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

Who Is Free? Is it the Tramp?

The two things which kill men are work and worry. The man who has nothing is under the bondage of labor; the man who has property is under the bondage of care. He who owns land and has raised a crop must be anxious, when the harvest-time approaches, lest another shall reap it. He leaves it exposed because he cannot protect it, but he fears to sleep lest he should lose the fruits of his labor. If this care does not exist, it must be because civil order and security exist to such a degree that it is done away with. Civil security, however, lies, as some of our friends are so fond of reminding us, in the voluntary effort of all his neighbors to defend his property for him. He who has lands or goods has given pledges to fortune, and exposed himself to her shafts, at so many points.

It is a childish notion that wealth keeps itself, and throws off its product without effort or care; but one would think to read what we read that it was very widely entertained. To keep wealth is as hard as to get it. Moth and rust conspire to destroy it; the covetousness of man is in feud against it. The follies and mistakes of individuals and nations are punished by the destruction of it. It is not possible to make increase from it unless it is put to reproductive use; but every application of it to new production involves the risking of it on a judgment of facts which cannot be ascertained with certainty; some of which may be future. In every application of capital to reproduction it must undergo transmutation or transformation. We seek it again in a new product; but before we can get it again we must go through an operation of exchange involving value. Whether, therefore, we shall find our capital again with increase, or not, is a question which can only be answered by the result; and it will at best depend upon chances of the market, which defy foresight.

We have already seen that the man who sells services in the market is under the hazards of the market. The worst troubles of which he complains are the tyranny of supply and demand, and the freaks of the market which interrupt the demand for labor. If he hires anybody to carry this risk for him, he has to pay for that service. That is the explanation of many differences in the comparative rate of wages in different employments.

Now, however, we see that the owner of capital, if he tries to get profit on it, encounters also this same tyranny of the market. If he hires any one to take the risk for him, he must pay for it; if he wants the great gains, he can get them only by putting in the effort and care which are required for the successful conduct of great enterprises. The conditions of this success are as stringent and coercive as those of the labor market, if not more so. The vigilance which conducts industrial enterprises can never relax: if one owns cattle and horses, he must guard them against accidents and disease; if he owns houses, he must fear fire and storm; if he owns ships, he must expect accidents and shipwreck; if he owns railroads, his chances of profit are precarious for a dozen reasons. I remember once hearing a mechanic who had become rich say something like this: "I used to throw down my tools at six o'clock and think no more of my work until morning. I envied rich men and thought that they had only to live at ease and free from care; but since I have had property I have had more sleepless nights than in all my life before."

I pass over the cares of riches which belong only to the care of objects of luxury like horses and villas and yachts, and also the cares which come from the burdens laid on wealth by other people who know what should be the duties of wealth and are eager to see that wealth performs them. There is another set of constraints and limitations which comes from the fact that the contract relations of wealth are necessarily far more numerous and complicated than those of poverty. The great limitation on the liberty of the civilized man is that which comes from his contracts. Society is bound together by these, and they increase in a high ratio by the side of the increase of wealth; they forbid a man to do as he would like to do, and force him to do what he has agreed to do; he is under bonds to do this from the very fact of his wealth, which makes him responsible. It is one of the injustices of modern society which are never mentioned in our current discussions, but one of the most mischievous from which we suffer, that a man who has no property may break contracts with impunity.

It is no light thing, also, that a man who has property should be responsible for all damages which may proceed forth from himself or his property against any of his fellow-citizens; which liability, although it is as great in law and morals against a poor man, is, nevertheless, practically null in the latter case. With the tendency of the law to extend the liability of the owners of capital for all the injuries attendant upon the use of capital, even to those injuries which proceed from it only constructively, and to relieve those who have no capital from ordinary human responsibility for themselves, this injustice is increasing. It is one of the results of the reckless dogmatizing which is going on in regard to social obligations, founded, not upon reasonable considerations of the relations which exist, but upon previously adopted partiality for one set of interests. Any assertion that wealth ought to have social or civil privileges sends a shiver of horror through modern society, which asserts that all men are equal; but how can two men be equal, one of whom is pecuniarily responsible for his contracts and his torts and the other is not?

It has been said above that if the man of property escapes the first anxieties about the possession of property, it must be because he lives in an orderly, civilized state, in which his neighbors concur to guarantee his security of possession. Hence, however, comes also the constraint of liberty by the state which protects; he who relies upon state protection must pay for it by limitations of liberty; by every new demand which he makes on the state, he increases its functions and the burden of it on himself. Weary of protecting himself, he begs the state to take care of him; the state, however, only orders him to take care of himself in co-operation with others under its supervision, and it takes toll from him in money, time, and services for giving him this good advice and this wholesome coercion.

From all this it appears, then, that in getting property we do not get liberty, in the sense of absence of constraint and opportunity to do as we please. We have only changed the form of our constraint. Tired of barbarism and its limitations, we take civilization at its price. The price, however, is a new constraint. It consists in care and worry; in police regulation and all the compromises of civilization; in co-operation to sustain institutions, and in voluntary submission to law. The instruments of the new servitude are the means which served to emancipate us from the old one; the rich man, if he gets more of the emancipation, gets also more of the new servitude. Liberty has not been found yet. We are like men mired in a swamp, who, in pulling out one leg or one arm, only plunge others more deeply in—so long as we follow this chimæra of liberty here on earth to do as we please.

But there is another case which should be considered before we give up our pursuit of the idea as a mere chimæra. May not the tramp be the true free man? He is a civilized man. He lives in a civilized community; he shares in its institutions; he contributes his vote to its political welfare; he takes a philosophical view of wealth, and avoids its cares; he nourishes a profound sentiment of its duties; he has no property to perish, no investments to worry about. The story is told of a tramp who came to a certain valley, which was inundated by a freshet. There was a great demand for help to carry persons and property in boats to a place of safety. The tramp threw down the bundle which contained all he had in the world, and declared: "This is my harvest." He demanded ten dollars a day, and went to work at that rate. This was true philosophy; he kept out of the labor market until the "conjuncture" of supply and demand was all on his side, and then he went in.

The tramp enjoys the true liberty of going and coming, which, in the case of the barbarian, is only apparent and delusive. He is free from the restraints of civilization. Whether he is free from the superstition and traditional servitude of mind which marks the savage, it is difficult to say—it does not belong to the definition of his case that he should be so free. To the extent, then, to which he is free to do as he pleases, he is so because, although born into civilized society and continuing in it, he has abandoned most of the blessings of civilization, and wins the rest only by begging, or taking them without rendering any equivalent. He must upon occasion endure hunger and cold like the savage man; he must endure outlawry, suspicion, and contempt; in some states he finds himself a criminal, in fact, a felon. In such cases he is not merely a drone or a neutral, still less is he a tolerated parasite; he is at war with society. That is to say, a certain small number of men can realize the dreamed-of poetical liberty of the barbarian by seeking it in the midst of civilization, if they will endure contumely to get it, and if they will sacrifice all the other blessings of civilization for it.

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