The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 49

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.


Government Grows Distant from the People

The race of mortal man is far too weak
To grow not dizzy on unwonted heights.
- GOETHE: Iphigenia.

Let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.
- WASHINGTON: Farewell Address.

History, it has been said, is philosophy teaching by examples.
- MACAULAY: Essay on History.

DE TOCQUEVILLE says that the history of the wofid affords no instance of a great nation retaining the form of republican government for a long series of years, and that this has led to the conclusion that permanency is impracticable. While for his own part he thinks it imprudent to limit what is possible, yet he believes it may be said with confidence that a great republic will always be exposed to more perils than a small one. He observes:

Are we in this Republic exempt from these dangers? Have we not "great wealth and extreme poverty, capital cities of large size, a lax morality, selfishness and antago nism of interests"? And do we not find that "political passions" have "become irresistible, not only because they aim at gigantic objects, but because they are felt and shared by millions of men at the same time"?

While it is certain that the idea of direct, popular election of United States Senators and the even larger idea of popular initiation of legislation and the reference of all important legislative matters to popular vote are rapidly gathering adherents in the United States, it has to be admitted that these ideas must have a long and bitter fight before they can triumph over conditions that have fastened and hardened upon us. For, as we have seen in previous chapters, Privilege has been busy shaping politics to its own interest and away from general democratic control. In this respect the tendency of politics and the administration of government is toward centralization - the centering of power in fewer and fewer hands. Indeed, this result we already find greatly developed in municipal, State and Federal political affairs.

In local affairs we have traveled far from the New England town-meeting idea, which Jefferson declared to be "the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation." The movement is toward centralized power - a power at once removed from the immediate inspection and control of the people in general, and at the command of Privilege.

Many are the evidences of this in our State and municipal Governments. The Pennsylvania Railroad desired certain extensions of an earlier grant to enter and leave New York City by tunnel. The Mayor and other administrative officials favored the extension. The Board of Aldermen saw, or feigned to see, material objections. They refused to give consent which, under the city's charter, was required to make such extension valid. The Board asserted that it was protecting public interests. The railroad corporation broadly intimated in the newspapers that the Board's action was a pure and simple "hold-up," and that for once the corporation was resolved not to be "bled." There was a protracted dead-lock, and then the railroad, anxious to get its tunnel built and in operation, went to the State Legislature and procured an amendment of the city's charter, depriving the Board of Aldermen of the right to grant franchises and vesting that power solely in the Mayor and the administrative heads.

Rarely has there been a more striking and balder exhibition of the power of a privileged corporation to effect legislation to its liking. Was there a general outcry? Scarcely a protest. The general feeling was that the aldermanic body was venal, and that it would be for the immediate public good to have the proposed railroad facilities. So the railroad corporation was permitted to work its will.

In the District of Columbia, the capital of the nation, fear of domination by colored voters has superseded democratic government. Congress acts as the local Board of Aldermen, and the administration is placed in the hands of three commissioners appointed by the President. The expense of erecting and keeping up the Federal buildings is borne solely by the Federal Government, while one half the general expense of conducting the District is paid out of the Federal treasury, the other half out of District taxes. This is commonly spoken of as "government by commission."

By those who fear the weakness as well as by those who fear the strength of the people, it is hailed as an ideal example of wise municipal government. Such persons would have the municipalities in all our States governed by similar commissions, the members of such bodies to be appointed by the respective Governors. The public-spirited Dr. Goldwin Smith urges this idea. He does it regretfully, it would seem, but yet with the implication that the people must be saved from themselves. No attempt is made to seek out and remedy the cause of slothfulness, indifference or corruption of the people. The fact that the people are slothful, indifferent or corrupt is sufficient in the minds of such interested or disinterested persons to prove a failure of popular government, at least in local affairs, and to require resort to centralized powers.

With that ground thus prepared, Privilege, using one or another of the political parties, resorts to centralization; or political parties so act themselves "for what there might be in it." The Mayor of New York at the time of the Pennsylvania Railroad amendment of the city charter was a Democrat, while the Governor and a majority in the State Legislature were Republicans.

Several times the Republican party boss of New York State has vainly attempted to put the police force of the Democratic city in the hands of a commission to be appointed by a Republican Governor. For a precedent he went to the State of Missouri, where control of the St. Louis police had been removed from a Republican Mayor and vested in commissioners named by a Democratic Governor.

The Democratic Governor of Missouri orders the sheriff of St. Louis County to prevent all betting at Delmar race track, and intimates that he will, if necessary, support the sheriff with State militia. Chicago merchants appeal to the Governor of Illinois to send State troops to prevent occasional rockthrowing from ten-story windows during a strike. Governor after Governor in Northern as well as in Southern States has deemed it necessary to call out troops to prevent lynchings, so far has local authority failed or been set aside.

In Pennsylvania the unique ''Coal and Iron Police" created for the express use of the coal and iron companies, has been superseded by a State constabulary, ostensibly to act as fire, forest, game and fish wardens, and to protect the farmers; but really to serve as a more efficient police body for fhe coal and iron companies. The coal and iron workers have denounced the new institution as a fresh weapon for use against them in time of strike. One of the provisions of the constabulary law is that any man trespassing on property whereon a warning sign is displayed is subject to arrest and a fine of ten dollars. As a coal mine worker observed, "During a strike this will put strike pickets in jail faster than they can be supplied."

Nor is there general or effective protest at this march of centralization. How much objecting was heard in Colorado from men of standing and influence at the trampling on local rights by the Governor and the militia acting under his general command during the gold, silver, coal and smelting strike? Little or none. Everywhere the remark was repeated that if the action of the Governor and of those bodies of citizens who acted with him was not lawful, yet it was for the public good.

Is not all this tending directly away from that form of democratic government which Jefferson called "the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation"? Yet many men of just mind and not ungenerous motives hold that local affairs are not properly political, but are business affairs. They fail utterly to see that local affairs are the business affairs of everybody and therefore the very corner-stone of politics. De Tocqueville speaks forcibly here: -

We well might ponder this and wonder, as we review the political field near at hand and over a wider range, if it does not fit our case? For, as there is a centralizing movement in the respective States, so is there an even stronger centralizing movement from the States toward the Federal Government. Everywhere Privilege grows more potent; and as it strengthens, it centers power in fewer and fewer points.

Next Week: Anti-Democracy Power Grabs by the Federal Government

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