Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/November 1876/Literary Notices


Talks about Labor, and concerning the Evolution of Justice between the Laborers and the Capitalists. By J. N. Larned. Pp. 150. Price, $1.50. D. Appleton & Co., 1876.

This book is the result of an able effort to analyze the present relations of capital and labor, and to point out the directions whence future improvement in those relations must come. It has not the pretensions of an exhaustive treatise; nevertheless it is a study of the whole subject, and reaches to large conclusions. It is conceded on all sides that, as between laborers and capitalists, grave problems have to be settled before their relations can be adjusted to the higher notions of justice now pressing on the minds of men. The men with capital, and those without it, but with capabilities for work, must be in constant cooperation, the terms of which are determined by complex facts. The fairness or unfairness of these terms bears closely on our social life, and is an index to the quality of our civilization. We cannot turn away from them, relying entirely for their amelioration on the operation of forces beyond human control. The social philosophy imbued with the spirit of science tells us that the institutions of social life develop only in obedience to irresistible currents of educated feeling and opinion.

Without stopping to consider this thorny question, it may safely be said that prevailing mental and moral conceptions are a factor of intense importance in determining the forms of social action, and, as they pass from lower to higher states, a corresponding improvement occurs in everything upon which they act. With equal safety we may assume that this progress in our conceptions is in no way more promoted than by that activity of mind which seeks to comprehend facts, and their relations to ethical truths.

The author of this work, profoundly impressed with the importance of the questions he discusses, has devoted himself to that consideration of his subject which includes a careful examination of existing conditions, with an inquiry into possible changes in the direction of a more complete justice between capitalists and laborers. It is a piece of good fortune that the task has been taken up in this case by a writer free from the eccentricities or narrownesses which too often beset those who discuss social questions. The literature on the subject of capital and labor is rapidly increasing, and much of it is open to a common criticism. The range of view is either too narrow, the formulæ of political economy being accepted as final and complete; or we find ourselves at the mercy of a being, utterly unscientific in his methods, who proposes to set things right by means little better than magic. Into neither mistake has Mr. Larned fallen; for, on the one hand, he has a correct appreciation of the limits to the laws which the economists have formulated, and, on the other hand, his faith rests on means of attaining ends which the most rigid scientific investigators of society must commend. As conditions change, economic science takes note and sets about the explanation of the new facts. The science is a growing one, and to take its statements to-day as an approval of existing forms of industrial life is to misconceive its nature. As Prof. Cairnes has clearly stated the point:

"It (economic science) belongs to the class of sciences whose work can never be completed, never, at least, so long as human beings continue to progress: for the most important portion of the data from which it reasons is human character and institutions, and everything consequently which affects that character or those institutions must create new problems for economic science."

The perception of this fact leads to an appreciation of our author's fundamental views. He disputes no generally-accepted economic conclusions, but gives due weight to factors, at present excluded, which, slowly gathering force, will raise new problems. He steps out into the broad field of social inquiry, and seeks to bring into clear view agencies which must in time affect human character, and modify the institutions of the present. In addition to this, the nature of those modifications is foreshadowed.

To show how clear and strong our author's position is in respect to social reforms, it is only necessary to glance for a moment at his conception of the evolution of justice in the department of human society with which he is concerned. After analyzing the function of capital, and defining it with rare precision as being "everything derived and accumulated from past labor which enables present labor to be employed in any such way that the beneficial results from it have to be waited for," two other facts of startling import are brought into juxtaposition. They are, first, that every kind of labor which does not immediately produce for the man who performs it the immediate satisfaction of an immediate want is absolutely dependent upon capital; and, second, that this complex social state which we call civilization has left no labor to be done by any man that is not of that dependent kind. Here is the dependence of labor upon capital brought home to us by a mere statement of facts. Pushing further the analysis of the conditions upon which capital and labor bargain together, and the reality of this dependence is intensified. We are invited to look at the man of capital and the man of work in the concrete, in order to realize the motives and necessities which to a large extent determine their relations to each other. The capitalist becomes an employer mainly to increase his means; the desire of gain is the most powerful motive shaping his conduct. As a bargainer, he therefore occupies a position of comparative independence. The empty-handed laborer is very differently situated. He must live; the physical wants of himself and family must be supplied; he bargains with inexorable needs at his back. Given these conditions, and human nature not apt to rise to high motives, and it is palpable that there is no limit to the possible oppression. No one claims that capital exercises to-day all the advantages of its superior position. The reasons that it does not are found in prevailing moral ideas which have hold enough on society to restrain its conduct in some directions and elevate it in others. But these advantages are still, to an enormous extent, made use of in the division of the products of labor between the capitalists and the laborers, and, as a result, there is deep injustice in the industrial world. There has been some improvement in the past; the hopeful man sees reasons to believe in its continuance. Mr. Larned has a large faith: perceiving that this improvement has sprung from moral sources, from the slow working of juster ideas into juster conduct, he looks to the same sources for the higher progress of the future, and has been led to examine our institutions, to find out what readjustments are necessary.

Before we can follow an author, who has such a position to maintain, into the main body of his thesis, we are in self-defense bound to assure ourselves that he has an adequate conception of man's moral nature, and the working of moral forces. If he be defective here, his work must be unfruitful. Mr. Larned has spoken plainly and at length on the subject, and his views are so broad as to inspire a full confidence in his mental grasp and scientific culture. His discussion of this point is an excellent piece of exposition. The whole statement is clear and incisive, and there is about it that impressiveness which lodges a fact of grave import firmly in the mind. It is difficult to select any portion for quotation, owing to the logical connection between all its parts. We merely give here a conclusion that he arrives at, as it bears on what we have to say: "There is this order, as I believe, in the development of humanity: 1. Toward objective or sensuous intelligence; 2. Toward subjective or moral intelligence; 3. Toward the disciplining of the animal man to act in accord with his intelligence. The first of these will always be far in advance of the second; the second always in advance of the third; and yet the first and the second contribute steadily to the last, in which their whole divine purpose would seem to be consummated."

With this key given us, it is seen that the evolution of that justice which is ultimately to correct the most glaring iniquities in the relations of capitalists and laborers proceeds from the application of the accepted principles of morality to the facts attending those relations, and the deduction therefrom of higher rules of conduct. This means that the human mind has to pass through a period of moral enlightenment—a period marked by the extension of simple notions of right to the relationships in question. The average intellect does not move swiftly of its own accord to such a task, nor does it incline, by patient efforts of its own, to penetrate the darkness of a deep subject, for guidance to intelligent action. More courageous spirits must sift and analyze the material; must place by the side of the conclusions gathered together the teachings of the ethical system which humanity has worked out—and to time must be left the slow but inevitable adjustment of human conduct to the dictates of the higher intelligence thus spread abroad. The work before us is an attempt to do for its subject what has been hinted at as open to the investigator, adding to this a brief but suggestive inquiry into the changes in the machinery of industrial life which will insure to the laborers a larger share in the products of labor. In a word, it may be said to be the bringing together of the moral and economical aspects of the labor-question. A mere allusion to some of the various topics examined is all that our space leaves us.

The subjects first treated are of a general character, and are taken up to enable the author to elaborate the theoretic relation between capital and labor, deducible from primary principles. Under this head it is sought to roughly but fairly define the extent to which the advantages flowing from superior faculties may be legitimately exercised. Leading out of this theme is the allied one of the relative value of the faculties which contribute to production. If a fund is to be shared between the various contributors to it, Justice says, Let the principle of division be based on a comparison of the used energies and capabilities of the contributors. The products of labor are not divided on this principle now, and never will be until the millennium; but it is the ideal standard toward which we must tend. There is no justification in reason for the giant's share going to one class, as it actually does. Mr. Lamed is particularly happy in his estimate of the faculties which are essential to the acquisition of wealth in the business-world. His analysis, too, discloses just grounds for raising the estimate usually put upon the faculties which produce the skillful mechanic, artisan, clerk, or other efficient laborer. The comparison of these two sets of faculties dispels the common notion that, as agents in the work of production, they are of widely different quality. That there is a difference is conceded; that capital is entitled to by far the largest share of remuneration is also conceded; the point is, that it exacts a larger share than any equitable principle of division gives to it.

This plea being made for labor, the author's hard work begins in finding a way to escape from the economical conclusions about the "wages-fund," in showing how that fund may be increased so that labor may receive a larger hire, and in shaping a practical plan for the accomplishment of the desired end. We commend this part of Mr. Larned's work for the strong thought and practical sagacity behind it. He is clear when he has hard knots to untie. The "wages-fund" in the hands of an economist has always appalled us. The limits to it are sketched as inexorably determined by conditions out of human reach, and the only relief open is the relative lessening of the numbers of those who share in it. Can any one wonder at men shrinking from the gloom of such a belief? Mr. Lamed holds by another and more inspiring doctrine. His effort is to prove that the enormously increased productiveness of labor, through the operation of many causes which he enumerates, is more than sufficient to supply the fullest need of legitimate human desires. If it is not so now, it is because of unjustifiable consumption and other wrongs. Let the consumption which grows out of the low desire to parade the possession of wealth be restrained by the heavy hand of public opinion, and let public-debt making be kept within certain defined bounds, so that this avenue of unproductive capital may be practically closed—let this much be done, and the result will be that those who command capital will be driven to devote more and more of it to renewed production. To such means does the author look for the increase of the fund out of which labor is paid. We have only indicated the drift of the argument.

The practical plan, advocated tentatively by the author, is a system of dividends to labor, the basis of which is given at some length. Other plans are subjected to criticism, and their defects pointed out. The system of some sort of a partnership between capitalists and laborers obviates many of these defects, but is not without its attendant difficulties. Mr. Lamed has given cogent reasons for his preference, and we hope they will be given the consideration they deserve. His views are so opposed to everything that is visionary, and are kept in such a close relationship to the facts, that his critics will find him no mean antagonist.

We had marked for comment other points in this original and interesting book, which we have no space for. What has been said falls short of doing the author justice. Indeed, this book is so compacted, and so brimful of suggestive lines of inquiry, that no summary of it can be adequate. It is a calm presentation of a difficult subject, and the temper of its conclusions will give it weight in the solution of pending problems. It has a mission which it is bound to serve worthily. The task the author unpretentiously set himself has been well done, and to other merits must be added that of literary excellence. The matter is presented in the shape of a series of conversations, and they are conducted with a skill which provokes a sharp interest in the discussions from beginning to end. The argument is carried on logically; each proposition is separated and clearly put. Those who take up the book will lose little time in finishing it, and they will find in its pages much good and substantial thought.


Correction.—It was erroneously stated last month in the review of the "Scientific Basis of Faith" that the book "is an attempt to harmonize Scripture with science." The reading should be "it is not an attempt," etc., conveying just the opposite meaning.



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