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Of Socialistic Ideas

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THERE are men who hold that the present organization of society is not that best adapted to promote the general welfare. These men are so numerous, and so frequently heard, that their views demand the careful attention of the student. To see in what respect it is proposed to change the existing system, we remark that the fundamental principle of the latter is that of individual liberty, or individualism; not indeed unlimited liberty, but liberty within certain limits laid down by law. To put the principle into another shape, every man is regarded as the master of his own destiny. This is the under-lying idea of the let-alone principle.

Socialism is a general term applied to a number of systems which propose that society, by organized action, shall force the individual to surrender his liberty, or, what amounts to the same thing, his right to the unconditional acquisition and use of property, for the general good. These systems are founded on the belief that the great inequality now seen in the distribution of wealth should be lessened, and that an effort should be made to effect this distribution on certain supposed principles of equity. Such views find very strong support in the philanthropic sentiments of mankind. There is a single man in New York whose income would suffice to feed and clothe fifty thousand families. In that same city there are more than that number of families working hard to make both ends meet, and a very considerable number living in squalor and misery. On a superficial view there is no apparent difference between the constitution of this rich man and of his poorer neighbors which would justify such inequality in the wealth they possess. It is therefore natural to suppose that a system which would distribute his surplus wealth among the poor and unfortunate would tend to the general good.

In connection with socialism we have to consider the view of the "labor party," the members of which do not call themselves socialists, and do not propose any radically new system, but are simply engaged in a vigorous effort to secure for the laborer a larger share of the product of labor than he can command under the actual system. Although this class has no system of its own, it has a certain way of thinking which is so nearly identical with the way of thinking of the socialists proper that both may be considered together. The object of the present chapter is to inquire whether any system intended to limit the liberty of any man to acquire all the wealth he can by legal means, and to employ it in the way he chooses, can conduce to the general good.

We have in the first place to point out certain wide-spread popular errors which lead to the impression that our present system is not that most conducive to the public good. The mere correction of these errors will go far towards putting us on the right track, and will make it less necessary than it otherwise would be to consider the views of socialists in detail.

The first error is that of tacitly supposing that the inequality now existing in the ownership of wealth indicates a corresponding inequality in its enjoyment. Let us suppose the income of the richest man in New York to be ten millions of dollars, and that of each day-laborer to be five hundred dollars. If their consumption of the products of labor were proportional to their income, Mr. Vanderbilt's family would consume annually perhaps 100,000 barrels of flour, 10,000 suits of clothes, and so on ; or at least the equivalent in value of these quantities of flour and clothing. But nothing of the sort takes place. The rich consume but little more of the necessaries of life than the poor. All that the wealthiest man gets to live on is his house, with its furniture and decorations, the food he eats, the clothes he wears, and the articles which contribute to his comfort and convenience. As already shown, all his surplus income above this is not consumed by him, but is directly or indirectly expended in employing laborers to build more houses, factories, mills, railways and locomotives, to clear more farms and to dig more mines—in a word, to increase the general supply of all the commodities required by men in general (Book. IV., Chapter IX.). What society really expends in the support of Mr. Vanderbilt is only the commodities which he takes out of the general storehouse for his own consumption.

The second error is that of forgetting that under the existing system each individual is engaged as advantageously as circumstances admit of in the production of the necessaries of life to be consumed by others; and that no change in that system could result in a more abundant general supply of the necessaries of life. The utmost that could be done by the change would be to allow some classes to consume more and others .fewer commodities.

A third mistake is that of supposing that the condition of the laboring class lias not improved with the advance in the arts of production during the last two or three centuries. This mistake is about a matter of fact so clear and simple that its mis-apprehension can only be considered as an extraordinary case of mental blindness, suggestive of the danger of intrusting the improvement of society to men who cannot see. Every one who has taken the trouble to inquire into the actual state of society a few centuries ago knows that the condition of the laborer was about this : He lived in a hovel with hardly any-thing which we would call a window, with the fire (if lie ever had any) in the middle of the building, or perhaps in a chimney-piece at one end. This hovel he occupied in common with the pigs and poultry. His staple article of food was a kind of black bread which a negro of to-day would hardly offer his dog, with a few vegetables from the neighboring garden. The clothing of himself and wife was coarse, scanty, and dirty almost in the same proportion.

Coming nearer to our own times and our own country, we have a well-known fact still Within the memory of our older men which shows the improvement in the comfort of the poorer classes in a yet simpler light. In the early part of this century the clothing for all but well-to-do families had - to be made by the female members of each family. They helped to shear the sheep, they spun the wool, wove the cloth, and eut and sewed the clothes. Such clothing was called "home-spun," a term familiar even to the present day. Coming down to the present, it would now be difficult to find within the limits of the United States a family who found such labor necessary. The wife of the poorest day-laborer in our land would rebel at the task of spinning and weaving the material for her husband's clothes. What object would there be in undertaking such a task, when with the wages of a week's labor the man can buy himself a ready-made suit of clothes which will last him a year with no other help from the wife than mending and sewing on buttons

The improvement in the quantity of food available is-not less remarkable than in that of clothing. Three or four days' work of the average laborer will now buy him a barrel of flour and more than a barrel of corn-meal; that is, a month's supply of bread for an average family. A week's labor will .by him a half-barrel of pork.

The fourth mistake is that of overlooking the relative importance of the different requirements of production, and regarding the functions of the laborer as the only ones to be considered. This is an exceedingly natural mistake., When we trace back the operations through which a coat or any other commodity was produced, we find them all to be ultimately resolved into human labor. But we see in the same connection that conjoined with the merely manual labor,' which was the immediate instrument, there were other agencies of equal importance which might be called labor, but which are overlooked by the socialist and labor-reformer. These are. the functions of the inventor who shows how improvements in production can be made: of the capitalist who saves up his income and employs it in putting the ideas of the inventor into practice; of the managers who organize the work of the laborers. Without these three classes of men the great class of mere laborers would never have made any advance, but would have been still living in the same miserable style that they lived in one or two hundred years ago. That is, the great improvement in the condition of the laborer which the present generation witnesses is not the work of himself, but of men of a higher order.

The fact is that on our present system the enjoyment of the collected wealth of the community is as nearly in accord with the ideal principles of equity as any general system can be. It is a great mistake to suppose that the enormous inequalities which we see in wealth imply. anything wrong in the system which permits them. When we speak of principles of equity, we mean principles which have their rise in the constitution of human nature. At the bottom of all these principles is one which we have already several times alluded to or de-fined : the feeling in the breast of every well-organized man that he is entitled to make the best use of the faculties with which nature has endowed him for his own advancement, and that so long as he gives to others a full equivalent for, the benefits that lie receives from them, his fellow-men have no other claim upon him. We have shown that under our present system no one can, as a general rule, command from others more that the equivalent of the good he does them. But we may explain the matter again from a somewhat wider point of view.

When we speak of equivalents between services rendered we presuppose some system by which we may measure the values of the respective services. The economic measure of value already defined and investigated is in the direction of equity. True, they result in the value of the service being measured not merely by its character in itself considered, but by its scarcity. But this system of estimation is perfectly equitable. To a man who kindly offers to supply me with several hogs, heads of air. to breathe, I may say with perfect reason, "I have all the air I want already, and your services, whatever the cost, are of no use to me. I therefore decline to pay you for the labor you have spent in bringing me the air."

To take an extreme case of the contrary kind, suppose I am defendant in a suit at law, the loss of which will reduce me to penury. If a lawyer by his good advice shows me how to gain the suit, it would be inequitable and unreasonable should I say to him, " These services cost you only two or three days' labor all told; I will therefore only pay you the value of two or three days of my labor." It would be inequitable, because whatever is the maximum amount which I would be willing to pay rather than be deprived of his advice, that maximum represents the extreme value of the services which he renders me. So far as we two are concerned, that amount represents the good which he does me. Therefore, by such amount as that which I actually pay him falls short of this ideal maximum (and the competition of different lawyers for my case may make it fall very far below that amount), by just so much am I the gainer through the legal talent of lawyers in general. I have therefore no right to complain, though I have to pay my lawyer for three days' work what would cost me as many months. And we may see in general that if society stands in great need of, or will derive great advantage from, services which only a very few men can render, it is perfectly equitable that these men should command from society a return commensurate with the paucity of their numbers. Any other system would presuppose obligations on their part towards society, without corresponding obligations on the part of society towards them.

The practice of competition continually tends to reduce to a minimum the equivalent which men can charge for their services. This also is in perfect accord with equity, since, as the number of persons who can render any services increases, the relative importance of each person diminishes. Thus, even from. an idealistic point of view, nothing can be said against the general equity of the existing system of free competition.

There might indeed be exceptional cases of great hardship, as when one person takes advantage of some temporary but urgent want of another. It would be a great hardship for a bystander to demand from a drowning man his whole fortune as the equivalent of pulling him out of the water. But the customs and tendencies of society do not permit of these exceptional cases being taken advantage of in practice. The men who conduct. the business of the world find it to, conduce to their prosperity and peace of mind to, conduct their affairs on broad general principles, without seeking- to take undue advantage of exceptional cases. "

It is also to be remembered that the existing system insures the employment of every man in the, way best suited to his talents better . than any other system possibly can. This fact follows from almost the whole system of political economy, so that it need not be dwelt upon. The result is that the great mass of producers who make up the working classes of the world will combine in the most advantageous way:

Although the present system seems the best one imaginable in its general arrangements, it by no means follows that it is best in every detail. We have shown that there may be exceptional cases. One point where doubt of the universal equity of the existing system may arise is made when we find artificial means adopted to prevent that competition which. insures society against being required to pay for individual services more than they are worth, and to create artificial monopolies. Such a case arises when a telegraph coin pany charges so high for its messages that its lines, are idle a considerable portion of the time, when mechanics combine, to abstain from work in order that they may command more from society than the equivalent which would be fixed by free competition, and A-limit .the number of persons who can learn a trade. But it has not Yet been shown that anything would be gained by attempts to prevent such combinations: through legal action.

In this connection there is an historical fact still existing and not to be lost sight of. As a general rule those improvement's in the process of manufacture which have resulted in so large an increase in the production of cotton and woollen goods that the poorest man in the land can now wear a white shirt on Sunday, and warm clothing all winter, have uniformly met with a bitter opposition from the class to which labor-reformers belong. Even now nothing is more common than combinations against cheap methods of production. These combinations are at war with the good of society in general, and especially with the good of the poorer class of laborers. The greatest want of this class, at least in our large cities, is more house-room. If the organized efforts of philanthropists were directed rationally, this would be the point first aimed at. But instead of the efforts of labor-reformers being aimed in this direction, we find that nearly all the artisans engaged in doing the work necessary to the construction of a house are formed into organizations whose object is to limit in every way the building of houses. They seek to prescribe the number of boys who shall be allowed to learn how to lay bricks, or plaster, or do anything else requiring skill.

The inquiry now presents itself, What system would socialists substitute for the existing one? This inquiry it is impossible to answer within the limits of the present chapter, for the reason that the systems which have been proposed are too numerous and too indefinite to be described and discussed in detail. The most celebrated ones are founded on theories of the perfection of human nature which, however beautiful they may be as creations of the fancy, have nothing to correspond to them in the world we live in. Time would be wasted in discussing such systems, for the simple reason that it would be vain trying to instruct any man whose commonsense would not suffice to show him their impracticability.

The danger which now threatens society in this direction does not come from the propounders of new systems, but from popular efforts to make such changes in the details of our present system as it is supposed may remedy the evils which surround us. The way most thoroughly to dispose of the subject is to inquire by what means and to what extent it would be possible for the wisest, most beneficent, and most powerful government, a government which could do anything it pleased, to improve on the present state-of things. Let us then suppose such a government to set out to remedy all the evils that we so frequently hear about, and to start mankind on the road to happiness.

The first object aimed at by socialists is that every man shall be enabled to gain a living and to secure his development. The question would then arise, What shall we consider. a living? One of the first classes to be considered would be the poor blacks of the South. But even these are making some sort of a living, and in fact as much of a living as they really want to make. When the beneficent government sent its representatives among them, they would soon discover that the sole wants of the beneficiaries were a certain annual supply of corn, chickens, and other products to eat, a few old clothes to cover their backs, and some poor shelter from the weather. Just as much work as is necessary to secure these necessaries the typical black man is willing to perform ; more is laborious, and he will not perform it unless forced to do so. Now, what shall the government do with him? Give him more food, better clothes, and a better house than he really needs ? Then food, clothing, and houses must be taken from somebody else for his benefit. Shall he be forced to do more work in order to render an equivalent for the increased supply of necessaries given him ? This would be doing him a great wrong, If he is not to be his own judge of the work he shall do, be is simply a slave. As for development: why should he be developed? He does not want to be, and it would be doing him an injury to try to fit him for a higher sphere. He is happier with his violin than he would be in the Astor Library, and if we wish to fit the race for higher pursuits we had better begin with more promising stock.

The beneficent government next turns its attention to the tenement-houses of New York City, where several hundred thousand poor are confined in insufficient and unhealthy quarters. What shall be done with them? Shall they be put into larger houses where they will have more air and room ? Then somebody must build the houses. Bricklayers, carpenters, and masons must be induced to go to work, and the beneficent government must make provision for feeding and clothing them while they are building houses for the poor. Just as the houses are started the bricklayers organize a strike. What is the government to do ? Decree that they shall not strike, but be satisfied with such subsistence as the government can give them? This will be treating them a great deal worse than modern society has ever done. The latter induces them to work if it can, but never forces them to accept conditions against their will.

Perhaps the beneficent government meets the demand by giving them more flour, meat, and clothing, and thus induces them to continue work. But where are the food and clothing to come from? Perhaps the government will ransack the houses of the wealthy to seize the stores of food and clothing reaped by their wealth. But they would be greatly disappointed, and might find these stores not materially greater here than in any other houses. The next resource would be to tax people in general, and the wealthy in particular, to raise money to purchase flour for the bricklayers. We anticipate no difficulty on the part of the government in collecting the tax to any amount, because we suppose its power unlimited ; but we do not assign it the faculty of making something out of nothing. Therefore if the wealthy are taxed, the money which they can spend in other directions will be diminished by exactly the amount of the tax. The wealthy man of leisure must therefore discharge some of his servants, and thus throw them out of employment. The railway owner must stop building locomotives and rolling-stock for his railways, giving to the government for the bricklayers the money he would have expended in this direction. The result is that the builders of locomotives and cars will find their wages diminished, or perhaps they will be thrown out of employment. Then, when the government took the money and bought flour for the bricklayers, it would come into direct competition with the very occupants of the tenement-house whom it was trying to relieve, and who wanted all the flour they could get. Thus the supply of flour would be diminished; the price would rise, and all the poorly fed, clothed, and housed poor would for the time being be worse off than before. The final result would be that the cost of building the tenement-house would come out of servants, builders of locomotives, and the occupants of the houses themselves, no matter what arrangements the government might make.

Our government next tries a third step. It finds that the rail-ways of the country are very largely owned by a few wealthy men who ought not to be allowed the enjoyment of so much wealth, and therefore determines to confiscate their property. It therefore seizes all the railways, and declares that the Iatter are hereafter to be run exclusively for the public benefit and are to belong to the public. But how much better off would the public be ? Shall everybody who wants to ride be carried free? No, because then the railway will have no income to pay the men who run it. Shall it charge the same price as be-fore for transportation? Then nobody will be any better off. Shall it lower the rate ? By whatever amount it lowers the rate, there will be so much less money to pay the employes who manage it and keep it in repair. Making the best possible sup-position, and assuming that the government could manage the road as well as the stockholders, all that could possibly be gained would be the dividends received by the stockholders. This will be so insignificant, when compared with the total transactions of the road, that it is not worth considering. But even if saved, how would society be better off? The stockholders generally spend their dividends in improving their own or some other roads, or in building houses or improving farms. If the government stops the dividends, then these improvements must also stop, and thus the capacity of the country at large must be diminished.

In this argument We have introduced the supposition that the railway could be as well managed by the government as by the stockholders. As governments go, this supposition is al most absurd. Every man of common sense knows that the management would be a great deal worse rather than better.

Finding it impossible to supply the occupants of the tenement-houses with better quarters without injuring other classes of laborers, what shall our government try next? Shall the occupants of the tenement-houses be removed to the country where they may have ,more fresh air? The very fact that they live in the city shows that they prefer city to farm life. In removing them the government would therefore be overruling their own wishes, which, to say nothing of the' wrong of it, would produce speedy revolution.

But could not our government do something by employing the poor of the great cities, thus enabling them to help them-selves? ? Everywhere we see hundreds and thousands of people out of employment and seeking for something to do. We have shown that there is one way by which these people may get employment, and that is by going: to work on the very best terms they can command. Can the government do anything better for them ? The only measure that any one proposes is that the government shall hire them to do something. But in order to pay them wages government must levy taxes. This tax would be taken right out of the monetary circulation, and would cause a diminution in the ability of the taxpayers to employ labor exactly equal to the increase in the power of the government to do so. Thus, at best, the injury would equal the benefit.

But the question Would arise, In what labor would the government employ the men ? In breaking stone, which nobody wants broken ? If so, it would be a waste of labor, and the sole effect of the operation would be to enable the laborers to eat food without producing an equivalent, and thus to diminish the amount of subsistence available for other laborers. Shall they break stone that somebody wants broken ? Then the intervention of the government will not be required, because if anybody wants stone broken he will himself hire laborers to do it.

All projects of the class we have been describing can be most clearly analyzed by looking at the whole subject from a communistic standpoint, as in Book II., Chapter IX., and by considering the distribution of the products of labor among the various classes of society from the point of view there taken. The fact is that, under the present arrangements, men are working for each other in the most effective way that it would be possible for them to work under the supervision of the wisest government. We have already a system. of socialism marvellous in its perfection. The most admirable feature of it is that those propensities of men which we consider most selfish lead them to work for the good of their fellow-men. The men of wealth who employ their money in building houses, managing railways, and sailing ships are great public benefactors, engaged in supplying thousands and even millions of their fellow-men with shelter and with the means to make journeys and to procure sustenance from all parts of the world. Those who would destroy the system may be aptly compared to passengers in a wooden ship who, on finding the weather cold and the supply of fuel insufficient for cooking, are bent upon cutting up the ship for fuel in mid-ocean in order to warm themselves by the fire.

We have not yet considered some of the most far-reaching and yet elementary difficulties in the way of practical socialism. One difficulty is that no matter how much society might want to benefit an individual, it could not do it, from the mere fact of not knowing what the individual wants. Every man has his own tastes and whims, which may change from day to day, and which society cannot possibly provide for. It is essential to his happiness that he should be allowed to gratify such transient wants in the best way he can. It would be vexatious to have any one but himself decide whether he should take a railway journey when he felt that he needed a change; whether he should have coffee or milk for breakfast; whether he should wears his old clothes or be supplied with a new suit. Society lets him lookout for himself in all such matters, not because it is selfish and does not care for his good, but because it really cannot help him. He must look out for himself, not because other people are indifferent to his welfare, but because they cannot promote it as well as he can himself.

A little consideration will show us that no system of social-ism is possible without such an abridgment of individual liberty as no class of men would for a moment tolerate. If society is to guarantee an individual a living, it is quite certain that it must prescribe some conditions. To say that every man shall be entitled to a living, and yet retain the right to seek work where he pleases and to prescribe his own condition of labor, would be little short of an absurdity. What society now does is to offer him the best living it can, on the best conditions he can command, leaving him free to accept or decline them. Bet-ter than this it cannot do. When society prescribed the conditions to which he must submit, a rebellion would begin.

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