Equality (Bellamy)/Chapter 3
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I acquire a stake in the country
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On going into breakfast the ladies met us with a highly interesting piece of intelligence which they had found in the morning's news. It was, in fact, nothing less than an announcement of action taken by the United States Congress in relation to myself. A resolution had, it appeared, been unanimously passed which, after reciting the facts of my extraordinary return to life, proceeded to clear up any conceivable question that might arise as to my legal status by declaring me an American citizen in full standing and entitled to all a citizen's rights and immunities, but at the same time a guest of the nation, and as such free of the duties and services incumbent upon citizens in general except as I might choose to assume them.
Secluded as I had been hitherto in the Leete household, this was almost the first intimation I had the public in my case. That interest, I was now informed, had passed beyond my personality and was already producing a general revival of the study of nineteenth-century literature and politics, and especially of the history and philosophy of the transition period, when the old order passed into the new.
"The fact is," said the doctor, "the nation has only discharged a debt of gratitude in making you its guest, for you have already done more for our educational interests by promoting historical study than a regiment of instructors could achieve in a lifetime."
Recurring to the topic of the congressional resolution, the doctor said that, in his opinion, it was superfluous, for though I had certainly slept on my rights as a citizen rather an extraordinary length of time, there was no ground on which I could be argued to have forfeited any of them. However that might be, seeing the resolution left no doubt as to my status, he suggested that the first thing we did after breakfast should be to go down to the National Bank and open my citizen's account.
"Of course," I said, as we left the house, "I am glad to be relieved of the necessity of being a pensioner on you any longer, but I confess I feel a little cheap about accepting as a gift this generous provision of the nation."
"My dear Julian," replied the doctor, "it is sometimes a little difficult for me to quite get your point of view of our institutions."
"I should think it ought to be easy enough in this case. I feel as if I were an object of public charity."
"Ah!" said the doctor, "you feel that the nation has done you a favor, laid you under an obligation. You must excuse my obtuseness, but the fact is we look at this matter of the economic provision for citizens from an entirely different standpoint. It seems to us that in claiming and accepting your citizen's maintenance you perform a civic duty, whereby you put the nation--that is, the general body of your fellow-citizens--under rather more obligation than you incur."
I turned to see if the doctor were not jesting, but he was evidently quite serious.
"I ought by this time to be used to finding that everything goes by contraries in these days," I said, "but really, by what inversion of common sense, as it was understood in the nineteenth century, do you make out that by accepting a pecuniary provision from the nation I oblige it more than it obliges me?"
"I think it will be easy to make you see that," replied the doctor, "without requiring you to do any violence to the methods of reasoning to which your contemporaries were accustomed. You used to have, I believe, a system of gratuitous public education maintained by the state."
"What was the idea of it?"
"That a citizen was not a safe voter without education."
"Precisely so. The state therefore at great expense provided free education for the people. It was greatly for the advantage of the citizen to accept this education just as it is for you to accept this provision, but it was still more for the interest of the state that the citizen should accept it. Do you see the point?"
"I can see that it is the interest of the state that I should accept an education, but not exactly why it is for the state's interest that I should accept a share of the public wealth."
"Nevertheless it is the same reason, namely, the public interest in good government. We hold it to be a self-evident principle that every one who exercises the suffrage should not only be educated, but should have a stake in the country, in order that self-interest may be identified with public interest. As the power exercised by every citizen through the suffrage is the same, the economic stake should be the same, and so you see we come to the reason why the public safety requires that you should loyally accept your equal stake in the country quite apart from the personal advantage you derive by doing so."
"Do you know," I said, "that this idea of yours, that every one who votes should have an economic stake in the country, is one which our rankest Tories were very fond of insisting on, but the practical conclusion they drew from it was diametrically opposed to that which you draw? They would have agreed with you on the axiom that political power and economic stake in the country should go together, but the practical application they made of it was negative instead of positive. You argue that because an economic interest in the country should go with the suffrage, all who have the suffrage should have that interest guaranteed them. They argued, on the contrary, that from all who had not the economic stake the suffrage should be taken away. There were not a few of my friends who maintained that some such limitation of the suffrage was needed to save the democratic experiment from failure."
"That is to say," observed the doctor, "it was proposed to save the democratic experiment by abandoning it. It was an ingenious thought, but it so happened that democracy was not an experiment which could be abandoned, but an evolution which must be fulfilled. In what a striking manner does that talk of your contemporaries about limiting the suffrage to correspond with the economic position of citizens illustrate the failure of even the most intelligent classes in your time to grasp the full significance of the democratic faith which they professed! The primal principle of democracy is the worth and dignity of the individual. That dignity, consisting in the quality of human nature, is essentially the same in all individuals, and therefore equality is the vital principle of democracy. To this intrinsic and equal dignity of the individual all material conditions must be made subservient, and personal accidents and attributes subordinated. The raising up of the human being without respect of persons is the constant and only rational motive of the democratic policy. Contrast with this conception that precious notion of your contemporaries as to restricting suffrage. Recognizing the material disparities in the circumstances of individuals, they proposed to conform the rights and dignities of the individual to his material circumstances instead of conforming the material circumstances to the essential and equal dignity of the man."
"In short," said I, "while under our system we conformed men to things, you think it more reasonable to conform things to men?"
"That is, indeed," replied the doctor, "the vital difference between the old and the new orders."
We walked in silence for some moments. Presently the doctor said: "I was trying to recall an expression you just used which suggested a wide difference between the sense in which the same phrase was understood in your day and now is. I was saying that we thought everybody who voted ought to have a property stake in the country, and you observed that some people had the same idea in your time, but according to our view of what a stake in the country is no one had it or could have it under your economic system."
"Why not?" I demanded. "Did not men who owned property in a country--a millionaire, for instance, like myself--have a stake in it?"
"In the sense that his property was geographically located in the country it might be perhaps called a stake within the country but not a stake in the country. It was the exclusive ownership of a piece of the country or a portion of the wealth in the country, and all it prompted the owner to was devotion to and care for that specific portion without regard to the rest. Such a separate stake or the ambition to obtain it, far from making its owner or seeker a citizen devoted to the common weal, was quite as likely to make him a dangerous one, for his selfish interest was to aggrandize his separate stake at the expense of his fellow-citizens and of the public interest. Your millionaires--with no personal reflection upon yourself, of course--appear to have been the most dangerous class of citizens you had, and that is just what might be expected from their having what you called but what we should not call a stake in the country. Wealth owned in that way could only be a divisive and antisocial influence.
"What we mean by a stake in the country is something which nobody could possibly have until economic solidarity had replaced the private ownership of capital. Every one, of course, has his own house and piece of land if he or she desires them, and always his or her own income to use at pleasure; but these are allotments for use only, and, being always equal, can furnish no ground for dissension. The capital of the nation, the source of all this consumption, is indivisibly held by all in common, and it is impossible that there should be any dispute on selfish grounds as to the administration of this common interest on which all private interests depend, whatever differences of judgment there may be. The citizen's share in this common fund is a sort of stake in the country that makes it impossible to hurt another's interest without hurting one's own, or to help one's own interest without promoting equally all other interests. As to its economic bearings it may be said that it makes the Golden Rule an automatic principle of government. What we would do for ourselves we must of necessity do also for others. Until economic solidarity made it possible to carry out in this sense the idea that every citizen ought to have a stake in the country, the democratic system never had a chance to develop its genius."
"It seems," I said, "that your foundation principle of economic equality which I supposed was mainly suggested and intended in the interest of the material well-being of the people, is quite as much a principle of political policy for safeguarding the stability and wise ordering of government."
"Most assuredly," replied the doctor. "Our economic system is a measure of statesmanship quite as much as of humanity. You see, the first condition of efficiency or stability in any government is that the governing power should have a direct, constant, and supreme interest in the general welfare--that is, in the prosperity of the whole state as distinguished from any part of it. It had been the strong point of monarchy that the king, for selfish reasons as proprietor of the country, felt this interest. The autocratic form of government, solely on that account, had always a certain rough sort of efficiency. It had been, on the other hand, the fatal weakness of democracy, during its negative phase previous to the great Revolution, that the people, who were the rulers, had individually only an indirect and sentimental interest in the state as a whole, or its machinery--their real, main, constant, and direct interest being concentrated upon their personal fortunes, their private stakes, distinct from and adverse to the general stake. In moments of enthusiasm they might rally to the support of the commonwealth, but for the most part that had no custodian, but was at the mercy of designing men and factions who sought to plunder the commonwealth and use the machinery of government for personal or class ends. This was the structural weakness of democracies, by the effect of which, after passing their first youth, they became invariably, as the inequality of wealth developed, the most corrupt and worthless of all forms of government and the most susceptible to misuse and perversion for selfish, personal, and class purposes. It was a weakness incurable so long as the capital of the country, its economic interests, remained in private hands, and one that could be remedied only by the radical abolition of private capitalism and the unification of the nation's capital under collective control. This done, the same economic motive--which, while the capital remained in private hands, was a divisive influence tending to destroy that public spirit which is the breath of life in a democracy--became the most powerful of cohesive forces, making popular government not only ideally the most just but practically the most successful and efficient of political systems. The citizen, who before had been the champion of a part against the rest, became by this change a guardian of the whole."