THE SUBJECT I have been asked to treat is as vast and complex as any that has occupied the mind in relation to human affairs. It will engage men's thoughts and fill the time of publicists and historians as long as life endures upon this planet. Anything that one can write about it briefly must be fragmentary and superficial—at best a touching of a few obvious points, like the description by an aviator of the life in a great city gathered from a flight over its dwellings, temples and skyscrapers, with a vague glimpse of the throngs in the streets.

We are, no doubt, nearer to a time when a rough estimate of the working of democracy can be made than we were in the past, because the extension of the suffrage to all adult men and women has reached its limit in several large nations. Heretofore, sanguine folks among the discontented could always attribute the defects they saw to the lack of representation of some element in the people. But now we are all aboard the ship, elect our officers, vote on the course to be taken, and hope it will bring us to the harbor we long to reach. We are not all agreed upon the precise harbor, and none of us are expert navigators; but we trust that we are learning how to steer and whither we are bound. At any rate, in a complete democracy no one can complain that he has not a chance to be heard. In that sense democracy has come of age, and its qualities and temperament can at least be estimated.

On the other hand, the whole world is in a state of hysteria caused by the nervous strain of the World War, which was followed here by the intoxication of unusual prosperity, and then everywhere by the harassing uncertainty of the depression. All of these are perfectly natural consequences of the war; but they indicate material and mental states quite out of the ordinary. It is not fair to rate the soundness of a man's judgment by his behavior when fighting, when drunk, or when scared. Nor can we measure democracy by events that occur under highly abnormal conditions. When President Harding told the country to return to normalcy he was urging what did not—and as we now see could not—take place; for human nature being as it is, speculation and inflated prices followed by a collapse were almost inevitable. He proved to be as mistaken a prophet as President Wilson was when he said that we were fighting in the war to make the world safe for democracy; for three of the largest nations engaged have since repudiated popular government altogether, two of them on the side of the victors, and one of the vanquished. None of them had, indeed, enjoyed it very long; one never had it, and all three accepted autocratic control under circumstances so peculiar that their action throws little light on our own prosperity or on the future of democracy. More ominous, in some ways, is the grant, under the stress of economic suffering and perplexity, of extraordinary powers to the Executive here in time of peace. Does this indicate a tendency that is likely to be permanent, or is it the result of conditions that will pass away? Constant improvements in machinery, the greater efficiency of labor, the concentration of industry, commerce and banking in huge groups directed by a few men, have caused an increase of control by the government, and an expansion of the bureaucracy that carries it out. But will these changes undermine the basic principles of democracy as they have been understood and practiced in most of the progressive countries?

The ancients taught that in the nature of things democracy is replaced by autocracy; this, in turn, by aristocracy, yielding again to democracy; and so the circle goes on like the phases of the moon. This rotation is altogether too simple. We must approach the question from a different angle. Democracy certainly will not be effaced by the stronger attraction of some conflicting political theory; for history records few cases where vigorous institutions have been destroyed by force or influence outside themselves. They first became enfeebled by apathy, or by failure to keep abreast of existing conditions, and their death is more akin to suicide than murder, although there may be violent scenes at the end. The life of democracy will depend upon its fruits. If they are good it will endure; if not, it will pass into the crowded sepulchre of well-meant experiments. We may ask, therefore, to what extent the benefits and defects that we associate with democracy have resulted from it; how far they have been due to other social causes that have in turn helped to promote it; how far they are all the product of a common movement; and how far its effects tend to its permanence or discredit. These are huge questions not to be encompassed here; but one may take two or three examples of things better and worse as exploratory specimens.

To begin with the good. One of the most obvious is the growth of philanthropy, which certainly has accompanied democracy. But did it result therefrom? It was in the air of Europe before democracy arose. Frenchmen throughout the eighteenth century were talking about it; monarchs—notably Frederick II of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria—were putting it into practice. This was what the late Professor H. Morse Stephens called the age of the benevolent despots. In England, Howard brought about the reform of the prisons toward the end of the same century, while Clarkson and Wilberforce were striving to abolish the English slave-trade, a reform that was finally accomplished more than a score of years before the first Reform Bill extended the suffrage. The fact is that both philanthropy and democracy had a common base in an enlargement of human sympathy, although the former grew and spread in countries where the other did not take root until a later period.

The same is true of another benefit we associate with popular government—that of universal opportunity for education supported by taxation. Free public schools of this kind began at nearly the same time in New England, which was essentially democratic, in Scotland, which was far less so, and in Prussia under monarchy of a distinctly despotic type. The system has spread over all the progressive countries, but by no means in proportion to their democratic tendencies, and, in fact, it was carried out in England later than in Germany. These two examples suffice to show that benefits apparently allied with a form of government may not be caused thereby, but may be due to a tone of thought deeper seated than the particular type of polity by which they are administered.

To turn to the defects with which democracy is charged. Critics in its early stages dreaded the tyranny of the majority, believing it would submerge the influence of the more refined elements of society; and Sir Henry Maine portrayed the statesman listening nervously at a telephone for the dictates of a lower intelligence. No doubt there was some foundation for these fears; yet experience has shown that a far greater danger lies in the power of organized minorities subordinating the general welfare to their own purposes. The late Edward J. Lowell remarked as the characteristic defect of democracy that it was no one's business to look after the interest of the public. Power tends to fall into the hands of the skillful organizer, and the country is filled with bodies seeking to attain their ends—sometimes philanthropic but more often selfish—by means of organized pressure. The glory of a free government lies in the liberty of speech, of assembly and of concerted action; and on the other hand, every despotism strives to suppress all criticism and all organizations not its own. Witness the policy of Napoleon III, of Mussolini, of the Soviets and of Hitler. Yet, precious as it is, the right to organize for political objects may entail evils, which have become sadly evident in some democracies; and they tend to increase with the enlargement of governmental control, a tendency inevitable and requiring ever greater wisdom and justice in those entrusted with authority.

But is this danger confined to politics? Is not the same tendency obvious in commercial life with its huge corporate bodies seeking to rule a whole industry? Does it not lurk in trade unions also? Is it not a result of the present condition of society with its highly complex structure and ease of communication? A greater peril today lies in corporate than in personal selfishness, for it is obscured by a sense of devotion to something beyond one's self. In fact, a limited loyalty to a body of which one is a member is often more potent than respect for the general welfare. The Middle Ages bequeathed to later times a tradition of forming associations within the state and largely independent of it, with the result that modern society is filled, to an extent the ancient world was not, with innumerable distinct groups each demanding loyalty to itself, until everyone is distracted by their conflicting claims—the smaller often having the stronger pull, as the moon has more effect than the sun upon the tides. To see how strong such a tendency is we may look at a community in which the desire for personal advantage is as nearly absent as possible, and yet divergent collective interests are by no means absent. Anyone familiar with the internal anatomy of a university knows how often the general welfare pales in the presence of departmental ambition.

Democracy is charged with sins of a darker tint, but are they peculiar to those who hold the strings of the public purse? Have not some managers of large commercial companies made profits by inside knowledge and manipulation that might have accrued to the stockholders? Is there no favoritism in appointments and contracts of the kind that in politics is called graft? If a city official knowing of operations likely to enhance the value of a piece of land buys it from an owner who does not know of them, what should we think? But is this different from a director's buying stock, which he has reason to know will rise in price, from a stockholder who is selling without the knowledge the director has obtained as his trusted representative? If a retiring mayor who has caused the city heavy loss, whether innocently or not, were to be voted and paid by the city council a large pension for life, might not the members of that body expiate their error in jail? In short, is the fiduciary obligation of public officials to the citizens different in kind or degree from that of officers of companies to their stockholders? It is difficult to prevent politicians from making a profit, directly or indirectly, for themselves or their friends, out of their positions, when some men prominent in business do likewise uncensured and uncondemned. Nor can we fairly attribute to democracy evils tolerated in commercial life.

Right and wrong have always existed and always will. A lack of probity in public life is no new thing. When Alexander Hamilton resigned as Secretary of the Treasury, saying he could not support his family on the salary, Talleyrand, then in America, remarked that a minister of state who retired, giving that as his reason, must be a little simple ("un peu niais"). In most countries at that time peculation by public officials was common. Enthusiasts thought democracy would abolish it; but no form of government can wholly change human nature, or eradicate the temptation to do wrong. There are multitudes of men holding responsible positions in both public and private life who have not bowed the knee to Baal. In fact there is certainly less corruption among office-holders now than there was in Europe in the eighteenth century, but popular forms of government will hardly be rid of it until a higher standard is exacted on the street, and those who violate it are socially tabooed.

Another defect attributed to democracies is that they are said to be proverbially fickle, and the example of the Prohibition Amendment to our Constitution gives the foreigner a good case for a gibe. It was ratified by the several states with only two dissentients, and now, a decade and a half later, it is repealed with two states so far voting against it. Such a change of opinion, or lack of foresight, is clearly a reproach; but we must remember that the Amendment was adopted in the stress of war, and repealed when the public mind was in agitation because of the depression. In the course of history our people have shown themselves by no means unstable or fickle. Mistakes have been made which had to be corrected; but so they have been under every form of government. Yet, one whose life has been prolonged may have observed a greater lack of general personal independence than in the past. Men seem more sensitive to current opinion, more prone to yield to clamor, less ready to assert their own convictions, more dependent upon the support of others, of a party or a group, than formerly. At least that is the impression of one observer; and if this impression is correct it is another instance where democracy is charged with a lack of stability and of tenacious convictions that has in fact a wider social origin.

Speaking of democracy at Birmingham when Minister to England, nearly fifty years ago, James Russell Lowell referred to the syllogism, democracy, anarchy, despotism, and said: "But this formula was framed upon the experience of small cities shut up to stew within their narrow walls, where the number of citizens made but an inconsiderable fraction of the inhabitants, where every passion was reverberated from house to house and from man to man with gathering rumor till every impulse became gregarious and therefore inconsiderate, and every popular assembly needed but an infusion of eloquent sophistry to turn it into a mob, all the more dangerous because sanctified with the formality of law." When the address was later published he added in a footnote, "The effect of the electric telegraph in reproducing this trooping of emotion and perhaps of opinion is yet to be measured." The surmise was in the nature of a prophecy. The telegraph, the telephone, and still more the radio and the movie, have profoundly affected social attitudes. Millions of people who by these inventions can now listen to a man's voice are nearly in the position of the thousand who could hear Cleon in the Athenian Assembly; much more so than were the former rural citizens of America who received news slowly and must take time to discuss it with their neighbors. Among our forebears opinion ripened slowly, and the impressions formed lay deep and stable. Now such mechanical devices have made the whole people urban in temperament, and the result has been to foster the qualities Lowell ascribed to the people of the Greek cities. If this is true, the primary cause, again, is not democracy, but the advance of applied science; although this in turn may have its influence on popular and all other forms of government. Perhaps, on the whole, electric communication and the fits of emotion that it causes are less dangerous where the Executive holds office for a fixed term than where it is at the mercy of a legislature—save in a case like that of Great Britain where party allegiance is so firm that the majority in the House of Commons is effectively controlled by the cabinet.

For one grievous failure democracy cannot escape blame, and that is the misgovernment in our large cities. It is the glaring defect of this country. Ever since the Civil War reformers have studied the question, new devices have been tried, spasmodic revolts against the domination of the spoilers have occurred; but the evils have returned and no enduring cure has been found as yet. The ill appears to be chronic. There must be something wrong in a structure where the function so constantly goes astray. One would suppose that the people would feel the heavy burden of taxation borne by industry, and the handicap it lays on competition with the rest of the world. But the greater number do not perceive its effect on themselves; and those with the strongest desire to do good are often more anxious to increase expenditure for their special objects than they are about the condition of the public finances.

Moreover, the theory of democracy tacitly assumes a tolerably homogeneous population, and this is least true of huge cities, especially in America where the foreign elements are large. In other countries democratic doctrines, or what pass here for such, are not applied to city government so relentlessly as they are with us. In England, for example, men carrying on business in a borough vote there in municipal elections although they live outside its limits; but in America this is deemed contrary to the principles of popular government. That a man should vote in two places at state and national elections obviously violates the postulate of equality, because it would give him two votes for one office; but it is illogical that a man who carries on business in a town, pays taxes there, and is deeply affected by its prosperity, should be excluded from any part in its administration because he is also a voter in another community wholly independent, and with no possible conflict of interests. It is like urging that if one belongs to a lunch club, a golf club, a charitable society, etc., he should, according to the strict tenet that all men are equal, have a vote in only one of them. Democracy no less than other political principles has absurdities committed in its name. If it ever should come to an untimely end some future historian with a Tory temperament, and the literary style of Macaulay, will make merry at its expense.

Save for the failures in municipal government the merits and defects attributed to democracy in the United States seem to be due less to its own inherent limitations than to the social conditions of the time. The defects might, of course, so distort that form of government as to make it impracticable in the distant future, but only exaggerated alarm can see so dark a cloud on the horizon now; and, in the meantime, we need borrow no fear from what is happening in other countries in very different situations. Democracy will endure or vanish here according to its capacity to deal with our own problems. No form of government ever has been, or ever will be, a panacea for all human ills; and it is mischievous to search for one instead of improving what we have. If democracy should succumb it will not be followed, so far as the future can be foreseen, by a return to an aristocracy, a limited monarchy, or a privileged order of any kind. The alternative is autocracy wielded by a ruler, elected or self-chosen, who will inevitably place restraints upon liberty, not in industry alone, but before long on the free expression of opinion, and the right of combination; for autocracy cannot live in the presence of organized opposition. In Russia, Italy and Germany the objects proclaimed are very different, in fact contradictory; yet in all three autocracy has suppressed all political groups that it has not set up itself, and among them the trade unions. No one can assert positively that this cannot happen here; but such a breach with the past, such an abrupt departure from the line of our progress hitherto, is highly improbable.

We have glanced at a few of the obvious merits and defects associated in men's minds with the experiment of a people striving to rule themselves; but, after all, the supreme test of excellence in a government is not order, economic prosperity or even justice. These are, of course, essential in any good system. Yet there is another matter more profound, more significant for the future—that is the character a polity tends to create in the citizens by whom it must be sustained. In short, we may assert that the best government in the long run is one that nurtures a people strong in moral fibre, in integrity, industry, self-reliance and courage. Does democracy, as we know it, do this? The question cannot, of course, be answered with any certainty, and people will answer it differently according to their prepossessions and experiences. Some will meet it with the counter question, would any other system do better? But that is like asking if you had a brother would he like cheese? Our question is that of the Sphinx, difficult to solve, yet inexorable for the welfare of the people to whom it is addressed.

Let us put the matter in a somewhat different way. The duration of any form of government depends upon how far it develops a people qualified to carry it on, and how successfully it brings to the front those most fit to lead. It would be interesting to study governments from that point of view to see what effect they had upon the temperament of their citizens, and to what type of men they gave rise. Let us take a few examples from the ancient and mediæval times. Democratic Athens produced more great thinkers in proportion to the population than any other community ever did; but failed to inculcate the political stability needed to endure. Republican Rome, until her conquests changed the nature of her problem, produced few thinkers, but fostered a patriotic, cohesive loyalty that made her the eventual mistress of the known world; and under the Empire she evolved a system of law and administration that proved as masterful over later times as the thinking of the Greek philosophers. Judged by order, contentment, prosperity and duration, the government of Venice—a rather large and intelligent oligarchy—must be rated among the most successful in history. But to draw any valid conclusions from such instances is futile, for the number of factors that enter into the problem is so great that to trace the effect of anyone cause is well-nigh hopeless. In the larger nations this is even more true because the elements at work are still more numerous. History is a great teacher, but people are more apt to learn from it what it does not teach than to take warning from that which is written plainly on its pages. But we may repeat our question thus: Does democracy tend to produce a people disposed to place the general welfare above partial interests, a people with keen sympathy and absence of jealousy between classes, with the will to bear present ills for future good, with foresight and fortitude; and does it select for its representatives and magistrates men who possess these qualities in a high degree? If it does these things the squalls that arise will not disturb its foundations, and it will stand unshaken though storms may rage in other lands. So far as it does not do this the iron of its feet is mixed with miry clay.

The superficial will seek the solution in education, looking to courses in the public schools on the duties of citizens. We trust too much to formal instruction, whereas didactic ethical teaching is by itself of little value, as may be observed in the attempt to promote temperance by compulsory exposition—scientifically inaccurate—of the effects of alcohol. The newly appointed head of a Central American university once asked the writer what we did in regard to classes on civic duty. The reply was that we have little confidence in them; but strive to give to the students an actual sense of obligation for the welfare of the community of which they are members, trusting that they will carry the sentiment into the larger commonwealth to which they will afterwards belong. Virtue is learned by practising it; and is not the next best thing to learn it vicariously in the lives of heroic men and women?

A few years ago the writer was at a luncheon where were present three ambassadors and three presidents of colleges, two of them for men and one for women. The ambassadors were disturbed by the tone of popular thought, fearing that things were going from bad to worse; but the college presidents all declared that the youth, as they saw it, was sound. In spite of economic depression, of gangsters, of holdups by some young fellows, of instances of dishonesty, for me that opinion outweighs many doubts.

Have I only been asking questions? That is all I meant to do; and yet, while we cannot answer them, it is well to keep them in our minds, because we can answer them in action if not in words. We can cultivate and encourage those qualities that are essential to all that is most worth while in the life of a great people; and if they do not prove incompatible with democracy and liberty these will endure and fructify.

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  • A. LAWRENCE LOWELL, President Emeritus of Harvard University, author of "The Government of England" and other works
  • More By A. Lawrence Lowell