Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/October 1887/Editor's Table



THE article by Dr. Shaw, in a recent number of the "Contemporary Review," on "The American State and the American Man," has started inquiry as to the extent to which individual liberty is being encroached upon in this country by the extension of State functions. The result has been to show that, in most of the States of the Union, a rapid process is taking place of transference to the government of functions and responsibilities heretofore devolving on the private citizen. It would almost seem as if people had found a new toy—the power of legislative action—and were playing with it with a kind of greedy zest. According to the accounts furnished, there is a perfect rain, not to say deluge, of statutory regulations on every conceivable subject proceeding from our State Legislatures. Acts of incorporation are granted to every body of persons who come forward and claim that it would be a public benefit if they were granted the powers and privileges of a corporation, and intrusted with the control of some particular art or profession. The general result of this legislative activity is that free competition is suppressed, and individuals are released to a large extent from all responsibility of choice as to how or through whom they shall get this thing or that thing done. The State legalizes certain schools of medicine and refuses to legalize others. It makes the taking out of its certificates obligatory on all who would engage in the profession of teaching. It provides for the inspection and stamping of various articles of merchandise. It seeks, as far as possible, apparently, to reduce the life of each individual citizen to a kind of safe mechanical routine. So soon, indeed, as a burden of responsibility begins to be felt in any quarter, some busy law-maker, moved by some interested party, offers to lighten the load by a special act of legislation. What should not be lost sight of is, that there is always somebody who stands ready to make money out of each new law inscribed on the statute-book. Back of the whole body of oleomargarine legislation stands the farmer who does not want his butter-trade subjected to a trying competition. And so with all special laws of a protective kind. We hear of a demand made in one quarter for the incorporation of the music-teaching profession, so that henceforth no one may venture to inculcate the elements of music save in accordance with the views and theories of the incorporators. Of course, these public-spirited ladies and gentlemen, who are so anxious to protect the community from the injury which might be inflicted by ill-prepared music-teachers, have their own interests to serve in the business. Competition will be restricted, and all who want to teach will have to pass through the probation which it may please the incorporators to prescribe. People who want to earn an honest living by imparting the little they know will find their pathway blocked by a special law passed in the interest of the magnates of the profession.

Dr. Shaw, in the article above referred to, says that there is no use in trying to draw a distinction between functions that the State may properly undertake and those which it should abstain from assuming. The sooner, he holds, we come down to the position that every thing is a lawful subject of State interference, and that the question is never more than one of expediency, the better it will be in every respect. We can not view the matter in the same light. We are quite prepared to apply the test of expediency; but we hold that, if it can be shown that there is a large class of subjects which it is not expedient for the State to touch, then it may be said that there is ground which it is not lawful for the State to enter. In applying the test of expediency, however, we would apply it in the broadest sense. We should be careful not to mistake a good intention for a good tendency; nor should we ever consent to overlook the probable effect of any given law upon the character of the community. We should claim to judge it not by its immediate and direct effects only, but by its remote and indirect ones as well, ever keeping in view the principle that the well-being of the community must in the last resort depend on the personal qualities of the men and women composing it. Let others aim, if they will, at the protection of everybody against everything, and the reducing to a minimum the energy, caution, judgment, and courage required for the conduct of life; we shall join in no such crusade. We believe that society possesses, and that individuals possess, powers of adaptation to varying contingencies which the protective spirit in contemporary legislation is greatly tending to obscure and overlay. We want to see individual character more and more brought into prominence as a condition of success, and public opinion developed and educated into a force that can act for good independently of legislative support. As things are going at present, it looks as if the "coming slavery," foretold by a great philosopher, might be hastened beyond the measure of his fears. It behooves all who believe in individual liberty and individual responsibility as conditions of social well-being to raise their voices against a tendency which certainly is hostile to both.


The thirty-sixth meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which was held in this city in August, was well attended, and made a good record of work. While it was not marked by any papers of unusual brilliancy, or by the announcement of any discoveries or theories of startling import, the papers presented, as a rule, bore evidence of careful, intelligent thought, and had their justification either in embodying discussions of public interest and utility, or as being real contributions to some department of scientific research. That the proportion of papers in which the public is interested was liberal, is shown by the fact that while the daily press selected these for notice, carefully excluding all that was technical, they gave fairly full reports, and such as would be likely to impress their readers that the Association was earnestly engaged in the consideration of living questions. Yet, besides these subjects, the daily programmes of the meeting were laden with topics and investigations in pure science, to which the sections equally gave attention.

The address of retiring President Morse, which we publish, takes up the question of what American zoölogists have done for evolution at the point where the author had left it in his address before the Biological Section of the Association in 1876, and brings it down to the present date. In the sectional vice-presidential addresses, Dr. Brinton reviewed the data for the study of the prehistoric chronology of North America; Professor Alvord, in the Economic Section, talked of the way in which we are wasting the substance of our land in our agricultural exports; Professor Gilbert reviewed the work of the "International Congress of Geologists," which, it appears, is the fruit of a suggestion made at the American Association in 1876; and Professor W. A. Anthony spoke of the importance of teaching physics in the public schools.

The greatest interest was centered in the Economic Section, where a full day was given to the hearing and discussion of the two papers by Professor Atwater, on "The Physiological and Pecuniary Economy of Food," and "The Food of Workingmen and its Relation to the Work done"; and where, at other sessions, President 0. M. Woodward, speaking from what had been accomplished under his own supervision, as well as with reference to its practical bearing; and Professor James, looking largely to the future and to the economical side, presented the advantages of manual training in the public schools.

In the Engineering and Mechanical Section, Mr. Edison, by proxy, explained his new pyromagnetic dynamo, or machine for producing electricity directly from fuel; and Mr. P. H. Dudley described his method for the mechanical inspection of railroad-tracks, by which the slightest flaw or unevenness is detected at once and automatically marked. Professor Ries's method of securing the adhesion of locomotives to railway tracks by the application of electricity, and thus adding to their tractive force without increasing their weight, promises to be of value if it is made practicable.

A joint meeting of the Engineering and Economical Sections was held for the consideration of plans for inter-oceanic communication, at which the merits of the Nicaragua Canal scheme were presented in full. A variety of topics of interest were considered m the Anthropological and Biological Sections; and the transactions of the Physical and Chemical Sections were of interest chiefly to persons engaged in those lines of research.

The Association asked, by resolution, for a reduction of the tariff on scientific books; advised the provision, by act of Congress, of a Bureau of Standards of Measurement for Electricity, Heat, Light, etc.; requested the President to appoint as permanent Superintendent of the Geodetic Survey a man of scientific attainments and trained in that branch; recommended the publication of an index to the publications of the Signal Service; and appointed two committees to secure measures for the preservation of mounds and relics of ethnological and archaeological interest—one, to consult with the national authorities respecting relics situated on public lands; the other, with the powers of the States with reference to those within their several territories.