Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/May 1897/Reversions in Modern Industrial Life II



I HAVE already shown how modern trade and professional corporations are a reversion to feudal corporations, which were the natural and spontaneous product not of legislative wisdom and philanthropy, but of chronic disorder, and how, for a time, they provided security for despised and plundered toilers, and promoted the growth of civilization. While pointing out the astonishing absurdity involved in the revival of such obsolete institutions in an age devoted almost exclusively to industrial life—a life based upon peace and the largest liberty compatible with justice—I described some of their more flagrant economic evils, the inevitable fruits of their alliance with the state and of their establishment of despotic monopolies. I shall now give an account of some of their moral evils, the fruits also of the same despotism; and though it will, as before, be confined chiefly to the plumbers, because they are the most powerfully organized and the most completely protected, it applies with like fidelity to all other trade and professional corporations sheltered behind a statute or a code of tyrannical rules and regulations.


An optimistic essayist of the National Association of the Master Plumbers may boast that "protection has not only elevated the trade and eliminated from our ranks the incompetent and unworthy," but has "reached out and enhanced man's highest good, and given humanity the greatest benefactions of the age."

He may boast also that in consequence of these noble fruits of protection, "the plumber receives the esteem, respect, and honor of his fellow-men, and enjoys the dignity and consideration given to the learned professions about him."[1] But the destruction of personal liberty and the establishment of a monopoly in labor and trade did not confer these blessings upon the corporations of the middle ages; they have not conferred them upon their modern successors. Brief as their history is, it discloses all the traits of their predecessors in embryo or in an advanced state of growth. They have not transformed human nature; they have not made it more honest, generous, or sympathetic. All they have done is to add another to the countless demonstrations that the reform of human society is not to come from legislation. They have provoked strife; they have stimulated deception; they have favored incompetency and dishonesty; they have discouraged character and excellence; they have created false hopes; they have produced indifference to the very dangers they were designed to guard against.

The honest plumbers that expected most from this kind of legislation have suffered the greatest disappointment. The making of master plumbers, said Mr. Edward Braden, of San Antonio, Texas, at the Cleveland convention, "is a Herculean job. They love to go to conventions, have a good time, and even ridicule any advancement or strict enforcement of the sanitary laws."[2] So great does the task appear to be, and so vast is the work still to be done, that it must long remain incomplete. More than that, unless a different course is pursued, it must always remain incomplete. "It would seem," says another plumbing authority, "to be a safe assertion that too many [plumbers] do not have a true conception of the dignity of their calling. Their dominant idea is to do the cheapest work without much thought of the moral obligations resting upon them to guard in every way in their power the health of all concerned."[3] The president of the Milwaukee convention complained that "in several instances parties, after becoming members of the National Association," have "endeavored to use their membership to keep other practical and worthy plumbers out."[4] Not finding the time ripe for such mediæval proscription, some of them have preferred to forego the benefits of the association. Other plumbers, equally oblivious to the "dignity of their calling," have been dishonest enough to conspire with the jobbers and consumers to violate the sanctity of the Baltimore resolutions. One of the more striking cases was the collusion of a plumber and jobber in one State with a consumer in another several hundred miles away.[5] "Many contractors," says the account of another case, which duplicates almost literally the experience of the Parisian marchands de l'eau[6] showing again how independent of time and space, of feudal despotisms and despotic republics human nature is, "induce journeymen plumbers to take out licenses so that they can give the money to the journeymen and get the goods at plumbers' prices. Too often they do not go through the formality of having the money pass through the journeymen's hands. "It is to be regretted," adds the account mournfully, "that some supply houses sell to such so-called plumbers when they know the circumstances."[7]

As in the past, so to-day, the desperate attempt made to fence off trades and professions with the barbed wire of legislation, and to grant admission to the sacred circles of monopoly only to those that meet official standards of excellence, has led to the creation of absurd and arbitrary distinctions and provoked fierce anger and contention. Already the opticians of Pennsylvania distinguish between opticians, dioptricians, and ophthalmotricians,[8] thus reminding one of the five kinds of hat makers in old France, and when they come to get a law enacted for their protection, these distinctions will doubtless be perpetuated in the statutes, to the instruction and amusement of some future Montesquieu. In the bill that the New York opticians have framed the line is drawn with scrupulous care between "dispensing opticians," who sell the products of the industrial skill of others, and "refracting opticians,"[9] who dispose of the products of their own skill. But hardly had the measure been published before there was a quarrel, or rather a series of quarrels, that rivaled any that the regulations of the French hat makers stirred up. There was, first, the fight between the regular physicians, who claim, by virtue of their diplomas from medical colleges, the right to prescribe for optical defects, and the oculists and opticians, who want to establish a monopoly of this business. Next came the fight between the oculists, who assert that they alone have the requisite knowledge and skill to practice their profession, and the "refracting opticians," who insist that they are just as competent to prescribe in certain cases. "When it is remembered that certain oculists," says the president of the New York State Optical Society, disclosing the bitter spirit that animates these two classes of "philanthropists" and "benefactors," "have elected to assault even skilled opticians by calling them quacks, charlatans, and fiery-eyed ignoramuses, we are certainly justified in refuting their allegations in a more gentlemanly and professional way."[10] Finally came the smothered conflict between the "dispensing opticians" and the "refracting opticians," who, although united for relentless war on the oculists, have widely divergent notions as to the character and limits of their own professional skill.

The same belligerent spirit exists between the plumbers and kindred trades. "A practical plumber, one who is concerned about elevating his profession," says a report from Delaware, "finds it exceedingly difficult in the small towns to compete with the tinsmith and hardware men."[11] The same complaint comes from Kentucky. "Nearly all of the plumbing in the smaller towns," it says, is "done by tinners, hardware men, machinists, and even 'nigger' blacksmiths."[12] Could anything be more provocative of indignation and resistance in men possessed of a high spirit and noble aims? Afflicted as the feudal corporations were with illegitimate competition, they did not have to meet upon the field of honorable labor the ignoble rivalry of "niggers." The vice-president of the Oregon Association mentions as a particularly flagrant example of the unfair competition that the "honest plumber," one "concerned about elevating his profession," has to struggle against, a firm that advertises "Hardware, stoves, and ranges, sanitary plumbing, tin and sheet-iron work, groceries, provisions, and cord wood." "And still," he adds, as though recounting a miracle, but showing that honest work may be done without laws and ordinances, "these parties do a good job of plumbing."[13] Passing from the country to the city, where the evolution of industry has gone further and the lines that separate one trade or profession from another have become more distinct, the conflicts between plumbers and other occupations are more bitter and relentless.[14] A stone mason is not permitted to build a drain under a house nor connect it with the sewer. Without the risk of arrest and prosecution a steam or gas fitter can not put in a water or waste pipe. To the hardware man is denied the right to connect the range he has sold with the water system of his patron's house.[15]

Although this intolerable despotism continues to grow by what it feeds on, and its complete abatement is not likely to come soon, there are not wanting some faint signs of revolt. The hardware men of Buffalo, N. Y., have refused to submit to it, and are engaged in a hot fight against the tyrants of the wrench and soldering iron.[16] As already indicated, the opticians of the State are also in rebellion against the oculists, having discovered in the benevolent legislation of these "social reformers" an attempt to enslave them. "Let us," says the president of the State Optical Society just quoted, summoning his followers to arms and defending his course with an argument equally cogent against all other assaults on personal liberty, "concentrate with the fearless determination to throw off the yoke which some oculists are so determined to have us wear by relegating us to a position of abject dependence upon them, and thus exposing ourselves to the exercise of a power which might, in a moment of emergency, make perjurers of all who lack the fortitude to resist it."[17]

But futile as has been the attempt to create the honest and competent plumber and to make him a national blessing, the effort to find the honest and competent official to enforce legislation and to rescue the public from the dangers of imperfect work has not been less prolific of disappointment. When I say that the failure has been signal and inevitable, I do not express the opinion deduced from first principles nor from every experiment with the black art of the lawmaker since its first dicovery. I express only the honest and unpremeditated convictions that plumbers themselves have reached. Even Mr. Spencer has scarcely described more vividly and effectively the political entanglements, the industrial paralysis, and the moral enervation that follow the practice of this system of modern magic. "It does seem impossible," said a Syracuse delegate at a State convention of master plumbers, after listening to a melancholy tale of the neglect of examining boards to do their duty, "to keep politics out of examining boards."[18] But the same trail is just as visible elsewhere. "You think it is the Board of Health," said an Albany delegate, showing how other officials have shirked their duty. "We have been there and made our complaint. They inspect the work brought to their office, they say. I have been to the corporation counsel and can not get any satisfaction. I have been to the district attorney and to the justice of the police court. They laugh at us."[19] This is the experience always had with the machinery invented to enforce the laws of any despot, be he French or American. The men that refuse to submit to them are too influential to be antagonized with impunity.

Even if public officials possessed the Spartan virtue of Boyleau, who, according to the Sire de Joinville, yielded to no influence "de parente, ni d'amys, ni d'or, ni d'argent";[20] even if they were to enforce the law with Draconian rigor, it could and would be evaded. "'There are many ways of killing a cat besides choking him with butter,'" said Mr. Firmin at the Philadelphia convention, "and the law may be obeyed, while it is at the same time practically evaded and violated. No matter," he added, speaking with a professional knowledge that a layman would not presume to question, "how impartial, honest, and competent an inspector may be, in the very nature of things there are one hundred and one ways of putting his eyes out."[21] Could some legislative genius discover a way to prevent this loss of sight, protection from incompetent or dishonest plumbers would still be impossible. "There are a great many things," said Mr. Edward Schuster, of St. Louis, at the same convention, "necessary to a first-class job, which do not come under his supervision and which he is not responsible for, and yet they are of so much importance that they can not be omitted."[22] Of what use, then, is a plumbing law? Of what use also are inspectors?

Still, the bottom of the Pandora box, which "philanthropists" and "benefactors" have stuffed with the evils of such legislation, has not yet been reached. While it does not benefit the honest plumber, it often screens the dishonest one. Here again I do not trust to the conclusions drawn from the doctrine of laissez-faire, nor from the unsupported assertions of prejudice. My statements are none other than those of the master plumbers themselves. "Plumbers imagined," said Mr. Dent Yates at the Detroit convention, "that the strictest ordinances (a few of which would make the framers of the Rhode Island blue laws weep with envy) would be a big bonanza. . . . But some of the self-same ordinances, designed to protect the good, conscientious plumber, have here and there acted as a screen for the quack plumber and fat for the ward bummer and the grog-shop politicians."[23] Is this not saying, as was once said to a French despot, that for every office he was pleased to make God was pleased to make a fool to fill it? With a touch of bitter disappointment over honest toil gone for naught, Mr. Firmin declared, in the essay quoted from already, that the plumbers that had "endeavored to be just to their fellow-men," that had "given their best thought "to" devising improved methods of practical sanitation,"that" could point to the improved standard of plumbing as a part of their labors,"had" not been rewarded in anything like a just ratio. . . . I might," he added in a tone of deeper disappointment, "even say in an everyday dollars-and-cents view," that they "have not directly benefited at all."[24]

The most serious evil remains to be mentioned, for it falls upon the very persons whose benefit is, in the eyes of the "philanthropists" and "benefactors," its sole justification. Instead of making them more alert to protect themselves from the dangers that assail them and to secure the services of the most expert to aid them in this difficult task, it creates in them a state of indifference. Conscious that benevolent statesmen have made laws to keep them from harm, they fancy that it is no longer needful for them to take thought of the morrow. Plumbers themselves, with all their ardent faith in legislation, have not been able to shut their eyes to this peril. More than once have the thoughtful among them called attention to "overconfidence on the part of the architect and the general public" in "the cure-all-ism of the plumbing law." "This danger is at once serious to the public and to ourselves as business men," said the Sanitary Committee at the Philadelphia convention.[25] "We found," said Mr. Firmin, also, "that the public has come to rely to a dangerous degree upon plumbing laws. . . . The danger lies," he added, "in the fact that the public believe that all plumbers, by virtue of the law's operation, are compelled to produce equal and certain results, and that if they have a certain piece of work to be performed it will make no difference whether they give the job to Jones or Brown. . . . Therein they fall into error, injuring themselves, as well as the honest plumber. They remove the incentive to progression and honesty." The Sanitary Committee takes the same view in almost the same words. "There has arisen a belief," it says, "that now it is not necessary to use care in the choice of your plumber, since he is by law compelled to comply with modern sanitary principles and mechanical arrangements. Never was a greater error committed by the public," with "far-reaching results for evil."[26] This, however, is only an expression of the truth that the public must, in spite of all supervision, look after itself.

But, like a nobler sentiment, faith in the efficacy of legislation for the cure of all social ills, including those from incompetent barbers and horseshoers, "springs eternal in the human breast." It is not enough that such a law as the plumbing law can not be enforced; that, even if it were enforced, it would not yield the benefits that its framers anticipate; that, instead of favoring the honest plumber, it favors the dishonest one, and enables the unscrupulous politician to bribe or coerce constituents; that, instead of promoting the interests of the public, it is a detriment to them, producing a false sense of security perilous to health—it is still proposed to follow to the death the same ignis fatuus. To be sure, the most advanced "philanthropists" and "benefactors" do not propose to enact more rigorous municipal regulations or more elaborate State laws. These have failed. But they propose to resort to the great panacea of periodic inspection and national legislation. Preparing the way for the exercise of the last hope of the apostles of benevolent despotism, the Sanitary Committee of the Philadelphia convention declared that "no matter how thorough and complete" a piece of plumbing may have been done, "Nature, assisted by use, abuse, and neglect, will render that which was perfect most imperfect."[27] It then proceeds to urge with fitting solemnity "the very great importance of legislative action looking to and providing for periodic expert examination of sanitary appliances." That is to say, since people can not be trusted to keep their plumbing in order, the State must, like a policeman, compel them to do so. "A system of laws emanating from Congress," says an authority quoted with approval by the same committee on another occasion, after pointing out, among other things, that "the laws enacted by State and local authorities are continually subject to change according to the whim of any petty politician who sees his self-aggrandizement in any movement that may please a portion of his constituency," "would obviate all such trouble. . . . Such laws would be enforced by the State and local boards of health, and, in case of their failure or neglect, such attention and assistance from the national powers should be given as the circumstances of the case may require."[28] That is to say, again, a defective principle inoperative on a small scale can be made a success on a large one. Although a despotic local law can not be enforced, a despotic national law will be scrupulously observed. If local officials can be blinded in "one hundred and one ways," national officials are subject to no such impairment of vision.


But this is only a fresh illustration of the pathetic faith of the chronic invalid, ever on the search for a new pill or a new tonic. A change from one despotism to another, or from one set of officials to another, will not deliver society from the defects of human nature. Much less will that blessing come from the increase of despotism and the multiplication of officials. Such quackery has been tried from the dawn of Greek democracy down to the latest product of popular sovereignty—the Brazilian Republic. It has failed; it must inevitably fail. It violates a law of social development as immutable as the law of gravitation, one that punishes those that fail to heed it with equal certainty and severity. I refer to the law set forth by Mr. Spencer that the more peaceful and industrious a nation becomes, the less is its need of the restraints of either custom or legislation. But of this matchless induction of modern science the social reformers of to-day have no conception. They act upon the assumption that the world has made no headway in a thousand years; that men are still barbarians and require the shackles of an age of disorder; that there must be the official mechanism of an old French or Prussian despotism, which had no other use than to recruit and drill troops and to wring taxes from despised and impoverished toilers. But since the days of feudal chaos humanity, despite the obstacles thrown in its path by ignorance and interest, has gained ground. Men have outlived the rules and regulations of a military despotism. They do not pay homage to the occupant of a throne, surrounded by courtiers as intent on the plunder of subjects as soldiers on the plunder of enemies. Their allegiance is to another ruler, which, though less regal, is not less powerful; it is conscience, the embodied restraints that come of peace, sympathy, and culture. If the obedience due this ruler of the modern industrial world is imperfect, the reason is not difficult to discover. It is because his reign has been brief, and human nature is still crude. Too many vestiges of countless ages of conflict cling to the brain of man. Too much misdirected effort is made to fit the institutions of murder and pillage to times of peace and industry. Obsolete as a battle axe or a coat of mail, they do not extinguish the traits inherited from savage ancestry; they only stimulate and perpetuate them. No matter whether they be tried under the despotism of a French feudal monarchy or under the popular sovereignty of the American Republic, the effect is identical. They engender the same greed, the same hypocrisy, the same deception, the same contention. No abridgment of liberty that philanthropists or statesmen may deem essential to the safety of modern civilization will permit them to realize their Utopian dream. The millennium lies in another direction—in the direction of greater liberty. As society becomes more and more complex, with wants so great and varied as to pass the knowledge of any benevolent despot ruling by divine right, or any group of despots ruling by virtue of universal suffrage, individuals must be allowed more and more to control their own destiny, and to take the consequences, good or bad. Whatever government they may need to direct their countless enterprises for the supply of those wants and for the regulation of their relations with one another and with the public, must not be the product of political selection, but of industrial selection; it must not be the choice of ward bummers and complaisant citizens that register the will of an unscrupulous and irresponsible demagogue, ambitious to exercise a power that decent people refuse him, but of the men that have staked their fortunes in business, whose success or failure is dependent upon the wisdom of their action. Not the least fit, but the most fit, will then administer the affairs of the world. With the continuance of peace and industry they will not be the greatest fools or knaves, now so often charged and unhappily so often proved, but the wisest and most upright. Civilization will not then go backward, as it now threatens to do, but it will go forward, as it did with the enlargement of liberty that has been the most splendid achievement of the last four centuries of thought and effort.

The eager haste with which men of fixed notions are apt to rush to conclusions is portrayed rather than caricatured in Lord Houghton's version of the debate between Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in the British Association in 1860, which Sir E. Grant Duff quotes in his Notes from a Diary. As the story is told, Mr. Huxley asserted that the blood of guinea pigs crystallizes in rhombohedrons. "Thereupon the bishop sprang to his feet and declared that ‘such notions lead directly to atheism.’"
  1. Proceedings, Cincinnati, 1891, pp. 129, 131.
  2. Proceedings, Cleveland, 1896, p. 96.
  3. Proceedings, Washington, D. C, 1892, p. 80.
  4. Proceedings, Milwaukee, 1893, p. 71.
  5. Proceedings, Cleveland, 1896, p. 145.
  6. "Il est vrais que I'on employoit … bien de ruses pour éluder les lois ripoureuses imposees au commerce par le hanse. Les contrebandiers trouvoient dans le corps mème des marchands de I'eau des hommes assez complaisans pour être les compagnons légaux des spéculateurs étrangers, et qui, dans le fait, se contentoient de prêter leur nom, sans prendre aucun part à la spéculation. Lorsque cette fraude étoit découvert, le prévòt de Paris condamnoit les marchands à l'expulsion de la comnmnauté de hanse." (Règlemens sur les Arts et Métiers de Paris. Introduction. Par G.B. Depping, p. xxxiii.)
  7. Proceedings, Cleveland, 1896, p. 37.
  8. The Optical Journal, vol. ii. No. 8, p. 335.
  9. Ibid., vol. ii. No. 10, pp. 391-393.
  10. The Optical Journal, vol. ii, No. 4, p. 119.
  11. Proceedings, Cleveland, 1896, p. 52.
  12. Ibid., p. 58.
  13. Ibid., p. 54.
  14. The recent quarrel between the plumbers and gasfitters in New York city, which at one time threatened very serious consequences, grew out of the absurd question, decided by President Seth Low, who was made arbitrator, as to which trade had the right to put in the thermostatic attachment to radiators.
  15. So intolerant have some plumbers become that it has been proposed to pass "a law making it a criminal offense for a person to hang out a sign, handle tools, or construct any part of plumbing work." (Remarks of Mr. Hosford, of New York. Proceedings, Pittsburg, 1889, p. 105) A less intolerant but equally absurd and despotic proposition is that of the Michigan dentists. In a State Convention last year they passed a resolution in approval of an act for the appointment of a State dental examiner, whose duty should be to inspect the teeth of all children, and enforce such regulations as might be necessary to preserve the molars and bicuspids of the public. (Chicago Times-Herald, June 16, 1896.)
  16. Buffalo Courier, November 12, 1896. As further proof of the unselfish spirit that animates the plumbers of Buffalo, it may be said that for the work of connecting a range with the water pipes they charge from eight to twelve dollars. The hardware men claim that it is worth only three or four dollars.
  17. The Optical Journal, vol. ii. No. 4, p. 120.
  18. Unpublished Proceedings, Buffalo, 1894, p. 59.
  19. Ibid., pp. 55, 56.
  20. Biographie Universelle, vol. v, p. 436.
  21. Proceedings, Philadelphia, 1896, p. 91.
  22. Ibid., p. 94.
  23. Proceedings, Detroit, 1894, p. 169
  24. Proceedings, Philadelphia, 1895, p. 91.
  25. Ibid., p. 43.
  26. Proceedings, Philadelphia, 1895, pp. 43. 44. "The committee did not believe, however, that national legislation on the subject was desirable. It said: ‘In the nature of things, it is impossible to form laws which would be equally appropriate to all sections of the country; that which would be best suited to the needs of Michigan would rove most faulty for Louisiana. A system approaching perfection as applied to California would be ridiculous if applied to Maine’ (p. 43). But, as shown in the text, this sensible view was repudiated by the committee in the following year. It was crushed under what Mr. Spencer has fitly characterized as the momentum of the socialistic movement."
  27. Ibid., p.44.
  28. Proceedings, Cleveland, 1896, p. 31.