Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/February 1887/Misgovernment of Great Cities II

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SERIOUS as are the evils under which municipal governments are laboring, great as are the embarrassments growing out of our conservatism, the opposition of vested rights, and the clamor of charlatans and demagogues, to whom the establishment of a thoroughly honest and efficient government would be the loss of their entire stock in trade, and difficult of application as are the principles on which we must rest our plans, still I do not believe that the present situation is hopeless or remediless. I found my opinion on the conviction that a large majority of the people desire good government, and that, when the matter can be presented to them in an intelligible manner, they will give a cordial support to the measures by which it can be secured.

The first work, then, of those who are interested in the question of municipal reform is, after a thorough study of the subject, to formulate a system of city government which will secure all the legitimate results for which municipal governments are organized, while it reduces to the minimum the opportunities for official malfeasance.

I am informed that in Boston there is an association of gentlemen who are organized for this purpose. I would be glad to know that similar associations were formed in each of our great cities. Through such organizations the results of the most careful study might be generally disseminated, and the public thoroughly aroused. I would be glad to make some contribution to this general purpose, even if my offering be of insignificant value.

It is manifestly impracticable for me, in this paper, to treat of the details of the subject. Permit me, however, to suggest a few general principles which, it seems to me, must underlie any successful municipal structure, whatever be its form. And first I would announce, not at all as a new idea, but as one which can not be too often repeated, or too thoroughly emphasized, that there must be a radical and a perpetual divorce between partisan politics and the management of municipal affairs.

There is no natural connection between these interests. A municipal corporation is purely a business institution. It has to do with matters of sanitation, with sewers, pavements, docks, police, and public buildings. It maintains parks, and to some extent regulates railroad and gas companies, and provides the city with a supply of water. It collects and disburses the public revenue, establishes and maintains a fire-brigade, lights and cleans the streets, regulates and inspects the public markets. These and all other duties which are appropriately devolved upon the corporation demand, for their successful and efficient discharge, business tact and skill, honesty, and a fair share of common sense. There is no legitimate duty which a municipal officer will perform either better or worse because he is a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent. There is no more reason for inquiring into the political sentiments of a mayor or any subordinate municipal officer than there is for asking as to the political preferences of a bank president, a railway president, or the members of the board of directors of either of such corporations.

The city government has no political functions. It can not determine any question of finance, or tariff, or domestic or foreign policy. It is merely a business agency for managing those specific affairs which have been placed in its care, and it will be most successful and efficient when it is administered by officers who are selected on account of their special adaptation to the work which they are expected to perform.

In our country, political party preferences are frequently so strong as to control votes in favor of a candidate notoriously unfit for the position for which he has been named. The voter feels that he owes his fealty to his party irrespective of the merits or demerits of that party's candidates, and this sentiment of the voter is utilized by the office-seekers to secure a support which they could not otherwise obtain.

Not unfrequently the canvass which precedes a municipal election is simply an appeal to political preferences and party associations. The real issue, to wit, the honesty and capacity of the several candidates to discharge the duties of the offices to which they aspire, receive next to no consideration, and in the end the success of party candidates is esteemed a fitting occasion for congratulations and rejoicing, even when the effect is to displace efficient officers by those who are inefficient.

The elimination of partisan politics from municipal affairs would be an important and a significant reform. To the place-hunters and spoilsmen of politics it would be an official "notice to quit," and it would mean that the municipal constituency had determined that the administration of city affairs should be conducted on business principles. It would help to make it practicable to secure and retain good men in the public service.

It is not often that those gentlemen, whose services either in the Council or in the executive departments of the city government are most to be desired, will undertake to secure a nomination and election through the use of the regular party machinery. The prerequisite manipulation, and the self-abasement and humiliation, which generally attend a successful candidature, demand more patriotism and self-sacrifice than even good men ordinarily possess. It is difficult to see why any man who ought to be elected should so earnestly desire the position of councilman or alderman in the city government as to be willing to pay for it what it costs in time, money, and self-respect when it comes to him as the result of a political party nomination.

When obtained, it only offers an opportunity for appropriating to the public interests a large amount of time and gratuitous service. Its only compensation must be that which comes from a sense of having faithfully and honestly discharged a duty. This is hardly sufficiently inspiring to attract the best men to the public service.

Mr.Shorey, in the pamphlet already referred to, in discussing another topic, says: "An instance will illustrate what I mean: Last spring an educated gentleman in the First Ward had faithfully served the public interests in the City Council for six years. He was not at all anxious to continue in the public service, and very properly refused to make any personal exertion to secure a renomination. The business men of that ward, in which there is probably two hundred million dollars' worth of property, paid little or no attention to the matter, and the result was the loss of an excellent representative of the character and intelligence of the city in the Council."

This is a case directly apposite to my argument. The successor to the councilman, whose loss to the Council Mr.Shorey deprecates, was the proprietor of a miserable gvoggery, who secured the party nomination.

Experience in former discussions leads me to anticipate here an objection which may be formulated thus: "Admitting all that you urge as to the evils of party politics in municipal affairs, and also as to the desirability of such a divorce as you suggest, there still remains the fact that they can not be separated."

The validity of this objection I am in no wise prepared to admit. It assumes that the mass of the jjeople are indifferent to the matter of good government, and that the voters of any municipality have more regard for an intangible, ineffectual, inoperative political success than they have for the correct and efficient management of city affairs.

I do not believe that this is true. It will seem to be true so long as municipal elections are handed over to professional politicians and "ward-bummers for management. But let the prominent and influential gentlemen in all political parties unite in an effort to elect only the best men to municipal positions; let them present only candidates of recognized ability and character; let the people be made to realize that there is absolutely no political principle involved in the contest, and the voters can not then be controlled by professional political leaders.

We are not without illustrations of the truth of this theory. In New York the good people of all political parties united for the overthrow of the Tweed dynasty, as they did in Philadelphia to depose McManes, and as they have since done in Cincinnati, and as they once did in Chicago. Under proper management these occasional and spasmodic exhibitions of non-political elections may become the rule rather than the exception, as applied to municipal governments. They tend to demonstrate the fact that the public sentiment, when properly aroused, will not tolerate official mismanagement and corruption.

Looking to this end, municipal elections should be made to occur at dates as remote as possible from those fixed for national and State elections, so that there may be the least possible complications with outside issues, and the least temptation to quote these elections as indices of political sentiment.

But more than to anything else, and, in my judgment, more than to all things else, the misgovernment of our great cities is chargeable to our practically unrestricted suffrage. I say unrestricted because the facility with which all regulations as to naturalization and registration are evaded makes it comparativel}' an easy matter for any individual to vote at least once at any election.

Those cities which are constantly receiving a large influx of foreign immigration, which is both ignorant and impoverished, are the greatest sufferers, but all municipalities are placed in jeopardy by this irresponsible and unintelligent suffrage. I do not enter the lists as an opponent of what is termed "manhood suffrage" when applied to State and national elections, that is, when applied to the determination of political questions. But neither the same nor similar conditions can be predicated of municipal corporations.

I restate a proposition which has already been emphasized in this discussion, to wit, that the municipality is a business corporation. It may not be strictly analogous to a corporation operated for private interests, such as a great railway company or a manufacturing establishment. But that it is far more nearly allied to one of these than it is to any political institution will not, I think, be seriously disputed.

It is a joint-stock affair in which the tax-payers are the stockholders, and to them substantially should the management of its business be committed. I am aware that this proposition will be criticised as undemocratic and anti-American, but I am none the less convinced that it is logical and worthy of support.

Subtract from the body of electors that element which would be eliminated by the application of this principle, and such a dynasty as that of Tweed and Sweeney in New York, McManes in Philadelphia, and Carter Harrison in Chicago, would be an absolute impossibility.

The substratum of all ring-rule in municipal affairs is that suffrage which is subject to manipulation and purchase by adroit and unprincipled managers, and which by artful appeals may be induced to regard all property-owners as natural enemies.

The present city government of Chicago owes its existence in a large measure to the immunity that has been extended to gamblers, thieves, tramps, thugs, and communists, who, in consequence of this immunity, rally to the support of our present mayor at every election, and resort to every species of fraud in his behalf. In return, they are permitted to ply their nefarious vocations practically unmolested.

No sane man doubts that the votes of the tax-payers of Chicago would elect an entirely different class of city officers—officers who would administer the government in the interests of good citizens rather than in the interests of the criminal classes. This being admitted, is it possible that there can be any question as to which policy ought to prevail?

I do not want to be understood as including the entire non-taxpaying classes in one group, or as making any sweeping assertions which would apply to them indiscriminately. On the contrary, I know very well that many of them are among our best citizens, and entirely worthy of the public confidence and respect. I would willingly consent to any scheme which would put all good citizens in the voting class, and all doubtful or unworthy citizens into the ranks of the non-voters. I am, however, unable to devise any system which will more nearly accomplish this than the one which I have suggested, and I am unable to see how it works any hardship to any one.

None of the rights or liberties of the non-tax-paying citizen would be imperiled by his inability to vote at municipal elections. The powers of the corporation can not be legitimately exercised to his damage. If they are illegitimately so exercised, then the courts are open to his protection, and will be found vastly more efficient for that purpose than would be the power to vote.

And why is it not safe as well as equitable to commit the management of the business of the corporation to the stockholders—the tax-payers? They are the parties most directly and positively interested. All kinds of improvements, the maintenance of good order, the security and protection of life and property, affect them more vitally than they affect other citizens. Would not a fire department which would be satisfactory to the owners of warehouses, banks, hotels, offices, commercial establishments, and costly private residences, be entirely adequate to the needs of those who own no buildings? Would not a police establishment which would serve to protect the public and private property of any large city and all its tax-paying inhabitants, necessarily be sufficient to meet all the necessities of the rest of the community?

In the matters of improving streets, and the laying out and ornamenting of drives and parks, would not the improvements made by the owners of property as a means of enhancing its value, as well as for the purposes of personal enjoyment, be a satisfactory provision for the use and comfort of those citizens who were not asked to contribute toward the expense of making them?

In many cities the cost of all such improvements as sewers, pavements, sidewalks, street-lamps, boulevards, and water-mains is charged directly on the abutting property, and are only constructed when petitioned for by a majority of the property-owners who will be called upon to pay for them. In all such cases the very existence of these improvements is a sufficient answer to the objection that public improvements would be impeded by an administration elected by tax-payers.

Indeed, it is reasonable to expect that the very opposite would be true, and that, with the assurance that public works would be managed with honesty and economy, the sentiment in favor of their construction would constantly increase.

There are two interests which I think it is probable that non-tax-paying citizens would be unwilling should be left entirely in the hands of their tax-paying neighbors. I refer to the provisions to be made for general education, and the proper and sufficient care of the poor.

I do not personally feel that even these interests would thus be in any degree jeopardized. They might, however, be so guarded and protected in the organic act of incorporation as to be placed absolutely beyond any danger.

What would be the result if, in our great railway corporations and large manufacturing companies, the board of directors, instead of being chosen by the stockholders, were to be elected by the employes? What would be the relative probability of securing a competent and efficient management? There could be but one outcome to such a policy: stockholders and employes would soon be involved in one common ruin. Query, Can the municipal corporation, acting under a similar policy, escape a like disaster?

But here, again, I expect to meet the objection once before noticed, viz., that the plan, whatever be its merits, is an impracticable one.

It will be said that where the elective franchise has once been conceded it can not be recalled. I recognize the difficulties of the situation, but I do not admit that they are insurmountable.

Instances are numerous where guards, limitations, and restrictions have been imposed upon the elective franchise by legislative authority, and it is but taking another step in this direction to establish the principle which I have been advocating.

No one will dispute that it is entirely competent for the Legislature, when organizing municipal corporations, to prescribe the conditions under which the elective franchise shall be exercised. If, then, the legislators should come to approve this method, it could readily be applied in erecting future municipalities.

In the case of cities like Boston, St.Louis, Cincinnati, etc., where there are two legislative bodies in the city government, we might, perhaps, make one of them elective by the popular vote, and the other by a vote of the tax-payers only. It might be required that appropriation bills and bills for raising the revenue should receive the approval of both bodies. Then, by-and by, when the people shall have come to the conclusion that only one legislative body is needful, they might decide to retain the one elected by the tax-payers and abolish the other.

Or, without in any way interfering with the right of suffrage in the case of any one who is now a voter, it might be determined as to any one who is not now a voter, that he shall not hereafter be entitled to the municipal franchise unless he be a tax-payer.

If the principle be correct, as I believe it to be, and if it be accepted by thoughtful men as one of the conditions of honest government, the method by which it may be incorporated into the municipal system will be devised. The method which has just been adopted by Chicago for securing fair elections will doubtless help to correct many of the evils which arise from what I have characterized as an unrestricted suffrage. The operations of this new election machinery will be watched with great interest by all who take an interest in municipal affairs, and it may be that from this source our deliverance is to come.

I notice one other particular in which reform in municipal governments is imperatively demanded: that is, the consideration which is given to the needs of the proletariat. The truth of the aphorism, "No man liveth to himself," more and more imposes itself on the attention of thoughtful men. It is a truth which neither individuals nor aggregations of individuals can afford to ignore.

The first problem in social science ever submitted for consideration was, "Am I my brother's keeper?" It would seem as if ever since that time the world had been endeavoring to find a negative answer to the question. No such answer has been found. No such answer can ever be found, because the law of reciprocal obligation is always operative in society. Evade the subject as we may; put it aside and refuse to consider it, as so many do; characterize it as Utopian, or sophistical, or chimerical—nevertheless it constantly reasserts itself with the declaration, "The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground,"

We may wrap ourselves in a mantle of selfish exclusiveness and refuse to recognize these obligations, but ever and anon the jostling of passing events will remind us of neglected duties.

Our responsibilities in this regard are not confined to legal formalities nor bounded by them. They have to do with our relations as members of one common brotherhood. Our employes have claims upon us in addition to the stipulated compensation for services rendered and our recognition of their technical right—claims upon our sympathy with their sufferings and misfortunes; claims to our encouragement in all their efforts for improvement, and to our helpful care in every time of need.

The claims of our neighbors who are not our employes are equally valid and imperious. Personal interest, as well as our obligations as good citizens and honest men, forbid us to ignore these claims. There is a tendency prevalent in society to limit these obligations by the narrowest possible lines.

Men look askance at the various manifestations of evil in the community, and, instead of planning and working for the correction of the evil, they spend their thoughts and efforts in devising better safeguards for their personal interests, in the vain hope that, when the storm does come, their defenses will be found sufficient. When the ruin comes, however, the strong and the weak are involved in one common catastrophe.

The granger organizations which a few years ago wrought such disaster to the railway interests of the Northwest, the strikes prevalent in connection with mining and manufacturing industries, and the riotous demonstrations and destructive agencies of the commune, serve as illustrations.

We were lately receiving the details of what was termed the working-men's insurrection in London. We see how easily such a movement passes under the control of socialistic and communistic leaders, and how readily it is transformed from a popular demand for employment into an ungovernable and devastating mob.

Doubtless a large fraction of this assemblage was made up of the criminal and base elements of society, but another large fraction was composed of those who had neither bread nor an opportunity to earn it—men who would be peaceable and industrious if only they could be given a chance to provide food for themselves and for those dependent upon them.

It was the discontent and sense of wrong upon the part of this element that made the riot possible. I am very far from offering any justification for such demonstrations, or excusing such acts of destruction or violence. But I want to call attention to this source of danger and menace to the good order and peace of society, and the security of property. An unemployed and more than half-starved element in any community is a slumbering volcano which at any moment is liable to a violent and destructive excitement. In the rapine and desolation that follow such an eruption, we see the result of ignoring the obligations to which I have referred—obligations, indeed, that are not recognized by our laws, and such as can not be enforced in any of our courts, but which are of a character that transcend all human law, and reside in that relationship which the Creator has established between men.

Take away the conditions of suffering and want which are coincident with an unemployed laboring class, and both the pretext and incentive to such demonstrations will be wanting.

But hungry men are neither philosophers nor political economists. Both themselves and those who depend upon them are in the direst need. Food and wealth are plentiful, but in the midst of both they are dying from want. Is it strange that under the promptings of their necessities they come to regard wealth as their enemy, and its possessors as in league against them, or that they determine to obtain relief without reference to the legal rights of those who may for the time being be the owners of that which they so much need?

We deprecate these outbursts. They ought to receive the severest condemnation. Their effect can only be to aggravate the very difficulties by which they are inspired. But let us remember that they have their origin, to a very considerable extent, in the indifference of society to its obligations to the laboring classes, and that society can only be made secure by recognizing and discharging these obligations.

The recent labor-strikes, culminating in the dynamite murders at Haymarket Square, in Chicago, should not, in my judgment, be classed with the London demonstration.

The labor difficulties occurring throughout the United States, in the first half of A.D.1886, have a different purpose and origin. They are the first manifestations of a plan to establish an oligarchy of workmen. A secret organization was established, on the theory of unquestioning obedience to the mandates of its leaders. Its members were made to believe that the organization was potent and beneficent. Under the pretense of protecting labor, these leaders assumed to dictate and control the actions of laborers, after a fashion more odious and tyrannical than was ever before known among civilized men. Large numbers of working-men were deceived by the professions-of these demagogical leaders. Others were intimidated and dragooned by the power of the organization, and thus these pestilent fellows of the basest sort were enabled for the time to set at defiance all law, to trample upon all rights of property and person, and institute a reign of anarchy and destruction.

The spirit of revolution and disorder pervaded the whole movement, and justified the most prompt and aggressive action on the part of the police and military authorities. It is to be hoped that the civil law, in the legitimate exercise of its power, may permanently relieve society from the presence of these leading anarchists.

The municipality, too, is charged with certain obligations to its proletariat. On the proper discharge of these obligations, the contentment, sobriety, and good citizenship of the community will very largely depend. Among other things, it ought to be the care of the city that the houses built for the accommodation of this population are suitably constructed, with a due regard to the health and comfort of the inmates; that the streets where they live are properly lighted, and sewered, and cleaned; that they have an ample supply of pure water; that public baths are established for their use; that libraries and reading-rooms are established for all who will use them; that public parks are established, with some reference to the convenience and comfort of this part of the people; and that some simple entertainment, such as music in the parks, be furnished for them.

The expense both of time and money which might be involved in carrying out these and such other plans as would be instituted in behalf of this part of the city's population, would afford the most ample returns, even when considered as an investment. It would lessen the amount of disorder and crime. It would reduce the demands made upon the hospital and poor-relief funds, and it would increase the value of taxable property.

There would be no quarter of the city which was practically assigned to the criminal and degraded classes—no localities which would have the reputation of the Old Five Points of New York, or the Levee of Chicago. I do not mean that we should in this way remove all destitution, degradation, or crime, but that we would reduce these evils to their smallest dimensions; that we would advance every material and social interest of the city, and would discharge a duty that is devolved upon us by the claims of humanity, the instincts of self-interest, and the principles of the wisest political economy.