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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/May 1888/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 33‎ | May 1888

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
HON. DAVID A. WELLS ON ECONOMIC DISTURBANCES.

IN the present number of the "Monthly" will be found the concluding article of the very interesting and valuable series contributed to our columns by the Hon. David A. Wells. The subject which this able and well-equipped writer has so amply discussed is one, it is almost superfluous to say, of the very highest importance. The condition of the body politic is a matter to which no one with the slightest pretensions to intelligence can allow himself to be indifferent. Is it well with us, or is it ill with us, in the social state?—surely that is a question which none but the ignorant or the frivolous can regard as other than most momentous. In discussing "economic disturbances" Mr. Wells has had this question constantly in view. He has written not as a mere statistician, or as a devotee of the market, but as a statesman, as a patriot, as a friend of humanity. Our readers can not have failed to notice the large spirit of humanity that breathes through his articles. We venture to say that no similar series of articles was ever produced more free from national prejudice or the spirit of national selfishness. Mr. Wells has watched, and has interested himself in, the whole movement of civilization; and he has the happy art of communicating to his readers a similar enlargement of thought and sympathy. In the earlier articles of the series attention was called to the universality, among the more advanced nations of the globe, of a condition of economic disturbance dating from about the year 1873, and continuing, with more or less of fluctuation, to our own day. The evidence offered as to the reality of the phenomenon is, in the fullest sense, demonstrative; indeed, the leading economists of all countries are fully agreed as to the fact; divergence of opinion only begins with the discussions of the cause or causes. Without wishing to participate in the discussion ourselves, we must express our conviction that, in singling out as the great cause of the prolonged crisis under consideration the rapidity with which modes and conditions of production and transportation have changed during the last fifteen years, our contributor is essentially in the right. The picture he has drawn of the fluctuations in special trades, including displacements of labor, consequent upon the progress of invention and discovery, is striking and powerful; and it is not a matter of surprise that, when attention is concentrated upon this picture, a very gloomy forecast is apt to be formed of the immediate future of society. With displacement of labor, we see destruction of capital, financial uncertainty, and a growing feeling, on the part both of employers and employed, that they are the sport of forces that can neither be controlled nor calculated. No sooner is equilibrium partially restored, through a dearly-purchased adaptation to new conditions, than some further discovery comes to throw everything once more into confusion; nor does any one know the moment when our whole industrial system may not be shaken to its base by the introduction of some new force or process more revolutionary in its effects than all that has gone before.

Evidently what is wanted for the production and maintenance of the highest form of social well-being is not only a large command over the forces of Nature, but a reasonable measure of stability in the general conditions of life. The lack of such stability entails evils not only material but moral; and we are inclined, after a careful reading of Mr. Wells's pages, to believe that in our present social state the latter predominate over the former. If the question be asked, Have the working-classes, in point of fact, endured greater hardships during the last fifteen years than during the previous fifteen, or in past times generally? the answer, according to Mr. Wells, must be an emphatic No. We may, indeed, go further on the strength of the facts he furnishes, and say that, up to the present, wages have been pretty steadily rising, while the purchasing power of money has been increasing. As a result of this double improvement in the remuneration of labor, the whole standard of living among the wage-earners has advanced. The skilled mechanic or artisan can today enjoy more both of comfort and of luxury than citizens of substantial means could have done a generation or two ago. On the other hand, if we turn to the capitalist class, and ask whether their losses and perplexities have depressed their mode of living, or diminished the outward and visible marks of their prosperity, we read the answer in the handsome streets of all great cities, and their suburbs. M. de Laveleye remarked a few years ago, with special reference to continental Europe, that-one of the most conspicuous facts of the age was the vast increase in middle-class wealth and luxury; and certainly the phenomenon challenges attention at least as powerfully in this

country. The very "strikes" that have marked our time have in themselves afforded evidence of general prosperity, showing, as regards the strikers, the possession of resources on which they could fall back during the period of their voluntary idleness, and, as regards the employers of labor, an ability to withstand the derangement of business which the strikes must have entailed. The truth would therefore seem to be, that our "economic disturbances" have involved more of unrest and anxiety than of actual suffering. Society has been, naturally enough, in a nervous, excited condition, and men's minds have been filled with apprehensions of evil that fortunately has not yet come to pass. Such a condition is not free from danger. Man does not now, and never did, "live by bread alone." He lives also by formed habits, permanent associations, settled views, well-grounded hopes. Takeaway any of these, and you not only unclothe but actually unbuild average human nature. It is not enough to supply bread. The bread-eater, if he is to thrive in mind as well as in body, must be enabled to feel that it is not all a matter of chance whether he gets the bread or not, but that there is some regular provision in the general scheme of things whereby his labor and thought can be transmuted into sustenance for himself and those dependent on him.

This view of the matter can not, we think, receive too much attention. Some one, rising from the perusal of these articles, may be disposed to exclaim: "Oh, it's all right after all. I see that wages are better than they used to be, and the working-classes enjoy a great many comforts they were not accustomed to formerly, and there is more work to be done in the world than there ever was before. Why, everything is splendid!" No, everything is not splendid. On the material side we are prospering, but the deep unrest that pervades society is not a healthy symptom; and before we take our ease we should see what can be done to moralize the existing conditions of industrial life, and to give to the world's workers a conviction that the action of natural and social forces is making for their good and will continue to do so in the future. How is this to he done? By any form of government action? Upon this point Mr. Wells does not give us all the light we should desire to have; but we thank him for having shown, in the matter of the sugar bounties and drawbacks and kindred measures, the futile character of government interference with trade. On the score of restrictive tariffs much might have been said. If the little, comparatively speaking, that has been done by different countries to force their sugar upon other countries has been productive of so much disturbance as Mr. Wells describes, to what a vast extent must the natural course of industry and commerce have been interfered with by the hostile tariffs that different nations have erected in order to shut out from their markets the cheap goods that other communities were prepared to supply! Had the commerce of each country been required to adapt itself simply to the natural conditions established in the world, there would have been far more of permanence and less of uncertainty in all business arrangements; and a natural equilibrium would have resulted, the benefits of which would have been shared by all countries alike. But with tariffs enacted either by irresponsible autocrats or by more or less purchasable majorities of representative assemblies, wholly incalculable elements have been introduced, with results as grievous to commerce in its broad aspects as would be the shifting of the stars to navigation. But more injurious still than any actual financial loss resulting from government interference has been the habit which has thus been cultivated in most countries of depending on the government or the legislature, not only to control the channels of trade, but to secure the national prosperity. With all our boasted intelligence we make an absolute fetich of the state. "Whence have these men this wisdom?" might well be asked regarding the men who undertake to make our tariffs, and say just how much of this or that foreign article we shall import, and how much we shall pay for a similar native product. But few, comparatively speaking, ask the question: the assumption is general that the man who is elected to Congress and placed on a committee is thereby invested with a wisdom and knowledge almost supernatural in their range.

For our part, we do not share the delusion. We do not believe that any man or body of men is wise enough to be intrusted with the task of fettering the industry of a nation or prescribing the extent to which its citizens shall trade with other nations. We do not believe that election to any representative assembly whatever confers such wisdom. Holding such views, we are far from looking to government for any help in the present crisis. The only help, as we conceive, that the governments of the world could give would be to cease their interference with many departments of life which they now undertake to control. Leaving, then, every form of state action out of the question, we believe that much good might be done by the dissemination in a condensed and striking form of such facts as Mr. Wells has so industriously gathered; and we learn with pleasure that it is that gentleman's intention to republish his essays in book form, with such modifications as will best adapt it to popular usefulness. If the working-classes could be brought to understand the action of economic and social laws, and if it could be made clear to them that up to the present their own position had been steadily improving, they surely would not be disposed to find much fault with the present tendency of things. H they could be persuaded that the instability of business was due in no small degree to government interference with commerce and industry, and that it would be greatly to their advantage to rely on a world-equilibrium in business matters rather than upon one made and unmade by national tariff legislation, their influence would probably be thrown in favor of commercial freedom, instead of, as is now the case, mainly in support of commercial restriction. Could they also be made to realize that, if their present increased wages, coupled with comparative lowness of prices, leaves them in many cases still in the grip of what seems like poverty, it is because they allow their desires for the enjoyments of life to outrun even their enlarged means. Any one may land himself in misery who does that. Finally, it can never be superfluous to preach the ever true doctrine that the key to happiness is conduct. Of those who really feel imbittered against the existing condition of things how many can truly say that they have been true to themselves; that they have made the most of their opportunities; that they have not, by some want of self-control, marred their own careers? No social state could by any possibility be invented in which a certain number of malcontents would not be counted. With malcontents, who are so by defect of nature or faults of conduct, the hand of power must deal. There is much good to be effected, we firmly believe, by dealing with men as men, individually intelligent and individually responsible, and doing away as far as we possibly can with the preposterous notion that they are pawns to be moved hither and thither by manipulators of the tariff and other gentlemen of protective proclivities. Self-help founded on knowledge is the master-principle of individual and national salvation.

 

 

We invite special attention to three articles on "Darwinism and the Christian Faith," the first appearing in this number of the "Monthly," which were recently published in "The Guardian," the leading Church journal in England. These articles are spoken of as "remarkable" by the editor of "Nature," who further characterizes them as follows: "The author is anonymous, but is understood to be an Oxford College tutor, and Honorary Canon of Christ Church. The orthodoxy of 'The Guardian' is, we believe, unimpeachable. We notice, therefore, with gratification that not only is Darwinism thoroughly accepted and lucidly expounded by the writer in 'The Guardian,' but that he is an exceptionally well-informed and capable critic, whose scientific knowledge is varied and sound. The publication of these articles in 'The Guardian' is a proof that the clergy as a body are not so unwilling to accept new scientific views as might be supposed were we to regard Dean Burgon as a fair sample of his class." The other two articles of the series will appear in early numbers of the "Monthly."