Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/September 1894/Editor's Table
THE events of the last few months in this country have certainly been enough to rouse the most indifferent citizen to serious reflection. In an already depressed condition of industry and commerce we have had thousands of men condemned by arbitrary action to wholly unnecessary idleness, trade in certain sections of the country all but paralyzed by the interruption of communication, and property to the value of millions of dollars destroyed. As an accompaniment to all this there has been considerable loss of life through violence; and the heated passions of men have not stopped short even of the most hideous and diabolical crime of train-wrecking. What further developments the future may have in store for us it is impossible to say; but it is hard to feel hopeful over the prospect unless the public can be got to look a little more deeply into the causes of these troubles than hitherto they have been accustomed to do.
It seems to us that the prevalent habit of regarding such disturbances as arising entirely out of a strained relation between capital and labor is an unfortunate one. Still more unfortunate is it, and still wider of the mark, when emotional people attribute all such troubles to the tyranny of capital. If capital were at all times to give way to the demands of labor, capital would cease to exist, and, population having meanwhile increased in a more than ordinary ratio, general social penury would be the result. Capital may be said, without much abuse of metaphor, to have the same instinct of self-preservation that organic beings have: it will fight for its life. To many people the sight of a capitalist withstanding the demands of his workmen suggests nothing but inordinate selfishness and greed; but this is not the capitalist's view of it; what he feels—we are now supposing a typical case—is that he can not meet those demands without unduly weakening himself and putting his men in the position of getting more than the market value for their labor. We do not say, and are very far from thinking, that capitalists never do selfish things. Still less do we say, or think, that they rise, as a rule, to the level of their social responsibilities; but we wish to affirm our opinion that capital is perfectly justified in acting on that instinct of self-preservation already referred to, seeing that it is a strictly limited quantity and can not without risk of extinction take upon itself the burden of satisfying the ever-expanding desires of mankind. Human desires are like a gas whose volume varies inversely with the pressure to which it is subjected, or, to state it otherwise, which expands just as the pressure acting on it is reduced; and to suppose that one set of men should be able by successive concessions to keep another much more numerous set of men continually satisfied is to suppose what in the very nature of the case is absurd.
Instead of perpetually canvassing the supposed rival claims of capital and labor it would be better if our social reformers would apply themselves to the underlying question how it comes that there is so much competition among the so-called laboring classes for the kind of employment which capitalists supply. The capitalists themselves do not create the competition. If they yielded to all the demands made upon them in the matter of wages and hours, they might be said to do, because then they would be creating conditions which would have a tendency to cause men to rush into their service. But they do nothing of the kind: as a rule they only yield when they have to, and yet there is generally more labor offering than can be satisfactorily employed. Now, this we consider to be the fundamental social problem of our time; and yet we do not find that it receives anything like the attention it deserves and requires. The labor organizations which play so prominent a part in the modern world seem to assume that labor will always be in excess, and devote their chief efforts to neutralizing by artificial means this natural disadvantage. Their attitude toward capital is thus normally a hostile one, even when actual hostilities are not in progress; and this fact alone may account for not a little of the friction which actually occurs in the practical relations between capital and labor. To be always confronted with a hostile force is not soothing to the temper, and suggests at least defensive, when it does not suggest offensive, measures. It would be better, as it seems to us, if the labor organizations would cultivate less of the militant and more of the administrative spirit, and would use the wide knowledge they must necessarily acquire of the conditions of the industrial world to prevent the overcrowding of particular trades, and, in a general way, to favor such a distribution of the working population as will tend most to their welfare. As long as the capitalist has only to blow his whistle, so to speak, in order to get all the "hands" he requires, the condition of the "hands" will be one of more or less dependence on him; and therefore the true policy of labor leaders is to try to so dispose of the laboring population that they will not be at the beck and call of capital, but will have a much larger measure than at present of social stability and personal independence.
Just how this very desirable result is to be brought about we are not prepared to say; but what strikes us is that if more effort and thought had been devoted by the working classes, organized as they are in unions which permit of their best men coming to the front, to problems of a constructive character, and less to the planning of campaigns and the devising of means by which the least return in labor should be given for the largest obtainable wage, they would have been the better of it to-day. One thing which they should long ago have seen is the desirableness of their complete separation from mere party politics, which, so far as they are concerned, is a simple delusion and a snare. What the workman wants is the simplest and cheapest form of government, and, above all, one under which no exceptional favors will be accorded to individuals or classes. If he is not wise enough to see this, but falls a victim to the special pleading used on behalf of preposterous tariff laws, he can not lay the blame on others; what he wants is understanding, and, until he gets it, he will suffer. A generally higher ideal of life would stand the workman in good stead—an ideal opposed to show and extravagance and favorable to earnest endeavor for intellectual and moral improvement. We are no advocates for "starvation wages"—far from it—but we can not overlook the fact that what one individual considers starvation wages will sometimes suffice for the comfort and self-respect of another, the difference between the two cases being one of personal habit.
As to the capitalist class, there is this to be said, that the man of large means, the large employer of labor who does not interest himself in his men and make the conditions of their labor as profitable and satisfactory to them as possible consistently with a due regard to the stability of his business, is shamefully neglecting the duties which lie to his hand. We have but a limited belief in what is commonly known as philanthropy, but we believe in justice and good will between man and man, and it should not be hard for the capitalist to determine whether he is doing by those under him as, were he in their position, he would wish, and might reasonably ask, to be done by. This is an age in which luxury runs wild. The capitalist may fairly treat himself liberally; but if he has the true spirit of humanity about him, he will not make of himself a demigod or raise himself to Olympian heights above the people. In saying this we may be as the voice of one crying in the wilderness; but if a message has to be delivered, it is better to cry out in the wilderness than not to cry out at all. Socialism as a system of government tills us with the most profound apprehensions; but, on the other hand, there is a certain socialism of the heart, if we may so express it, which we would gladly do all in our power to encourage—that feeling which leads a man, be his station what it may, to consider that he lives not for himself alone, but for the good of society at large. There is much said about the duties of the rich, but it is doing the rich too much honor to speak and write as if they alone had social duties. The welfare of society depends in the main on the good citizenship of the multitude, and not on anything the rich have it in their power to do. To them also it is given to be good citizens; but the call is not more imperative to them than to those of average or scanty means. It is an old, and ought to be an exploded, fallacy that a single talent is not worth improving. The social millennium will come, if ever, when all the single talents are being improved with a distinct, even if only secondary, aim to the common good.
A recent number of Nature contains an article which begins by lamenting the neglect of the British Government to make any adequate provision for the carrying on of physical and chemical research, and then goes on to state that a wealthy manufacturer of high scientific culture. Dr. Ludwig Mond, had purchased for the Royal Institution a spacious building in which to establish physical and chemical laboratories of the most approved kind, and had undertaken to defray all expenses connected with the equipment and maintenance thereof. Now, it seems to us that Dr. Ludwig Mond's action in this matter is highly commendable, and that the action of the British Government in leaving the establishment of such laboratories to private enterprise and beneficence is also commendable. It should never be forgotten that whatever money the Government spends comes from taxation, and that the taxes are levied in great part from the poor. Whether, then, is it better that the Government should spend the proceeds of taxation on such objects as these, or that intelligent and cultivated men like Dr. Ludwig Mond, who have amassed great wealth by the exercise of their talents, should come forward and undertake the duty? We say without hesitation that the latter is far the better solution of the question. If the Government were to do everything of this kind, one of the noblest uses to which private wealth can be put would be at an end. Not only so, but wealthy men would no longer have any interest in studying the needs of the community, and would be left even more than they are at present to indulgence in luxury as the one means of expressing the fact that they are wealthy. If we want to redeem our rich men from the vanity, inanity, and vulgarity of self-indulgence and ostentation, the way to do it is for public opinion to assign them social tasks suited to their means and opportunities; and this can not be done if the Government is asked to shoulder all such responsibilities. All honor to men like Ludwig Mond, who, without any special urging, see what is required for the public good and do it! In this case high intelligence goes hand in hand with command of pecuniary means; and there is, therefore, reason to believe that what is done under his direction will be well done, and will not be marred or weakened by the perfunctory spirit which so often accompanies state action.