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Progress and Poverty (George)/Chapter XV

Chapter XV Examination of some proposed remediesEdit

The remedy to which our conclusions point is at once radical and simple - so radical that, on the one side, it will not be fairly considered so long as any faith remains in the efficacy of less caustic measures; so simple that, on the other side, its real efficacy and comprehensiveness are likely to be overlooked, until the effect of more elaborate measures is estimated. There are many persons who still retain a comfortable belief that material progress will ultimately extirpate poverty, and there are many who look to prudential restraint upon the increase of population as the most efficacious means; but the fallacy of these views has already been sufficiently shown.

Let us now consider what may be hoped for from: 1. Greater economy in government; 2. Improved habits of industry and thrift and better education of the working classes; 3. Combinations of workmen for the advance of wages; 4. Cooperation of labour and capital; 5. Governmental direction and interference; 6. A more general distribution of land.

Greater economy in governmentEdit

Social distress is largely attributed to the immense burdens that existing governments impose - the great debts, the military and naval establishments, the extravagance that is characteristic of republican as well as of monarchical rulers, and especially characteristic of the administration of great cities. Now there seems to be an evident connection between the immense sums thus taken from the people and the privations of the lower classes, and it is upon a superficial view natural to suppose that a reduction in the enormous burdens thus uselessly imposed would make it easier for the poorest to get a living. But a consideration of the matter in the light of the economic principles heretofore traced out will show that this would not be the effect. A reduction in the amount taken from the aggregate produce of a community by taxation would be simply equivalent to an increase in the power of net production. It would in effect add to the productive power of labour just as do the increasing density of population and improvement in the arts. And as the advantage in the one case goes, and must go, to the owners of land in increased rent, so would the advantage in the other.

The condition of those who live by their labour would ultimately not be improved. A dim consciousness of this pervades the masses. Those who have nothing but their labour care little about the prodigality of government, and in many cases are disposed to look upon it as a good thing - "furnishing employment," or "putting money in circulation." Let me be clearly understood. I do not say that governmental economy is not desirable, but simply that reduction in the expenses of government can have no direct effect in extirpating poverty and increasing wages, so long as land is monopolized.

Although this is true, yet even with sole reference to the interests of the lowest class no effort should be spared to keep down useless expenditures. The more complex and extravagant government becomes, the more it becomes a power distinct from and independent of the people, the greater is the difficulty of bringing questions of real public policy to a popular decision. So great is the amount of money in politics, so large are the personal interests involved, that the average voter with his prejudices, party feelings and general notions, gives but little consideration to the fundamental questions of government. Were this not the case, so many hoary abuses could not have survived nor could so many new ones have been added. Anything that tends to make government simple and inexpensive tends to put it under control of the people and to bring questions of real importance to the front. But no reduction in the expenses of government can of itself cure or mitigate the evils that arise from a constant tendency to the unequal distribution of wealth.

Improved habits of industry and thriftEdit

There is and always has been a widespread belief among the more comfortable classes that the poverty and suffering of the masses are due to their lack of industry, frugality and intelligence. This belief, which at once soothes the sense of nobility and flatters by its suggestion of superiority, is but natural for those who can trace their own better circumstances to the superior industry and frugality that gave them a start, and to the superior intelligence that enabled them to take advantage of every opportunity.

But whoever has grasped the laws of the distribution of wealth, as in previous chapters they have been traced out, will see the mistake in this notion. For as soon as land acquires a value, wages, as we have seen, do not depend upon the real earnings or product of labour, but upon what is left to labour after rent is taken out; and when land is all monopolized, rent must drive wages down to the point at which the poorest paid class will be just able to live. Thus wages are forced to a minimum fixed by what is called the standard of comfort - that is, the amount of necessaries and comforts which habit leads the working-classes to demand as the lowest that they will accept. This being the case, industry, skill, frugality and intelligence can only avail the individual in so far as they are superior to the general level - just as in a race, speed can only avail the runner in so far as it exceeds that of his competitors. If one man work harder, or with superior skill or intelligence than ordinary, he will get ahead; but if the average of industry, skill, or intelligence is brought up to the higher point, the increased intensity of application will secure but the old rate of wages, and he who would get ahead must work harder still.

One individual may save money from his wages, and many poor families might be made more comfortable by being taught to prepare cheap dishes. But if the working classes generally came to live in that way, wages would ultimately fall in proportion, and whoever wished to get ahead by the practice of economy, or to mitigate poverty by teaching it, would be compelled to devise some still cheaper mode of keeping soul and body together. If, under existing conditions, American mechanics would come down to the Chinese standard of living, they would ultimately have to come down to the Chinese standard of wages; or if English labourers would content themselves with the rice diet and scanty clothing of the Bengalee, labour would soon be as ill-paid in England as in Bengal. The introduction of the potato into Ireland was expected to improve the condition of the poorer classes, by increasing the difference between the wages they received and the cost of their living. The consequences that did ensue were a rise of rent and a lowering of wages and, with the potato blight, there followed the ravages of famine among a population that had already reduced its standard of comfort so low that the next Step was starvation.

And so if one individual work more hours than the average, he will increase his wages; but the wages of all cannot be increased in that way. In occupations where working hours are long, wages are not higher than where working hours are shorter; generally the reverse, for the longer the working day, the more helpless does the labourer become - the less time has he to look around him and develop other powers than those called forth by his work; the less becomes his ability to change his occupation or to take advantage of circumstances. And so the individual workman who gets his wife and children to assist him may thus increase his income; but in occupations where it has become habitual for the wife and children of the labourer to supplement his work, the wages earned by the whole family do not on the average exceed those of the head of the family in occupations where it is usual for him only to work.

Better educationEdit

As to the effects of education, it is evident that intelligence, which is or should be the aim of education, until it induces and enables the masses to discover and remove the cause of the unequal distribution of wealth, can only operate upon wages by increasing the effective power of labour. It has the same effect as increased skill or industry. And it can only raise the wages of the individual in so far as it renders him superior to others. When to read and write were rare accomplishments, a clerk commanded high respect and large wages, but now the ability to read and write has become so nearly universal as to give no advantage. The diffusion of intelligence, except as it may make men discontented with the state of things that condemns producers to a life of toil while non-producers loll in luxury, cannot tend to raise wages generally, or in any way improve the condition of the lowest class.

Greater industry and skill, greater prudence and a higher intelligence are, as a rule, found associated with a better material condition of the working-classes; but that this is effect, not cause, is shown by the relation of the facts. Wherever the material condition of the labouring classes has been improved, improvement in their personal qualities has followed, and wherever their material condition has been depressed, deterioration in these qualities has been the result.

The fact is that the qualities that raise man above the animal are superimposed on those he shares with the animal, and that it is only as he is relieved from the wants of his animal nature that his intellectual and moral nature can grow. Compel a man to drudgery for the necessities of animal existence, and he will lose the incentive to industry - the progenitor of skill - and will do only what he is forced to do. Make his condition such that it cannot be much worse, while there is little hope that anything he can do will make it much better, and he will cease to look beyond the day.

It is true that improvement in the material condition of a people or class may not show immediately in mental and moral improvement. Increased wages may at first be taken out in idleness and dissipation. But they will ultimately bring increased industry, skill, intelligence and thrift. Comparisons between different countries; between different classes in the same country; between the same people at different periods; and between the same people when their conditions are changed by emigration, show as an invariable result that the personal qualities of which we are speaking appear as material conditions are improved, and disappear as material conditions are depressed. To make people industrious, prudent, skilful, and intelligent, they must be relieved from want. If you would have the slave show the virtues of the freeman, you must first make him free.

Combinations of workmenEdit

To raise wages in particular industries or occupations, which is all that any combination of workmen yet made has been equal to attempting, is manifestly a task the difficulty of which progressively increases. For the higher are wages of any particular kind raised above their normal level with other wages, the stronger are the tendencies to bring them back. All that trades unions can do in the way of raising wages, even when supporting each other, is comparatively little and that little moreover is confined to their own sphere. The only way wages could be raised to any extent by this method and with any permanence would be by a general combination which should include labourers of all kinds such as was aimed at by the Internationals. But this may be set down as practically impossible, for the difficulties of combination, great enough in the most highly paid and smallest trades, become greater and greater as we descend in the industrial scale.

In the struggle of endurance it must not be forgotten who the real parties are that are pitted against each other. It is not labour and capital. It is labourers on the one side and the owners of land on the other. If the contest were between labour and capital, it would be on much more equal terms. For the power of capital to stand out is only some little greater than that of labour. Capital not only ceases to earn anything when not used, but it goes to waste - for in nearly all its forms it can be maintained only by constant reproduction. But land will not starve like labourers or go to waste like capital - its owners can wait. They may be inconvenienced, it is true, but what is inconvenience to them is destruction to capital and starvation to labour.

Besides these practical difficulties in the plan of forcing by endurance an increase of wages, there are in such methods inherent disadvantages that working-men should not blink. A strike, which is the only recourse that a trade union has for enforcing its demands, is a destructive contest - just such a contest as that to which an eccentric, called "The Money King," once, in the early days of San Francisco, challenged a man who had taunted him with meanness, that they should go down to the wharf and alternately toss twenty-dollar pieces into the bay until one gave in. The struggle of endurance involved in a strike is really what it has often been compared with - a war; and, like all war, it lessens wealth. And the organization for it must, like the organization for war, be tyrannical. As even the man who would fight for freedom must, when he enters an army, give up his personal freedom and become a mere part in a great machine, so must it be with workmen who organize for a strike. These combinations are, therefore, necessarily destructive of the very things that workmen seek to gain through them - wealth and freedom.


Co-operation is of two kinds - co-operation in supply and cooperation in production. Now cooperation in supply, let it go as far as it may in excluding middlemen, only reduces the cost of exchanges. It is simply a device to save labour and eliminate risk, and its effect can only be the same as that of the improvements and inventions which in modern times have so wonderfully cheapened and facilitated exchanges - namely, to increase rent. And cooperation in production is simply the substitution of proportionate wages for fixed wages - a substitution of which there are occasional instances in almost all employments. Or, if the management is left to the workmen, and the capitalist takes but his proportion of the net produce, it is simply the system that has prevailed to a large extent in European agriculture since the days of the Roman Empire - the colonial or metayer system.

All that is claimed for cooperation in production is that it makes the workman more active and industrious - in other words, that it increases the efficiency of labour. Thus its effect is in the same direction as the steam engine, the cotton gin, the reaping machine - in short, all the things in which material progress consists - and it can produce only the same result, the increase of rent.

Suppose cooperation either of supply or of production to be so extended as to supplant present methods - that cooperative stores made the connection between producer and consumer with the minimum of expense; that cooperative workshops, factories, farms and mines abolished the employing capitalist who pays fixed wages and that they greatly increased the efficiency of labour - what then? Why, simply it would become possible to produce the same amount of wealth with less labour, and consequently those who owned the land, the source of all wealth, could command a greater amount of wealth for the use of their land.

Improved methods and improved machinery have the same effect as cooperation aims at; they reduce the cost of bringing commodities to the consumer and increase the efficiency of labour. It is in these respects that the older countries have the advantage of new settlements. But, as experience has amply shown, the advantage of improvements in the methods and machinery of production and exchange only adds to rent.

But suppose cooperation between producers and landowners? That would simply amount to the payment of rent in kind - the same system under which much land is rented in California and the Southern States, where the landowner gets a share of the crop. Save as a matter of computation it in no wise differs from the system of a fixed money rent that prevails in England. Call it cooperation, if you choose, the terms of the cooperation would still be fixed by the laws that determine rent, and wherever land was monopolized, increase in productive power would simply give the owners of the land the power to demand a larger share.

That cooperation is by so many believed to be the solution of the "labour question" arises from the fact that, where it has been tried, it has in many instances improved perceptibly the condition of those immediately engaged in it. But this is due simply to the fact that those cases are isolated. Just as industry, economy, or skill may improve the condition of the workmen who possess them in superior degree, but cease to have this effect when improvement in those respects becomes general, so a special advantage in procuring supplies, or a special efficiency given to some labour, may secure advantages which would be lost as soon as those improvements became so general as to affect the general relations of distribution.

Co-operation can produce no general results that competition will not produce. It is not because of competition that increasing productive power fails to add to the reward of labour; it is because competition is one-sided. Land is monopolized and the competition of producers for its use forces wages to a minimum and gives all the advantage of increasing productive power to landowners in higher rents and increased land values. Destroy this monopoly, and competition could only exist to accomplish the end that cooperation aims at - to give to each what he fairly earns. Destroy this monopoly, and industry must become the cooperation of equals.

Governmental direction and interferenceEdit

It is not possible here to examine in detail the methods proposed for mitigating or extirpating poverty through governmental regulation of industry and accumulation, which in their most thorough - going form are called socialistic. Nor is it necessary, for the same defects attach to them all. These are the substitution of governmental direction for the play of individual action and the attempt to secure by restriction what can better be secured by freedom. It is evident that whatever savours of regulation and restriction is in itself bad and should not be resorted to if any other mode of accomplishing the same end presents itself.

For instance, to take one of the simplest and mildest of the class of measures I refer to - a graduated tax on incomes. The object at which it aims, the reduction or prevention of immense concentrations of wealth, is good; but the method involves the employment of a large number of officials clothed with inquisitorial powers. The temptations to bribery and perjury and all other means of evasion beget a demoralization of opinion and they put a premium upon unscrupulousness and a tax upon conscience. And finally, just in proportion as the tax accomplishes its effect, there is a lessening in the incentive to accumulate wealth, which is one of the strong forces of industrial progress. If the elaborate schemes for regulating everything and finding a place for everyone could be carried out, instead of an intelligent award of duties and earnings, we should have a Roman distribution of Sicilian corn, and the demagogue would soon become the Imperator.

The ideal of socialism is grand and noble; and it is, I am convinced, possible of realization; but such a state of society cannot be manufactured - it must grow. Society is an organism, not a machine. It can live only by the individual life of its parts. And in the free and natural development of all the parts will be secured the harmony of the whole. All that is necessary to social regeneration is included in the motto of those Russian patriots sometimes called Nihilists - "Land and Liberty!"

More general distribution of landEdit

There is a rapidly growing feeling that the tenure of land is in some manner connected with social distress, but this feeling as yet shows itself mostly in propositions that look to the more general division of landed property. If land in large bodies can be cultivated more cheaply than land in small bodies, then to restrict ownership to small bodies will be to reduce the aggregate production of wealth.

But there is not merely this objection. There is the further and fatal objection that restriction will not secure the end which is alone worth aiming at - a fair division of the produce. It will not reduce rent, and therefore it cannot increase wages. It may make the comfortable classes larger, but it will not improve the condition of those in the lowest class.

If what is known as the Ulster tenant-right were extended to the whole of Great Britain, it would be but to carve out of the estate of the landlord an estate for the tenant. The condition of the labourer would not be a whit improved. If landlords were prohibited from asking an increase of rent from their tenants and from ejecting a tenant so long as the fixed rent was paid, the body of the producers would gain nothing. Economic rent would still increase, and would still steadily lessen the proportion of the produce going to labour and capital. The only difference would be that the tenants of the first landlords, who would become landlords in their turn, would profit by the increase.

If by a restriction upon the amount of land any one individual might hold, by the regulation of devises and successions, or by cumulative taxation, the few thousand landholders of Great Britain should be increased by two or three million, these two or three million people would be gainers. But the rest of the population would gain nothing. They would have no more share in the advantages of landownership than before. And if, what is manifestly impossible, a fair distribution of the land were made among the whole population, giving to each his equal share, and laws were enacted for interposing a barrier to the tendency to concentration, by forbidding the holding by any one of more than the fixed amount, what would become of the increase of population?

Thus the subdivision of land can do nothing to cure the evils of land monopoly. While it can have no effect in raising wages or in improving the condition of the lowest classes, its tendency is to prevent the adoption or even advocacy of more thorough-going measures, and to strengthen the existing system by interesting a larger number in its maintenance.