Social Organization

Chapter 35: Government as Public Will

Charles Horton Cooley

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IN the growth of public will any agency amenable to public opinion may serve as an instrument; and this means, of course, any sort of rational activity, personal as well as institutional. Thus the work of a secluded scientist, like Pasteur or Edison, taken together with the general acceptance and application of his results, is as much an act of public will as the proceedings of a legislature, and often more—because they may show a more public spirit and a wider knowledge and foresight. What is necessary is that somewhere there shall be effectual purpose and endeavor based on a large grasp of the situation. In short, public will is simply a matter of the more efficient organization of the general mind: whatever in the way of leadership or mechanism contributes to the latter has a share in it; and we may naturally expect it to progress rather by the quickening and coordination of many agencies than by the aggrandizement of any particular one.[1]

The view which many hold that public will must be chiefly if not wholly identified with the institution of gov-

(403)-ernment is a just one only in a certain narrow sense. That is to say, the mechanism of government is indeed the most definite and authoritative expression of public choice, and if public will is to be limited to what is decided by a count of voices and carried out, if necessary, by forge, then the government is its only agent. But only a small part of the will of society is of this sort. In a larger sense it is a diversified whole, embracing the thought and purpose of all institutions and associations, formal and informal, that have any breadth of aim, and even, as I have said, of secluded individuals. Surely the true will of humanity never has been and is not likely to be concentrated in a single agent, but works itself out through many instruments, and the unity we need is something much more intricate and flexible than could be secured through the state alone. Like other phases of organization, government is merely one way of doing things, fitted by its character for doing some things and unfitted for doing others.

As to what these things are, we must, of course, take the relative point of view and hold that the sphere of government operations is not, and should not be, fixed, but varies with the social condition at large. Hard-and-fast theories of what the state may best be and do, whether restrictive or expansive, we may well regard with distrust. It is by no means impossible that the whole character of the political state and of its relation to the rest of life is undergoing change of an unforeseeable kind which will eventually make our present dogmas on this point quite obsolete.

The most evident advantage of government as a social

(404) instrument—that which makes it the logical recourse of those who seek a short way to regeneration—is its power and reach. It is the strongest and most extensive of our institutions, with elaborate machinery ready to undertake almost anything, and poser limited, in the long run, only by public opinion.

Moreover, under a democratic system, it is definitely responsible to the people. Not that it always serves them: we know too well how apt it is to respect particular rather than general interests: but there is always a definite means of bringing it into line with public thought, always reins which the people may grasp if they will. This has the momentous effect that there is less jealousy of a democratic government, other things equal, than of any other form of power. Feeling that it is potentially at least their own, the people will endure from it with patience abuses that would be intolerable from any other source. The maddening thing about the oppression of private monopolies is the personal subjection, the humiliation of being unable to assert oneself, while in public life the free citizen has always a way of regular and dignified protest. He appeals not to an alien but to a larger self.

The most general defect of government is that which goes with its good qualities. Just because it is the most ancient and elaborate machine we have, it is apt to be too mechanical, too rigid, too costly and unhuman. As the most institutional of institutions it has a certain tendency toward formalism, and is objectionable on grounds of red-tape, lack of economy and remoteness from the fresher needs of the people.

(405) It is easy, however, for one impressed with this idea to be too indiscriminate in its application. Much depends upon the kind of government actually in question, upon the interest the people take in it, and many other conditions.

In the United States, for instance, each of us lives under three somewhat distinct kinds of government— federal, state and local—each of which has a large measure of practical independence of the others, and may be treated as a separate agent of public will. Moreover, it is often the case that the larger systems—say the federal post-office—allow a great deal of local autonomy in their administration, making it flexible to local opinion.

Under this system, a township, village or small city is no unwieldy machine, but pretty much what the people see fit to make it, and the fact that it is a phase of government is no sufficient reason why any affairs it may choose to undertake may not be as humanly and flexibly administered as those of a non-political association of equal extent. They often are so administered, and the same is true of great cities wherever a vigorous civic consciousness exists and has had time to work out its instruments. The question is only one of organization, and this confronts non-political associations as well as political; large private incorporations having notoriously about the same experience of formalism, extravagance and malfeasance as the state.

There are certain characteristics whose presence in a given function is favorable to state activity, though they cannot be said to indicate clearly where it should begin or end.


One of these, naturally, is the inadequacy or harmfulness of other agencies. The fact that a work is deemed necessary and that there is no other adequate way of doing is the real basis of most state functions; not only the primary ones of waging war and keeping order, but of issuing money, building roads, bridges and harbors, collecting statistics, instituting free schools, controlling monopolies and so on.

Another is that the work in question should be susceptible of comparatively simple and uniform methods since the more various and intricate a function is, the more difficulty will be found in getting it properly done by the powerful but usually somewhat clumsy mechanism o the state. The reasons that may justify a state post or telegraph, for instance, do not necessarily suffice for the assumption of the far more complicated business of the railways.

Again, whatever the state undertakes should be some thing likely to be watched by public opinion; not necessarily by the whole public, but at least by some powerful group steadfastly interested in efficiency and capable of judging whether it is attained. In the United States, certainly the successes or failures of government are largely explicable on this ground. Public education works well in spite of a constant leaning toward formalism, because the people take a close and jealous interest in it, while the monetary and financial functions are in like manner safeguarded by the scrutiny of the commercial world. But ii the matter of tariffs the scrutiny of the latter, inadequately balanced by that of any other interest, has produced what is practically class legislation; and some-

(407)-thing similar may be said of many phases of government action.[2]

From such considerations it seems that local government, because it is on a small scale and because the people will presumably be more able and willing to watch the details of its operation, should be the sphere in which extension of functions has the most chance of success. The more the citizen feels that government is close to him and amenable to his will, the more, other things equal, he should be inclined to trust it and to put himself into it. In spite of much disappointing experience, it seems reasonable to expect that small units, dealing with the every-day interests of the people, will, in the long run, enlist an ample share of their capacity and integrity.

And yet the nearness of the whole to the will of the member is psychical, not spatial, so that if the citizen for some reason feels closer to the central government and trusts it more, he may be more willing to aggrandize it. In the United States the people often have more interest and confidence in the federal system than in their particular states and cities; one reason being that the constant enlargement of private organization—as in the case of railways and the so-called trusts—puts it beyond the power of local control. Of course there is a natural sphere of development for each of the various phases of government.

Municipal socialism has the great advantage over other sorts of state extension of being optional by small units, and of permitting all sorts of diversity, experiment and

(408) comparison. There is nothing in it of that deadening uniformity and obliteration of alternatives involved in the blanket socialism of the central state. The evils we suffer from private monopolies—against which we may always invoke the state if not other competitors—are as nothing compared with those to be feared from an all-embracing state-monopoly; and I feel sure that common-sense, a shrewd attachment to the principle of "checks and balances," and the spirit of local individuality will preserve the English-speaking nations, at least, from serious danger of the latter. In countries like France, where there is a great traditional preponderance of the central authority, it may be among the possibilities, though the probable decline of war—the main cause of mechanical consolidation—should work in the opposite direction.

There are few things that would be more salutary to the life of our people than a lively and effective civic consciousness in towns, villages and rural communities. I trust this is growing and feel no dread of any socialism which it may prove to involve. One of the best things I have known Ann Arbor to do was to hold a public-school carnival on the occasion of the opening of a new high school. There were all sorts of performances by the children, largely of their own devising, and the people were interested and brought together as never, perhaps, before. It was communal, it was ours, and the social spirit it evoked was a common joy. Enterprises of the same nature on a larger and more permanent scale, such as the recreation centres of Chicago, are beginning to arise in various parts of the country.

It seems probable that the plain citizen must look largely

(409) to the communal life to supply that chance for self-expression which town residence and the specialized nature of modern industry have so largely restricted. Urban life is inevitable, and instead of regretting the country the city-dwellers had better make the most of the new situation, through playgrounds, public amusements, socialized schools, recreation centres, and, in general, a more vital and human civic organization.[3]

The fundamental need of men is for self-expression, for making their will felt in whatever they feel to be close to their hearts; and they will use the state in so far and in such a manner as they find it helpful in gratifying this need.

The more self-expression, therefore, there is in other spheres of life, the less need, relatively, people will feel of acting through government—a principle which should remind those who dread the growth of the latter that the only sure way to restrict it is by developing a real, affirmative freedom in other relations. Political democracy plus social and economic oppression is pretty sure to equal state socialism, because men will look to political control as a refuge. But if general conditions are free and open, men will be the more sensible, by contrast, of the unfree aspects of state activity.

A lack of economy in government will not much check its aggrandizement if the need of it is strongly felt on other grounds, since human nature, on the whole, cares very little for economy in comparison with freedom and justice. One will more willingly pay a water-tax of twenty

(410) dollars to a city government in which he has a voice than of ten to an alien and overbearing corporation.

In our day there is a tendency toward extension of state functions which after all is perhaps no more than symmetrical in view of the general expansion of larger structures in every sphere. It does not seem to outstrip the growth, for instance, of private corporations, or labor unions, or of individual wealth. It is easy to see a tendency to state socialism if you look only at the new functions of the state; easy to see an opposite tendency if you fix your attention on private organization. Whether or not the state is relatively increasing its sphere is not easy to decide. The new conditions of life bring men closer together, creating a general need of wider organization; and, so far as now appears, this need is to be met by the simultaneous development of various structures already well begun; such as popular government and education, private industrial and commercial corporations, labor unions, mutual-aid societies, philanthropical associations, and so on.

The special demand for state extension seems to spring chiefly from two conditions: the need to control the exorbitant power of private economic associations, and the need of meeting novel problems arising from life in great cities. In these and similar directions an intelligent and practiced democracy will proceed tentatively, "with the firm foot below," always balancing the loss against the gain. Experiments in political socialism are sure to be tried, which will prove instructive and perhaps beneficial. How far they will be carried no man can say, but I see no special reason to fear that they will go to any pernicious extreme.


  1. If the reader is not clear as to what I mean by public will, I beg to refer. him to chapters I, XII and XXXIV.
  2. These principles are much the same as those put forth by W. S. Jevons. See his Methods of Social Reform, 355.
  3. Compare Simon N. Patten, The New Basis of Civilization, 124.

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