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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Duty of Criticism in a Democracy

By Edwin Lawrence Godkin (1831–1902)

From ‘Problems of Modern Democracy’

NO intelligent man can or ought to ignore the part which hope of better things plays in our present social system. It has largely, among the working classes, taken the place of religious belief. They have brought their heaven down to earth, and are literally looking forward to a sort of New Jerusalem, in which all comforts and many of the luxuries of life will be within easy reach of all. The great success of Utopian works like Bellamy’s shows the hold which these ideas have taken of the popular mind. The world has to have a religion of some kind, and the hope of better food and clothing, more leisure, and a greater variety of amusements, has become the religion of the working classes. Hope makes them peaceful, industrious, and resigned under present suffering. A Frenchman saw a ragged pauper spend his last few cents on a lottery ticket, and asked him how he could commit such a folly. “In order to have something to hope for,” he said. And from this point of view the outlay was undoubtedly excusable. It is literally hope which makes the world go round, and one of the hardest things an educated man who opens his mouth about public affairs has to do, is to say one word or anything to dampen or destroy it. Yet his highest duty is to speak the truth.

Luckily, there is one truth which can always be spoken without offense, and that is that on the whole the race advances through the increase of intelligence and the improvement of character, and has not advanced in any other way. The great amelioration in the condition of the working classes in Europe within this century, including the increasing power of the trades-unions, is the result not of any increase of benevolence in the upper classes, but of the growth of knowledge and self-reliance and foresight among the working classes themselves. The changes in legislation which have improved their condition are changes which they have demanded. When a workingman becomes a capitalist, and raises himself in any way above his early condition, it is rarely the result of miracle or accident. It is due to his superior intelligence and thrift. Nothing, on the whole, can be more delusive than official and other inquiries into the labor problem through commissions and legislative committees. They all assume that there is some secret in the relations of labor and capital which can be found out by taking testimony. But they never find anything out. Their reports during the last fifty years would make a small library, but they never tell us anything new. They are meant to pacify and amuse the laborer, and they do so; but to their constant failure to do anything more we owe some of the Socialist movement. The Socialists believe this failure due to want of will, and that Karl Marx has discovered the great truth of the situation, which is, that labor is entitled to the whole product. The great law which Nature seems to have prescribed for the government of the world, and the only law of human society which we are able to extract from history, is that the more intelligent and thoughtful of the race shall inherit the earth and have the best time, and that all others shall find life on the whole dull and unprofitable. Socialism is an attempt to contravene this law and insure a good time to everybody, independently of character and talents; but Nature will see that she is not frustrated or brought to naught, and I do not think educated men should ever cease to call attention to this fact; that is, ever cease to preach hopefulness, not to everybody, but to good people. This is no bar to benevolence to bad people or any people; but our first duty is loyalty to the great qualities of our kind, to the great human virtues which raise the civilized man above the savage.

There is probably no government in the world to-day as stable as that of the United States. The chief advantage of democratic government is, in a country like this, the enormous force it can command on an emergency. By “emergency” I mean the suppression of an insurrection or the conduct of a foreign war. But it is not equally strong in the ordinary work of administration. A good many governments, by far inferior to it in strength, fill the offices, collect the taxes, administer justice, and do the work of legislation with much greater efficiency. One cause of this inefficiency is that the popular standard in such matters is low, and that it resents dissatisfaction as an assumption of superiority. When a man says these and those things ought not to be, his neighbors, who find no fault with them, naturally accuse him of giving himself airs. It seems as if he thought he knew more than they did, and was trying to impose his plans on them. The consequence is that in a land of pure equality, as this is, critics are always an unpopular class, and criticism is in some sense an odious work. The only condemnation passed on the governmental acts or systems is apt to come from the opposite party in the form of what is called “arraignment,” which generally consists in wholesale abuse of the party in power, treating all their acts, small or great, as due to folly or depravity, and all their public men as either fools or knaves. Of course this makes but small impression on the public mind. It is taken to indicate not so much a desire to improve the public service as to get hold of the offices, and has as a general rule but little effect. Parties lose their hold on power through some conspicuously obnoxious acts or failures; never, or very rarely, through the judgments passed on them by hostile writers or orators. And yet nothing is more necessary to successful government than abundant criticism from sources not open to the suspicion of particular interest. There is nothing which bad governments so much dislike and resent as criticism, and have in past ages taken so much pains to put down. In fact, a history of the civil liberty would consist largely of an account of the resistance to criticism on the part of rulers. One of the first acts of a successful tyranny or despotism is always the silencing of the press or the establishment of a censorship.

Popular objection to criticism is however senseless, because it is through criticism—that is, through discrimination between two things, customs, or courses—that the race has managed to come out of the woods and lead a civilized life. The first man who objected to the general nakedness, and advised his fellows to put on clothes, was the first critic. Criticism of a high tariff recommends a low tariff; criticism of monarchy recommends a republic; criticism of vice recommends virtue. In fact, almost every act of life, in the practice of a profession or the conduct of a business, condemns one course and suggests another. The word means judging, and judgment is the highest of the human faculties, the one which most distinguishes us from the animals.

There is probably nothing from which the public service of the country suffers more to-day than the silence of its educated class; that is, the small amount of criticism which comes from the disinterested and competent sources. It is a very rare thing for an educated man to say anything publicly about the questions of the day. He is absorbed in science, or art, or literature, in the practice of his profession, or in the conduct of his business; and if he has any interest at all in public affairs, it is a languid one. He is silent because he does not much care, or because he does not wish to embarrass the administration or “hurt the party,” or because he does not feel that anything he could say would make much difference. So that on the whole, it is very rarely that the instructed opinion of the country is ever heard on any subject. The report of the Bar Association on the nomination of Maynard in New York was a remarkable exception to this rule. Some improvement in this direction has been made by the appearance of the set of people known as the “Mugwumps,” who are, in the main, men of cultivation. They have been defined in various ways. They are known to the masses mainly as “kickers”; that is, dissatisfied, querulous people, who complain of everybody and cannot submit to party discipline. But they are the only critics who do not criticize in the interest of party, but simply in that of good government. They are a kind of personage whom the bulk of the voters know nothing about and find it difficult to understand, and consequently load with ridicule and abuse. But their movement, though its visible recognizable effects on elections may be small, has done inestimable service in slackening the bonds of party discipline, in making the expression of open dissent from party programmes respectable and common, and in increasing the unreliable vote in large States like New York. It is of the last importance that this unreliable vote—that is, the vote which party leaders cannot count on with certainty—should be large in such States. The mere fear of it prevents a great many excesses.

But in criticism one always has hard work in steering a straight course between optimism and pessimism. These are the Scylla and Charybdis of the critic’s career. Almost every man who thinks or speaks about public affairs is either an optimist or a pessimist; which he is, depends a good deal on temperament, but often on character. The political jobber or corruptionist is almost always an optimist. So is the prosperous business man. So is nearly every politician, because the optimist is nearly always the more popular of the two. As a general rule, people like cheerful men and the promise of good times. The kill-joy and bearer of bad news has always been an odious character. But for the cultivated man there is no virtue in either optimism or pessimism. Some people think it a duty to be optimistic, and for some people it may be a duty; but one of the great uses of education is to teach us to be neither one nor the other. In the management of our personal affairs, we try to be neither one nor the other. In business, a persistent and uproarious optimist would certainly have poor credit. And why? Because in business the trustworthy man, as everybody knows, is the man who sees things as they are: and to see things as they are, without glamor or illusion, is the first condition of worldly success. It is absolutely essential in war, in finance, in law, in every field of human activity in which the future has to be thought of and provided for. It is just as essential in politics. The only reason why it is not thought as essential in politics is, the punishment for failure or neglect comes in politics more slowly.

The pessimist has generally a bad name, but there is a good deal to be said for him. To take a recent illustration, the man who took pessimistic views of the silver movement was for nearly twenty years under a cloud. This gloomy anticipation of 1873 was not realized until 1893. For a thousand years after Marcus Aurelius, the pessimist, if I may use the expression, was “cock of the walk.” He certainly has no reason to be ashamed of his rôle in the Eastern world for a thousand years after the Mohammedan Hegira. In Italy and Spain he has not needed to hang his head since the Renaissance. In fact, if we take various nations and long reaches of time, we shall find that the gloomy man has been nearly as often justified by the course of events as the cheerful one. Neither of them has any special claim to a hearing on public affairs. A persistent optimist, although he may be a most agreeable man in family life, is likely, in business or politics, to be just as foolish and unbearable as a persistent pessimist. He is as much out of harmony with the order of nature. The universe is not governed on optimistic any more than on pessimistic principles. The best and wisest of men make their mistakes and have their share of sorrow and sickness and losses. So also the most happily situated nations must suffer from internal discord, the blunders of statesmen, and the madness of the people. What Cato said in the Senate of the conditions of success, “vigilando, agendo, bene consulendo, prosperê omnia cedunt,” is as true to-day as it was two thousand years ago. We must remember that though the optimist may be the pleasantest man to have about us, he is the least likely to take precautions; that is, the least likely to watch and work for success. We owe a great deal of our slovenly legislation to his presence in large numbers in Congress and the legislatures. The great suffering through which we are now passing, in consequence of the persistence in our silver purchases, is the direct result of unreasoning optimism. Its promoters disregarded the warnings of economists and financiers because they believed that somehow, they did not know how, the thing would come out right in the end. The silver collapse, together with the Civil War over slavery, are striking illustrations to occur in one century, of the fact that if things come out right in the end, it is often after periods of great suffering and disaster. Could people have foreseen how the slavery controversy would end, what frantic efforts would have been made for peaceful abolition! Could people have foreseen the panic of last year, with its widespread disaster, what haste would have been made to stop the silver purchases! And yet the experience of mankind afforded abundant reason for anticipating both results.

This leads me to say that the reason why educated men should try and keep a fair mental balance between both pessimism and optimism, is that there has come over the world in the last twenty-five or thirty years a very great change of opinion touching the relations of the government to the community. When Europe settled down to peaceful work after the great wars of the French Revolution, it was possessed with the idea that the freedom of the individual was all that was needed for public prosperity and private happiness. The old government interference with people’s movements and doings was supposed to be the reason why nations had not been happy in the past. This became the creed, in this country, of the Democratic party, which came into existence after the foundation of the federal government. At the same time there grew up here the popular idea of the American character, in which individualism was the most marked trait. If you are not familiar with it in your own time, you may remember it in the literature of the earlier half of the century. The typical American was always the architect of his own fortunes. He sailed the seas and penetrated the forest, and built cities and lynched the horse thieves, and fought the Indians and dug the mines, without anybody’s help or support. He had even an ill-concealed contempt for regular troops, as men under control and discipline. He scorned government for any other purposes than security and the administration of justice. This was the kind of American that Tocqueville found here in 1833. He says:—

  • “The European often sees in the public functionaries simply force; the American sees nothing but law. One may then say that in America a man never obeys a man, or anything but justice and law. Consequently he has formed of himself an opinion which is often exaggerated, but is always salutary. He trusts without fear to his own strength, which appears to him equal to anything. A private individual conceives some sort of enterprise. Even if this enterprise have some sort of connection with the public welfare, it never occurs to him to address himself to the government in order to obtain its aid. He makes his plan known, offers to carry it out, calls other individuals to his aid, and struggles with all his might against any obstacles there may be in his way. Often, without doubt, he succeeds less well than the State would in his place; but in the long run the general result of individual enterprises far surpasses anything the government could do.”
  • Now there is no doubt that if this type of character has not passed away, it has been greatly modified; and it has been modified by two agencies—the “labor problem,” as it is called, and legislative protection to native industry. I am not going to make an argument about the value of this protection in promoting native industry, or about its value from the industrial point of view. We may or we may not owe to it the individual progress and prosperity of the United States. About that I do not propose to say anything. What I want to say is that the doctrine that it is a function of government, not simply to foster industry in general, but to consider the case of every particular industry and give it the protection that it needs, could not be preached and practiced for thirty years in a community like this, without modifying the old American conception of the relation of the government to the individual. It makes the government, in a certain sense, a partner in every industrial enterprise, and makes every Presidential election an affair of the pocket to every miner and manufacturer and to his men; for the men have for fully thirty years been told that the amount of their wages would depend, to a certain extent at least, on the way the election went. The notion that the government owes assistance to individuals in carrying on business and making a livelihood has in fact, largely through the tariff discussions, permeated a very large class of the community, and has materially changed what I may call the American outlook. It has greatly reinforced among the foreign-born population the socialistic ideas which many bring here with them, of the powers and duties of the State toward labor; for it is preached vehemently by the employing class.

    What makes this look the more serious is, that our political and social manners are not adapted to it. In Europe, the State is possessed of an administrative machine which has a finish, efficacy, and permanence unknown here. Tocqueville comments on its absence among us; and it is, as all the advocates of civil-service reform know, very difficult to supply. All the agencies of the government suffer from the imposition on them of what I may call non-American duties. For instance, a custom-house organized as a political machine was never intended to collect the enormous sum of duties which must pass through its hands under our tariff. A post-office whose master has to be changed every four years to “placate” Tammany, or the anti-Snappers, or any other body of politicians, was never intended to handle the huge mass which American mails have now become. One of the greatest objections to the income tax is the prying into people’s affairs which it involves. No man likes to tell what his income is to every stranger, much less to a politician, which our collectors are sure to be. Secrecy on the part of the collector is in fact essential to reconcile people to it in England or Germany, where it is firmly established; but our collectors sell their lists to the newspapers in order to make the contributors pay up.

    In all these things, we are trying to meet the burdens and responsibilities of much older societies with the machinery of a much earlier and simpler state of things. It is high time to halt in this progress until our administrative system has been brought up to the level even of our present requirements. It is quite true that, with our system of State and federal constitutions laying prohibitions on the Legislature and Congress, any great extension of the sphere of government in our time seems very unlikely. Yet the assumption by Congress, with the support of the Supreme Court, of the power to issue paper money in time of peace, the power to make prolonged purchases of a commodity like silver, the power to impose an income tax, to execute great public works, and to protect native industry, are powers large enough to effect a great change in the constitution of society and in the distribution of wealth, such as, it is safe to say, in the present state of human culture, no government ought to have and exercise.

    One hears every day from educated people some addition to the number of things which “governments” ought to do, but for which any government we have at present is totally unfit. One listens to them with amazement, when looking at the material of which our government is composed,—for the matter of that, of which all governments are composed; for I suppose there is no question that all legislative bodies in the world have in twenty years run down in quality. The parliamentary system is apparently failing to meet the demands of modern democratic society, and is falling into some disrepute; but it would seem as if there was at present just as little chance of a substitute of any kind as of the dethronement of universal suffrage. It will probably last indefinitely, and be as good or as bad as its constituents make it. But this probable extension of the powers and functions of government makes more necessary than ever a free expression of opinion, and especially of educated opinion. We may rail at “mere talk” as much as we please, but the probability is that the affairs of nations and of men will be more and more regulated by talk. The amount of talk which is now expended on all subjects of human interest—and in “talk” I include contributions to periodical literature—is something of which no previous age has had the smallest conception. Of course it varies infinitely in quality. A very large proportion of it does no good beyond relieving the feelings of the talker. Political philosophers maintain, and with good reason, that one of its greatest uses is keeping down discontent under popular government. It is undoubtedly true that it is an immense relief to a man with a grievance to express his feelings about it in words, even if he knows that his words will have no immediate effect. Self-love is apt to prevent most men from thinking that anything they say with passion or earnestness will utterly and finally fail. But still it is safe to suppose that one half of the talk of the world on subjects of general interest is waste. But the other half certainly tells. We know this from the change in ideas from generation to generation. We see that opinions which at one time everybody held became absurd in the course of half a century—opinions about religion and morals and manners and government. Nearly every man of my age can recall old opinions of his own on subjects of general interest, which he once thought highly respectable, and which he is now almost ashamed of having ever held. He does not remember when he changed them, or why, but somehow they have passed away from him.

    In communities these changes are often very striking. The transformation, for instance, of the England of Cromwell into the England of Queen Anne, or of the New England of Cotton Mather into the New England of Theodore Parker and Emerson, was very extraordinary, but it would be very difficult to say in detail what brought it about or when it began. Lecky has some curious observations in his “History of Rationalism” on these silent changes in new beliefs, apropos of the disappearance of the belief in witchcraft. Nobody could say what had swept it away; but it appeared that in a certain year people were ready to burn old women as witches, and a few years later were ready to laugh at or pity any one who thought old women could be witches. “At one period,” says he, “we find every one disposed to believe in witches; at a later period we find this predisposition has silently passed away.” The belief in witchcraft may perhaps be considered a somewhat violent illustration, like the change in public opinion about slavery in this country. But there can be no doubt that it is talk—somebody’s, anybody’s, everybody’s talk—by which these changes are wrought, by which each generation comes to feel and think differently from its predecessor.

    No one ever talks freely about anything without contributing something, let it be ever so little, to the unseen forces which carry the race on to its final destiny. Even if he does not make a positive impression, he counteracts or modifies some other impression, or sets in motion some train of ideas in some one else, which helps to change the face of the world. So I shall, in disregard of the great laudation of silence which filled the earth in the days of Carlyle, say that one of the functions of an educated man is to talk; and of course he should try to talk wisely.