the rural population is equally competent with the American to work such a system; still it presents a model towards which European institutions ought to tend. Very different is the lesson which the American cities teach. It is a lesson of what to avoid. Nowhere have the conjoint influences of false theory, party cohesion, and the apathy of good citizens, together with a recklessly granted suffrage, rendered municipal government so wasteful, inefficient, and impure.
The Absence of a Church Establishment.
As the discussion of ecclesiastical matters belongs to a later part of this book,10 I must be content with observing that in America everybody, to whatever religious communion he belongs, professes satisfaction with the complete separation of church and state. This separation has not tended to make religion less of a force in America as respects either political or social reform, nor does it prevent the people from considering Christianity to be the national religion, and their commonwealth an object of the Divine care.
The tremendous power of party organization had been described. It enslaves local officials, it increases the tendency to regard members of Congress as mere delegates, it keeps men of independent character out of local and national politics, it puts bad men into place, it perverts the wishes of the people, it has in some places set up a tyranny under the forms of democracy. Yet it is hard to see how free government can go without parties, and certain that the strenuous rivalry of parties will not dispense with machinery. The moral seems to the old one that “ Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom,” that the best citizens must, as the Americans say, “take hold,” must by themselves accepting posts in the organization keep it from falling into the hands of professionals, must entrust as few lucrative places as possible to popular election or political patronage, must leave reasonable discretion to their representatives in the national councils, must endeavour to maintain in politics the same standard of honour which guides them in private life. These are moral rather than political precepts, but party organization is one of those things which is good or bad according to the spirit with which it is worked.
The Unattractiveness of Politics.12
Partly from the influence of party machinery, partly from peculiarities of the federal Constitution, partly from social and economical causes, the American system does not succeed in bringing the best men to the top. Yet in democracy more perhaps than in other governments, seeing it is the most delicate and difficult of governments, it is essential that the best men should come to the top. There is in fact this matter for Europeans to reflect upon, for they have assumed that political success will always attract ambition, and that public life will draw at least enough of the highest ability. America disproves the assumption. Her example does not, however, throw much light on the way to keep politics attractive, for her conditions are dissimilar to those of European countries, where ambition finds less scope for distinction in the field of industrial enterprise, and rank is less disjoined from political eminence.
The Power of Wealth.
Plutocracy used to be considered a form of oligarchy, and opposed to democracy. But there is a strong plutocratic element infused into American democracy; and the fact that constitutions ignore differences of property, treating all votes alike, makes it neither less potent nor less mischievous. Of the power of wealth democracies may say, with Dante, Here we find the great enemy.13 Though it has afflicted all forms of government, it seems specially pernicious in a popular government, because when the disease appeared under despotisms and oligarchies, freedom was deemed the only and sufficient antidote. Experience, however, shows that in democracies it is no less menacing, for the personal interest of the average man in good government—and in a large democracy he feels himself insignificant— is overborne by the inducements which wealth, skilfully employed, can offer him; and when once the average man’s standard of public virtue has been lowered by the sight of numerous defections from virtue in others, great is the difficulty of raising it. In the United States the money power acts by corrupting sometimes the voter, sometimes the juror, sometimes the legislator, sometimes a whole party; for large subscriptions and promises of political support have been known to influence a party to procure or refrain from such legislation as wealth desires or fears. The rich, and especially great corporations, have not only enterprises to promote but dangers to escape from at the hands of unscrupulous demagogues or legislators. But whether their action has this palliation or not, the belief, often well grounded, that they exercise a secret power in their own interests, exasperates other sections of the community, and has been a factor in producing not only unwise legislation directed against them, but also outbreaks of lawless violence.
To these scattered observations, which I have made abrupt in order to avoid being led into repetitions, I need hardly add the general moral which the United States teach, that the masses of the people are wiser, fairer, and more temperate in any matter to which they can be induced to bend their minds than most European philosophers have believed it possible for the masses of the people to be; because this is the moral which the preceding chapters in public opinion have been intended to make clear. But the reader is again to be reminded that while the foregoing points are those in which American experience seems most directly available for European states, he must not expect the problems America has dealt with to reappear in Europe in the same forms. Such facts—to mention two only out of many—as the abundance of land and the absence of menace from other powers show how dissimilar are the conditions under which popular government works in the Eastern and Western Hemisphere. Instructive as American experience may be if discretely used, nothing will be more misleading to one who tries to apply it without allowing for the differences of economic and social environment.
 See Chapter 65.
 See Chapters 42 and 102.
 See Chapters 14, 19, 41, 44, and 45.
 See Chapters 18, 40, and 50.
 See Chapters 19 and 40.
 See Chapters 5, 10, and 12.
 See Chapters 23, 31, 35, and 37.
 See Chapter 39.
 See Chapters 48–52.
 See Chapters 110 and 111.
 See Chapters 59–65.
 See Chapters 58 and 74.
 Quivi trovammo Pluto il gran nemico: Inf. VI, 115.