Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 41.djvu/666

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and proclaim that the sacred right of freedom of contract or of personal liberty was thereby impaired. But, as soon as there is a chance of the wage-earners being able to control legislation and they indicate their desire to increase wages, it is immediately discovered by many would-be teachers and philosophers of the individualist school that this sacred right is imperiled, and that it would be sacrilegious to touch it with the vulgar hand of the State. This school overlooks the actual condition of affairs and bases its conclusions on an ideal state of facts which does not exist except in the imagination of its members. If employer and employed stood upon an equal footing; if the necessities of one were equal to the necessities of the other; if the abilities of both were equal then freedom of contract would produce not only good but also just results. But no one with any knowledge of the world can affirm that these conditions exist. The condition of labor more nearly corresponds to that of a man who falls into a well, far removed from human habitation. After he has been there for a day without food and sees starvation staring him in the face, he attracts the attention of a stray passer-by by his cries for help. The latter comes up, but refuses to lower his rope and pull him out unless he receives five hundred dollars. The next day another man says he will help him out for one thousand dollars, but this offer is also declined. The third day, being nearly starved, he contracts to pay a third man fifteen hundred dollars for assisting him out of the well, and so regains his freedom. Labor has fallen into the well of poverty, and Capital stands on the brink and says in effect: "I did not put you there, and therefore I am justified in making the best bargain I can with you. In fact, I am forced to do so by the competition of some of my rivals who sell the same commodities. They screw wages down to the lowest point, and I can't compete with them unless I do likewise. I must either pay the same low wages, or retire from business, or become bankrupt."

It is precisely at this point that the pinch comes, which exerts a controlling influence upon the average employer. He cares nothing for fine-spun theories respecting the freedom of contract or personal liberty, but he knows from every-day experience that he can not pay high wages so long as there are even a few unscrupulous and avaricious employers in the same line of business who succeed in obtaining labor at low rates. He is forced to compete with them in the sale of his commodities, and the price of labor is a large item in the cost of their manufacture. Higher wages would eat up his profits, and drive him out of business or into bankruptcy. "If," he says, "some plan can be invented by which all my competitors will be obliged to pay high wages, then I have no objection to paying the same wages, for then we shall