Thursday, March 29, 2007

Van Ornum, Why Government at All? - Part II, Chapter 3




Having ascertained the motive that prompts men to activity, and the purpose toward which that activity is directed, it is necessary to observe also the successive stages of man’s development to rightly understand his relation to society.

Starting at the beginning, we find his desires, like his knowledge, are gross; and have reference to his grosser and more material needs. They are mainly food, clothing and shelter. Food is to the animal what fuel is to the furnace. Without it the fire of life goes out. If it is insufficient it smoulders; and he cannot properly perform his part for the same reason that an engine cannot do its work if the fire burns low under the boiler and therefore does not give sufficient steam. Clothing and shelter are next in importance. They are indispensable to the proper working of the human machine. Insufficient or unsuitable provision against inclement seasons operate exactly like insufficient food to limit the work and cripple the usefulness of the man.

Beginning with these wants, with selfishness spurring him on to their gratification, he is armed in his own person with the needed implements (his power to labor) for the satisfaction of all of them.

But this is not all. The material of the universe on which to expend that labor, and from which he must produce the things he wants, lies all around him, inviting him to take freely. He has a double stimulus to exertion: the hope of enjoyment of satisfied desires, arid the pleasure to be experienced in the very exercise itself of his bodily powers. These constitute the most potent incentives to activity; especially as failure to respond to these incentives [112] naturally leaves desire unsatisfied, and pro. duce misery and unhappiness, instead of happiness.

But when food, clothing, shelter, and whatever else we denominate as wealth, have been obtained man has only secured the primary requisites of his advance. The provision and consumption of these things are not the end of his being. These are only the means to the end, just as the fuel under the boiler is the means of raising the steam which drives the engine, and performs the work for which the engine was designed.

I have sufficiently shown in Chapter I. of this part of this work, how increasing knowledge constantly stimulates and elevates desires, spurring the man forward to greater and still greater attainments in whatever direction his tastes and inclinations may lead him. The reader will do well to remember that, primarily, the only means by which men can satisfy those growing desires is each to exert his own labor upon those materials which nature has provided abundantly for that purpose.

So far we have dealt with man only as an individual, apart from those characteristics which impel him to association with others. But we now come to facts which lead him to form societies, and enter into relations with others like himself for mutual advantage. What are those facts? Let us see! The first is, that his desires soon outrun his own unaided ability to satisfy them. His knowledge travels faster than his bodily powers can keep pace with it. Skill of manipulation is more slowly acquired; and when acquired the arm is weak. Even if a man could obtain the skill to fashion all the multitude of things himself which his wants demand, he could not make a hundredth part of them. He may learn to cultivate the field, but if he would do it well, he must have something more than the rude implements of the barbarian; in which case another must make his plow, still another his hoe, his ax, [113] his spade, his scythe, and each of the multitude of tools he uses. Even, the clothes on his back are the product of others’ labor. Here subdivision of labor comes in to enable him to put forth his skill in the one direction in which alone he has acquired skill. He can produce more of one thing than he needs, because his skill gives him special facilities, which thing he can exchange with others situated like him with respect to other things. Thus both can obtain more satisfaction than either could do alone. It is but the extension of this principle to the almost infinite variety of men and things that gives us the diversity of production, and the ever increasing ability to produce the good things wanted by man, which is the certain mark of progress.

I have sufficiently treated of the subdivision of labor in the previous part of this work, and need not elaborate it here. It is only necessary to say, that in the manifest advantages to the individual which flow from the application of this principle, is the first, and probably the greatest force which impels him to unite with others in society: which makes him a gregarious animal. It is in obedience to the dictates of his selfish propensities, and for the greater gratification of his selfish desires, that he enters into society with others.

And there is hardly a natural or healthy desire which any man can entertain, which does not require for its gratification, or at least, its best gratification, association with others. Man, in both his physical and mental constitution, is so made up that his own happiness and well-being depends not only upon the presence of others, but upon the happiness and well-being of those others. It is only by stifling his natural promptings that any man or woman of normal healthy development can look with indifference upon suffering. Whenever the person becomes conscious of pain or suffering in others, the nerves convey that impression to the [114] brain, which reproduces those sensations in that person just in proportion to his refinement and sensitiveness. This is the foundation of sympathy, which has for its object the mitigation of one’s own pain through the alleviation of the pain of another which excited it. Love too, the twin sister of sympathy, also depends upon association. It always seeks the happiness of the subject through promoting that of its object.

Another thing that it is important to notice is, that the individual does not necessarily give up anything of his individual rights or liberties on entering into society. He need not stop to balance advantages against disadvantages where that association is equal; and where it is not equal, justice is violated, because justice is equality, if free, men associate for mutual advantage; and just as far as it is advantageous they will do so. If it is not mutually advantageous those who are at a disadvantage will naturally refuse to join in the association, if they are free to do so. Therefore, the condition of perfect association is that of perfect mutuality, equality, freedom. It is obvious that unless the mutuality of advantage is in some way violated there can arise no great inequality of condition. Any marked inequality of condition between the members of such a society would be the certain indication of an injustice; that is, an inequality in the terms of their association. And it is just as obvious that when such an inequality in condition is discovered, the members of that society can remove the source of inequality, at any time, without violating justice; in fact, the original injustice, being a continuous one, is a continual violation of justice, and must be removed or justice is not done.

An injustice can never become a “vested right.” Keeping in mind these facts, we need never fall into the error so common among those who have attempted to discuss social questions, of subordinating [115] man to society instead of society to man. Society grows out of the needs of the individual, and exists solely for the satisfaction of those needs; consequently the individual owes nothing to society, and nothing to the other members of society. The gratification of his selfish desires, and the development of his own personal character, are alone sufficient to induce such conduct on his part as will promote the common well-being, provided he is left to develop naturally, without unnatural restriction on one side, or the stimulus of unnatural advantages on the other. If he is at first what men call grossly selfish, he provokes others to resentment, which is the natural corrective, and which opens his eyes to his own conduct, and shows him the importance of increasing his own knowledge in that respect.

Another great fact impelling men to associate themselves in society, which shows itself at a very early age, and which grows stronger and stronger with increasing years and knowledge, is the love of distinction. It is one of the strongest characteristics of men; and is universal, although differing in degree in different men, corresponding to their different degrees of knowledge. It manifests itself in the very ignorant in tawdry show, in coarse and vulgar acts of ostentation, and in haughty, overbearing, patronizing manners toward those whom they regard as their inferiors, as if they wished to display some element of superiority. To their admitted equals they are brusque, loud, demonstrative, and seek to attract attention. Toward those to whom they concede some kind of superiority they are obsequious, fawning, subservient, as if they would win favor and regard by an excess of service. These things are all only the grosser manifestations of what is really one of the loftiest traits of human character, and the one which, in its more enlightened phases, lifts the individual to his sublimest heights. The man of real intellectual superiority in his attainments, [116] who is conscious of the recognition of those superior attainments by other men, enjoys a feeling of satisfaction and exaltation which lifts him far above the vulgarities which the ignorant resort to. I do not mean that those who are especially brilliant in some certain direction, and who by reason of that brilliancy have won the recognition of the world, of their distinguished abilities will not often show the vulgar manners of the ignorant; for one may be highly learned in some certain particular, and yet as a whole be densely ignorant. But the man of really broad and comprehensive knowledge will rarely be surprised into conduct that is rude or discourteous to any.

This love of distinction is purely an expression of human selfishness, and yet it is one of the most potent influences urging men to association. Its pursuit becomes the all-absorbing business of men’s lives after providing for the satisfaction of their more material wants. This is what impels men to continue to amass wealth far beyond their ability to use it, and even after its care becomes an absolute burden. There is no more certain road to the general deference of mankind than the possession or exhibition of wealth. A man needs to be great in nothing, if he is only wealthy, to find flatterers, and enjoy a distinction which another, without it, even of the highest attainments, can never hope to reach. Some lucky chance, some favoring condition, gives one who is ignorant and aggressive an advantage over others who are more intelligent, and who therefore have a more intelligent regard for the sensibilities of other men. That very advantage brings a certain measure of distinction, and he uses the advantage and the distinction as all ignorant vulgar men do use them, to increase his possessions, crushing out all opposition, pursuing his ends with utter disregard of consequences to others, wrecking his rivals in trade, and strewing the [117] road to his own fortune with the ruins and desolation of hundreds. Except in very rare cases this is the genesis of all the great fortunes which have been acquired by the men who hold them. Had they at the start possessed less general ignorance, and therefore had they been more considerate of others, they would not have pressed their first advantage so mercilessly, and would not have obtained such an advance in the race for fortune. Accordingly it is only the ignorant and vulgar whom, under ordinary conditions, we should expect to attain to great wealth; which fact is so marked a characteristic, that we are actually surprised when we find a very rich man who is not also a very mean man. It is the exercise of those very qualities which gave him his riches.

But if men continue to acquire wealth far beyond their own ability to use it, merely for the distinction the possession of that wealth gives them; and if the castes which result from them, keep men apart, prevent equal association and promote classes, as they do, is not then the love of distinction an anti-social propensity instead of social? Not by any means. It craves the attention and admiration of others; and without those others it could find no gratification. That anti-social results are obtained, is owing to the conditions that gave one an advantage at the start, and enabled him to maintain that advantage afterward. The anti-social element is in the law which attaches special rights to property, so that the man who has property, has more rights, and can do more things, than the one who has none; in other words, gives him an advantage. It is the law that is anti-social in that it invests property with unnatural powers. It perverts this love of distinction, which is the grandest stimulus to exalted endeavor to make of one’s self the highest and best within the range of his possibilities, into a mere propensity that seeks the ignorant stare of the multitude; seeks [118] a distinction based upon what one has instead of on what he is. The poor are not the only sufferers by reason of the laws of property. Theirs are not the only lives that are dwarfed by reason of them. Most of the very rich, whose lives and energies have been devoted to the acquisition of wealth; who by reason of their wealth have been largely isolated from other men —have been deprived of the ready sympathy and honest criticism of others; but who, on the other hand, have been surrounded with flatterers and sycophants, intent only on feeding upon the crumbs that fall from their tables, are almost, if not quite, as great sufferers as the poor. The poor have been starved in body, while they have been starved in mind. The poor have been dwarfed and broken in body, while the rich are equally so in mind. The rich, while not condemned by necessity, like the poor, to the severest toil for the common necessaries of life, yet often condemn themselves to it, which amounts to the same thing. Their lives become one prolonged struggle for wealth; and notwithstanding that they can and do surround themselves with fine things, calculated to gratify more exalted desires, music, paintings, books, and elegancies of all kinds, yet just so far as the appreciation for music, paintings, books, etc. is not developed through the cultivation of the mind to an intelligent understanding of them, and just so far as their possession is not in response to desires awakened by that understanding, they are merely an ostentation, and calculated to provoke the vacant stare of the sycophants who fawn upon mere wealth. Such men, like the poor, remain with perceptions dulled, with little opportunities for recreation and improvement. They work on as in a treadmill, living a small life, small in quantity and exceedingly poor in quality. Their measure of the worth of a man is the measure of his possessions; and to those who are inferior to them in point of possessions, [119] although they may be their own superiors in all that constitutes manhood, they are haughty, overbearing, and patronizing, a certain indication of ignorance and vulgarity.

Are the rich therefore to be condemned? No more than the poor. They have only followed the dictates of their own natures, which are precisely like the natures of all other men. Their intelligence and their opportunities being what they were, they could not do other than they have. Bearing in mind that all men at the beginning are ignorant, and that the law gives the opportunity, if the opportunity comes to any man at the proper stage of his ignorance he will develop the inordinately rich; and from thence on the tendency will be to arrest the mental growth, and develop the vulgar rich. Association is one of the most powerful stimulants to knowledge, but inequality in condition erects barriers to a true association and prevents the growth of knowledge which would dispel the vulgarity. So the law, while professedly aiming to protect what is called the “rights of property’ injures the possessor of property little if any less than those who have no property.

I think it will be clear from all this that, although unsocial relations develop from the love of distinction, it is owing purely to abnormal and artificial conditions which are themselves the result of the ignorance of both the rich and the poor; because the poor, were it not for their ignorance, would never consent to the restraints imposed by the law, nor would the rich ask them were it not from ignorantly magnifying the benefits which they expect to receive. This being so, it is nothing short of barbarity to attempt to inflame the passions of the poor against the rich, or the rich against the poor. Both are equally responsible for their condition; and that condition cannot be changed except by developing sufficient intelligence to realize the unwisdom of legislation favoring special interests. [120]

If we would see some of the ways in which this love of distinction seeks expression we shall find it, not only in the pursuit of wealth for the distinction its possession brings, but in ostentatious gifts for religious, educational, or charitable purposes, oftentimes while the giver is practicing the most contemptible meannesses with his employees, or others with whom lie has dealings. Some marry their daughters to men with titles, hoping to buy a distinction based upon something other than mere possession. Others seek public office, even where they are beyond the need of the emoluments it brings; and in order to obtain it they will stoop to equal meannesses with the rich man who grinds his tenants or employees in order to obtain wealth with which to endow a college, or church. Public office always has a fascination, even where the emoluments are less than could be obtained outside, and where the work is more monotonous, mind less useful, and life more tame, because it carries with it a certain amount of authority on the part of the holder, and deference on the part of others, which is only a recognition of a distinction. The stars and uniforms of the policemen, badges, regalia, decorations, titles, peculiarities of dress or manners, personal eccentricities, are all claims to distinction preferred by those who seek the attention, and generally the respect, of their fellow men. Soldiers will often sacrifice their lives to be mentioned in the dispatches. Actors, artists, and poets find in distinction the supreme stimulus to their highest endeavor. To be accounted the best workman, the smartest politician, the wisest philosopher, the most eloquent orator or preacher, the keenest critic, the sharpest gambler, and thousands of others, are all distinctions that are sought purely for the distinction. Men scheme and contrive to get their names into the newspapers; enter into contests of skill, and endurance to determine questions of distinction, [121] in fact, the principal part of life, after providing for sustenance, is the pursuit of distinction; and through that pursuit individual character is built up. But in all cases where distinction carries with it authority over others, the tendency is to brutalize and degrade both the object of the distinction and those over whom he exercises the authority.

One thing more it is important to notice, and that is, that the gratification of the love of distinction does not necessitate the superiority, or inferiority, of any. It neither requires, nor does it permit the subjection of one to another. Depending upon the intelligent appreciation and understanding of one another, where such an appreciation is wanting it cannot exist. For how can a man understand and appreciate the thoughts, feelings, and sentiments of another who lives in a different social atmosphere, or whose condition in life erects barriers between them? What intelligent appreciation is there possible between Dives and Lazarus? Our social forms and ceremonies, built upon distinctions in caste, keep men apart, perpetuate inequality, and prevent the gratification of the love of distinction, which, if given its proper scope, is almost all-powerful to uplift men to higher, and still higher attainments. So, the flattery which the rich receive from the sycophants who fawn around them is but the basest counterfeit of the real distinction which comes from equals who enter into their thoughts and aspirations because they understand and appreciate those thoughts and aspirations.

Here again, then, the individual properly gives up nothing of his own liberty or independence on entering into society. By so giving up anything he defeats the purpose for which society exists. There should be no balancing of advantages against disadvantages. There ought to be no disadvantages in it. Society should be an unmixed blessing to every member of it. If this is not true in fact, [122] then there is something wrong in the terms of the association, which give advantages to some; and place disadvantages upon others. There should be no such thing as social evils.

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