The Slippery Slope/Social Study on Large Maps

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The late Lord Salisbury once advised those who wish to study foreign politics to do so upon large maps. The same advice may be given to those who wish to study social problems, and especially the problem of poverty ; for there is, perhaps, no department of social economy in which the field of observation is so wide and the phenomena are so persistent, and in which the sequence of cause and effect appears to be so inexorable. We are often warned against the danger of historical comparisons, and of course such a danger exists. There must always be controversy as to the interpretation of history, especially of that which is more remote. It is not suggested, therefore, that the comparisons should be pressed too closely ; but at least there is sufficient evidence to show that, even in the remoter periods of history, much the same things were being said and done in regard to the problem of poverty as are being said and done at the present time, and that certain principles and tendencies have established themselves beyond the reach of controversy.

The writer does not pretend to do more than to give the barest outlines of some of the best known phenomena in the social history of the past which appear to illustrate three of these principles and tendencies. Readers must form their own conclusions as to whether or no they are relevant to the social questions of the day. His purpose will have been accomplished if he induces any one to examine the question more closely for himself.

The first point to be noted is that great measures of unrestricted State relief have had, from the earliest times, a monotonously disastrous effect upon the character of those who have received it. The Theoric Fund in Athens provided for an allowance of two oboli a day at first, and later three oboli to citizens attending public festivals and assemblies. Mr Grote defends this in principle "as the natural corollary of the religious idea associated with the festival" (cap. lxxv.); but he adds that "it was pushed to an abusive and mischievous excess in later times," and undoubtedly it ultimately degenerated into a great system of State relief to the poorer citizens. A writer of the times says that "Pericles by his Theoric Fund made his fellow-citizens babblers, idle and greedy, prodigal and dissolute." Aristotle points out its impotence to relieve poverty, "the demagogues distributed the surplus revenues to the poor, who received them all at the same time, and then they were in want again. It was only like pouring money through a sieve … the problem was to contrive how plenty and not poverty should become permanent" (Loch, "Charity and Social Life," p. 33, Ar. Pol. 1320a). The Annona Civica in Rome was equally disastrous to character, and equally futile as a measure for the relief of poverty. Initiated by Gracchus, B.C. 121, it at first ordained that corn should be sold to citizens at a cheap price. Later, Clodius, as a political move, made the distribution free. The distribution was originally quarterly, then it became monthly, and finally it was daily. It was estimated that at first only one-eighth of the citizens participated, and that in the time of Julius Caesar the proportion was three-quarters. Caesar reduced the numbers, but they eventually rose again; "in the age which preceded the fall of the republic it was estimated that only two thousand citizens were possessed of an independent substance" (Gibbon, cap. xxxi.). Cicero, speaking prophetically at the time when the distributions were first made free, says that the measure was "welcomed by the people to whom it assured an ample food-supply without obligation to work; but it was looked askance at by thoughtful people, who saw that its result could only be to empty the Treasury, and to make the people live in idleness" (Cic. pro Sext. c. 43), and his prophecy was fulfilled to the letter. The Annona which was levied upon conquered nations came to an end when Rome was fighting for her life against foreign nations; but it had continued over many centuries, and we may quote Gibbon's description of the social conditions existing under the successors of Constantine: "For the convenience of the lazy plebeians, the monthly distributions of corn were converted into a daily allowance of bread. A great number of ovens were constructed and maintained at the public expense; and at the appointed hour each citizen who was furnished with a ticket ascended the flight of steps which had been assigned to his peculiar quarter or division, and received, either as a gift or at a very low price, a loaf of bread of the weight of three pounds for the use of his family," and what was the result? "From those stately palaces (the baths of Caracalla and Diocletian) issued a swarm of dirty and ragged plebeians, who loitered away whole days in the street or forum to hear news and hold disputes, who dissipated in extravagant gaming the miserable pittance of their wives and children, and spent the hours of the night in obscure taverns and brothels in the indulgence of gross and vulgar sensuality." With regard to their amusements, "The Roman people still considered the circus as their home, their temple, and the seat of the Republic. The impatient people rushed at the dawn of day to secure their places, and there were many who passed a sleepless and anxious night in the adjoining porticoes. From morning to evening, careless of sun or rain, the spectators, who sometimes numbered four hundred thousand, remained in eager attention, their eyes fixed on the horses and charioteers, their minds agitated with hope and fear for the colours they espoused, and the happiness of Rome appeared to hang on the event of a race." The theatres were monopolised by "licentious farce, effeminate music, and splendid pageantry." When, in time of scarcity, all strangers were banished from the city, "singers and dancers were exempted from a law which was strictly enforced against the professors of the liberal arts." Such was the effect of public benevolences in Greece and Rome, and we have had much analogous experience in later times. It is hardly necessary to labour the point. Recent writers, such as Mr and Mrs Sidney Webb, are quite as emphatic in their condemnation of the evil of a "hypertrophied Poor Law," as were Cicero and other writers in their condemnation of similar largesse 2000 years ago.

Another point that is suggested by a study of the "large map" is that unrestricted public relief invariably falls eventually by its own weight, and that there is no ultimate refuge for the poor man in distress except in the unconstrained love and charity of his fellow-men. The "principle of acceleration," which, as Dr Chalmers tells us, is inherent in all poor laws, and of which more will be said hereafter, invariably causes the demand to outrun the supply with the result of an empty treasury as well as an emasculated people. In Athens the Theoric Fund "was carried to abusive and mischievous excess in later times." In Rome the Annona grew from cheap corn to free corn, from free corn only to free corn, bacon, and oil, and was extended from a section of the population to practically all the poorer classes. And then the crash came. When Athens fell upon evil days the Theoric Fund had to be diverted to military purposes. When the same happened to Rome, and Sicily and Carthage were lost to the Empire, the treasury was exhausted, and the unhappy citizens, destitute of all power of self-maintenance, were thrown back upon voluntary charity and the Church. During the siege by Alaric, "the daily allowance of bread was reduced to one half, to one third, to nothing, and the price of corn continued to rise. The poorer citizens solicited the precarious charity of the rich, and for a while the public misery was alleviated by the humanity of the Empress Læta, who consecrated her princely revenue to the use of the indigent" (Gibbon, cap. xxxi.). The distributions of corn were finally discontinued after Theodoric, and the suffering of the people, enervated by centuries of pauperism, is a matter of history.

From this point of view we stand perhaps in a worse position even than Rome itself. The Roman benevolences were levied upon conquered nations ; our own are levied upon the industry of the people themselves, and it is hardly possible to doubt that if our expenditure continues to increase at its present rate we shall some day find ourselves face to face with an empty treasury and a ruined industry. Lord Morley, speaking at Newcastle some years ago, put it thus: "Depend upon it," he said, "that the burden of taxation, however spread, however disguised, falls in the long run most heavily upon the shoulders of the working man," and a hard-headed, north-country audience greeted the remark with cheers. At the present time there is a sense of uneasiness which is quite unprecedented amongst quiet and law-abiding people who busy themselves little with politics, but who subscribe most of the capital required for industrial enterprise. Consols are at a lower level than for many generations, and home securities are heavily depreciated all round. The investor stands aloof from enterprises in which British workmen are employed, because he may at any time lose his money owing to the conditions of the labour market and the growth of taxation,[1] and prefers to invest his savings in foreign enterprises which certainly give no direct employment to the British workman, and so home industries by which our people live are in danger of being gradually atrophied. We may recall Montesquieu's definition of socialism, "aujourd'hui le pillage demain la famine."

Another feature of unrestricted public benevolence which has at all times been equally persistent and equally baneful is to be found in its use for political purposes. The Theoric Fund was used largely for the purpose of obtaining the popular suffrages. The throne, and sometimes the lives, of the Roman Emperors depended upon the munificence of their largesse. We find that even voluntary charity was similarly tainted in quite early times, that of the Roman patron towards his client being often a political expedient devoid of any sense of moral obligation. "The people," says Cicero, "have only one way of doing us a good turn and recognising our services to them, and that is to follow us in a crowd when we go to demand place and honour. It is fair that they whose hopes are centred in us, should do something for us. The least they can do is to give us their votes" (Cic. Pro Murem., c. 34). Political charity is not unknown in these days, but its effect must always be insignificant in comparison with that of public relief which draws upon the public exchequer, and which calls for no personal sacrifice from those who administer it, but which, on the contrary, paves the way to "place and honour." Similarly, in modern times, the path to political eminence and to the gratification of personal ambitions by public benevolence lies, as a rule, over the backs of the poor. We have seen the disastrous process at work in many countries and we see it in our own, for, unhappily, the leaders of both political parties make use of "social reform," in the sense of great measures of public relief, for party purposes without any disguise. A leading statesman on one side advocates a particular measure on the ground that it offers "ninepence for fourpence." Just as this is written, a speech by a leader on the other side is reported in the "Times," in which, under the heading "How to win the next Election," social reform is put forward as a principal means of securing the votes of the electorate ("Times," 29th July 1912). The leaders have, in fact, to submit to the dictation of party agents throughout the country, who send urgent messages that this or that measure of "social reform" is essential for immediate party purposes, with a cynical disregard of ulterior consequences.

There are several other questions of poor relief which it is interesting to study "on a large map," because we see that many practical problems which are now before the public were equally pressing two thousand years ago. For instance, we are now much concerned with the question of feeding of school children, and we are alarmed at a falling birth-rate. Augustus, "in order to increase the free population," initiated a system of subsidy to poor families in proportion to the number of their children, and the system was continued and extended until the exhaustion of the treasury in the later Empire. We may in this connection recall Pitt's abortive poor law which had the same object. Again, we have recently adopted the principle of a minimum wage. Diocletian endeavoured to arrive at the same result by fixing a maximum price for food. One result of this was that at the least appearance of scarcity all strangers and even Italians were expelled from Rome. The experiment was an unqualified failure.

Again, we now hear on every side denunciations of the selfish luxury of the idle rich, but they are as nothing to similar denunciations by the fathers of the Church. "You sit down to a sumptuous feast," says St Chrysostom, "when Christ has not the barest necessaries ! You drink the wine of Thasos when He has not a glass of water to quench His thirst." "What will you say to your Judge?" says St Basil, "who clothe your walls with splendour and leave your fellow-men naked, who let your corn rot in your barns and give none of it to the poor. If an unhappy man begs of you, you say that you have nought to give him. But the very hand with which you repulse him glitters with a priceless jewel and gives the lie to your words. How many poor debtors might be set free, how many houses rebuilt with that ring? Your wardrobe would suffice to clothe a whole people and you send the poor naked away" (Chastel, "Etudes Historiques sur l'influence de la Charité," p. 195-6: Chrys., Horn. 48; Basil, Horn, in Div., c. 4). St Jerome says, "All riches are the result of iniquity. Every rich man is unjust or the heir of an unjust man." Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

Or if we regard the matter from another point of view we find that one side of human nature has changed but little. "Socrates the historian mentions a Jew who, pretending to embrace Christianity, went in succession to the various communities both heretical and orthodox to ask to be baptised, and received from all valuable presents until Paul, Bishop of the Novatians, discovered the fraud, it is said, by a miracle" (Soc. Hist. Eccl., Bk. vii. c. 17). We hear, too, in the Early Church of "spiteful and slanderous widows who instead of calling down the blessing of God on their Bishop made it their business to find out what others had received and then complained of the injustice of the distribution of alms" (Apost. Const, iii. 12-14). We even find that an organisation of charity was initiated by the Church, doubtless as the result of those and similar abuses. Each Bishop was directed to attach to himself a steward for the administration of the funds of his diocese. The deacons and subdeacons who were called "the hand, the mouth, and the soul of the Bishops" were his agents for the distribution of alms. They kept a register of the families that they had to relieve regularly. The deacons' duties were "to write down the names on a special register, to which the name of 'case paper'[2] was given later, and to enter the name, the sex, the profession, and position of each applicant and to obtain the most circumstantial and exact information" (Chastel, p. 99; Cyprian, Ep. 2,7 and Ep. 38; Acts vi. 3-1 1).

Looking then at the "large map" we find that we have advanced surprisingly little in regard to these matters since the beginning of the Christian era. It is, however, rather remarkable that a considerable section of the Anglican Church at the present time appears inclined to look to bureaucracy and compulsion as a solution of the problem of poverty. We may judge from the words of St Chrysostom, how great a departure this is from the tenets of the Early Church. "You cannot," he says, "like St Peter, cure the cripple: give at least your gold. I do not force you to do it if you do not wish to. I use no compulsion but I conjure you to give at least a part to the poor. God might have constrained us to almsgiving: He has preferred to obtain it from our free will so that there may be room for reward" (Chrys., Horn. 90). St Irenseus, comparing the almsgiving of the Jews with that of the Christian Church, says that the "one is the offering of slaves, the other that of free men." (Iren., de Hares, iv. 34).

We have also the records over many centuries of attempts repeated again and again, to make work for the unemployed. In ancient times they degenerated into a system of slavery (Chastel 314, Wallon Hist., t. iv., p. 3, c. 4 and 5). In more recent times we have had some 230 years' experience of the old poor law which was intended to "set the poor on work," and we have had the experience of the national workshops in Paris in 1793 and 1848. Finally we have had seven years' experience of the Unemployed Workmen Act, which was passed as a measure of social reform in the teeth of the warnings of those who had studied these questions most closely. And what is the result? The Act has recently been condemned in the most unqualified terms by the Reports of the Commission, which are unanimous at least in this. Yet, in spite of this condemnation, already some three years old, it still goes on. So difficult is it in these matters to retrace a false step.

It has already been said that readers must judge for themselves as to the relevance of this past history to the history of the present day. But there are many ominous coincidences which must at least awaken grave anxiety in the minds of those who love their country. The public charge for relief has about quadrupled itself in the last twenty-five years, yet there is no sign that it is improving the condition of the people or satisfying their demands. On the contrary, a fierce appetite for relief appears to have sprung up amongst them similar to that which prevailed in Rome under the Empire. Labour unrest, strike succeeding strike with constant scenes of violence, the repeated repudiation of contracts solemnly entered into, recalls the turbulence of the pauperised Romans. We have even in these days citizens who "loiter away whole days in the town to hear news and hold disputes." We have citizens who "dissipate in extravagant gaming the miserable pittances of their wives and children." We have leaders of democracy who, like Clodius, clamour more and more for doles and free maintenance for all; theatrical display and pageantry of all kinds multiply daily; games and amusements monopolise the public mind; huge crowds look on in eager attention at athletic contests, "their minds agitated with hope and fear for the colours they espouse." "The happiness of the country often appears to hang upon the issue of a single match."

The increase in the dependent population and the indifference with which this is regarded by government is perhaps an even more alarming sign of the times. Till lately the test of the well-being of a country was held to be found in a maximum of independence and a minimum of dependence. So, too, of old Plato would have no beggars in his Republic. But the modern statesman cares nothing about these things, and yet if history has anything to tell us it is that they are the most important of all. It is the same with pauperism; the word is hardly mentioned in these days, yet no social reform can succeed which ignores it. In another chapter we have tried to indicate the subtlety of the problem; social reformers must face it or fail.

"Social Reform" is, of course, a vague term capable of many interpretations. It may mean, as many believe, that the whole fabric of society as it has evolved itself throughout the ages requires a drastic reconstruction. But we may fairly ask whether, if that is the case, it would not be far better for the country that this reconstruction should be effected by a short and decisive process rather than by a slow process of progressive eleemosynaryism. For social reform so far has been interpreted almost exclusively in that sense. One great measure of State relief has succeeded another and "we are only at the beginning." Is social reform of this kind likely to effect the purpose at which it aims? Until quite lately the contrary opinion was held both by statesmen and sociologists. The experience of the "large map" was accepted without question, and it was held that great measures of State relief tend to aggravate the intensity of the problems of poverty. But suddenly an entirely opposite policy has been adopted. It is true that certain qualifications of this policy are dimly foreshadowed in the future, but we have to deal with the facts as they are, and it is clear that our social policy up to the time of the Insurance Act has been a kind of lopsided socialism. The benefits have been kept well to the fore, and the discipline, which is the necessary corollary, as far as possible out of sight. The Insurance Act has been the first foretaste of discipline, and its reception seems to show that the working man is not inclined to barter his personal liberty for fruits however "rare and refreshing." But a much more severe discipline than this will be required if the State is to accept all the responsibilities proposed for it. The nature of this discipline is to some extent foreshadowed in the Minority Report with its training and disciplinary colonies, its organisation of the labour market and exclusion of large sections of the population from economic work. But much more than this will be necessary. If, as is suggested, the maintenance of all children is to be undertaken by the State, conditions will have to be imposed upon the production of children. Already there is much talk of "segregation," and the policy of the stud farm is beginning to shape itself. It remains to be seen whether the working man will submit to it.

The special danger of the moment appears to be lest we should fall between the stools of individual liberty and State socialism. Each of them, taken separately, is a clear social policy capable of being translated into action as a homogeneous whole. But now we have a kind of hybrid system which is neither the one nor the other, a machine made up of "spare parts" by different makers which are neither adjusted nor adjustable. All socialists recognise that socialist benefits involve socialist discipline. But political action (except in the case of the Insurance Act) has heretofore followed the line of least resistance. Where discipline has been politically easy, there it has been introduced; where it has been politically difficult, there it has been carefully eschewed. The compulsory discipline of masses of men who are also voters is a thorny subject for any government, and no statesman has yet shown much sign of a desire to handle it. But if legislation is to continue on its present lines discipline is the necessary corollary. At present we have most of the evils of a certain policy without any of the safeguards.

The need of the moment, then, is to clear the issues and to make up our minds between the alternative policies. When we have so made up our minds we must carry out the one or the other in its integrity. There is much confusion at present, because every one recognises that State action is necessary in certain public services, such as national defence, police, sanitation, education, and the relief of destitution. The fact that the State has done these things, with a varying amount of success, is used as an argument that it should do everything, and the ordinary citizen finds some difficulty in making up his mind as to where the line should be drawn. But the issues now appear to be gradually clearing themselves. In the last few years the State has entered upon a course of action which appears to be closely distinguishable from the functions enumerated above because it clearly affects the private life and conduct of individual citizens high and low. It is, for example, now trying to impose compulsory charity upon the well-to-do, compulsory thrift upon the poor, and compulsory virtue upon all classes of the population. It has abandoned the old "destitution" principle in public relief, and proposes to bring about universal material welfare through the poor law or its equivalent. All this, of course, differs fundamentally from the State action which has hitherto commended itself to the good sense of the community. The authors of this new departure are actuated by the best intentions, but we cannot on that account allow their policy to pass without criticism. The first thing that is plain is that it is a policy of despair—of despair, on the one hand, of human nature, of despair, on the other, that the industrial classes can ever live by their labour. There are many who believe that this despair is not justified in either case, and who believe even more strongly that if we accept things as inevitable we make them inevitable. We may ask, moreover, why if human nature is so poor a thing we should entrust our destinies blindfold to human beings who come to the front in the vicissitudes of party politics and who may perhaps be no better than ourselves. The ethics of party politics are not encouraging. Or if we turn to the prospects of creating universal prosperity by Act of Parliament, we may ask what assurance we have that this is an ideal capable of attainment. All that we know so far is that the legislation of the last twenty-five years which has been directed to this end has brought us no nearer our goal. One measure of relief has succeeded another, yet the cry of poverty is louder than ever, and there is constant asseveration that the "rich are growing richer and the poor growing poorer." Prominent Socialists are beginning to give voice to their doubts. The social question, they say, can never be settled by doles; "nothing is of the slightest economic value to the working man that does not increase his wages"—every other endowment is "charity, covert or overt" ("New Age," 191 1). Yet if history has anything to teach us it is that doles of relief act in supplementation of wages and keep them low, and in that manner prevent the very solution of the problem of poverty which everyone most earnestly desires.

Yes ! we are told all this may have been true in the past, but with the advance of science nothing is impossible. Failures in the past do not constitute a valid reason why we should not try again. And it is loose reasoning of this kind which has impelled us again and again to repeat old failures under the name of experiments, which is surely a fatuous proceeding. Let us experiment by all means, but let us be sure either that the experiments are new ones or that the conditions have changed sufficiently to justify a renewal of the old ones. It is quite true that science has won great victories in the physical world : it has taught us to annihilate time and space and to conquer (with limitations) the sea and the air. It has made discoveries of enormous value in surgery and medicine. One thing it has failed to do, and that is to conquer human nature, and nothing but human nature itself can do that. This is why attempts to impose morality and conduct by Act of Parliament and to legislate in defiance of economic tendencies which are based upon human nature, are foredoomed to failure. Over and over again such attempts have been made; the legislation of the Commonwealth was the forerunner of the profligacy of the times of Charles II. We have had repeated sumptuary laws: we have had laws fixing prices, and laws fixing wages, but they have all failed in turn and all been abandoned. It has been left to the twentieth century to endeavour to resuscitate them.

The times are full of strange philosophies, the general upshot of whose teaching seems to be that we should act upon the impulse of the moment and distrust the evidence of our senses. "Futurists" would ignore everything that happened even yesterday. Socialist poets denounce "the foul hag experience" as the enemy of progress, and there is a wealth of literature of the same description. We are told to believe that instinct is a surer guide than reason. There is nothing new about this. The Pyrrhonists, more than 2000 years ago, held "that both the senses and consciousness are absolutely untrustworthy, and that just as much can be said against any opinion as in favour of it" (Funk and Wagnall's "Dict.," Pyrrhonism). So that these philosophers have advanced little beyond their predecessors. To them, of course, history and precedent either have no meaning or are actually obnoxious. Theorists of this sort always gain a certain following from amongst those who despair of good by evolution. But they are only a phase in the world's history. The bulk of humanity believes, and will continue to believe, that they must make the best use that they can of their reason, even if it be fallible. They may be swayed to and fro by gusts of feeling that blow this way and that, but they are not in the least likely to surrender their ultimate right of judgment. They will probably continue to believe that no progress can be real and lasting which does not, like freedom, "broaden down from precedent to precedent." If this is the case the study of the "large map" becomes obligatory upon all those who sincerely and with singleness of purpose set their faces towards social progress.

  1. The annual meetings of the great Railway Companies have lately been held. In almost all cases there have been large reductions of dividend, and the chairman ascribe this mainly to two causes, namely, strikes and additional taxation due to the Insurance Act, which in the case of one railway alone amounts to £64,000 a year. The "Times" estimates that the Act will cost the railways a quarter of a million.
  2. A free translation of matricula. Chastel, p. 99; Epitom de Eccl. Petr., c. 151.