Wait and See


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President of Columbia University

An address at the Opening of the 188th Year of Columbia University, September 24, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 11-12.

THE highest type of ability in all which concerns the cooperation of men is what we call the administrative. Administration is the art of planning with foresight and of getting done with promptness, with effectiveness andat least possible cost of labor and of resources, all that represents and reflects the interests and ambitions of men in any given field of endeavor. History makes it very plain that from the earliest times there has been marked administrative ability in certain fields of human interest. Among these are the military, the ecclesiastical and the exploratory. Since the end of the eighteenth century, opportunities for the exercise of administrative ability have multiplied a thousandfold as a result of the industrial and economic evolution which has marked that period. In all that relates to production, to transportation, to commerce and to finance, administrative ability has found new opportunity in every part of the world and to an extent which would have seemed quite impossible a century and a half ago.

The most important field of human interest and cooperation in which administrative ability seems to lag is the governmental policies of the modern democracies. This was not always the case, as is made plain by a reading of the history of Great Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of France in the eighteenth century and of our own people when the foundations of our Federal Government were being laid and our political structure was being built upon those foundations. As the democratic process hasdeveloped and broadened, however, and as the number of individual citizens participating in the choice of political representatives and in the shaping of public policies has grown, differences of opinion and of personal and group interest have come to play a steadily increasing part in the story of governmental action. Theoretically, in each one of these modern democracies, a majority rules. Theoretically, when a vote is taken on a very difficult and disputed matter and a clear majority is recorded in favor of one definite way of dealing with it, the chosen representatives of the people should at once and promptly act in accordance with what must be regarded as their instructions. But if the minority be cleverly led and armed with strong and persuasive arguments or supported by powerful emotion, there may be and there usually is indefinite delay in the formal action of public authority in respect to the matter under consideration. If, as so often happens when a general election of legislative representatives is held in a democracy, there are half a dozen questions at issue and not merely one question, then the problem presented to the legislative body grows in difficulty and in complexity. Under such circumstances, a first effort is usually to try to find a working hypothesis by which in one way or another all of the leading elements in the constituencies may be either satisfied or at least mollified. This of course does not make for efficiency or for good government. It makes simply for getting along in what appears to be the best way possible. It leaves unsettled and unsolved numerousvery important political problems, some of them quite fundamental. Just now there are several such problems in our American political life, but there is no sign that the Government proposes to take any action about them, simply because there are at the moment no organized pressure groups armed with political threats endeavoring to get action by the Federal Government in regard to any one of them.

In such cases, the answer of the legislators is, Wait and See. That has become a most popular slogan in all the democracies. It has furnished and is furnishing material for sarcasm and for sneering at democracy by the present-day despots and their blind followers. These despots feel that they at least can get something done, whether that something be military or civil, moral or immoral, just or unjust, humane or cruel. They therefore claim for themselves and their doctrines a degree of efficiency in administration which they insist the democracies cannot imitate and will not endeavor to imitate.

It must never be forgotten that in a democracy the beginnings of all good government are to be found in local self-government. It is in the community, be it village or town, city or county, whose inhabitants are immediately interdependent and closely in touch with each other, that a high degree of efficiency in public administration usually exists. For example, in the United States it is almost certain that the local police, the local fire department and the local tax-supported schools are effectively administered. When from these local political units one moves to the government of a state or to that of the Federal Union, conditions sharply change. We then begin to find extravagance, duplication of organization and of effort, lack of effective oversight and in many ways lack of efficiency. An outstanding exception is the United States Postal Service, where there is a very high type of administrative efficiency. That service has the advantage of being very little and very infrequently interfered with by new forms of congressional action and control. It, therefore, can proceed on the basis of its own experience to serve the public with very high effectiveness in the field of communication, than which none is more important.

It is obvious that the policy of Wait and See will not do if democracy is to hold its own. Wait and See not only diminishes efficiency of governmental service, but it puts democracy itself in very great danger. In a world where every sort and kind of self-seeking is at work in order to control increasing numbers of human beings and widening areas of the earth's surface, a policy of Wait and See spells defeat.

It should now be pretty plain that either this modern world is going to remain at war until the whole of what we call civilization has been destroyed and all its great monuments wrecked, or that the forces of constructive, liberal democracy will shortly be able to take leadership of the world and in reasonable time to put it upon a permanent foundation of order, of justice, of peace and of prosperity. This certainly cannot be done, however, by the policy of Wait and See. If we are only to Wait and See, then the believers in liberal democracy are openly handing control of the future to their bitter and determined enemies.

By great good fortune, mankind has just now been offered definite and specific leadership in its search for the foundations upon which to build a new and orderly world of prosperity and of peace. This is given by the Atlantic Declaration, announced to the world on August 14 last by the President of the United States of America and by the Prime Minister in the Government of Great Britain. To the American people, this Atlantic Declaration comes like a new Declaration of Independence in the field of national policy and international relations. It is supported with sympathy and understanding by those hopes and policies which have been close to the heart of the American people since the days of Washington and Franklin, of Hamilton and Jefferson. It echoes the famous sentence of President McKinley spoken forty years ago, "The period of exclusiveness is past." It is in harmony with the doctrines taught by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson and Harding, as well as with statements contained in the declarations of principle that were adopted by the Democratic National Convention and by the Republican National Convention of 1920. It is in accord with the instructions to the American delegates to the Hague Conference of 1907, given by Elihu Root, then Secretary of State. It is in accord with the Joint Resolution approved June 25, 1910, adopted without a dissenting vote by both Houses of the American Congress, calling for the limitation of armaments and for constituting the combined navies of the world an international police force for the preservation of universal peace.

This Atlantic Declaration, which in so complete and so splendid a fashion emphasizes and repeats this long series of statements of national policy, is the direct and conclusive answer to those who would continue to put their country in danger by preferring a policy of Wait and See. This is no time to Wait and See. The danger is too immediate and too great. It is time to Think and to Act.