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Looking Backward From 2000 to 1887
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Dr. Leete ceased speaking, and I remained silent, endeavoring to form some general
conception of the changes in the arrangements of society implied in the tremendous
revolution which he had described.
Finally I said, "The idea of such an extension of the functions of government is, to say the
least, rather overwhelming."
"Extension!" he repeated, "where is the extension?"
"In my day," I replied, "it was considered that the proper functions of government,
strictly speaking, were limited to keeping the peace and defending the people against the
public enemy, that is, to the military and police powers."
"And, in heaven's name, who are the public enemies?" exclaimed Dr. Leete. "Are they
France, England, Germany, or hunger, cold, and nakedness? In your day governments
were accustomed, on the slightest international misunderstanding, to seize upon the
bodies of citizens and deliver them over by hundreds of thousands to death and
mutilation, wasting their treasures the while like water; and all this oftenest for no
imaginable profit to the victims. We have no wars now, and our governments no war
powers, but in order to protect every citizen against hunger, cold, and nakedness, and
provide for all his physical and mental needs, the function is assumed of directing his
industry for a term of years. No, Mr. West, I am sure on reflection you will perceive that
it was in your age, not in ours, that the extension of the functions of governments was
extraordinary. Not even for the best ends would men now allow their governments such
powers as were then used for the most maleficent."
"Leaving comparisons aside," I said, "the demagoguery and corruption of our public men
would have been considered, in my day, insuperable objections to any assumption by
government of the charge of the national industries. We should have thought that no
arrangement could be worse than to entrust the politicians with control of the wealth-
producing machinery of the country. Its material interests were quite too much the
football of parties as it was."
"No doubt you were right," rejoined Dr. Leete, "but all that is changed now. We have no
parties or politicians, and as for demagoguery and corruption, they are words having only
an historical significance."
"Human nature itself must have changed very much," I said.
"Not at all," was Dr. Leete's reply, "but the conditions of human life have changed, and
with them the motives of human action. The organization of society with you was such
that officials were under a constant temptation to misuse their power for the private profit
of themselves or others. Under such circumstances it seems almost strange that you dared