Progress and Poverty (George)/Chapter XXIII

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Progress and Poverty (George) by Henry George
Chapter XXIII: The master motive of human action


Chapter XXIII The master motive of human action[edit]

In thinking of the possibilities of social organization, we are apt to assume that greed is the strongest of human motives, and that systems of administration can be safely based only upon the idea that the fear of punishment is necessary to keep men honest - that selfish interests are always stronger than general interests. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whatever is potent for evil may be made potent for good. The change I have proposed would destroy the conditions that distort impulses in themselves beneficent, and would transmute the forces that now tend to disintegrate society into forces that would tend to unite and purify it.

Give labour a free field and its full earnings; take for the benefit of the whole community that fund which the growth of the community creates, and want and the fear of want would be gone. The springs of production would be set free and the enormous increase of wealth would give the poorest ample comfort. Men would no more worry about finding employment than they worry about finding air to breathe; they need have no more care about physical necessities than do the lilies of the field. The progress of science, the march of invention, the diffusion of knowledge, would bring their benefits to all. With this abolition of want and the fear of want, the admiration of riches would decay and men would seek the respect and approbation of their fellows in other modes than by the acquisition and display of wealth. In this way there would be brought to the management of public affairs, and the administration of common funds the skill, the attention, the fidelity and the integrity that can now be secured only for private interests.

Short-sighted is the philosophy that counts on selfishness as the master motive of human action. It is blind to facts of which the world is full. It sees not the present, and reads not the past aright. If you would move men to action, to what shall you appeal? Not to their pockets, but to their patriotism; not to selfishness, but to sympathy. Self-interest is, as it were, a mechanical force - potent, it is true; capable of large and wide results. But there is in human nature what may be likened to a chemical force that melts and fuses and overwhelms, to which nothing seems impossible. "All that a man hath will he give for his life" - that is self-interest. But in loyalty to higher impulses men will give even life.

How men are inspired[edit]

It is not selfishness that enriches the annals of every people with heroes and saints. It is not selfishness that on every page of the world's history bursts out in sudden splendour of noble deeds or sheds the soft radiance of benignant lives. It was not selfishness that turned Gautama's back to his royal home or bade the Maid of Orleans lift the sword from the altar; that held the Three Hundred in the Pass of Thermopylae, or gathered into Winkelried's bosom the sheaf of spears; that chained Vincent de Paul to the bench of the galley, or brought little starving children, during the Indian famine, tottering to the relief stations with yet weaker starvelings in their arms. Call it religion, patriotism, sympathy, the enthusiasm for humanity, or the love of God - give it what name you will; there is yet a force that overcomes and drives out selfishness; a force that is the electricity of the moral universe; a force beside which all others are weak. Everywhere that men have lived it has shown its power, and today, as ever, the world is full of it. To be pitied is the man who has never seen and never felt it. Look around! Among common men and women, amid the care and the struggle of daily life, in the jar of the noisy street and amid the squalor where want hides - every here and there is the darkness lighted with the tremulous play of its lambent flares. He who has not seen it has walked with shut eyes. He who looks may see, as says Plutarch, that "the soul has a principle of kindness in itself, and is born to love, as well as to perceive, think, or remember."

What prevents harmonious development[edit]

And this force of forces - which now goes to waste or assumes perverted forms - we may use for the strengthening, and building up, and ennobling of society, if we but will, just as we now use physical forces that once seemed but powers of destruction. All we have to do is to give it freedom and scope. The wrong that produces inequality; the wrong that in the midst of abundance tortures men with want or harries them with the fear of want; that stunts them physically, degrades them intellectually, and distorts them morally, is what alone prevents harmonious social development. For "all that is from the gods is full of providence. We are made for co-operation - like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth."

There are people who are unable to conceive of any better state of society than that which now exists - to whom the idea that there could be a state of society in which greed would be banished, prisons stand empty, individual interests be subordinated to general interests, and no one would seek to rob or to oppress his neighbour, is but the dream of impracticable dreamers. Such people - though some of them write books, and some of them occupy the chairs of universities, and some of them stand in pulpits - do not think. If they were accustomed to dine in those eating-houses where the knives and forks are chained to the table, they would deem it the natural, ineradicable disposition of man to carry off the knife and fork with which he has eaten. Take a company of well-bred men and women dining together. There is no struggling for food, no attempt on the part of anyone to get more than his neighbour; no attempt to gorge or to carry off. On the contrary, each one is anxious to help his neighbour before he partakes himself; to offer to others the best rather than pick it out for himself; and should anyone show the slightest disposition to prefer the gratification of his own appetite to that of the others, or in any way to act the pig or pilferer, the swift and heavy penalty of social contempt and ostracism would show how such conduct is reprobated by common opinion.

Differing states of society[edit]

All this is so common as to excite no remark, as to seem the natural state of things. Yet it is no more natural that men should not be greedy of food than that they should not be greedy of wealth. They are greedy of food when they are not assured that there will be a fair and equitable distribution that will give enough to each. But when these conditions are assured, they cease to be greedy of food. And so in society, as at present constituted, men are greedy of wealth because the conditions of distribution are so unjust that instead of each being sure of enough, many are certain to be condemned to want. It is the "devil catch the hindmost" of present social adjustments that causes the race and scramble for wealth, in which all considerations of justice, mercy, religion and sentiment are trampled underfoot; in which men forget their own souls and struggle to the very verge of the grave for what they cannot take beyond. But an equitable distribution of wealth, by exempting all from the fear of want, would destroy the greed of wealth, just as in polite society the greed of food has been destroyed.

Consider this existing fact of a cultivated and refined society, in which all the coarser passions are held in check, not by force, not by law, but by common opinion and the mutual desire to please. If this is possible for a part of a community, it is possible for a whole community. There are states of society in which everyone has to go armed - in which everyone has to hold himself in readiness to defend person and property with the strong hand. If we have progressed beyond that, we may progress still further.

The incentives to progress[edit]

But it may be said, to banish want and the fear of want would be to destroy the stimulus to exertion; men would simply become idlers, and such a happy state of general comfort and content would be the death of progress. This is the old slaveholders' argument, that men can only be driven to labour with the lash. Nothing is more untrue.

Want might be banished, but desire would remain. Man is the unsatisfied animal. He has only begun to explore, and the universe lies before him. Each step that he takes opens new vistas and kindles new desires. He is the constructive animal; he builds, he improves, he invents and puts together, and the greater the thing he does, the greater the thing he wants to do. He is more than an animal. Whatever be the intelligence that breathes through nature, it is in that likeness that man is made. The steamship, driven by her throbbing engines through the sea, is in kind, though not in degree, as much a creation as the whale that swims beneath. The telescope and the microscope, what are they but added eyes, which man has made for himself? The soft webs and fair colours in which our women array themselves, do they not answer to the plumage that nature gives the bird? Man must be doing something, or fancy that he is doing something, for in him throbs the creative impulse; the mere basker in the sunshine is not a natural, but an abnormal man.

It is not labour in itself that is repugnant to man; it is not the natural necessity for exertion that is a curse; it is only the labour that produces nothing - exertion of which he cannot see the results. To toil day after day, and yet get but the necessaries of life, this is indeed hard; it is like the infernal punishment of compelling a man to pump lest he be drowned, or to trudge on a treadmill lest he be crushed. But released from this necessity, men would but work the harder and the better, for then they would work as their inclinations led them; then, would they seem to be really doing something for themselves or for others.

The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power, enriches literature, and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves, driven to their task either by the lash of a master or by animal necessities. It is the work of men who perform it for its own sake, and not that they may get more to eat or drink, or wear, or display. In a state of society where want was abolished, work of this sort would be enormously increased.

Mental powers liberated[edit]

I am inclined to think that the result of confiscating rent in the manner I have proposed would be to cause the organization of labour, wherever large capitals were used, to assume the cooperative form, since the more equal diffusion of wealth would unite capitalist and labourer in the same person. But whether this would be so or not is of little moment. The hard toil of routine labour would disappear. Wages would be too high and opportunities too great to compel any man to stint and starve the higher qualities of his nature, and in every avocation the brain would aid the hand. Work, even of the coarser kinds, would become a lightsome thing. The tendency of modern production to subdivision would not involve monotony or the contraction of ability in the worker, since toil would be relieved by short hours, by change, by the alternation of intellectual with manual occupations.

The greatest of all the wastes that the present constitution of society involves is that of mental power. How infinitesimal are the forces that concur to the advance of civilization, as compared with the forces that lie latent!

How few are the thinkers, the discoverers, the inventors, the organizers, as compared with the great mass of the people! Yet such men are born in plenty; it is the conditions that permit so few to develop.

How little have the best of us, in acquirements, in position, even in character, that may be credited entirely to ourselves; how much to the influences that have moulded us. Who is there, wise, learned, discreet, or strong, who might not, were he to trace the inner history of his life, turn like the Stoic Emperor to give thanks to the gods, that by this one and that one, and here and there, good examples have been set him, noble thoughts have reached him and happy opportunities opened before him. Who is there, with his eyes about him and having reached the meridian of life, who has not sometimes echoed the thought of the pious Englishman, as the criminal passed to the gallows, "But for the grace of God, there go I." How little does heredity count as compared with conditions. This one, we say, is the result of a thousand years of European progress, and that one of a thousand years of Chinese petrifaction. Yet place an infant in the heart of China and, but for the angle of the eye or the shade of the hair, the Caucasian would grow up as those around him, using the same speech, thinking the same thoughts, exhibiting the same tastes. Change Lady Vere de Vere in her cradle with an infant of the slum and will the blood of a hundred earls give you a refined and cultured woman?

To remove want and the fear of want, to give to all classes leisure, comfort and independence, the decencies and refinements of life, the opportunities of mental and moral development, would be like turning water into a desert. The sterile waste would clothe itself with verdure and the barren places where life seemed banned would ere long be dappled with the shade of trees and musical with the song of birds. Talents now hidden, virtues unsuspected, would come forth to make human life richer, fuller, happier, nobler. For in those round men who are stuck into three-cornered holes and three-cornered men who are rammed into round holes; in those men who are wasting their energies in the scramble to be rich; in those who in factories are turned into machines, or are chained by necessity to bench or plough; in those children who are growing up in squalor, vice and ignorance, are powers of the highest order, talents the most splendid. All they need is the opportunity to bring them forth.

Consider the possibilities of a state of society that gave that opportunity to all. Let imagination fill out the picture; its colours grow too bright for words to paint. Consider the moral elevation, the intellectual activity, the social life. Consider how by a thousand actions and interactions the members of every community are linked together and how, in the present condition of things, even the fortunate few who stand upon the apex of the social pyramid must suffer, though they know it not, from the want, ignorance and degradation that are underneath. The change I propose would be for the benefit of everyone, even the greatest landholder. Would he not be safer of the future of his children in leaving them penniless in such a state of society than in leaving them the largest fortune in this? Did such a state of society anywhere exist, would he not buy entrance to it cheaply by giving up all his possessions?