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Earth-Hunger and Other Essays/Liberty and Labor

Liberty and Labor

We are told that the justification of labor "is to be found in the imperfection of human nature." It betrays a singular state of mind with regard to social phenomena to talk about the "justification of labor"—the justification of labor is that we cannot live without it; we might as well discuss the justification of breathing, or of existence itself. It is idleness which needs justification. It is also singular that anybody should find satisfaction in giving definitions to labor, poverty, etc., from which one can argue that labor and poverty may be brought to an end; thus it is said that labor is the pain of doing what one does not know how to do, so that it may be rendered non-existent by acquiring skill. This is what the Germans call "fighting a mirror." It is only literary sleight-of-hand. Labor remains just what it always was—a pitiless fact, an inevitable necessity. A man who has capital on which he can live without work is living on past labor accumulated and reapplied. There is no way in which one of the sons of men can live without labor except by enslaving some of his fellowmen to work for him. Therefore the essence of personal and civil liberty must be found in a state of things in which each one labors for himself, is secured against laboring for any one else, and is assured the enjoyment of the fruits of his own labor. Civil liberty, when considered by itself, must consist in such laws and institutions as secure an equilibrium of rights and duties, and allow no privileges to arise on one side and no servitudes on the other.

Labor is all expenditure of human energy, by which the sustentation of society is carried on. It is expenditure of human energy, and never can be anything else. Therefore, it wears men out and consumes them. In a limited measure, and, in youth, for a limited time, it may be pleasurable, but, as it is sure to surpass the limits of degree or the limits of time as a man grows old, it is certain to be an oppression and destruction to the individual, against which his will must revolt and under which his happiness must be sacrificed, because his physical powers are sure to decay while yet his will is strong to wish and to undertake. The "sustentation of society" is also the purpose of labor, because the individual earns his living, in modern civilized society, by holding a place and bearing a share in the collective enterprise of the whole.

It is in vain now that we attempt anywhere in this domain to reduce the notion of liberty to something positive or hard and fast; it presents itself to us as a set of dissolving views, which are forever changing with the changing aspects of social relations as they go on their course of evolution. The state by its power frees men from anarchy, fist-law, slavery, etc., but it imposes a new set of restraints of its own, which take away liberty on another side. The state is necessary for the first function; it must be tolerated in the second. There would be no rest, no finality, except when each one had everything at no cost, or with no offsets and attendant ills. This, therefore, is the true Utopia, the true social ideal, and a great many have recognized it and begun to proclaim it, who have not yet formulated or understood it.

It is an instructive fact that modern methods of poor relief and modern poor laws grew up as slavery, serfdom, and villainage passed away. A slave could never be a vagabond or a pauper; he could not starve to death unless there was a general collapse of the entire social order, so that his master could neither feed him nor find a purchaser for him. The most ingenious apologies for slavery ever made in this country consisted in developing this fact into an argument that slavery was the only cure for socialism, the only sound organization of society in which there could be no poverty, and that free society was destined to destruction by the war of competition and unchecked struggle for existence within itself. A great deal of the socialistic declamation which we hear meets this argument on a completely even footing and concedes all its effect; the declaimers do not see it, because they have not thought out the matter as well as the old slaveholders had. In fact, there is an indisputable element of truth in it, which is this: liberty of labor is not a social finality. It is not a definitive solution of the social organization, but only alters the forms of the problems; it alters nothing of the social forces. It sets free some personal interests which were not free before, and in so far it adds to the internal warfare and confusion of society. It does sharpen and intensify the competition of life. The struggle of the forces rises in intensity, develops more and more heat, puts stronger and stronger strain upon political institutions, subjects the sober sense, the high self-control of men to severer tests, demands more intelligent power of criticizing dogmas and projects. The men who supposed that, under liberty, they were going to soar away from irksome limitations of earthly life, find that, though the restraints have changed their form, they are as heavy as ever.

The master of a slave or serf secured the subject person against all the grossest calamities of human life; but he made the slave pay him a high insurance rate for that security. The master carried all personal and social risk for the slave. This element of risk is one of the leading phenomena of social organization. In a barbarous society, where there is scarcely any organization, each person carries it for himself, and it produces no social problem, because, so long as it turns out well for the individual, he makes no complaint. When it goes against him he perishes. It is with advancing organization that the risk element becomes distinctly differentiated, becomes an element of status or contract, and enters into the rights and duties of the parties as they are related to one another in the organization.

It is one of the few things which are, I believe, agreed upon by all, that it is the function of capital to carry the time delay, and to bear the risk; it is an interesting question, however, whether the laborer has to pay the employer for carrying the risk. Lasalle demanded that the employee should be admitted to a share in the risk, because it is, as he assumed, only through the risk that the great gains come, and, therefore, on that view, the employee, if excluded from the risk, had no chance of the great gains.

The wages system is undoubtedly a high and intense organization, involving strict discipline upon all its members, employers as well as employees. It is therefore an intense constraint upon personal liberty. Some of the phrase-makers wax indignant at the notion that the laborer is viewed and treated "as a ware;" such indignation serves easily the purposes of rhetoric and declamation, but, in the cold light of fact and reason, it is only ludicrous. The Greeks called a laborer an "ensouled machine," which may be regarded as a more or a less offensive figure of speech than the other, but neither of them is anything else than a figure of speech. Such figures aside, the fact is that the laborer binds himself by a contract: his time and service are the subject matter of the contract, which binds his liberty. The employer is also bound by a contract: he is bound to furnish means of subsistence, according to the terms of the contract, whether the enterprise in which he and the laborers are jointly engaged is successful or not. Every man who earns his living is bound in contracts of this sort; employers and laborers, as we use those words technically, are only special cases. Our whole organization is held together by contracts, and we are all "wares," if anybody is. If the name is offensive, we may change it to some other, but we shall all stand just where we do now, viz., under the necessity of subjecting our individual wills and preferences, that is, our liberty, to the conditions of the contracts by which we hold our places in the organization. The term "labor" cannot be taken in any narrower sense than that of contributions of any kind to the work of society, and, in that sense, we see that when we labor we set aside our liberty for the sake of some other good which we consider worth more to us under the circumstances.

The advantages of the wages system are that the man who has nothing makes a contract which throws the risk on capital, and is able, reckoning on a fixed and secure income, to make plans for the accumulation of capital under his circumstances, whatever they are, without any element of speculation. The defects of the wages system appear in so far as the wages income is not fixed and secure, and in so far as the laborer does, in fact, find himself involved in the business risk. I am of the opinion that the path of improvement and reform lies in the perfection of the wages system in these respects, and not in any of the pet notions which are propounded for supplanting the wages system by some other.

Therefore we find that in the historical development of the industrial organization there have been, in the forms and modes of laboring and of combining ourselves for greater power in supplying human wants, changes in status and relation, but that the necessity of working for a living has been and is a thraldom from which there is no escape. The century which has seen slavery as an institution cease to exist almost throughout the whole human race, has easily come to believe in an ideal state of things in which existence should cost no pain or self-denial at all. Emancipation provided that a man should work only for himself. It is very evident that many are enraged, and declare liberty all a delusion, because they had persuaded themselves that liberty meant emancipation from the need of working at all, or emancipation from all the hardships of the struggle for existence. Hence the denunciations of "wages slavery." But we have seen that liberty is not, and never can be, anything but an affair of social institutions, limited by their scope, and never reaching into any field of poetry or enthusiasm. It can never make toil cease to be painful or sacrifice cease to be irksome; it can never be enthroned above contracts as a regulator of the relations which are necessitated by the social organization, because it is on the same plane with contracts and exists only by and in connection with them. There could never have been any abolition of slavery and serfdom but by capital. The rise and development of capital have forced higher and more stringent organization; and this means new and in some respects more irksome restraints on individual liberty, in order to acquire greater power and win more ample sustenance for society. The socialist program consists in resolving that we demand the liberty we dreamed of and the easy security we used to have and all the new capital and wealth, while we declare that we will work only eight hours a day for it and will not study for it at all.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.