Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/July 1896/Correspondence

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Correspondence.
CHARACTER-BUILDING AND THE ENVIRONMENT.

Editor Popular Science Monthly:

SIR: Tour editorial entitled Necessity, in the April number of the Popular Science Monthly, attracted my attention, and as a general statement this much of your conclusion commands my approval: "In every well-balanced mind the thought of necessity is habitually present, calling forth efforts of self-restraint which tend to conserve and consolidate the individual's happiness and well-being. We contemplate, therefore, a constant recognition of necessity, but a recognition which enables a man to meet it on ground more or less of his own choosing."

Your more special conclusion, however, does not appeal to my reason as having any great value as a practical proposition. I refer to the following: "The problem is to make more sound individuals; and that problem does not seem to be in its nature insoluble—therein differing from some that are set by social reformers." The value of this proposition depends wholly upon the meaning of the term "sound individuals." If in defining this expression you include as an essential characteristic of "sound individuals" a knowledge of the meaning and application of the law of equal freedom, as taught by Herbert Spencer, your proposition is of unquestionable validity; although it would still be of no great practical value without pointing out the specific manner of making individuals sound relative to the particular necessity they have to face; the necessity which you appear to have had in mind in this case being their social environment.

You say: "Socialist writers do not appear to be at all of this way of thinking. They have a noble zeal for remedying evils, but they do not seem to allow anything for the conditions which Nature itself imposes." This is a blunder for which defenders of our present semi-socialistic society are equally responsible. There is no more imperative and unchangeable condition imposed by Nature than the law of rent. Henry George has shown, in Progress and Poverty, that private appropriation of rent is the worldwide cause of involuntary poverty. His book has been before mankind nearly twenty years, and there is not to-day a review of it extant worthy of being classed under the head of scientific investigation and criticism. All attempt at criticism of Progress and Poverty as a whole is mere pettifogging.

Rent is a social product. The exclusive possession of land is a special privilege granted by society. Society should realize one hundred cents on a dollar for its resources. Instead of so doing, it squanders them, gives them away. In throwing away its resources Government pursues a course that would bankrupt any private business. But, unlike private individuals, it has the power to recoup its losses by force, by preying upon individuals—taking their property without giving anything in return. In so doing it violates all the laws of equity and propriety fully recognized in private transactions. Men in dealing with each other give value received, or at least make a pretense of so doing. Government, however, does not even make the pretense, but takes our personal property by force without even claiming that the tax is in proportion to benefits conferred.

But this is the will of the ignorant majority, also of pretentious scientists and teachers of morals. My first prescription for making "sound individuals" is to teach them the good old maxim, "Equal rights to all, special privileges to none," and then to show them the application of this principle to society's administration of the land.

Your criticism of socialism, and any scheme whereby employers would be compelled to hire the unemployed, is valid. Single taxers, however, ask only that the unemployed have equal access to natural opportunities. Granted that those having more capital can make better use of natural opportunities, but where does capital itself come from? With equal access to the land, whence capital is derived, men would quickly employ themselves, and would soon provide themselves with capital; if they did not, they could make no reasonable complaint.

You say: "The more, for our own part, we look into these questions, the more we are driven back to the conviction that the way out which is so much desired lies in the improvement of individual character, with consequent increase of individual power and better adaptation to surrounding conditions. As it is, we find that the well-developed individualities can take care of themselves pretty well; they have the power of adapting themselves to their surroundings, and taking so useful a part in the world's work that, even under the much-abused capitalistic system, they thrive very well."

When men arrive upon this earth, as millions do, and find it owned and their right to equal access to it denied, they are undeniably at about as great a disadvantage as it is possible to conceive; and it is worse than mockery to tell them that "the way out which is so much desired lies in the improvement of individual character, with consequent increase of individual power and better adaptation to surrounding conditions." The thing to tell them is to change the surrounding conditions so as to remove the disadvantage. It is true that a small percentage of well-developed individualities, especially if they manage to get possession of some of the special privileges created by law, thrive very well; but this percentage is so small as to be hardly worth considering when studying the welfare of the human race.

You advocate the doctrine of contentment. You would say that an engineer, for example, obtaining for his services five thousand dollars per annum, was thriving very well. Perhaps another person, utterly regardless of his natural individual power, is in possession of an income of one hundred thousand dollars per annum, derived solely from special legal privileges, without rendering any service to society. The latter represents a class who are parasites upon the former. The question is, How much better would the engineer thrive if the legal privileges supporting the parasite class were abolished? Another question suggests itself. Suppose a large number of the individuals of low productive power should follow your advice and become, for example, competent engineers, how well then would good engineers thrive? Would not competition immediately bring down the incomes of engineers? The privileged classes would simply have better educated servants, and would get them for less pay.

You say: "We are far from saying that there is not a vast amount of hardship in the world, and much of it of a kind which in no way benefits those who have to endure it, as, of course, some hardship undoubtedly does. But we want to see a way out that will not cut the nerves of industry and make self-reliance a forgotten virtue. We want to see a way out that will not lessen the sense of individual responsibility or make a man less a man. Show us such a way, and we shall gladly lend every effort in our power toward its realization."

The writer is very glad indeed to feel that he can give you credit for being sincere, and that your attitude toward the single-tax movement results from a misconception of it, notwithstanding the immense amount of circumstantial evidence pointing to the so-called "conspiracy of silence" of the press, due to its subjection to the privileged classes. Believing as I do that you greatly misconceive the single-tax proposition, I can not blame you for not offering its accredited representatives a full hearing in your conservative journal. In the interest of our movement and accepting your invitation, "Show us such a way," etc. I offer the services of myself and others in the movement to endeavor by private and confidential correspondence, or interviews if you prefer, to try to remove from your mind what we very plainly see are gross misapprehensions of our principles and aims. As a scientist you can hardly do less than give the subject this much consideration. As a journalist, however, we can not expect you to admit anything that you regard as visionary' quackery. It is only in the hope that we may so far remove your misconceptions that you will see the propriety of admitting fair presentations of the single-tax proposition in your journal that I am writing you.

I am aware that very many of our advocates mix with their arguments a great deal of religious dogma and superstition and crude notions of "natural rights," etc. The writer, however, claims to be wholly free from these ideas and superstitions, and holds that they are entirely superfluous in presenting the single-tax proposition. I ask only for pure scientific treatment. If the single-tax doctrine can not be logically deduced from the accepted laws of political economy and ethics, or if it can be shown that the conclusions of those sciences invalidate the single-tax proposition, the writer stands ready to abandon it.Yours, etc.,

L. G. Bostedo.
Chicago, April 12, 1896.