Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/December 1896/Individualism versus Collectivism

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By the Right Hon. LEONARD COURTNEY, M. P.

BY the beginning of the present reign the study of political economy in this country had worked itself free from earlier errors, and it had come to be believed that the secret of social regeneration lay in the utmost allowance of freedom of action to every individual of the community, so far at least as that action affected himself, coupled with the most complete development of the principle of self-reliance, so as to bring home to every member, freed from legal restraint on his liberty of action, the moral responsibility of self-support and of discharging the duties, present and to come, of his special position. Such was the theory more or less openly expressed by economic thinkers when the British Association was founded, and the same theory lay at the base of Jevons's address in 1870. Can we hold it now or must it be recast? Since 1870 primary education has practically been made gratuitous. The legislature had an opportunity for abolishing the mischief of doles, but showed no inclination to make use of it, and there were even traces of a feeling of favor for the maintenance of these bequests of the past. The indiscriminate multiplication of so-called charitable institutions has in no way been reformed, and there is as great activity as ever in the zeal of those who would mitigate or relieve the effects of improvidence without touching improvidence itself. Codes of regulations have been framed for the supervision of the conduct of special industries, and their sphere has been extended so as to embrace at no distant period, if not now, the whole industrial community. The reformed Poor Law, which was regarded as a great step in the education of the workman, especially of the agricultural laborer, in independence, stands again upon its trial, and proposals are at least in the air for assuring to the aged poor a minimum measure of support without any regard to the circumstances of their past lives or to the inevitableness of their condition. The suggestions made by responsible statesmen have indeed been more limited and cautious, but it will be acknowledged of those, as of the German system, from which they may be said to be in some measure borrowed, that they involve a great departure from the ideal of individual development. Add to this that there is a movement, which has become practical in many large cities and towns, for the community itself to engross some forms of industrial activity and to undertake in respect of them to meet the wants of their inhabitants.

All these developments and more may be summed up as illustrations of collectivity — an ideal which has its advocates and professors, and which looks in the future for regulated civic and national monopolies instead of unrestricted freedom of individual activity and for the supervision and control of those industries which may remain unabsorbed by state or town. In pursuit of this last conception there have been put forward not only requirements as to hours and conditions of labor, but a demand also for a living wage or a minimum below which no workman shall be paid; and this principle has been already adopted by some municipalities in respect of their monopolized industries. The state itself indeed has through the popular branch of the legislature declared more or less clearly in favor of the same principle in respect of the industries which are conducted in its service. We have not only to acknowledge the continued slowness of politicians to adopt and enforce the teaching of economists such as Jevons contemplated, but also the rise of another school of economic thought which competes for and in some measure successfully obtains the attention of the makers of laws. We must therefore inquire whether the failure of former teaching has not been due to errors in itself rather than to the indocility of those who have neglected it. The greatest difficulty which the teachers of the past have to overcome when put upon their self-defense lies in the suspicion, or more than suspicion, of an occupied multitude that their promises have failed. It is thought of them, if it is not openly said, that they had the ear of legislators for a generation, that the course and conduct of successive administrations were governed by their principles; and yet society, as we know it, presents much the same features, and the lifting up of the poor out of the mire is as much as ever a promise of the future. Some quicker method of introducing a new order is called for, and any scheme offering an assurance of it is welcomed. A ready answer can be given to much of the suspicion of failure that is entertained. That freedom of industrial action which is the first postulate of the economists has never been secured. The limitations and restrictions necessarily consequent upon the system of land laws established among us are not commonly understood, but although much has been done to liberate agriculture from their fetters its perfect freedom has not been attained. There may be free trade in the United Kingdom and free land in the United States, but the country is yet to be found in which both are realized, and even if both these requisites were attained the sores of social life would not be removed unless the spirit of self-reliance were fully developed. And how little has been done to secure this essential condition of progress! Nay, how much has been done by law and still more by usage to weaken and destroy its power! The economist of the old school may boldly claim that so far as he has had a free hand his promises have been realized. There has been a larger population with increased means of subsistence and diminished necessity of toil, a people better housed, better fed, better clothed, with fewer relative failures of self-support; and if the teaching which has been partially adopted has brought about so much, everything it promised would have been secured had it been fully followed.

It will be conceded by the most fearless and thoroughgoing advocates of the liberty of individual development that it must be supported by large measures of co-operative action. The freedom and activity of association thus indicated are in no way inconsistent with the fullest theory of individual responsibility. A single workman may be powerless to induce his employer to modify in any particular the terms of his employment, but when workmen band together they may meet employers as equal powers. Such liberty of combination is a development and not a limitation of individual liberty. Another step is taken when the parties to such an arrangement as has been suggested seek to make its provisions compulsory on others, be they workmen or employers, who may enter into similar relations; and the principles of former economists would generally prompt them to condemn such attempts at compulsion. The Factory Acts were opposed in this way, although they rested upon different grounds; for, though in their consequences they affected the labor of adults, they were propounded for the defense of young persons and children unable to protect themselves or to be the parties to free contracts. Legislation has, however, been extended to control directly the employment of fully responsible persons, and this has been defended by three lines of argument. It is urged that, when the unchecked liberty of individuals destroys in fact the liberty of action of larger multitudes, it is in defense of liberty of action that those individuals are controlled. If a sea wall is necessary to prevent a large tract from being periodically inundated, it can not be permitted to the owner of a small patch along the coast to leave the wall unbuilt along his border, and thus threaten the lands of his neighbors with inundation. Again, it is urged that when the overwhelming majority of persons engaged in a particular industry, employers and employed, are agreed upon the necessity of certain rules to govern the industry, it is not merely a convenience, but is a fulfillment of their liberty, to clothe with the sanction of law the regulations upon which they are agreed. Lastly, it is submitted that there are individuals in whom the sense of responsibility is so weak, and whose development of forethought is so hopeless, that it is necessary the law should regulate their conduct as it may regulate the conduct of children. The first plea appears to be sound in principle, though it may often have been applied to cases not properly coming within it. As to the second, the convenience of giving to an all but universal custom the force of law is incontestable, but it is at least doubtful whether this is sufficient to deprive individuals who deliberately wish to put themselves outside it of the liberty of doing so. Unless their action could be brought within the first line of argument, sufficient reason for restraint does not appear.

These limitations of individual liberty are familiar to us, and have obtained a firm hold in our legislation; but we enter upon comparatively new ground when we turn to the proposals that an increasing number of industries should be undertaken and directed by state or municipality, and that a minimum and not inadequate subsistence should be assured to all those engaged in such industries, if indeed the principle be not presently extended outside the monopolies so established. The ideas which are clothed in the phrases "the socialization of the instruments of industry" and "the guarantee of a minimum wage to all workmen "appear to involve a complete reorganization of society and an absolute abandonment of the theories of the past. This is not enough to justify their immediate rejection or their immediate acceptance. The past has not been so good that we can refuse to look at any proposals, however strange in appearance, offering a better promise for the future. It has not been so bad that we must abandon its methods in despair, as if no change could be for the worse, if not for the better. No one could now be found to deny the possibility, and few to question the utility, of the socialization of some services. The post office is in all civilized countries organized as a national institution, and the complaints that are sometimes heard as to defects in its administration never extend to a demand for its abolition. Some of our largest municipalities have undertaken the supply of water and of gas, or even of electric light, to the inhabitants, and a movement has begun, which seems likely to be extended, of undertaking the service of tramways. Demands have also been made for the municipalization or nationalization of the telephone service.

New considerations of great difficulty arise when we pass to the suggestion of the undertaking by local authorities of productive industries not in the nature of monopolies. In monopolies direct competition, often competition in any shape, is practically impossible; in other industries competition is a general rule; and it is by virtue of such competition that the members of the community do in the long run obtain their wants supplied in the most economical manner. When commodities are easily carried without serious deterioration, the constantly changing conditions of production and of transport induce a constant variation in the sources of cheapest supply — that is, of supply under conditions of least toil and effort — and any arrest of this mobility involves a corresponding setback in the advancement of the economic condition of mankind. It is a necessary consequence of this process that the local production of special commodities should be subject to diminution and extinction, and that the labors hitherto engaged in such local production should become gradually worthless. There would be a danger of pressure to do away with invasive competition — action which would be destructive of the most powerful cause of improvement in the condition of the people. The position thus taken may be illustrated by an experience to which I have elsewhere referred, but so pregnant with suggestion that I need not apologize for recalling it. My native county, Cornwall, was in my boyhood the scene of widespread activity in copper and tin mining. There had not been wanting warnings that the competition of richer deposits in far countries would put an end to these industries in the county, but the warnings had not been realized and remained unheeded. In the years that have since passed they have been gradually and almost completely fulfilled. The mines were abandoned one by one, and the population of the county has steadily diminished in every recent census. What would the experience have been had the mines been a county or national property worked by county or nation? Can one think that the same process would have been maintained had the collective owner worked the mines directly, and the workingmen looked to county or nation for the continuance of work and wages? However much we may contemplate the reconstruction of an industrial system, it must, if it is to be a living social organism, be constantly responsive to the ever-changing conditions of growth; some parts must wax while others wane, extending here and contracting there, and manifesting at every moment those phenomena of vigor and decline which characterize life. In the development of industry new and easier ways are constantly being invented of doing old things; places are being discovered better suited for old industries than those to which resort had been made; there is a continuous supersession of the worth of known processes and of the utility of old forms of work involving a supersession, or at least a transfer, of the labor hitherto devoted to them. All these things compel a perpetual shifting of seats of industry and of the settlements of man, and no organization can be entertained as practicable which does not lend itself to those necessities. They are the prerequisites of a diminution of the toil of humanity. As I have said before, the theory of. individual liberty, however guarded, afforded a working plan; society could and did march under it. The scheme of collective action gives no such promise of practicability; it seems to lack the provision of the forces which, should bring about that movement upon which growth depends. The economist of the past generation still holds his ground, and our best hope lies in the fuller acceptance of his ideas. The economist, however, must feel, if he is to animate multitudes and inspire legislatures, that he, too, has a religion. Beneath the calmness of his analysis must be felt the throb of humanity. Slow in any case must be the secular progress of any branch of the human family; but if we take our stand upon facts, if our eyes are open to distinguish illusions from truth, if we are animated by the single purpose of subordinating our investigations and our actions to the lifting up of the standard of living, we may possess our souls in patience, waiting upon the promise of the future.

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  1. From the presidential address before Section F, Economic Science and Statistics, of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.