The American Journal of Sociology/Volume 01/Number 4/Business Men and Social Theorists


Representatives of two very respectable classes of the community are apt to find themselves in hostile attitudes in the discussion of contemporary social questions—the scientific student of social phenomena and the "captain of industry." Has the student of sociology a right to discuss the central theme of his field of research? This is the matter in dispute. Professor Laughlin (Mill, Political Economy, p. 523) says: "The laborer, if he would become something more than a receiver of wages, in the ordinary sense, must move himself up in the scale of laborers until he reaches the skill and power also to command manager's wages. . . . . It leads directly to the means by which the lower classes may raise themselves to a higher position —the actual details of which, of course, are difficult, but, as they are not included in political economy, they must be left to sociology—and forms the essential basis of hope for any proper extension of productive coöperation." This definition of the limits of economics and of the duty of sociology, made by a master, we accept; but find ourselves resolutely opposed at the very point where our discussion begins to have a real living human interest. What is urged against our discipline and our method?

It would be strange if the "captain of industry" did not sometimes manifest a militant spirit, for he has risen from the ranks largely because he was a better fighter than most of us. Competitive commercial life is not a flowery bed of ease, but a battle field where the "struggle for existence" is defining the industrially "fittest to survive."

In this country the great prizes are not found in Congress, in literature, in law, in medicine, but in industry. The successful man is praised and honored for his success. The social reward of business prosperity, in power praise and luxury, are so great as to entice men of the highest intellectual faculties. Men of splendid abilities find in the career of a manufacturer or merchant an opportunity for the most intense energy. The very perils of the situation have a fascination for adventurous and inventive spirits. In this fierce though voiceless contest a peculiar type of manhood is developed, characterized by vitality, energy, concentration, skill in combining numerous forces for an end, and great foresight into the consequences of social events. If the character is further analyzed we discover, along with some apparent heedlessness of pain and many compromises with conscience, an integrity about contracts which makes it possible to build the business of the world on credit. Those who live in retirement and simplicity are apt to find the swift, brusque, imperious and impatient manners of the successful man somewhat severe and offensively dictatorial. But the ceremonial tediousness of the parlor would be out of place in the office of one who must think rapidly enough to keep thousands of telegraph operators, stenographers, clerks and other employes in occupation. Dainty speech and elaborate politeness under the conditions of life in a great commercial house would have all the effects of crime.

By extending this study of the psychical processes of typical business men we might be enabled to regard some social phenomena in a new and stronger light. Great business men, like some distinguished generals, let their deeds speak for them. They say, with some touch of contemptuous sarcasm and cynicism, they can hire talkers and buy books. So that to interpret their inner life we must seize the rare occasions when they venture upon speech. As the number of college men among merchants increases, the points of contact with academic men are likely to increase.

A few typical quotations may be taken as indicating the internal mental movements of representative business men.

A very common conviction of employers is expressed clearly and bluntly in the words of an able and upright manufacturer, recently deceased. "The relation between capital and labor is one of the many questions in the comprehensive science of political economy, and as such is a purely business matter. Philanthropy has nothing to do with it, nor has religion or sentiment, any more than they have to do with astronomy or with the law of gravitation. . . . . The essays of the humanitarian and the sermons of the preacher, however soundly based on the moralities and the ought-to-be, generally only confuse and obscure the real issues. However it may be in some ideal heaven, it is the fact that in this world it is not from motives of generosity or philanthropy that the master hires labor, and the laborer seeks service. And the sooner the whole matter is taken out of the realm of sentimental philosophy and placed on the bed rock of simple, practical business common sense the better." He then proceeds to give an exposition of the determining factors in the settlement of the rate of wages; attacks all schemes of cooperation and profit-sharing as "moonshine;" asserts that strikes cannot raise the real wages of labor; that increase comes from improvements in machinery and business methods; that laborers can secure higher income only by becoming more useful; that the only function of the state is to prevent violence. "All that legislators and editors and preachers and philanthropists can do is to educate the people that they may be able finally . . . . to pass out of these turbulent obscuring mists of ignorant and selfish struggle into the clear light of universal law and justice."

In this concluding sentence the cultivated, generous, successful Christian business man opens a wider door than his opening sentences promised; and it is a pleasure to add that his life was better than his inherited economic creed.

In a speech at St. Louis before the assembled representatives of the great commercial clubs of the country Mr. William Whitman, of Boston, voiced a certain feeling of his peers. Mr. C. D. Wright had suggested that in the future employers would be held responsible before the law and at the bar of public opinion for strikes; and that it would be held to be the duty of employers during prosperous times to set aside a fund for the payment of wages in times of adversity. Mr. Whitman declared both propositions to be monstrous, and asked of the gentlemen present: "What do you think of them? Will they increase or diminish your burdens? Can you successfully prosecute your business under them? Do you think that this new philanthropo-ethico-economic management will attract the investment of capital?"

The particular propositions of Mr. Wright may be dropped out of this discussion. They are of interest here only because they drew the fire and showed the attitude of a typical business man toward theoretical students of society. Indeed the speaker himself turns from propositions to personalities. "Who are the men engaged in promulgating these so-called reforms, ostensibly for the benefit of workingmen? Are they not for the most part theorists with unbalanced minds, who have adopted unsound principles and are pushing them to the extreme? Are they not men without the knowledge and experience necessary to deal successfully with men or affairs? Why should men of affairs permit them, undisputed, unanswered, unchallenged, to arrogate to themselves the right to teach the world how we shall conduct our business?"

This speaker gives his reason for thinking that business men carry in their own bosoms and interests the guarantees of social welfare: "The purposes of business, the sense of responsibility to others, the danger of personal loss and possible failure, and the hope of reward are the surest guarantees for the conduct of affairs in the mutual interests of employer and employed."

It must be admitted that this rigorous protest against impertinent and ignorant intrusion of dilettanti upon the preserves of capitalist managers is not without justification. Social theorists need to be meek men, and should stand with head uncovered before the special gifts and services of the men of genius who are working the latter-day miracles of industry and commerce. Confessions of trespass on forbidden ground are in order, but these must be personal and auricular before any authority prepared to shrive.

It has been said that the laws of economics should be stated in the indicative and not in the imperative mode, and this is true of all purely scientific theory. The only person who can possibly decide in practical affairs is the responsible manager of the affairs concerned. When sincere fanatics vent their ravings under the titles of "sociological science," it is not to be wondered at that suspicion should extend to those who are really trying to "mount to the summit round by round." Orators with more heat than light are apt to be confounded with patient students of practicable reform.

And yet we are not ready to confess that the student of society is absolutely without a function, a mere useless parasite, or at best a phonographic reporter of the dead past. Mr. Lyman J. Gage, intimate friend of the seer, Professor Swing, said: "To cherish false ideas concerning the motives of men who are sailing with us in the same ship of national destiny is to be raw and provincial. We are of the same blood, indissolubly united in our diversified interests. . . . . By a clearer understanding of our mutual duties will we clamor less for what we consider our respective rights." Mr. Gage would not browbeat into silence men who are intently studying the same phenomena which occupy business men, only from a different point of view.

It is the duty of the scholar to place and keep before the public the supreme criterion of social conduct, the common welfare. In a boiler factory, where the din and noise drown all sounds, the cry of a child cannot be heard. So men of affairs are apt to be deafened, by the uproar of those very affairs, to the neglected and forgotten members of our common humanity. A table of statistics, interpreted and illustrated by literary skill, may induce business men to enlarge the scope of their life plans. The scholar's duty is to aid in forming a judicial public opinion, as distinguished from the public opinion of a class and its special pleaders.

It is the duty of the scholar, if he is a living member of contemporary society and something beside an archaeologist, to secure a public recognition of all the elements of welfare. Such a scholar will give due place to what Carlyle calls the "preliminary item," bread, but he will help his fellows to see and realize that "man cannot live by bread alone." For this purpose is the scholar supported by society, in order that he may be its mentor and seer. It is true the idealist does not see intuitively how far or by what means these higher factors of good may be secured, but he can remind men by his own life and works that wealth is only a preliminary item, a means but not an end of life. And if a business man deserves the title of captain or king he will appreciate the social service which reminds him of the real dignity of his ofiice.

It is the function and the duty of the social theorist to keep attractively before "practical men" all the known and tried methods of obtaining the elements of human well-being. In performing this social duty the literary worker is not shut up to the meager resources of his own invention. If his suggestions of method are laughed out of court as the visionary schemes of a cloistered fanatic, his defense lies in a prosaic description of facts. When his plan of amelioration is pronounced impossible, he can bring to bear the resources of his knowledge of social experimentation. If inhuman greed, or routine habit, or vested interests oppose his suggestions on the ground that they are chimerical and millennial, he can set ingenious philanthropy over against obstructive avarice. And it is his social function as a scholar to make the great world act upon the mean world. It is only in such service that he can earn his salt.

It is not the function of the scholar to bury the dead past, nor to paint the future in pessimistic charcoal or optimistic vermilion, for the entertainment of the public. He is called to select the facts which will help generous and genial industrial leaders to promote the common welfare, and especially the welfare of those who are employed by them, and over whom their commanding position as leaders has given great power.

It is perfectly legitimate for the scholar to collect and use the testimony of great captains of industry to correct the unsupported assertions of other captains of industry. For example, in respect to the usefulness of trades unions, Mr. Dyer quotes the language of an employer: "As an employer in one of the great staple trades, I have always held that we owe much of our prosperity in the manufacturing industries to trade combinations." This citation of an individual judgment is followed by a clear summary of the actual achievements of the unions: the friendly and material help in hard times; the care of the sick; the agencies of education; the regulation of prices and production. "The cupidity and selfishness of some would have made it difficult even for just and generous employers to do right."[1]

In arranging the programme for the "Congress of Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration" it was difficult to secure the participation of employers. The responses to the Civic Federation indicated a profound skepticism in the United States as to the value of such methods. And yet men of affairs and experience were found who were willing to look for better methods of deciding disputes. Here again Mr. Lyman J. Gage, surely no visionary, said: "In the business world of today, questions involving thousands, nay, millions, are thus quietly and peacefully composed. Cannot methods so benign in their character, so healthful in their influences, find a place in the industrial relationships which now so intimately enter into the warp and woof of our modern life."

In the same Congress Mr. William H. Sayward spoke for the National Association of Builders, and claimed that he represented an industry which "comprehends an interest as large in amount as that of any other single industry." He denied that his association was working for philanthrophic ends, and yet contended that they were serving the public. So far from trusting merely competitive forces and the will of employers alone he reasoned that special organization of laborers and managers is necessary. "It is essential to have organizations of employers, who together shall control and direct the general principles and policies governing the common interest, so that there may be no overreaching by selfish and reckless individuals on either side." He accounts for the fact that many employers have refused to accept the plan by saying: "The proverbial slowness of employers to know a good thing when they see it and their proneness to let matters drift until they get almost hopelessly entangled, in preference to taking a little trouble in advance," is a sufficient explanation.

There are always business men who are not only sagacious managers, with a gift for amassing riches, but who are broad enough to go to the margin of ability in making experiments. The names of Robert Owen, Godin of Guise, Leclaire of Paris, Peabody of London and America, belong in this brilliant company. Every city furnishes examples of the same class and in increasing numbers.

Mr. O. D. Ashley in "Railways and their Employés" is one of those who recognize the responsibility of employers to the public. "If there is social unrest in the civilized world, a fact which will be hardly disputed, we are bound, not only as Christians but as parts of the human brotherhood, to give careful examination to all plans which contemplate man's improvement and elevation."

We may discover in the very arguments by which the gentlemen of affairs warn ethical theorists out of the manufactory a need of theorists. It is assumed by both gentlemen quoted in the beginning, that the class motives of employers and the laws of nature are the sufficient guaranty of social welfare. From this assumption of premises it follows that all discussion or intrusion from other members of society must be impertinent and vicious. But the state of mind disclosed in the quotations is itself a social defect. It is symptomatic of the unsocial temper. These quotations prove that many essential elements are ignored by very able and upright men. They imply that there is at least one class of the community who have no interest in the issue of social Strifes, and no right to be heard on their own behalf. They imply that economic forces are automatic, natural and not human and ethical. The influences which fix the rate of wages are treated as if they belonged to the same category as the law of gravitation. Human intelligence, will and aspiration are excluded from consideration by such logic. Economics is put on the same level as biology, or even chemistry.

The corrective of this attitude of some practical men is not abuse but facts, just such facts as the studies of social history supply in abundance. It is the duty and function of the theorist to confront this automatic and fatalistic class theory of business with the history of factory legislation. There are few facts so pathetic as the opposition of John Bright, the pious manufacturer, to the movement by which ethical sentiment redeemed the laboring population of England from utter degradation.

It is the duty of the ethical theorist to show that the self-interest of the manufacturer and landlord do not secure the public welfare in any city of this country, and that it is precisely this self-interest, narrowly conceived, which prevents rational legislation against child-labor and sweat shops in Illinois. To show these phenomena, their causes and wide results is precisely the duty of the social scholar. "Philanthropy has nothing to do with it . . . any more than with astronomy or with the law of gravitation." "The purposes of business, the sense of responsibility to others, the danger of personal loss and possible failure, and the hope of reward are the surest guarantees for the conduct of affairs in the mutual interests of employe and employed." Compare with these assertions the evidence presented before the Poor Law Commissioners of England in 1834 and succeeding years; the black list of adulterations of food so familiar as to hardly excite comment; the pictures of degradation of laborers, the crippling of children, the demoralization of women due to unregulated "free" competition, which are adduced by Professor Walker in his work on "Wages," and by Professor H. C. Adams in his essay on "Relation of the State to Industrial Action." Con the "Hull House" Maps for Chicago facts; and then say whether there is no need of "philanthrophy" in the regulation of industry. It would be interesting to know what a factory would be worth in a community where "sentiment" had died of asphyxia, and where the interest of one class was left to determine the terms on which industry should be conducted.

It is not denied that the sense of fairness and justice is strong in business men; but we do claim that without strong ethical feeling organized for common action, the meanest employer sets the pace for all those who really desire to be honorable and fair.

Take an example from the phenomena of women's wages. Here sentiment is a powerful factor in reducing wages. While the working girl is despised for kitchen labor; while the occupations open to women are overcrowded because the prejudices of both men and women close others; so long will women suffer from removable causes. So Professor Walker says: "What is the remedy? Agitation and the diffusion of correct ideas. Let gifted women continue to appeal for public respect and sympathy for their sisters in work; let the schools teach that public opinion may powerfully affect wages, and that nothing which depends on human volition is inexorable! . . . Efforts like these will not fail to strengthen and support woman in her resort to market." There is one field of practice in which a social scholar as a citizen must enter,—the field of local government. His activity may be limited, but here he fights for his altar and hearth. It is true that here again he meets the hostility or merry contempt of a certain class of "practical" men. Now it is the turn of the scholar to find himself in company with the merchant, and both of them classed by politicians as "laymen." The local leaders of intrigue give both to understand that they are out of place and that they may as well let the machine alone,—it is too complicated and mysterious for gentlemen to manage.

But it cannot really be impertinent for a scholar to deal with those practical affairs which touch every interest of his life as a citizen, a father, a patriot and an idealist. It may not be pleasant work to fight petty robbers in defense of his little property, the school of his children, the supply of light and protection, and the essential conditions of health. Nothing but intellectual impotence can excuse any citizen, least of all the social scholar, from a degree of direct effort on behalf of good local government. He is liable to make mistakes, but these will not be so fatal as the acts of men who sell or buy franchises under which the community is made to serve the clique. If anything can turn a quiet student into the noisy street, it is the conviction that the public thoroughfare is being taken from him without adequate recompense.

When the scholar enters the sphere of practice, he must prepare himself for the treatment given a man with a silk hat in the bull-and-bear pit on a board of trade holiday; he becomes the target for the wildest boys. If he says anything which by any chance tends to affect prices or nominations, he should not look for reverence. That is an obsolete virtue in American practical life. Nothing thinner than rhinoceros hide will do for an overcoat where conflicting interests are at stake, and arrows are flying in all directions.

And yet the scientific method is needed along with the practical method. The general interest can be served only by the union of science and art. The bronzed captain on the bridge can direct the ship in a storm or fog better than the author of "Synthetic Philosophy" or "Dynamic Sociology." Rude sailors told the officious nobles to go below because they did "assist the storm." The best service of college professors when the wind blows worst is to stay in bed and set an example of quietness and confidence. And yet the educated captain knows that the mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, physicists and biologists have all contributed to his art. The more thoroughly he knows the history of navigation the more he respects the scholars who have made his craft possible.

The more college graduates we have in the counting rooms the more cordial and fruitful will be the relations between practical men and scholars. As "scholarship" comes to mean social service, and is freed from mediævalism and dialectics, it will be recognized and respected by the men who are driving the machinery of production. New and improved stocks come from cross-fertilization. "Breeding in-and-in" causes deterioration. Study and counting room will be more vigorous, sane and serviceable for an alliance.

Science is itself conservative and judicial. The rich trustees of a university may well feel secure in keeping their hands off academic freedom. The professors of a science do not belong to a mutual admiration society. They are more nearly a swarm of critics, makers of honey but armed with stings. No criticism from the business world could be so persistent, pitiless and remorseless as that with which real scholars pursue the pretender and amateur. But aside from this cooperative chastisement the very discipline of modern scientific method begets caution. No man ever stated the difficulties in Darwinism more clearly than Darwin himself. There is no class of men who so fully realize the meaning of the oath to state "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." The methods of science have much in common with the methods of business. Both are intolerant of gaps in the chain of causation. Both demand absolute continuity between end and means. Both are impatient of fog and speculation.

In this sense science is eminently "practical," because it measures by the most exact methods and instruments of investigation the available forces for attaining an end which seems desirable. The scientific ideal is an exact balance between the debits and credits, the causes and results of human action. There is an undetermined remainder, bad debts and losses, as in financial settlements, but the ideal is accuracy.

The social position of the "social theorist" is an advantage. The nature of his studies compels him to come into touch with persons of all classes and interests. He hears and reads on all sides. His associations are with the refined, and his ideals of life are formed in the best company. But his professional pursuits compel him to weigh the claims of the entire community. The recent introduction of the "laboratory method" in sociology is a guaranty that no department of human life will be neglected. Apart from the bitterness of competitive strife, interested in public welfare as others are but not directly interested in rich or poor alone, the student of social phenomena may be reasonably expected to bring to light and present for consideration elements of social well-being which hot contestants for immediate and class advantage are sure to overlook.

It is of the essence of democracy that the interests of all should not be at the mercy of a few, but should be the care of representatives of the entire community. Kings by "divine right," and feudal lords by grace of birth, have assumed that they knew how to legislate for the "lower classes" better than the chosen spokesmen of these classes. Nothing but rude blows of revolution and noisy chartist petitions shook the ruling classes of Britain out of this delusion. Monopolies of social wisdom and virtue do not exist. The frank recognition of division of intellectual labor and of common social concern is all that is asked by the social theorist, and in an age when the pen is mightier than sword or hammer, his claim is not likely to be permanently ignored.

The University of Chicago.

  1. The Evolution of Industry, pp. 110–111.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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