Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Labor and Prosperity

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The Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor, at the head of which stands Mr. Samuel Gompers, recently addressed “to the President, Cabinet, and Congress of the United States” a memorial describing in strong words the “humiliating poverty and countless privations” suffered by “multitudes of our working-people,” and appealing to the national authorities for “speedy relief.” They remind the party in power that last fall “they were promised helpful legislation,” and that they expect this relief now from the administration and Congress “without unnecessary delay.” They look to the national government to “haste the return of better times, to inspire confidence, and bring cheer and comfort to the homes of millions of citizens who now seek work and wages in vain.” To this end they urge the following measures: 1. “Amendment to the Federal eight-hour law so as to secure its enforcement on all public works by or for the United States government.” 2. “A remodelling of our immigration laws so as to secure an enlarged protection to American citizens and their families.” 3. “Reform in the national banking system and in the issuance of the currency of the United States so as to secure the people from the possibilities and disasters of financial crises.” 4. “Liberal appropriations for government public works, and for the improvement of rivers and harbors.”

The laboring-people who are suffering under the stress of the times may be assured of the sincerest sympathy of all good citizens, and whenever demands are made by them to improve their condition that are within reason, they are certain to meet with respectful and serious consideration.

What makes a clear and amicable understanding between working-men and other social classes sometimes peculiarly difficult of attainment is the circumstance that many of the working-men have evolved out of their own inner consciousness certain vague ideas of rights and duties, and live mentally in a world of their own which is far away from the social conditions actually existing, and that they reason from premises that are out of touch with the present state of things. This is apt to render argument between them and persons living in the actual world mutually unintelligible and fruitless. All the more welcome should be propositions coming from an organization of working-men which, even if open to question, form a fair ground for useful discussion between them and the social conservative. And it will certainly be admitted that the demands put forth by the Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor are so free from socialistic imaginings that they can be debated on terms of mutual understanding and confidence.

In the first place, considering the reckless impetuosity and perverseness with which a good many of the labor leaders last year embraced all the wild doctrines of Bryanism, the propositions before us are remarkable for what they do not, as well as for what they do contain. Not only do they not fall in with the cry for free-silver coinage, or against the national banks as such, but they express the demand for reform of the national banking system and of the currency in a manner which permits the conclusion that the ideas of the memorialists upon these subjects are thoroughly sound. For when they speak of a reform in the national banking system, is it not fair to assume that they mean not the abolition of the system, or anything crippling it, but such an enlargement of its facilities as to enable it to supply the people with an elastic as well as a safe bank currency, and especially to furnish those parts of the country which have actually suffered from want of circulation the banking conveniences which alone can help them? And when they speak of a “reform in the issuance of the currency of the United States so as to secure the people from the possibilities and disasters of financial crises,” what else can they mean than the gradual withdrawal of those United States notes which, so long as they exist, will, whenever economic circumstances become unfavorable, always expose the Treasury to runs for gold and the country to those spasms of distrust which are so destructive to its prosperity? The language of the memorialists can hardly have any other meaning; and if such interpretation is correct, we may welcome this labor organization as a valuable force in forming that public opinion the pressure of which is required to inspire the politicians in Congress with the necessary courage to adopt a really sound monetary policy.

This force will be all the more valuable and potent as the working-men come clearly to perceive the relative efficacy of the different means proposed for the amelioration of their condition. As to the Federal eight-hour law, all good citizens will agree that it, as well as all other laws, should be honestly and consistently enforced. But a calm consideration of the possible effects of such an enforcement of that law will convince every clear-minded working-man who does not permit himself to be carried away by the sentimental feature of the matter, that it will play but a very small part in the restoration of “better times” which the laboring-people, together with all other classes of society, are so anxious to see accomplished. Neither will “a remodeling of our immigration laws” with a view to the protection of our working-men against competition help them much. The subject of immigration has of late been treated by many from altogether too narrow a point of view. Granting, for argument's sake, that immigration is bringing to our shores, with very valuable elements, others that are undesirable — which, however, if they remain here, are absorbed and assimilated by our vast population far more easily than seems to be supposed — it will be admitted that it is foolish to regard every immigrant simply as an intruder coming here to take the bread out of somebody else's mouth. It must not be forgotten that immigrants who by their labor contribute to the development of our resources thereby aid in the enlargement of our activities and of home consumption; in other words, that while increasing the supply of labor, they enlarge at the same time the field and the demand for it. When times are hard and the opportunities of the laboring-man are correspondingly narrowed, immigration dwindles down to a comparatively insignificant figure without restrictive legislation. As a means to bring on better times, a further restriction of immigration would obviously be a most unavailing measure.

The fourth proposition of the memorialists, the demand for “liberal appropriations for government public works and for the improvement of rivers and harbors,” is also one of those delusive shifts which in their effects are apt to prove more hurtful than helpful. Experience teaches us that whenever Congress launches out in a policy of “liberal” appropriations for public works, a reckless waste of the public money for useless objects, with all its consequences of profligacy and corruption, will usually follow. A spendthrift government has never been a blessing to any people, least of all to the poorer portion of it. Some individuals may profit from the public extravagance, but the people at large will have to pay the cost by way of taxation, and of this the poor have to bear by no means the lightest burden.

But while this working-men's memorial is not free from the advocacy of some expedients which will help them little, and of others which would positively hurt them in their efforts to ameliorate their condition, it gives to those in power some hints of very great value. Its absolute silence on the protective tariff as a remedial measure pointedly indicates that the working-men who are represented by this federation, and presumably many others, do not accept the teaching which describes high tariff duties as the source of high wages and of general prosperity. On the other hand, the stress it lays upon the necessity of reforming the issuance of government currency and the national banking system so as to prevent financial convulsions shows plainly the direction in which they look for the restoration of that confidence which alone can, and which certainly will, bring on a new period of prosperous activity. And in this they are certainly right. Excepting that confidence, all the conditions for such a revival of prosperity actually exist. For years the people — all but the government — have been practising economy. Throughout the country the merchants have limited their stocks of goods to the smallest requirements. The markets are in a decidedly receptive state. Business is ready for immediate expansion, and waits only to be relieved of the dull pressure of that distrust which discourages all spirit of enterprise, and which will not yield until our monetary policy shall have ceased to be in an unsettled and threatening condition. The working-men can do much by their moral influence to hasten on a right solution of this problem; and that influence will be all the more potential and salutary the more it is inspired by the consciousness that their prosperity as a class is altogether bound up in the prosperity of the people at large.

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.