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Chapter III: DISCUSSION - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 4 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 4.
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Week after week the steward sent reports from Weston of the beauty of the place, and the high order it was kept in for its lady's approval, and the impatience of the tenants and the villagers for my lord and lady's arrival. Week after week did friends and acquaintance leave town, till it became what the inhabitants of Westminster call a desert, though it would still puzzle a child to perceive the resemblance between it and the solitary places where lions await the lonely wayfarer. Week by week did Mrs. Philips expatiate on the delights of watering-places, and the charms of the country, and the intolerableness of town in the summer,—and still neither master nor mistress seemed to dream of stirring. “A few weeks in the autumn! Was that all the change they were to have? And how were they to exist till the autumn, she should like to know?” Lady F—was so far from wishing that Philips should not exist, that on learning her discontents, she took immediate measures for forwarding her to her dear lady Frances, more than half of whose pleasure at Brighton had been spoiled by her having no one to manage her toilet on whose taste she could rely as a corroboration of her own. The day which saw Philips deposited in a Brighton coach brought ease not only to herself, but to those who lost, and her who gained her. Philips was certainly right. Her talents were not appreciated in her new home; and she would indeed never be able to make anything of her new lady. Like other persons of genius, mere kindness was not enough for Philips; she pined for sympathy, congeniality, and applause, for which London affords no scope in the summer season.
How Thérèse sang as she watered her lady's plants, that day! How many confessions had she to pour forth to her old priest of feelings in which he traced incipient envy and jealousy, but in which she acknowledged only fear and dislike! How long a letter did she write to her father to inform him of her promotion to Mrs. Philips's place, and consequent increase of salary;—of her intention to take a few lessons in hair-dressing, now that she could afford it, and felt it to be due to her mistress; and how happy she should be, when this duty to madame was provided for, to send money enough to put Annette to school, and perhaps even to place a new hotbed at her father's disposal!—How charming a variety was made in the household by a passing visit from the earl! And how pleased he looked when, on popping his head in at the library-door, late one evening, he found Letitia acting as secretary to her husband, looking over books, making notes, and preparing materials for a reply to a deputation which was to wait on him the next morning.
“I hope you like hard work as well as you thought you should,” said he, laughing. “Have you begun to think yet of petitioning for a more equal division of it,—for a multiplication of places?”
“Heaven forbid!” exclaimed Letitia. “A multiplication of places now, when there is such an outcry against places and placemen! It would be as much as our lives are worth.”
“And, what is more to the purpose,” said lord F—, “it is unnecessary. It matters little that it is the fashion to mix up in ignorant minds the odium of holding a sinecure, and the honour of filling a laborious office;—it matters little that all the people have not yet learned to distinguish the caterpillars from the silk-worms of the state; for they will soon learn to hold the servants of the nation in due honour. Meanwhile, all that we want is a more equal distribution of the toils of government.”
“All that we want, son! It is much to want. What an absurdity it seems that a nobleman should, from having merely his private affairs to manage, be suddenly burdened with the responsibilities of an empire;—a burden, under which how many have been crushed! Again, there is your old school-fellow, lord H—, yawning half the day on the pier at Brighton, and airing his horses the other half, while you are sitting here, pen in hand, from morning till night.”
“I have no objection to it, sir. “It has been a serious grievance to me, ever since I returned from my travels, that I had nothing better to do than what I have been doing.”
“Studying, growing accomplished, falling in love, and marrying,” replied the earl, laughing. “What would you have been doing more?”
“As it happens, sir, all this proves an excellent preparation for my present business. But I did not know that it would; and I was perpetually asking myself,—moreover, Letitia was perpetually asking me, —the end and aim of my employments.”
“That was the secret, I dare say,” said the earl, “of your difficulty in winning her. Eh, Letitia?“
“Indeed it was,” replied Letitia, blushing. “God knows what difficulty I found in making it a difficulty; but I dared not at once give up the calling which nature had sanctified to me, without providing for my race being served in an equal proportion in some other way. If there be one note sooner than another to which conscience awakes in these times, it is to the cry of unserved humanity; and mine, having been once thus awakened, could not be lulled asleep again; and even your son could not soothe it till he began to promise that we should labour together for all, as well as for each other.”
“So you married to be useful;—for no other reason on earth, my dear?”
“No, no, no. I was useful before. I married .... for the same reason as your son. But this reason did not make me forget my responsibilities; that is all.”
“Ah, my dear: you do not know,—highly as you rate your art,—what you have deprived society of by shutting yourself up here. Why,—I saw that sot, colonel Bibber, turned into a patriot for full three hours under your influence; and poor little lord H. that we were speaking of just now, grew almost magnanimous for the same space of time. These, and hundreds more, owe to you, my dear, the greater part of whatever virtue has visited them for the last five years.”
“If so.” said lord F—, “what was the effect on better people?”
“The effect that the fine arts are ordained to produce,” said Letitia. “They have much to answer for who defame them,—who perceive nothing in them besides colours, and sounds, and motion,—who put a kaleidoscope and Raphael's Transfiguration on a level, and recognize nothing more in a symphony of Mozart than in an Eolian harp and see no matter of choice between a merry Andrew and Kean in Hamlet. They who perceive not that the fine arts are the fittest embodiments of truth and beauty are unconscious of the vastness of the department in which they would have man remain unserved. Such would wonder or laugh at my view of my profession, and discredit my hesitating to leave it for lord F—.”
“You were satisfied that you held a commission to serve man, by means of the fine arts; you were right, my dear, as is proved by your having made the colonel a patriot, and the little lord a hero.”
“That it was only for three hours at a time,” said Letitia, “was not my fault, but that of the arrangements by which means and ends are sometimes separated as far asunder as if the world would be perilled by their coming together. In this, we might wisely copy from man In his state of nature. Indian savages have their songs and dances immediately before have battles; and, as long as prayers imply devotion, they are everywhere used in senates as a prelude to the business of the nation. But we go straight from an oratorio to dinner, from a tragedy to sleep, from the Elgin marbles to shopping in Regent-street; while, on the other hand, if a great national question has to be debated, a mighty national achievement to be wrought, the last thing its conductors would think of would be to spiritualise the passions, and elevate the emotions, and animate the faculties by the most appropriate means which Providence has given for that end —I know that this union can be only partially effected yet. I know that the passage of the Reform Bill would have been but little helped by any such appliances as we can at present exhibit; but it will be different hereafter, when men have learned the true office of the fine arts, and the ultimate objects of political reforms. Then, hundreds of years hence, it may be,—if a new question of national renovation should be brought forward, the senate to whom it is committed may lay hold, with one accord, on whatever prior observance may best soothe down their animosities, and banish their petty self-regards, and establish their minds in that state of lofty tranquillity which alone beseems the master-spirits of an empire.”
“In those days,” said lord F—, “there will be an end of the absurdity of admitting the ennobling influence of the fine arts, and at the same time holding its professors in contempt.”
“Is it, even now, anything more than a nominal contempt?” asked Letitia. “Do not people mix up the profession and the vices of its professors together, and then talk of contempt?”
“But those very vices are caused by the treatment of the profession.”
“True; like all other professional vices—like all the peculiar failings of certain classes,— like the avarice of Jews, the romancing of travellers, the spiritual pride of sectaries, the vanity of authors. When prejudices are so far surmounted as that no class shall he regarded with factitious deference or contempt, there will be an end of all occasion to reproach painters, musicians and actors with their tendency to selfindulgence, at the same time that proverbs and by-words against Jews, methodists, travellers, and poets, will fall into oblivion.”
“In those days,” said lord F—, “perhaps our peerage may honour itself by taking up the profession of the fine arts. The time is coming when no class of society may be idle; and if the aristocracy plumes itself upon its refinement, this seems to be the pursuit most congenial to its constitution.”
“If you preach your doctrine,—that all must work,——to those of your own condition,” said the earl, “they will ask you where you got the notion,—whether you are intimidated by the clamours of the lower classes.”
“Not intimidated by their clamours, but moved by their condition, I would tell them, sir; and that I derive my notion from the nature of man and of society, and not from the dictation of any class whatever. It is enough to melt a heart of stone to read and hear of such distresses as have come to my knowledge since I entered office; but I am convinced that many of the sufferers look in the wrong direction for the causes.”
“Yet there must be much cause for complaint,” said Letitia, “when our institutions lead to such an opposition of interests as there now is between different ranks. They should surely work together . . . .”
“The present opposition of interests, my dear, arises from a scarcity of the prime necessaries of life. If there were food enough for our people, their occupations and interests, be they as various as the minds that adopt them, would assist and promote each other from end to end of society. If there be a scarcity of food, men will snatch from one another's mouths, be they huddled together in our manufacturing cities, or duly distributed in a Moravian settlement. Where there is plenty, there will be a harmony,—Where there is want, there will be an opposition of interests; and it is folly to assign co-operation and competition as the remedy and cause of distress.”
“Nay; but can it be right that starving thousands should bid their labour against one another for bread? Can it be right that whole families should, at this moment, be crouching down supperless in their litter of straw, while we.... O, I am ashamed of our luxuries!.... our mirrors, and harps, and lamps,—and my very dress. I am ashamed of them all.”
“If we gave them all away this moment, my dear, they would not be food; and if exchanged for bread, they would only take food from the mouths of some who want it, to give to those who cannot want it more. Believe me, the inequality of condition we are complaining of is rather checked than promoted by competition. Competition equalizes the profits of industry, and increases instead of lessening its productiveness.”
“Whence, then, comes all this misery? all this tremendous inequality?”
“The misery arises from a deficiency of ood. . . .”
“Well; whence this deficiency of food?”
“From the tendency of eaters to increase faster than the supply of food.”
“But if we can raise more food by co-operation than without it . ...”
“Even supposing we could, — unless co-operation also checked the increase of numbers, it could prove no more than a temporary alleviation of our grievances. In my opinion, it would, if it included equality of condition, leave us in a worse state than it found us, in as far as it would relax the springs of enterprise and industry, and, in time, bring the community down into a deplorable state of sameness; it would, if persevered in, make us into a nation of half-naked potatoe eaters, and water-drinkers.”
The earl inquired whether anything had been heard lately of the co—operative society formed in the neighbourhood of Weston. “O yes!“replied lord F—. “They are enjoying the benefits of competition to the utmost. They ascribe their prosperity to their co-operation; but they are, in fact, a large partnership in competition with smaller ones. They do not see how their relative position would be altered by their absorbing all their competitors into their firm, with no cheek to their numbers, while nature has imposed perpetual checks upon the growth of their capital.”
“But cannot numbers be checked,—cannot the checks upon the growth of capital be evaded, while we have such a wide world to move about in?”
“Certainly, my dear: but there is no need of equality of condition to help us to do this. Competition is more likely than co-operation to induce prudence and foresight; and it will quicken our activity in carrying our surplus numbers to distant fer tile lands, or in bringing the produce of distant fertile lands among our own people, instead of tempting us to waste more and more of our capital continually in turning up inferior lands at home, as the co-operatives would have us do.”
“But were not you telling me that your rentroll becomes more valuable as time passes? Are not landholders' incomes increasing perpetually under the present system?
“They are; but this is the consequence, not of competition, but of the varying qualities of the land, the tillage of every new grade of which tends to lower profits and raise rents. No plan for the distribution of home produce can affect the law by which the returns to capital are perpetually diminished.”
“But what will be the end of it under the present system?”
“There are two extremes to which the systems of equality and inequality of distribution respectively tend, in as far as they involve restriction upon food by using only the produce of our own lands. Under the equality system, there would be an ultimate scramble for potatoes, or a worse diet still, if there were such a thing. Under our present system, the whole produce must in time be in the hands of the land-owners and tax-takers. we must change our system; not, however, Of course, by discouraging competition, or abolishing private property, but by removing all artificial restrictions upon food, and by regulating our numbers according to our resources. The way to bring down landlords' rents, and to increase the profits of cultivators, is to procure food from some better source, than our own inferior lands; and this I will prove to you by figures, the next time my steward brings me the accounts of my farms.”
“O, that Moravian village!” exclaimed Letitia “How often I think of the day we spent there! There was comfort, there was abundance, there was mutual assistance and agreement.”
“Are you quite sure, Letitia, that there was nothing in the situation and peculiarities of the place which called off your attention from the principle on which the society was constituted? Remember the sunset, that evening; the golden light on the green hill side, above the rows of Moravian dwellings. Remember your admiration of the internal regulations,—of the women's uniform, of the music in their church, of the simplicity of their way of life. Remember that all this has nothing to do with their principle of association.”
“You must no more set the accomplishments of the Moravians to the account of community of goods, than the absurdities of the Shakers,” observed the earl.”That some sing beautifully, and others dance ridiculously, has nothing to do with the distribution of their wealth.”
“No more than the ordinances of the Harmonites,” continued lord F—. “Mr. Owen's followers very properly refuse to be mixed up with Moravians, Shakers, and Harmonites. Superstition has no part in their system, either under the form of ritual observance or celibacy. Yet they are apt to incorporate extraneous matters with their system, which serve as allurements to a greater extent, I doubt not, than they intend. They owe more converts than they suppose to their promises of mansions, pleasure-grounds, coffee, alabaster lamps, and so on. My wonder is that more are not enticed by descriptions like these, accompanied with promises of ease, and leisure, and many other things to be obtained in a short time, which the poor man now sees little chance of his children's children ever enjoying.”
“There might be alabaster lamps and damask furniture in every house under the present system,” observed the earl, “if food enough could be got to keep the production of capital going at its natural rate; aye, and ease and leisure too, if our numbers were kept within bounds. It is not so very long since shoes and stockings were worn only in courts; and that they are now worn by peasants proves that our capital has grown under a system of competition. That multitudes have little ease and no leisure is the fault of overpopulation, which would be rather aggravated than lessened under a system whose very essence it is to cast each man's burdens upon all. No man need scruple to have twenty of his children gracing the dinner-table of a co-operative establishment, till he should find, too late, that not all the savings caused by extensive association can compensate for the falling off in the produce of inferior lands, and for the new impulse given to population. His sons and his sons” sons must add more and more labour to the common stock; must give up, first, damask and alabaster, then broadcloth and glass; then descend to sackcloth and wooden trenchers, then to tatters, potatoes and water, and trenchers, then . . . .”
“Then would ensue a scramble; if anything should be left, competition would come into play again; society would rise by its means, and might possibly attain once more to a state in which they might speculate on the universality of damask and alabaster.”
“Well!” exclaimed Letitia, “I shall ask to look at your steward's accounts, and to have an explanation of them; for I do not at all like our present position, We must reach the extreme, you say, of having our whole produce in the hands of land-owners and tax-takers, unless we change our system.”
“Yes, my dear: but by change of system, I do not mean convulsion. All might be set on a safe footing by timely care, the removal of restrictions, the diffusion of intelligence. There is nothing in all this, threatening to public dignity or private safety. There is nothing to lessen the security of property, or to endanger the rights of any class; but quite the contrary: for property is never so secure as when it most abounds; and rights are never so well respected as in the absence of temptation to infringe upon them.”
“By change, then, you mean progression, without fear of subversion.”
“Just so; the progression of society from an advanced into a higher state. What is there in such progression that is not as beautiful in theory as it is found to be necessary in practice?”
From this hour, the progression of society, of which Letitia had long dreamed, on which she had often speculated, began to assume distinctness in her mind, and to form a large part of her conversation when she happened to be with those to whom she could speak most of what was most in her thoughts. Whenever she heard of misery and crime on a large scale, she satisfied herself that the national demand of progression had not yet been sufficiently attended to. When she heard that her lord's rents ought to be more, but were, from the difficulty of collecting them, less than formerly, she sighed for the time when an unrestricted provision of food (unrestricted by state-laws) should check the rise of rents. Whenever she sat down by her husband's side to hear curious tales of the doings of large speculators or eminent merchants, or of the sufferings of large classes of agricultural or manufacturing labourers, she learned something that made her wonder and lament, that, while the natural laws of production and distribution work out evenly their balance of results, the tendency of legislation thus far seems to be to clog and thwart them, and delay the progression in intelligence and comfort which must arise out of their unobstructed operation. She saw that, if the universal interest of society was allowed to be the moving spring of the social economy, all would be served; and that if many yet remain unserved, it is on account of other movements being made to interfere with it—the petty springs of narrow and mistaken interests; so that partial protection brings on general hardship, and arbitrary stimulus, a condition of general suffering.
Before going down to Weston, Letitia had become prepared to make her way with the steward, the co-operating workmen in the village, and all who could throw light on the past and present state of property in the place. Many a conversation and calculation had she also gone through with Thérèse on the subject of shopkeeping in Paris; and all that Maria told of Waldie's business went to the same account of information. It made poor Maria smile sometimes in the midst of a fit of anxiety to find that her children's babble savoured of political economy, when they had been spending a morning with their aunt. They were more ready then than at other times to wonder why they had dolls in the nursery, and picture-books in the parlour, and a shell-grotto in the garden, when many other little children had no playthings; and why poor Ned who swept the crossing was so much more ragged than their errand boy, when Ned worked the hardest of the two, and was often out in the cold and the rain besides. Almost babies as they were, they could sometimes find out very sage little reasons for these things, when put on the right scent by aunt Letitia or her pupil Thérèse.