Page images
PDF
EPUB

SOME PLAUSIBLE OBJECTIONS TO COMPETI.

TION.

The opponents of open competition as a means of selection for the Civil Service have, from time to time, advanced certain objections to it, which though in great part specious and sophistical

, bave by dint of repetition gained some credence. Although the subject is in these respects trite and nothing new may be advanced in dissipating these fallacies, I trust the Commission will not consider it inopportune if I here reiterate the confutation of the more ordinary objections.

In the early stages of the movement for reform the point generally made was that no new remedy was needed, since even if it were admitted that there were evils in the public service, these could be readily cured by appointing none but capable and honest men, This proposition is irrefutable since no one has ever affirmed that dishonest or incapable men should be appointed, and yet very grave abuses have long been rife in the Civil Service. As in so many other matters, universal acquiescence in incontestible principles is not allsufficient; there must be both safeguards and penalties. Even if the official be immaculate we exact from him official oaths and bonds and hold him to rigid accountability for his official trusts. Long experience has shown that officials do not invariably appoint capable and honest subordinates, and the causes of this are such as cannot be reached by mere injunctions. The hostile critics of competition, when they concede the existing abuses in the unrestrained exercise of the power of appointment, proposes as a sufficient remedy the “ pass” examination which is a qualified exercise of patronage

and has absolutely failed as a remedy wherever tried.

It retains all the odious features of the unmitigated " spoils” system and particularly its anti-democratic features whereby the service of the country is monopolized by a privileged class. But at the very worst, why resort, say these critics, to the competitive system which is unnatural, unbusiness-like, scholastic, revolutionary, impracticable, etc., etc.

The functions of non-political civil servants, who compose about nine per cent of the administrative service, are simply of a business nature, and have no more to do with their political or religious sen. timents than if they were employed by private parties. It is, therefore, plainly only a question of fitness for the business duties of the several positions that is to be considered, and there is a single instrumentality that always shapes that consideration and the final selection of the person to be appointed.

Granting that an officer is unrestrained by law or rule in making selections for places under him, and no matter what may be his motive in the selection, it is imperatively governed by the principle of competition. This holds good as to the filling of hundreds of thou

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

sands of such places, National, State, or municipal. Whether the selection is made on account of personal relations, command of influence, partisan activity, powers of importunity or inherent fitness for the duties, the individual appointee obtains his place because in the estimation of the appointing officer he stands highest in the peculiar quality that urges the appointment. It is a plain, downright, unequivocal competition, but one that is not permanently recorded, because in most cases the qualification that governs the selection is not one the appointing officer would be willing to avow.

But such an important exercise of official power as that of appointment should be as much a matter of record as the vouchers for the disbursement of public moneys. A citizen may expend his own funds or employ his own servants, without accounting to anybody for his action, but the official is executing a trust for the people and should by his records, open to all

, be able to prove his fidelity to his employers in all his official acts. It is strange that the most violent opposition to fixed rules for the employment of public servants comes from those who profess the greatest anxiety to enforce a rigid accountability. Now of all the motives that might govern an official in the selection of his subordinates, that of obtaining the fittest person is the only one he would be willing to record, because it is the only one he should consider.

IIow shall the fittest man who is willing to serve be obtained ? Shall this important field of inquiry be confined to the acquaintanceship of the chief official and that of his friends? And within any field of selection, narrow or broad, how is the superiority of the fittest man to be determined so that it may be of record officially? There is but one solution of these queries and it is that the open competition gives the broadest scope of choice, determines with substantial accuracy the relative fitness of all who apply, and puts on record all the transactions with their details.

In the nature of things there must be competition and it is the sole purpose of Civil Service laws, rules and commissions to regulate the competition so as to secure the best service for the people. Such a regulated competition, open on equal terms to every citizen and with its findings formally i'ecorded, is the only method of appointment that absolutely precludes the exercise of patronage, that exclusive and baneful privilege so odious and foreign to every principle of a democratic government.

The oft-repeated argument that the method is not business-like, since private employers do not have recourse to it, is fallacious, because such employers do adopt it without record of the details. Every private business concern chooses for its service the fittest subalterns it can obtain, and the natural law of self-interest compels this rule, so that wherever it is departed from, it is because the action of the interest is weakened by the complicated agencies required in great corporations, widely separating the employe from the employer; and to the extent of this separation there are possibilities of mal-administration. The oft-repeated maxim that the

[ocr errors]

public service should be conducted on business principles means that accuracy, promptitude, honesty, economy and efficiency are as essential in public as in private affairs, but the methods of securing these qualities cannot be exactly the same. The merchant has a direct personal and pecuniary interest in his private affairs which leads him to make a careful selection of his employes, but in the public service, there must be substituted some more complicated agency in the form of laws, regulations, reports and inspections

. In the selection of subordinates the great and universal law of competitive examination obtains in both the private and public business, but in the latter there must be formalities that are substituted for pecuniary interests, in order that the great business principles above named may be applied in the highest degrees.

Some advance the query, how can competition measure honesty and fidelity or test moral qualities? These are indispensable qualifications in any public position, but their attainment cannot be secured by one method more than another.

An officer with unrestrained power to appoint has to depend upon the testimonials of others as to the moral integrity and discretion of those whom he appoints. It is quite as easy to obtain trustworthy testimonials by a special board and according to fixed rules and to have such vouchers scrutinized and verified by skilled examiners. But no system of selection can infallibly test moral character nor insure it in those selected; for these dependence must rest upon the ordinary motives that sway mankind, the innate moral principle, more or less fortified by education, the fear of punishmen or dis grace, the honor and self-respect of the employes; all these are guar anties against indiscretion and dishonesty which no particular method of selection can re-enforce.

A fear is now and then expressed that the selection of subordinates in the public service by competitive methods will establish a

privileged class.” The absurdity of such an apprehension is obvious and ridiculous. An aristocracy of comparatively few clerks, mes, sengers, prison guards, policemen, etc., with moderate salaries and removal at any time by their superiors, would not be very dangerous to the body politic. The man so unambitious as to crave the narrow career of a government employe would not probably put on the style and airs of a nabob or patrician or become a conspirator against the common weal. This fear that an aristocracy will be founded by these official tenants at will is expressed generally by those who favor a privileged class of partisan mercenaries intent on "stratagems and spoils,” or an aristocracy of political bosses, who shall dispense as their rightful patronage the minor offices constituted for the exclusive service of the people. The partisan janizaries and centuries intrenched in the public offices form the privileged class that is to be feared. But the reductio ad absurdum is the apprehension that an aristocracy will be engendered by a method of selection that is of the very essence of an enlightened democracy. Competition

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]
[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]
[ocr errors]

open to every qualified citizen upon equal terms, without regard to race, religion, or political opinions, places the access to the civil service upon a basis as purely democratic as is the election of officers by popular suffrage. It is this feature that must commend the competitive system to every patriotic citizen, who believes in those principles of popular rights and equality that lie at the very foundation of all our political institutions. The son of the poorest and most obscure citizen can compete for a clerkship on equal terņis with the son of the richest or most illustrious, and in the contest, wealth, influence and importunity count for nothing; a contest where to the victor belongs the reward of superior merit, a principle incomparably higher than one so often quoted “ to the victor belong the spoils. If there were no other valid argument, the friends of the competitive or merit system conld stand upon its democratic aspects, its enforcement of equal rights and "fair play.”

In connection with the privileged class" argument is the assertion that under the merit system the official will be indifferent, insubordinate, discourteous and insolent to the public transacting business with them. This assertion does not take into account that integral part of the merit system which disavows any absolute tenure, but leaves the power of sunmary dismissal without restraint. This provision gives the best possible security for good discipline and insuures the service against the continuance of that

arrogance

and impertinence exhibited to the public by appointees who were so secure through their personal and partisan influences that no superior dared to remove them. The clerk in a public office who could rely upon his strong " hacking” could indulge in almost any conduct not felonions and feel certain that the severest penalty for it would be an admonition; the power that procured his appointment could compel his retention. In the merit system the official incumbent must depend upon his own good conduct and efficiency, since no extraneous influence got him his place or can insure his continuance. In fact the only effectual means of enforcing official discipline is to give the head of the office the summary power of removal and at the same time protection from the duress and potency of outside influences such as are wielded under the patronage system.

To some of those who have overlooked the points above given, the fixed tenure in office with removal for proven cause only has occurred as the proper remedy for abuses in the civil service; this, it has been well said, is putting the guard at the back door and not

It means that no particular care is to be taken in the selection of officials, but when selected they are to be dismissed only by a judicial process, which in the municipal government of New York has practically failed to insure justice to the public interests. There can be misdemeanors and impertinences difficult to judicially prove, and a shrewd employe may keep within the very verge of such proof. The abolition of patronage accomplished by open competition

[Assem. Doc. No. 42.] 7

1

the front one.

destroys the general motive for illegitimate removals, i, e., to find a place for some favored one. It has been happily proposed to substitute the principle of “appointment for cause only for that of “ removal for cause only.”

One specific change often urged is that in practice competitive tests do not indicate the fittest, and alleged instances of its failure in this respect are cited. The method, in common with other humar agencies, is not infallible and should not be judged by its exceptions, but if so judged it certainly would not suffer in a comparison withi the patronage or spoils method. As an instance of its failures outside the public service the valedictorians of college classes, claimed to be the very flower of competition, are contrasted with those low in their classes who have subsequently achieved more wealth and fame. If the competition had been one that tested capability for such successes, there would be some force in the contrast, but on the other hand the college examinations are and should be essentially scholastic.

It is also possible that the valedictorian may have his nse in the world, and become pre-eminent in some sphere of activity less brilliant and prominent than that of his classmate. The competitive grading at the West Point Military Academy, which for nearly a century has distributed in the order of their merit the members of the graduating classes to the several branches of the service, has not been abandoned because some who graduated low became famous generals in the recent war.

“ Would the late Alexander T. Stewart or Commodore Vanderbilt have passed in a competitive examination for a clerkship!" is the form that these caviling queries often take, the deduction being implied that if such successful business men could not pass, the prin: ciple of competition is false. The obvious answer is, that these men might have made very poor government clerks; that the ambition and conscious power that made one a great merchant and the other an owner of vast railroads would never have been content with the restricted range of an office desk. But had the public required in its service one having the highest mercantile qualities or the insight of a successful investor, Messrs. Stewart and Vanderbilt might hare entered the competition with the highest assurances of success.

Somewhat analogous to the foregoing are the complaints that the higher grades of officers are not selected also by coinpetitive tests and which are the same as were urged in England thirty years ago by Sir G. C. Lewis, the defender in Parliament of the patronage system as a prerogative of the aristocracy. He said, “ If competitive examination be so efficient a means of securing the best men, why not choose by it your Lord Chief Justice as well as your junior clerks?"

To this it was well replied “ that the examination was as a test of untried men or if that answer be not enough, add that the Chief Justice is in fact appointed as the result of an open competition of the most satisfactory kind, in which his pru

proposed

we mat

« PreviousContinue »