Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 29.djvu/17

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7
THE DIFFICULTIES OF RAILROAD REGULATION.

Fortunately, no other State had quite so severe an experience as Wisconsin. There were somewhat similar laws in other States, for instance, in Illinois; but the enforcement of the Illinois law was intrusted to a commission. The commissioners were not men of experience in these matters, but they had the sense to see that the attempt to reduce rates too sharply would defeat the purposes in view. They therefore used their powers with some discretion; not attempting to reduce rates everywhere at once, but simply to correct the worst abuses. They were not altogether successful, but they made no such disastrous failure as occurred in Wisconsin.

There is an undeniable advantage in entrusting the execution of such a law to the somewhat discretionary power of a commission. A court is not well qualified to enforce a hard and fast law concerning railroad rates. The courts are compelled to rely somewhat blindly upon precedent; while railroad management is so new a thing that the precedents derived from other lines of business are often misleading. The best proof of the usefulness of railroad commissions is the extent to which they have prevailed. Nearly two thirds of our States have them; there is scarcely a serious attempt at railroad regulation in the United States except through some such agency.

But, even in the best hands, the power to fix rates is of somewhat doubtful utility. More effective statutes have been aimed at discrimination itself not to fix the rate, but to limit the chance for arbitrary differences. In one sense it ought hardly to need a statute to do this. Secret rebates and personal discriminations are so clearly against the spirit of the law of common carriers, that to call public attention authoritatively to these things is to condemn them. The work of the Hepburn Committee in New York, in 1879, had a value of this kind, quite apart from any positive legislation which it secured. The value of similar work done by certain railroad commissions can hardly be overestimated.

The worst abuses may be thus checked; but, as long as competition is at all active, there will be a good deal of local discrimination in favor of competitive points, which the common law is powerless to prevent. Against this system the so-called "short-haul" laws have been aimed. Probably no other point with regard to railroad regulation has been made the subject of so much discussion.

The short-haul principle provides that a railroad shall not charge a larger gross sum for a part of any route than it does for the whole—not more, for instance, from Chicago to Springfield, Massachusetts, than from Chicago to Boston. It is thus intended to prevent the more outrageous forms of local discrimination. There can be no doubt that as a general principle it is correct. But it is not one which it is always possible to enforce by law. If the law can reach all the rival routes, and can be enforced against all of them, it does much good and little or no harm. But, if it reaches one route and not another, it sim-