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Earth-Hunger and Other Essays/Who Is Free? Is It the Millionaire?

Who Is Free? Is It the Millionaire?

The uncivilized man is not free, because he is bound by the hardships of his condition, by tradition and custom, by superstition, and by ignorance. He can only escape from the limitations thus fastened upon him by education, and organized labor, systematically applied to overcome the difficulties of his situation. If, however, he undertakes this course, he must submit to the constraint of orderly and persistent exertion; he must till the land, or he must shut himself up in a factory for ten hours a day. These conditions are impossible for him—they are just the things which he cannot do. On the other hand, the civilized man, if he wants the liberty to roam about which the savage possesses, must live as the savage lives, by hunting and fishing, and his demands on life must be reduced to the range of those of the savage. If he chooses this line of policy and effort, however, he finds that he cannot earn a living, even such as the savage man gets, because he has not the necessary knowledge and skill for that mode of life.

Hence it appears that the notion of liberty, as emancipation from irksome constraint, finds no realization at either end of the scale, but that men give up some things to get others; that they sacrifice one liberty to get another; that they change their point of view and their notions, and that liberty consists in a better adjustment of their notions to their situation at a given time. What we commonly boast of as progress consists in measuring the situation at one time by the notions of another. It would be just as impossible for operatives from a New England cotton mill to live on the plains as for Indians to work ten hours a day in a New England cotton mill. Whether the historical movement by which society has moved from the life of the Indians to that of the cotton operatives has been progress or degeneration, depends on whether it is viewed from the standpoint of the Indian or the white man. We must be convinced that liberty to do as one pleases is not a gift or boon of nature; it is not a natural and original situation which we have lost, or which has been taken from us. All that notion vanishes into the realm of illusions. All our ferocious demands that our birthright shall be given back to us, and all our savage threats about those who have robbed us, go with it.

It was an easy way to attain the objects of our desire to put them into the list of the "rights of man," or to resolve that "we are and of right ought to be" as we should like to be. That method has had great popularity for the last hundred years and is now extremely popular; but if we have any liberty, it is because our ancestors have won it by toil and blood. It is not a boon, it is a conquest, and if we ever get any more, it will be because we make it or win it. The struggle for it, moreover, must be aimed, not against each other, but against nature. When men quarrel with each other, as every war shows, they fall back under the dominion of nature. It is only when they unite in co-operative effort against nature that they win triumphs over her and ameliorate their condition on earth.

It may be said, then, that liberty is to be found at the summit of civilization, and that those who have the resources of civilization at their command are the only ones who are free. But the resources of civilization are capital; and so it follows that the capitalists are free, or, to avoid ambiguities in the word capitalist, that the rich are free. Popular language, which speaks of the rich as independent, has long carried an affirmation upon this point. In reality the thirst for wealth is a thirst for this independence of the ills of life, and the interdependence of wealth on civilization and civilization on wealth is the reason why the science of wealth is concerned with the prime conditions of human welfare, and why all denunciations of desire to increase or to win wealth are worse than childish.

A native African, of the tribes who own cattle, may increase his herds to a greater and greater number. He has no other conception of wealth—in the absence of commerce wealth admits of no further differentiation for him. He soon comes to a limit beyond which he cannot watch over his property, and then if he hires somebody to take care of it for him, in effect, he shares it with them. Some of the socialists seem to have in mind some limited right of property, under which this would be the ideal and only mode in which property could be held. The native African cannot, of course, use more than so much of the useful things which his herds produce; he and his family can, at best, only eat, drink, and wear so much. After that, if he wants to own more, it is mere vanity and vexation, and at last becomes such a burden that it defeats itself, and that, in trying to escape this burden, he really, if not avowedly, gives the property away to those who take care of it. In the meantime, although his herds have emancipated him from the cares of his mode of life, that is, from hunger and thirst and cold, they are a very precarious property; they offer a very vulnerable point of attack for an enemy; they awaken cupidity; they cost anxiety; and if they are carried off by a stronger enemy, they leave their former possessor in deeper misery and helplessness than if he had never had them.

If any one regards that as a paradisaical state of things or as a rational limit of the form and mode of property which might be wisely allowed, he must, of course, condemn trade and money and civil government, because these have led on to that development of society in which a man can have, hold, and enjoy indefinite wealth. When trade is introduced, it allows the owner of herds to part with the surplus of them for other things which he is glad to get. Trade, however, is limited until money is provided as a means for carrying it on. It is security of property, established by a firm civil government, which makes it possible to hold property in amount indefinitely beyond what one can watch and defend by one's own vigilance.

Wealth, therefore, in a highly organized civilized society, gives an emancipation from the ills of earthly life which is enormous, when we take as a standard for it the condition of the poor or the uncivilized. It completely banishes the anxiety for food and drink. It has put millions of the human race in such a position that, although they call themselves poor, nevertheless they never in their whole lives know what it is to feel fear lest they may not have food to eat—an anxiety which, on the other hand, is the consuming care of uncivilized life in general, and makes every other thought impossible. Wealth has created for all civilized men, even the poorest of them, an artificial environment of clothing, shelter, artificial heat, pavements, sewers, means of locomotion, education, and intelligence, a vast amount of which is common property, and is taken and assumed without thought, as if it belonged to the order of nature. It all goes into the common stock, justly enough, because it is really in large part a product of the organization in which all bear parts which cannot be analyzed out and paid for by supply and demand.

A man who is rich, therefore, in this society, can draw to himself and his family, elaborate, highly perfected, and efficient defense against the ills of life. The things which shorten life are work and care; he cannot abolish these, but he can reduce their power in a very important measure. It is all enlargement, liberty, intelligent liberty in the highest and best sense, fit for the men who work and achieve, but do not wail or dream. It issues in leisure, the most valuable of goods in this connection, being a means of quiet and undisturbed application of mental force to the planning of new efforts and new achievements.

So much for this view of the matter. We may be ready to say: liberty is a product of civilization, but it is only for the rich. There is, however, another view which remains to be taken in order to find out whether, among us, the popular notion of liberty is realized by the millionaire or the tramp.

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