What We Find Instead of the Foot of the Rainbow

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Steven T. Byington

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What We Find Instead of the Foot of the Rainbow

I am indebted to a review in the "Advance" for my knowledge of a new book published by the Scribners, called " The City the Hope of Democracy." It is thus described:

Among the recent books on public questions the volume bearing the title above is one of the most important. It is from the pen of Frederic C. Howe, who says that his convictions are the result of several years of actual political experience in the administration of the city of Cleveland, and of personal study of municipal conditions in the leading cities of Great Britain" and America. The author further states that his careful study of city problems compelled him to change from " belief in a business man's government to belief in a people's government." These two points he elaborates with a great array of facts and extensive argument.
In "a business man's government" Mr. Howe finds the principal cause of corruption. It is back of bossism, back of boodling, back of bribery, back of the whole business of exploiting the people. In this respect, as readers of the " Advance " need hardly be told, the author reaches the same conclusion as Lincoln Steffens. . . . That this statement reverses the view which prevailed a dozen years ago is obvious. Then the whole emphasis was laid on the danger of the democracy. The public was told every day in the week that the masses in the city were the source of corrupt government. Now, as Mr. Howe says, the public is beginning to realize that the real source of corruption is the big business which puts its own selfish interests before the common welfare. . . . The connection of the political boss with franchise corruption of cities is thus described: " The boss came in through political apathy. He has grown powerful through privilege. He is the natural and logical product of privilege, and he everywhere perpetuates his power through an alliance with it. And the privileges which he now represents are the great natural monopolies that make use of our streets, the companies which supply transportation, gas, water, electric light, and telephone service. The boss enjoys a dual role; he not only controls the party, but traffics in legislation. He has become' a modern feudal baron, who does homage to his superior, levies tribute on society, and distributes favors to his retainers with a free hand, as did his prototypes of old. He is the link which unites the criminal rich with the criminal poor. For the former he obtains millions in grants and franchises, and immunity from taxes. To the latter, in payment of election services, he dispenses small gratuities in jobs, protection from the police, and in charities. He makes party regularity a merchantable asset, which he uses for his own political advancement and the promotion of these interests whose agent he is."

So we must reverse the view that was taught us a dozen years ago, must we? Not without stopping to think, I hope. Correct it, doubtless; but why reverse it? The dozen-year-old view was, I believe, that the boss's power was based in his relation to the unintelligent masses, to whom, in payment of election services, he Dispensed small gratuities in jobs, protection from the police, and charities, whereby their vote became his merchantable asset which he used for his own political advancement and for his private enrichment by the sale of privilege to the criminal rich. How far from that are we now, after all, according to Mr. Howe?

In the nineteenth century, to be sure, the boss's supporters were supposed to be the poor in general; now, it seems, they are "the criminal poor." As they are apparently able to furnish the mass of votes which does the main work of carrying an election, it is rather disquieting to find the criminal poor so numerous a class. The charge is substantially equivalent to saying that the poor voters in general are criminal, for the election returns give us an idea of the number of men who must be described as "criminal poor" in order to explain the boss's majorities. Docs it appear from Mr. Howe's statement what facts show them to be criminal? It docs. They are criminals in that they vote a ticket which has a chance of success at the polls. Well, we Anarchists always did maintain that this is a crime; so we will not be hard on Mr. Howe for agreeing with us. Furthermore, they are criminals in that their vote is determined by liking for the man's personal character (I confess that, in expounding the phrase "small gratuities in charities," I draw on my recollection of the explanations that were given us a dozen years ago; but am I wrong in so doing? the thing to be explained is the same, and the explanation is plausible and is confirmed by observations taken a dozen years ago) and by the fact that he administers the government in their interest so far as they understand it. Mr. Howe docs not appear to charge theft they realize the antagonism between their position and the public interest,—that they believe the " good fellow " who looks out for the poor in general and for his friends in particular to be in fact a plunderer of honest men and a tool of monopoly. Mr. Howe's position, so far as I am informed of it, seems quite consistent with what we heard a dozen years ago,—that they believe this ruler to be the real friend of the people, and the talk about " plunder " to be the moonshine of theorists who are out of touch with practical life; so we may give these voters full credit for sincerity. Are they criminals, then, in letting such considerations sway their vote? Doubtless; for by wilful and unjust aggression they kill thousands of men and women who ought to be left alive. Only it is getting more and more obvious that they arc criminals of the sort who can never be jailed, because there are not enough jailors to keep them; that the words " criminal poor," if they are meant to suggest that we are here dealing with a minor subdivision of the poor, arc a gross perversion of fact; that it is just as we used to be told in the nineteenth century,—this is the type of the poor in general, and will be so as long as they continue to be unintelligent, which will be nobody knows how long; and that this same type is 'not especially peculiar to the poor, but is identical with the type of the successful, but narrow-minded, New England manufacturer who votes for the protective tariff in the firm belief that his business would go to the dogs if he had to compete with Europe without a tariff, and what is true of him is true of his neighbors, so free trade would ruin the country.

Or does Mr. Howe really mean that the boss derives his power, on the popular side, not from his control of a large body of voters, but from his control of a machinery for registering fictitious votes ? Do the words " criminal poor " refer solely to those whose election- day services are of a nature legally punishable? No one doubts that bosses make great use of such agencies on occasion; but it is hardly plausible to say that this is their main source of power; and, if that were true, it would hardly be plausible to say that anything else than this should be the main point of attack in an attempt to purify elections. I think I was right in my first interpretation of the phrase criminal poor."

The source of the boss's mandate to rule our municipalities, then, seems, even by Mr. Howe's account, to be essentially the same as it used to be said to be. In the presentation of his relation to the capitalist there is a greater difference observable. The capitalist and the boss used to come before our minds as two mainly independent powers, bargaining with each other either for mutual profit at the expense of the public or for the terms of blackmail levied by the boss on the capitalist ; and the boss was supposed to be a sort of robber baron, fortified in a castle where he could and did claim to be the superior party in the negotiation, whatever advantage the supple capitalist might gain over his pride. Now Air. Howe presents the boss to us as the capitalist's tool and agent,—removable at the capitalist's will, we must suppose, else the alleged relation becomes practically unthinkable in so far as it differs from the old conception,—through whom the capitalist exercises in fact, by deputy, the powers which the boss had been supposed to exercise in his own behalf.

I believe there is truth in both views. I believe there have always been places where it was possible for the capitalist to keep a boss of his own, and capitalists who have seen and welcomed such an opportunity. I believe, on the other hand, that the boss tends to aspire to as much independence as he thinks he can defend, and that the nature of his position puts him under constant temptation to go to the verge of prudence in reaching out for independence. I think, if we could get the lid all off from the dealings between the two, we should sec struggles for conquest or for independence so numerous as to be a noticeable feature of the situation, and success inclining now to one side and now to the other; and I am willing to believe that the tendencies of the last few years have made the capitalists' successes abnormally numerous. But I think the capitalists' hold on such power must always be very uncertain, since the boss's power consists so largely in his reputation, and this reputation must adhere personally to the man who is publicly known as boss— cannot be kept under the control of any power behind the throne. If John Smith, capitalist, having made John Doe a boss, wants to unmake him, what is he to do ? Doe controls the votes partly because he is known to be charitable to the poor, partly because he is known as a distributor of political patronage. Smith can sway most of the bribed vote, and most of the apparatus for conducting a campaign by means of printing, paid speakers, paid canvassers, etc.; but he must also have a man to present in Doe's place. If he presents his confidential clerk, Richard Roe, whose personal qualifications for such work are unquestioned, the fact that Roe is unknown to the voters will be a frightful handicap,—a handicap invincible for the time being, except by the difficult and dangerous process of buying up individually, with hard cash, a sufficient number of local sub-bosses. Practically Roe's chances would not be worth mentioning till he had spent some years getting himself before the bossable part of the public. Meanwhile Doe, controlling the government, will have half ruined Smith's local business.' Consequently Smith is driven to fall back on Tom Styles, who is already in politics and has the political assets which a judicious addition of money will transform into dominion. But Styles is already in some sort of relations with Doe; and the game to be played is one in which Doe is a specialist, while Smith is dependent on his subordinate for technique. Doe is described in the papers as "making the fight of his life," and is getting money from a rival capitalist by flattering offers; and many are the voters who think it best to stand by the old man. Will it not pay Smith best, if Doe is willing to do business on reasonable terms, to treat with him as an equal rather than try to crush him? I am assuming circumstances favorable to Doc, but not extraordinarily so; it is at least likely that Smith will have to wait a year or two till he can get a favorable opening, and time may work in Doe's favor instead of his own.

The point is that so much of the boss's power is non-transferable. Part of it can be duplicated, and another part conquered away from him, but both the duplicating and the conquering take time, and time is money to the capitalist. I cannot think, therefore, that he will, as a rule, keep in efficient condition that power of removal which is essential to complete domination. But assume the case where he docs it—what then? In a city where the known boss is a puppet, and a capitalist is the real boss, what of it?<ref>Mr. Howe is talking of cities, and so am I. In a State legislature the large area covered, and the presence of the rural vote, tend to weaken the power of the boss as a man and make it easier for money to dwarf him. Hence we often hear of a State being owned by a railroad company, while a city is always said to be owned by a man or a ring. The members of the ring may be the leading stockholders of a corporation, but it is as men, not as money-bags, that they boss the city. Their money is a tool of their political power, and Is their motive for holding the power; but the power does not consist in the money.</ref> Simply that we mistook the identity of our boss. There is a boss, just as we thought there was; and the voters are controlled, and the elections are carried, by the same means as we always supposed did the work. The inference is simply that in our reform movements we must no longer trust this man whom we thought we could trust as a possible ally against the boss. Now, this lesson is well worth writing a book about, or a dozen books; but it does not cancel the lessons of a dozen years ago; they remain valid, and we add the new lesson to them.

Mr. Howe draws the lesson differently; he insists that we should have municipal ownership of valuable franchises, in order that there may not be these rich plums to attract capitalists to control the boss. Now, surely this is irrelevant unless the capitalist is the cause of the boss; and Mr. Howe seems really to think that this is so. But how is the capitalist supposed to cause the boss ? It must be either by giving him his means, or by furnishing him his motive. The boss would continue if the capitalist were gone, if means and motive were still present; and assuredly they would be present. Money can hardly be said to occupy a foremost place among the means of the city boss, especially if you restrict it to such money as the capitalist may be supposed to furnish him; if you utterly destroy bribery funds out of politics, but double the number of jobs to be given out in the city service, you may be sure you have not made the boss less able to hold his power. As for motive, I have no ground for disputing that the capitalist's money may be foremost among the motives which actuate the boss at the present day; and, if I tried to deny it, the testimony of Mr. Howe might well be conclusive against me. But in its absence other motives would come into play,— motives quite strong enough to make a man act as boss. It is difficult to conceive a great city government in which the plums of the administration, provided a man wishes to administer corruptly, could not be made big enough to give a considerable pecuniary motive; and, even if money could all be done away, the mere love of power, or the desire to accomplish some purpose for which the control of political power is needed, would suffice to draw men into this career. The matter can be put in a nutshell. If John Doe had devoted himself to banking, he might have made a million. If he had devoted himself to manufacturing, he might have made half a million. But he did, when he was starting in life, devote himself to politics, and he did so well in it that he is able to be boss of the city. Now, if the place of boss is worth five millions, he gets the five millions; but, if it is worth only a hundred thousand, he still puts his whole strength into being boss, for the good reason that, if he were to go into banking or manufacturing now, when he is getting into middle age, he could not hope to make more than ten thousand. Some circumstance, joined perhaps to a natural bent, started him as a politician ; as soon as he has won a standing in politics, and has not yet won any equally strong standing in any other line of life, it will take something unusual to keep him from going on as a politician, be the rewards great or small. All that you could hope to accomplish by lessening the boss's rewards would be to give us a less able race of bosses; or, if you could very considerably diminish the money rewards, to give us a race of bosses actuated by different motives. These different motives might be better than the motives of the present bosses, or they might not.

The milk in Mr. Howe's cocoanut, I think, is this. We have had had government, and have thought of various ways to get rid of it. One of these ways, which many had pinned their faith to, was to put the government in the hands of the husiness men. Mr. Howe has shown up this fallacy, and thus, we may hope, saved many from spending more energy on this false line. But, when he tells us to go back to the old theory of trusting the honest patriotism and sturdy common sense of the masses, he has no basis to go on. We have tried that and found it wanting, and the experience is still valid and even still current. How does a comparison of the New York city election of 1905 with that of 1886*—Hearst in the place of George, McClellan in the place of Hewitt, Ivins in the place of Roosevelt, the Tammany candidate each time counted in, the labor candidate each time claiming to have had an actual majority—show that the masses are more to be trusted politically now than then? When you are after the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, never turn back to a place where you have already looked in vain. That, at least, is not the nature of rainbows. Better say that good government is to be had by educating the people into sound political principles; by seeking your rainbow on a mountain-top so distant as that, you will have the pleasure of a long walk in hope, before you suffer the disappointment of getting there and seeing what you find.

The project of securing good government has been tried in many shapes, and has failed in each shape. The longer the list of failures grows, the more must the thought recur that the project of doing away with government, and leaving all that government now does to be conducted on the basis of ordinary business, has never in a civilized country been tried and found to fail.

Steven T. Byington.


  • Steven T. Byington, “What We Find Instead of the Foot of the Rainbow,” Liberty 15, no. 1 (February 1906): 16-26.