Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 77.djvu/62

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HISTORY moves in a spiral, not in a circle. History does not accommodatingly repeat itself; but it does pass through cycles in which new eras contain social elements and forces which approximate those of periods belonging to earlier cycles. The new is merely the old garbed in more modern attire. The United States is to-day entering upon an epoch in its history which will be marked, in the economic field, by many resemblances to the medieval period. The fundamental economic problems of medievalism clustered around just and fair prices and wages. At present the important and difficult economic problems relate to "reasonable rates," "fair prices" and "living wages." In the twentieth century when these old medieval questions clothed in a strange and youthful garb, appear in an industrial and nominally democratic country and age, the crux of the difficulty is found in the absence of a standard by means of which to measure fair prices, reasonable rates and living wages. The old and rigid status of the feudal regime has disappeared in a large measure under the pressure of the doctrines of free competition and of non-interference. Mobility, rather than fixity, is characteristic of to-day.

The nineteenth century was a unique and transitional era; it constituted the dark ages of economic history. During that eventful period, it was assumed that prices, rates and wages were fixed by the ceaseless action of free and untrameled competition. But, to-day, the existence of numerous rate and arbitration commissions is a concrete and unmistakable warning that free competition does not act at the present moment as our theorists of the past have dogmatically argued that it did. Day by day the competitive field is being gradually narrowed. A strip is securely fenced in on this side; and another portion encroached upon at an entirely different point. At the present moment great and important fields of industrial activity are clearly seen to be outside the competitive sphere. It must, however, be recognized that competition in the halcyon days of the laissez faire doctrine was not really free. It was modified and regulated by such legal conventions as private property, inheritance, laws in regard to contract, custom and a variety of other obstructions. The game of economic competition among human beings has always been played according to certain rules. But these rules change. Custom is broken down, on one hand, while monopoly encroaches upon the competitive field, on the other side.

The thinking public correctly recognizes that railway and street railway fares, gas, electric light, water, telephone and telegraph rates are not fixed by a competitive process. Insistent demand is made for fair and reasonable rates in this class of semi-public service. The labor