Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 74.djvu/81

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77
COMMERCIALISM

created it has the rights conferred on it and in all legislation those rights must not be forgotten. Unfortunately, most of the legislation against combinations is the offspring of men unfamiliar with the interlacing of business interests, so that while it may correct or destroy one wrong it creates a dozen others. Too often the statutes make criminal that which is ethically just. Such statutes, it is true, are the law of the land and every good citizen should obey them as far as in him lies. But the law requires him to obey the letter, not the spirit, for no created being can fathom the depth of the spirit or divine what was in the mind of those who conceived them. If the laws prove to be ineffective, the fault is not in the citizen, but in the ignorance of the lawmaker. Our country owes a debt of gratitude to those lawyers who, ascertaining the exact letter, have guided our great corporations through the labyrinth of statutes and enabled them to avoid pitfalls. Had not a merciful providence provided those lawyers, the country would have been the loser — and the statute-makers, most of all, should be grateful, for the evils of their work have not recoiled upon their heads. Controlled in most instances by men of great sagacity, combinations have lessened the cost and increased the output of manufactures while bettering the wage-earners' reward.

Assertion that the existence of vast combinations of capital is the surest foundation of national prosperity is, for many, evidence of insanity or of dishonesty or of both. Yet no generalization could be more nearly true. A single illustration suffices.

When the business depression following 1873 ended abruptly in 1879, the iron and steel industry was wholly unprepared for the new conditions. A great part of the furnaces were out of blast and the metal required at once by railroads and other interests could not be supplied. Great combinations were unknown, there were many concerns — there was that unrestricted competition which some regard as Utopian. All had suffered severely during the depression and the few concerns still in operation set themselves at once to make good their losses. A veritable scramble for profits ensued on the part of both employers and employed. The price of pig iron increased so rapidly as to pass the point where the moderate tariff became unimportant and foreign makers unloaded their stocks of metal on us, glutting the market and prostrating the pig-iron industry. Meanwhile the cost of manufactured products had gone beyond what the "traffic could bear" and prosperity came quickly to an end.

The conditions of 1879 were repeated in 1899, but the outcome was wholly different, for the iron and steel interests were concentrated and the business was controlled by a few vast combinations. No one of them could increase the price without consent of all, but any one could hold the price down against opposition by all its rivals. The leading