Democracy and the Expert


EPITAPHS for democracy are the fashion of the day. Both Left and Right acclaim the failure of democracy. Those who chafe at governmental intervention are as distrustful of popular institutions as are the romantics who expect from government heaven upon earth. Dictatorships are dramatic and coups d’état feed the imagination, while democratic régimes have about them the humdrum qualities of John Bull, who, first in the modern world, devised talk as the chief instrument of government. Sensational and violent rule in Russia and Italy throws out of perspective more plodding popular institutions. But it is simply not true that the area of democratic government has contracted. Barring Italy, no country has abandoned democratic institutions, whereas democratic government has extensively replaced oligarchy, and the democratic idea is steadily corroding ancient autocratic traditions. The replacement of Romanoffs by Bolsheviks was certainly not a democratic loss. Nor did the short-lived Spanish dictatorship supplant a virile democracy. For the democrat, only Fascist Italy is a retrogression. But, on the other hand, a stable German Republic has displaced the Germany of the Kaiser. In succession to the feudalism of the Ilapsburgs, Hungary and Jugoslavia have reigns at least not more autocratic than they were in pre-war days, while Czechoslovakia has the heartening rule of President Masaryk, and Austria is a stout though poverty-stricken little republic. The ferment of democracy is active in modern Turkey, and is leavening the ancient fabrics of India and China with hope and danger. Nor should the most summary account of recent democratic trends omit the steady invigoration of the mentality as well as the processes of democracy in Latin-American countries, particularly Mexico.

The ultimate justification for democracy still remains the lack, in the long run, of a decent and workable substitute. The case for democracy has just been vindicated by General Smuts, the philosopher-statesman, in the full perspective of recent history and his great experience in war and peace:—

The end of government is not merely good government, but the education of the people in good government, its self-education in running its own affairs. . . . The short cuts do not really bring us much farther, except to the next turn of the wheel of revolution. Liberty as a form of political government is a difficult experiment, and it is not without its dangers. . . . But it is at any rate less dangerous than its alternatives, and under modern conditions it is probably the only political system that promises to endure. . . . Bolshevism and Fascism, which are the current alternatives to democratic liberty, may be defended as a way out of intolerable situations, but they are temporary expedients, often tried and discarded before, and they will be discarded again after the present trials. . . . No enduring system can be established on the negation of liberty, even if it comes with the temporary gift of good government.

This is a firm expression of allegiance to democracy, but one misses the lyric note which characterized the democratic faith a hundred years ago. The tasks and conditions that confront democracy leave no true friend without concern. Over-simplification is a great deceiver of reason, and nineteenthcentury democracy suffered from the illusions of simplicity.

This early democratic faith was sustained by a gracious and civilized conception of society. But the difficulties in the way of its attainment were grossly undervalued. The tenacity of old habits, the fragility of human material, the conflicting forces within the individual no less than the clash of interests within society — all these and more were much too lightly weighed. The appeal of a generous society subordinated the question of means by which it was to be attained. Vast hopes were founded on simple devices. Popular rule was expected to work miracles almost automatically. Abolish autocratic rule; remove tyranny, and the innate goodness of mankind will prevail! It was indeed largely a negative faith.

The day of such comfortable thoughts is over. We now know that democracy is dependent on knowledge and wisdom beyond all other forms of government. The grandeur of its aims is matched by the difficulties of their achievement. For democracy is the reign of reason on the most extensive scale. It seeks to prevail when the complexities of life make a demand upon knowledge and understanding never made before, and when the forces inimical to the play of reason have power and subtlety unknown in the past. We have seen the intricate range of problems thrown up by our industrial civilization; the vast body of technical knowledge, more and more beyond the comprehension even of the cultivated, which is required for an analysis of the issues underlying these problems and an exploration of possible remedies. We have also noted the opportunities for arousing passions, confusing judgment, and regimenting opinion that are furnished by chain newspapers, cheap magazines, the movies, and radio. And we now know how slender a reed is reason — how recent its emergence in man, how deep the countervailing instincts and passions, how treacherous the whole rational process. Moreover, the whole tempo of our society is hurried; its atmosphere and appurtenances hostile to reflection. Thus reason is asked to flourish when the conditions for it are least favorable.

Little wonder that, for many, democracy seems ripe for the museum of political institutions. They assess its results as bankruptcy and find its inherent difficulties fatal. The naïve champions of democracy at least, built on hope; these latter-day assailants arc moved by fear. Both present foes and early friends disregard time and history. The apostles of democracy expected quick results. Those who despair of democracy also lack patience. The former thought they were writing on a clean slate; they forgot the obduracy of the past. Those who concentrate on the defects of democracy are blind to what history discloses of the weaknesses of alternative forms of government.

The answer to the defects of democracy is not denial of the democratic idea. Judged by the most pragmatic tests, democracy has weathered the cataclysm of the World War and extended its rule. It is the worse for wear, but at least it wears. We need not fly from one romantic absolute to another. If we focus attention on the human origin of all government, we shall have a more scientific temper for dealing with its frailties. We shall equally avoid blind attachment and romantic impatience only if we recognize the essentially provisional nature of all political arrangements. Such an attitude will treat government not only as a mechanism for day-to-day adjustments, but also as an hypothesis in action, to be modified by the experience which it adduces.


Democracy has now been submitted to tests of time and stress that call for a reconsideration of its processes and assumptions. Such an examination must build on the new gains of knowledge since modern forms of democracy were evolved, and more especially upon the insight into the dark recesses of man’s nature, which pioneers like Freud and Jung are slowly making possible. Acceptance of the democratic idea by no means implies the exhaustion of the forms in which the idea has been clothed. Indeed, we may be sure that the implements and inventions of government have not sufficiently responded to the overwhelming transformation of the external arrangements of society.

If the continuance of our civilization is to be based upon democracy, obviously knowledge and the capacity for judgment must permeate the whole community. But about education. and how to attain it, we are also far less naïve and hopeful than we used to be. The aims and methods of education are to-day as much under fire as are those of government. For its underpinnings, too, have been shaken by new knowledge, and we are far more humble in assuming that wisdom and a conception of the public weal attend learning. Though we are doubtful as to the true nature of education and uncertain how to pursue it, there is no paradox in assuming that effective democracy presupposes a continuous process of adult education. ‘We must educate our masters,’ said a British statesman after the Second Reform Bill gave workingmen the vote. Time has only reënforced the deep wisdom of Robert Lowe’s dictum. But he overlooked the complementary truth that the people must educate their rulers. At least they must see to it that rulers are educated for the tasks of government.

I am the last person to undervalue the extent to which devotion, intelligence, and technical equipment are enlisted in government. Not political philosophy, not farsighted planning, but the same pressure of circumstances which has made government penetrate into such a wide range of affairs has compelled resort to skill and training in its work. The all too common depreciation of men in public service is at once shallow and cruel. It mocks where it should praise; it debilitates where it should encourage. Publicity headlines the occasional egregious blunder, but the detailed day-by-day achievement is unchronicled. The clash of politics, the friction between executive and legislature, the scrutiny of the press and taste for scandal, tend to make us know when things go wrong in government. It is right that it should be so. The critics of government cannot be too Argus-eyed. But no such conjunction of forces educates the public to a knowledge of the good in government. Virtue is proverbially not news, and an appreciation of achievement in government, except when attained on the colossal scale of a Panama Canal or in the dramatized conflict of foreign relations, is dependent on dull, technical details. The public is therefore surprisingly ignorant of the extent to which its servants contribute to the public good.

A very acute student of affairs thus characterizes the quiet work of public administration: —

Most tax payers, including many who ought to be better informed, have a wholly inadequate idea of what they are getting for their money. The tendency is to regard taxes as a debit without any offsetting credit. They know what they pay out, but they fail to realize what they receive in return. The direct contact, so far as the Federal Government is concerned, is apt to be with the tax collector or the prohibition agent, men performing tasks which are extraordinarily difficult, but which, it may be, are not popular in all quarters. Now my observation of the public service ... is that with all the defects of that service, and there are many of them and some scandals just as there are in private business, the true story of its accomplishments would disclose an astonishing and magnificent net balance on the credit side.

These are the observations of Mr. Joseph B. Eastman, who has watched government closely all his life, and now is himself one of the ornaments of the public service. He furnishes striking proof of the extraordinary gifts which government does attract. That Mr. Eastman’s reappointment as member of the Interstate Commerce Commission should have been strongly urged by railroads whose views on vital issues he has rejected also proves that, so far as the public opinion which asserts itself is sufficiently informed regarding the quality of public work, disinterested capacity in government w ill find support.


That talent should find its way into public administration is the more striking since our public service enjoys so little public esteem. The rewards neither of money nor of prestige go with it. It is right that government should not even pretend to compete with the enormous salaries by which private enterprise tempts. The satisfactions of government service lie on a different level. But it is wholly wrong to expect civilized standards of public service from officials whose salaries are too low to enable them to meet the minimum standards of cultivated life. The public cannot expect the professional training, the detached judgment and moral courage, necessary for the conduct of such intricate public affairs as, for instance, the administration of public-service laws, from officials who are under financial pressure to meet the cost of decent education for their children. It is grotesque to put the solution of public-utility problems in the hands of commissioners who are paid $1600 a year. The average for all commissioners in the country is about $5000 — an average which includes exceptionally high salaries in two states. Public officials should set an example of simplicity, but they ought not to be subjected to penury. Economy in public service means a wise expenditure of money. It does not mean salaries so low that only the unfit and the transient are attracted.

But that the public service, except in the highest offices, is so largely without prestige is even more disastrous than that its material rewards are unduly meagre. The whole tide of opinion is against public administration as a career for talent. The enormous rewards which industry offers to able young lawyers, engineers, economists, serve as a powerful attraction to ambitious youth. As against that, there are some, and more than we suspect, who find real satisfaction in work whose aim is the public good. But they have to contend against the whole mental and moral climate of our times — the impalpable but terrific pressure of current standards of achievement. These are overwhelmingly on the side of private gain.

In Great Britain the traditions of public service are as yet powerful enough to enlist the best brains of the country. In its Civil Service is found probably the largest concentration of distinguished talent. Nor is it conceivable that Great Britain would have come through its storms and stresses since the Crimean War without the very high quality of its public administration, The accession of the Labor Party to power in 1924 marked a political revolution in British history. Yet the break with the past involved in a government committed to the principles of socialism was accomplished with a shift in personnel of less than one hundred persons. In large matters of foreign policy one can hardly conceive of more contrasting types than Lord Curzon and Mr. Ramsay MacDonald. Yet, when Mr. MacDonald succeeded Lord Curzon at the Foreign Office, the official who had served Lord Curzon continued as Mr. MacDonald’s private secretary. Perhaps nothing could more pithily reveal how ingrained is the Civil Service in the stuff of English life. Yet the transition from the days when public office was bartered as though it were the private property of politicians to the present system of professional public administration is a surprisingly recent development. It was introduced within the memory of men still living.

Experience in India had made it abundantly clear that the government of a great empire required special 1 raining, and disinterested selection. Therefore, as early as 1833, the government bill introduced by Macaulay for the renewal of the charter of the East India Company provided that ‘East India cadetships should be thrown open to competition.’ This radical change as to Indian administration did not become effective until 1855.

In the meantime, however, Sir Charles Trevelyan, a former Indian Civil Servant and Macaulay’s brotherin-law, began to occupy his mind with problems of Civil Service reform at home. ‘The revolutionary period of 1848,’he explained years later, ‘gave us a shake, and created a disposition to put our house in order, and one of the consequences was a remarkable series of investigations into Public Offices which lasted for five years and culminated in the Organization Report.’ Of that report, issued in 1854, Sir Charles Trevelyan himself, in collaboration with Sir Stafford Northcote, was the author. ‘It was based throughout upon the positive idea of Government, upon the idea that Government must be carried on by men who think as to what ought to be done, instead of merely doing that which must be done. The idea frightened some of the ablest of the existing heads of departments.’ Even the famous Undersecretary for the Colonies, Sir James Stephen, father of James Fitzjames and Leslie Stephen and grandfather of Virginia Woolf, found the innovation too drastic. ‘The world we live in is not, I think, half moralized enough for the acceptance of such a scheme of stern morality as this.’

Sir James underestimated, as the worldly-wise often do, the tough fibre of the world he lived in. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the painful experience of the Crimean War helped immensely to educate British opinion to an acceptance of Trevelyan’s proposal. The conduct of that war exposed the terrible mischief of an administrative system based on patronage. So hard-headed a politician as Lord Palmerston, by an order in council, carried into effect the recommendations of the Trevelyan-Northcote report. ‘In consequence, in 1855, the first Civil Service Commissioners were appointed, with the duty of carrying on an independent examination of ihe nominees of Members of Parliament. They had their difficulties: the idea was new that the nominees of Members of Parliament should be subject to criticism by a commission, and on one occasion Lord Palmerston sent to Somerset House, where the Civil Service Commissioners used to sit, ordering them to come to him and bring the answers of a certain candidate and the papers which they had set, in order that they might be carpeted by the Prime Minister.’ The Civil Service Commissioners, writes Graham Wallas with pride, ‘replied that unfortunately their regulations prevented them from doing anything of the kind, the papers could not go out of their possession, but if the Prime Minister would come to their office they would be only too happy to show them. Lord Palmerston saw the writing and arithmetic of his nominee and ceased to interfere.’ By 1870 the system had so thoroughly proved itself that Gladstone established open competition throughout the English Civil Service, by an order in council, ‘which was practically uncriticized and unopposed.’

Students of public opinion will find it illuminating to explore the influences which made possible such a profound change in political institutions. Here, as elsewhere, working-class enfranchisement introduced powerful solvents into politics and government. But Mr. Wallas finds a deeper cause of change than the mere transference of voting power. ‘The fifteen years from the Crimean War to 1870 were in England a period of wide mental activity, during which the conclusions of a few penetrating thinkers like Darwin or Newman were discussed and popularized by a crowd of magazine writers and preachers and poets. The conception was gaining ground that it was upon serious and continued thought and not upon opinion that the power to carry out our purposes, whether in politics or elsewhere, must ultimately depend.’ ‘Serious and continued thought’ requires systematic training. And the foundation of the British Civil Service is laid upon the British universities — until latterly the two ancient universities. The system is based upon the conviction of John Stuart Mill that ‘mediocrity ought not to be engaged in managing the affairs of State.’

I do not mean to claim perfection for the British Civil Service, nor even the attainment of its own ideals. In the current stocktaking of English institutions, the Civil Service has not escaped. It is urged that the system has become too wooden, is not attuned to modern needs, and in some instances, particularly in the Colonial Office, defeats national policies in administrative action.

New educational developments, profound social changes, the new share of women in politics, call for a reconsideration of the assumptions and performances of the British Civil Service. With these vexing problems of statecraft and education a Royal Commission is now engaged. But the basis of political thinking by all the parties is the pervasive responsibility of a highly trained and disinterested permanent service, charged with the task of administering the broad policies formulated by Parliament and of putting at the disposal of government that ascertainable body of knowledge on which the choice of policies must be based.

The revolutionary movements of 1848 touched the United States only by bringing to our shores liberty-loving rebels from the Continent. While, in England, 1848 led to a searching inquiry into the defects of her government, it renewed America’s assurance of the virtues of our system. Moreover, America had no Crimean War, and perhaps no Charles Trevelyan. Besides, we were young and had an abundance of resources. Standards come late, and where there is plenty the temptations to waste are usually not resisted. The key to our history of public administration, as to much else in history, is found in Emerson’s quiet observation, ‘Mankind is as lazy as it dares to be.’


In any event, while England was making the beginnings of a change from patronage to public service, the United States was justifying patronage by a political philosophy and establishing it as a public policy. The naked defense of the spoils system was expressed in the classic remarks of Senator Marcy in the debate on Jackson’s nomination of Martin Van Buren to be Minister to England: —

It may be, sir, that the politicians of the United States are not so fastidious as some gentlemen are as to disclosing the principles on which they act. They boldly preach what they practice. When they are contending for victory they avow their intention of enjoying the fruits of it. If they are defeated, they expect to retire from office. If they are successful, they claim, as a matter of right, the advantages of success. They see nothing wrong in the rule that to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.

A hundred years have elapsed since Marcy’s engaging candor. But his sentiments are still acted upon and occasionally they survive even in avowal. Woodrow Wilson is the only political scientist who ever occupied the Presidency. Yet it was his Secretary of State who naïvely thought that technical posts requiring high skill and training should be filled by ‘deserving Democrats.’ No President has had better reason to know than Mr. Hoover the irrelevance of purely party politics in the discharge of professional duties. And yet in the appointment of judges to the lower Federal courts he has apparently, in some instances, for political reasons departed from the professional standards set by his Attorney General.

Behind the spoils system and all its survivals there is a crude logic of democracy and the versatile energy of the pioneer. Both combined to indoctrinate Americans with a distorted belief in the simplicity of government. Someone has called the British Civil Service the skill department of government. But if public administration can be improvised, if it requires no particular skill, there is no need of special training, no need of the permanence of professionalism, no need of a skill department. That is precisely what Andrew Jackson thought. He practised rotation in office because he thought permanence makes for ‘corruption in some and in others a perversion of correct feelings and principles.’ ‘The duties of all public officers,’ Jackson wrote in his first message to Congress, ‘ are, or at least admit of being made, so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance; and I cannot but believe that more is lost by the long continuance of men in office than is generally to be gained by their experience. I submit, therefore, to your consideration whether the efficiency of the Government would not be promoted and official industry and integrity better secured by a general extension of the law which limits appointments to four years.’

There is this much to be said for Jackson’s rustic view. Government then was operating within a relatively limited scope. In large measure, it was forbidding conduct; it was not itself an extensive participant in devising complicated arrangements of society and composing the conflict of its manifold interests. But Harding, nearly a hundred years after Jackson, had not even Jackson’s excuse. The growing complexity of social organization had compelled a steady extension of legal control over economic and social interests. At first this intervention was largely through specific legislative directions, depending for enforcement generally upon the cumbersome and ineffective machinery of the criminal law. By the pressure of experience, legislative regulation of economic and social activities turned to administrative instruments. The extent and range of governmental participation in affairs, the complexity of its administrative devices, and the intricacy of the technical problems with which they were dealing had never been greater than when Harding came to the Presidency. There never was a more pathetic misapprehension of responsibility than Harding’s touching statement, ‘Government after all is a very simple thing.’

I recall the sentence, and it deserves to be remembered, because Harding expressed the traditional American conception of government still deeply inured in American opinion. Until these notions of deluding simplicity are completely rooted out, we shall never truly face our problems of government.

The theoretical defense of the spoils system could hardly withstand its practical results. It was with the moral aspects of political jobbery that the promoters of early civil-service reform, Carl Schurz, George W. Curtis, E. L. Godkin, were mostly concerned. Corruption, not only of individuals, but of the whole democratic process, was involved. ‘The allurements of an immense number of offices and places exhibited to the voters of the land,’ wrote Cleveland, ‘and the promise of their bestowal in recognition of partisan activity, debauched the suffrage and robbed political action of its thoughtful and deliberative character.’

But the problem, as we now see, is much more complicated. No doubt democracy is peculiarly dependent on clean and disinterested government. By the very fact of numbers, a corrupt and jaundiced democracy can be most blind and oppressive. But in the modern world the simple virtues of honesty and public devotion are not enough. Indeed, honesty and public zeal without training and a sophisticated judgment may very readily become the unwitting tool of half-truths and misrepresentation. Compelled to grapple with a world more and more dominated by technological forces, government must have at its disposal the resources of training and capacity equipped to understand and to deal with the complicated issues to which these technological forces give rise.

There is a good deal of loose talk about science in politics. If by ‘science in politics’ is meant the availability of an irrefragable fund of knowledge in the possession of a few wise people who could, out of hand, solve the conundrums of government, it is merely another romantic delusion. But if by science we mean an intellectual procedure and a temper of mind, there must be science in government, because science dominates society. It then becomes a question of how much science government employs and how good it is.

The great political issues of the nineteenth century thrived, in the main, on the levels of feeling and rhetoric. The extension of the franchise, popular elections, the abolition of slavery (apart from its economic aspect), are not matters that yield to statistics or economic learning. But feeling and rhetoric are blind guides for the understanding of contemporary political issues. For the staples of contemporary politics — the organization of industry, the control of public utilities, the well-being of agriculture, the mastery of crime and disease — are deeply enmeshed in intricate and technical facts, and must be extricated from presupposition and partisanship. Such matters require systematic effort to contract the area of conflict and passion and to widen the area of accredited knowledge as the basis of action.

The history of reparations since the Versailles Treaty illustrates the extremely technical basis of political controversies which affect the economic balance of a good part of the world, and the social standards of millions of people. It would not be true to say that reparations presented questions merely for economists. But certainly the political judgments which were involved could only be taken blindly and in passion without an appreciation of those intricate economic factors which Maynard Keynes was the first to elucidate courageously at the bar of public opinion. Similarly, any solid judgment upon public-utility controversies presupposes the capacity to see the meaning of complicated technical data. In both these fields of politics, agitation and advocacy have their place. They are instruments of education, means for making effective the findings of knowledge and the lessons of experience. But the quiet, detached, laborious task of disentangling facts from fiction, of extracting reliable information from interested parties, of agreeing on what is proof and what surmise, must precede, if agitation is to feed on knowledge and reality, and be equipped to reach the mind rather than to exploit feeling.

‘It is difficult to realize’ — I quote from Graham Wallas — ‘how short a time it is since questions for which we now rely entirely on official statistics were discussed by the ordinary political methods of agitation and advocacy.’ But in the United States many of these questions are still anybody’s guess — are still the football of political debate. In 1830, the House of Commons wrangled as to the existence of economic distress and its extent. In England these facts — the condition of trade and the state of unemployment — are now as dependably revealed as the barometer registers atmospheric pressure. Debate continues to be anxious and even bitter about modes for relieving unemployment. But at all events search for remedies is not confused and diverted by doubt and denial that anything needs to be remedied. We are still where England was in 1830. Congress still debates whether unemployment really exists, and, if so, where and how much. And we have the extraordinary spectacle of the Secretary of Labor of the United States issuing unemployment estimates which the Commissioner of Labor of the State of New York denies.


Let me take another illustration of the limited application of scientific standards in public administration. Just as in eighteenth-century England it was matter for political controversy whether the population was rising or falling, so in twentieth-century America the homicide or burglary rate in our great cities is a recurring subject for political debate. And this is a very fair index of our whole attitude toward problems of crime. That the level of professionalism, of trained capacity, in our administration of criminal justice is very low, compared with that prevailing in Great Britain and on the Continent, is one of the most patent facts about our system. In saying this I hope I can avoid the appearance of being too simple about crime. I share the conviction of all who have been long immersed in these problems that crime is a true measure of the standards of our civilization. One cannot worry much about these questions without realizing that they touch the motives and purposes and directions of contemporary society. But that our lack of professionalism affects the whole situation hardly admits of doubt. Crime is age-old and ubiquitous, but by common consent it assails in greatest measure the most prosperous country in the world.

No one will deny that problems of crime are at least as difficult as problems of public health and hydraulic engineering. But public health and hydraulic engineering are now as a matter of course made the concern of specialists who give to their problems the devotion of a lifetime. That is the essence of professionalism — men adapted by nature for inquiries for which they are elaborately trained and which they pursue as a permanent career. In regard to crime, this condition on the whole does not obtain. Knowledge of the causes of crime, the ways for its prevention and detection, the modes of its treatment, are widely deemed the common possession of the man in the street. Even where professional training is exacted, namely, from lawyers and judges who at present play such an undue rôle in the administration of criminal justice, merely a general and not a specialized training is required. But even these professionally educated functionaries play their parts for only short terms or discontinuously. In the United States there is no body of highly trained, capable men who are drawn to the enigmas of crime as problems to be solved, who are adequately disciplined for their exploration, and who give the preoccupation of a lifetime to their solution. Broadly speaking, the directing officials are not technically trained for their work before they attain office, and the want of permanent careers through office deprives the community of capitalizing office itself as a school of training. There is thus no professionalism in administration. Partly cause and partly effect, there is equally no professionalism (always broadly speaking) of research into crime, as there is research in medicine and research in the natural sciences. The two indispensable interacting forces in the promotion of know ledge and the control of natural phenomena — to wit, professionalism in inquiry and professionalism in control — are thus lacking as to crime.

There can hardly be room for difference of opinion that indispensable to any effective or candid dealing with crime is the continuous, disinterested, scientific study of its problems. Just as disease has been withdrawn from the realm of quackery and magic, so crime must be subjected to that systematic, disciplined, continuous attack of reason which we call scientific procedure. Neither crime commissions nor presidential pronouncements will make a lasting dent upon crime unless we can secure acceptance of the standards of professionalism as a postulate of our government, similar to the acceptance by the British of the ideas which underlie their Civil Service.

I am far from suggesting that the conquest of science calls for a new type of oligarchy—namely, government by experts. I mean no such thing. To call the administrative régime of the British Civil Service ‘the new despotism,’ as does Lord Hewart, is to use the language of lurid journalism. But the power which must more and more be lodged in administrative experts, like all power, is prone to abuse unless its exercise is properly circumscribed and zealously serutinized. For we have greatly widened the field of administrative discretion and thus opened the door to arbitrariness. The dangers and difficulties have been acutely analyzed by General Smuts: —

Beneficent if kept under proper control, it [the power of the Civil Service] becomes an unmitigated bureaucracy if it assumes control itself, as it tends to do under weak and rapidly changing governments. . . . An ideal public service would go far to supply the deficiencies of democratic government, with its vacillation and inexpertness. But in the complicated organism of the state, any organ which becomes independent of the rest becomes a danger, and nothing is so dangerous to the state as a public service which does not march with the people, and becomes a drag on well-ordered progress; it may even have to be dynamited out of its fixed position.

Undoubtedly ultimate protection is to be found in ourselves, our zeal for liberty, our respect for one another and for the common good — a truth so obviously accepted that its demands in practice are usually overlooked. But safeguards must also be institutionalized through machinery and processes. These safeguards largely depend on very high standards of professional service, an effective procedure (always remembering that ‘in the development of our liberty insistence upon procedural regularity has been a large factor’), easy access to public scrutiny, and a constant play of alert public criticism, especially by an informed and spirited bar. Moreover, while expert administrators may sift out issues, elucidate them, bring the light of fact and experience to bear upon them, the final determinations of large policy must be made by the direct representatives of the public and not by the experts. Whether, for instance, the government should itself operate Muscle Shoals or lease its water power raises questions beyond the authority of engineer or economist. In the final analysis, we are in the realm of judgment regarding values as to which there is as yet no voice of science. The very notion of democracy implies the right of the public to decide these matters on its own choice.


Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of arts. It is neither business nor technology, nor applied science. It is the art of making men live together in peace and with reasonable happiness. Among the instruments for governing are organization, technological skill, and scientific methods. But they are all instruments, not ends. And that is why the art of governing has been achieved best by men to whom governing is itself a profession. One of the shallowest disdains is the sneer against the professional politician. The invidious implication of the phrase is, of course, against those who pursue self-interest through politics. But too prevalently the baby is thrown out with the bath. We forget that the most successful statesmen have been professionals. Walpole, Pitt, Gladstone, Disraeli, and Asquith were professional politicians. Beveridge’s recent life of Lincoln serves as a reminder that Lincoln was a professional politician. Politics was Roosevelt’s profession, Wilson was, all his life, at least preoccupied with politics, and Calvin Coolidge, though nominally a lawyer, has had no profession except politics. Canada emphasizes the professionalism of politics by making the Leader of the Opposition a paid officer of state.

In a democracy, politics is a process of popular education — the task of adjusting the conflicting interests of diverse groups in the community, and bending the hostility and suspicion and ignorance engendered by group interests toward a comprehension of mutual understanding. For these ends, expertise is indispensable. But politicians must enlist popular support for the technical means by which alone social policies can be realized. Æ summed it all up when he said, ‘The expert should be on tap, but not on top.’ In this country we have been so anxious to avoid the dangers of having the expert on top that we suffer from a strong reluctance to have him on tap.

We must also develop much more than we have another device for attaining knowledge for the guidance of public judgment. The permanent process of public administration must be reënforced from time to time by special commissions of inquiry. The history of British democracy might in considerable measure be written in terms of the history of successive Royal Commissions. We too have had notable commissions of inquiry, but, in the by and large, the experience and tradition of the British Royal Commissions are lacking in the United States. We have no standards to guide the technique of inquiry, the mode of procedure, the relations to public and executive. Yet such commissions of investigation ought more and more to be called into use to deflate feeling, define issues, sift evidence, formulate alternative remedies. If guided with imagination and courage, such commissions are admirable means for taking the nation to school. They should aim to ascertain facts, pose problems, and seek to enlighten the public mind. To be effective, such inquiries into political problems must be pursued in a scientific temper. Therefore ample time for thorough study is essential. There must be a total lack of the urgencies of the immediate, indifference to the compromises that may become pertinent after the problems are duly analyzed and alternative proposals for action suggested. Like all scientific work, this must be pursued with complete indifference to politics. It must be dedicated to the search for fact and be as free from dependence on the actual or supposed wishes or needs even of the President as is the Supreme Court of the United States.

The difficulties of our social-economic problems will not abate with time. One may be confident that they will become more complicated. They will make increasing demands upon trained intelligence. If government is to be equal to its responsibilities, it must draw more and more on men of skill and wisdom for public administration. As Oxford and Cambridge of old, our institutions of higher learning must be training schools for public service, not through utilitarian courses, but by the whole sweep of their culture and discipline. Above all, the universities must be reservoirs of disinterestedness. For the more contentious issues of politics lie not in the domain of the natural sciences. They depend on the wisdom of the social sciences. But in our generation at least, the social sciences still rest ultimately not upon verifiable and controlled experiments, but, in large measure, upon tentative conclusions and judgments. It is therefore absolutely vital that judgment be as disinterested as possible, that it be not exposed to the undertow of unconscious influences other than those which inhere in our present limited understanding of the workings of the mind. Thinking and reflection in the universities ought not to be guided along the smooth path of material interest or any of its derivatives, in all their subtle forms.