Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/September 1898/Editor's Table
WE print in our correspondence column a courteous letter from Mr. David J. Lewis, of Cumberland, Md., who writes to say that, though a socialist, he approves of the position taken in our recent article on Competition and the Golden Rule, and that modern socialism, by which he understands the replacing of privately owned by publicly owned capital in the production of wealth, does not involve the cessation of competition. This, of course, is a question which we did not raise in the article referred to: we merely sought to meet the a priori objection to competition contained in the declaration often made that, if the Golden Rule is right, competition must be wrong. We are quite prepared to believe that competition will prove to be an indestructible element of human life, and that, though temporarily driven out by the pitchfork of socialistic legislation, it will, like Nature, fly back at the first chance.
Our correspondent's position, we confess, is one which we find it a little difficult to understand. He speaks of the social ownership of capital and the elimination of rent, interest, and profit, but says that these I things would not do away with the wage system, or with the gaining of immensely more money by the more capable members of the community than by the less capable. There will be Edisons under the new system who, just as at present, will have vast advantages over then "poorly equipped competitors." Only—this we infer—they will have to work strictly for wages, and can never exploit their own inventions or become employers of labor. When the people take possession of the private capital now employed in industry and commerce, they will simply complete that emancipation, the first step in which was to displace monarchical and aristocratic by democratic institutions. Henceforth capital will never compete with capital, because all capital will be under one ownership; but individuals will go on competing with individuals for the largest shares obtainable from the common fund.
All this may make a harmonious system in the mind of our correspondent, but to us it presents great incongruities. We find it difficult to realize the Edisons in harness; and we fear it might not be easy to persuade the "poorly equipped moral, mental, or physical competitors" to whom he refers to be satisfied with relatively inferior wages. When all are fed from the same trough, it will require much grace to be content with less than an average share. But perhaps grace will much more abound under the socialistic régime than it does amid the bustle and strife of our present system. There are, however, some special points to be noticed in connection with our correspondent's theory. We can not see that the parallel between the establishment of democracy and the suppression of private capital holds good. A government of any kind is either carried on in the interest of the people or it is not. If it is, and if it has not yet assumed a democratic form, the people are entitled, when the proper moment has come, to say: We are quite capable of managing this business of government ourselves, through representatives whom we shall freely elect; and we release you—kings, potentates, nobles—from all further responsibility on our behalf. "If it is not carried on in the interest of the people, then it is a mere tyranny, against which the people have a right to rebel the moment they feel strong enough to do so. In seizing the government they are seizing that which can not belong by right to any private individual. The case is altogether different when it comes to seizing capital. Without aiming at a too scientific definition, we may say that capital is the unexpended portion of each person's earnings. He who takes that takes what the individual has a natural right to hold and to employ. It is not customary to argue that, because the time comes when a young man assumes the direction of his own actions, and no longer trusts implicitly to paternal advice, he should, to complete his emancipation, proceed to possess himself of the old gentleman's worldly means. Yet socialists tell us that political emancipation should logically be followed by the appropriation of private capital.
To take another point. There is waste of capital involved, no doubt, in many forms of competition; but the régime of competition, or, as we would say, of freedom, is on the whole favorable in the highest degree both to the production and to the conservation of capital; seeing that the interests and the energies of all are constantly engaged for both objects. To be sure, there is clashing of interests here and there; but every one is on the alert to do his best for that portion of capital which he individually holds; and, as a result, capital is continually on the increase. The proof, if proof were needed, is found in the fact that the rate of interest tends continually to fall while the rate of wages tends to rise. Is it at all certain that under a socialistic management of capital the same phenomena would be witnessed? Is it certain that the energy activity, and resource of the workers of the community would stand at the same level at which they do to-day? He who says that they would, affirms that of which he has no knowledge, and which the experience of the world so far can not be said to render probable.
What governments do under present conditions is to take from the citizens a portion of their earnings to expend upon works in which the interest of all is concerned, and which require to be carried out with absolute uniformity of principle and method. Foremost in importance among the necessary works of government is the administration of justice, including the protection of life and property. Law must be the voice of the community; individuals can not be left to make it or apply it for themselves. Closely following upon the necessity for common laws is the necessity for common action ia various matters pertaining to the good order and health of the community. A true test of that which belongs to the sphere of government and that which belongs to the sphere of individual action lies in the essentially restrictive character of governmental action. Government says, "Thou shalt not ——"; but when we come to the proper sphere of individual liberty, we find numberless openings for positive constructive action. Government does not say, "Thou shalt go to church"; but individual enterprise gives us churches to go to if we feel so disposed. Even in the matter of education the mandate of Government is not so much "Thou shalt be educated" as "Thou shalt not through ignorance be a menace to society." If the Government says, "Thou shalt be vaccinated," the real meaning is, "Thou shalt not become a means of spreading infectious disease."
It is quite true that the state in our time manifests a disposition to betake itself to many lines of constructive work; but how far, in doing so, it makes a profitable use of the capital it disposes of—capital taken in taxes from the free industry of the country—we are not prepared to say; though we doubt much whether in any case the balance sheet is a favorable one. With large means at their command it is easy for public functionaries to show material results of a more or less imposing kind; but what we do not see is the amount of individual initiative and resourcefulness which the rival activity of the state obscures and suppresses. The post office is often pointed to as a very beneficent form of state activity; but it is certain that it is not an illustration of the profitable employment of capital.
Were all the functions of modern life carried on upon similar financial principles, there would be much more poverty in the land than there is. Tlie free industry of the country amasses capital upon which the Government draws, and, so long as industry is in the main free, the Government can afford to commit many follies without inflicting fatal evil on the community; but tie up industry in socialistic bonds, and many singular and undesirable results might follow.
We do not feel much encouraged, therefore, by the assurance our correspondent gives that, under socialism, individual competition would still flourish, and that exceptional talents would still reap exceptional rewards. We are not specially interested in competition as such, nor do we sympathize any more with the man of exceptional than with the man of ordinary ability. What we are interested in is the freedom of the individual citizen to use, and develop, and profit by, and render profitable to others, such natural faculties as he may possess to the utmost extent. What we are also interested in is the free development of the moral life of the community, under the action of a growing sense of responsibility of man to man. We do not want stereotyped characters or enforced virtues; we want men to grow into a recognition of their duties to one another, and we believe they will do so if the political power will only keep its hands off matters that do not belong to it. There is no agency more effectual in repressing the better instincts of the human heart than compulsion or the threat of compulsion; and the air to-day is full of threats of compulsion. We are not doing good or getting good fast enough, and a lot of extra-good people—as they think themselves—are going to help forward our moral education by various legislative measures. Now the man who is going to be made good by an act of the legislature does not in general like the prospect, and he is very apt to harden his heart against the operation. That is why the more truly moral the law is, the more it is apt to fail of its object. As to capital, the possession of it by an individual is a great responsibility, and one that for the most part is not as fully recognized as it ought to be; but we should much prefer to trust to a growing moralization of public opinion in the matter than rashly to transfer all capital to the state, and rely for its fructification and wise distribution on the disinterested statesmanship of our representative bodies.
Close inspection of Lord Salisbury's deliverance before the Primrose League on living and dying nations discloses a want of scientific precision. Describing the living nations, he said: "You have great countries of enormous power, growing in power every year, growing in wealth, growing in dominion, growing in the perfection of their organization. Railways have given them the power to concentrate upon any one point the whole military force of their population, and to assemble armies of a magnitude and power never dreamed of in the generations that have gone by. Science has placed in the hands of those armies weapons ever growing in the efficiency of their destruction, and therefore adding to the power, fearfully to the power, of those who have the opportunity of using them." Referring to the dying nations, he said: "In these states disorganization and decay are advancing almost as fast as concentration and increasing power are advancing in the living nations that stand beside them. Decade after decade they are weaker, poorer, and less provided with leading men or institutions in which they can trust. The society—and official society, the administration—is a mass of corruption, so that there is no firm ground on which any hope of reform or restoration could be based, and in their various degrees they are presenting a terrible picture to the more enlightened portion of the world." The British premier himself did not cite any examples in illustration of this classification. His commentators, however, exercised no such restraint. They were sure that among the dying nations we should place Turkey, China, and Spain, and among the living, that is, the growing—Russia, Germany, France, England, and the United States. But, like the classification of Lord Salisbury, such a list confounds the growth of military power with the growth of industrial and moral power. It attributes to dying nations traits characteristic of living nations, and, vice versa, traits attributed to living nations belong to dying nations.
But before more trustworthy tests can be applied it is needful to ascertain what constitutes growth and what constitutes death. Happily, the law of evolution offers an easy solution of this question. Without being too precise, growth, according to that law, signifies, first, an increase of mass; and, second, such a rearrangement of matter and motion as to effect a more perfect adjustment of means to ends. But the attainment of this object involves a change of the mass from a homogeneous condition to a heterogeneous one and from an indefiniteness and incoherency of parts to definiteness and coherency. Decay, on the other hand, means a loss of mass, and such a rearrangement of matter and motion as to produce a diminished adaptation of means to ends. With the change from heterogeneity to homogeneity, the parts become less and less definite and coherent. If these abstract terms of general evolution be converted into the concrete terms of social evolution, we get a scientific conception of Lord Salisbury's taking phrase. A growing society is one where the population is increasing in numbers, and each individual finds the conditions of existence constantly bettered. The simple relations of primitive life are changed into the complex relations of civilized life. All the social organs required to meet every want and taste spring into existence. Instead of being limited to plunder, or the chase, or pastoral pursuits, human activity assumes the countless forms of modern industry. But while society is thus becoming more heterogeneous, its parts are becoming more definite and coherent. To increase the efficiency of their labor, people devote themselves to some particular pursuit. At the same time they become to an increasing degree dependent upon one another; for, in order to get what they want, they must exchange with one another the products of their toil. Where evolution is thus permitted to operate freely, the most perfect adaptation of society to the conditions of existence takes place, and the greatest possible degree of happiness is attained. In a decadent society this process is reversed. Because of the tyranny of custom, which forbids social change and adaptation, or in consequence of the Government's usurpation of functions that do not belong to it, which has the same fatal effect, people cease to be free to do as they please, and to live the life that seems to them best. Robbed by the crushing taxation necessary to sustain the bureaucratic parasites that enforce the rules and regulations throttling industry, they become discouraged, and, abandoning the honest pursuits of peace, they become beggars or brigands. Under these conditions, society becomes disorganized, and eventually disappears. As in Mesopotamia and other parts of Asia, once rich and populous, the country reverts to solitude.
We are now in a position to see that modern societies are not in a condition that permits of Lord Salisbury's easy classification. Decadent as some of them are in many respects, it is by no means certain that they have reached the limits of evolution and entered upon a career of dissolution. Evolving with great rapidity as others are, it is by no means certain that they are not pursuing a course that will bring them to ruin, Turkey is probably the most decadent of all. But it is not because of her loss of territory; it is because of her rigid social structure, her incapacity to adopt the ideas and institutions of progressive societies, and her failure to protect her people from the rapacity of officials and brigands. Although less militant, China suffers in a like manner. Besides the tyranny of custom, which represses the activity of the individual and thwarts social evolution, there is the tyranny of a powerful and corrupt bureaucracy. In consequence of both, ideas and institutions are antiquated, industry is in a primitive state, and the rewards of toil are very small. Nevertheless there are signs of growth. Railroads and telegraphs are being introduced, quickening the circulation of products and ideas. A movement is afoot to improve industrial methods and the administration of the government. Compared with Turkey and China, Spain is a progressive state. Within the last century a considerable increase in population has occurred. During the same period, freedom, the essential condition of growth, has made many conquests. The Inquisition has been abolished. Religious toleration, with a free press and free speech, has been established. The right of association has been recognized. The most onerous and odious of the industrial regulations of centuries of despotism have been repealed. Indeed, the conditions of social evolution are more favorable in Spain than in any of the great continental countries. To be sure, she has, like Russia, Germany, France, and Italy, a powerful and corrupt bureaucratic system; but she does not have to bear the burdens of an immense standing army, nor is she subjected to its centralizing and demoralizing influences. Unlike Russia and Germany, she does not have a ruler that seeks to impose his will upon her people, and to force them to live in disregard of their wishes. The bitter class hatreds born of militancy do not exist in Spain that exist in Finance. Although the Spanish population is poor, it has not, as in Italy, been driven by misgovernment and destitution to brigandage and insurrection.
While it can not be denied that England and the United States are nations in a state of rapid evolution, their evolution is not taking place in the way usually supposed. It is not by acquisitions of foreign territory that nations grow great and powerful. Such acquisitions may be signs of decay, and, like certain tumors, hasten death. If they are due to the militant impulse—the progenitor of the new colonies of France and Germany—and require standing armies to keep them in subjection, causing a heavy drain upon the resources of the mother country, they are a source of weakness. What constitutes the greatness of England and the United States is the increase of their populations, the capacity of these populations for private initiative, the development of their resources, the discovery of new methods of production, the improvement of old methods of distribution, the generous rewards bestowed upon toil, the deference shown for the rights of others—in a word, the more perfect adjustment of life to the conditions of existence. Were it not for a change of policy that has occurred in both countries, this adjustment would continue until the soil had been forced to yield the largest product and the population had reached its maximum in numbers, industrial skill, and social amelioration. But this change is destroying freedom; it is checking social mobility; it is increasing the functions and regulations of government; it is adding to the army of militant and bureaucratic parasites; it is preventing labor from receiving its highest reward and the individual from attaining his greatest happiness; to sum up, it is bringing about just such a state as is deplored in Turkey and China and working the ruin of Italy and France. The money taken from the individual and spent in ways not his own has reached an enormous sum, and is constantly increasing. The discontent and animosity growing out of this aggression are increasing in a like degree, taking the form of labor insurrections, agitations for the depreciation of the currency, and the robbery of the rich under the cover of inquisitorial and confiscatory taxes in support of schemes for the benefit of the poor. In the United States more particularly, there has been a rapid development of the militant spirit, which demands the adoption of an imperial policy of aggression and colonial expansion, the construction of a great navy, the organization of a large standing army, and the erection of extensive coast fortifications. But unproductive activity of this kind will make life harder, provoke more discontent, and possibly lead to the same outbursts that have taken place in Italy. Here, as elsewhere, such occurrences will be the opportunity for the military despot, and with him will come the repression that makes further social evolution difficult or impossible.