Friday, March 30, 2007

Van Ornum, Why Government at All? - Part III, Chapter 5




We will now see what truth there is in the claim that government can perform certain public functions better or cheaper than the people can do themselves without the intervention of government, or through private enterprise.

The one great and conspicuous enterprise to which all those who would have government undertake almost everything point, as an example of what government does, and what might be expected in other things, is the mail service. Those who would have the government run the railroads, operate the telegraphs, telephones, institute gas and water plants, furnish public baths, places of amusement and recreation, all tell us what a model of perfection the postoffice department is, and what a fine thing it would be to have cheap and efficient service in all these important matters.

To begin with, it is impossible to know whether the postal service is cheap, or dear. The rates of postage on different classes of mail matter are established on purely arbitrary rules, and without regard to the cost of the service. Some cheap congressman who is desirous of gaining credit at home, of making himself popular with his constituents, introduces a bill to reduce postage, and other congressmen with a like ambition join in its support. The senators, swayed by the same considerations, either concur, or fail to oppose it, and so it reaches the president. He, too, is looking to another term in office, or to party advantage, and dare not veto it; and finally the bill goes through, notwithstanding the returns already show a deficit in the receipts [236] as compared with the expenditures of the department.

I have before me the annual report of the secretary of the treasury covering the fiscal operations of the government for the year ending June 30th, 1891. According to it the total net receipts of the government during the year, from the postal service, were $65,908,909.36. The total expenditures and liabilities for the same account, during the same time are given as $72,069,114.55, leaving a deficit of $6,160,205.19 which has to be made up by taxation In other words, the government performs a service for a part of the people for less than the cost of that service, and then taxes the whole people to make good its loss.

But here again the advantage goes to the rich. Those who use the mails the most, are the great corporations, the wealthy individuals, or those who have extensive connections and interests extending over wide territories. There are many such who will write, or send, more letters in a single hour than the average citizen would do in a whole year. In order to carry an occasional letter at less than it costs, for a countryman who will not write one in weeks together, the government performs the same service for the monopolist who sends hundreds, or may be thousands, every day or hour, which is a beautiful arrangement for the monopolist, but decidedly not so for the countryman, especially as he is taxed to pay the deficit. So, the many are fleeced for the benefit of the few. Again, a letter will be carried clear across the continent and be delivered in some far out of the way town, or at a street numb’r remote from the office of delivery for the same rates that are required to send it a half dozen squares. The rate is not regulated by the service performed.

Another inequality is in the classification of the mail. While one class must pay thirty-two cents [ 327] a pound, another requiring little, if any less labor to handle it, gets off for one cent. This however is on the plea of promoting the circulation of information,—intelligence among the people; really it is a direct bribe to the newspapers to support a system of spoliation and robbery such as all governments practically amount to.

Another thing, it places in the hands of the politicians, and through them of the monopolists who stand behind them, the supervision and control of the private correspondence of the people; and not only of their private correspondence, but of the literature they read. Already the claim is set up of the right to open and inspect private correspondence; and every postoffice of importance is supplied with all the necessary appliances for opening letters. This claim is only put forward as to the correspondence of those who are “suspected” of something. But of what? No matter. It may be of anything from prohibition to anarchy, from petty theft to high treason, or from heresy to atheism. If a man can be suspected of one thing he can of another. It is only necessary that he be suspected. But by whom? By the politicians, of course; or by the monopolists whom the politicians represent. This is the first step toward placing in the hands of the monopolist complete information of every movement by the people looking to the destruction of monopoly. It is the same kind of despotism that has always been practiced in other governments which make no denial of their despotic character. There is not a letter that passes through the mails that cannot be opened and inspected with impunity upon the whim of any postoffice inspector, on the plea of “suspicion.”

Then as to the press, already the government claims the right to control what shall be published. A lottery advertisement may exclude a paper from the mail, and possibly subject the publisher, or advertiser, [238] to penalties for the “improper use of the mails.” But people who buy lottery tickets are only doing what they will with their own. What right has the government, or any one else to interfere? If interference is proper in this thing, it is in others. Where is it to stop? This is but the first step toward a censorship of the press, such as prevails in the most despotic governments of Europe. But for Anthony Comstock to use the mails to deliberately tempt and decoy men into a breach of the law, for the sake of punishing them afterward, or blackmailing them, is a highly proper use of the mails, in the eyes of the virtuous politicians.

Then as to efficiency, there isn’t any worth mentioning. From the very nature of the case it is impossible that there should be. With every change of administration there is a change in at least the principal officers of the department. Men are chosen, not because of any special fitness, but because of political influence. With changes in the heads of departments come changes among the subordinates sufficient to, for a time at least, throw the department into confusion. Tenure of office depends upon personal or party service more than upon merit and efficiency, consequently more attention is paid to politics than to business. These things are not chargeable to any particular political party, but are concomitants of all of them. These abuses are inherent in the principle of politics itself, and will continue so long as the system continues. If the postoffice department is to be taken as a model of public service it certainly is not one that is highly inviting. Inefficiency, irresponsibility, political and personal favoritism, and impertinent meddling in private affairs are its most characteristic features.

If the railroads and telegraphs were taken under government management there is no reason in the world to expect different results from those already [239] realized in the mail service. There would be the same tenure of office, the same disproportion in the use of them between the rich and the poor; the same inducement to politicians to reduce the tolls below the cost of the service, and to throw the burden of the deficit upon the people as a whole. Then telegraphic messages are open to inspection, and therefore are even more subject to espionage than letter mail, consequently there are still greater facilities for political and business favoritism, especially in relation to the press. In the delivery of press dispatches alone, at critical periods in political campaigns the power would be enormous.

But there is no way in which the railroads and telegraphs can be acquired by the government under a continuation of present political conditions without involving an amount of fraud and corruption in their purchase which is simply appalling, and which would saddle an amount of debt upon the people beside which their present burdens would be but a bagatelle.

Prof. W. S. Jevons says of the English proprietors of the telegraphs, that when they transferred them to the government, they did so at about twice their previous value. They made enormous profits’ out of the sale. It could not be expected that the owners of the American railroads and telegraphs would be any the less grasping. With such men as Jay Gould, the Vanderbilts, Huntington, and a dozen others that could be named, on one side, and a lot of politicians on the other, the people would fare badly in such a trade. It is useless to talk about taxing them out, or acquiring the properties in any other way than by a purchase in which the monopolies would have the best of the bargain. Even if this were a reform at all, it is impossible to effect any reform, which can really disturb monopoly, by political methods which are controlled by those monopolies. And after the purchase has [240] been effected, and the bonds issued in payment, the people are just as badly off. They have only shifted their slavery from a railroad and telegraph monopoly to a bonded debt. They have taken their load off one shoulder and put it onto the other, and in doing so have greatly increased it.

But after the people have obtained their railroads and telegraphs they at once come under the control and manipulation of politics. Cheap politicians will reduce freight and passage to give an appearance of cheapness, and to curry favor with special interests among their constituents, and then charge up the deficit to the whole people. In Paris the telegraph charges were reduced from one franc to a half franc, which multiplied the business ten fold; but the expenses were not reduced proportionate to the increase of business. The telegraph is not subject to the same conditions as the postoffice. Increase in business does not admit of considerable decrease in the cost of doing the business. Not only in Paris, but all over France, England, Belgium and Switzerland the telegraphs are worked under government management at a loss. The London District Telegraph has not succeeded in paying a profit although low charges have brought plenty of business. In Germany the complaint comes of government favoritism in the use of the telegraphs. Newspapers in opposition to the government find their special telegrams suppressed, or delayed; and liberties are taken with private messages. The ordinary privacy of a private letter is impossible in a telegram, and the political party in control of the telegraph necessarily knows the nature of the news sent. To increase the scope and function of government is but to aggravate the evils that men complain of Government, or law, being a violation of liberty, cannot possibly promote liberty.

The same considerations apply to all the other undertakings of government, whether in the management [241] of a continuous business, the construction of public works or public buildings, the purchase of materials, or the adoption of improvements. Everywhere where there has not been downright jobbery, and corruption, there has been inefficiency, incompetence, and wastefulness.

The corruption in the construction of public buildings is so open and notorious as to scarcely excite remark. It is not even necessary to cite instances. I do not think there is a single public building in this country of any considerable proportions which has not had its public scandal in its construction; and the same is true of every large public work that was ever attempted. If the scandal did not come to the surface it was not because the materials were not there.

The demand for navy, coast defenses, iron-dads, etc., comes from contractors, and those who wish to secure jobs; and from politicians who expect to reap a benefit in the lettings, and in obtaining contributions to their political campaigns. The wastefulness of them all is shown, especially in war materials, in the rapid advance in improvement, by which the most improved kinds are made obsolete even before they are finished.

The wastefulness of political management is strikingly shown in the treatment of the sewage of cities. Chicago alone wastes not less than an equivalent of 400,000 tons of guano a year, which at $50 a ton would give $20,000,000. Contrast that with the efficiency of private management. The appliances for the slaughtering of animals for the Chicago market have been so greatly improved in the last few years that the blood, hair, hoofs, manure, etc., which formerly went to waste, are now all utilized, and are sufficient to cover the whole cost of the slaughter of the animals, and the preparation of the meat for the market.

I am also told by those who are entirely competent [242] to know, that if the street sweepings in any of the great cities were properly gathered, dried, and pressed into convenient form for shipment, they would form a cheap and convenient fertilizer which would find a ready market among the farmers throughout the country, and yield a net income sufficient to defray a large share of the municipal expenses.

The same characteristics of government are shown in other countries as well as our own. Prof. W. S. Jevons, in an address before the Manchester Statistical Society, in April 1867, stated that “in England, the state manufacturing establishments, especially the dockyards, form the very types of incompetent and wasteful expenditure. They are the running sores of the country, draining away our financial power.”

Officialism is more than corrupt and wasteful; it is always inefficient; and delays the adoption of improvements long after their merit has been abundantly proved. A striking instance of this is shown in the introduction of lemon juice into the English navy. It was not until more than two hundred years after its specific qualities had been demonstrated, and forty years after the chief admiralty officer had given conclusive evidence of its worth, before it was regularly supplied to naval vessels as a part of their stores, notwithstanding that during that time the scurvy carried off more victims than all the battles, wrecks, and other casualties of sea life put together.

Legislators make high sounding speeches in favor of reform, and economy in general, and when a special appropriation is to be made from which friends or constituents are to profit, they logroll and work in its favor as if their political existence depended upon its passage, which it often does. Thus private and political interests are unseen factors in the passage of every law except such as are purely acts repealing previous acts. The greater the [243] number of undertakings which government assumes, the wider the scope of these private and political interests, and the more corrupt does government necessarily become. Law is like what Walter Bagehot affirms of the English monarchy. He says, “Our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. You must not let in daylight upon magic.” When you begin to poke about the law, to find out what the law does, and why and how it does it, you can no longer reverence it. No man can study the history of legislation in any country for a considerable time, and trace its effects, without being struck with the uniform viciousness of it. Who would increase the power of such a hydra? Rather kill it. “Sovereign power, without sovereign knowledge is something which contradicts itself. “—Thomas Paine.

Herbert Spencer describes the state thus:

“A cluster of men (a few clever, many ordinary, and some decidedly stupid) we ascribe to it marvelous powers of doing multitudinous things which men otherwise clustered are unable to do, we petition it to procure for us in some way which we do not doubt it can find, benefits of all orders; and pray it with unfaltering faith to secure us from every fresh evil. Time after time our hopes are balked. The good is not obtained, or something bad comes along with it; the evil is not cured, or some other evil as great or greater is produced. Our journals, daily and weekly, general and local, perpetually find failures to dilate upon: now blaming, and now ridiculing, first this department and then that. And yet, though the rectification of blunders, administrative and legislative, is a main part of public business—though the time in the legislature is chiefly occupied in amending, until after many mischiefs implied by those needs for amendment, then comes at last repeal; yet from day to day increasing numbers of wishes are expressed for legal repressions and state management.”

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