Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

What Is Possible and What Is Not

SOCIALISM, then, will not work, and neither will individualism, or at least the older individualism that we have hitherto made the basis of the social order. Here, therefore, stands humanity, in the middle of its narrow path in sheer perplexity, not knowing which way to turn. On either side is the brink of an abyss. On one hand is the yawning gulf of social catastrophe represented by socialism. On the other, the slower, but no less inevitable disaster that would attend the continuation in its present form of the system under which we have lived. Either way lies destruction; the one swift and immediate as a fall from a great height; the other gradual, but equally dreadful, as the slow strangulation in a morass. Somewhere between the two lies such narrow safety as may be found.

The Ancients were fond of the metaphor, taken from the vexed Sicilian Seas, of Scylla and Charybdis. The twin whirlpools threatened the affrightened mariner on either side. To avoid one he too hastily cast the ship to destruction in the other. Such is precisely the position that has been reached at the present crisis in the course of human progress. When we view the shortcomings of the present individualism, its waste of energy, its fretful overwork, its cruel inequality and the bitter lot that it brings to the uncounted millions of the submerged, we are inclined to cry out against it, and to listen with a ready ear to the easy promises of the idealist. But when we turn to the contrasted fallacies of socialism, its obvious impracticality and the dark gulf of social chaos that yawns behind it, we are driven back shuddering to cherish rather the ills we have than fly to others we know not of.

Yet out of the whole discussion of the matter some few things begin to merge into the clearness of certain day. It is clear enough on the one hand that we can expect no sudden and complete transformation of the world in which we live. Such a process is impossible. The industrial system is too complex, its roots are too deeply struck and its whole organism of too delicate a growth to permit us to tear it from the soil. Nor is humanity itself fitted for the kind of transformation which fills the dreams of the perfectionist. The principle of selfishness that has been the survival instinct of existence since life first crawled from the slime of a world in evolution, is as yet but little mitigated. In the long process of time some higher cosmic sense may take its place. It has not done so yet. If the kingdom of socialism were opened to-morrow, there are but few fitted to enter.

But on the other hand it is equally clear that the doctrine of "every man for himself," as it used to be applied, is done with forever. The time has gone by when a man shall starve asking in vain for work; when the listless outcast shall draw his rags shivering about him unheeded of his fellows; when children shall be born in hunger and bred in want and broken in toil with never a chance in life. If nothing else will end these things, fear will do it. The hardest capitalist that ever gripped his property with the iron clasp of legal right relaxes his grasp a little when he thinks of the possibilities of a social conflagration. In this respect five years of war have taught us more than a century of peace. It has set in a clear light new forms of social obligation. The war brought with it conscription--not as we used to see it, as the last horror of military tyranny, but as the crowning pride of democracy. An inconceivable revolution in the thought of the English speaking peoples has taken place in respect to it. The obligation of every man, according to his age and circumstance, to take up arms for his country and, if need be, to die for it, is henceforth the recognized basis of progressive democracy.

But conscription has its other side. The obligation to die must carry with it the right to live. If every citizen owes it to society that he must fight for it in case of need, then society owes to every citizen the opportunity of a livelihood. "Unemployment," in the case of the willing and able becomes henceforth a social crime. Every democratic Government must henceforth take as the starting point of its industrial policy, that there shall be no such thing as able bodied men and women "out of work," looking for occupation and unable to find it. Work must either be found or must be provided by the State itself.

Yet it is clear that a policy of state work and state pay for all who are otherwise unable to find occupation involves appalling difficulties. The opportunity will loom large for the prodigal waste of money, for the undertaking of public works of no real utility and for the subsidizing of an army of loafers. But the difficulties, great though they are, are not insuperable. The payment for state labor of this kind can be kept low enough to make it the last resort rather than the ultimate ambition of the worker. Nor need the work be useless. In new countries, especially such as Canada and the United States and Australia, the development of latent natural assets could absorb the labor of generations. There are still unredeemed empires in the west. Clearly enough a certain modicum of public honesty and integrity is essential for such a task; more, undoubtedly, than we have hitherto been able to enlist in the service of the commonwealth. But without it we perish. Social betterment must depend at every stage on the force of public spirit and public morality that inspires it.

So much for the case of those who are able and willing to work. There remain still the uncounted thousands who by accident or illness, age or infirmity, are unable to maintain themselves. For these people, under the older dispensation, there was nothing but the poorhouse, the jail or starvation by the roadside. The narrow individualism of the nineteenth century refused to recognize the social duty of supporting somebody else's grandmother. Such charity began, and ended, at home. But even with the passing of the nineteenth century an awakened sense of the collective responsibility of society towards its weaker members began to impress itself upon public policy. Old age pension laws and national insurance against illness and accident were already being built into the legislative codes of the democratic countries. The experience of the war has enormously increased this sense of social solidarity. It is clear now that our fortunes are not in our individual keeping. We stand or fall as a nation. And the nation which neglects the aged and infirm, or which leaves a family to be shipwrecked as the result of a single accident to a breadwinner, cannot survive as against a nation in which the welfare of each is regarded as contributory to the safety of all. Even the purest selfishness would dictate a policy of social insurance.

There is no need to discuss the particular way in which this policy can best be carried out. It will vary with the circumstances of each community. The action of the municipality, or of the state or province, or of the central government itself may be called into play. But in one form or another, the economic loss involved in illness and infirmity must be shifted from the shoulders of the individual to those of society at large. There was but little realization of this obligation in the nineteenth century. Only in the sensational moments of famine, flood or pestilence was a general social effort called forth. But in the clearer view of the social bond which the war has given us we can see that famine and pestilence are merely exaggerated forms of what is happening every day in our midst.

We spoke much during the war of "man power." We suddenly realized that after all the greatness and strength of a nation is made up of the men and women who compose it. Its money, in the narrow sense, is nothing; a set of meaningless chips and counters piled upon a banker's table ready to fall at a touch. Even before the war we had begun to talk eagerly and anxiously of the conservation of national resources, of the need of safeguarding the forests and fisheries and the mines. These are important things. But the war has shown that the most important thing of all is the conservation of men and women.

The attitude of the nineteenth century upon this point was little short of insane. The melancholy doctrine of Malthus had perverted the public mind. Because it was difficult for a poor man to bring up a family, the hasty conclusion was reached that a family ought not to be brought up. But the war has entirely inverted and corrected this point of view. The father and mother who were able to send six sturdy, native-born sons to the conflict were regarded as benefactors of the nation. But these six sturdy sons had been, some twenty years before, six "puling infants," viewed with gloomy disapproval by the Malthusian bachelor. If the strength of the nation lies in its men and women there is only one way to increase it. Before the war it was thought that a simpler and easier method of increase could be found in the wholesale import of Austrians, Bulgarians and Czecho-Slovaks. The newer nations boasted proudly of their immigration tables. The fallacy is apparent now. Those who really count in a nation and those who govern its destinies for good or ill are those who are born in it.

It is difficult to over-estimate the harm that has been done to public policy by this same Malthusian theory. It has opposed to every proposal of social reform an obstacle that seemed insuperable,--the danger of a rapid overincrease of population that would pauperize the community. Population, it was said, tends always to press upon the heels of subsistence. If the poor are pampered, they will breed fast: the time will come when there will not be food for all and we shall perish in a common destruction. Seen in this light, infant mortality and the cruel wastage of disease were viewed with complacence. It was "Nature's" own process at work. The "unfit," so called, were being winnowed out that only the best might survive. The biological doctrine of evolution was misinterpreted and misapplied to social policy.

But in the organic world there is no such thing as the "fit" or the "unfit," in any higher or moral sense. The most hideous forms of life may "survive" and thrust aside the most beautiful. It is only by a confusion of thought that the processes of organic nature which render every foot of fertile ground the scene of unending conflict can be used to explain away the death of children of the slums. The whole theory of survival is only a statement of what is, not of what ought to be. The moment that we introduce the operation of human volition and activity, that, too, becomes one of the factors of "survival." The dog, the cat, and the cow live by man's will, where the wolf and the hyena have perished.

But it is time that the Malthusian doctrine,--the fear of over-population as a hindrance to social reform,--was dismissed from consideration. It is at best but a worn-out scarecrow shaking its vain rags in the wind. Population, it is true, increases in a geometrical ratio. The human race, if favored by environment, can easily double itself every twenty-five years. If it did this, the time must come, through sheer power of multiplication, when there would not be standing room for it on the globe. All of this is undeniable, but it is quite wide of the mark. It is time enough to cross a bridge when we come to it. The "standing room" problem is still removed from us by such uncounted generations that we need give no thought to it. The physical resources of the globe are as yet only tapped, and not exhausted. We have done little more than scratch the surface. Because we are crowded here and there in the ant-hills of our cities, we dream that the world is full. Because, under our present system, we do not raise enough food for all, we fear that the food supply is running short. All this is pure fancy. Let any one consider in his mind's eye the enormous untouched assets still remaining for mankind in the vast spaces filled with the tangled forests of South America, or the exuberant fertility of equatorial Africa or the huge plains of Canada, Australia, Southern Siberia and the United States, as yet only thinly dotted with human settlement. There is no need to draw up an anxious balance sheet of our assets. There is still an uncounted plenty. And every human being born upon the world represents a power of work that, rightly directed, more than supplies his wants. The fact that as an infant he does not maintain himself has nothing to do with the case. This was true even in the Garden of Eden.

The fundamental error of the Malthusian theory of population and poverty is to confound the difficulties of human organization with the question of physical production. Our existing poverty is purely a problem in the direction and distribution of human effort. It has no connection as yet with the question of the total available means of subsistence. Some day, in a remote future, in which under an improved social system the numbers of mankind might increase to the full power of the natural capacity of multiplication, such a question might conceivably disturb the equanimity of mankind. But it need not now. It is only one of many disasters that must sooner or later overtake mankind. The sun, so the astronomer tells us, is cooling down; the night is coming; an all-pervading cold will some day chill into rigid death the last vestige of organic life. Our poor planet will be but a silent ghost whirling on its dark path in the starlight. This ultimate disaster is, as far as our vision goes, inevitable. Yet no one concerns himself with it. So should it be with the danger of the ultimate overcrowding of the globe.

I lay stress upon this problem of the increase of population because, to my thinking, it is in this connection that the main work and the best hope of social reform can be found. The children of the race should be the very blossom of its fondest hopes. Under the present order and with the present gloomy preconceptions they have been the least of its collective cares. Yet here--and here more than anywhere--is the point towards which social effort and social legislation may be directed immediately and successfully. The moment that we get away from the idea that the child is a mere appendage of the parent, bound to share good fortune and ill, wealth and starvation, according to the parent's lot, the moment we regard the child as itself a member of society--clothed in social rights--a burden for the moment but an asset for the future--we turn over a new leaf in the book of human development, we pass a new milestone on the upward path of progress.

It should be recognized in the coming order of society, that every child of the nation has the right to be clothed and fed and trained irrespective of its parents' lot. Our feeble beginnings in the direction of housing, sanitation, child welfare and education, should be expanded at whatever cost into something truly national and all embracing. The ancient grudging selfishness that would not feed other people's children should be cast out. In the war time the wealthy bachelor and the spinster of advancing years took it for granted that other people's children should fight for them. The obligation must apply both ways.

No society is properly organized until every child that is born into it shall have an opportunity in life. Success in life and capacity to live we cannot give. But opportunity we can. We can at least see that the gifts that are laid in the child's cradle by nature are not obliterated by the cruel fortune of the accident of birth: that its brain and body are not stunted by lack of food and air and by the heavy burden of premature toil. The playtime of childhood should be held sacred by the nation.

This, as I see it, should be the first and the greatest effort of social reform. For the adult generation of to-day many things are no longer possible. The time has passed. We are, as viewed with a comprehensive eye, a damaged race. Few of us in mind or body are what we might be; and millions of us, the vast majority of industrial mankind known as the working class, are distorted beyond repair from what they might have been. In older societies this was taken for granted: the poor and the humble and the lowly reproduced from generation to generation, as they grew to adult life, the starved brains and stunted outlook of their forbears,--starved and stunted only by lack of opportunity. For nature knows of no such differences in original capacity between the children of the fortunate and the unfortunate. Yet on this inequality, made by circumstance, was based the whole system of caste, the stratification of the gentle and the simple on which society rested. In the past it may have been necessary. It is not so now. If, with all our vast apparatus of machinery and power, we cannot so arrange society that each child has an opportunity in life, it would be better to break the machinery in pieces and return to the woods from which we came.

Put into the plainest of prose, then, we are saying that the government of every country ought to supply work and pay for the unemployed, maintenance for the infirm and aged, and education and opportunity for the children. These are vast tasks. And they involve, of course, a financial burden not dreamed of before the war. But here again the war has taught us many things. It would have seemed inconceivable before, that a man of great wealth should give one-half of his income to the state. The financial burden of the war, as the full measure of it dawned upon our minds, seemed to betoken a universal bankruptcy. But the sequel is going to show that the finance of the war will prove to be a lesson in the finance of peace. The new burden has come to stay. No modern state can hope to survive unless it meets the kind of social claims on the part of the unemployed, the destitute and the children that have been described above. And it cannot do this unless it continues to use the terrific engine of taxation already fashioned in the war. Undoubtedly the progressive income tax and the tax on profits and taxation of inheritance must be maintained to an extent never dreamed of before.

But the peace finance and the war finance will differ in one most important respect. The war finance was purely destructive. From it came national security and the triumph of right over wrong. No one would belittle the worth of the sacrifice. But in the narrower sense of production, of bread winning, there came nothing; or nothing except a new power of organization, a new technical skill and a new aspiration towards better things. But the burden of peace finance directed towards social efforts will bring a direct return. Every cent that is spent upon the betterment of the population will come back, sooner or later, as two.

But all of this deals as yet only with the field of industry and conduct in which the state rules supreme. Governmental care of the unemployed, the infant and the infirm, sounds like a chapter in socialism. If the same régime were extended over the whole area of production, we should have socialism itself and a mere soap-bubble bursting into fragments. There is no need, however, to extend the régime of compulsion over the whole field. The vast mass of human industrial effort must still lie outside of the immediate control of the government. Every man will still earn his own living and that of his family as best he can, relying first and foremost upon his own efforts.

One naturally asks, then, To what extent can social reform penetrate into the ordinary operation of industry itself? Granted that it is impossible for the state to take over the whole industry of the nation, does that mean that the present inequalities must continue? The framework in which our industrial life is set cannot be readily broken asunder. But we can to a great extent ease the rigidity of its outlines. A legislative code that starts from sounder principles than those which have obtained hitherto can do a great deal towards progressive betterment. Each decade can be an improvement upon the last. Hitherto we have been hampered at every turn by the supposed obstacle of immutable economic laws. The theory of "natural" wages and prices of a supposed economic order that could not be disturbed, set up a sort of legislative paralysis. The first thing needed is to get away entirely from all such preconceptions, to recognize that the "natural" order of society, based on the "natural" liberty, does not correspond with real justice and real liberty at all, but works injustice at every turn. And at every turn intrusive social legislation must seek to prevent such injustice.

It is no part of the present essay to attempt to detail the particulars of a code of social legislation. That must depend in every case upon the particular circumstances of the community concerned. But some indication may be given here of the kind of legislation that may serve to render the conditions of industry more in conformity with social justice. Let us take, as a conspicuous example, the case of the Minimum wage law. Here is a thing sternly condemned in the older thought as an economic impossibility. It was claimed, as we have seen, that under free contract a man was paid what he earned and no law could make it more. But the older theory was wrong. The minimum wage law ought to form, in one fashion or another, a part of the code of every community. It may be applied by specific legislation from a central power, or it may be applied by the discretionary authority of district boards, or it may be regulated,--as it has been in some of the beginnings already made,--within the compass of each industry or trade. But the principle involved is sound. The wage as paid becomes a part of the conditions of industry. Interest, profits and, later, the direction of consumption and then of production, conform themselves to it.

True it is, that in this as in all cases of social legislation, no application of the law can be made so sweeping and so immediate as to dislocate the machine and bring industry to a stop. It is probable that at any particular time and place the legislative minimum wage cannot be very much in advance of the ordinary or average wage of the people in employment. But its virtue lies in its progression. The modest increase of to-day leads to the fuller increase of to-morrow. Properly applied, the capitalist and the employer of labor need have nothing to fear from it. Its ultimate effect will not fall upon them, but will serve merely to alter the direction of human effort.

Precisely the same reasoning holds good of the shortening of the hours of labor both by legislative enactment and by collective organization. Here again the first thing necessary is a clear vision of the goal towards which we are to strive. The hours of labor are too long. The world has been caught in the wheels of its own machinery which will not stop. With each advance in invention and mechanical power it works harder still. New and feverish desires for luxuries replace each older want as satisfied. The nerves of our industrial civilization are worn thin with the rattle of its own machinery. The industrial world is restless, over-strained and quarrelsome. It seethes with furious discontent, and looks about it eagerly for a fight. It needs a rest. It should be sent, as nerve patients are, to the seaside or the quiet of the hills. Failing this, it should at least slacken the pace of its work and shorten its working day.

And for this the thing needed is an altered public opinion on the subject of work in relation to human character and development. The nineteenth century glorified work. The poet, sitting beneath a shady tree, sang of its glories. The working man was incited to contemplate the beauty of the night's rest that followed on the exhaustion of the day. It was proved to him that if his day was dull at least his sleep was sound. The ideal of society was the cheery artisan and the honest blacksmith, awake and singing with the lark and busy all day long at the loom and the anvil, till the grateful night soothed them into well-earned slumber. This, they were told, was better than the distracted sleep of princes.

The educated world repeated to itself these grotesque fallacies till it lost sight of plain and simple truths. Seven o'clock in the morning is too early for any rational human being to be herded into a factory at the call of a steam whistle. Ten hours a day of mechanical task is too long: nine hours is too long: eight hours is too long. I am not raising here the question as to how and to what extent the eight hours can be shortened, but only urging the primary need of recognizing that a working day of eight hours is too long for the full and proper development of human capacity and for the rational enjoyment of life. There is no need to quote here to the contrary the long and sustained toil of the pioneer, the eager labor of the student, unmindful of the silent hours, or the fierce acquisitive activity of the money-maker that knows no pause. Activities such as these differ with a whole sky from the wage-work of the modern industrial worker. The task in one case is done for its own sake. It is life itself. The other is done only for the sake of the wage it brings. It is, or should be, a mere preliminary to living.

Let it be granted, of course, that a certain amount of work is an absolute necessity for human character. There is no more pathetic spectacle on our human stage than the figure of poor puppy in his beach suit and his tuxedo jacket seeking in vain to amuse himself for ever. A leisure class no sooner arises than the melancholy monotony of amusement forces it into mimic work and make-believe activities. It dare not face the empty day.

But when all is said about the horror of idleness the broad fact remains that the hours of work are too long. If we could in imagination disregard for a moment all question of how the hours of work are to be shortened and how production is to be maintained and ask only what would be the ideal number of the daily hours of compulsory work, for character's sake, few of us would put them at more than four or five. Many of us, as applied to ourselves, at least, would take a chance on character at two.

The shortening of the general hours of work, then, should be among the primary aims of social reform. There need be no fear that with shortened hours of labor the sum total of production would fall short of human needs. This, as has been shown from beginning to end of this essay, is out of the question. Human desires would eat up the result of ten times the work we now accomplish. Human needs would be satisfied with a fraction of it. But the real difficulty in the shortening of hours lies elsewhere. Here, as in the parallel case of the minimum wage, the danger is that the attempt to alter things too rapidly may dislocate the industrial machine. We ought to attempt such a shortening as will strain the machine to a breaking point, but never break it. This can be done, as with the minimum wage, partly by positive legislation and partly collective action. Not much can be done at once. But the process can be continuous. The short hours achieved with acclamation to-day will later be denounced as the long hours of to-morrow. The essential point to grasp, however, is that society at large has nothing to lose by the process. The shortened hours become a part of the framework of production. It adapts itself to it. Hitherto we have been caught in the running of our own machine: it is time that we altered the gearing of it.

The two cases selected,--the minimum wage and the legislative shortening of hours,--have been chosen merely as illustrations and are not exhaustive of the things that can be done in the field of possible and practical reform. It is plain enough that in many other directions the same principles may be applied. The rectification of the ownership of land so as to eliminate the haphazard gains of the speculator and the unearned increment of wealth created by the efforts of others, is an obvious case in point. The "single taxer" sees in this a cure-all for the ills of society. But his vision is distorted. The private ownership of land is one of the greatest incentives to human effort that the world has ever known. It would be folly to abolish it, even if we could. But here as elsewhere we can seek to re-define and regulate the conditions of ownership so as to bring them more into keeping with a common sense view of social justice.

But the inordinate and fortuitous gains from land are really only one example from a general class. The war discovered the "profiteer." The law-makers of the world are busy now with smoking him out from his lair. But he was there all the time. Inordinate and fortuitous gain, resting on such things as monopoly, or trickery, or the mere hazards of abundance and scarcity, complying with the letter of the law but violating its spirit, are fit objects for appropriate taxation. The ways and means are difficult, but the social principle involved is clear.

We may thus form some sort of vision of the social future into which we are passing. The details are indistinct. But the outline at least in which it is framed is clear enough. The safety of the future lies in a progressive movement of social control alleviating the misery which it cannot obliterate and based upon the broad general principle of equality of opportunity. The chief immediate direction of social effort should be towards the attempt to give to every human being in childhood adequate food, clothing, education and an opportunity in life. This will prove to be the beginning of many things.


THE END.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *       *       *       *       *       *


Stephen Leacock

Sorry, no summary available yet.