Front Page Titles (by Subject) LESSON I. What Society Does for the Laborer - The A B C of Finance
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LESSON I. What Society Does for the Laborer - Simon Newcomb, The A B C of Finance 
The ABC of Finance: or, the Money and Labor Questions Familiarly Explained to Common People in Short and Easy Lessons (New York: Harper and Bros. 1877).
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What Society Does for the Laborer.
I shall suppose myself speaking to some one who sympathizes with "labor movements" of the day, trades-unions, strikes, and so on, who thinks that capital is in some way at enmity with labor, and who believes in general that the laborer does not get his right share of the good things which he helps to produce. To one who thinks thus I wish to suggest a few new thoughts.
Whence came the shoes on your feet? The leather of which they are made came all the way from the plains of Texas; the hides were tanned with bark cut down by hardy wood-choppers hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of miles from where you live. The thread with which they are sewed has required the combined labor of farmers in Ireland or planters in the South to raise the flax and cotton, and of wood-choppers in North Carolina to raise the material for the wax with which the thread is strengthened. Drovers in Texas, tanners in Tennessee, wood-choppers in the West, manufacturers without number, with more ingenious machinery than either you or I can pretend to describe, are all busy in getting up material for the shoes which you and your children are to wear two years hence, while railroad men are planning railroads, freight-cars, and engines for bringing the materials within reach of you and your shoemaker.
If so much is true of so small an article as the shoe on your foot, how is it with every other article which surrounds you? Think of your various articles of clothing. However poor and insignificant you may be, you and your family are sheltered by some kind of a roof; and if you will climb up and examine all the materials of which that roof is made, and then learn where these materials came from, you will find that the labor of scores, nay, perhaps hundreds, of people—from the miners of Cornwall and the ship-builders of Maine to the house-carpenters who are your neighbors—has been called on to shelter you from the weather. If you are sick, you are supplied with medicine in the manufacture of which the skill of the great chemists of the world has been applied; and you never saw an industrious man so poor but that in a severe case he could avail himself of the services of a doctor in whose education the experience of whole generations of physicians had been drawn upon. The very men who complain most loudly of the oppression of labor are now in most respects better taken care of when sick than kings were a thousand years ago.
You see that the poorest laborer in the land has his wants ministered to by thousands of his fellow-men, scattered throughout the wide world, and separated by oceans the crossing of which is a marvel of human skill. How is such a result possible? It is by a system of social machinery, if I may use the expression, more wonderful and effective than any that the wildest communists ever dreamed of. In their ideal system, every man works for his neighbors of the community; but in the actual system, we may almost say that the whole world is working for every one else. Do you think there is going to be any great improvement made in the system which produces such results? No sudden one, certainly. I am so much afraid of its being injured by tinkering that I am willing to suffer anything rather than see men try to pull it to pieces in order to make it go better.
Every man who expects to make an honest living has an interest in keeping this social machinery in good working order. But there is something else in which he has a still higher interest, because without it the machine itself would cease to go, and the laborer would become a slave. That something is law and order and the right of property. Complaining people sometimes say that the laborer is no better off than he was centuries ago. So unblushing a misstatement is hardly worthy of refutation; but we may take a look back, not to refute it, but to see what the laborer of the present day owes to civilization. Could I only paint you a picture of the laborer in the time of William the Conqueror, the clothes he wore, the food he ate, the air he breathed, the hut he lived in, I think you would accept all the evils of the nineteenth century without one word of complaint. But the point I now make is, that the laborer was not then his own master, but his services, and those of his children, belonged to a lord whose battles he had to fight in war, and whose grounds he had to till in peace. Why is it not so now? Because advancing civilization, with philosophers as its mouth-pieces, proclaimed the rights of each man to be the master of his own destiny, and the owner of all property which he could gain by fair bargains with his fellow-men, while law and good government stepped in to enforce the principles of philosophy. From the right of free labor and free bargaining, thus enforced by law, arose the wonderful social machine which now places in every man's hands his share of the work of the world.
I now want you to think of just a single application of the great principle just enunciated. The same law which gives the workmen of a railroad the right to leave it when they are dissatisfied with their wages gives the owners of the railroad the right to employ whom they please to run it; and if you abolish this law, you will soon find that it will be the laborers, and not the railroad owners, who will suffer. They will belong to the railroad before the road will belong to them. No matter how much they may make others suffer, they will suffer more themselves. Thus, when men forcibly interfere with the running of the trains because they are not satisfied with the men whom the companies employ to run them, they violate the fundamental law to which they owe their freedom and the advantages which they enjoy, and take the most vigorous steps they are able to throw themselves into the condition of the laborer of past ages.