Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/June 1897/Editor's Table
THE past winter has probably been the most remarkable on record for legislative activity. Although a considerable number of Legislatures has not been in session, owing to the adoption of the biennial system, those that have been at work appear to have spared no effort to give evidence of their wisdom and to add to the enormous volume of statutes that overwhelm lawyers and judges. In New York State the phenomenal record made by the previous Legislature was broken. Over thirty-five hundred bills were introduced in the Senate and Assembly, and of these over a third of them passed both Houses. Although figures are not at hand in regard to the activity of other Legislatures, the newspaper reports of their proceedings leave the impression that they have not been less productive.
It is not difficult to account for this remarkable phenomenon. Ever since the civil war, which gave a tremendous impetus to legislative activity both at Washington and at the capitals of the States, there has been shown a tendency to rely more and more upon laws to curb unamiable traits of human nature and to improve economic conditions. The old belief in the potency of Yankee energy and thrift to overcome the obstacles of life and of public opinion to bring wayward people into line with the best moral thought of the age has become much weakened. What has affected it most unfavorably of late is the business paralysis of the last few years. The result is that few people entertain the notion that anything can be done in the direction of either moral or industrial improvement without the enactment of some law.
Only a careful inspection of all the bills introduced and passed would enable one to make an adequate analysis of the subjects that have received legislative attention and treatment. But the accounts given of them in the newspapers indicate clearly enough their general character and tendency. They show a growing lack of respect for individual and corporate freedom and for the rights of property, especially the property of rich men. They appear to be based upon the theory that progress lies in the direction of regulating more and more the conduct of everybody, and of taking the money of the people that have it for the benefit of those less fortunate. But no argument is needed to show that this is despotism, although it is created in the name of the people, and that it is a reversion to a much lower state of civilization than the one to which the American people are supposed to have reached. Until this truth is realized, it is probably too much to expect that there will be any amendment of this deplorable evil of over legislation.
The subject that has perhaps received the most attention is trusts. With many legislators it has been a kind of mania. As a consequence, a mass of bills has been proposed to regulate all large combinations of capital, from railroads and insurance companies to department stores—a new object of legislative hostility—and to increase to the furthest limit the burden of taxation put upon them. Although this mania has not been confined to any particular locality, Kansas and Oklahoma have been the worst victims. So unfavorable to capital has been some of the legislation of Oklahoma that the home offices of insurance and loan companies outside of the State have ordered their agents to take no more business. The possibility of such a result in New York State had doubtless much to do with the modification of similar bills at Albany.
Naturally, where there has been such a shameless disregard of the rights of corporations, little consideration has been shown for the rights of individuals. When a wave of despotic repression passes over a community it shows no favor; it treats all alike. One of the most characteristic bills of this class is that compelling school teachers to contribute a certain percentage of their salaries to a retirement or pension fund, to be managed by the municipalities in which they live. It is, of course, nothing less than a step toward the establishment of a system of civil-service pensions like the one that now exists in certain countries in Europe. The legislation against the wearing of hats by women in theaters, against playing football, against the organization of Greek-letter fraternities in State-aided institutions, etc., is equally worthy of the same despotisms.
It would be interesting to speak more at length of other legislation, proposed and enacted, such as the prohibition of gold contracts, the issue of scrip as money by State and county governments, the payment of bounties on agricultural products, and the exemption from taxation of certain manufacturing industries. Measures of this kind are sufficiently significant to merit special comment; they illustrate in a striking manner the growing tendency to interfere with private rights and to plunder one class for the benefit of another. Equally significant also is the New York State law to pay to every indigent family a certain sum for the care of each child; it is a practice that can not fail to revive in this country all the shocking social and economic evils of the old English poor law. Finally, it would be interesting to dwell upon the vicious assaults that have been made in New York, Illinois, and elsewhere upon civil-service reform; they indicate the same decadence in public opinion as to the requirements of good government that may be observed in the renewal of archaic legislation in the field of morals and economics.
But it is only possible to call special attention to the efforts made very generally to provide money to meet the alarming increase of expenditures that has followed the large addition to the duties of the State. Desperately pressed to discover new sources of income, legislators have resorted to many novel and extraordinary expedients. Of these the most iniquitous is the graduated inheritance tax enacted in New York and proposed in other States. Not only does it violate the fundamental principles of taxation, namely, uniformity and equity, but it is likely to serve, like all iniquitous legislation, as a precedent to violate still further the rights of individuals and of property.
The city of Washington is at this moment the seat of a congress strikingly different in character from the Congress which we are accustomed to associate with the national capital. It is a congress of men chosen for their competence to deal with a particular subject. It meets for a business purpose. It will attend to that business. It will attack difficult work and keep at it till it is done. It will not be the scene of vain eloquence, nor yet of party maneuvers, and will know nothing of log-rolling for appropriations. When its labors are concluded the result will be recognizable in rules established, disputed questions settled, methods of procedure improved, distinct advantages gained for the whole civilized world. It will afford an example, as previous congresses of similar nature have already done, of what can be accomplished by the mutual counsel and concerted efforts of a body of men chosen expressly for their recognized fitness to deal with the interests committed to their charge. If it does not teach a lesson as to the improvement which might be effected in legislative bodies could their members also be chosen on grounds of fitness and competency for the work of legislation, it will not be because the lesson is not sufficiently on the surface.
The congress referred to, as our headline shows, is that of the Universal Postal Union. The formation of the Postal Union may be regarded as marking the transition from a period of semibarbarism in postal matters—that is to say, from an international point of view—to a period of civilization. Prior to 1874 each nation followed its own devices so far as postal arrangements were concerned. There was no attempt at uniformity of postage rates or regulations, and all international relations were complicated in the highest degree. The postage charges to no two countries were the same; or, if they were the same, it was by accident. There was no accident, however, about their being high. It had not occurred to anybody as yet that there could be such a thing as cheap international postage. It seemed to be an accepted axiom that, if correspondence was carried on across a frontier, it must be made an expensive affair.
A far-sighted German, however, the late Herr von Stephan, of Berlin, conceived the idea of introducing order into this postal chaos. He did not see why, if uniform rates could obtain through the extensive territories of a single state, uniform rates might not also be established over the civilized globe. He saw no sense in international frontiers in postal matters. A letter, he held, should be free to go whithersoever its sender willed, at the lowest charge compatible with reimbursement of the expense of conveyance. And as, in the main, the correspondence which each country would send to any other country would be about equal to what it would receive therefrom, he saw no necessity for international accounts. The result of the communication of these ideas to a number of the leading postal administrations of the world was the summoning in the year 1873 of the Berne Conference. The result of the conference was the establishment of the Postal Treaty of Berne, to which the leading nations of the world were signatories. That treaty established a uniform international rate of five cents for a half-ounce (gramme) letter, with a provisional permission to levy a surcharge up to five cents more on correspondence addressed to very distant countries, and subject therefore to specially heavy "transit" rates. International accounts were in the main abolished. There were still, however, complications, arising from the fact that a great many countries were yet outside the Union, and that accounts had therefore to be maintained with these, and certain debits and credits in connection with their correspondence to be passed on to other countries.
As time went on, however, things simplified themselves gradually. One by one the outlying countries fell in; and at the present time there is no government on the face of the earth deserving the name of civilized that has not adhered to what is justly styled the "Universal Postal Union." Nearly all countries have voluntarily abandoned their privilege of surcharging letters for remote destinations; so that, broadly speaking, the whole world may be described as one postal territory, while a five-cent stamp is the talisman that will secure for a letter conveyance, from any point where it can be posted, to any other at which it can be delivered by postal agency. For that very low payment it may go half round the globe; and if the person addressed is not there, it may complete the circle in order to find him. The great empire of China is preparing to fall in with the scheme, and has already adopted it to a considerable extent. Japan became a full member of the union many years ago.
The task, therefore, of the postal unification of the globe may be said to be all but accomplished. One or two difficulties in the working of the system remain to be smoothed away, and these are engaging the attention of the present congress. The most important question is that relating to "transit" postage. Some countries are so situated geographically that they are required to handle far more correspondence for other countries "in transit" than those countries have any opportunity of handling for them, while the situation of others, again, is the exact reverse. France, Italy, and Belgium are countries of the first class, a vast volume of correspondence for the continent of Europe passing through France and Belgium, and most of the correspondence of Europe with the East passing through Italy. Great Britain is an example on the other side, the postal business it does with foreign nations far exceeding the use made of its territory by mails in transit. The consequence is that every year in the settlement of claims and counter claims Great Britain has to pay out nearly half a million dollars more than she takes in.
Heretofore these claims and counter claims have been established by means of statistics taken periodically, and the question now before the congress is, Can these statistics, which entail a vast amount of labor, and more or less impede the postal service while they are in progress, be got rid of altogether? The German post office has a scheme by which this object can be accomplished. The plan is briefly this: As the taking of the statistics costs a great deal of labor, which, of course, means money, it is proposed that countries having a less claim in the general clearing than ten thousand dollars a year should forego it altogether in consideration of getting rid of trouble and expense to that (supposed) amount, and that the same amount should be deducted from all claims exceeding ten thousand dollars. It is estimated that the making of these deductions would decrease the total amount to be paid by the debtor countries by twenty-five per cent; and, taking the latest statistics as a basis, it is proposed simply to assess each debtor country accordingly, and pay over to each creditor country the amount to which it is entitled. If this scheme commends itself to the congress, the international postal system will have reached nearly the acme of simplicity, all postage accounts, between the different countries having been swept away into the limbo of the obsolete and the useless.
To how great an extent such an organization as the Universal Postal Union makes for civilization and for international unity it is needless to point out. It is one phase of the federation of mankind, and gives ground to hope that other steps in the moral unification of the race will follow. It is satisfactory to think that it is to a large extent the result of individual effort. The different governments of the world have been rather passive than active in the matter. They have had the grace—and they deserve credit for it—to let the best heads in their several services cooperate in developing this great scheme, which deserves to be regarded as one of the most definitive steps in advance that civilization has ever taken. When the proposition was first made it was not looked upon with great favor in more than one high quarter, but, as it did not involve much expenditure of money, no serious obstacles were thrown in the way. The thinkers who had it in hand soon showed what could be made of it, and to-day the world is reaping the benefit of their labors and their sagacity. As we began by saying, the congress of this world-wide union is a congress of the competent—let us add of the responsible. As it happens, these are precisely the two adjectives that are least applicable, generally speaking, to the members of political assembles elected by popular vote. As to competence, there is no need to discuss the matter; as to responsibility, it means nothing in political circles save liability to censure and rejection on the next occasion, if the representative has not pushed local interests with sufficient vigor and sufficient disregard of wider considerations. It would be vain to look for any sudden change in the working of democratic institutions; and yet an object lesson like that afforded by the Congress of the Universal Postal Union is one that should not be wholly lost on reasonable men.