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The Influence of Democratic Feeling in America on the Management of Public Institutions

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The mode in which the political constitution of a country affects its social arrangements has always been an interesting subject of study. But there has not been nearly so much attention given to the way in which the politics of a country affect the origin, government, and administration of its public institutions. By this term we mean the Schools, Colleges, Hospitals, Almshouses, Asylums, and benevolent institutions generally. That they are strongly affected not only by the political condition of a country but by the temporary changes of current politics, no one can doubt who has compared such institutions in a few European countries, or even in the three divisions of the United Kingdom. The origin and administration of the lunatic asylums in England, Scotland, and Ireland have been affected by the political constitutions of those divisions of the Empire, as we all know; and the hopes and fears of those who govern them are often raised by changes in the political parties. No one would expect quite the same provisions in a Lunacy Bill brought in by the Conservatives as in one promoted by the Liberals. America, with its distinct States and State rights, its democratic constitution, its intense and jealous parochialism as regards local affairs, is an admirable field in which to study this branch of sociology. Indeed, its public institutions cannot be understood except we take into account the political constitution of the society in which they originated. One might as well criticise a landscape without reference to the sunshine and the geology of the country as speak of colleges or asylums of America without taking into account its State legislatures, its county government, its town meetings, and its never ceasing electioneering. An educated democracy is easily moved, is very much given to spasmodic bursts of charity, and is always creating public institutions of some sort, while it is always intensely jealous of them, and often very unjust to them, after they are created. There is no finer field for small autocrats, too, than in an absolute democracy. Conservatism of a certain kind is never so secure against change as when it has universal suffrage to back it. Individualism is more marked in America to-day than it is in Great Britain, but it takes different directions. Plenty of people are to be met with in America who declare that Washington was an old fool, that the present Republic there is a mistake, that universal suffrage is a delusion, and that they would be better off under an Emperor. If the head of a public institution there is strong and bold enough he may administer its affairs further off the beaten track than could be done in Europe. But on the other hand all the average and weak administrators dare not for their lives turn to the right or to the left of the path which the public opinion of the place and time prescribe. It is fortunate for them if the popular suspicion of placeholders and administrators does not now and then paralyse them outright. It must be taken into account, too, that the placemen suffer for the sins of the politicians. The latter are assumed to be self-seeking and unscrupulous as a matter of course, and unfortunately they often claim as the spoils of war posts of administration, direction, and government in public institutions. Thus those institutions get mixed up in the popular mind with politics, certainly not to the advantage of the former.

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The British Journal of Psychiatry
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  • EISSN: 2514-9946
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The Influence of Democratic Feeling in America on the Management of Public Institutions

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