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William Graham Sumner, “The Bequests of the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth” (c. 1900)

Source

First published posthumously in the Yale Review 22 (1933), 732-754. Reprinted in William Graham Sumner, On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Writings of William Graham Sumner, ed. Robert C. Bannister (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1992), pp. 375-92.

For more information about Sumner, see the OLL main Sumner page </people/william-graham-sumner> and the Liberty Matters onlmine discussion of his work (July 2017) </pages/lm-sumner>.

 

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Many have invited us to a proud review of the increased inheritance of economic power which the nineteenth century hands down to the twentieth. The talent which was received from the eighteenth century is bequeathed with grand usury. The increase is so great that what the nineteenth century got from the eighteenth seems insignificant. The new powers and devices, which are just in their infancy, are a legacy at whose ultimate value we can only guess. The outlying parts of the earth are made available and stand open to the use of the next generations. The nineteenth century bequeaths to the twentieth new land and new arts, which are the prime conditions of material welfare. The capital at the disposal of the human race is immensely greater per capita than it ever was before. There are inexhausted improvements all over the globe which the nineteenth century undertook and paid for, the gain of which will come to the twentieth. Science has a mass of acquired knowledge and processes to confide to the coming generation whose power and value in the struggle for existence are beyond imagination. There are acquisitions in the higher branches of pure mathematics, which are fruitless at present but which are certain to prove of inestimable value to sustain the development of the applications of electricity. The population of the globe is far below the number which it could support with the present resources. Consequently men are in demand. The conjuncture favors numbers. While numbers increase, the comfort per capita will increase. Popular education will pay. The life-conditions will improve. The chances for those who inherit nothing will be good provided that they are industrious, prudent, and temperate. The competition of life is so mild that men are hardly conscious of it. So far as we can see ahead there is every reason for even rash optimism in regard to the material or economic welfare of mankind.

No one will deny that the enterprises of territorial acquisition on the part of the great states which are now being undertaken or which will be undertaken in the twentieth century are very likely to bring them into collision with each other. Already England finds Russia, Germany, and France arrayed in more or less hostile attitude to her because she has priority and advantage in this scramble. Other combinations will be formed in which the United States will be a party. The probability is great that war will result, and even that the century will be as full of war as the eighteenth century was and of the same reasons. The case of China is already actual, and the course of things suggests doubt and fear of the future. The possibilities of disturbance and mischief are very great, and they will so far as they occur traverse the realization of economic welfare which the economic powers and organization promise. It is not, however, the purpose of the present article to dwell upon this outlook of practical international politics, for in that domain one could at best predict and speculate. The prospect that the program of action will cause war touches upon our subject only so far as it is political. Our present purpose is to notice those elements in the social and political world of to-day which we are handing down together with the above described elements of economic gain, and which are certain to affect the realization of the optimistic prospects above described.

Along with all economic knowledge and industrial effort there must go always decisions of industrial policy. Success in industrial production and success in the selection of wise lines of policy are two very different things. The questions of policy are generally nowadays questions of politics, and here is where the existing conditions contain elements of peril. Pessimistic views of the situation from the side of politics are as thoroughly justified as optimistic views from the side of economic power. A mere optimist is an idiot who will not think, or be prudent, or listen to reason. He seems to be in fashion just now, and in the popular use pessimist is a term of opprobrium. Every man of sense is a pessimist; that is to say, he is cautious. He knows that he must expect some bad luck and that things never turn out all smooth and easy as they are planned-he tries to prepare for evil contingencies by precautions and an "anchor to windward."

These decisions must nowadays be made by the concurrence of large bodies of men because the industrial organization is so large and complex. The decisions of policy affect the relations of parties in the industrial organization, that is to say, they affect rights. The decisions also call into being institutions or provide for ways of using existing institutions by methods which are due to "understandings" or agreements. In the majority of cases these decisions must be made by the legislature and take the form of law. They then affect the interests of the whole population and the rights of individuals and groups. The problem of justice in these cases is a serious one. It is rendered more serious by the speed with which the changes occur, on account of which there is not time to revise and correct one policy before another supersedes it. The coercion of the state to enforce a policy decided upon by the legislature is indispensable. The state is an organization of force. In its origin it was an organization of force for conquest and subjugation, and it produced plunder, slavery, and the exploitation of one group by another. In its highest form it has become an organization of force to enforce rights and to give efficiency to institutions according to the views and policy which prevail in the community at the time. The co-operation of the state, therefore, with industrial enterprise, to maintain peace and order, to ensure the regular operation of civil institutions, and to guarantee rights is indispensable to industry. This is the connection of economics and politics.

During the nineteenth century the state, as it was inherited from the eighteenth century, has undergone great improvement. The nineteenth century inherited from the eighteenth vague notions of political beatification. To abolish kings and get a "republic" would, it was expected, bring universal and endless peace and happiness. Then the idea was to get the "rights of man" declared and sworn to. Then the result was to come from universal suffrage in the republic. Then democracy was to be the realizer of hope and faith. It was thought that a democracy never would be warlike or extravagant in expenditure. Then faith was put in constitutional government, whether republican or monarchical. Next hope turned to representative institutions as the key to the right solution. The century ends with despondency as to each and all of these notions. Now social democracy and state socialism seem to be the divinities which are to beatify us. The faith that beatification is possible and that some piece of political machinery can get it for us seems to be as strong as ever. In the details of life and practice much has been gained in regard to peace, security, conditions of welfare, and actual experience in the body politic, beyond what existed a hundred years ago. The security of life, property, and honor, for men and women, is greater in all civilized countries than it was.

Wherever there is a force in human society the problem is to use it and regulate it; to get the use and prevent the abuse of it. The state is no exception; on the contrary, it is the chief illustration. In all the forms of the state which have ever existed families, groups, classes, corporations have struggled with each other to get into their hands the power of the state. To get control of this power is to win the industrial products (wealth), after other people have made them, without labor of one's own. This is the real objection to all class government, and it is just as strong to-day against the democratic mass or the middle class joint stock company as it ever was against king or aristocracy. The great and standing abuse of the political organization is the control of it by a clique or faction so that they can use it to serve their own interests at the expense of everybody else. No state has ever existed which has not been subject to this abuse, for, in practice, the power of the state must be in the hands of some group of men. The theory of the state is that this group is to use the power for the welfare of all. In practice they have always used the power for their own advantage.

The nineteenth century bequeaths to the twentieth a state organization which is still infected with this vice under new forms which conform to the middle class constitutional state with representative institutions, whether it is monarchical or republican, aristocratic or democratic. In fact, the immense increase in all facilities of transportation and communication has made it not only possible but necessary to organize industry in co-operative combinations which reach over state boundaries and embrace the whole globe. It is idle to criticise or bewail this fact. The genii whom we call up will obey, but there are consequences of using genii and he who uses them must take the consequences. If we use steam and electricity we must get space for their evolutions, and we must adjust our plans to their incidental effects. Organization on a grand scale is a necessary consequence of steam and electricity. The little in- dependent man is forced into a place in a great organization where he may win more but will lose his independence. It is as inevitable as the introduction of machinery and the consequences of machinery.

The corresponding function of the state and the importance of the political element (legislation) have increased in equal degree. The modern industrial state transfers millions on a punctuation mark in an act of the legislature. To get the legislative machine into one's control is worth ever so much more than it ever was before. To get the use and avoid the abuse of the state is harder than it ever was before. It is harder in the democratic republic than in any other form of the state. There are thousands of men in public life or in the lobby who suppose that this is all as it should be. They suppose that to elect a legislature and then work bills through it which will be to somebody's profit is the regular order of things. That, they suppose, is what it is all for. There is not a civilized state with parliamentary institutions which has not had a financial scandal within ten years.

It is a great mistake to say, as we hear people say every day, that this abuse is perpetrated by capitalists and corporations. It is perpetrated by everybody. Capitalists try to get a protective tariff. They turn to the laborers and say the tariff will raise their wages, and the laborers respond at once to the pocket argument. Everybody who can get a pension votes for pensions regardless of justice, right, truth, public welfare, and all those other noble things. Socialistic schemes are without exception appeals to the greed of the masses, for the propositions all mean taking from those who have and giving to them who have not. Policemen, teachers, and other employees organize politically to further their pecuniary interests at the public  expense.

Populism or social democracy is the abuse of democracy which is parallel to the older abuses of earlier forms of the state. In democracy the power resides in the masses. In social democracy the masses are organized to win materialistic advantages for themselves by the use of their political power. In all our discussions we talk as if political functions ought to be exercised in obedience to some abstract notions of political and societal welfare. In practice they are exercised to serve interests. Debtors vs. creditors, tenants vs. landlords, shippers vs. transporters, wage receivers vs. wage givers, passengers vs. carriers, et cetera are, of course, antagonistic in their interests. Their antagonism is in the industrial organization. They have recourse to political enginery that they try to direct against each other for victory in their economic battles. If a group of us are passengers, let us get passage rates fixed by law. Why then may not the carriers at the next session get a majority and advance their own interests at the expense of passengers? The temperance people took to politics to crush the saloon. The saloon organized politically first for defense, then for aggression, and it became a permanent power in politics. This retaliation or reaction is to be counted upon, and it results in turning politics into a scramble of interests. The interstate commerce law was thought to be a great gain when it was passed. It was planned to satisfy certain views and to override and destroy certain usages. The assailed interests defended themselves and sought escape. Whoever imagined that the law would have the effect which it has had on the railroad organization of the country, although it was fully predicted that its effects would be far other than those which were expected and intended? The lawmaker who goes to work with his face in one direction expecting to advance on a chosen line will find that he always has reactions to deal with and that they may be far stronger than his purpose.

Evidently all this tends towards an alternative question. Can the state find anywhere power to repel all the special interests and keep uppermost the one general interest or the welfare of all? Will the state itself degenerate into the instrument of an attack on property, and will it cripple wealth-making or will the wealth-making interest, threatened by the state, rise up to master it, corrupt it, and use it? This is the alternative which the twentieth century must meet. It is the antagonism of democracy and plutocracy. It is the most momentous antagonism which has ever arisen in human society because it is internal; it is in the vitals of society. We have had a foretaste of it in the last two presidential elections in which the voters have shown that they would disregard everything else in order to secure property interests and the public order which is essential to wealth production.

The problem would be far easier to solve if it were not for the easy political optimism which is another of the bequests of the nineteenth century to the twentieth. We are told to "trust the people"; that the people will decide all questions wisely; that the people will protect its institutions and will correct all abuses. Who is "the people" as the term is used in these hard-worn phrases? Where does it stay? How can it be reached? Where does it utter its oracles? How can we test and verify what is asserted about the people? We have been trained in a habit of "wanting to know" on all the other fields. Why may we not demand to be allowed to employ the same processes here? The people is what is called nowadays a "political symbol." It is a mythological product and has no definition. It is an object of reverence and faith like Fate or Destiny. We know that it is not the population. It is a part of the population but an undefined part, a lost part absorbed or immanent somewhere in the total. The word is one of the counters with which party editors, politicians, and half-educated platform orators juggle. Why does not the people do some of the things which we are told that it can do, so that we might believe in it? There are tasks enough undone, which are the people's business. The people is said to rule in  a democratic republic. It fills no offices. We see it nowhere. It has reserved to itself the function of selecting legislative bodies from time to time. This is the way in which it rules. The rest of the time it is quiescent. We go into the legislatures, and we see what kind of men the people have selected. We see then how it has performed this function.

The eighteenth-century republicans were sure that if the people elected the legislature, it would select men of brains, character, virtue, independence, and so forth. We have found that this expectation was a delusion as much as the notion that democracies would be  unwarlike and frugal. The point now is, however, that it is the legislature which the people elects which has got to meet the assaults of special interests which were described above. The root of all our troubles at present and in the future is in the fact that the people fails of what was assumed about it and attributed to it. If the people is (as the newspapers say it is) angry at the raids of plutocrats on the legislatures, why does not the people elect legislatures which cannot be raided? He who rules is responsible, be it Tsar, Pope, Emperor, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, or Demos. Some people wax very indignant against anybody who, as they say, bribes a legislator. It takes two to perpetrate bribery. The relation between the two may vary through a very wide scale. It is possible that a man may buy a legislature to get what he ought not to have. It is also possible that a legislature may blackmail a man before giving him what he ought to have. There are many grades between these two extremes. The bribee is in any case more base than the briber, for he betrays a public trust. Why does not the people elect legislators who will do their duty and not take bribes at all? The indignant denouncers of bribers stand with their backs to the truth. No one would ever bribe a legislator if he could get what he wanted without it and could not get what he wanted even with it. Of course this is no apology for the briber. It is an attempt to analyze the case in order to see the real elements in it and their relation to each other. Our popular preachers and teachers will not entertain the possibility that the people is at fault. In fact, the people is altogether at fault. It has not done its first duty in the premises, and therefore the whole institution has gone astray.

The current answer which is given with confidence is that the people is controlled by politicians. It is true, but it is a fatal answer. What shall be said of an oracle which pleads that somebody deceived it? What shall be said of a sovereign who says that he was dictated to by somebody?

Democracy is another "political symbol." It is unanalyzed. The term is used as if it had a single and simple definition. Democracy includes Jacobinism, Sansculottism, Social Democracy or Populism, Mobocracy, besides two or three legitimate forms. When it is glorified in orations and books one kind is meant. When it is in operation another kind is at work. Before the twentieth century is out, men will know more about democracy. It answers our present purpose to note only that democracy is the power of numbers. It assumes that numbers have a right in the nature of things to rule. Of course that is entirely untrue. There is nobody who, in the nature of things, ought to rule. The doctrine that the "voice of the people is the voice of God," is just as silly as the doctrine that the voice of the autocrat is the voice of God. We have had the fetish man (king priest) and the fetish book. Now we have the fetish crowd. The sum of superstition in the world seems to be a constant quantity. The divine right of a big (or bigger) number to rule is just as false as the divine right of one to rule. No one has a right to rule. It is all a question of expediency to get our affairs carried on satisfactorily. Why not have done with "natural right," and "divine authority," and the rest? We have got rid of them in metaphysics and theology. Why should a hard-headed and practical people transfer all this old superstition over into politics? Why get up a new political mythology and a new apparatus of fictions and humbugs? Why not look at things as they are; not at words? Democracy is like every other --ocracy, a dogmatic system; and we are surfeited with phrases, catchwords, cant, dogmas about democracy which are false. The trouble with them is that they are popular. People like them. They know that they are falsehoods, but they are flattering to human nature. There is a great deal of pathos about democracy, using pathos in the original Greek sense. It is surrounded with a halo of sentiment and emotion, and is enveloped in affectionate concessions which protect it from scrutiny. It is a pet notion which is in fashion, and so there are penalties against anyone who touches it rudely as he might touch monarchy or aristocracy. It is elevated into the plane of a social religion and is given the prestige of political orthodoxy.

It is in the nature of things that a set of conventional falsehoods and stereotyped dogmas should produce false institutions. You begin by attributing to numbers an authority which numbers never possess and cannot exercise, and you end with a legislature which has not the brains or the integrity to stand a raid by the lobby. You look for some representation of all which shall defend all against some. This, as has been shown above, is the great need in any and every form of the state. You find agents of all ready to betray all to some. Democracy is jealous of the power of wealth. It denies the right of wealth to political power and ostracizes it. What happens? Wealth is power. Everybody knows it. It is a just social power. In modern society wealth (capital) is the power which has supplanted rank and which moves the world. Its power in society is even made subject of exaggeration and denunciation. This surely is recognition of it. Socialism, denouncing property, is only trying to get property (other peoples'-that of the rich to give it to the poor). All schemes of social amelioration or improvement aim to make poor people richer. It always has been so. Plutocracy has existed in all society in all ages. In truth, it is not as efficient now as in any former age, assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. The jealousy and hostility of democracy to plutocracy are due to the fact that democracy recognizes its adversary.

The economic state of the world at the present time, as described at the beginning of this article, is the cause of the power of democracy. Numbers are now economically demanded. The man is superior, for the time being, to the dinner or the dollar. In other states of things men will be present in greater supply than the demand will employ. Then the dinner will be greater than the man, as it has been many and many a time in the course of human history. During the twentieth century the men will be in demand, and democracy will be strong, but the wealth, denied recognition and legitimate power in politics, will do what we now see it do; it will exert an illicit and corrupting power because its processes will be secret and unavowable. It is amusing to hear "publicity" advocated as a cure when secrecy is a minor symptom only of the disease. Plutocracy is not every form of the power of wealth, much less is the word properly used when, as often occurs, it is used for great wealth and luxury. Plutocracy means properly a form of societal organization in which wealth is the ruling power. Hence a democracy turns into a plutocracy not when it recognizes wealth as a legitimate form of social power in any state but when after trying to exclude it from any power a state of things is produced in which wealth is the real power by secret, illicit, and corrupt operation.

The state of things which results is well known to us, but the current discussion of it is very one-sided. No one appears to admit that democracy can be at fault. What are the facts? Legislative strikes, "hold ups," and special legislation are complementary forms of abuse. The kind of legislature which "the people" elects goes to work to threaten wealth, especially corporate wealth, with hostile legislation or, when asked to pass acts which are needed to organize industry, it makes interested opposition. The men to whom great corporate interests are entrusted have to meet the situation. If they did not attend to the matter before the legislature was elected they find themselves in calamity a little later. This aspect of the matter is either ignored or denied; but one must have little knowledge of affairs as they go on to dispute the truth of it. The next development is the boss. The money interests would never meddle with legislation if they could help it. It is dangerous. They prefer to deal with a boss who holds no office, who is an individual, who can be held responsible to them but not to the public, who wants only campaign funds. This is a new and very evident corruption of the democracy, for it strengthens the evolution of the boss. When the money interests and the boss have formed their alliance, it is available to enable the plutocrats to get what they ought not to have. The action and reaction of these operations is disastrous to the political system; and this reaction is exactly what forms the chief part of legislative activity to-day. The twentieth century inherits it as a system in full operation whose consequences the next generations must meet and whose remedy they must find. There ought to be a free and pitiless exposition of democracy, as a political system and philosophy, which would show just what it is and is not.

The evolution of democracy has produced a type of person in the nineteenth century which is now to be bequeathed to the twentieth. This is the man-on-the-curbstone. He is now in full control, and his day of glory will be the twentieth century. He is ignorant, noisy, selfsufficient, dogmatic, and impatient of opposition or remonstrance. He is ready to talk at any time about anything, but he prefers to talk of public affairs. He talks a great deal. Often he edits a newspaper. The newspapers bow down to him, flatter him, and treat him as the specimen type of "the people." It is in the name of that venerated "symbol" that he commonly speaks. When he wants to say a thing he says that the people says it. When he wants a thing he says that the people wants it. Taine called him the cuistre (oaf), for he is well known in France, where he is almost always an editor. He is also in authority in England. He is the typical person who is referred to as the common man, the average citizen, and who is credited with superhuman insight and wisdom. His cleverness is put in especially strong contrast with that of the learned. The doctrine seems to be that if a man who once was humble and ignorant uses all the means mortals have in order to try to find out something, the result is that he knows less than his humble and ignorant comrades who never made any such attempt. The man-on-the-curbstone is not one of the quiet people who go about their own affairs and who, since they make no noise, are neglected. He puts himself in evidence, and seeks opportunity to make demonstrations with badges, with shouts and cries. He responds very promptly to the military appeal. That is exactly in his line. There is no need to know or think much. The affair is one of noise and hurrah, bells and trumpets, flags and drums, speeches and poetry. He is always great on patriotism. He supposes that patriotism is an affair of enthusiasm and brag and bluster. He calls the flag "Old Glory" and wants a law that it shall be raised on all schoolhouses. Such matters as this occupy his mind. He has taken us in hand since the Spanish War and has fixed the destiny of this country. The people who knew better have nearly all thought it policy not to oppose the popular current set by this type of person. The newspapers have taken their cue from him, and our destiny has been settled without any reason or sense, without regard to history or political philosophy. That the press, the pulpit, the universities, the magazines could have so given up their functions and prostrated themselves before this organ of folly, for fear of falling out of sympathy with the man-on-the-curbstone, would have been incredible if we had not lived through it. What is the use of trying to learn anything? What is the use of preaching to young men that they should stick to what they think is true and should act from principle not from popularity? Their parents and teachers do not do it. What is the use of bewailing "commercialism" and the power of money? It is all humbug, if we know that everybody does and will act from gain or policy when the occasion arises. What is the use of talking about making good citizens in our universities when our young men see that what everybody does is to listen for the keynote from the man-on-the-curbstone and then begin to shout it as hard as he can without regard to anything else. All humbug is shameful and disgusting. If commercialism is the code, let us avow it.

The man-on-the-curbstone is not a speechmaker. His method is emphatic conversation with anyone who comes along. He writes frequent letters to the newspapers which appear in the column of "Letters from the People." No one who ever reads that column will be able to retain "trust in the people." Perhaps the most remarkable display of what the man-on-the-curbstone is capable of was his letters to the newspapers on the Sampson-Schley controversy, in which he stated his valuable opinion on the strategy of the naval battle of Santiago. He (and his wife) assails legislatures with fads about the naval canteen, vivisection, text-books of physiology, the age of consent, for he prides himself on being a reformer and a man of moral motives. This is the ruling class in the United States. He is one of the most marked products of the nineteenth century, and the twentieth will have its woes before it has done with him.

The eighteenth century bequeathed to the nineteenth notions of the state of nature, natural rights, social compact, equality of all men, sovereignty of the people, fighting doctrines. The nineteenth century is bequeathing to the twentieth a large assortment of popular or semipopular notions about economic facts and relations. It is current doctrine in large circles of the ruling classes that the laborer (wage class) is entitled to the whole of the product; that all the wealth which the rich accumulate is taken away from others, especially from the poor; that land is a gratuitous gift of God which never ought to be appropriated by anybody; that God provided a fund (viz. the unearned increment from land) to pay the expenses of the civil organization; that there is some danger from large aggregations of capital; that it is not the man who creates the wealth which he accumulates but the society around him so that this society may justly confiscate it when he dies; that there is some innate tendency in things which is called progress, meaning a tendency all the time to become more and more as men would like to have them. The natural and necessary effect of the increased material comfort of the nineteenth century is to increase discontent. This is perfectly correct in human nature. The contented man is he who never has anything and never had any expectation that he ever could get anything. To get something opens the mind to hope for more and produces discontent. The countries in which the gain has been greatest are those in which the discontent is greatest. A writer who knew Russia said that there was no discontent there except amongst those who expected an order or title on the last royal birthday and did not get it. The social and political philosophy which has been spread abroad in the nineteenth century has nourished a doctrine that if a man wants anything which he has not got it is the fault of somebody else who ought to be found and compelled to give it to him. The age is fond of phrases. It cajoles itself with words. Its literary and rhetorical purveyors treat it as if it would take nothing but honey and pie. The future historian, if he ever reads the newspapers of to-day, will wonder whether the American people of to-day really were so unwilling to listen to reason that it was necessary to feed them all the time with flattery, appeals to national vanity, gratification of their ill-educated prejudices, and reiterated assurances of their greatness, wisdom, and virtue. The real interests of the country and these matters with which popular attention is all the time occupied stand in glaring contrast to each other. It is the combination of all these tendencies which gives significance to the above mentioned economic notions. The United States has its peculiar phases, but other states suffer from the same popular delusions. The rage of disillusion and disappointment will have to be met by the inheriting century.

The bequest of economic and social confusion and contradiction, not to say fallacy, which the dying century leaves to the corning one is a formidable charge of peril and societal burden.

The mode of thought according to which popularity is a test of truth, right, or wisdom leads people to say that few believe in a certain proposition or hold a certain opinion, as if that was conclusive as to the truth or correctness of the proposition or opinion. No one could seriously believe this. The number of people who believe a thing to be true does not even create a presumption about it one way or the other. If it did, why not open the polls and get the oracle to solve some of the hard questions in the domain of science, for instance, the monogenistic or polygenistic origin of the human race. Are political and social questions so easy that the poll plan may be applicable to them and not to abstruse scientific questions? Quite the contrary. The questions of social policy which are mooted to-day are the hardest questions with which we have to deal because we have no positive and specific processes by which to solve them. They also bear the heaviest weight of consequences for the weal or woe of men. But the great point in connection with this matter of popularity is this-What is the use of education, learning, training, discipline, if the numbers can solve the questions? or if numbers hold the ultimate test by which to revise and verify the results? Of course we have no ultimate tests of truth and wisdom. That is a reason for caution and study; it is not a reason for throwing every interest into the street to be kicked around in a crowd and amongst the newspapers, to be caught up by politicians, when it has got a certain vogue, so that they think they can make capital out of it, and to be embodied in crude and hasty legislation whose consequences will be utterly different from what was expected. The history of every year which passes is full of cases of this kind.

Everybody is passing judgment on the way in which his neighbors choose to live. Why not let each other be happy each in his own way? Every man, every group resents the criticism and regulation when he or they are affected by it. The farmers want an oleomargarine law, but if a dairy law is proposed they resist it with all the doctrines of the "let alone" policy. What everybody wants for himself is "peace and quiet." It is what the age needs for the recuperation of its nerves, but society is full of schemers eager to "get a majority" so as to use it to meddle with some other people's way of living their lives. The young century inherits turmoil and clamor with little knowledge or sense. The newspapers are, according to the conditions of the case, forced to catch everything as it flies. They have no time for quiet and sober reflection. They never finish anything. They never go deeply into anything and never go back to correct mistakes. The methods are those of haste and superficiality, and what tells is the most striking phase of a matter which at the critical moment happens to be uppermost. In the turmoil and clamor what is most effective is anything which can capture attention and hold it for a moment before the chance passes. Hence the point of what is here said is not, for instance, the question whether the imperialists or the anti-imperialists are right; it is whether what is done either way shall be decided by sober knowledge and reason and whether the discussion of the matter shall be conducted on a plane of considerations which are appropriate for an enlightened society. The popular talk about "Destiny" and "Providence" has this much sense in it, that it recognizes and expresses the fact that we have been whirled along by quite other methods than these, at the sport of forces which we set loose but cannot control, and loaded with consequences which we find it hard to bear.

The opposite of the popularity theory of truth, wisdom, and right is the expert theory. According to this we must look for truth and wisdom to the specialists in each case, and the work of society is to be carried on by combining the knowledge which they all bring to the common stock. Every man of sense acts on this theory except in politics. Popular discussions are generally carried on in the form of submitting the facts and leaving the hearers to form their own opinions. Is it true that "forming opinions" is the easy part which anyone can do for himself? Quite the contrary. The greatest astronomer living, if he wanted to know what to think about a question in biology, would go to a biologist and ask him what he ought to think about it. Of course he could not do otherwise since he would have questions in chemistry, physics, political economy, and so on without end, and he would need a hundred lifetimes in which to "form opinions" on them all. "Authority" is out of date, but everyone must know that competent authority (on everything but political and social questions) is what we have to live by. All that has helped mankind to gain anything (what is commonly called progress) is knowledge of the world in which we live. The masses have never won knowledge. Instead of numbers, it has always been individuals who have won knowledge. It has not come of itself to "those who eddy round and round." It has cost toil and sacrifice. In every domain except politics the authority of the specialist and expert is being more and more definitely acknowledged. Especially in the arts, as they go on to more complex development, the scientific training is more essential and is commanding its authority. Are political and social affairs any proper exception? As they become grander and the interests affected by them become greater, the forces of greed, vanity, chicane, passion which enter into them are, as we see, more powerful. How shall our affairs prosper in this domain except by knowledge and special training? The new century may well complain that the last one hands down to it political institutions and machinery which are in irrational contrast to other societal developments and to the tasks which are handed down at the same time.

The man-on-the-curbstone resents expert advice and the whole theory of special knowledge. He says that it is un-democratic, un-American, and that it shows distrust of the people. He is conscious of the issue which it raises, for the expert theory of human affairs would dethrone him from his position. He cannot afford to take expert advice, for he would confess his own incapacity for the functions which he has under­ taken. He is like an incompetent autocrat who must be acted upon by a clever minister, by suggestion and insinuation, so that he may believe or at least pretend that the ideas originated in his own mind. Our politicians treat the man-on-the-curbstone in the same way. Civil service reform is the first positive measure in which the expert theory and the numbers theory have come in collision, and the history of that effort is instructive for the understanding of the issue and the obstacles which it will meet. The more the economic system expands and the greater its power to produce wealth becomes, the greater also the responsibilities and tasks of the state become by territorial expansion, the greater will be the harm from institutions and usages built on delusive dogmas of political power and wisdom. The young century will have a right to complain that the penalty of all these dogmas and usages has been passed down upon it.

It is very easy to take sides in regard to the antagonisms which have been noted and to say that, of course, the other side is doing wrong and therefore is to blame for all the trouble. Democracy and plutocracy make each other worse by their conflict. That democratic institutions are corrupted to their core by the plutocratic legislation which has been described is obvious. There is nothing left of democracy when politicians squeeze money out of capitalists and corporations with which to win elections and pay it back by jobbing legislation. The most essential interests of everybody who has any property, from the man who has a hundred dollars in the savings bank up to the millionaire, are imperilled by legislative strikes and jobs and crank legislation according to a Henry George or some other half-educated apostle of the millennium, in which everybody is to have everything for nothing by recognizing and securing to him the gifts of God-as if the world bore any evidence that God had made it to be a paradise for everybody without any trouble. Everybody applauds denunciations of plutocracy or of democracy according to his adopted standpoint and pet notions. Everybody dreams of a victory for his pet ideas "in the twentieth century." They will all be disappointed. They will produce great strife and confusion and loss, but the bigger force will prevail over the smaller in 2001 just as surely as it does today. Now, what is the greater force-the man or the dollar (we should say the dinner)? There are those who say that the men are, and they wax indignantly eloquent at the idea of putting the dinner above the man.

Now note the facts of experience: (1) the cases of the tariff, the pensions, the socialistic devices, in short, all the cases in which men make friends with the steal when they get into it, prove the power of the dinner over the man, because they show the man repudiating his principles in favor of his interests. (2) All the achievements of the plutocrats which are denounced prove that they are men of transcendent ability, more powerful than thousands of other men put together simply by force of brains. Every disputant who enters the debate affirms these two facts. They are the foundation of the case of all who believe in numbers. Now put them together. Then we have the men of intellectual force, with the force of capital in their hands, and the very arena in which they have shown their power is that of "votes" and of the democratic legislature, where the orators of lunar political economy say that they expect to defeat them. What is the conclusion? That the plutocrats should be allowed to have their own way? Not by any means; but that the lunar politics should be discarded and not allowed to form the platform of attacks on property. Property is the strongest, deepest, most universal interest of mankind. It is the most fundamental condition of the struggle for existence; that is to say, of the welfare of mankind. It does not mean millions of dollars; it means cents. It must be aggregated in large masses under personal control or the work of society cannot go on. It is silly to get into states of excitement about "large aggregations of capital" or the "excessive wealth of individuals." If the legislature were pure and if it restricted itself to its proper business, it would have no trouble at all in regulating any arrogance of wealth whenever it showed itself. The contest of democracy and plutocracy is the contest between the economic power and opportunity mentioned at the outset and the political conditions under which it must be carried on.

In the history of the United States the conflict between democracy and plutocracy began when the protective system was adopted, and the protective system has been the origin of all the ramifications of the special abuses of legislation which have come in since, for the evil methods were invented in connection with tariff legislation, and the great device for forcing legislation on behalf of other special interests has been to threaten to break the steal if not admitted into it. The protectionists have necessarily been forced to help every other job. It has, therefore, become a question in regard to every "reform" whether it is a real contest against an abuse for the purpose of destroying it or only a means of forcing admission for another party into the profits of the abuse. The reforms all die, one after another, when the clamor ceases, and that comes when those who made the outcry have been appeased by a slice of the plunder. There are very few groups of reformers who have not succumbed to these bribes. The statesman who put into a formula the determination to fight the steal or get into it deserves the honors of the debate. The ship subsidy is the biggest and most shameless proposition to perpetrate a job and a steal in the face of the whole country which has yet been made. It may be taken as a landmark in political jobbery to show at the turning point of the century how far we have come. The pensions, the oleomargarine law, the attacks on trusts and department stores, and the formulated demands of populists and "organized labor" are only other incidents in the rising war inside of society between democracy and plutocracy.

The protective system is another problem which is bequeathed to the new century, not only as a part of plutocracy but as a positive device. Free trade is not a matter of political economy. It is a matter of common sense and enlightenment. As the great modern inventions draw the world together and consolidate the whole into one great economic unit, the state lines which mark off political control are found to break the prosperous action of the economic functions. The protective laws of the different states of the world are now a gigantic attempt to defeat the action of all the great modern industrial forces and in spite of them to give arbitrary form to the local industries of each separate state. Can it be done? No intelligent man can believe that it can be done for long. The attempt can produce only confusion and loss. Every interest which is staked on it is in peril every moment, for a new invention at any moment may make all the tariff apparatus futile and ridiculous. There must come a time when it is a question of life or death to all the interests inside of the protective system to take it down, and the problem how to take it down is a very serious one from any point of view. The generation which has to take it down will not see in it any reason to bless their fathers for building it. Already experience has shown us some of the contradictions between being a state with a stringent protective system and being a world power. The contradictions will work out a solution which the twentieth century will have to meet. It is no enviable task.

The summary of the line of thought in this paper is that while the outlook on the twentieth century from the industrial standpoint is in the highest degree encouraging, the outlook from the political standpoint is of the opposite character. It is essential to the interests of human society that its institutions should be developed harmoniously; its political institutions and methods must be adequate to perform in a healthful manner the functions which they are called on to perform in order to sustain the development of the industrial organization. Such is not now the case, and the consequence is that the nineteenth century bequeaths to the twentieth a great degree of social confusion, both in ideas and in institutions, which is due to the maladjustment between the industrial system and the political system. It is plain that each of these systems has a sphere of legitimate and independent activity. A victory either of democracy over plutocracy or of plutocracy over democracy would be disastrous to civilization. For the present and the immediate future the purification of political institutions is the most urgent task which demands our effort, and it seems that the most effective effort in that direction is to dispel the illusions and popular notions which now prevail in this domain.

 

Last modified July 24, 2017