Law and Politics: Occasional Papers of Felix Frankfurter, 1913-1938

By Archibald MacLeish; E. F. Prichard Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

Public Services and the Public

The following selection was delivered as one of the Dodge Lectures in Government at Yale University in 1930, appeared first as an article in the Yale Review for the autumn of 1930, and later as a chapter in Mr. Frankfurter book, The Public and Its Government ( 1930), copyright Yale University Press.

NO TASK more profoundly tests the capacity of our government, both in nation and state, than its share in securing for society those essential services which are furnished by public utilities. Our whole social structure presupposes satistactions for which we are dependent upon private economic enterprise. To think of contemporary America without the intricate and pervasive systems which furnish light, heat, power, water, transportation, communication, is to conjure up another world. The needs thus met are today as truly public services as the traditional governmental functions of police and justice. That both law and opinion differentiate from all other economic enterprise the economic undertakings which furnish these newer services is not the slightest paradox. The legal conception of "public utility" is merely the law's acknowledgment of "irreducible and stubborn facts."

The crux of the matter was put sixty years ago by Charles Francis Adams, the younger, in one of his famous reports for the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners. He laid down this basic principle: "All sums exacted from the community for transportation, whether of persons or of property, constitute an exaction in the nature of a tax--just as much a tax as water rates, or the assessments on property, or the tariff duties on imports. . . . The reduction of this tax to the lowest possible amount paid

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