Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/May 1887/Social Sustenance I




THE study of the relation of organized society to individual sustenance may, for brevity, be called the science of social sustenance. This means practically the same as the term political economy in its original significance. Economy means housekeeping or husbandry, or making a living. Political economy is housekeeping as affected by social and political conditions. The word "sustenance" means making a living, with or without a house or home, and with all that the term "living" implies when used in that way. Making a living is not merely keeping body and soul together. It is supplying all the physical, moral, and mental wants, in so far as conscious, irksome effort is required to supply them. What is a living to one man is not to another; but the man who makes his own living is always called self-sustaining. Sustenance, therefore, is the making any kind of a living.

Social sustenance is making a living as affected by social conditions. Social conditions are the conditions brought about by the existence and conduct of other people. Exactly what social sustenance means, then, is making a living as affected by the existence and conduct of other people.

The study of political economy begins the moment we try to think how our making a living is affected by other people. The infinite multitude of ways in which this happens may well discourage us. But we do not have to understand all of them, nor even know all of them. We have to classify them—rudely at first, and afterward as fully as we can. The most general classification of the ways in which others affect our ability to make a living is this: 1. They may hinder us in it. 2. They may help us in it.

So it is all a question of the help and hindrance others give us in making a living. If this division into help and hindrance seems trivial, it only seems so, for it is not. It has to be kept in mind all the way through our study. A policy which is boasted of as enabling us to increase our mutual helpfulness, as socialism, for instance, may or it may not increase our tendency to hinder each other. If we wish to reach a right conclusion we have always to ask whether the added hindrance does not overbalance the added help. If we ignore social hindrances to individual well-being, we shall come out just where the mechanical inventor does who ignores friction.

These hindrances arise in various ways. The very existence of our fellow-beings, if in too large numbers, is a hindrance. We may denounce Malthus as much as we like, but we can not deny the awful consequences of world-crowding. Doubtless it has goaded on inventive genius, and thus promoted mutual helpfulness; but, like most social causes which work remote good, it has worked also immediate evil, and the bones of its pallid victims lie buried in the earth by countless millions. Many writers have been troubled about the matter, and especially about the future it seems to promise. Others have succeeded in convincing themselves that there is no danger, and that the denser the population the happier the individual. The truth which they distort into this error is that the evil effects of world-crowding have been partially offset, in some places more than offset, by new discoveries which cheapened production. It was not always so, and may not always be so. Certainly there are no more new continents to discover. How many new substances, or new powers and uses of old ones, are yet to discover, can not be guessed. But meantime world-crowding, the natural increase of the human species, is going on, and is constantly thrusting human beings into one another's way. We might as well face this truth as deny it, if we are going to study science. Our shrinking from a truth because it is disagreeable, unfortunately does not make it a whit less true. Up to a certain point, and it is a movable point, increase of population is beneficial. There is a certain density of population which is more desirable than any other—than any greater or any less. This movable point of most desirable density of population is moved constantly upward by the inventors who crowd the Patent-Office, by the projectors of great enterprises, and by the skillful organizers of industry; as well as by the statesmen who simplify and perfect the government, and the religious, moral, and economic teachers who facilitate adjustment of the relations of crowding and jostling human beings. As the bounds are thus extended, population grows and fills them—sometimes not quite, but alas! sometimes it quite outgrows them. Before any other explanation of the wretched condition of a community is offered, this one of population should be fully considered.

The grave question which each one asks himself as he gazes upon his own offspring, and wonders what will be the condition of their offspring some generations removed, is, Will this world-crowding relieve itself by checking reproduction as well as by stimulating mutual helpfulness; or will the time come, and how soon, when the only possible object of economic study will be to postpone the universal poverty and starvation of the human race, rather than, as now, to constantly better its condition? If a satisfactory answer to this question is possible, it has not as yet been satisfactorily rendered. But assuming the most dreaded answer to be the true one, we may still work on just the same, content to know that the greater legacy of betterment we leave them, the longer our children will be able to put off their hard fate. And besides, even in this day, we, too, find ourselves crowded out of work, or out of the market, by our needy fellow-beings, and thus hindered in trying to make our living.

But in other ways our fellow-beings hinder and shorten our sustenance. They rob us on the highway, break and plunder our inclosures, steal our purses. These are the simpler and ruder ways. They defraud us in a thousand ways. They embezzle and default. They organize gigantic schemes of plunder. And all these things necessitate laws, and governments to make and execute them, which cost immense sums of money. The Government of the United States alone costs nearly or quite as much as the annual savings of the people; though from this must be deducted the school, post-office, and other similar expenses, which would have to be paid privately if they were not paid publicly. Still, allowing one half for these purposes, the cost of government alone, to say nothing of the quarrels and crime which make it necessary, would, if saved, constitute a third of our annual savings.

But not only do (1) the existence in excess, and (2) the consciously perverse conduct of our fellow-beings hinder us in making a living; even when they do their best, the (3) awkwardness of those to whom we must delegate work which we can not do, costs us dearly every day. They bungle and blunder and delay us in an unlistable variety of ways. Our awkwardness works them the same hindrance. In this branch of the subject it would be tedious to enumerate, but fruitful to sit and think.

On the whole it is hard to say whether in our sustenance of the full measure of the life of our day we suffer most from the existence, or from the wickedness, or from the awkwardness of the other human beings who are trying to sustain life in the same planet, and have the same right to it as we.

Fortunately, they also help us, marvelously help us, and it remains to study how they help us. A more or less minute study of the ways in which our fellow-beings help us in making a living or achieving a sustenance, constitutes the main body of the science of political economy. Before entering on that study, it is well enough to inquire what we wish the result of their help to be. It needs not to be said that we are to help them as truly and if possible as fully as they do us. Keeping this tacitly in mind, what kind of a sustenance do we wish them to help us get? We think at once of two features which must characterize it: 1. We want it ample. 2. We want it easy.

In other words, we want as plenty as possible, and with as little work as possible. It is not merely plenty to eat and wear that we want, but in every other respect an ample living. Our tastes differ, as well as our means, in amplitude. Perfection in amplitude of means few if any of us have; but we all want it, and, failing perfection, the nearest possible approach to it.

But we like ease, too, as well as abundance. We rate these two features of our sustenance at different relative values; some of us placing a higher value on ease and others on amplitude. Some, for the sake of ease, are willing to get along without things which others are willing to work hard for. This fact must never be forgotten, for it stands in the way of many very promising schemes. In personal contact, we may have no respect for the lazy man's laziness; but, as a scientific fact, we are bound to respect it or lose our reckoning.

Laziness is, in fact, a universal characteristic, and, when not excessive, a decidedly valuable one. Whoever lacked it entirely would soon work himself to death. Work wears us out. Laziness makes us decline to wear ourselves out with work unless we see hope of a reward which will rebuild us. It leads us to calculate closely the ratio of effort to satisfaction. The establishment of that ratio, at the point of minimum effort and maximum satisfaction, is the end and aim of all human forethought. This sometimes seems not to be true. Some persons seem to have a real appetite for work. But does such an appetite ever survive the hope of a return, either to that person or to another in whom he takes an interest? No work is done excepting to amplify the sustenance, to enlarge and complete the life of some human being, or to secure for that being rest hereafter. We may work on and postpone both ease and amplitude of living indefinitely, but we always keep them both in mind as our future reward. We may think to bestow the ease upon ourselves when we shall be too old to work, and in the mean time to work and earn it. This scheme is as wise as it is natural.

We may also forego in the present some pleasures or comforts which we might enjoy, for the sake of making our old age average well with the rest of our lives in these respects. It is a pity that human beings do not all behave in this way.

It may be hastily said that the laziness or extravagance of our fellow-beings hinders us in making a living. But just here a careful distinction must be made. It is one thing for them to hinder us, and essentially another thing for them to fail to help us as much as they might. It is this that the sluggard and the spendthrift both do. Supposing that each barely earns whatever living he has, the spendthrift helps us most, because no one can earn an ample sustenance, whatever he afterward does with it, without helping his fellow-beings. This rule is not necessarily universal, but it applies to all civilized countries and all times. If there are any communities where human beings make a living without the help of others, and without helping others, these communities are not subjects of economic study, except as serving to illustrate the economic by reference to the uneconomic.

This leads us to the grand truth of the science, which is that, cæteris paribus, the better living others make, the more they help us to make ours. Not the better living they get, but the better living they make. It is not necessary to express in terms the difference between getting and making a living. A pauper does not make his living, but he gets it, notwithstanding. The same is true of people who beat their creditors. We see the difference quite plainly here. Yet if we tried to define it so that we should never have to revise our definition, we should probably be led into one of those time-wasting and brain-wasting quibbles which have been the bane of political economy. All we need do is to emphasize the word "make," when we repeat, as we can not too often repeat, that the better living others make, the more they help us to make ours; and the better living we make, the more we help others to make theirs.

There is another correlative truth, sometimes crossing and sometimes paralleling this one, that the more carefully human beings husband their means, the more they help one another in acquiring means. A careful study of the nature of capital helps us to appreciate this truth. This is not the place to enter into that study. Suffice it here to say generally that others help us most when they work and save. They help us when they only work, and they help us when they only save, but they help us most when they both work and save. And we them in like manner.

Hence it is easier to make a living in an industrious, frugal community than in a lazy, thriftless one. Hence, also, the profit to the community of the labor of convicts, paupers, and other persons in state custody. Hence the great advantage of having the world's work so divided and arranged that the weak as well as the strong can find something to do.

One other general truth, with many important special applications, must be stated here. If those who do much work, and get and squander the full reward of their labor, help us much in making a living; and if those who do much work, and, getting a good reward, save a portion of it, help us still more; those help us still more who, doing much work, are content or forced by necessity to accept a small reward. It always pays to hire a man, or trade with a man, who, considering its real worth, puts a small value upon his labor, and is satisfied with a small reward for it. Such a man may be too generous for his own good, but not for the good of those who deal with him. For, of course, the extreme limit of help in making a living which anybody could afford us would be to make it for us out-and-out gratuitously.

Undue help may cause us to relax our efforts, or to make reckless use of our opportunities, so that in the end we may be worse off; but that does not make it any the less help. We may misuse any blessing we enjoy.

But we must remember all the time that the practical object of any study of political economy or social sustenance must be, or should be, to promote the easy and ample sustenance of all, and not of some at the expense of others. Hence we desire that human helpfulness shall be not only effective but mutual. One-sided helpfulness is one of the chief evils for which we seek a remedy.

Yet we have to note carefully that the circumstance which makes our mutual help most effective may make it one-sided. We want a balance of mutual sustenance, while we help sustain one another, but we also want amplitude. We want each to have a fair share, but it may be that by some having more and some less than our estimate, or any estimate of a "fair" share, all will have a larger share. We should like it both fair and large. We can never have it either as fair or as large as we should like it. Some will always get more help than they give, and others give more than they get. And none will ever get as much as he wants.

We all agree that a proper balance of human helpfulness is desirable. We can not help agreeing that its amplitude is also desirable. The point whereon we may differ is the extent to which balance should be subordinated to amplitude, or amplitude to balance—that is, whether poverty with equality is better than wealth with inequality, the term "equality" signifying a share of sustenance to each in proportion to his services, be they much or little. So far as balance begets amplitude, we shall all agree theoretically, and be led by our greed to disagree practically. Each of us will always be so anxious to be sure of his share, that he will be willing to get a little more than his share.

And in this we shall always be subject to deception by appearances, as we are in all other matters. What seems to promise both abundance and equality may in practice work both impoverishment and inequality. Mastery of this deep and vital problem demands the exercise of every logical power at our command and the widest possible scope of vision.