Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/March 1900/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | March 1900

Editor's Table.


THE synopsis which has been given to the press of the Thirteenth Annual Report of the Interstate Commerce Commission is not encouraging reading for those who like to believe in legislation as an infallible panacea for all public and social ills. The tone of the document indeed is very far from being one of triumph. The note struck in the very first paragraph is the need for more legislation to save the copious legislation already passed from proving ineffectual and abortive. Whether it is that Congress does not wish to make the work of the commission successful, or whether it has begun to have a wise distrust of its own powers, we can not say; but the commissioners complain bitterly of its inaction. We can not do better than quote their own words: "The reasons for the failure of the law to accomplish the purposes for which it was enacted have been so frequently and fully set forth that repetition can not add to their force or make them better understood. It is sufficient to say that the existing situation and the developments of the past year render more imperative than ever before the necessity for speedy and suitable legislation. We therefore renew the recommendations heretofore made, and earnestly urge their early consideration and adoption."

As the document proceeds, we see the good commissioners at war with the wicked railways, and it is impossible to resist the conclusion that, on the whole, the wicked railways have the best of it. The commissioners admit that certain cases which have come before the courts have been decided against them, and in favor of the railways; but they are far from disclosing the full extent of the discouragement, not to say mortification, they receive. The business of the commission is to interfere between the railways and their customers—the public—in the interest of the latter. The railways naturally consider this a rather one-sided function, and are not extremely zealous to aid in its performance. They have their own troubles with the public, and have no commission to come to their assistance. Everybody is after cheap railway rates, just as everybody is after cheap goods; and the means sometimes resorted to to get reductions would at least hold their own for astuteness with any that could be concocted in a traffic office for the raising of rates. We give the commissioners full credit for doing their best to protect the interests of the public, but we can not help doubting whether, on the whole, the public has derived much benefit from their efforts. In fact, we are strongly inclined to the opinion that the whole idea of the commission is simply a legislative blunder.

The railways undoubtedly possess great powers which theoretically there is nothing to prevent their abusing to almost any extent. But what is theoretically possible is not always practically possible. The President of the United States possesses great powers, which theoretically he might abuse to any extent; so does the Queen of England; so do many other potentates. But of all the evil that is theoretically possible, how much is carried out in practice? All kinds of things might happen if people were fools enough to do all the harm that it is in their power to do. The great saving fact is that it is not possible to go very far in doing harm to others without doing it to yourself. It is this fact which the insatiable legislation-monger ignores. He has an infinite faith in the mischief that will happen if things are left alone. He can not bear to think that somebody is not looking after everybody. He has no faith whatever in natural law or natural actions and reactions, and would hoot the idea of what the poet Wordsworth calls a "wise passiveness." Such people have little conception of the mischief they do, and of the good that fails of realization through their pestilent activity. The readers of Dickens will perhaps remember Mrs. Pardiggle and the admirable system of education she applied to her numerous family of children. The unhappy youngsters were under orders every hour of the day; they were marched round the country with their mother when she went on visits of charity, and compelled to contribute out of their own (nominal) pocket money to all kinds of religious and benevolent schemes. How they kicked and rebelled, and what distressing passions were roused in their youthful breasts, the great novelist has told us; and we think we may take his word for it. The fussy legislator is a Pardiggle. If he would leave things alone, opposing interests would find a modus vivendi, and practical justice would more and more assert itself. The more interference there is between parties who in the last resort are dependent on one another's good will, the less likely they are to recognize their substantial identity of interest. If the interference is wholly in the interest of one of the parties, the other is sure to be forced into an undesirable attitude; while the one whose protection is the object in view will not unnaturally take all the protection he can get, and look for something more.

What is wanted to put the relations between the railways and the public upon the most satisfactory footing possible is, in the first place, less legislative interference; and, in the second, a higher tone of business morality throughout the community. We place this second not as underrating its importance, but because we believe it would to some extent flow from the first. It is when the public transfers its right of eminent domain to a railway corporation that it should take adequate measures to protect its own interests; but how can this be done when legislation is sold—when charters are given or withheld, according to the amount of money available for purposes of persuasion? With honest legislators and honest courts there would be very little trouble between the railways and the public, and such as arose could be easily remedied. Commerce commissions are a testimony to the existence of low standards of business morality; and, unfortunately, they tend to keep them low, if not to make them lower.

The sooner we make up our minds to trust more to moral influences freely acting in the intercourse of man with man and of interest with interest, and less to legal compulsion, the better it will be for us in every department of our national life. The Thirteenth Annual Report of the Interstate Commerce Commission is a virtual confession of the failure of legislation to accomplish a purpose which was supposed to be easily within its field of action. The confession is coupled with a demand for more legislation, but, were the demand conceded, who can guarantee that more still would not be wanted? The railways are not at the end of their resources, and new laws would, we fear, be only too likely to suggest new means of evasion. No; the remedy lies elsewhere, and if Congress is wise it will give that remedy a trial by allowing the railways and the public a chance to arrange terms between them, with public opinion as the principal court of appeal.



A paper that was read by Mr. Lindsay Swift, of the Boston Public Library, at a meeting of the Massachusetts Library Club, on the subject of Paternalism in Public Libraries, and which we find in the Library Journal for November last, is one which, in our opinion, deserves to be separately printed and widely circulated. It abounds in good sense, and preaches a doctrine of self-help and self-reliance which is much needed in these days.

A question which the author of the paper does not discuss, but which, it seems to us, lies at the threshold of the whole subject, is whether the very existence of a public library—if we understand by the term a library supported by public taxes—is not in itself an exemplification of paternalism. Mr. Swift strikes us as a benevolent bureaucrat who wants to give the people at large a wider liberty in the matter of reading than the ruling influences of time and place are disposed to allow. He sees that liberty is good, that leading strings belong to infancy, and he raises his protest against a paternalism in the management of public libraries which, under the plea of providing only the most approved reading for all classes, would tend to the repression of individuality in the reader and the establishment of the supremacy of commonplace. But what if commonplace insists on being supreme and shutting out whatever is not of one complexion with itself? How are we to resist its demand in the administration of a State-supported, and therefore majority-ruled, institution? "You offer us," say its representatives, "a liberty we do not want for ourselves, and are not prepared to concede to others, as we are sure it can not be for their good. We are not going to consult the tastes of cranks, criminals, intellectual aristocrats, or social mugwumps of any kind. For all practical purposes we are the public, and we mean to run this public library." To the objection that a portion, at least, of the taxes is paid by those whose views and tastes are not going to be consulted, the answer would be ready: "It is for the majority to say how taxes shall be applied." We recognize the excellence of Mr. Swift's intentions and sympathize with his way of looking at things, but we feel that his objections to "paternalism" in connection with public libraries are delivered from a somewhat shaky platform. We observe that a periodical quoted in the Library Journal—the Overland Monthly—makes the remark that "there is nothing to be said for free books that could not be urged in favor of free beef-steaks and free overcoats."

Some of the points, however, that are made by Mr. Swift are deserving of attention. The several professions—law, medicine, theology, etc.—would more or less like to have only such books placed upon the shelves of a public library as represent what may be called their respective orthodoxies. But, as Mr. Swift observes, "libraries are as much the depositories of the folly as of the wisdom of the ages." A library, therefore, should tell us what men have thought and attempted in the past, and what they are thinking and attempting now. It is for schools and colleges, for newspapers and reviews, to afford guidance in the wilderness of opinions, not for the library to make a point of putting out of people's reach everything that is not in line with the scientific, literary, or other orthodoxy of the hour.

"A subtle form, of paternalism is the deliberate inculcation of the patriotic spirit, especially in children." Mr. Swift is a brave man to attempt to stem this particular torrent. He thinks there are times when one who loves his country would feel shame for it rather than pride, and that the motto "My country right or wrong" is not the most wholesome sentiment that can be impressed on the mind of youth. "To fill a child with the consummate virtues of Washington, Jefferson, and other of our immortals, and to leave him ignorant of the greatness of Cromwell and of William the Silent, is a serious injustice to the child and to the cause of education." Not only is this done, but, in the domain of literature as well, it seems as if the only names with which public-school pupils obtain any acquaintance are those of national authors. So far as poetry is concerned, Mr. Swift says that almost the only name he hears from the lips of children frequenting the Public Library is "Longfellow." He can not remember ever having had a call from a child for Tennyson, while Wordsworth in the school region is equally unknown.

Apart from the studied inculcation of a narrow patriotism, the author of the paper we are considering thinks that there is altogether too much paternalism shown in the choice of children's reading. He has only a limited and feeble faith in "children's rooms" in public libraries. They are very much, he thinks, like Sunday schools—convenient places for parents to unload their offspring. The aim of the censorship is to eliminate everything that is not in accord with the most approved canons of juvenile life and thought, leaving only what is ready for immediate acceptance and assimilation. Such a policy, Mr. Swift holds, is not favorable either to individuality or to intellectual growth. "We must," he says, "take books, like life, as we find them, and learn to distinguish good and bad; learn, as we ought, that the good is not so good as we have been told it is, and that the bad contains a strong infusion of good. No wrecks are so fearful as those which come to the young who have up to a point led 'sheltered lives.'"

It is not, however, children only who get the benefit of a benevolent protective policy. Selecting committees are quite prepared to look after grown-up people as well, and keep out of their way books which might prove too exciting, which might reveal depths of passion such as persons leading decorous lives are not supposed to know anything about, or otherwise agitate the tranquil mill pond of their existence. It does not occur to them that thus the salt and savor of human life are expelled, and that, instead of the free play of vital forces, there supervenes a dreary mechanic round of semi-automatic activities unvisited by enthusiasm, untouched by strong desire, without dream or vision or any quickening of the heart or the imagination. Some good people are excessively particular not only as to what may threaten moral disturbance, but as to anything that may encourage departures from conventional modes of speech and deportment. They do not like to admit books that they regard as vulgar, and a great mark of vulgarity in their opinion is the use of slang. Yet so accomplished a littérateur as Mr. William Archer told us lately that he pleads guilty to "an unholy relish" for the talk of "Chimmie Fadden" and his Chicago contemporary "Artie." To him. as to Mr. Swift, the books in which these worthies disport themselves mean something, and something deserving of attention. That being the case, the vulgarity, which is part of the picture, becomes in proportion to its truth an element of value. Mr. Swift, very bold and like the ancient prophet, says plainly: "Harmless books in general are mediocre books; if a new note in morals or society is struck, the suggestion of a possible injuriousness at once arises."

Taken as a whole, Mr. Swift's paper is a strong plea for individualism and liberty. As such we have felt it a duty to call attention to it, and we trust that it will in some way obtain a more general circulation than can be afforded by the useful, but somewhat technical, columns of the Library Journal.