America’s China Policy Is Not Working
The Dangers of a Broad Decoupling
MODERN DEMOCRACIES. BY JAMES VISCOUNT BRYCE. New York: Macmillan, 1921, 2 volumes.
READING "Modern Democracies" a score of years after it was written, one is impressed by how far from the direction then expected the political currents of the world have run. Lord Bryce thought that the new states formed by the disintegration of Austria, by the liberation of subject nationalities from Germany and Russia, and by the extension of self-government through the system of mandates to peoples hitherto ruled despotically or as dependencies of European countries, would greatly increase the number of democracies in the world. He saw clearly the defects of existing popular governments. But he thought that the new ones could learn much from the experience of the old.
To help in this direction he undertook to study the actual working of democracy, and especially the distortions produced by the excessive growth of political parties and by their interference in matters, like local administration, in which they have no proper function. Recognizing that a man who has taken an active part in a political system is disqualified for judging it, he said little about England; but -- with wide information gathered on the spot, and rare penetration -- he discussed political conditions in France, Switzerland, the United States and the British self-governing dominions. All this he did with singular detachment; for his book is by no means a propaganda for democracy. On the contrary, it is a scientific study of actual conditions in the different countries treated, and an examination of the causes of the imperfections revealed. Incidentally, he considered Switzerland the least defective, largely because the activity of parties there is least extended beyond its appropriate sphere.
Not less interesting, instructive and detached than his description of existing governments were his speculations on the general nature of democracy, its origins and probable future. Here he showed the same open-minded skepticism of generalizations as in his studies of actual systems. He observed that popular government has usually been sought, won and valued, not as a good thing in itself, but on account of grievances endured or benefits desired; and that when the objectives have been attained, the interest in popular government has tended to decline. In some cases, he said, democracy may spring from a theoretical belief in its propriety; but, if so, that faith will show signs of fading when the result is disappointing. He noted the reasons for the loss of interest in forms of government in the Roman Empire, both Eastern and Western, and added: "Who can say that what has happened once may not happen again?" Later, he enlarged upon the same theme in commenting upon the idea that although democracy had spread, and no country that had tried it showed (at that time) signs of forsaking it, we were not entitled to hold that it is the inevitable form of government. "If it be improbable," he wrote, "yet it is not unthinkable that as in many countries impatience with tangible evils substituted democracy for monarchy or oligarchy, a like impatience might some day reverse the process." Referring to the strength of the Conventions of the Constitution in Switzerland, he remarked that it was largely through such means that the complex constitution of the Roman Republic had been worked. Such conventions fare well, he wrote, so long as their moral authority lasts, but in the long run they break down if unduly strained. He added that they had largely lost their force in England.
He recorded visible marks of discouragement with popular governments. "In 1914," he said, "there were signs of decline . . . but nothing to indicate in any country either a wish to abandon democracy or the slightest prospect that anything would be gained thereby. Disappointment is expressed, complaints are made, but no permanent substitute has been suggested." He recited what some of these signs were. Everywhere, he said, one is told that there is less brilliant speaking in legislative bodies than formerly; that the best citizens are less disposed to enter them; that the respect for them has waned; and although, as he judiciously remarked, one discounted all this, the allegation was too general to be passed by. He attributed it to the spirit of democratic equality; to the size of constituencies; and to a loss of personal dignity in legislators. Politics, he observed, had become more of a game. Party discipline had become more strict. Platform speaking had lessened the part played by parliamentary debates, as had the newspapers and the work of political organizations. In the other parts of administration, he added, democracy showed signs of decay. Local government did not advance, the sphere of the central power was extending -- a natural result of changing economic and social conditions. And the larger the mass of citizens becomes, the more they tend to look to the executive, and especially to its head.
He recognized that the desire for self-government is by no means a universal trait in human nature. "When a people," he said, "allow an old-established government like that of the Tsars or the Manchus to be overthrown, it is because they resent its oppressions or despise its incompetence. But this does not mean that they wish to govern themselves. As a rule, that which the mass of any people desires is not to govern itself but to be well governed." To them, free institutions are artificial, regarded with indifference; and he quoted with approval de Tocqueville's remark that the love of equality is stronger than the love of liberty. Fraternity, he noted, had fallen out of sight. "This kind of Idealism has disappeared; it is material benefits that hold that place in the minds of the most recent advocates of change."
In fact, Lord Bryce saw very clearly the defects, the dangers and the uncertain future both of democracy and of the liberty that he loved; and he uttered something like a prophecy when he said: "There are times when under the pressure of some grave national crisis, such as a foreign or even perhaps a civil war, a nation resigns some of its liberties into the hands of the Executive, or adopts new methods of government calculated to strengthen its position in the world."
Democracy certainly has defects enough, some of them inherent, and others flowing from the way it is actually worked. An organization for industry, philanthropy or education managed like any of the large democratic governments would be doomed to fail. Imagine a bank, a factory or a university conducted on the principle of two parties, or a number of groups, one of which (or some combination of groups) directed affairs and strove to retain the control, while the other party (or another combination of groups) sought to take its place. Would not the waste energy, the diversion of power from attaining the institution's main objective to the struggle for its control, reduce the accomplishment far below that of a rival institution where the object of all the members was to agree and, by compromising differences, to make a common effort to achieve its purposes?
Moreover, while differences of opinion on public questions naturally arise, those which separate the parties in a large democracy do not accord with the natural division either on specific questions or in general tendencies of thought. In the main, these are really quantitative, not depending on whether something or nothing shall be done, but on how far to go in a given direction. Now, in such matters the divergencies of opinion normally follow the biological curve, the larger number of people being found near the center, diminishing toward the extremes, as in Figure 1; whereas in a democracy with two parties the division is as in Figure 2; and in a system of many independent groups (as in France) the division is like that in Figure 3, the dotted lines representing the actual, but ephemeral, combinations supporting the ministry at any particular time. It may be noted that the Swiss system comes nearer than any other to the biological curve; for although the legislature is elected by parties, and the executive by it, the legislature is not divided into a ruling party and an opposition, while the executive is a committee representing all the principal parties, the object of whose members is to agree.
The chief reason for the division of all large democracies into two or more parties lies in the exigency of elections; for in these unorganized opinion has no strength. When the American Constitution was adopted the view of Rousseau was generally accepted that no people in which parties existed could be truly free. They were called factions and were regarded as pernicious. The Framers did not foresee them; and they devised a method of selecting the President, which the parties when they arose turned quickly into a fifth wheel of the coach. Parties did the same thing more gradually to constitutional monarchs under an effective parliamentary system.
Parties have their evils; and as a friend of mine remarked long ago, the inherent defect of democracy is that it is no one's business to look after the interest of the public. Yet so long as the contending parties oscillate about the center of gravity of public opinion, the system, though irrational, works fairly well. But not when the parties are too far apart. Then one of them becomes dominant; the other irreconcilable, and therefore to be crushed, by force if necessary. In such a case the conventions on which democracy is based are undermined, and chief among them the assumption that the divergent aims of parties, though mutually repugnant, are universally tolerable. In other words, parties seeking to supplant one another in control of the state are possible in a democracy so long as all of them agree that rule by a rival is better than disorder, and any legal method of deciding who shall rule better than civil strife. A striking example was the Hayes-Tilden contested election in this country where, amid the complex and irregular reports of the returning boards, the decision on counting the votes was very probably wrong, but where the general sentiment was that any method of determination was preferable to fighting. It is the obvious duty of every government, and especially of the party in power in a democracy, to avoid, if possible, carrying any policy so far as to weaken that sentiment or impair the conviction that the decision of the nation, legally made, ought to be obeyed and is better than strife. For the alternative is autocracy or civil war, and the belief on the part of any large fraction of a people that its government is autocratic tends to make it so.
Before seeking the causes of the recent rise of autocratic governments one must consider the conditions of the countries involved -- how far they have been similar and how much they have differed. These countries were not alike in being all victors or all vanquished in the World War; for while Russia and Germany were defeated, Italy and Japan certainly were not. They differed also in their historic, political and cultural traditions. In fact, it would be hard to select any four peoples more unlike in these respects than those just named. Nor were they alike in their aspirations, as we see today in the sharp antagonism between the Communism of Russia and the Fascism of the rest.
On the other hand, there were strong points of resemblance. None of them had enjoyed a successful democracy -- and here we are speaking of substance not form, for some of them had more or less ineffective popular institutions. And it is noteworthy that none of them is now wholly autocratic in form or in theory. The Statuto of Italy set up a parliamentary system, but it had become too feeble to cope with the prevalent disorders at the time of the Fascist march on Rome. Under the German monarchy the popularly elected Reichstag, though very influential, had by no means obtained the control of the government, and the Weimar Constitution was still experimental. Japan had not attained a consistent popular régime; Russia never had more than aspirations; while the Austrian and Russian succession states had just escaped from a condition of more or less subjection, and the Balkan countries had not long emerged from the same status. In all of them the conditions were somewhat chaotic, or at least unsettled; the older forms of government having either been destroyed or proved inept for coping with the problems following the war. Moreover, they had all been accustomed to strict subjection to military rule, not only in the army as in former wars, but as regards a large part of the civilians in much of their conduct and as regards all in some parts of their daily life. It is noteworthy that none of the European states that remained neutral -- except Spain, where the issue is still in doubt -- has shown a disposition to become autocratic in its form of government.
It is interesting to observe that the growth of autocratic rule has been associated with an increased interest in material welfare, a desire for a larger share of the world's goods both between the different elements in the population, and as against other peoples; nor should this be astonishing. Something of the kind has been observed after other great wars. The Napoleonic Wars were followed in France by an era when men turned their attention to amassing wealth. After the Civil War in the United States, the youth thought that having abolished slavery the time was at hand for removing all other human ills; but what actually came was the Tweed Ring in New York -- the most barefaced corruption in the history of the country. It came because men were so occupied in restoring their own affairs that they had little time for public matters. This is perfectly normal. I remember in the last year of the World War a friend, who had a gallant son in the fight, saying that the young men had been raised to such a pitch of devotion that they would live on a higher plane than we had ever done; and I fear that I shocked him terribly by replying that this war, like every other, would be followed by an era of materialism. It is natural, because, like any physical strain, a great moral effort produces moral lassitude, in an individual and not less markedly in a people; and with the growth of organizations, of the power of united action for a common end, one may expect material objects to bulk large in national impulses. There is no novelty in the remark that the danger in the future lies less in individual than in coöperative selfishness.
Even by the time Lord Bryce wrote, law, instead of being a thing divine or natural in origin, and therefore in essence immutable, had become a matter of conscious human manufacture, and hence to be made for the benefit of the makers. This has reduced the sense of permanence of law, and with it the sense of the rights, the obligations and the institutions which it has created. It has become arbitrary, to be remodeled both from philanthropic and selfish motives, and such an attitude toward it has obviously tended to increase the amount of regulation of human relations everywhere and in all matters. Men in control of legislation feel that they have a mission and an opportunity to enact laws for the benefit of those who need them, of those whose votes they need, and of themselves; and in practice it is difficult to distinguish between these motives even in the minds of the makers. But the result is an enormous increase in the amount of legislation, with a diminution in its moral authority. Not unnaturally, the same attitude has arisen in regard to international law, save that, there being no body authorized to enact it, the result is simply a lessening of respect for it and for the obligations it prescribes. This brings us to the question why the countries where these tendencies are most pronounced should have adopted autocratic forms of government.
The answer is that it was the only form they could adopt. In democracies there can be a peaceful change of the party in power within the framework of the government, because that is what modern democracy means. The loyal party opposition, which assumes the responsibility of ruling when a change of popular opinion occurs, is the great political invention of the last two centuries, and the essential principle of democracy on a large scale. But in countries where such a procedure is unknown, or the changes desired are too great, a shift of the ruling group must involve force -- or the fear and threat of it -- and therefore more or less autocratic methods. There can be no immediate reversion to a limited government after the conventions of constitutional procedure have been destroyed, for their destruction means rule by force in contrast to rule by general consent.
To put the matter in a different form: The crops have failed, kill the King! Economic distress causes discontent with the government. If a change of the party in power is customary, that may be enough to relieve the pressure; if not, a change in the form of the government itself may come. And such a change, being extra-legal, is highly likely to take the form of an autocracy that professes to bring more effective administration and prosperity. The French Revolution soon drifted into that road, and so have other political convulsions. But such a government has two dangers: first, it must, in order to endure, be economically and financially successful; and second it has usually no method of self-perpetuation. It is apt to be too largely based upon confidence in an individual who has nothing corresponding to the divine or customary right of a King, and who is a personality, not an institution. To speak of Russia or Japan in this regard would require a treatise by a scholar familiar with their conditions; but autocratic rule in Germany and Italy is apparently personal, and in the smaller countries where it exists it is subject to changes by intrigue rather than at the dictates of public sentiment.
However this may be, a system so established clearly cannot abide opposition. It must be militant and intolerant, because a changeable popular consent as a criterion of rightfulness has been obliterated. Ultimately all government is based upon the consent of those forces in the state that have power to maintain or change it; and, except for the use of armed force, that means a general consent, not to particular measures, but to the method of determining where that power shall lie, or a consent so nearly general that those who do not agree are for practical purposes impotent. This is the basis of any commonwealth. In a democracy the possibility of change in the persons in power and in the policy to be pursued is essential, for without that it would wholly lose its character. But an autocrat is the State, whose policy is assumed to be approved by the bulk of the people; any opposition must be directed against the State itself, and is therefore treasonable. That opposition must be suppressed; and to prevent its gathering headway all information about public affairs should emanate from the public authorities who know the facts. They choose such parts of the facts as they want popularly known, and by censorship of the press and exclusive control of the radio regulate the distribution of news. In all countries, democratic as well as autocratic, freedom of speech and publication is much restrained in practice during a war which calls for the utmost exertions of the people. In the former this is relaxed as soon as peace returns. But never can it be wholly abandoned by autocratic rulers without peril to their existence; and one excuse for its continuance now is that the world is still living under the terror of another general war.
The terror of another war, and the shadow of the one that is past! -- for, since the ultimatum to Serbia, moral changes have come over the world. Shrinking from the infliction of suffering and death seems to have decreased in many countries. There has been a wane of belief in religion and in natural rights, a general decline in the sanctity of contract, and therewith of all other obligations, accompanied by a loss of mutual confidence among individuals and in international relations. These were the strands of which the fabric of civilization was woven, and one may well wonder how they will be restored or what will take their place.
The scope of human contacts seems to be contracting, the manifold loyalties of civilization to be compressed. One of the marked differences between the mediæval and modern world has been the great increase in points of contact among men, and each of these, in order to fructify, should give rise to a sentiment of fidelity, not inappropriately termed a loyalty. They relate to one's family, one's friends, one's neighborhood, one's church, one's party, one's nation, one's profession, one's business associates, one's comrades in every adventure, intellectual and philanthropic, and so on indefinitely. Such loyalties sometimes conflict, but less so than one might expect, because a principal aim of modern civilization has been to permit their coexistence; for the peaceful growth of highly complicated societies among men depends upon the strength of many independent loyalties in individuals. This gives the richness of personal, social and moral life.
Now the natural effect of the Great War was to subordinate or suppress some of these loyalties by the intensity of the effort for victory; so that the peace found the world poorer in the range of its loyalties, both in personal and international relations, and left those that remained more intense and more conflicting. Such a condition has not unnaturally fostered a tendency to make governments strive to keep the peace among inharmonious loyalties, and in autocratic countries to make loyalty to the State supreme over all others, which in fact become valued chiefly as they relate thereto. Yet with the growing interdependence of all mankind a multiplicity of loyalties is more important than ever for the world. The effect of war in the limiting of loyalties seems evident. Perhaps the effect of the limiting of loyalties in causing war may become obvious also.
Interesting questions about the future force themselves insistently on every inquiring mind. That the world will not return to its condition before the war may be assumed; but that does not imply an indefinite continuance of the present state of affairs. How far can we assume that autocratic government is the cause of an aggressive foreign policy, and how far a result of it? Is the rivalry between the "Haves" and the "Have Nots" in international relations genuine, or mainly a cry to interest and quiet peoples suffering from economic distress? What do the nations that have colonies with a lower civilization get out of them? Not revenues! Germany never made a profit out of her colonies, and is not likely to do so if they were returned. Nor, so far as one can see, does it seem probable that Italy will find Abyssinia profitable. Great Britain is getting less and less from India. She never received a direct revenue, but she obtained a market there for her manufactures, and occupation for her educated young men. Both of these are declining. France and England have drawn soldiers from their dependencies -- a not too reliable resource. As for access to raw materials, in time of peace a nation can, as a rule, buy them if it can pay for them; and in time of war no nation can procure them that cannot command a military access to them by land or sea.
Is all this shifting of values and of decline in permanent convictions the result of forces that would have come into operation in any case, a change merely hastened by the war and therefore permanent? Or is it a product of the war and hence ephemeral? Or is it in part, and in what part, both? If not wholly permanent, when, how and to what extent will the process be reversed? If permanent, is the world to go back to a less civilized stage, or is there in store a high civilization of some sort, with a different basis for mutual confidence among men? That came in the case of the Roman Empire through a universal government which the world will not at present accept. More likely is a general recognition that the interest of all lies in mutual respect, giving what one would take and accepting what one would give. But before the opportunity for that comes, are we in for a desperate destruction of peoples and institutions, leaving wounds that may never heal? There has been an enormous increase in the effectiveness of modern weapons. Is universal destructiveness the final gift of the physical sciences to man?