Soap-bubbles of Socialism

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Soap-bubbles of Socialism
by Simon Newcomb
OCR from [1].

The North American Review. / Volume 150, Issue 402. Publisher: University of Northern Iowa Publication. Date: May 1890. City: Cedar Falls, Iowa, etc.


The socialism of our day differs from that of the past in being founded on ideas which pervade every grade of society.  No observer of public thought on social problems can fail to notice a feeling among all classes, the thoughtful and the careless, the wise and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, that the results of our industrial system, so far as the general welfare is concerned, are not creditable to our civilization ; that society has allowed a favored few to possess themselves of wealth which, under a different system, might have contributed in an important degree to the prosperity of the masses.

In this view Socialists, Anarchists, and labor-reformers are at one with a large body—perhaps with a majority—of the educated community.  Divergence begins with the question whether it is politic and practicable to change a system which all admit to be unsatisfactory in some of its results.  The attitude of the typical philanthropist toward the Socialist may be expressed thus : “We admit that a system under which one man can gain millions of money through the toil of a hundred thousand barely gaining a subsistence must be wrong.  But so long as human nature has such defects as selfishness, indolence, and willingness to shirk all unpleasant duties, so long must we bear our ills.  Remove these defects, so that every man shall be ready to do his best for the promotion of the general welfare : then may poverty cease and all be supplied with the necessaries and decencies of life with less labor than is now required to gain a bare subsistence.”

This last proposition is the one into which I propose to inquire.  If all men were very good and nobody wanted to be richer than his neighbors, while every one was ready to do whatever the combined wisdom of the community decided ought to be done, would the masses really be much better off than they are now ?  First of all, I ask the reader’s attention to a circumstance which may well make us sceptical as to the affirmative of this question.  It is this : if a large body of men believe that any scheme of industrial reorganization would be beneficial, they are at liberty to put that system into operation among themselves and for their own exclusive benefit, and tints to demonstrate what society at large could do in the same way.  This fact has been too much forgotten.  Reformers have so long called upon the legislative Jove for help as to make us forget that they can put their own shoulders to the wheel as effectively as Jupiter himself can.  Under the system which now prevails, dissatisfied men of all callings can form themselves into an association, and distribute among themselves all the products of their labor in what way they deem best.  Then those members who belong to the building trades would erect nothing but homes and other buildings for the association ; all the clothing made by the tailors, all the shoes made by the shoemakers, all the bread made by the farmers and the bakers, would be divided according to any system that might be adapted.  It is true that, at first, the want of capital and land would prove an inconvenience.  But the use of the former could be had on very favorable terms if only the enterprise had the elements of success ; and as for the latter, fertile land is available in many parts of the world at a nominal cost.  Nor need the association put its theories into practice to any greater extent than it finds advantageous.  It can confine itself to just such industries as it believes to be most oppressed, can make any contracts it pleases with society at large to exchange services with it, and can sell any of its products it chooses to part with.

To compensate for every disadvantage, such an association would have over society at large the great advantage of being made up of picked men.  Our society has the aged, the infirm, the worthless, and the criminal classes to care for.  The new society can select the young, the honest, the healthy, and the industrious.  Yet we scarcely hear of such an experiment being even tried by the professed Socialists of the time.  In thus refraining from any attempt to put their own principles into practice, notwithstanding the facility with which they could do it, they remind us of an architect afraid to erect a building according to his own plans.

Here I may seem to speak too hastily.  Numerous and instructive attempts have been made, especially in this country, to put socialistic theories into practical operation.  The Shakers are well known to all, and many of us have heard of such communities as the Economites, the Icarians, and the Brook Farm Community, in some of which every honest and industrious laborer might receive a welcome.  But it will be soon enough to discuss their success when we find reformers willing either to join those which exist or to form others on improved models.  To come directly to the point : if all America, or all England, or all London should to-morrow organize itself by general consent into a gigantic association for the equitable distribution of all the products of its labor, would the results be any more satisfactory to social reformers and dissatisfied laborers than those of the various communities which have been organized among us ?  We must admit that, in a certain way, some of the communities in question have been successful.  This is true especially of the Shakers, among whom poverty and discomfort are unknown.  But their success has been attained through a self-denial, submission to discipline, and suppression of the natural activities of the race to which no ordinary man of any class would submit.  But talk of all these communities as we may, the fact remains that they all tend to die out, and that not one Socialist in a thousand would exchange his lot for that of one of their members.

From this general consideration I pass to certain current doctrines on which sympathy with socialism and dissatisfaction with the existing order of things are very largely based.  These doctrines may be called fallacies, because they are half-truths, or imperfect truths, so applied as to lead to erroneous general conclusions.  I shall state and consider them as clearly as possible in a numbered order.

First fallacy—That the inequality between the rich and the poor in the enjoyment of wealth is continually increasing.

Of course, it is not denied that the inequality in the ownership of wealth is as great as is commonly believed, and is increasing with every generation.  What I maintain is that the benefits of this wealth are not so unequally divided as its ownership.  To show the fallacy of confounding the two, let us first consider a miser who lives in a garret, sleeps on a mat, eats cold victuals, dresses in rags, and dies worth a million.  Measured by the popular standard, he is a rich man.  Judged by any rational standard, he is pitiably poor ; for if all his earnings had been taken from him as fast as he gathered them, he would have been no better off in life or in death.  Then compare with him a professional man who occupies a rented house, uses rented furniture, lives luxuriously by paying next week for the food he consumes this, and owes his tailor for his last suit of clothes.  Measured by the popular standard, this man is a pauper, in spite of his enjoying a large income and a hundred thousand dollars of wealth belonging to a capitalist.  This standard is clearly fallacious in his case.

The truth is that the proportion of men who own little or nothing tends to increase, for the very plain reason that it is every year becoming easier to enjoy wealth without owning it.  A century ago the man who possessed nothing was poor indeed, because few others had spare houses or beds to share with him.  Now for a dollar he can ride over a million dollars’ worth of railroad, and for a small percentage on its cost he can live in a house of any ordinary size.

Second fallacy—That the masses have good reason to complain of an unequal and unfair distribution of the wealth actually produced day by day and year by year, through their weekly wages being insufficient to purchase those good things to which they are fairly entitled.

Although this view is very widely held, there is a certain vagueness about it which makes it necessary to give it greater precision.  Whether a person has or has not reason to complain is a matter of individual opinion, which it is not possible to settle by any general principle.  All I propose to do is to show that there is much less reason to complain than is commonly supposed.  Another difficulty arises from the vagueness of the current ideas associated with wealth.  Let us compare two laboring men, one of whom is a good, intelligent manager, and lives in a place where the necessaries of life are cheap, while the other is unskilful in the market and the household, and lives where things are dear.  The first gets a healthy, comfortable living on wages of one dollar a day ; the second is miserable on two dollars.  Which is the richer ?  Many laborers, impressed by the superior dignity attaching to the higher wages, would say the second ; but in the name of good sense I must contest that view.  The first and greatest object of wages and wealth is to be comfortably housed, fed, and clothed.  The man who can succeed in this without an exhausting or injurious amount of labor has fairly attained one of the great ends of human existence, and has the same right to congratulate himself, whether his daily income is fifty cents or fifty dollars.

Now, measured by this standard, the difference between the richest man of the country and the average skilled laborer, though great, is not nearly so great as the difference between their nominal wealth or income leads men to suppose.  The case stands thus : the rich man has a much larger house, enabling him to have a bedroom to himself and a parlor in which he can entertain a host of friends.  He walks on soft carpets, instead of a bare floor ; decorates his walls with costly paintings, instead of cheap photographs ; gets the tenderest cut of steak, instead of the round ; eats off of fine porcelain, instead of plain crockery ; gives dinners to his friends, has a stable full of horses, and crosses the ocean whenever his business permits and his inclination prompts.  Have I omitted anything essential ?  If so, let the reader supply it to his own satisfaction both in quantity and quality.

These are doubtless great advantages : we cannot stop to inquire whether they generally yield more happiness than the outfit and furniture of a tenement, or how often they are more than set off by such a skeleton in the closet as never disturbs the dreams of the poor.  More instructive is it to inquire how much the poor would profit if all the wealth of the rich were divided among them.  We take a thousand millionaires of New York and its vicinity, if there are so many, and divide their wealth among the hundred thousand poorest families.  Then we have a hundred poor families for each millionaire.  They take possession of his house, but find the beds so far occupied by his servants, whom they do not wish to displace, that all they can do is to bivouac in the parlor, which will not hold half of them.  Half a dozen of the beneficiaries get new suits of clothes ; every one gets the hundredth part of a wild duck for dinner, and the fiftieth part of a fine beefsteak.  What could they get more ?  Wealth ?  Yes ; but what wealth ?  A share in the New York Central Railroad for each man, woman, and child, which would not even gain them admittance to a train until they had bought tickets ; a bond of some western road or city ; the thousandth part of a warehouse or steamboat.  Would not the beneficiaries turn and rend those who had deceived them by the assurance that, when the wealth of the rich was divided among them, they could live better than now ?  Perhaps this way of looking at the subject may seem odd.  If so, the oddity consists only in persistently looking at the facts and discarding sentiment.  Instead of considering such vague things as wealth, capital, and capitalism, I insist on considering only such grovelling things as houses, beds, and beefsteak.  I shall be very glad when we find a world in which popular prices, stirring speeches, and eternal justice will butter our bread ; but we have not got it here.

Third fallacy—That there is plenty and to spare of food, raiment, drink, and shelter for all the poor and rich of the land ; the only difficulty is, the former cannot get their share because they have not money enough to buy it.

Superficially this is a very natural view, because it accords with our experience from childhood.  Every one knows that he who has the money to buy can get almost anything he wants.  What conclusion more natural than that if everybody had money, everybody could buy ?  To learn that there would be scarcity even if every one had the money to buy, because there is not enough to go round, requires a course of thought which, though easy, is entered upon by few.  Let us now see how the case stands.

We must, as an example, take some necessary of life with which the masses are insufficiently supplied : let us take clothing.  If, during the last fifty years, more clothing has been made than is necessary for the comfort of all, and if during all that time a large body of the people have been insufficiently clad, then one of two things is inevitable : either there has been a constant accumulation of unsold clothing, or a great many men have bought and worn far more than their share.  But we all know that in no clothing-house is there any greater accumulation than is necessary to enable customers to find what suits them.  Then who wears more than his share ?  The rich man ?  No ; he only wears one suit at a time.  True, he buys at first hand much more than his share ; but he only begins to wear it.  After the first gloss is off it passes through the hands of his servants, his employees, or the second-hand dealer, to a wearer lower in the social scale, and continues on its course until it is worn out.

If, after all the clothing made gets worn, one-tenth of the people are in rags and another tenth insufficiently clad, what follows ?  Evidently there is not clothing enough to go round comfortably.  And what is true of this is true of ail the commodities which the poor cannot get.  If all that exists were divided among the masses to-day, the want would be greater than ever in a few months.

Here we touch upon a point which the social reformer might urge with great force.  He might claim that this underproduction of necessaries for the masses shows that an undue proportion of the labor power of the country is devoted to the luxury of the few, and that it would be an excellent thing if the labor now employed in caring for the rich man’s fast horses were devoted to the poor man’s ill-shod feet.  Nothing shows in a stronger light the absence of rational adaptation of means to ends in the socialistic policy than the fact that not only is this claim not made, but all the exertions of labor organizations tend to make the poor man’s necessaries scarce and dear, while they leave a large part of the rich man’s luxuries untouched.  No one ever heard of a bricklayers’ strike failing of support because the men were at work on houses for the poor, and for many years the most exacting and effective labor organizations of the country have been those whose members make shoes for the million.  But who ever saw a strike among the men who groom the rich man’s horses, wait on his table, make his cigars, or import his champagne ?

Fourth fallacy—That the laboring classes are oppressed by the capitalists.

Every one knows that the one great feature of modern law in our own and most other civilized countries is that the laborer, the capitalist, and the nobleman are equal before the law, and that to the first, individually and collectively, is allowed the most extreme liberty of action so long as he does not violently assail the equal liberties of other people.  During the recent strike in London the dock laborers were allowed to inflict incalculable damage upon the commerce of London, and entail inconvenience upon a million of its inhabitants, while they were assisted by donations of money, even from Australia, transmitted through the cables and banks of the very men whom they were incommoding.

Fifth fallacy—That the “labor movement,” as represented by the organization of skilled labor, is highly philanthropic, and therefore entitled to public sympathy and support.

In calling this a fallacy I wish not to be misunderstood.  I am in favor of every movement which will really elevate the masses without pulling others down.  I object to calling the labor movement philanthropic, for the simple reason that it is not philanthropic at all, but only intended to elevate those who take part in it at the expense of every one else.  When its promoters organize a strike, they give not a moment’s consideration to the possible sufferings they may inflict on thousands of their fellow-men by the consequent scarcity of the necessaries of life.  The greatest objection to it is that it is founded on all the fallacies I have just tried to refute, and especially on one idea which underlies them all—namely, that there is in the country a great mass of wealth which, could the “toiling millions” only get at it, would enable them to live and enjoy themselves at their ease.  I hold it the duty of every man who knows better than this to say so, and to do all he can toward showing his fellow-men that the notion is a mere illusion of the fancy.

Every one knows that, so far as the public is concerned, one great object of a labor-union is to prevent the competition of non-union laborers, and to limit the number of youths who shall be allowed to learn a trade.  The cry of “scab” against every workman who does not belong to a union, and the organized efforts to prevent his finding employment, are so familiar to all as to need no description.  The wonder is that clergymen, professors, and journalists can call it philanthropy when they see a strong man step between a willing employer and a poor laborer, and use every means to reduce the latter to starvation.  Yet worse is the second object.  If there is any one right of man which appeals to the universal conscience, it is that of developing his powers and faculties ; and if there is one duty universally recognized, it is that of helping him to do it by every means in our power.  And yet we tolerate powerful organizations which, in all our great cities, ruthlessly deny to the great mass of the growing children of the poor the privilege of learning a trade ; nay, we do more,—we call these unions philanthropic and their cause sacred.

If the positions I have taken in the preceding exposition are correct, then the policy towards which popular theories tend would make the condition of the masses worse rather than better.  My own doctrine is very simple.  We must reject the theory that everything the masses want to eat, drink, and wear should be made scarce and dear, and adopt the policy of making it cheap and plentiful.  For example, we ought to get all the work we can out of the criminal classes, because we shall thus increase the supply of the necessaries of life.  We cannot comfortably house the poor until we build more and better tenement-houses.  To do this, we must begin by teaching the building trades to a larger number of the unemployed youths of our cities.  We must also discourage the eight-hour system, because if we diminish the building of houses by 20 per cent, we shall certainly find it much harder to house the poor of the next generation.

The difference between the views I have set forth and those I have contested may be fairly summed up thus : from the standpoint which I have contested, the problem of improving the condition of the masses is not one of production, but of distribution.  The majority think that enough and to spare is produced for all, but the only difficulty is that the masses do not get their share.  Perhaps they do not ; I have not claimed that they do, for the simple reason that I do not know how to decide what their share is on any principles which they are ready to accept.  But it is also held that, if they did get more, all could have enough.  I think not, and ask the reader’s courteous consideration of the views here set forth in support of that opinion.

Simon Newcomb.