Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/June 1898/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


THERE are some advocates of socialism who sum up their arguments against the existing social régime by affirming that competition is the direct negation of that rule of conduct which enjoins upon us to do unto others as we would that they should do unto us. The issue is a simple one and deserves a brief discussion.

Let us first consider the meaning and scope of the principle of action to which appeal is made. It is apparent, at the first glance, that it is meant to prohibit and exclude acts of wrongdoing and aggression which, if applied to ourselves, we should feel disposed to resent and if possible to resist. Of a large class of such acts the law takes cognizance, making itself the protector and avenger of those who have suffered injury. But if we take a number of typical cases of competition we shall see that they involve no aggression whatever and justify no resentment. Nearly all sports, to begin with, are competitive; but the winning of a game, provided it is done by fair means, is no violation of the golden rule. True, the loser wanted to win, but he did not want his opponent to let him win. All that can be demanded or desired of opponents in such a case is that they shall play honorably and according to the rules of the game. If the conquered party cherishes any rancorous feelings against the conqueror for having beaten him in fair play, that simply puts him wrong with the golden rule, because he would not have wished such feelings to be cherished against him had he been successful.

From play we pass to the business of life. Two firms tender for a contract; two architects submit plans for a building; two teachers apply for a situation; two politicians contest the same constituency; two dealers carry on business in the same neighborhood. The successful firm, the successful architect, the successful applicant, the successful candidate, the more successful of the two dealers—none of these have done any wrong by the mere fact of his success, nor can he be said to have gone counter to any demand made upon him openly or tacitly by his competitors, unless he has gained his point by underhand or otherwise unfair means. Explore the breast of each competitor and what wish do you find formulated there? A wish to succeed. That of course, but what wish as regards the action of other men? Is it a wish that the contract, situation, etc., should be given to him on his own terms, without competition or without consideration of the wishes or interests of others? Such a wish would itself be too obvious a violation of the golden rule to call for discussion; so we are still compelled to ask. What is that wish in the mind of a given individual which could impose itself as a rule of action on others? The more we think of it the more clearly and irresistibly it appears that the only demand any one can make possessing the least character of moral authority is a demand for justice, for fair dealing. In the cases above supposed every demand which an individual could avow would be met by fair dealing on the part of his competitors and of those upon whom the award depended.

But there should not be any competition at all, the socialist will reply; competition is itself immoral. Again, let us get close to the facts. Competition, if we consider it as a word, is an abstract noun—so the grammarians used to tell us—and abstract nouns can not be accused of immorality. If we consider it as a thing, then it is a form of human action, and we must throw the immorality back on the men who practice it. Now, in what individual action does the immorality begin? Let us, if possible, get at the fons et origo mali. A certain household requires a domestic servant. Is it wrong to decide between the applicants according to their merits? Is it wrong to reject an inefficient person in favor of an efficient? A man wants a tutor for his boys. Is it wrong to insist on proofs of scholarship and character? A merchant wants a bookkeeper. May he be allowed to prefer one who comes to him with good recommendations to one who has none, and whose appearance and manner are not in his favor? If such things as these are permissible, we have the outlines of competition clearly traced; yet is there anything immoral in assigning a task, with its accompanying reward, to the person best qualified to perform it? But the world, it will perhaps be contended, should not be arranged in such a way as to allow two persons to want the same thing. Possibly, if some of our socialist friends could "grasp this sorry scheme of things entire" they might do some notable "remolding"; but whether they would really advance human happiness is quite an open question. Zola somewhere says that if they had their way they would make the very dogs howl with despair; but, however that may be, it is evidently difficult to fix the responsibility for competition on any power less general than that which made the world.

The golden rule (to get back to it) bids us do to others as we would be done by. The rule is laid down for all alike, and, strictly speaking, no one is entitled to claim the benefit of it who is disregarding it in his own practice. The man who shuns honest industry is not doing as he would be done by; he wishes others to work that he may eat. Yet, if we mistake not, the golden rule is often invoked on behalf of those who are systematic viola tors of it, whose whole lives are an injury to society. No moral rule could ever have been intended to place us at the mercy of one another's desires, and in the case of this particular precept we are required to seek within ourselves, and not simply in the desires of others, the law we are to follow. It is what we would that men should do to us that we are to do to them. The responsibility is thus thrown upon us of determining the demands which, in given circumstances, we would make—i. e., ought to make—of other men. Which of us, then, would say, "We demand that, whenever we want a thing, we shall get it, no matter what claims others may have, or think they have, to the same thing"; or, We demand that whatever we ask for we shall get, independently of merit or qualification on our part"? If such demands need only to be formulated in order to be seen to be absurd, the conclusion comes home to us again with force that the only demand we can really make is one for fair play and justice.

There is nothing wrong with competition as such, for it is merely a necessary form of sifting with a view to obtaining a proper adjustment of each man to his place in life. That it works perfectly to that end, no one would care to pretend; but it has that end in view, and accomplishes it to a measurable extent. Without competition in some form there would be no adaptation, and society would relapse into a state of chaos. If there is adaptation to-day throughout the whole range of the organic world, it is because competition has been at work from the very beginning of things. It is not necessary to deny that competition has been and is attended by many evils; but it will be found on examination that these evils are generally of a character to impair the competition and render it more or less illusory. The trouble in these cases is not with the principle of competition, but with the frauds of one kind or another by which it has been vitiated—acts that are in direct violation of the golden rule, because they are such as no man would wish to have perpetrated on himself. As applied to competition, the golden rule demands an honorable observance of the conditions, expressed and implied, of every competition: it requires that every competitor shall do by every other as he would himself be done by.

Apart, however, from fraudulent competition it may be admitted that in some cases parties compete who might well refrain from doing so. There is a passage in Mr. Spencer's Principles of Morality (vol. ii, page 282) which bears directly on this point. "In its application," he says, "to cases of this kind the popular maxim, 'Live and let live,' may be accepted as embodying a truth. Any one who, by command of great capital or superior business capacity, is enabled to beat others who carry on the same business, is enjoined by the principle of negative beneficence to restrain his business activities when his own wants and those of his belongings have been abundantly filled, so that others, occupied as he is, may fulfill their wants also, though in smaller measure." There is something, however, to be said on behalf of those who do not "restrain their business activities" at the point mentioned by Mr. Spencer. In the first place, the capitalist need not waste his money on senseless luxury and ostentation, but may employ it in judicious enterprises for the general good. In the second place, by staying in business he gives the public the benefit of his superior methods, instead of leaving the field to those who, on the whole, would not, it may be assumed, carry on business so satisfactorily—possibly not deal as generously or humanely with the persons whom they employ as he is able to do with those whom he employs. Evidently, it is very difficult to draw a line at the exact point where a given individual should withdraw from competition. The question for the individual concerned is how he can best discharge his obligations to society—how he can do most good to society—and it seems to us that, in some cases at least, this requirement would most fully be met by his continuing to direct the business which he has organized on a sound basis, and is carrying on to the satisfaction and benefit of a large portion of the public. The golden rule—the spirit of it, at least—is not violated so long as, to the best of a man's judgment, what he does is, in the widest sense, for the public good. We fail, therefore, to find any radical contradiction, or indeed any contradiction at all, between the principle of competition and the maxim to which we have so often referred. We have only to think for one moment of what the world would be in the complete absence of competition—in other words, in the absence of. all means for selecting the fit and rejecting the unfit or the less fit—in order to see that competition in itself is not and can not be an evil. That evils attach themselves to it signifies nothing more than that human society is as yet imperfect.


A good illustration of the true scientific temper is furnished in some extracts from the correspondence of James Watt given by Prof. T. E. Thorpe in the Watt memorial lecture delivered by him not many weeks ago. Watt and Cavendish, toward the end of the last century, had both been experimenting and theorizing upon the composition of water. A friend writing to Watt gave him an extract from a paper by Cavendish, and hinted, unjustly, that the latter was making unacknowledged use of Watt's work. The latter's reply was worthy of a true man of science: "On the slight glance I have been able to give to your extract of the paper, I think his theory very different from mine; which of the two is the right one I can not say; his is more likely to be so, as he has made many more experiments and consequently has more facts to argue upon." Again the great discoverer refers to his general diffidence of character. "I am diffident," he says, "because I am seldom certain I am in the right, and because I pay respect to the opinions of others where I think they may merit it." If Science was always served in this spirit, she would have no reason to complain of her devotees, nor would there be any justification for the opposition which the latter, it must be allowed, sometimes excite.

What is principally wanted in the domain of scientific inquiry, as everywhere else, is the spirit of justice. That spirit will prevent a man from appropriating without acknowledgment the labors of others, and also from looking with disfavor on the work of others because it does not tend to support some theory to which he is personally wedded. Men worthy of the scientific calling will recognize that truth is above all, that it is a privilege and an honor to be engaged in its service, and that to make self-glorification the chief end of one's labors is to be unfaithful to the cause of truth and to bring reproach on the profession of science. The scientific world is to be congratulated, upon the general freedom from personal aims and views which its representative men display. The example of Darwin in this respect was of inestimable value. Here was a man engaged in working out a theory of the utmost importance, and. after all abatements are made, of the highest originality. If any man could have been pardoned for being insensible to the objections raised to his theory, or to the weight which might properly be claimed for the opposite views of others, it was he. Yet no man was ever more ready to have his work criticised, no man ever tried with more obvious sincerity to place himself at the point of view of his critics so that he might see the full force of what they had to urge. We hardly think we are mistaken in believing that scientific controversy has shown less tendency to be acrimonious, and a stronger tendency to be just and generous, since the publication of Darwin's Life and Letters.

In these troublous times of contending factions and international jealousies, the very highest service to society will be rendered by that body of men, whoever they may be, who shall most signally exhibit in their words and conduct a love for truth and a desire for justice; who shall stand out most resolutely against the shibboleths of party and the clamors of excited multitudes; who shall most effectively represent and uphold the permanent and universal interests of humanity against the narrower views of national self-love or the gratification of ephemeral passions. If the question is asked, Who shall these he? we answer that we know none fitter to render this service to society and the world than the true followers of science everywhere. We hope and trust they will recognize their mission and all its vast possibilities.


If the Dreyfus incident, coupled with the Zola trial, has made plain the fact that France is a military despotism pure and simple, it has not been without value. Because it has a constitution, a president, a legislature elected by universal suffrage, and other simulations of republican institutions, most people, particularly in the United States, have thought it a republic worthy of their sympathy. How often have they congratulated it upon its resistance to the allurements of the one-man power and its check to the advent of some military hero like MacMahon or Boulanger to the seat of an absolute executive! The spectacle has led some of them, especially gifted with the power of prophecy, to declare that free institutions have become so firmly established in France that the restoration of the monarchy can never occur.

But persons able to look beyond the form of government, and to detect the substance that it really represents, know full well that free institutions, properly speaking, have not existed in France for several hundred years. While the Revolution made sad havoc with some of the most characteristic features of the old régime, it did not vouchsafe the French people the personal freedom, the essence of free institutions, with which their ill-informed friends in this country have credited them. During the long peace that preceded that appalling event, a great change, as may be seen in De Tocqueville's masterly study of that period, had come over the pitiless despotism that culminated under the reign of Louis XIV. To be sure, the laws were just as ferocious as ever, but they were not enforced with the old-time vigor. The governing classes were not so cruelly indifferent to the classes governed. Indeed, it seemed as if France might as easily and as directly as England had done after the Revolution of 1688 pass under a constitutional régime and its people become as free and prosperous as those of its neighbor across the channel.

But this piece of good fortune was not destined to come to that most unhappy country. The anarchy of the Revolution not only destroyed the work of the beneficent influences that promised a complete social and political regeneration, but riveted upon the French people a despotism even more intolerable in some respects than that from which they had escaped. Called upon to restore order and thus prevent the threatened dissolution of society. Napoleon made use of all those agencies so natural and congenial to despots. Instead of trying to establish those institutions that would enable his countrymen to govern themselves, he established those institutions only that would enable him to govern them. He felt that they had no more capacity for self government than children. He knew that if he could tickle their fancy with the thought that they were again the dominant power in Europe they would not care whether they were governed from Paris, as under the old régime, or by their own local assemblies, as had been the case before the growth of the monarchy had deprived them of every semblance of liberty. The justification of his contemptuous opinion of them is to be found in the maintenance to this day of the administrative and judicial despotism that he created—a despotism that Mr. Bodley, the latest and ablest writer on France, believes to be indispensable to their welfare.

Severe as this judgment is, there is evidence on every hand to warrant it. A people fit for freedom would not endure for a moment the crushing bureaucratic system that regulates almost every activity of the Frenchman from the cradle to the grave and helps to saddle him with a burden of taxation greater even than that of the old monarchy. They would destroy at once a judicial system based upon the atrocious assumption that a man is guilty until his innocence has been established. The secret proceedings by which Dreyfus was convicted would be repugnant beyond their endurance. Were they not animated by the spirit that characterizes the victims of despotism they would never maintain a great standing army for the sole purpose of revanche nor permit it to dictate to them what the interests of the state require. The punishment of a man like Zola, whose sole offense is that he has dared to beard the dragon of militarism, and lift up his voice in behalf of a man that he believes to be most cruelly wronged, would appeal to their chivalrous sentiments, and instead of trying to mob him they would side with him against the despotism that is demoralizing and crushing them. Finally, an alliance with a power so hostile to every form of freedom as Russia would seem to them an unspeakable disgrace if not a crime against civilization.

In the face of such evidence as this of the unfitness of Frenchmen for freedom, evidence that has extorted from Jules Lemaître the confession that he is almost ashamed to belong to France, it is impossible to doubt the justice of Mr. Bodley's verdict. It is impossible also to believe that anything better is in store for France as long as it is possessed of the militant spirit and insists upon the maintenance of a great standing army to avenge itself upon Germany. Both are absolutely incompatible with freedom and civilized sentiments, and are certain to lead sooner or later to the appearance of another Napoleon to repress the discontent and despair bred of the hard conditions that invariably flow from despotism and onorous taxation. We believe that the only hope for France lies in the complete disbandment of its army, the discontinuance of its efforts to establish a colonial empire, to which few Frenchmen ever go except to get office, the gradual diminution of its bureaucratic despotism, and the growth of personal liberty and private initiative. A continuance of its present policy will exhaust its resources, demoralize its people, and finally make them as easy a prey to a vigorous invader as the unhappy inhabitants of the Celestial Empire.