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OUTLOOK FOR SOCIAL POLITICS IN THE UNITED

STATES

CHARLES E. MERRIAM

University of Chicago

The term "social politics” is but little employed in this country. Other phrases, however, such as “welfare legislation," "social legislation,” “labor legislation," "social reform,” “legislation for ”

' social and industrial justice," have been employed to express this idea. Social politics, as I understand it, involves the conscious systematic control exercised by the government over the economic and social life of the given society or group. It is contrasted with a "police” system in which the government contents itself with merely preventing violence and fraud. No government has ever practically confined itself to this course, but some governments have come much nearer to it than others, and some have given the idea theoretical assent.

In our own country progress in the direction of a comprehensive social policy has been particularly slow for a variety of reasons which an analysis of the subject discloses.

In the first place, the eighteenth-century political philosophy, under the influence of which federal and state governments were formed, was favorable to a minimum of governmental organization and action. Thomas Paine, for example, regarded society as a blessing, government as an evil. “Society,” he said, “is a patron and government a punisher.” The structure and powers of government were organized at this time with a view of giving as little power as possible to those in positions of authority. This mechanism was primarily intended to prevent a possible lapse into hereditary aristocracy or monarchy. But the theorists of the time did not distinguish clearly between this specific purpose and the general limitation of the powers of government for all purposes, and in later times the doctrine and the machinery intended to prevent * From Proceedings of the American Sociological Society.

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monarchy were applied against all forms of governmental action or interference even in the interest of the community.

Further, the prevailing economic theory of the last hundred years has been unfavorable to the development of policies of social legislation. It would be superfluous to show that economic theory has been until recently of the distinctly laissez-faire type. Our political economists have set their faces against interference with the natural laws" of trade on the ground that such intervention is more likely to hinder than to help social progress. They have magnified the difficulties of governmental action and minimized the advantages of action on the part of the state. It is only within the last few years that the attitude of leading economists in the United States has shifted. In our own day Mr. Walker referred to “those of us who discerned the coming of a storm and removed ourselves and our effects from the lower ground of an uncompromising individualism to positions somewhat more elevated and seemingly secure." Professor James also declared:

We do not regard (the state) as a merely negative factor, the influence of which is most happy when it is smallest: but we recognize that some of the most necessary functions of a civilized society can be performed only by the state and some others most efficiently by the state, that the state in a word is a permanent category of economic life and not merely a temporary crutch which may be cast away when society becomes more perfect. Little by little the attitude of many of our leading economists, although by no means all of them, has materially changed.

The development of a system of social politics has further been made difficult in our country because of the strict constitutional limitations imposed upon state activities; and because of the narrow interpretation of these limitations by unfriendly courts. It is not necessary to cite at length the array of cases in which the judiciary has wrecked plans for social legislation. Opposition to laws limiting the hours of labor and to workmen's compensation are conspicuous illustrations familiar to everyone. Much the same attitude has been taken in regard to other cases involving conscious and systematic control over the economic and social life of the community by its organized government. The

: Publications of American Economic Association, I, 26.

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political philosophy of the eighteenth century, the economics of the same period, together with narrow legal training and frequent ignorance of, or indifference to, social and industrial questions, has made the courts cold or even hostile to any broad policy which we might characterize by the term "social politics.”

The organized system of political corruption has stood in the way of schemes for social betterment and improvement. The greatest loss inflicted upon the community by the genus grafter is not the millions he has stolen. We could almost afford to pension off our grafters and give them what they steal if they would leave us alone to work out plans of social and industrial improvement. The greatest damage they have inflicted upon the community has been their opposition, sometimes open and sometimes covert, to any program of social politics. Through their control of state legislatures, administrators, and sometimes, courts, they have been able to delay, obstruct, cripple, and hamper policies designed to promote the general welfare of the community. Social politics has been in the jackpot of more than one legislature. In this way, even where public sentiment has been aroused to such an extent that historic prejudice against governmental action has been overcome, its waves have been beaten back or driven into other channels. We may properly say that one of the largest single losses inflicted by our organized corruptionists has been the prevention of social and economic progress.

These combined influences of economic theory, political philosophy, constitutional limitation, judicial interpretation, and political corruption have made the practical advance of any policy or policies of social legislation extremely slow. Together they have been able to force the United States far in the rear of the procession of the great industrial states of the world. The remarkable progress made by Germany under Bismarck thirty years ago was almost unnoticed in this country for a quarter of a century, while measures adopted by other European states were ignored by our practical statesmen. English advance in the same direction also passed to a large extent unnoticed, although the recent experiments made under the Lloyd-George régime have attracted far more attention than the Continental undertakings. So it has happened that our country blazed the trail of political liberty a century and a half ago but now lags far behind the other great industrial states of the world. Germany and England, our keenest competitors in the business world, have far outstripped us in practical measures for the protection of the community and for the promotion of the general welfare in the broad sense of the term. The so-called Manchester school of economics never had much vogue in Germany where the state has for many years been recognized as an agency for the promotion of community welfare. England, the home of the "let alone" policy, has long since abandoned it in theory and in practice.

Notwithstanding the many obstacles interposed and the long delay occasioned, substantial progress has been made in the United States in the direction of a comprehensive social policy during the last ten years. This is evident in city, in state, and in nation alike.

In our city government one of the most striking evidences of a community policy has been the development of city-planning schemes. In New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and in practically all the large centers of the country, city plans so-called, have been outlined either by private societies or by public act. These plans involve a careful and comprehensive study of the needs

а. of each local community, with respect to arrangement of streets, parks and public places, transportation, housing and recreation needs, and in short they constitute an attempt on the part of the city to regulate and control its own growth and development. While most of these plans have thus far been only imperfectly executed, yet they show a tendency toward conscious social control through governmental agencies. They have compelled the community to think of itself and of the possibility of regulating by common action at least the physical outlines of the city. In cases like the Pittsburgh Survey, under private auspices, the analysis has gone down more deeply and the remedies prescribed have been correspondingly more fundamental, for in this case we have a description and analysis of social, industrial, and living conditions of men and women.

Many other aspects of city government indicate the development of the social-political idea; as for example, the growth of

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parks, playgrounds, opportunities for public recreation, the so-called neighborhood or social center, the educational system now developing, the activities of the health and building department for the protection of the community from unsafe and unsanitary conditions, all indicate the presence of the same general tendency to treat broadly the vital problems of a community. Kansas City has even established a "general welfare board.” “Necessity” has been, from time immemorial, “the mother of invention,” and the dire necessity of our cities has driven them to many constructive efforts. These, it is true, are not comparable either in breadth of design or in completeness of execution to the plans of Germany or even of English cities, but compared with our situation of twentyfive years ago they indicate a rapid advance in the conception of what the community should and may do for the welfare of its citizens. The treatment of the school problem, the park problem, the sanitary problem, the juvenile court, the city-plan question would all have been impossible under conditions as they existed twenty-five years back. It must be admitted that many of these advances have been made, not by straight frontal attack, but by flanking movements. Nevertheless they have been made step by step and the lines have been pushed forward year by year.

In our state governments the advance in the direction of a distinct system of social-political policy has been made in the field of labor legislation. The last bulletin of the American Association for the Advancement of Labor Legislation contains a summary of the legislation for the year 1912 which is extremely significant to any student of American politics or of American society.

This bulletin gives a review of laws covering the subjects of industrial accidents and diseases, child labor, employers' liability and workmen's compensation, detailed factory and workshop regulations, legislation regarding the hours of labor, old-age pensions, unemployment, and many regulations in regard to hours and conditions of labor for women, and in the case of Massachusetts includes the establishment of a minimum-wage commission. While these laws are in no sense and in no place complete and are not to be compared in completeness of scope or in vigor and efficiency of administration with much European legislation, yet they

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