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Can Politics Be a Profession?

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

Some years ago, on sailing for England to continue my education there, I was warned against picking up European ideas of government by a friend who had just returned from Germany. “Americans who study in Germany or England,” he said, “run the risk of coming back with false ideas. In Germany they almost taught me that everything can be done best by experts. You will learn in England that everything can be done best by the kind of people they, call ‘gentlemen.’ Both ideas are dangerously wrong.”

Willing to learn, I asked in reply: “But how should things be done?” He laughed. “It is so long since I lived in the United States that I have forgotten the answer.”

I have since appreciated the truth contained in my friend’s warning. Germany is addicted to experts. England (and Labour governments are no exception) entrusts everything to a small group of superior persons. And in the United States we have a similar and perhaps equally mistaken faith, our confidence in the practical man.

When things go well, natural prejudice makes us ascribe our well-being to our adherence to the great national principle. And indeed all three of these great nations owe part of their greatness to their confidence, the United States in the practical man, England in the superior person, and Germany in the expert. Today, however, governments work less smoothly than they used to do, and popular government, such as these three nations have, is far too frequently, and with too great a suspicion of justice, called a failure. Some people who challenge the effectiveness of democracy have their hearts set upon revolution as the Russians or the Italians know it. Other people, more worthy of attention perhaps, complain that the science of government, unlike the laboratory sciences, has not developed to meet new conditions. The changing world demands a changed technique of government; why cannot the political scientist provide it?

If all modern democratic nations alike are troubled by the ineffectiveness of their government, it must be that neither experts nor practical men nor superior persons are the ideal rulers. If capable government is to be provided at all, then, it is necessary that some other principle of government be developed and put into practice. Revolutionists are ready with their nostrums, guaranteeing a cure for every revolution. There is another principle of government, however, used in modern states but never completely adopted, which offers itself to our consideration. It is the principle of professionalism in government. To see its meaning and its possible appropriateness to conditions today, let us first look at the three older principles, once, but no longer, effective.


The government of England has often been called a government by amateurs. Evidence is not lacking that high offices have been held by men who had either no special training at all, or special training and competence in a field entirely removed from that in which the duties of the office lay. There have been many Indian secretaries in the British cabinet who had never seen India. One eminent chancellor of the exchequer started* life as an exquisite, and made the only money he ever earned as a novelist. Another celebrated novelist laid down the pen to govern the far parts of the world as colonial secretary. Gilbert and Sullivan immortalized that first lord of the admiralty, “ruler of the Queen’s navee,” who had had no naval experience at all for the simple reason that he was a wholesale news agent. During two different Home Rule crises the Irish secretaryship was held by two different essayists.

Nor did government by amateurs end with the nineteenth century. As recently as 1927 the best speech in the House of Commons on a great constitutional question was made by a romantic novelist whose closest previous approach to constitutional study had been the writing of a popular military history. There is little tendency, furthermore, to train an amateur after he is admitted to office. No sooner, for instance, does a man succeed in some minor position in the ministry than he is promoted to a higher office with completely different duties. From agriculture, let us say, to education, from education to colonies, from colonies to finance—a ruler of England may, become in succession the head of several departments, with all of whose functions he is equally familiar because he knows, except as an observer, nothing about any of them.

Not any amateur at all, however, is admitted into the English government. If there are no requirements of knowledge or training, there are requirements even harder for the ordinary man to satisfy. The amateur who governs must be a “superior person.” He must belong to that indefinable but easily identified class of men known as “gentlemen”—or like Mr. David Lloyd George he must be a genius who can take on the color of his surroundings.

What is there about the gentleman, the superior person, which fits him to rule, and often to rule so well? His most striking characteristic is that he can both judge results and cause them to be produced, without doing the work himself. Not knowing how to do things, he knows how things should be done. He knows how to command, and is used to being obeyed. He accomplishes things through subordinates, some of them specialists, whom he dominates and directs. He is an amateur in all things except the ability to get other people to work.

In certain fields the direction of government by a superior person is particularly effective. The maintenance of public order is an example. Recognized as first in importance in any civilized community, this function is one which modern governments still find it hard to perform. Perhaps it is performed best of all, with effectiveness but without oppression, in England. For though orderliness and obedience to law are of value to all classes in the community, they are of especial value to persons of superior position. It is the well-to-do who need laws against burglary., or to secure the validity of contracts. It is persons with reputations to lose who benefit by the law of libel. It is people of education and culture who are not inconvenienced by laws against throwing garbage into the gutter. The upper classes in England, as in every country, have a selfish interest in the enforcement of law and the maintenance of order. In England, however, which in this respect is unlike other democracies, the police, who keep order amongst the populace in general, are responsible to a law-abiding group of citizens, whose standards of social conduct are high. Order is imposed from on top, and successfully.

But England is a country in which the upper as well as the lower classes obey the law. Undoubtedly there is a long traditional basis underneath this situation. The rulers of England obey the law partly to set an example, for they take their responsibilities seriously. To give the law that universality which is the breath of its being, the superior person in England takes a pride in obeying the law at the same time that through the police he forces humbler persons to obey it. There is, however, a further consideration. Those men, home secretaries, law officers of the crown, and judges, who preside over the legal system, are of all persons among the most superior. No culprit in England can scorn the law, for its physical embodiment is never a person of lower station than his own. As a result, then, of its control by superior persons, England has the most effective administration of justice in the world.

On the other hand, there are disadvantages to the English system of rule by gentlemen. If the interests of the superior people and of ordinary people conflict, the superior persons in control of the government will tend to favor the interest of their own class. It was many years before the landlords who sat in Parliament would repeal the Corn Laws and reduce the price of bread, though everyone who was not a landlord knew that repeal was in the national interest. The eighteenth century was the heydey of selfish government by gentlemen, and shows the possible evils of that sort of rule. In that century persons of position, if they had no means of support, looked to the state and were not disappointed. The country served its rulers. Even today, there is a tendency to believe that the “best places” should be reserved for the “best people.” The Foreign Office, for instance, has long been considered the most attractive of the government departments. Therefore (until 1919) no one could enter it without a private income of four hundred pounds a year. To this day no one will be created a peer unless he has a sufficient fortune to uphold the honor with elegance.

With all his virtues and his abilities, the superior person is selfish. He is less aggressively selfish than other men only because he has less need to be. But government to-day must be in the interest of the governed, and the superior person is not insured against the prejudices of his class.


The United States is the home of the practical man. Anyone brought up in New England before the automobile knows what that originally meant, and understands the historical reasons for the situation. In a largely rural economy, everyone had to be able to do everything, and even old-fashioned city life encouraged versatility. All men could drive a horse, milk a cow, cook, carpenter, and repair the electric door-bell. Most men could also keep accounts, preside, make a speech, and usher at a wedding. Golf and tennis were still beyond the horizon, but a man could swim, row, shoot, and play baseball—none very well, perhaps, but all a little.

Politics assumed equal versatility. Men took turns at being dog-warden, tree-warden, road-surveyor. This year a farmer, next year the station agent, would be first selectman. In such a society there was competence, but seldom a high degree of competence. But government was simple, then.

Today the place once occupied by the jack-of-all-trades is occupied in our system by the business man. Our more complicated economic system has caused many men to specialize, so that we have one profession after another individualizing itself and cutting down the field in which the jack-of-all-trades can act. The residual activities are essentially those of the contemporary “business man.” In no field is the business man an expert; he performs no narrow functions. His activity, lies between and among the activities of all the specialized occupations. He dabbles in most things and knows a little about a great many. Being used to placing our government in the hands of the jack-of-all-trades, we are inclined to place it in the hands of his successor, the business man.

The chief virtue of government by the business man is clear. Rough and ready though his activities may be, he does secure activity. Uninspiring and unimaginative as his policies may be, they suit the average voter in his ordinary moments. Business life teaches that a man must be at least reasonably honest, and government by capable business men may not be high-minded, but it is seldom actually corrupt. The standard of competence may be low, but there is a standard. There may not be progress, but there is seldom deterioration. Undoubtedly, in peaceful times when problems of government are simple, the business man is competent to govern.

A dangerous characteristic of the American business man, however, when really, competent administration is needed, is his inefficiency. American business thinks itself efficient. But our vast resources and our prosperity built upon them have left us a large margin for inaccuracy and waste. American business may be efficient enough for its own purposes without being efficient enough for the problems which are faced by government to-day. Politicians have learned to keep their hands off such questions as public health or schools, matters in which the public demands really good administration. In other matters, such as fire and police, they do poorly, and so far we have tolerated it. Would the business man, however, give us greater efficiency? He knows that if he sells goods to seventy-five per cent of his customers he will make money. But could he create a ninety-five per cent efficient police department?

The other great weakness of the business man as ruler comes from the contrasting underlying aims of public and private business. The essential principle of private business is “buy cheap and sell dear.” In government, on the contrary, the fundamental principle should be “buy good quality, for if the purchase is essential the money can always be found.” Business men bring “economy” into government. That is, they do not spend. Undoubtedly the sponsors of the Mellon tax reductions saved money for some private citizens and private interests, but they cut down appropriations for so many things—such different things as printing, child welfare, and prohibition enforcement—that almost anyone would agree that some useful service of the government was undersupplied. Our business-like national budget is managed on the theory that no government department ought even to want more money than it spent the year before. But the business of government is not to make or to save money, but to spend it, wisely. Good administration of a hospital does not consist in providing only enough food to support life in the patients. The school board must not cut classes short in order to save on the electric light, or provide only inexpensive chemicals for use in the laboratory, assured that the students will not know the difference.


It is Germany that has developed the expert. There men are specifically trained for the positions they hold, A financier is wanted? There are trained financiers. Some one is needed to revise a legal code? There are trained experts in the Jaw, and it is not necessary to rely on lawyers, or politicians, or laymen. For each activity there are men who can perform that activity well, because they were trained to it, and have done nothing else.

There are advantages in government by experts. Take that omnipresent problem, the conditions in which the poor, and in fact all city-dwellers, live. London has as bad slums as any. other European city, and New York can rival her. London moreover is a dismal city for rich and poor alike, and New York, except in certain expensive spots, is dirty, unsafe, and inconvenient. In the German cities the dwelling places of the poor are clean and comfortable, and the cities are all planned as carefully as a rich man plans a house. Experts do the planning, experts inspect and control, and supervise the landlord and tenant alike.

Or take armies,—but we have all heard what a perfect military machine the German army was in 1914, and know that a weakness of government by experts appears just here. The expert always magnifies his own function. An expert highway commissioner, if allowed, will build more and more highways, whether or not they are needed or can be paid for. Educational experts in charge of a school system will extend the school age further and further, and then try to get all adults into continuation schools. Naval experts want larger and finer navies. Army chemists invent newer and better poison gases, and want to try them Out.

The predatory nature of the expert is his worst fault. He is a growth, absorbing more than his share of the body’s nutriment. But he has other faults. He may be benign, or he may be a malignant growth, but he himself is sure of his beneficence. Being also highly specialized in his interests, he is therefore uncontrollable, and incapable of co-operating with other men. And government is a co-operative enterprise, in which the ruled and not the rulers must give the orders and direct the course.


If a city desired to get the best mayor possible, each of these three countries would use a different method of procedure. In the United States the man chosen would probably be a successful and public-spirited business man, who either had retired or could afford to take a good deal of time from his business. In England he would be a member of the upper classes; when London’s modern city government was established, its first head (and an excellent head he was) was a wealthy Scottish earl. In Germany he would be a man who had studied municipal government from his boyhood, who had served other cities in various capacities, and who had done well in the position of mayor of some smaller city.

There is perhaps much to be said for each of these three choices. The Englishman would have a wide knowledge of the world, and skill in dealing with men. The American business man would know something about the various phases of the city’s business and would give at least a passably efficient administration. The German Burgermeister would be sure to do splendidly as long as no questions wider than those of conventional city administration presented themselves. But something would be lacking in each case, the central thing: the ability first to cast aside the individual nature of the business man or the gentleman or the expert and forget the man in the job, and second to forget the immediate job in seeking the total and continuing welfare of the community. Selfishness and narrowness of point of view are prevailing and sometimes overwhelming characteristics of human nature. They are both partly moral and partly intellectual faults, and can be overcome only by a moral and intellectual training directed to the particular end of overcoming them. The problem is twofold: to secure the training that will give a synthesis of the desirable intellectual qualities and habits, and to provide that the training shall be used for the service not of the individual but of the community.


The difficulty of getting unselfish service in government is always great, for all government involves the use by a few people of enormous power over other people, and the natural inclination of man is to use whatever power he controls for his own benefit. It is only when a man feels himself responsible to a certain kind of organized group that society finds him using his power regularly and willingly for other than selfish ends.

These groups are called professions. The largest and most widespread of them is that of teachers, who teach what they do, not with the idea of dominating their pupils so as to profit personally from the domination, but with the idea of making truth prevail. Another group are the ministers of religion, who show their unselfishness conspicuously in accepting often such low salaries that in a sense they pay for the privilege of practising their profession. To-day many doctors and lawyers are so prosperous financially as to seem imperfect examples of unselfishness. But though the medical profession contains many quacks and many persons who exploit their patients, after all it owes its great contemporary esteem to the fact that most doctors are fundamentally moved by a desire to heal.

We could conquer selfishness in our rulers, then, if we could make them professional in spirit—not “professional politicians” whose aim is to manipulate men to their own selfish advantage, but professional men whose standard of achievement and success is not primarily financial. Making a profession of office-holders would help also to meet the second great weakness of those who govern, narrowness of point of view and lack of high standards of achievement. We need to be able to rely on a professional opinion among office-holders, and accepted standards of competence. What is it that makes doctors trustworthy? Partly a pride in their profession, and a fear of consequences if anything goes wrong, but most of all a desire for the good opinion of other doctors. A business man need measure up only to the standards of competence and honesty of the place in which he makes his money. A doctor, even if he is alone in a village, feels not only that he must measure up to local standards of diligence and skill, but also that he must satisfy other doctors, in the county, the state, the nation. And before he can be recognized as a great doctor, he will have to meet the test of judgment by his colleagues all over the world. A scholar must submit to having his books reviewed in German or Polish or Spanish, as well as in English. Great lawyers have an international renown. So too, if government service were professionalized, we should avoid the evils of low standards and provincial standards, and officials, like other professional men, would have to justify themselves in the face of the whole world.

There are already traces, and more than traces, of the incursion of professionalism into government. The National Tax Association, the Association of City Managers, and other similar bodies bring together many men in the same fields of government work. They are unofficial. But all great governments have civil services, and the United States, not merely with its new foreign service, but in the re-organization which is now going on of many of its federal bureaus, tends to increase the professionalizing of its officials. The Secretariat of the League of Nations is beginning to collect in Geneva a group of men and women from all nations who have in a marked degree training, experience, and an aptitude for public service.

Too long have nations believed that there would be raised up to them heroes for emergencies—Washingtons, Lin-colns, Bismarcks, Garibaldis, Cromwells. The hero has his place, but no nation has been governed by a succession of heroes, nor is it desirable that it should be. The hero too often prepares for a reaction; after Cromwell, the Restoration. Government needs a high average of excellence, not peaks and valleys. Just what special characteristics members of the profession of rulers would have, however, it is impossible to predict with certainty. The type must be developed through many years. Already there are individuals who exhibit many of the qualities which are likely to characterize the new type. If it would be invidious to mention Americans even in compliment, perhaps one may list a few men from other countries who suggest the type: the secretary-general of the League of Nations, the ex-president of Switzerland who served a;s president of the World Court, the former premier of Italy who is a noted economist, the Arctic explorer and Norwegian statesman who won the Nobel peace prize, the Cuban ambassador to the United States. These men are not business men, though they are men of practical sense; not mere experts though men with expert knowledge; they are superior persons but not amateurs. They and others like them indicate the possibilities of the future.

“Civilization is perhaps approaching one of those long winters that overtake it from time to time,” wrote George Santayana in 1920. It is this sense of chill which Santayana felt which sometimes seems to warn us that, advance as we may in mechanical things, no advance in the science of human living can come to-day. Perhaps it is true that any development in government must wait; worst of all is our inability to believe it possible. But Santayana goes on to encourage us. “The elasticity of life is wonderful, and even if the world lost its memory it could not lose its youth.” Sometime our minds, now rendered sluggish by the cold, will begin to imagine change, and then change will come.


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