IT is not always that there is a direct relation between the sound and fury of language and its real meaning, but such imposing words as the Initiative, the Referendum, and the Recall do not indicate innovations of a light and trifling kind in the character of our institutions. As the doctrines which they convey are practiced in some of the states of the Union, and as they are proposed for adoption in other states, they involve no less than a radical change in our method of government. In effect, they propose the substitution of direct for representative government, the establishment of the direct action of the people, not merely in selecting their agents, but in framing and executing their laws.
To most of us the proposals are full of novelty, and it is not too much to say that, as a people, we have given them no consideration worthy of the name. Have we explored the past to learn whether similar experiments have been tried; and, if tried, what has been the effect? Have we reflected upon the obvious limitations upon the utterance by great masses of men of final and definite regulations for the conduct of a complex society? Have we considered to what extent the most doubtful results under our present structure of government are due to the overzeal of representatives to respond to the transient and noisy, and often misleading, manifestations of popular opinion, and to their failure to act bravely as the instruments, not of the people’s passions, but of their interests, and to require them to select other agents, if they shall insist upon the doing of wrong?
At the threshold of the discussion we encounter the usual epithets. The advocates of change are apt to seek popular favor by decorating themselves and their proposed innovation with some lofty adjective, and in a similar fashion to cover their opponents with obloquy. The quality assumed by the proponents of one or all of this trinity of reforms they express in the word ‘progressive.’ They are advocating ‘progressive’ methods of government, while those who disagree with them stand for reactionary methods. ‘Progressive’ is an alluring word. Everybody believes in progress if it be of the proper kind, and a due amount of vociferation on the part of those claiming a monopoly of the virtue may serve to banish skepticism as to the kind. But if the question were to be settled by epithets, there is some ground at least for asserting that they should be transposed in their application. Representative government is comparatively modern; direct government of the democratic kind is ancient; and the latter was deliberately discarded for the former by the founders of our government. I will not cite such a statesman as Madison, not because the heavy debt which the cause of free and regulated popular government owes him can ever be discharged, but because in the passionate rhetoric of the self-styled Progressives, he is set down as a reactionary. I will choose an authority who still remains above suspicion, and will take the author of the Declaration of Independence, which even to-day is considered radical in its democracy. In speaking of ‘the equal rights of man,’ Thomas Jefferson declared that —
‘Modern times have the signal advantage, too, of having discovered the only device by which these rights can be secured, to wit, — government by the people, acting not in person, but by representatives chosen by themselves.’
The framers of the Constitution were entirely familiar with the failure of direct democracy in the government of numerous populations, and they were influenced by their knowledge of that failure in devising our own structure of republican government. It is now proposed to abandon the discovery of modern times, to which Jefferson referred, and which he declared to be the only method by which rights can be secured, and to put in its stead the discarded device of the ancients. Who, then, are the reactionaries: those who are opposed to the substitution of direct for representative government and are in favor of the progressive principles of the American Constitution, or the supporters of direct government who advocate the return to the reactionary policies which thousands of years ago demonstrated their destructive effect upon the government of any considerable populations? It does not follow that to be a reactionary is to be wrong The wise reactionary may sometimes preserve the government of a state, and even its civilization. Whether the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall embody sound political principles must be determined by other tests. But their advocates should not masquerade. If they choose to attach to themselves any label, they should frankly spread upon their banner the word ‘reactionary.’
The framers of our Constitution were endeavoring to establish a government which should have sway over a great territory and a population already large and which they knew would rapidly increase. They were about to consummate the most democratic movement that had ever occurred on a grand scale in the history of the world. They well knew from the experiments of the past the inevitable limitations upon direct democratic government, and, being statesmen as well as democrats, they sought to make their government enduring by guarding against the excesses which had so often brought, popular governments to destruction. They established a government which Lincoln called ‘of the people, by the people, for the people,’ and in order effectively to create it they adopted limitations which would make its continued existence possible. They knew that, if the governmental energy became too much diluted and dissolved, the evils of anarchy would result, and that there would follow a reaction to the other extreme, with the resulting overthrow of popular rights. They saw clearly the line over which they might not pass in pretended devotion to the democratic idea without establishing government of the demagogue, by the demagogue, and for the demagogue, with the recoil in favor of autocracy sure speedily to follow; for they knew that the men of the race from which they sprang would not long permit themselves to be the victims of misgovernment, and that they would prefer even autocracy to a system under which the great ends of government should not be secured, or should be perverted.
We are in danger of forgetting the essential purpose of government: that it is not an end but a means, that the people do not exist for the government but that government exists for the people. The idolatry of government, or of its institutions, has been as debasing and injurious as any idolatry that has ever afflicted mankind. It has frequently been the agent of gross and wholesale oppression; it has frequently been the means by which the many have been kept in servitude and subjection; and, until the establishment of our own system, the governments have been few which have had for their chief purpose to safeguard and protect the individual, and hold over him the shield of law, so that he might be secure in his life, his liberty, the fruits of his labor, and in his right as an equal member of the state.
And when I speak of the individual, I mean the chief thing that is essential in the meaning of the term ‘ the people.’ I do not accept the latter term in the sense in which it is so often sweetly used by those who desire our votes. I am unable to see how any good, coming to a mass of men, can be felt in any other way than by the individuals in the mass. And until somebody shall point out a higher consciousness than that of the individual man or woman or child, he can hardly be heard to deny that the individual man or woman or child is the ultimate concern of the state.
The notion that there is a collective personality called ‘the people,’ separated from the individuals who compose it, and which may be used to oppress each one and all of its component parts in turn, may well have been a conception of the Greek demagogues by whom it was so fittingly illustrated in practice. I cannot understand how there can be any freedom that is not in the last analysis individual freedom. However great a mass of men you may have in a nation, however powerful physically it may be, if each individual is the victim of oppression, if he is denied rights, if there is no forum open to him, where he can be heard to say against the majority, ‘This is mine,’ — then ‘the people’ have no such thing as liberty, they have no such thing as popular rights. As to the ‘composite citizen,’ he obviously is nobody who ever has existed, or ever will exist. When the advocates of a reform, ignoring the man of flesh and blood in the street, are conducting their operations with reference to this mythical person, they should emigrate to Utopia.
Is it for the interest of the individual members of our society to have the great mass of us pass upon the intricate details of legislation, to execute our laws and to administer justice between man and man? That I believe to be in substance the question raised by the Initiative, the Referendum, and the Recall, as they are now practically applied in at least one of the states of the Union, the example of which is held up as a model to the other states. With an infinitesimal responsibility, with only one vote in a million, how seriously would each one of us feel called upon to withdraw from his own private pursuits and to explore in all their details the complicated questions of government? It would be imposing an impossible task, scattered as we are and unable to take common counsel, to require us in the mass to direct the work of government.
First, with regard to the Initiative. In our legislation the work of investigation and of perfecting details is of such great difficulty that proposed laws are distributed among various committees, which are charged with the duty of considering their exact terms. The legislative body as a whole, although its members are paid for doing the work, cannot safely assume to pass upon the intricate questions of legislation without investigation by committees selected with reference to their fitness for the task. The proposed law as perfected by a committee is brought before the representative assembly and it is there again discussed and subjected to criticism, both as to policy and form, and in this open discussion defects often appear which require amendment, and sometimes the defeat of the bill. And even with these safeguards laws often find their way upon the statute-books which are not best adapted to secure the purposes even of their authors.
But what would be the procedure under the Initiative? In Oregon a law may be initiated upon a petition of eight per cent of the voters, and it then goes to the people upon the question of its final enactment without the intervention of any legislature. Some man has a beautiful general idea for the advancement of mankind, but beautiful general ideas are exceedingly difficult to put into statutory form so that they may become the rule of conduct for a multitude of men. Another man may have some selfish project, which, like most selfish projects, may be concealed under specious words. The beautiful idea or the selfish scheme is written by its author in the form of law, and he proceeds to get the requisite number of signers to a petition. With a due amount of energy and the payment of canvassers, these signatures can be secured by the carload, and the proposed law then goes to the people for enactment, and the great mass of us, on the farm, on the hillside, and in the city, proceed to take the last step in making a law which nine out of ten of us have never read. And this is called securing popular rights and giving the people a larger share in their government!
The people, at the election in Oregon held in 1910, passed upon proposed laws which filled a volume of two hundred pages, and they passed upon them all in a single day, each voter recording his verdict at the polling booth upon both the candidates and the proposed laws. In the ordinary legislative body, made up of no different material from that of which the people are composed, an important question may be considered for a day, or even for a week; and then, with the arguments fresh in their minds, the legislators record their votes upon the single measure. What a delightful jumble we should have if forty different statutes were voted upon in the space of a half-hour by the members of a humdrum legislature!
Of course, one must be cautious about expressing a doubt that the people in their collective capacity can accomplish impossibilities. You may say of an individual that he should have some special preparation before he attempts to set a broken arm or perform a delicate operation upon the eye. But if you say that of all of us in a lump, some popular tribune will denounce you. And yet there is ground for the heretical suspicion, admitting that each one of the people may have in him the making of a great legislator, that there should be one simple prerequisite which he should observe in order to be any sort of a legislator at all. He should first read or attempt to understand the provisions of a bill before solemnly enacting it into law. One can scarcely be accused of begging the question to say that the voters would not read a whole volume of laws before voting upon them. The slightest knowledge of human nature would warrant that assertion.
How many even of the most intelligent of our people, of college professors, of ministers, read the statutes that have already been passed and that are to govern their conduct? Even lawyers are not apt to read them generally, but in connection with particular cases. But if some proof were necessary, one has only to cite some of the Oregon laws. For example, there are two methods of pursuing the salmon fisheries in the Columbia River: in the lower and sluggish waters of the stream, fishing is done by the net; and in the upper waters by the wheel. The net fishermen desired to prohibit fishing by the wheel, and they procured sufficient signatures and initiated a law having that object in view. On the other hand, the wheel fishermen at the same time wished to restrict fishing by the net, and they initiated a law for that purpose. Both laws went before the people at the same election and they generously passed them both, and thus, so far as the action of the people was concerned, the great salmon fisheries of the Columbia were practically stopped.
A law was ‘initiated’ by signatures and was enacted by the people at the election in November, 1910, providing for the election of delegates to the national political conventions by popular vote. The law forbade each voter to vote for more than one candidate. But upon the usual basis of apportionment Oregon is entitled to ten delegates in a national convention. If some candidate should be preëminently fitted above all others for the place and should receive all the votes, the state would have only a single delegate in the convention. If the voter has the right to vote for all the candidates for the whole representation of his state in the electoral college, what semblance of a reason can there be why he should not have the same participation in the preliminary election, when the candidate, who may finally be elected President, is to be chosen? The same law forbids a voter from voting for the nomination of more than one candidate for presidential elector. Thus a minority of a party in the state may nominate candidates for electors hostile to its presidential candidate.
If the vote of the presidential electors of Oregon shall not some time be divided, even though the popular vote may have been strongly in favor of a given candidate, it will not be the fault, of this law.
It seems rather superfluous to cite instances to prove that, where the final legislative body is denied the power of meeting and discussing the provisions of a proposed law, there will be loose and freakish legislation of the worst kind. Mr. Woodrow Wilson, before he essayed the exacting rôle of the practical politician, declared before the students of Columbia University that a government ‘cannot act inorganically by masses, it must have a law-making body. It can no more make laws through its voters than it can make laws through its newspapers.’ And in the same course of lectures he declared that —
‘We sometimes allow ourselves to assume that the “initiative” and the “referendum,” now so much talked of and so imperfectly understood, are a more thorough means of getting at public opinion than the processes of our legislative assemblies. Many a radical programme may get what will seem to be almost general approval if you listen only to those who know they will not have to handle the perilous matter of action, and to those who have merely formed an independent, that is, an isolated opinion, and have not entered into common counsel; but you will seldom find a deliberative assembly acting half so radically as its several members have professed themselves ready to act before they came together into one place and talked the matter over and contrived statutes.’
After Mr. Wilson entered upon his political career, he changed his mind, but his recantation in no degree affects the weight of the argument to which I have referred. The ‘common counsel,’ of which he speaks is an indispensable process in the making of laws, and whenever our legislative bodies impose serious limitations upon the process, it is usually to the detriment of the character of the laws passed; and the more grave and statesmanlike the deliberations of those charged with the responsibility, the better it will be for the state. For this vital process there would be substituted the enthusiasm of somebody who believes he has devised some statutory cure-all for the ills that afflict the body-politic, and embodies his enthusiasm in a bill. He seconds himself, as any one may, with the necessary signatures to a petition; and then without coming together and taking common counsel, and often without reading what has been written, the great mass of us solemnly proceed to vote. Such a procedure would put a test upon the people under which no nation could long endure.
The Referendum is somewhat better than the Initiative, but as a settled policy in the making of ordinary statutes it is indefensible. It can be used upon concrete propositions that are not complex in character, and especially upon constitutional propositions which ordinarily enunciategeneral principles. In the case of constitutional changes, however, they should never take effect without the support of a clear majority of the voters, and in advance of their action they should have the support of a large majority of the legislative body, such as is provided in Massachusetts, so that our constitutions should have more stability than mere statutes, and should not be subject to change with every passing breeze.
I may illustrate again from the example of Oregon, — which is pointed out by the friends of these reforms as a model, and whose people are heroically subjecting themselves to political vivisection in the testing of governmental experiments. An amendment may be made to the Constitution of that state by a majority of those who vote upon the proposition in question. An amendment was passed in one election, by barely one third of the legal voters, which provided that in civil cases three fourths of a jury might render a verdict, that no new trial should be had where there was any evidence at all to sustain the verdict, and making other important changes in the method of administering justice. Constitutional changes should not be made, except in deference to a pronounced and settled public opinion, which cannot better be determined under our system than to require the action of successive legislatures and afterwards a direct vote of the people.
The Referendum may sometimes profitably be used in connection with questions affecting municipalities, where each voter has an appreciable interest in the solution of the question and is familiar with the conditions upon which the solution depends; but as a step in the process of passing statutes of the usual character, statutes which create crimes and provide penalties for their violation, or which have complicated regulations of a business character, the use of the Referendum would be vicious. We are not in the mass adapted to pass upon questions of detail, just as the thousands of stockholders of a great corporation are not in a position directly to manage its business affairs. The function that we can best exercise is that of selecting agents for that purpose, and of holding them responsible for results. Upon the questions relating to the character of representatives, who are usually known personally to the people, they have excellent means for forming a judgment. But if they so often make a mistake in their judgments of the men they select, as we must infer from the arguments put forward in favor of direct legislation, how much more would they be apt to make mistakes in dealing with the complicated questions involved in practical legislation?
The Referendum takes away from the legislature the responsibility for the final passage of laws, and permits it to shift the burden upon the people. Legislators will be asked: ‘Are you not willing to trust the people to say in their wisdom whether a given bill should be enacted?’ The prevailing vice of members of law-making bodies in our country is not venality, it is political cowardice; and they will be ready to take refuge in that invitation to trust the people. A witty member of Congress from Mississippi once said that he usually found it easier to do wrong than to explain why he did right. There will be no such difficulty under the Referendum. The legislator may dodge the responsibility of voting upon some bad but specious law where his political interests would lead him to vote one way and his sense of duty another way. He would only need to say that he believed in the people, and would vote to refer it to that supreme court of appeal. Even under the present system a legislator is quite too much influenced by the noisy demonstrations that may be made in favor of one side or the other of a pending proposition, and some of the worst laws that find their way upon the statute-books get there, not because they are approved by the judgment of the legislator, but in response to what he thinks may be the wishes of the people. And instead of voting for what he honestly believes to be just and for the public interests, even against what may appear at the moment to be popular sentiment, and then bravely going before his constituents and attempting to educate them upon the question, he quite too often tacks and goes before the wind.
While the prevailing fault of legislative bodies is, as I have said, political cowardice, the fault of the voter is political indifference. There are far too few of us who carefully study public questions and try to secure exact information about them. We are attracted by sensational charges, by lurid headlines in the newspapers, and by generalities. We too often complacently accept the estimate that is placed upon our profound and exact political knowledge by the men who are asking us to vote for them, and we are far from giving that serious attention to the political issues which we bestow upon our own private affairs.
There is a lawyer of very high standing at the bar of his state who was astonished to be told that the House of Representatives had an established order of business which consumed the greater part of its time. He imagined that the Speaker had practically unlimited discretion in recognition. Another intelligent man who was president of a great railroad could not give the name of his member of Congress, although he had probably voted for him for ten years, if he had voted at all. Such instances are by no means rare, and intelligent people of that sort who neglect their public duties often become the easy victims of every ism and dum.
We are so engrossed in our private business that many of us give no attention to public questions, or we too frequently bestow upon the latter such superficial study that our action becomes the dangerous thing that is based upon little knowledge. This condition of indifference, even under our present system, produces nothing but an evil effect upon the character of laws; and this evil effect would be greatly intensified under the Initiative and Referendum. Legislation may be expected to represent in the long run the fair average of the information and the study of the body which enacts it, whether that body be composed of four hundred legislators or one hundred millions of people.
A reform that is most needed is one that will make difficult the passage of laws, unless they repeal existing statutes. The mania of the time is too much legislation and the tendency to regulate everybody and everything by artificial enactments. The Referendum would not be likely to furnish the cure for this evil, but would tend to increase the number of questionable statutes that would be referred to the people; and some of them would doubtless be enacted. If those who are chosen and paid to do the work, and upon whom the responsibility is placed, are sometimes found to enact vicious laws, what would be the result if legislation were enacted by all of us when we had made no special investigation of details, when we should be quite too prone to accept the declamatory recommendations of the advocates of legislative schemes, and submissively swallow the quack nostrums that might be offered for the diseases afflicting the body politic?
The most dangerous statutes are those which deal with admitted evils, and, in order to repress them, are so broadly drawn as to include great numbers of cases which should not fairly come within their scope, or to create a borderland of doubt where the great mass of us may not clearly know how to regulate our conduct in order that we may comply with (heir prohibitions. Just such statutes, with a basis of justice but with imperfectly constructed details, would be most likely to prevail upon a popular vote. If the forty-six states of the Union, and the national government which is the aggregate of them all, should have this system of direct legislation, our statute-books would very probably soon become a medley of ill-considered reforms, of aspirations sought to be expressed in the cold prose of statutes, of emotional enactments perpetuating some passing popular whim and making it a rule of conduct for the future; and the strict enforcement of our laws would mean the destruction of our civilization.
And then, in order to perfect this scheme of popular government and to safeguard the rights of a helpless people, in addition to all this, they offer us the Recall. Not merely are the laws to be directly enacted by the people, but the execution of the laws is to be conducted in the same way. There would be temporary agents for the purpose of governing, but the people would have ropes about their necks, and at any moment they would be subject to political extinction. This power involves the supposition that the people are omniscient, and ever-watchful.
The Constitution of Arizona seems to be in line with the most advanced thought upon this subject. That constitution provides that twenty-five per cent of the voters may institute a proceeding for the Recall; and when it is invoked the man whom they have elected to an office is permitted either to resign in five days, or to defend himself in two hundred words, upon a proceeding to throw him out in disgrace.
In Oregon, it very rarely happens that there is an election in which the defeated candidate does not receive twenty-five per cent of the vote, and not infrequently he receives nearly one half of it. It would be a matter of no difficulty for him to initiate a Recall and practically to have the election over again; and so we should have perpetual warfare over the holding of office. That result has already clearly developed where the Recall is in force.
A public officer could not take the long view; he could not patiently study the problems that confronted him and carefully look into the conditions with which his office had placed him in close contact, but of which as a private citizen he could have only the most general knowledge. But he would need to be careful to do only those things which might, be justified, not by close inspection, but upon the most superficial view. The office to which he has been elected gives him an elevated point of view which he did not have before, but he cannot avail himself of his wider range, because if he is no sooner in office than he must justify himself or retire in disgrace, he will be likely to do the thing most pleasing to the prevailing fancy and which will adapt itself most easily to the momentary condition of the public mind. His political interests will lead him to do the plausible and easily advertised thing, and it may be the thing that will really injure the people.
Whether such a government may be called popular or not, we should be likely always to have under it government of the politician rather than government of the statesman. I have been criticized for using an expression similar to this, as if I had implied the converse: that we now always have government by the statesman; but such an inference can be drawn only by a careless or an unscrupulous thinker. That we sometimes have government by the statesman is undeniable; but that our government is perfect, nobody would pretend. Edmund Burke asserted in effect the same thing at a time in his career when he was the most liberal, as he was always the most philosophical, of British statesmen. In appealing to his constituents for the right of a representative ‘to act upon a very enlarged view of things,’and not to look merely to ‘the flash of the day,’ he declared: —
‘When the popular member is narrowed in his ideas, and rendered timid in his proceedings, the service of the Crown will be the sole nursery of statesmen.’
According to Burke’s view the constant response to the popular mood would at least banish statesmen from the service of the people, if it did not limit, it to the politicians.
It is not difficult to turn back to the supreme crises in American history, when its greatest figures were heroically struggling for what they saw to be for the interests of their country, and, if the policy of the Recall had been in force, to see how the whole course of history might have been changed, and how ambition and envy might have utilized a temporary unpopularity to terminate some splendid career.
As an illustration, take Lincoln in the earlier days of his administration. The disastrous defeats that the Union arms had suffered had been relieved only by slight successes. Lincoln scarcely had a friend even in his own Cabinet. Seward was willing to take him under guardianship and run the country for him; Stanton had written of the ‘imbecility’ of the administration; Chase was quite ready to be a candidate for the Presidency himself; the abolitionists were unsparing in their criticism; the great organs of public opinion were hostile to him; and there can be little doubt that, if a proceeding for Recall could have been had against him at the moment when he was enveloped in the clouds of unpopularity, the career of the greatest of Americans would have been brought to a disgraceful ending, with results to civilization which it is melancholy to contemplate.
And then we are to have the Recall of judges. The enforcement of laws by judges subject to popular Recall would be likely to be quite in keeping with the character of the laws, if they had been enacted under the Initiative and Referendum. If we are to have all the other things, the Initiative, the Referendum, and the Recall of political officers, there would be this reason for having the judicial Recall. It would complete and make exquisite the harmony of this destructive system. The two fundamental things in the development of English liberty were the free Parliament chosen by the people and independent of the Crown, and the independence of the Judiciary, which had held its tenure only at the royal pleasure. The first great step for the independence of Parliament was won at Runnymede, and the most signal result of the Revolution of 1688 was the establishment of the independence of the Judiciary.
Every schoolboy knows the story of the bloody assizes, the black judicial murders, the gross travesties of justice which were seen under the old system, when the judges held their office subject to the favor of the Crown. It was only after the Revolution that English courts became the real theatres of justice, and the weight of the law and the evidence, and not the fear of a master, determined the decree. But the Recall of judges would make them on the instant subject to another master. The judge, in order to feel secure in his office, would have to consult the popular omens rather than the sources of the law. Instead of looking to the drift of the authorities, he would be likely to study the direction of the popular winds. If in some judicial district a strong labor-union or a great corporation should hold the balance of political power, the courts in that district would be likely to become mere instruments of oppression.
But if we, the people, are so perfect that we can do no wrong even though we are guilty of no investigation, and can with wisdom assume directly to enact and enforce our laws, what reason is there why there should be any constitutional restraint upon our action, and why should we be hampered with statutes or constitutions even of our own making? Why not have the present entirely free from restraints imposed by the past? Why not permit us in our omnipotent wisdom to decide each case upon its own merits, considering only the inherent principles of abstract justice, which in our collective capacity, according to our flatterers, we must of course thoroughly understand?
The democracy of Athens at last attained to this altitude, where the sublimated ’composite citizen ’ stood forth unfettered and showed what he could really do. In the latter days of that city the action of her people became so direct that in a single abhorrent decree, disregarding what was left of their Constitution, they ordered six of their generals, among them the son of Pericles, to be executed; because, although victorious over their enemies in the days when Athenian victories were few, the success had not been achieved without cost.
Those who advocate the direct action of our great democracy might study with a good deal of profit the history of the little state to which I have just been referring. No more brilliant people ever existed than the Athenian people. They had a genius for government. The common man was able to ‘think imperially.’ Their great philosopher, Aristotle, could well speak of the Athenian as a political animal. They achieved a development in literature and art which probably has never since been reached. They could boast of orators and philosophers to which those of no other nation can be compared. We marvel when we consider the surviving proofs of their civilization. But when they did away with all restraints upon their direct action in the making and enforcement of laws, in administering justice and in regulating foreign affairs, their greatness was soon brought to an end, and they became the victims of the most odious tyranny to which any people can be subjected, the tyranny that results from their own unrestrained and unbridled action.
It is said that the history of those distant times can present no useful precedent for our own guidance; but in what respect is human nature different to-day? Whatever now stars our telescopes may have discovered, whatever new inventions may have been brought to light, and whatever advances may have been made in scientific knowledge, the mainsprings of human action are substantially the same to-day that they were in the time of the Greeks. We should be rash indeed to assume that we shall succeed where they failed, and that we can disregard their experience with impunity.
But we are told that the crime of our age is the inordinate love of wealth, and that to protect ourselves from its evils we must set aside our existing institutions. But is the love of wealth any new thing? The greatest of ancient statesmen were accused of the grossest forms of bribery. Thousands of years ago the love of money was declared to be the root of all evil. It is not the fault of an age to be satisfied with itself. Poets have always been singing of a golden age, and they have placed it sometimes in the past, sometimes in the future, but never in the present. We may go back almost to the oldest of poets, Hesiod, and we shall find him placing the golden age far back of his own day, while his own time he pictured as one stained with plundering, with envy, brawling, and perjury. Horace in a lively ode sought a poet’s escape, and called upon the Roman citizens to abandon their wicked country and set sail for the mythical islands which Jupiter had set aside when he stained the golden age with brass and hardened the brazen ages into iron. And those islands were no more mythical than the refuge from our own crimes which the inventors of the Initiative, the Referendum, and the Recall have pointed out to US.
In what respect should we have been better if, during the amazing physical development of the last two generations, we had had direct democratic government? It cannot be contended that our legislators did not represent the people. If they had attempted by their votes to repress the universal sentiment for industrial expansion, they could not have remained in office. The people of the towns even of New England were found voting bonds as bonuses for the building of railroads, and exemptions from taxation in order to secure manufacturing plants. And in the growing West, the sentiment for empire and expansion was so strong that cities and towns were bidding against each other in the offer of gratuities, and if it had not been for the occasional conservatism of legislatures, and for the issuing of injunctions by judges, who under the Recall would quite likely have been thrown out of office, our Western country would have been covered with communities which had made themselves bankrupt by the gratuitous issue of bonds in aid of factories and railroads; and we should probably not have attained anything approaching our present development, because of the check that would inevitably have come through the gross corruption of the system.
The advocates of direct government cite the examples of Oregon and Switzerland, where they point to results with an eloquence nowhere else to be found outside of a mining prospectus. Perhaps I have already referred sufficiently to Oregon. One must be easily satisfied who can be convinced by a careful scrutiny of results in that state, even though the experiment has been tried among her intelligent people. Switzerland is a small country, scarcely equal in area to some of our American counties, and a large proportion even of that small area is covered by uninhabitable mountains. The population is thrifty and conservative, and largely devoted to the work of caring for the vast numbers of tourists who annually visit the country. The conditions as to complexity of industry are radically different from those existing in America. But while Switzerland is one of the countries best adapted, as we certainly are one of the least adapted, to the operation of the Initiative and the Referendum, the results there are not such as to justify their adoption in any other country, if we may credit the report made to the State Department by our Vice-Consul at Berne, and presented to the Senate by Mr. LaFollette on July 13, 1909. This report says: —
‘The great questions of centralization, civil status, laws of marriage and divorce, bankruptcy laws, the customs tariff’s, the railroad purchase, employers’ liability, factory laws, unity of the conflicting cantonal civil and criminal laws into a federal code, the military organization, the pure-food law, etc., all of which are things of the past, were congressional measures. It may safely be said that the initiative can be of decided and positive value only in districts small enough to enable the average citizen to form a conscientious opinion upon projects of such local significance as to be well within his practical knowledge, but, in addition, he must exercise his duty as he sees it at the polls. With a comparatively small number of signatures requisite for an initiative measure, its danger lies in the fact that it may easily be prostituted by factions, cliques, malcontents, and demagogues, to force upon the people projects of partisan, freak, or unnecessary legislation.’
As to the Referendum, there is no other veto power in Switzerland. While it is not so intelligently exercised as it would be by an upright executive, yet it has occasionally proved an important check. The most striking general result is seen in the relatively small number of voters who will vote upon laws; and while statutes have been passed to compel voting, their provisions have simply increased the great number of blank votes.
The most serious tendency under our present system is seen in the multiplication of statutes, which threatens to destroy liberty, and even to engulf our civilization. But much of this legislative rubbish is the product of those who are given to exploiting themselves as the especial champions of the people, or is the result of the readiness of the legislator to respond to what he thinks is the popular demand. The member who is most disposed to cast a negative vote is stigmatized as a reactionary. It is not difficult to place the most immature, visionary, and apparent ly popular schemes upon the statutebooks of some of the oldest and, until recently, most conservative states of the Union. In one historic commonwealth the principal avocation of the people soon promises to be politics, assuming that they shall pay due attention to their political duties, and the next ‘reform’ will not unnaturally be the passage of a law to pay the voter out of the public treasury for the demand made upon him in listening, through each recurring summer, to the wooing of self-constituted candidates, — and there can well be no other candidates; in voting upon their claims; and finally, in following the campaign conducted by the parties, and in voting in the chief election. The essential remedy for checking legislation would seem to be the education of the people so that they will present a body of sound and definite opinion to which the representative may respond. This work must be done by the people themselves, and it can be aided greatly by the newspapers, if they will pander less to sensationalism, indulge less in defamation of the agencies of government, and seek to become the veracious chroniclers of their times.
We should not experiment lightly with the fundamental principles of our government, and trust to our good fortune to escape danger. It is well to be an optimist, at least so far as faith is concerned in the final triumph of good in the universe, but we should be careful not to follow too willingly those professional optimists and political Micawbers who are always sure, in whatever condition of danger we put ourselves, that something will turn up to our advantage. One of the most radical mistakes our nation has ever made was contributed to in large measure by well-meaning people who employed eulogiums upon their own optimism instead of arguments, and denounced as pessimists those who did not cheerily agree with them. Faith that things will ultimately come out well, does not mean that we may recklessly take the next step.
It should be remembered that civilization has sometimes moved backward for a time, that liberty has been submerged, and that great and powerful nations have been brought to naught. Instead of changing our system of government because of the existence of evils which have existed since the beginning of time, and instead of attempting to seek refuge in a demagogue’s paradise, our people should be incited to study closely the problems of government, to set higher standards for their own conduct, with the result that higher standards will be followed by their chosen agents; and there is no evil for which the Initiative, the Referendum, and the Recall are proposed as a remedy that cannot effectively be dealt with under our republican institutions, without the disintegration, demoralization, and ultimate destruction of regulated liberty and of individual rights likely to follow from the application of those reactionary policies, just as they have followed them when applied upon a large scale in history.