Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/October 1887/Social Sustenance IV




THUS far we have left untouched, as nearly as possible, one vital question relating to specialties—namely: How shall they be allotted? What task shall each of us take, and to whom shall we leave this, that, and the other task which, if we do confine ourselves to one, we must leave to others? We are not concerned about personal names, but on what principles shall the allotment be made? What kind of people shall do the weaving, what kind the newspaper work, what kind the trading? Within each office, store, or factory, how shall we judge whom to select for the management, whom for the clerkships, whom for each different manual task? Passing from the monad to the mass, which community or which country shall devote its best energies to the production of which products? How shall the nations of the earth divide its work between them?

It is only in answer to this last question that, so far as I know, any economist has given any attention to the subject of allotment. It has never been elaborated, nor allowed to be the vital, rudimental question that I conceive it to be. The result is, that even those who know the truth are constantly dropping into expressions conformable only to a false theory; just as we all speak of a "favorable balance of trade," when we know the expression conveys a wrong idea.

In regard to allotment of specialties or industries the theory which finds readiest and commonest expressions, even among those who know better, is that each task should be done by the one most capable of doing it, each industry carried on by the class, community, or country by which it can be done with the least outlay of labor and capital. By most people this is regarded as an axiom, needing no proof because admitting of no denial. They are as sure of it as their ancestors were that the sun daily revolves around the earth.

In all the hot disputes with which the free-traders and protectionists have enlivened the politics and enlightened the minds of the populace, they have rarely if ever failed to agree on the axiomatic truth of this falsehood. One wants free trade because it will secure to each industry a development in the country whose natural resources are best adapted to it. The other is able to prove, in a particular case, that his own is that country, and that therefore the Government should step in and bring about the development which somehow fails to come of its own accord. The free-trader assumes that the natural laws of trade will bring about a certain state of things which the protectionist is able to prove that they do not, but is free to confess that they would, after a few years of governmental "encouragement."

Torrence found out the true theory as applied to international trade; Ricardo enlarged upon it, and for a time secured the credit of its invention; Mill made a complicated mathematical demonstration of it; and more recent writers have been content to briefly repeat their argument, and give it the same extremely limited application. The English economists discovered that under the system of free trade their country imported things which could have been made with less capital and labor at home. In order to silence the protectionists, who had made the same discovery, they set about to find some excuse for it. In the course of the search they discovered what they conceived to be a great mathematical principle; but they were careful to explain that it applied only to international specialization, and to give the reason why it should. Capital moves freely, they said, within national bounds, but it does not freely cross them. This argument has had a surprising longevity, considering that it is not the poor countries, but the rich ones, which import the things they could produce with little effort.

In our widening field of observation, which has the further merit of lying all about us within easy reach, we shall find many after-illustrations, and a sufficient number of more satisfactory explanations of this so-called economic paradox. It is not alone, nor chiefly, in foreign trade that we must and do leave to others tasks that we can do better than they. It is, in fact, a universal and striking feature of specialization, which everybody might have observed by looking about him. Boys and women do a great many things that men could do better. The apprentice performs a task which the journeyman could do better; the journeyman, one at which the foreman excels him. Boy or man, the better he performs his task, the sooner he leaves it to some one who can not do it so well, while he rises to something higher. We all know that this is the rule. But we also know that there are exceptions. The exceptions are not only numerous, but interesting and instructive. They will be studied in their proper place. Just now we have on hand the preliminary business of citing examples of the operation of the rule.

We find it prevailing in the army, often to the salvation of a country. The best soldier is the first to be made something more than a mere soldier. The best captain is made a colonel, the best colonel a general, the best general a commander-in-chief. The best brakemen on the railroad are made conductors, the best firemen are made engineers, the best station-agents train-dispatchers or superintendents, or something still higher and further removed from their original work. Whoever is promoted leaves to others work in which he excels them. His very excellence in a task leads to his abandonment of it.

We have to note, however, that in all these cases the new specialty he adopts is rather nearly allied to the old one that he abandons. Success in the lower implies aptitudes available in the higher. There is another class of cases in which this is either not so important or not so apparent. The successful farmer first acquires enough capital to engage in some more agreeable business. The successful wage-worker in any line first gets money to buy a farm or a store or a factory, or something else that will give him an employment, perhaps totally unlike his own, and only more congenial because he can be its master and not its underling. Let it be admitted that frugality, judgment, or what not, has helped to bring about this result. They would all have failed if he had lacked aptitude for his original work, and it is not necessary that they should equal that aptitude in force. It is only necessary that the lack of them should not squander away the rewards of the aptitude. In all this class of cases capital is a prominent feature.

The most striking case of all, in which neither promotion by merit nor acquisition of capital has much to do, is that of women. That man could do most of her work better than she can is beyond doubt, since the experience has been tried. It may still be a question whether he can do all of it better. At any rate, we daily see that he does wash, iron, scrub, churn, sew, weave, knit, spin, and even cut and fit the woman's own clothes and dress her hair with such success that without any chance of favoritism he is able to make better wages than she can in the same employment. With few if any exceptions, whatever work man leaves to woman he leaves to one less capable in it, with the same training, than he. It needs only observation, not labored argument, to prove this. If we seem here to be contradicting something said in another place, the apparent contradiction will be fully explained farther on.

Thus far the true theory is capable of demonstration. Beyond this point we either see it or seem to see it exemplified every day. We hire a man to do a job of work which we have not time to do ourselves. How often rightly and how often wrongly we do not know, but at any rate quite often sincerely, we think to ourselves that with the same training we could have done it better. In some cases we know we could, as well as we know anything not fully tested; and in some cases we know it even by the successful result of a sufficiently thorough test.

Adding all these demonstrable and reasonable cases together, we are safe in saying that by far the larger portion of the world's work is done by those not most capable of doing it, either by means of their own aptitudes or of the natural resources with which they are surrounded. It remains to ask and answer the question, why this is so. Why should it be the rule rather than the exception, that we must leave to others work that we can do better than they? Certainly there can not be a more important economic question than this.

It is not compulsory that we shall be tedious, but it is compulsory that we shall be somewhat analytical. We are considering the relation of a man to a task. If we were asked to give a cold, intellectual opinion as to whether a certain man should wed a certain woman, we should have to inquire into the nature of the man and the nature of the woman. So in this case we have to inquire into the peculiarities of human beings on the one hand and of tasks on the other. If the analogy seems trivial, it is worth while to remember that a man's devotion to his chosen occupation has often caused an estrangement between him and his wife.

Directing our attention first to the tasks, we find that they are not all alike in importance. Humanity as a mass can better afford to have some kinds of work bundled and slurred over than others. So can the manager of an enterprise, and he is always looking out where best to reduce his force, if he finds he must reduce it somewhere. He may make a mistake in his choice of a victim, but he makes no mistake in judging that the retention of good men in some positions is more essential to his success than in others. It is not only more important that those positions should all the time be filled, but it is more important that they should be filled by men who will do their work rightly and make no mistakes. The mistakes of the office-boy are not so damaging as the mistakes of the head-clerk. The difference between a good and a bad fireman is of more consequence to the factory than the difference between a good and a bad journeyman. We can better afford to have a worthless or a bad Congressman than a worthless or a bad President. And so on, all the way round.

If tasks differ in importance as well as in the character of their operations, so men differ in their total industrial potencies as well as in their special aptitudes. A does not always excel Z in one kind of work only, he may excel him in several kinds or in all kinds. Nobody would hesitate to admit this if A were an able-bodied man and Z an idiotic weakling. In that case the essential difference between A and Z as industrial factors is plainly seen to be quantitative. There is more of A than there is of Z. As we are wont to say, there is more in him.

Now, the fact we have to recognize is, that all the way from A to Z there is a quantitative as well as a qualitative difference between the human beings who are helping one another to make a living. Because a man is weak in one way it does not follow that he is strong in another. Because he is strong in one way it does not follow that he is weak in all other ways. So one country may excel others in a great variety of resources as well as in one. No doubt we could find two countries of which one excelled the other in every capacity for the sustenance of man, and yet under the most absolute freedom trade would go on, and ought to go on, between the two countries.

Let us define our use of the term special aptitude. Let us use it with reference to the other aptitudes of the same person or country, not with reference to those of another person or country. When we say that a person has a special aptitude for a certain work, let us mean that, while he may not be good at that work, he is better at that than at anything else.

When a person is apter at one thing than another, it may be that he is really and positively apt at that thing, or the trouble may be only that he is inapt at the other. A special aptitude is entirely consistent with, and may even proceed from, a general inaptitude.

On what principles, then, shall the allotment of specialties be made?

1. The most important specialties will naturally and rightly command the services of the persons most competent in them.

2. The demands of those which, from the nature of the soil or its occupants, are most profitable, will and should be met.

3. Each person should do the work at which he can earn most, whether or not he is as capable as others in the same work, and whether or not he must leave to others work in which he is more capable than they.

4. The incapable must be allowed to bungle away at some kind of work rather than waste their time.

5. The same privilege must be accorded to those who, like most women, are prevented by circumstances from exercising even the industrial powers they have or might under other circumstances develop.

And speaking of woman, what we have said in another place of her inherited special aptitude must be taken in connection with what we have just said of the relativity of the term aptitude. No matter how much stronger she may be morally, she is industrially weaker than man, and even in her own special aptitude, which nevertheless is a special aptitude, she is weaker. An exception may be made in regard to her care of children, so far as it is an industrial task to be included in the study of political economy; but at any rate the cooking and the children keep her at home, and, as a rule, she must either chore about the house or do nothing most of her time, leaving unsatisfied the instinct of mutual help in social sustenance, and leaving humanity that much short of its amplest possible life.

What we are striving for is that both the competent and the incompetent shall be employed and to the best advantage. The competent must therefore do the work at which he most excels the incompetent, and the incompetent must toil and sweat over a task which the competent could do better and more easily. It is the competent, the rich, the fortunate, the versatile, who leaves to others work that he could do better than they. Mediocrity sticks to one task through life. This is the rule. We promised to point out the exceptions. They are the men of one aptitude or one acquired skill highly developed, but barred by bad habits, lack of enterprise, lack of judgment, or some other similar lack, from rising to a higher and more profitable task. If that one aptitude is itself a high one, we can hardly call the man mediocre. If it is a somewhat lower one, we may say that he is a prodigy in his way. Going on down, we reach a point where we have no hesitation in saying that no attainable development of the one faculty could lift the man above the average of his fellows.

But, as a very general rule, the man who from choice leaves to another work in which the first excels the second is the one of the two who is to be most congratulated. The other is still to be congratulated, for it gives him a job. Both parties are benefited. We never think of commiserating a man, no matter how capable he may be at his work, who has a chance to earn more at no matter how different a task, leaving his former one to no matter how sad a bungler. Why should we deplore the fact that nations are able to do the same thing? The statesmen at Washington who consider it a disgrace that America should import things for whose domestic production it has plenty of skill and ample natural resources, would let the scrubbing and care of the building in which they say these things be ever so badly botched before they would take hold and do the work themselves. No doubt the least able-bodied of them could, with an hour's practice every day, soon do it better and more easily than it is done, at least that part of it that is done by women.

He not only never thinks of trying it; he never feels it the slightest disgrace to let a woman do for him work that he would be ashamed to admit his inability, with a tenth of the training, to do better than she. In many cases, perhaps a majority, he could do it without any training if he were thoroughly in earnest. Suppose that it were proved beyond his own doubt to be so in the case of any statesman. Would he drop his work and take to the floor-cloth? Would he even spend his idle hours in that way? If a proposition to do so were made him, he would reject it on two grounds. He would not hesitate to say that it injured both himself and the woman. It would reduce his own opportunities for the enjoyment of life, and it would reduce the woman's opportunities for the sustenance of her life.

He is right. In his own case and in the domestic allotment of specialties he gets at the right principle by instinct as well as by reasoning. It is when he comes to apply the same principle to international allotment of specialties that by some strange infatuation he goes wrong. He plainly sees that when the man A leaves to the man or woman B work that he could do with less effort and higher success, both A and B are benefited. What he does not see is that in like manner when the country A leaves to the country B the prosecution of industries in which A might excel, both countries are benefited.

He is not without some excuse for his mistake. The country A always has in it some men and some capital seeking employment. Why not employ these before we generously leave to others work for which we have greater advantages than they? Why not domesticate some foreign industry which will give them work? For the same reason that a man who loses a good job waits awhile and hunts another good one, rather than tie himself to a bad one. There are always displacement and transitory idleness for a part of both the labor and capital of a country which is making progress. It may be painful for a time to the temporarily idle and displaced, but it is part of a necessary process of readjustment and replacement. Hence, it is better for all immediately better for some, and finally better for even the temporarily displaced. This, of course, when the displacement comes as a result of progress, as in the invention of a new machine, the opening of new routes of commerce, or the better organization of industry. If it comes from the exhaustion of mines, a shortage of money, a collapse after over-speculation, or some other cause which is retrogressive rather than progressive, then, indeed, will the idle capital and labor, if given sufficient time, take up industries formerly left to other countries, and will need no government stimulation to do so. Increase of population has this natural effect. A declining or crowded country is forced into less profitable industries, taking them away from the countries where, while not so profitable, they have been the most profitable within the reach of the unfortunate inhabitants. It thus employs a part of the labor and capital thrown out of work by its decline or crowding.

The capital thrown out of work by industrial progress will, if not destroyed, soon find better work, and so will the labor, if accompanied by sufficient energy and versatility to seek it. But, so long as there is progress, there will be a certain portion of the labor and capital of a country which will be in a state of flux. Mobility of capital and labor is, in fact, a condition of industrial evolution, just as the unstable equilibrium of matter is a condition of all evolution. It is a condition of the growth and development of the human body that part of the cells of which it is composed to-day shall be thrown out of work tomorrow.

The equanimity of our study of political economy is always disturbed by its manifest inequalities and misfortunes. We plainly see and deeply lament the inequality in the apportionment of land and capital, and vainly try to remedy it. But is there not quite as great inequality in the apportionment of industrial powers? And where is the remedy? Which of us, by taking thought, can add a cubit to his stature? Can the Government by its force, or the economist by his advice, do it for us? And if they lack the power to make us industrially equal, what else can they do for us that will make up for this lack? Is there not here the greatest of all the advantages of one human being over another?

Would not, in fact, the equality of land and capital merely emphasize the other and confessedly irremediable inequality? The drudges who make a poor living work as hard, and their work wears as painfully on their nerves, as can be said of the competent who without land or capital are able to make a good living. Are they then to be given a good living for little or unimportant work? Not until some way is found to highly reward the man who does little because he is incapable, without encouraging the capable man to do little because he is lazy.

So much for inequality. But inequality is not the only misfortune. Aside from the fact that industry is not organized to its best advantage, is it not also apparent and regretable that under any organization we are a race of sad bunglers; and that so much of the work of sustaining social life must be done by those who are bunglers even in comparison with their fellow-beings? And what is the remedy for this?

We are growing out of it, and may still grow out of it, as also out of the inequality. And this fact that most of our progress must be growth need not discourage us from doing what we see can be done to promote the progress; our doing so will constitute a part of the process of growth. But we can do it better if we recognize that another part of the process is beyond our control, if not entirely beyond our aid; for then we shall be better able to judge when we are working in the right direction, and to make our work help rather than hinder that of the overruling Power which is pushing us on to our destiny.