Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/April 1897/Editor's Table

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Editor's Table.


THERE are two very sharply contrasted views of the conditions on which national prosperity depends, and we do not know how they can be better described than by naming them the scientific and the unscientific view, respectively. The scientific view of this and of every subject takes its start from Nature and the operation of natural law. The unscientific view takes its start from the idea of human intervention. The one finds the basis of all prosperity in the fruitful application of labor; the other thinks that nothing can be done well without incessant watchfulness to control and frequently to counteract the operation of natural forces and processes. According to the latter view, men and nations have to be guided, protected, and nursed into prosperity; according to the former, man is an animal who wants to be prosperous, and who has wit enough to attain his desires if he is only sufficiently let alone. So far as this country is concerned, no one can deny that what we have called the scientific view is sustained by facts, at least to this extent that, undeniably, the years when the most rapid advances were made in wealth and general prosperity were precisely those in which industry was least protected, and the principles of paternalism in government least developed.

An important characteristic of the scientific view is that it makes for national unity and for good will among men; while a most unfortunate characteristic of the other is that it tends to separate class from class and man from man in the most invidious manner. There is no one scheme by which the whole of a nation can be "protected." Protection is necessarily a piecemeal business, and what is accorded to one class becomes a pretext for similar or equivalent privileges to another class. In this way each class is led to watch with jealousy what is done for every other, in order to see that it is not left out in the distribution of state favors. The land is thus filled with countless law-made causes of rivalry and contention, and the minds of men grow small through the study of narrow and selfish interests, instead of being enlarged by the thought of one great onward movement in which, under the régime of liberty, all would participate.

Every protectionist system is dominated by the sentiments of fear and enmity—fear of and enmity toward those against whom protection is sought. That such sentiments are at war with and tend to depress and weaken the more generous instincts of a community who can doubt? When party orators talk of the "pauper labor" of the Old World, is it with any accent of sympathy for the hard lot of the alleged pauper laborers? Is it not always with a fierce accent of contempt for the laborers and hatred toward the countries to which they belong? We can truly say that we have no recollection of ever having seen or heard the term employed except with a distinct implication of contempt and hostility. Why is our country even to-day, when arbitration treaties are under discussion, so prone to anger and bitterness toward foreign countries, but particularly toward Great Britain, if not that protective policies steadily and powerfully keep alive such sentiments in the hearts of the people? We are not at this moment discussing this question from an economic point of view. It would be quite possible to grant, from the latter standpoint, that what is called commercial protection is a national necessity; and yet to admit and lament the fact that the moral result of such a policy was most unfavorable to the national character, and, above all, unfavorable to those broad, liberal, and humane sentiments which ought to characterize a nation which habitually regards itself as leading the van of civilization.

An illustration of the pettiness to which what we have called the unscientific view of the means by which national prosperity is promoted naturally leads is found in the recent legislation which imposes an educational test upon foreigners wishing to make this country their home. The immigrant, if over sixteen years of age, must be able to read and afterward write from twenty to twenty-five words of the Constitution of the United States; otherwise he is sent back to the country whence he came. The individual may be physically sound, and may be a capable and patient worker, prepared, even with the drawback of illiteracy, to take his chances in this new land; but he is refused admission. Why? The main reason, as we believe, is that the throwing of such difficulties in the way of the foreigner is in line with the sentiments which, as a people, we have been carefully nourishing for a long time past. It is a phase of "protection."' But surely do we need to be protected from foreigners who come here to do the hard work of the country? Is it not in our power to teach them respect for the law, if they need such teaching? And might it not be expected that the "free air" of this continent and the free play of American institutions would do something for their intellectual and political development? In times past, when our own illiteracy showed a larger percentage than it does to-day, and our whole population was much smaller, we admitted illiterate immigrants by the thousand without question and gave them a hearty welcome. To-day, when the volume of immigration is much less than it used to be, and when our own educational level is alleged to have materially risen, we must turn back the able-bodied foreigner unless he can show that he has been to school. In those days we made no question about our ability to absorb the vast hordes that presented themselves, and we did it. Today, when our population is much larger and the number of strangers arriving much smaller, we impose a scholastic test.

Looking at the law as a proposed safeguard of national prosperity, we must say it has a most fatuous appearance. The ability to read and write shows that the individual has so far been cared for by others, but affords little evidence as to his own intelligence or character. A great many vicious and socially dangerous persons are to be found among the educated, so called, while among the wholly uneducated are large numbers of faithful and honest workers. It would be interesting, but perhaps a little disquieting, to know just how many persons in this country who could write out, if necessary, the whole Constitution of the United States are supporting themselves by more or less predatory modes of life; and it would be further interesting to know what proportion of their dupes they find among those who can read and write, and what among the wholly uneducated. The fact is that "education" throws open to the vicious means of fraud they would not otherwise have possessed, and brings another class within the reach of dangers from which they would otherwise have stood entirely aloof. The man who can neither read nor write generally has a feeling of his own weakness, and is thrown back on his natural shrewdness and knowledge of things for self -protection, while a little school education, though of the shallowest kind, often puffs up its possessor to an amazing sense of self-sufficiency.

No one, we trust, will misunderstand the drift or purpose of these remarks. We wish in the first place to express our disapproval of the illiberal policy which would shut the door of this vast country, with its immense resources, in the face of a healthy, able-bodied immigrant, simply because he has not learned to read and write; and in the second place, to emphasize the position we have so often taken, that the mere ability to read and write is no safeguard whatever of character, no guarantee of the course in life which the individual will afterward pursue. There is in it the potentiality of further growth in knowledge, but there is also the potentiality of a life of scheming, of a life of sensuality, of a life of lawlessness. For one who can read there are useful books and papers to be had with very little trouble; but there are pernicious ones to be had with even less. The problem to-day is far less what to do with our illiterates than what to do with a considerable body of our literates, applying that term to all who can read and write; and to pretend that the welfare of the state is threatened if an almost imperceptible percentage of illiterate foreigners is added yearly to our seventy millions of population is hardly less than hypocritical.

The true safeguards of national prosperity have little to do with legislation of this character. They lie in respect for law, in a sense of justice between man and man, in a sense of responsibility on the part of those who through wealth possess power and social influence. They lie also in the faithfulness of public officers in the discharge of their duties, and in the recognition by every citizen of the truth that his actions count in the general sum of influences by which the fortunes of the state are molded for good or for evil. They lie, we need hardly say, in the right discharge by parents of their duties toward their children, and in the general soundness and purity of family life. They lie, finally, in a liberal, humane, and righteous public opinion, by which public policy is guided into right channels, and the evils which spring from diseased parts of the body politic are kept in check. These are the things we need to be concerned about, and which we must be concerned about if the nation is to prosper. Then, sooner or later, we must come to that régime of liberty which gives free scope to the activities and better sentiments of all. We must come to a belief that a vast amount of our intermeddling with the laws of supply and demand and the natural tendencies of things has been vain and hurtful. Until we reach this point our national prosperity will be on a more or less precarious basis, and our national character will not attain its best development.


The proposal has been seriously made in the columns of our contemporary Science that all the different scientific bureaus under the Government at Washington should be gathered into one great department of science under a ministerial head. The proposition is professedly made in the interest of economy and efficiency. It is alleged that several of the bureaus now duplicate one another's work, partly through sheer want of system and partly through not knowing what one another are doing. The writer, Dr. Charles W. Dabney, Jr., thinks it is amazing that the Government has accomplished so much excellent scientific work through the agency of so unscientific an organization. The remedy he prescribes is "a general coordination of the scientific work of the Government"; but just what would be the effect of such a co-ordination he does not describe further than to hint that it would save money.

On the other hand, a writer in the same journal, who signs "Washingtonian," does not believe in Dr. Dabney's scheme at all. He inclines to the opinion that "consolidation would diminish results, impair efficiency, and do away to some degree with individual responsibility." He thinks that, as things are at present, practical objects are better kept in view and more effectually pursued than they would be under a department that had the whole field of scientific investigation for its province. "The chemical laboratories," says Washingtonian, "being consolidated, the chief chemist would be a greater man than any of his colleagues. No director of a bureau could control his own chemical work. With demands for particular jobs from several bureaus on hand it would be wholly uncertain when any of them would be finished. Complaints would be met by playing off one against another. Responsibility, and to a large extent efficiency, would be lost."

In this dispute we are disposed to hold with Washingtonian. A general department of science would in our opinion be altogether too vague in its objects, and too little governed by a sense of the practical, to render satisfactory service to the public. It would be almost impossible to prevent it from wandering off into purely theoretical work and into all the fads of specialist research, and in a very few years taking up a position and assuming a character never contemplated when it was established. We hold, moreover, that it would be quite worth while to move the previous question: whether, already, the Government does not engage in various lines of scientific activity which might perfectly well be left to private effort. Government work has this peculiarity, that it is never done; just as "infant industries" have the peculiarity, of never outgrowing the tariff bottle.If a geological survey is undertaken, it must go on ad infinitum. If a private company had a piece of land which they wanted surveyed geologically or otherwise, and employed certain persons judged to be competent to take the work in hand, they would expect them to finish it, and that within a reasonable time. They would not expect them to camp everlastingly on the ground, and never hint at any finality to their alleged labors. With Government work it is different; it goes on for its own sake, or for the sake of the salaries connected with it; and the rustic voter who expects to see it some day completed will have an experience like that of the more ancient rustic, who stood by the river side expecting to see the stream run itself dry.

What we want, of course, far more than a national department of science, is an intelligent and honest Congress, out of which can be formed intelligent and honest committees capable of criticising the work of government, and intent on reducing it within the limits indicated by considerations of public utility. It ests with the people to say when we shall have such a Congress. It is all a question, as we lately pointed out, of disinterestedness in the exercise of the franchise. Whenever the time comes that the people as a whole, or a preponderant majority of the people, desire good and honest government, and are willing to take a little trouble to secure it, many things will be possible of which at present we can only dream.


It is one of the most serious evils of the methods of political discussion current among us that petty, local, and temporary considerations are given predominance, and graver, broader views, looking to the general public welfare and to ultimate results, are very little regarded.

We have a government, according to the well-worn phrase, of the people, for the people, by the people; but what "the people" do not always see is, that the government which they actually call into being is not a government of the people as a whole, for the people as a whole, and by the people as a whole, but a government in which rival interests, class and sectional, more or less check, thwart, haggle with, and corrupt one another, and in which the real interests of the community as a whole are too often lost sight of. The standing difficulty under our system is how to get important interests duly attended to, how to get great questions adequately discussed. Matters of minor importance, particularly such as may become the subject of a deal," can always secure attention; but, when the wider and more lasting interests of the nation are concerned, our legislative bodies show only too plainly that these are not the matters they care to deal with. The truth is they are not, speaking broadly, the matters they were elected to deal with, each constituent body having regard mainly, in choosing its representative, to local and special interests, not to those of the country as a whole.

The article which we publish in this number from our valued contributor, the Hon. David A. Wells, entitled How can the Federal Government best raise its Revenues? furnishes an admirable example of the manner in which great questions of public policy should be approached and treated.

Mr. Wells indicates what might be done if our statesmen would only deal with the question of taxation disinterestedly, casting aside the mischievous prejudice engendered by partisan rivalries and squabbles, and solely with a view to the public good. He points out that some of his suggestions would involve going counter to certain popular prejudices, but he makes it clear that these prejudices have nothing to do with the public good except to thwart and obstruct it. His appeal is to the reason and patriotism of Congress and of the country at large, and it will so far help, we have no doubt, to raise the tone of political discussion. To this end we cite his article as an example of earnest and thoughtful argument—the kind of argument that is too seldom addressed to popular audiences and too seldom heard in our legislative bodies.

The question of protection and free trade is very slightly if at all touched upon in Mr. Wells's article. But we can not refrain from saying that, in our opinion, this great nation can never be right with itself or with the world so long as the protection sentiment rules the thought of the people. To say that the way to make ourselves prosperous is to shut out the products of the rest of the world, even when offered to us at the most advantageous prices, is on the face of it an absurdity. The fundamental idea of trade, whether domestic or foreign, is that you get an article that is of more value to you than the thing you part with; and how a nation can benefit itself by greatly restricting the number of its profitable exchanges is something that no unsophisticated mind can understand. Add to this the bitterness of feeling toward foreign nations and the consequent littleness of mind which the protective system breeds; add to it also the political demoralization which tariff arrangements always involve, the corrupt relations they tend to create between the party in power and the privileged interests, and the conclusion will be inevitable that the system in question can not be a permanent policy for a self-respecting nation.

There are other questions pressing forward in our national affairs which need to be treated with sole regard to the welfare of the nation as a whole, and with views looking to the future rather than being confined to selfish interests and the emergencies of the present. Whatever may be said of the validity of Mr. Wells's arguments, his breadth of view and his method of presenting them may well be commended to all whose work it may be to deal with these subjects.