THE LABOR PROBLEM.
By An American.
The signs of dissatisfaction on the part of the laboring classes are clearly apparent everywhere. Labor organizations, strikes, boycotts, labor journals -- all these mean something, and what that something is we cannot find out too soon.
Is the dissatisfaction of labor simply the result of human perverseness, the envy and jealousy of idleness and carelessness at the better success of industry and thrift, or are there unjust forces operating on society producing vicious inequalities?
Has every man the same chance? Can all men attain to the same fortune if all are equally industrious and thrifty? Is there a fair field and no favor?
Certainly there is, cries a host of respondents. Is not each man the architect of his own fortune? And they quote case after case of men who began at the foot of the ladder, but who with indomitable pluck gained step after step until they conquered fortune, while others who began at the same point, neglected their opportunities and are still toiling in poverty, where they are destined to stay to the end of the chapter.
Is society so constructed that to all there is the same chance? Can all by exercising the same industry and thrift become equally wealthy? This question goes directly to the core of the labor problem. If there is the same chance to all, then what reason has the laborer to complain? A little consideration answers this question.
In how many years could society with its utmost exertions and greatest economy accumulate enough so that toil would be no longer necessary, and forever after all succeeding generations could live in idleness. No more plowing in spring, no reaping in harvest, no toiling in the mine, no sailing on the ocean — a huge, everlasting pic-nic!
Never! Toil, to restore the faded or to replace the worn out, must be as lasting as the race. Toil, toil, toil, is the inevitable.
"Men may come and men may go,
But toil goes on for ever."
Note that as fact number one and put fact number two alongside it.
And fact number two is this: Certain families now have the power of living for ever without toil. They organize no industry, invent no machine, do nothing to furnish supplies for themselves or their fellows — drones in the human hive, and yet their cruse of oil never fails.
Now, put these two facts together:
1st. Toil must be lasting as the race;
2nd. Some are now eternally exempt from toil;
Therefore, as certain as any therefore can be, some are endowed with privileges from which the rest of the race must be by an inexorable physical law for ever excluded.
The mere statement of this problem shows at once the fact that our methods of distributing wealth are such that one part of society is endowed with privileges and powers from which the rest of society must inevitably be excluded. Toil must be done continuously and for ever. One part of society is now relieved for ever from that toil, therefore the rest of society must inevitably be compelled to do all the toil, not merely to maintain themselves, but also to maintain the idlers.
Of all the questions in economics pressing for solution not the least important is this power of idleness appropriating for ever the fruit of other people's industry. By what divine right of idleness сап one part of society be for ever exempt from toil? How and why is it that one part of the race is endowed with powers and privileges from which the rest must inevitably be excluded?
To ascertain the cause of this extraordinary arrangement it is necessary to make some inquiry into the nature of trade. The attention of the reader is therefore asked to a few simple illustrations.
When the shoemaker sticks to his last, by the accumulation of suitable tools, increased dexterity, and increased knowledge, he produces in much greater abundance and of much bettor quality than if he had been a jack of all trades. The same is true of the clothier. When therefore each of these produces and exchanges with each other, each gives more and each receives more; each enriches and each is enriched. The characteristic of this kind of trade is mutual enrichment — a beautiful harmony whereby each toiler not merely satisfies his own wants in the easiest way possible, but also reduces the toil and increases the comforts of his fellows. Here is the action of a harmonious force, each toiler tending to the elevation of his fellow. This kind of trade is like Portia's quality of mercy, ''twice blessed, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes."
It is quite safe to say that the vast majority of writers on economics have fixed their attention wholly on the above kind of trade, and that a rash generalization has led many to conclude that all trades possess the same characteristics. Therefore the doctrine of laisser faire has been proclaimed by some in the widest possible sense, denouncing any governmental interference in the production or distribution of wealth. According to these writers, if poverty is a calamity, it is such just as the sickness of the intemperate is a calamity — the just retribution of a violated law, warning us to avoid transgression if we would avoid the resultant penalty. A little further investigation will show, however, that there is another kind of trade marked by characteristics quite different from the preceding.
A few years ago fuel on this continent was excessivelу abundant, and so cheap that in many places it could be obtained by merely taking it from the forests. Two factors have effected a marked change. The quantity of fuel has diminished, while population has increased. The supply is less, we demand is greater. In this commodity the quantity being less, society is poorer. But some parties obtained possession almost absolute of immense deposits of fuel at a merely nominal figure, and the enhanced value has rendered these parties exceedingly wealthy. Here we see a trade whose characteristics are not mutual enrichment, but encroachment of a few, and impoverishment of the many.
The same law is clearly seen in the growth of land values, especially in rapidly-growing cities. A settler secures a section at a merely nominal figure; population crowds on to that section; the portion of land for each is less, so that in this commodity each is poorer. But the value advances, so that the owner grows richer and richer. The landholder or speculator becomes rich, not by enriching, but in consequence of the impoverishment of his follows.
When farmers raise grain, or when weavers make cloth, they enrich society by their products, and only when they have so enriched, are they allowed to withdraw for themselves a share of the world's wealth. They must increase the world's utilities before they can appropriate any of those utilities for themselves.
Were all trades marked by this characteristic, then, indeed, we would have no reason to complain. But when once society drifted into the method of allowing absolute ownership in the natural wealth of the world — the store of minerals, the forests, and especially the land, then there was set in operation a force destined to split society asunder, carrying inevitably one part up and another part down.
We can give but a brief summary of the characteristics of this antagonistic force.
1st. As these commodities, minerals, land, etc., become more scarce, society becomes poorer, while in consequence of the enhanced value the owners become richer. Thus, instead of mutual enrichment we have enrichment of one and impoverishment of another.
2nd. These owners become richer without effort on their part. Many of them cease to produce or enrich, but live by the impoverishment of their fellows. In the case of land which lasts for ever they may live for all time in idleness.
3rd. Increased population compels resort to poorer soils, a physical calamity not easy, if at all possible, to overcome. Increased population increases ground rents, enriching a class of idlers. A second calamity — an economic evil — one which it is possible for better regulations to remedy. Thus increased population becomes to the laborer a double calamity.
4th. It divides society into toilers and idlers, compelling one part to do all the toil and allowing the other part to live for ever in idleness.
5th. It imposes such obligations on the toilers, compels them to yield so much of the product of their toil to the idlers, that it presents an impossible barrier to the progress of the former, keeping them for ever in a condition bordering on penury.
I have but indicated a line of inquiry in the labor problem, the investigation of which must lead to most important results. How little these antagonisms have been studied may be noted from the fact that many of the text book on economics do not so much as point out their existence. And yet how is it possible to arrive at any solution of the labor question without their very thorough investigation?
Such an investigation would show that society in certain directions develops harmoniously: mutually assisting, mutually elevating; but in other directions it is developing antagonistically — a tug of war — one part of society gaining exclusive possession of stores of wealth that should have been retained for the common weal.
It would not be at all difficult to point out many cases in history in which our laws have done their utmost to destroy or prevent the development of these harmonies, and other instances in which the direct drift of legislation has been to intensify the antagonisms.
W. A. Douglass.