Open main menu

Chapter I The great enigma of our timesEdit

The utilization of steam and electricity, the introduction of improved processes and labour-saving machinery, the greater subdivision and grander scale of production, the wonderful facility of exchanges, have multiplied enormously the effectiveness of labour.

It was natural to expect, and it was expected, that laboursaving inventions would lighten the toil and improve the condition of the labourer; that the enormous increase in the power of producing wealth would make real poverty a thing of the past.

Could a Franklin or a Priestley have seen, in a vision of the future, the steamship taking the place of the sailing vessel, the railway train of the waggon, the reaping machine of the scythe, the threshing machine of the flail; could he have heard the throb of the engines that in obedience to human will, and for the satisfaction of human desire, exert a power greater than that of all the men and all the beasts of burden of the earth combined; could he have seen the. forest tree transformed into finished lumber - into doors, sashes, blinds, boxes or barrels, with hardly the touch of a human hand; the great workshops where boots and shoes are turned out from improved facilities of exchange and communication - sheep killed in Australia eaten fresh in England, and the order given by the London banker in the afternoon executed in San Francisco in the morning of the same day; could he have conceived of the hundred thousand improvements which these only suggest, what would he have inferred as to the social condition of mankind?

It would not have seemed like an inference. Further than the vision went it would have seemed as though he saw, and his heart would have leaped and his nerves would have thrilled, as one who from a height beholds just ahead of the thirst-stricken caravan the living gleam of rustling woods and the glint of laughing waters. Plainly, in the sight of the imagination, he would have beheld those new forces elevating society from its very foundations, lifting the very poorest above the possibility of want, exempting the very lowest from anxiety for the material needs of life. He would have seen those slaves of the lamp of knowledge taking on themselves the traditional curse, those muscles of iron and sinews of steel making the poorest labourer's life a holiday, in which every high quality and noble impulse could have scope to grow.

And out of those bounteous material conditions he would have seen arising, as necessary sequences, moral conditions realizing the golden age of which mankind has always dreamed. Youth no longer stunted and starved; age no longer harried by avarice; the man with the muck-rake drinking in the glory of the stars! Foul things fled; discord turned to harmony! For how could there be greed when all had enough? How could there be the vice, the crime, the ignorance, the brutality, that spring from poverty and the fear of poverty, exist where poverty had vanished? Who should crouch where all were freemen? Who oppress where all were peers?

More or less, vague or clear, these have been the hopes, these the dreams born of the improvements which give this wonderful era its pre-eminence. They have sunk so deeply into the popular mind as radically to change the currents of thought, to recast creeds and displace the most fundamental conceptions.

It is true that disappointment has followed disappointment. Discovery upon discovery and invention after invention have neither lessened the toil of those who most need respite nor brought plenty to the poor. But there have been so many things to which it seemed this failure could be attributed that up to our time the new faith has hardly weakened. We have better appreciated the difficulties to be overcome, but not the less trusted that the tendency of the times was to overcome them.

Now, however, we are coming into collision with facts which there can be no mistaking. From all parts of the civilized world come complaints of industrial depression; of labour condemned to involuntary idleness; of capital massed and wasting; of pecuniary distress among business men; of want and suffering and anxiety among the working classes. There is distress where large standing armies are maintained, but there is also distress where the standing armies are nominal; there is distress where protective tariffs are applied, but there is also distress where trade is nearly free; there is distress where autocratic government yet prevails, but there is also distress where political power is wholly in the hands of the people; in countries where paper is money, and in countries where gold and silver are the only currency. Evidently, beneath all such things as these, from local circumstances but are in some way or another engendered by progress itself.

This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times. It is the central fact from which spring industrial, social, and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship and philanthropy and education grapple in vain. From it come the clouds that overhang the future of the most progressive and self-reliant nations. It is the riddle that the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, which not to answer is to be destroyed. So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent.

All-important as this question is, pressing itself from every quarter painfully upon attention, it has not yet received a solution which accounts for all the facts and points to any clear and simple remedy. This is shown by the widely varying attempts to account for the industrial depressions. They exhibit not merely a divergence between vulgar notions and scientific theories, but also show that the concurrence which should exist between those who avow the same general theories breaks up upon practical questions into an anarchy of opinion.

The ideas that there is a necessary conflict between capital and labour, that machinery is an evil, that competition must be restrained and interest abolished, that wealth may be created by the issue of money, that it is the duty of the government to furnish capital or to furnish work, are rapidly making way among the great body of the people who keenly feel a hurt and are sharply conscious of a wrong. Such ideas, which bring great masses of men, the repositories of ultimate political power, under the leadership of charlatans and demagogues, are fraught with danger; but they cannot be successfully combated until political economy shall give some answer to the great question which shall be consistent with all her teachings and shall commend itself to the perceptions of the great masses of men.

It must be within the province of Political Economy to give such an answer. For Political Economy is not a set of dogmas. It is the explanation of a certain set of facts. It is the science that seeks, in the sequence of certain phenomena, to trace mutual relations and to identify cause and effect, just as the physical sciences seek to do in other sets of phenomena. It lays its foundations upon firm ground. The premises from which it makes its deductions are truths that have the highest sanction; they are axioms that we all recognize; upon them we safely base the reasoning and actions of everyday life and they may be reduced to the metaphysical expression of the physical law that motion seeks the line of least resistance - namely, that men seek to gratify their desires with the least exertion. Proceeding from a basis thus assured, its processes, which consist simply in identification and separation, have the same certainty. In this sense it is as exact a science as geometry, which, from similar truths relative to space, obtains its conclusions by similar means, and its conclusions when valid should be as self-apparent. And although in the domain of Political Economy we cannot test our theories by artificially produced combinations or conditions, as may be done in some of the other sciences, yet we can apply tests no less conclusive, by comparing societies in which different conditions exist, or in imagination by separating, combining, adding or eliminating forces or factors of known direction.

That Political Economy, as at present taught, does not explain the persistence of poverty amid advancing wealth in a manner that accords with the deep-seated perceptions of man; that the unquestionable truths that it does teach are unrelated and disjointed; that it has failed to make progress in popular thought - must be due, it seems to me, not to any inability in the science when properly pursued, but to some false step in its premises, or overlooked factor in its estimates. And as such mistakes are generally concealed by the respect paid to authority, I propose in this inquiry to take nothing for granted. I propose to beg no question, to shrink from no conclusion, but to follow truth wherever it may lead. If the conclusions that we reach run counter to our prejudices, let us not flinch; if they challenge institutions that have long been deemed wise and natural, let us not turn back.