Essay Notes: "Government and Business" by Charles E. Merriam 1933

Morton D. Hull distinguished-service professor of political science and chairman of Department of Political Science, the University of Chicago
I first "discovered" Charles E. Merriam while conducting a literature review for my PhD thesis on a fieldwork trip to the University of Ottawa in 2005. I was reading Systematic Politics (1945: 3) when I stumbled upon this quote:
There are those who cling to life as if shipwrecked in some great storm, anxious only about clinging to a thin rope of existence which may at any moment break. Others are full of the joie de vivre with every step and every breath a thrill radiating throughout their being and questioning nothing in a world of sheer delight in existence.
This remains my favourite quote of all time. To me it means that we have a choice. But that is not my purpose here.

For a few years now, I have been writing notes on the books that I read, and then set reading goals using I was using Goodreads before it was purchased by Amazon, and I have since become a Goodreads Librarian. I enjoy the platform and the way it integrates with my Facebook page and this blog.

Using Goodreads has proven so helpful for me, that I have decided to do the same for my professional reading. My intention is to write up reviews of journal articles and to make it a habit of completing a set number per week I have decided to start at the beginning with this article by Merriam.

I have used this article for many years in teaching the subject Government-Business Relations, a first-year introductory course covering the basics of political economy. I found this article useful as it is a speech, and tends to be less heavy reading for first-year students. Yet, at the same time, the article covers many of the issues that continue to challenge the arrangements of our society today.

Merriam begins by mentioning graft and corruption as the first of a number of common problems, and that the major problem is "getting rid of those who will not play by the game in business or government" (Merriam 1933: 182). Second, Merriam (1933: 182) refers to the problem of identifying the appropriate "unit of organization" for governmental and business administration. A number of smaller government units at the time had been "thrown into complete confusion by recent developments, by communication, by transportation, by redistribution of population and wealth" (Merriam 1933: 182). The urban/rural divide presents a problem for government: "How shall we reorganize our two hundred thousand governmental units in such a manner as to put them on the highest level of efficiency and at the same time reserve the necessary degree of democratic control?" These issues remain problems to this day.

The "third problem of government and business is the relation of both of them to what we call technology". Merriam (1933: 183) discusses the issues facing "an age of rapid speed communication and transportation [and]... "dealing with the emerging techniques of social control that are coming up through medicine, through physiology, psychology, and psychobiology". Again, these issues remain extant. He expresses his concern for the future and the changes to how human behaviour might be regulated as a result, and the implications for "machine technology... for production, employment, industrial security" and how political and business relations are perplexing as a result.

The "relation of these units to each other" represents the fourth problem. This problem is at the core of the academic sub-discipline referred to as government-business relations, and how interest groups and the transfer of skills between the two might be an issue for concern or management. Merriam goes on to mention tariffs, trade associations, education, and so on. What is interesting for the times, and again this works well with teaching first-year students the various isms, is that Merriam mentions how the world and the way it is understood will lead to different isms and answers more complex than yes and no resulting from the polar-opposite views espoused by John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. For Merriam, (1933: 185), various levels of governmental autonomy and "hybrid" organisational types foretell of the "boundary-less" organisations which were the subject of so much attention in the late 1990s to early 2000s.  

Merriam covers the various approaches to social policy, be they "paternal, maternal, or fraternal", and mentions how similar trends were occurring in Germany at the time., It is worth noting that in 1933, Hitler had commenced the restructuring of the German state and there was much focus on how Fascist states were recovering their economies in the wake of the Great Depression. Merriam also mentions that at this time, the University of Chicago and the government were undertaking "perhaps the most interesting experiment ever made in American administration" where partner arrangements between government and higher education to "consider the interchange of information and experience and the building-up of higher professional standards".  

Merriam (1933: 187) suggests that the rate of change was so fast that it was impossible to plan. Rather than searching for a "blueprint", it was more important to establish "your general goal and the general spirit" of the enterprise at hand. As a foundation requirement, a minimum standard of living and greater "distribution of the gains of civilization throughout the community" were an essential part of "American democracy". Modern times have sent "pestilence" and "famine" "back into their caves" and while there was no excuse for poverty, and war remained a reminder of oru "primitive origins".

Special mention is made of "the growth of skill in social engineering", fed by the "stream of technical invention" that "will roll on at an increasing rate unless signs fail". Now, more than eight decades later, the basic problems of economic management remain largely unchanged, at least within the confines of the nation-sate. Merriam concludes by reminding us of the necessity to equip future generations with the skills to address these challenges, all may be well. There is a proviso that is worth quoting at length (Merriam 1933: 190):
If we can look the facts in the face and not deny what we do not like; if we can consult our fears less and our hopes more; if we can think more in terms of the present and future rather than the past; if we can show inventive ability in social and industrial arrangements equal to that developed in technological advancement, we can realize the promise of American life more fully than even the prophets have ever dared to dream.
Merriam concludes by stating that the educational system and research activities "are the vast symbol of this emerging power of man over nature, both human and non-human; of conscious creation of an environment instead of passive acceptance and adaptation"; of a day when slaves become masters of their own destiny".

I must admit that it has been some time since I read this article, but I continue to see the usefulness of the key issues for a modern audience. Much of the modern era is missing, such as global trade and finance, immigration and global security. However, in looking at the role of government within the confines of the nation-state, the article is useful in indicating the importance of history. The article also provides a warning for us - Merriam seems to believe that the isms of the nineteenth century would be left behind, only for history to prove him wrong. 

The twentieth century resulted in a large and brutal battle of ideas between fascism, communism, and capitalism, and later liberal and social democracy, and many more isms were added to our vocabulary: totalitarianism, fascism, Nazism, corporatism, and so on. Yet many textbooks of the early 2000s suggested that the twenty-first century would be somehow different from the twentieth century, that the great battle for ideas was over, that capitalism and democracy have won. However, I think Merriam's enthusiasm serves as a warning for us. If we continue to think that somehow humanity has improved and will continue to do so whether we are deliberate about it or not, and given current global political circumstances, it is difficult to see how this century, and our arrogance about our own abilities, cannot lead us down a similar path.