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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/September 1890/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 37‎ | September 1890



THE tariff question is one that will not down. So long as the government of any country interposes arbitrary obstacles to the activity of the people, so long as it undertakes to make artificial channels for industry, to open markets here and close them there, to dictate the prices at which goods shall be sold—so long, in a word, as it assumes the prerogatives of an all-wise Providence in directing the affairs of individuals and showing them how to be happy—so long will there be "a doleful song steaming up" of the ignorance, incapacity, and injustice that mark its action. We endeavored to show, a couple of months ago, that a policy of protection, as it is called, naturally and inevitably allies itself with fraud and extravagance in the Government, and we do not think the demonstration can easily be refuted. The essence of the protective system is that the Government or the Legislature undertakes to make higher prices for goods by shutting out competition from abroad. Is it to be supposed for one moment that the people for whom a favorable price is thus to be made will not give pecuniary support to the party that so arranges things for their benefit? Is it not perfectly known that election funds are provided in this way, and that the taxing power is thus virtually put up to sale? The crowning disgrace of the worst days of the Roman Empire was that the supreme power in the state was made a matter of bargain and sale with a corrupt soldiery. We are far removed from the days of the Roman Empire; but how far are we removed from its methods? The question is a serious one.

We publish in this number of the Monthly the conclusion of a carefully prepared article by Mr. Edward Atkinson bearing on this subject, the first part of which will be found in the August number—an article which we trust will receive the attention it merits. Take one statement that Mr. Atkinson makes—and he is a writer who is known to be careful about his facts: "On the plea that this branch of industry" (production of iron) "should be sustained, the consumers of iron and steel in this country have paid a sum in excess of the price paid by the consumers who have been supplied by Great Britain and Germany, ranging from $50,000,000 to $80,000,000 a year. The excess of price has not been turned over to the workmen by the owners of the mines and works." Not at all; the workmen have been left to compete as savagely as they chose with one another, and with a constant stream of new-comers; and the manufacturers, profiting thus by cheap labor, have been enabled to carve huge fortunes for themselves out of the excess in price secured to them by the Legislature. It is no wonder if want of gratitude for such big mercies struck Chairman Foster as a most hideous crime; but such ingratitude is the exception rather than the rule, and would chiefly manifest itself when the monopoly seemed secure against attack; a little danger would develop "barrels" of gratitude.

The misery is that we have a manufactured and altogether falsified public opinion on this subject—a public opinion, we fully believe, which, has not attained its present consistency without much not altogether disinterested advocacy. What is the use of having the "sinews of war" if you do not employ them? Money speaks in more senses than one; the chamber of Danaë is not the only sanctum that has been violated by a shower of gold. Be this as it may, however, certain it is that the public at large have very erroneous ideas as to the actual results of a protective policy. Most think that, in some mysterious way, protection confers a benefit upon all. It is notorious that in many "protected" occupations wages are at a minimum; it is certain that multitudes suffer from their enforced exclusion from foreign markets; and it is a conspicuous fact that private fortunes are on the increase both in number and in average amount: yet still the delusion is cherished that protection is making the nation, as a whole, richer and more prosperous. Mr. Atkinson says distinctly that "there is a vastly greater proportion of farmers and farm laborers whose home market depends upon the export trade than there is of those who might possibly be harmed if, through imports of foreign articles, the demand for their own products were reduced." He ridicules, and with good reason, the idea that Congress is fit to choose occupations for the people. "What an absurdity!" he exclaims. "As if the people were not bigger than any Congress that ever existed, and could not manage their own affairs vastly better than the average member." With all respect to our valued contributor, we do not think he strikes quite the right note here. There is no need to flatter the people at the expense of Congress, which, after all, is elected by the votes of the people, and contains just as much wisdom and patriotism as the people care to put into it. The point is not that the people are wiser on the average than Congress, for that is not certain; but that no individual is wise enough to undertake to interfere with the natural laws of supply and demand, or to substitute artificial adjustments of his own devising for those naturally existing in the economic sphere. We would not trust all the wisdom in the country to undertake such a task. There is this, too, to be considered: that each private individual feels for himself the pressure and influence of surrounding conditions upon his business, and adapts himself thereto as best he can; whereas the Legislature deals with business generally—the business of the whole country—upon more or less abstract principles. In this sense the action of the average individual is apt to be wiser than the action of Congress—not because he is wiser than the average Congressman, but because he is dealing with a problem more or less level with his powers, whereas Congress undertakes to deal with one wholly beyond its powers.

A strong point made by Mr. Atkinson is his demonstration that even "infant industries" do not need to be nursed by a tariff when they are properly located and have large markets open to them. The instance he cites is that of our own iron and other manufacturing interests in the Southern States. On the principles we constantly hear maintained by protectionists, the manufacturing industries of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts should have crushed out any attempt at competition in the South, the latter being unable to "protect" itself by a tariff; but nothing of the kind has happened, and Southern industries are yearly increasing in volume and importance. This is an argument to which there is no answer. If the industries of the South could maintain and develop themselves in the face of the competition of heavily subsidized industries, commanding vast capital and fully organized, in the North, will any one pretend that our national industries, so far as they were in any way suited to the country, could not have maintained and developed themselves in the face of foreign competition?

We can not but believe that the common sense of the country will see before long that this, the youngest of nations, instead of leading the van in the application of sound and progressive principles of economic policy, has been hugging to its bosom the narrowest and most unenlightened principles of an antiquated state-craft. While the spread of knowledge and the improvement in means of communication are drawing men together, and more or less effacing the lines of separation between nation and nation, this country, which, having received, in point of territory and material resources, the fairest and richest heritage of all, might have been expected to show the brightest example of good feeling and hospi'tality to other peoples and governments, has apparently considered it its mission to antagonize as far as possible the unifying influence of the modern spirit, to counteract the work of science in drawing the nations together, and to promote to the extent of its power a régime of international exclusiveness and jealousy. Shall we not some day wake up to a sudden shame of our conduct as a people in this matter? Shall we not some day be led to feel that we owe the world a better example? What is the use of endowing colleges and teaching the rising generation how to subdue the forces of nature, if, after the forces of nature have been subdued, and the lifegiving and health-giving currents of international intercourse are prepared to flow in full tide of beneficent activity, we empower a lot of politicians at Washington to place artificial obstacles and resistances in the way of our commerce? The thing is really too absurd—philosophy and religion alike proclaiming the solidarity of human interests, science showing how natural obstacles to intercourse may be reduced to a minimum, while politics—flouting all the teachings of religion and philosophy, handicaps the achievements of science and insists on the perpetuation of a semi-barbarous régime of international hostility. Does any one say the word "hostility" is too strong? It is not too strong. What more hostile thing can we do to any one than to refuse intercourse with him? What deadlier or crueller form of hostility is there than the "boycott"? Of course, in boycotting others, we boycott ourselves; for, big as we are, we are not the whole world. What Mr. Atkinson is striving to show is the injurious effect of the boycott upon ourselves. We heartily wish him success in his patriotic labors; but we could wish also that a more generous sentiment might come and help to lift us out of our present false and retrograde position.



Our biographical sketch this month is devoted to Prof. T. C. Mendenhall, Superintendent of the Coast Survey and retiring President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As the author of the sketch rightly observes, we have in this gentleman a typical specimen of that class of Americans who, by the determined cultivation and development of their natural gifts, have arrived at the highest distinction. Many perhaps will consider the surroundings of Prof. Mendenhall's boyhood as unfavorable to his becoming eminent; but there is an element in his early school training, commonplace as that may appear, which to our mind was decidedly favorable, because it contributed directly to the formation of those habits of observation and independent thinking which are conspicuous in the characters of able men. Deriving from his father an inquiring turn of mind, the boy was fortunate enough to fall into the hands of a teacher who was an interested observer of physical phenomena, and who was in the habit of occasionally varying the school-work by such simple experiments as were within the means at her command. Insignificant as this episode may appear to many, it was well calculated to arouse the interest and fix the attention. The native curiosity of the childish mind was stimulated, and observation, experiment, and reasoning on his own account were the natural result.

Under the system of public-school administration that now prevails, especially in our large cities, this Quaker lady would not have been allowed to break the tedious routine of book-study with any such diversions. Any attempt on her part to observe the individual aptitudes of her pupils, to foster them, and qualify the boys to put their faculties to the best use of which they were capable would have been frowned down as inconsistent with the true purposes of the school. On the other hand, she would have been compelled, under penalty of dismissal, to put them all through an identical Procrustean drill, which tends to dull the faculties, suppress the aptitudes, and destroy that individuality of character in which alone resides the possibility for the highest usefulness of the man.