Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/March 1911/The Social Problem




MACCHIAVELLI, discussing the choice of political ministers, grouped intellects into three classes: "one which comprehends by itself, another which appreciates what others comprehend, and a third, which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless." The last class constitutes the mass in any nation. Draper put Macchiavelli's statement into terse Saxon: "The first group thinks for itself, the second thinks as others think, the third does not think at all." Every man, familiar with "practical politics," knows well that the grouping is as true for this day, and for America, as it was for Italy four centuries ago. In preparing a list of candidates for office, the third class is ignored—it will vote straight. The second class is ignored; it consists of "independents," following slavishly some men in the first group, whose opinions they respect. Those leaders must be considered, but their followers give managers no concern.

The economist is compelled to recognize a similar grouping. His first class consists of men gifted with foresight, able to plan and to execute, able, as it were, to hold the future in the grasp of the present; men of his second class possess these powers in less degree, but lack initiative or mental poise, are apt to be found wanting at critical moments, yet are capable of much as subordinates; while those of the third class are able or willing to work in very narrow paths with little or no responsibility.

In this, as in all classification, the boundaries are indefinite and gradations exist in each group. There are many in the second who, but for some defect, would have been in the first. "He might have been a statesman, if—" or "He ought to have been at the head of great enterprises, but—" are expressions only too familiar. The third class has many who possess almost every qualification for the second, but they are unwilling to undertake serious tasks, preferring to provide for the present as well as for the future by moving along lines of least resistance. Yet the grouping as a generalization is true; it is merely the assertion that differences in men are largely innate, are due only in part to environment. If a man belonging to the first group be born among the lowest of the third, he is certain, in this country, at least, to find his place as leader in politics or in other directions long before reaching middle age. The division into "classes and masses" is not of man's making; it is part of nature's economy. Men of all groups are born in all grades of society, among the rich as among the poor, and are found among the so-called educated as well as among the illiterate. A man's place depends on his natural endowments.

The vast majority of mankind consider little beyond the present; the inherent indolence can be overcome only by compulsion. The ordinary man finds that compulsion externally in the necessity of providing for immediate needs or against threatened disaster. He may have an indefinite longing for better things, but that incites him to no legitimate effort. The extraordinary man finds compulsion within; he looks far beyond the present, and desire for noteworthy reward impels him to extraordinary exertion. In practically all cases, self-interest is the compelling motive, as much to the man who demands only his daily bread as to the man who seeks an empire. Every advance in civilization, every improvement in the moral or physical condition of mankind in modern times has been due primarily to this self interest. The initiative has come from men of the highest class, who, in executing their plans have utilized men of the other classes and all have shared in the resulting advantage,

"Born leaders" become creators. Men speak of Sir Christopher Wren as the creator of St. Paul's Cathedral because that edifice existed full-formed in his mind before a stone had been quarried for the building. The great intellects, who planned the transcontinental railroads were as truly creators; they saw full-grown a mighty empire beyond the plains, which would come into being as the result of their work but which would be impossible without it. They made not only the railroads but also the empire—they created the values. And the story is the same in the development of every great industrial enterprise.

But without aid from men belonging to the second and third classes creators of values could do little. One may have abundant strength and abundant skill, but without a spade or its equivalent he can not cultivate the ground and he may starve. And just here is the prevalent confusion of ideas. Men fail to recognize the relative importance of director and directed. Some years ago, when the writer expressed admiration for the executive ability of a successful acquaintance he was surprised to learn that the compliments were undeserved. It appeared that the success was due wholly to the "O.P.W. racket," which, being interpreted, means other people's work. This successful man merely concocted business enterprises and assigned to each lieutenant a share in carrying out the plans. Further than that he did little, aside from giving occasional advice, until the time came for division of profits, when he received the largest share. Now, the men selected to look after details had become disgusted, were determined to be servants no longer and were about to strike against the manipulator who had put them all into comfortable circumstances. The story is the same throughout. The plodding farm-hand can discover no good reason why his employer should occupy a large bed downstairs while he sleeps on a narrower, less ornate couch upstairs; the laborer, who shovels cinders in a mill-yard, knows how necessary his work is to the owner's success; he is convinced that an unfair share of the profits falls to his employer as well as to the man at the rolls. The subordinate everywhere, whatever his position may be, feels that his worth is unrecognized and that his reward is insufficient; while the man outside of all, angry because he has no share whatever, eggs on the discontented, anxious only to see some one injured and hoping that the injury will be distributed in proportion to the reward received.

It is absolutely certain that cooperation of all groups is essential to completion of great projects. Without direction by a master-mind, there could be no utilization of man's labor to the advantage of all. It would be like the superfluous heat of the sun or the force of the coastal tides, each sufficient to perform the whole mechanical work of the world, yet unused and useless because no one has conceived a method of control and application. To all intents and purposes, the energy of the vast mass of mankind is merely so much mechanical force, incapable of self-direction and without utility, unless marshaled by the constructive power of some master-mind.

But without this force the master-mind would be equally helpless. The man who conceived the transcontinental railway was fettered by physical limitations; he could plan the whole undertaking, but, in in order to complete the work within the compass of a single life, he was compelled to make use of other men's powers, mental as well as physical. Among engineers, contractors, operators, the chiefs were men of his own group; but, in each department, there was gradation in responsibility until at the bottom was the indiscriminate mass of employees, handling tools mechanically.

And remuneration, throughout, is graded to accord with the responsibility. The great reward is given to one whose physical output seems to be nothing, who has few hours at the office and many hours, apparently, for relaxation. The reward decreases as hours of physical exertion increase and the minimum is given to the laborer, whose only contribution comes from muscular expenditure. Mind, not muscle, receives the chief reward. Physical labor is a tangible thing, easily comprehended by even a stupid man; whereas proper valuation of mental labor is within the comprehension only of those competent to perform it. The hewer of wood and drawer of water are not to be blamed because they think the rewards of the higher groups disproportionately great; but their discontent is not against anything of human origin; the disproportion is due to inexorable natural law, for men are born unequal, mentally, morally and physically.

And thus it is that supply and demand determine the matter. The man in position of greatest responsibility, the vis a tergo, naturally receives the apparently disproportionate reward, because his group is so small that to replace him is difficult; he deserves the greater part of the gain, be it money or glory, because he alone makes the gain possible. He alone can determine the gradations of responsibility among his subordinates and he assigns rewards according to the relative importance of the services and the difficulty of replacing. The pay of the mere laborer is small because it is worth no more; the supply is in excess of the demand. If at any time demand be in excess of supply, inventive genius enters at once and makes fewer laborers needed, while the work is done better, more cheaply and more expeditiously. During the Civil War, agricultural laborers could not be obtained, but the land did not remain untilled. Gang ploughs, mowing, reaping and threshing machines did the work. When vast enterprises in railway and other construction were undertaken, there was insufficient supply of brainless muscle, living picks, shovels and hods, but the steam shovel, automatic cars, hod elevators and other contrivances quickly made the supply again more than equal to the demand. Experience shows that machinery is preferable to ordinary labor; it can be depended on; its strikes are brief and are overcome quickly.

Skilled mechanics recognize the conditions. Products of even the highest type of hand labor are rarely equal to those of machinery. The hand-made watch is not so good as the watch made by machine at very much less cost. Fifty years ago the man with a trade was a capitalist; but every decade has brought about a decrease in his importance. Machinery has reduced the carpenter to a mere fitter and nail driver; the cabinet maker is little more than a handler of the glue pot and screw driver. It is the same wherever one looks; the outcome is inevitable; mere manual labor will be replaced by machinery in such measure as to render even the better members of the third class barely essential. If this is to be the outcome, what about the great mass of men able or willing to work only as mere pawns in the hands of others?

This question can not be answered in a priori fashion. The elements of the problem are not hypothetical, they are cold facts and their interlocking makes the whole complex almost beyond comprehension. It is certain that at present no one student will see more than a little way toward the solution.

The problem is but one part of the greater problem, the elimination of poverty. It is true that incompetents are born in all stations, but it is especially true that poverty leads to their multiplication, while it is also true that their multiplication intensifies the curse of poverty by increasing the number of those for whom the world has decreasing need. Here the problem concerns only the United States, where the young are fleeing from the farm and are flocking to the cities, already overstocked with unskilled labor of every sort. Actually, the problem concerns the cities alone; it is practically unknown elsewhere.

Those who urge that immigration should be restricted or even prohibited are told that not all immigrants are undesirable—and that is true. Pioneer immigrants from any land are apt to be the best of their race. Those who came from northwestern Europe were, mostly, uneducated and without property; but they dared leave the home of their ancestors and braved the dangers of an unknown land; they thought for themselves and worked with high aims; they made their way and they made the United States. But a very great proportion of immigrants arriving during later years have come because others have proved that the experiment is more than safe. And in too many cases they bring with them erroneous ideals of personal liberty and false conceptions respecting relations of the government to the citizen.

It has been said that this country has need of every able-bodied immigrant who is willing to work; but this a sad misconception of the conditions. Even were the incomers agriculturists there would be room for but a small number, unless all our methods were revolutionized—a process requiring a long period. The available cheap land has been taken up—were there land remaining it would be unavailable, as few of the incomers have enough money to purchase equipment for even a small farm. The assertion that agricultural laborers are in constant demand is an error; for that demand exists only during the brief period of harvest and it is decreasing each year with increasing use of machinery. The acreage of crops is greater than ever, the crops themselves are of greater magnitude than ever before; yet the agricultural population shows steady diminution because fewer workers are needed. One must recognize that there is a limit to any country's capacity to furnish work and that the limit has been reached in this land. For years, the United States could utilize half a million newcomers each year, but its ability in that direction ceased before 1906. During the remarkable building "boom" of 1905, there was not work enough in New York city for the resident bricklayers and masons. In spite of shrewd management by trades unions, there were many skilled workmen who wandered through the streets, seeking work and finding none. Even then, in the midst of superabounding prosperity, was heard the demagogue's cry that work should be supplied by the government, that the scandal might be removed. But the influx still continues; nearly 1,000,000 immigrants arrived during the first half of 1910.

There are great dangers in unrestricted immigration. If it continue, conditions here must approximate those in the crowded areas of Europe. With increasing surplus of work-seekers, wages must decrease. Severe restriction of immigration should come and come quickly. It is not the duty of those already here to impoverish themselves in an effort to support the distressed or dissatisfied of all lands. Even the golden rule does not require that a man love his neighbor better than himself; and the Apostle Paul, that champion of generosity and self-denial, asserts that whoso careth not for his own is worse than an infidel, he has denied the faith. But restriction of immigration is not enough; the surplus population is already here; our cities are overcrowded with utterly unskilled labor—it is estimated that in New York city alone there are 100,000 unemployed clerks; the great problem is already with us.

Some maintain that the problem is purely ethical; they assert that the law of supply and demand should not be considered in connection with employment; that if employers would consider properly the interests of their employees all difficulties would soon be of the past. But this is purely academic. No doubt conditions would be improved greatly in some respects if the golden rule were the standard of conduct; but it must be remembered that selfishness is not confined to employers and that the sermon should not be preached to them alone. When man's nature has been so changed that each will endeavor to do his full duty, the time will have come for essays on ethics. But as long as the employer seeks to get as much and the employee seeks to give as little as possible for the wages, discussion of the ethical side will remain academic. In any event, it is irrelevant now; it concerns only those for whom there is work; it offers no relief to the increasing number of those for whom no work exists.

The socialist has his remedies. He tells us that all men should have equality of opportunity; that no man should control another's opportunity; that every worker should receive such wages as would enable him to live in comfort according to the American standard.

The implication that opportunities are not equal in this land is so contrary to fact that one can not believe that it is made in good faith. Hardly a quarter of a century has passed since the impoverished Russian immigrants first set foot on our shore, yet they already own much of the lower east side in Manhattan and great tracts in other boroughs. It is conceded that the conditions for some kinds of unskilled labor are terribly bad; one dollar a dozen for making shirts, sixty cents a dozen for making bedspreads, tell the story of misery; but not of slavery. Such sad conditions tell only of competition for work, that awful temptation to the selfishness of employers and of purchasers; they tell only that there are too many workers and too little work; but they do not lead to the suggestion that there should be no employers. And one must ask what would be the advantage if wages were raised to the "American" standard while work would be provided for only a part of those seeking it. Increased wages of those at work would only increase the misery of those without it, by increasing the cost of living. To be satisfied respecting the relation of wages to cost, one need only compare the prices and wages of 1896 with those of 1910.

All of these suggestions ignore some essential elements of the problem. There can be no relief so long as the more or less incompetent and improvident class remains as the preponderating element in our urban population. It is well known that at present births are more numerous in the poorer than in the better parts of cities and that the more or less dependent class increases with great rapidity. As long as this condition continues all suggestions for improvement will be worthless. The first aim must be to prevent multiplication of the class born to poverty.

When one advocates restriction of marriage, he finds himself face to face with bitter opposition based partly on sentimental notions, partly on supposed religious grounds and partly on inherited conceptions. He is told that marriage is a sacred thing; that reproduction is one of life's great duties, for God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and to replenish the earth; and he is warned that by placing restrictions on marriage the community would encourage immorality.

The reference to Adam and Eve is hardly relevant to conditions of this day. If they were the only pair, they certainly had no reason to fear for the future; the world was theirs and there was ample provision for abundant progeny. They were in excellent physical condition and, being thoroughly repentent, they were well-fitted morally for parental responsibility. The plea that marriage is a sacred thing with which the state may not meddle is unimportant. The state does meddle and does regulate; even the Mosaic civil law regulated it; and the limit to which the state may go in regulation must be determined only by what is demanded for protection of the community. The plea that marriage is a sacred thing is made by the same pleaders who praise marriage as preventing "immorality"—not a very exalted conception of the purpose of marriage. But judging from reports of surgeons, there is no great room. for increase of the vice, euphemistically termed "immorality"; but even if there were, the community would not be responsible for the result, any more than it is responsible for burglary and theft because it recognizes individual ownership of property. On the other hand, by permitting practically unrestricted marriage, it is guilty of encouraging still greater evil, the growth of a shiftless, feeble class with tendency to criminal ways and with prospect of little happiness.

Much has been said and written recently in favor of large families and the cry is against race suicide. One is told that the early settlers of this land had large families and that the children were strong, physically and mentally. But they were a fine stock, and, like all pioneers, they were the best of their race—and natural selection came to their aid. Sheltered in only too well-ventilated houses and exposed to a severe climate, the feeble perished in infancy, the strong survived. No such selection exists in the class under consideration, which, unfortunately, lacks the original physique. More than that. Pure food laws, sewerage, proper construction of houses, sanitary regulations and the rest antagonize the operations of natural laws, whereby the sins of the parents are visited upon the children. Those who, under former conditions, would have died in infancy now survive the perils of the earliest years, in increasing proportions reach maturity, marry and reproduce themselves—a menace to the health and well-being of the community. The reports of surgeons employed by the New York Board of Education prove that a great part of the children in some portions of the city suffer from congenital defects, which, uncorrected by surgical treatment, lead to mental as well as moral deficiency; while teachers have discovered that much of the mental obtuseness observed in pupils is due to lack of proper nourishment. Quality, not quantity is all important in a population. It is said that a nation with stationary or decreasing population is in decadence and much ado has been made over the sad condition of France. Yet the thoughtful Frenchman is prompt to remark that he prefers 35,000,000 healthy, well-fed and contented Frenchmen to 100,000,000 of wretched Russians. It is true that in France war material is not increasing so rapidly as in some other lands; but the civilized world is outgrowing the notion that men should be bred as horses, to be killed in settlement of disputes which do not concern them.

It may be well enough for wandering savages, such as the Australian aborigines, to multiply heedlessly like rabbits and weeds, but it is not well enough in civilized lands where masses congregate in cities and the food problem becomes complex. Philanthropists, as they think themselves, would not prevent the multiplication of children, for that is a natural right of which man may not be deprived, even though he can not provide food for his offspring. The "cry of the child" is made the basis of bitter attacks on the constitution of society and demands are made that the state, whatever that may mean, should not only protect but also provide for needy children. In recent months, the pensioning of mothers left with children has been urged as the community's duty. An association for aid of the poor lately published in its annual report the picture of a despairing man sitting by the bedside of his wife and her newly born infant, with the query below, "And what will he do with the sixth?" A missionary out west with seven children and a salary of $400 a year, awakened the deep sympathy of a women's missionary society. But the question arises at once and it will not down. Why should that helpless poverty-stricken man and wife have had a sixth? Why should that poverty-stricken home missionary have had seven? More than that—why should either of them have had any?

Philanthropic work, in endeavoring to ameliorate the pangs of poverty, begins at the wrong end; instead of trying to abolish poverty, it labors incessantly to increase it and its burdens. The improvident class procreates recklessly and would-be philanthropists encourage the folly. They are like men in a plague-stricken town, who endeavor to ease the pain of sufferers but refuse to recognize and to remove the sources of disease. Tenements are made better every year to protect the careless against their own negligence; public schools are inspected that contagious diseases may be checked; vaccination is compulsory and free; great dispensaries provide free treatment for all comers; women in confinement have free medical attendance and diet kitchens provide proper food for them; infants are cared for in day nurseries for a nominal sum that the mothers may go out to work; education, even professional education is offered to all, without cost. There is free treatment in the schools for children with diseases of the throat, nose and ears; effort has been made to secure in the New York schools free luncheons, free spectacles and free dental service for children who appear to need them; and it is reported that in the Chicago schools a fair beginning has been made, in that food for hungry children is provided at nominal cost.

Everything within the range of possibility has been suggested or attempted in order to free the improvident from all sense of responsibility for their offspring. Yet those who are guilty of this sin are the same with those who regale the community with illustrated lectures on the horrors of the slums. Philanthropy should begin its work at the other end; instead of endeavoring to alleviate the condition it should endeavor to abolish it. Instead of merely lamenting the fact that sewing-women's wages are so pitifully low, it should try to prevent increase of competitors for work, that wages may be better for the next generation. Instead of encouraging heedless procreation, its efforts should be to encourage restriction. The duty of parents to children should be made plain to those who are unwilling to recognize them; and indiscriminate free medical treatment should be abolished. Laws against child labor should be made more stringent and should be enforced rigorously; farming out of children should be made impossible. When it has been discovered that the community will not bear the expense there will be hesitation, and marriage of those without prospect of subsistence will be less frequent. Marriage of persons mentally or physically defective should be illegal and increase of the criminal or vicious should be made impossible by aid of the surgeon. With smaller families, with better surroundings, all could be well fed and conditions favoring degeneracy in the young would be reduced to the minimum. This is not to say that only those in independent circumstances should marry; with constantly improving sanitary conditions everywhere and with work for all competent to perform it, the average expectation of life for a sound man would be itself a large capital.

It is true that restriction of immigration and severe regulation of marriage would not abolish poverty; the poor will be with us alway. Disease and disaster are liable to befal the best of men; temperamental differences will continue and men and women without good sense will be found everywhere. The dependent and vicious class will not disappear while the earth lasts. But the community would have done its best in one direction, at least, to prevent any but that unavoidable poverty, which demands not only sympathy but also beneficence.