Saturday, March 24, 2007

Van Ornum, Why Government at All? - Part I, Chapter 7



It is a hard matter properly to review, within the space to which such a review must be confined in a work like this, a writer whose misconception of his subject is so fundamental, and where that misconception gives such a false coloring to every fact and inference with which he deals. And were it not that so many earnest men and women have been captivated by the gaudy colorings of his fanciful creation, as flies are blinded by the glare of a candle, I should not regard “Looking Backward” as of sufficient interest to merit special examination in these pages.

There is not an analysis of a single principle which throws new light upon the subject, or a proposition put forward that offers even a rational solution of any difficulty. But, on the other hand, the whole tendency of Mr. Bellamy’s book is to hush the popular protest against the growing power of monopoly with promises which can never be fulfilled. To accept his solution of the social problem is to abandon the struggle for liberty, to give up to the enemy every position, and submit to be bound hand and foot while the chains of industrial slavery are riveted the tighter.

In describing his imaginary transition from the dominion of corporate monopoly, which is now fast swallowing up the business and industries of the country, to his reign of universal justice, he attempts to show that while we are not able to see their deeper meaning, yet things are all right as they are. All we have to do is to let monopoly go on unhindered, and it will finally culminate in no monopoly at all. In other words, give injustice full [68] play, and the result is justice. Men need not to trouble themselves about the evils which exist in the world. These things are too deep for human understanding. The only thing to be done is, to let things take their own course; and, in the end, monopolists all become saints, and politicians angels. This is the same old promise we have always heard of a heaven by and by, if we will only submit to a hell now. If any one has any doubt of the correctness of this summary, let him read pages 53 to 58 of “Looking Backward”

Mr. Bellamy is like a painter who would be a botanist. He has painted a rose he never saw, but which he has inferred by looking at the sprout just pricking above the ground. But he was not satisfied with painting his imaginary rose; he must also describe its unfoldings, its leaves and stalk, its height, and the characteristics of its bud. He tells you its color, its odor, and the number and form of its seeds; yet he has never seen a rose. His book bears the impress throughout of the same kind of knowledge of men as such a painter would show of a rose.

A most convincing instance of Mr. Bellamy’s fundamental misconception of the whole social problem is shown in his treatment of government. His government has become beneficent, and his politicians wise and virtuous. He does not even call them politicians any longer. “Demagoguery and corruption are words having only an historical significance.” And yet he says that human nature has not been changed. “The conditions of human life have been changed, and with them the motives of human action.” But a a change of “the motives of human action” is not if change in human nature, pray what would be necessary to constitute such a change? It would be interesting to know what Mr. Bellamy regards “the motives of human action” now; and what those motives become under the changed conditions which he contemplates. But that is exactly what he does not tell [69] us. It is important to know this because, unless we know what a man’s motive is, we can not calculate on what he will do. By inference only he admits that men are selfish now; therefore we may conclude that he does recognize in a vague sort of a way that selfishness is one of the motives (for he speaks of motives as if there were several) of human action. So far as it is a motive of action (by inference again) he eliminates it in his description of the new conditions thus:

“Nowadays . . . society is so constituted that there is absolutely no way in which an official, however ill-disposed, could possibly make any profit for himself or any one else by a misuse of his power. Let him be as bad an official as you please, he can not be a corrupt one. There is no motive to be. The social system no longer offers a premium on dishonesty.” So, selfishness is no longer a motive, because there is no way in which it could be gratified. Mr. Bellamy does not see that he proposes to change human nature,’ and yet, what could be a more radical change of human nature than to change the motive (for there is only one, and that one is selfishness) of human action? For a fuller consideration of selfishness, see Chapter 2 of Part II.

Selfishness being the motive of all human action, and being absolutely necessary, not only to the preservation of the individual; but to his improvement, to weaken, or destroy it, must weaken, or destroy, all stimulus to exertion; and society itself must deteriorate, or die, through the deterioration, or death, of its integers.

Politicians, like every one else, have this same motive. And like every one else, it is their only motive. We entrust them with power now, and they always abuse it. Men love power because it brings distinction. To be, or to be thought, different from others: brighter, smarter, wiser than one’s fellows, to receive deference, is one of the ruling passions of men. To entrust a man with power to command that deference, [70] and then assume that he will not use it, is to assume that a man will not eat when he is hungry. He seeks the power in order to use it. These facts cannot be changed under any possible changes of conditions, because they are a part of the very nature of men, and the immediate result of the motive power which actuates them. If such changes could take place, if men could become less selfish, that change would be an essential change in human nature.

But if it were possible to attain to such a political condition as Mr. Bellamy describes, how is that condition to be brought about? Gradually, through the absorption of greater and still greater functions by government? The more power we place in the hands of the politicians the more we exaggerate the trouble already existing. An evil once established obeys the same law of growth that applies to everything else.

Every new law we pass, every additional office that we establish, magnifies the power and prestige of the politician. Do we finally reach the point in politics that Mr. Bellamy finds in monopoly, where monopoly and politics abolish themselves? Has he discovered a new law by which all evils are cured by promoting their greatest possible development?

Mr. Bellamy thinks it is desirable to abolish the use of money, and then imagines he has done so, when he interferes with, and so far as possible prevents, the exchange of commodities between individuals. This arises from another misconception of the nature and function of money. Had he understood that, he would not have found its use something to be avoided to begin with; and next, he would not have imagined that he had accomplished it by substituting his credit card for a circulating medium.

In some way wealth must circulate from hand to hand. As long as man cannot produce, each by his own labor, all the things he may want, this circulation or exchange must go on. To avoid the intolerable annoyance and inconvenience of a barter exchange [71] in each instance, something must serve as a token, to represent comparative values, that will pass current from hand to hand, and be accepted as the’ equivalent of all forms of value. Such is money. In the function it performs it is a tool which facilitates these exchanges of commodities, and saves the enormous amounts of labor that would otherwise be required to effect the exchanges. How can a laborsaving invention so admirably adapted to minister to human wants, and save almost infinite amounts of human labor, be an undesirable thing; a thing to be gotten rid of? Could human stupidity find a more striking illustration?

Mr. Bellamy supposes that he has obviated the necessity for the use of money by interfering with, and in most cases prohibiting, these exchanges. By making the government a warehouse keeper, maintaining a sort of grand pool into which all wealth that is produced is poured, he finds that the circulation of wealth must still continue, although it is now only outward from his pool, or warehouse. So he substitutes his own kind of money to facilitate that circulation; but it is still money, although he calls it “credit card.”

Credit is another subject which Mr. Bellamy treats in his usual brilliant way. He makes Dr. Leete say of our nineteenth century civilization: “There was a natural limit to gold and silver, that is money proper, but none to credit, and the result was, that the volume of credit, that is, the promises of money, ceased to bear any ascertainable proportion to money, still less to the commodities actually in existence,” which shows that Dr. Leete not only did not understand the money question, but was also ignorant of credit. All this might be overlooked in Dr. Leete, who was looking back at us through the mists of a hundred years, but not in Mr. Bellamy, who is describing the conditions of the present, in the present. Let me observe. First, how does Mr. Bellamy know [72] that there is any practical limit to gold and silver? Has he or any one else ever found it? Second, gold and silver are no more “money proper” than copper, paper, or a string of beads. Even a bank check makes very good money for temporary purposes. Anything will do, that can be made to perform the functions of money. Third, there is a limit to credit. I know it because I have tried it; and I know of a good many others who have too. If Mr. Bellamy has not, I congratulate him. Fourth, the volume of credit is not “promises of money,” and does not depend upon “any ascertainable proportion to the money actually in existence.”

But the culmination of Mr. Bellamy’s scintillations of wisdom, which I commend to those good and venerable ladies in and out of petticoats, who are so diligently seeking his painted heaven, is found when he contrasts our own low degree of civilization with that attained in his new Boston. He says: “Buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence and disinterestedness which should prevail between citizens, and the sense of community of interest which supports our social system. According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization.”

Now glance at his Twenty-first Century Bostonians who have been trained in his school of “mutual benevolence and disinterestedness,” and who have thereby risen to a very high “grade of civilization.” They are incapable of judging for themselves what is equitable in an exchange, and before they are permitted to make one, they must ask their guileless and virtuous politicians, —the government,—who are supposed to know, “to inquire into all the circumstances of the transaction so as to be able to guarantee its absolute equity,” like school children who must [73] ask their mothers before they can swap jack-knives. It will be unnecessary specially to consider Mr. Bellamy further, as his positions are mainly those of the professed State socialists, and are sufficiently considered under other heads.

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