The Impracticability of Socialism
by Edward Stanley Robertson
I purpose, in this paper, to deal almost exclusively with the question whether Socialism is practicable. I shall confine myself, as much as I can, to the inquiry whether the means proposed are, or are not, likely to work out the end which is aimed at. I shall have to waive, in a very great degree, the previous essential questions whether the end is a desirable one in itself, and whether justice requires that it shall be held in view. For the purposes of the discussion I shall provisionally concede the affirmative to both; but in order to avoid all misunderstanding, I think it well to put on record here that I do so provisionally only. No such admission is hereafter to be quoted against me, as if I had accepted Socialist or Collectivism theories upon any moral, economical, or political question. Space does not admit of my making a detailed confession of faith upon these points; but it is open to me to state that I am not bound by any à priori theory. What is commonly called 'abstract justice' I confess I cannot discover in the history of any human institution. I cannot discover equality in the dispensations of nature itself.
This, I maybe told, proves nothing. A great deal of our life consists of a conflict with nature; a continuous effort to redress inequalities in the course of nature, and to solve difficult problems which nature sets before us. True; and that is precisely part of my case. I affirm that social inequalities are inequalities which may be mitigated, but cannot be redressed wholly; that social problems are problems which, for the most part, only admit of a partial solution.
Such problems and such inequalities exist in material nature, and the difficulties they present are universally acknowledged. The day, in the tropics, is of about equal length with the night. So it is at the poles, with the difference that the tropical day and night are about twelve hours each, while at the poles each lasts somewhere about half the year. In the sub-tropical and temperate zones, the days in summer and in winter differ strikingly in length. In the latitude of London, the longest day is about a quarter of an hour shorter, and the shortest day about a quarter of an hour longer, than in the latitude of Edinburgh. Such is the inequality in a merely astronomical and geographical statement of fact; and when it comes to be applied to human affairs, its practical effect is more startling still. It means that a working day, if it were not for artificial light, may be twice as long in summer as in winter, and may vary in length for the difference in latitude between Southampton and Carlisle, and between Carlisle and Inverness. This difference in the length of the day does make a real difference in all the conditions of life, and most of all in the lives of what are usually called the working classes; but the difference is obscured by custom, and by the feeling that it cannot be helped. It is felt to be useless to agitate against 'the stars in their courses.' So again, in India and in many parts of the tropics the principal danger to agriculture is drought; in the British Islands the danger is excessive rainfall. If rain and sunshine could be distributed in exact proportion to the wants of each region, a far greater degree of prosperity would result. As it is, in the one class of countries it is necessary to have recourse to irrigation, and in the other to drainage, to correct, so far as is practicable, the inequalities of climate. One result of this is that the remedies not infrequently turn out to contain the seeds of other diseases. In a drainage country, an unusually dry summer brings on a drought for which there is no preparation, and which may even be attended by pestilence. In a country of irrigation, an exceptional rainfall causes floods, which may destroy life both directly and indirectly. And even in ordinary seasons, there are difficulties and losses which are great hardships to individuals and classes, but which there is no way of obviating. All these things, and many others that could be added to the list, are accepted as part of the course of nature. Nobody thinks of agitating against the weather, though we all grumble at it freely. We know that there is no help for it, and there is an end of the matter. Now the human race, and human society, are just as much parts of nature as the heavenly bodies and the sunshine and rainfall. The organisation of society is just as much a matter of natural tendency (I purposely avoid the use of the phrase natural law) as the rising and setting of the sun, the rain in Devonshire or the hot wind of the Punjab. The difference is a difference of simple and complex phenomena. Every one can observe for himself or herself the discrepancy in the length of the days. It is not so easy to understand fully the dissimilarities of climate and their influence upon human affairs, but once the facts are grasped, there is no longer any room for speculation as to the possibility of things being otherwise. It is perceived at once that there is no use in attempting to fly in the face of nature. We can mitigate, but we cannot change. We can only mitigate, moreover, by playing off one tendency or set of tendencies against others. It is by obeying nature that we get the mastery of nature.
Now this brings us to the points at issue between Socialists and their opponents. Socialists would (I suppose) not deny that the human race and human society are part of nature. They would not deny that human communities are what they are, and have been what they have been, in virtue of streams of tendency, more difficult to observe and to co-ordinate than the observed antecedents and sequences of climatic tendencies, but not less real, and not less certain to work themselves out. If we only knew history as we know astronomy, sociology would be an exact science. If we even knew history as we know, or guess at, meteorology, many problems would be clear which are now obscure.
But although Socialists might not deny all this in terms, they seem habitually to think, and speak, and try to act and induce others to act, as if it were all untrue. They deal with human society as if it were that blank sheet of paper to which Locke incorrectly compared the childish intellect. They write and speak as if they thought that it only needed a conscious effort of the will on the part of any given human community to change all, or nearly all, the conditions in which it has hitherto subsisted. They seem to think that they can defeat nature by a front attack.
What, then, are the complaints of Socialists against the existing constitution of society, and how is it proposed to redress the alleged grievances?
In endeavoring to answer these questions, I take as my text-book Dr. Schäffle's Quintessence of Socialism; the most businesslike account of the Socialist position which has yet appeared. Anyone who compares its calm and judicial statements with the violent, turgid, and heated rhetoric of the Fabian Essays will appreciate the reasons which guided me in choosing it. I may go so far as to say that if Dr. Schäffle's style were a little more popular, the substance of his work would tender the writing of this paper a superfluous effort. He evidently sympathises with Socialism, and is resolved to make the best case he can for its proposals. Yet every page displays the difficulties of the scheme to the intelligent reader, even when the author is not dwelling upon those difficulties. In his concluding chapter he sums up calmly and judicially, but very strongly, against the whole system of Democratic or Collective Socialism.
What then is the Socialist complaint against the existing constitution of society? It may be summed up in the one word, inequality. Quoting from Karl Marx, Schäffle speaks of 'a growing mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation.' Schäffle himself speaks of 'the plutocratic process of dividing the nation into an enormous proletariat on the one side and a few millionaires on the other.' If any one wants to be saturated with boiling rhetoric on this topic, let him open the Fabian Essays at random, or dip into the pages of Henry George's Progress and Poverty and Social Problems. Or, if the reader is in search of quite as good rhetoric, but tempered by a good deal more common sense, let him carefully read through The Social Problem, by Professor William Graham, especially chapter vi, 'The Social Residuum.' Mr. Graham does not hold that what he calls the social residuum is an increasing mass. The Fabian essayists and the Continental Socialists always affirm that it is, and Dr. Schaffle in the quotation already given appears to accept Marx's view.
Now this view is an untrue one. It is demonstrably untrue as regards the United Kingdom. It is demonstrably untrue as regards France. It is probably untrue of every other country in Europe, with the possible exception of Russia. Confining ourselves to the United Kingdom, I affirm that there exists, between the so-called 'millionaire' and the class described as the residuum, no gulf whatever, but an absolutely complete gradation. I need not load these pages with statistics in proof of what I say. The burden of proof is upon those who affirm the contrary. Socialist rhetoricians have no scruple in confusing their own and other people's ideas on this subject by their illogical use of the word 'proletariat.' At one time, it means people who have no land; at another, it seems to signify people who have no capital; in all cases it is used with a kind of tacit connotation of 'pauper.' We shall see presently that in a Socialist State the entire population would be one vast proletariat; but in the meantime it may be pointed out that to have no land and no capital is not necessarily to be a pauper. A professional man maybe earning a very handsome and very secure income, and yet may, in that sense, belong to the proletariat. But Socialist declamation about millionaires and proletariat invariably covers the innuendo that the world actually contains a few thousand millionaires and thousands of millions of paupers. When this is stated, it is at once perceived to be untrue; and a very little inquiry confirms the inquirer in that conclusion. Socialist decimation, such as Schäffle quotes from Marx—'misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation'—is only true, if true at all, of the lowest residuum; and that residuum is no more than a fringe on the border of society, in any country where the capitalist is free. On the other hand, this is true beyond all controversy of England and of France—that between the millionaire and the worker for daily or weekly wage there are stages innumerable, which pass from higher to lower by a gradation that is barely perceptible. If there is anything that can be called a social gulf, it is the interval which separates the steady and fairly well-paid workers from the loafers and the criminals; and that gulf is quite as much moral as it is economic.
But even if all that is alleged were true, does Socialism offer anything that can be called a remedy? In order to answer this question, we must see what the Socialist remedy is.
'The Alpha and Omega of Socialism is the transformation of private and competing capitals into a united collective capital.' When, instead of the system of private and competing capitals, which drive down wages by competition, we have a collective ownership of capital, public organisation of labour, and of the distribution of the national income—then, and not till then, we shall have no capitalists and no wage-earners, but all will be alike, producers.'
One more quotation. 'In their places' (i.e. in place of private capital and competition) 'we should have a State-regulated organisation of national labour into a social labour system, equipped out of collective capital; the State would collect, warehouse, and transport all products, and finally would distribute them to individuals in proportion to their registered amount of social labour, and according to a valuation of commodities exactly corresponding to their average cost of production.'
This, then, is the Quintessence of Socialism. This, and nothing more or less, is what is meant by the word, and is proposed by its advocates. Socialism does not mean that property is robbery, at least in the ordinary sense of the phrase. Nor does it mean a periodical redistribution of private property. Nor does it mean that private capital is to be confiscated, and no compensation made to owners, though it does mean that all such compensation must take the form of consumable goods, and must therefore be terminable. Nor does Socialism, as understood by Dr. Schäffle, necessarily conflict with individual freedom. Upon this point, however, our author speaks but doubtfully, and his remarks require very careful perusal. It does not even preclude the possession of a private income. It has nothing to say to questions of marriage, 'free love,' or religion. In short, Socialism, or Collectivism, relates to the possession of land and capital—the totality of instruments of production—and not to anything else whatsoever, whether economic, political, or social.
Now, the first and most obvious criticism upon all this is, that whereas Socialists denounce land-owning and capital-owning, because they tend to the creation of a proletariat, their scheme, as announced by a benevolently-neutral interpreter, proposes to turn all the world into one vast proletariat. This is not mere juggling with words. It is the Socialists who juggle with words, when they define a proletarian as a person who does not own either land or capital, and then proceed to talk of the proletariat as if the word meant 'a mass of paupers.' If to be a proletarian is to be a pauper, then Socialism undertakes to turn all the world into a mass of paupers, including the very persons who will be entrusted with the control of that monster workhouse, the Socialist State. But I am willing to admit that if all the world could be freed from the curse of poverty—if the social residuum could be done away with—there would be a strong temptation to swallow the scheme of Socialism, proletariat and all. Quitting verbal criticism, let us try to think out how the suggestion would be likely to work. Land and Capital are to be the property of the whole community. They are to be managed by State officials. The produce is to be distributed in proportion to what is described as the 'social labour-time' of every individual worker; and this social labour-time is to be divided into units of approximately equal value. In other words, every Socialist community is to be one vast Joint Stock Company for the manufacture and distribution of things in general! Now, the moment this is stated, the first difficulty of Socialism is at once suggested. How do the directors of an ordinary manufacturing firm ascertain the conditions of their business? By a series of experiments, failure in which means the loss of their capital. How does Socialism solve the problem? 'The amount of supply necessary in each form of production would be fixed by continuous official returns furnished by the managers and overseers of the selling and producing departments.' This is very well upon paper, and if we accept the hypothesis that the demand for any given object always remains nearly constant. But this is evidently not the case. There is no article of consumption, not even bread itself, for which the demand does not so vary from day to day that no official department could possibly provide for it in a 'budget of social production.' The existing order of things only provides such a 'budget' very roughly; and the bankruptcy court acts as a sort of steam-governor, when mistaken speculation sends a capitalist to waste. Even if it were admitted that the demand for food is virtually constant, which is manifestly untrue, there are many other things for which the demand could not be foreseen by any official department. Clothing is a very obvious case in point. It is a necessary of life, in a great part of the world, only second to food itself. Yet could any public department undertake to say how many suits of clothes a given population will wear out in a given season? Remember, it is of no use making calculations based upon decades, or even upon single years, and then striking averages. What is wanted is to know how many suits of clothes the department ought to have on hand, in order to meet the demand day by day. When clothing has to be served out to soldiers, the soldiers are put upon strict regulation as to its use. It is all the same pattern, and there is no personal choice about it. This is what makes the clothing of an army practicable; but in civil life the conditions are wholly different. When did women ever submit to a uniform, unless it were for religious reasons? I am prepared to be denounced, by Fabian essayists and other enthusiasts, as a cold-blooded and frivolous person, because I state such petty difficulties; but I affirm that it is very often trifles such as this which cause great projects to make shipwreck. A few ounces of iron in the wrong place in a ship will derange the compass and baffle the calculations of the most skilful navigator.
I do not know whether I am justified in surmising that the more extreme advocates of State Collectivism would cut this particular knot by decreeing that people should wear uniforms of some sort, and should be under quasi-military regulations in respect of the raiment served out to them. We may come to perceive, as we go on, that there is no real reason why this should not be done. The principles of collective production, and of distribution according to 'social labour-time,' involve infringements of personal freedom considerably more formidable than the compulsion to wear a uniform. It may suffice to say for the present that if Socialism does not cover this contingency, then collective production breaks down over the article of clothing. And, of course, to break down in one point is to break down in all. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of Dr. Schäffle's work is the odd way in which he seems to ignore all particulars such as I have just now been calling attention to. After dwelling, as he does in chap. iii of the Quintessence, upon the vital importance of freedom of demand, which he declares to be a first essential of freedom in general, and the very material basis of freedom, he goes on to say that a complete and officially organised system of collective production could undoubtedly include at least as thorough a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly statistical registration of the free wants of individuals and families, as under the present system these effect each for themselves, by their demand upon the market. But this is just what I deny, and I think I have given a good reason for my denial. An instance, such as that of the clothing question, is worth all the à priori assumptions that any one can make. The Socialist is bound to explain how he is going to organise his collection and registration of statistics in every single department of his State-controlled producing-agency. It will be noted that Schäffle declares Socialists not to contemplate an immediate conversion of all kinds of business into State departments. But manifestly, until all capital is transformed into collective ownership, Socialism is incomplete. If the State took over the supply of food, but left clothing to private enterprise, all the vices now charged against private capitalism would continue to inhere in the clothing trade, until it too had been reduced into collective ownership.
I now pass to another branch of the Socialist scheme; premising that the question just treated and that upon which I am now about to enter are so inextricably mixed up that I may have to recur now and then to topics which may seem to have been already discussed. And may I add another word of caution. If I seem to be almost exclusively answering Dr. Schäffle, it is simply because he is the most temperate as well as the clearest exponent of Socialism. If Socialism as expounded by him can be shown to be unworkable, much more will it be proved unworkable in the hands of its most extreme projectors.
To resume then. The Socialist State is not only to produce by means of land and capital owned in common and managed by public officials; it is also to distribute the wealth produced by this social co-operation according to the proportion of work performed by each individual. Now here is one of the crucial difficulties of the entire Socialist scheme. It is not proposed to reward everybody alike. That would be a practical proposal, though not a very practicable one, because it would put an end at once and for ever to all spontaneity in the workers. But this is not what is contemplated. An attempt is to be made to equate the values of 'social labour-time' in different occupations, whether branches of production or services not directly productive. How this is to be done we are not very clearly told. It is intimated, indeed, that Marx has estimated the 'labour price' of a hectolitre of wheat at five days of 'socially determined labour,' supposing everybody to work eight hours a day. One very striking feature of the scheme is that there are to be no payments in metallic money or in any equivalent for coin. We shall see presently that this introduces a new and enhanced difficulty; but it is declared to be an essential portion of the scheme, though there is nothing even in the nature of Socialism itself to make it so. Payments, under Socialism, however, are to be made wholly in certificates of labour-time. Now it is abundantly manifest that no such equation of labour-time could be constructed as to bring out a unit of labour which should be even approximately uniform. In the first place, it is totally impossible, as has been already shown, to fix the demand for almost any given article of production at a given time. The most that can be done is, in things for which the demand is in some measure constant, such as food, to produce a daily average; and the production of such daily average may or may not require an average expenditure of labour. Indeed, in the case of agricultural labour, no average day could be fixed at all. But it would seem that Socialists think they can establish some such average, not for a single department of production, but for the whole of what they call social labour. 'If we imagined'—this is how Schäffle puts it—'all the species of products which are being continually produced, valued by the expenditure of social labour as verified by experience, we could find by addition the total of social labour-time which is required for the social total production of the social total of demand.' It is difficult to strip this statement of its verbiage, but it seems to come to this; that it would be possible somehow to find out how many hours a day for how many days in a year every working member of a given community would have to work, in order that every man, woman, and child in such community should have exactly as much of everything as he, she, or it wanted, or perhaps more correctly, as the heads of the supply departments thought that he, she, or it ought to want. In order to achieve this it would be necessary to know the demand, which I have shown to be impracticable, in some departments at all events. It would be necessary to know what is the average number of hours' labour needed to produce a given quantity of a given commodity. Will anyone, I care not how skilled in agriculture, tell us how many days, of how many hours per day, it takes to produce a ton of wheat, or potatoes, or hay, or beans? How many hours per day of `social labour' will prepare a bullock or a sheep for the market, or a milch cow to yield her daily supply of milk? Here, again, to ask these questions is to show that they are unanswerable. The fact is that Socialists invariably think of factory labour, when they are speculating about labour time. The labour spent in handling machinery can be timed; but there are other kinds of labour which cannot. How many hours a day ought a sailor to work, for example; and how is the value of an hour of his work to be ascertained in comparison with the value of an hour's work of a street lamplighter, or a letter-carrier?
Take another concrete example. How would Socialism regulate the hours, or estimate the value, of domestic service? I do not mean merely the menial service of the rich—what Socialists call 'house slavery.' The Socialist notion of domestic service, indeed, is as unpractical as the whole of the rest of their Laputa. I suppose they would class the services of a midwife under 'free professional services.' But what of the services of a nursemaid? How many hours a day ought such a person to be employed, and what is the value of her services, expressed in 'social labour-time?' What is the value of the 'social labour-time' of a working man's wife in childbirth, and during her subsequent withdrawal from the working strength of the community? Schäffle says 'the employment of women's labour, now no longer needed in the family, would find its fitting place without effort.' This appears to me the strangest of all the strange utterances of Socialism. No longer needed in the family! If for 'family' we read 'factory,' there would be some sense in it, and perhaps, after all, the words may have been accidentally transposed. For my own part, I confess myself incapable of conceiving a state of things in which woman would not be absolutely essential to the 'family' as wife, mother, nurse, housekeeper, to say nothing of any other function. I can easily enough conceive the existence of factories without women workers; but that women should be set free from the family in order that they may enter the factory strikes me as being a complete inversion of the order of nature.
The question whether 'house slavery,' in the sense of purely menial service, could be abolished by Socialism, seems to depend upon considerations which cannot be discussed in this essay. It belongs to the topic of Classes under Socialism, a topic upon which Socialist literature affords the minimum of information. I pass on now to more general considerations on the valuation of labour.
The fallacy of Socialism in relation to labour appears to lie in the assumption that labour has a value of its own, in and for itself. It has no such value. No material thing is valuable because of the labour expended in producing it. No service is valuable because of the labour expended in rendering it. Material things are valuable because they satisfy wants, and therefore people will give material things which they possess in exchange for things they do not possess. If material things came into existence without labour, nobody would talk of the value of productive labour. If a thing is not wanted, there is no value attached to the labour of producing it. Who now would pay for the labour of producing candle-snuffers? The things have ceased to be useful; there is no demand for them; but it requires just as much labour to produce them now as it did a hundred years ago. But if any one possesses a useful article, he can always exchange it for another useful article, no matter whether one or both have been produced by labour or without labour. And what is true of productive labour is true of the labour expended in rendering services, when the necessary allowances are made. Services may be bartered for material objects of utility, or for other services. But in either case what is paid for is the service, not the labour expended in rendering the service; and when the service is rewarded with a material object, the service is rendered for the sake of getting that object, and not for the sake of the labour whereby the object was produced. Socialists would not, I think, deny all this in terms. Schäffle shows that he is acquainted with the truth, and admits it on the Socialist behalf, when he says that it is 'socially determined individual labour,' not actual labour expended by individuals, which is to be taken into account in estimating labour values. But although the doctrine I have laid down might not be disputed in terms, it is consistently ignored in the entire Socialist scheme. The entire theory of surplus-value rests upon the assumption that labour employed in production has a sort of standard value of its own. The idea of regulating exchange by labour-time rests upon a similar fallacious assumption. Commodities are exchanged for other commodities because some people have what other people want, quite irrespective of how they got it. Commodities are exchanged for services, because he who can spare the commodity stands in need of the service, and vice versâ; not because it required labour to produce the commodity, and will require labour to render the service.
In reply to all this I shall doubtless be reminded that although labour may have no intrinsic value, it has an inseparable value, because no commodity can be produced, nor can any service be rendered, without calling labour into requisition. That is quite true, but it does not affect the argument. The scheme of Socialism requires that some sort of equation should be established, whereby goods, and services, should be mutually interchangeable, and should possess values capable of being estimated in terms of labour. Under Capitalist Individualism, and under free Capitalism in general, commodities and services are first of all values in terms of money, and then paid for in money which can be used to pay for other commodities and other services at the discretion of the recipient. In this way, a balance is established automatically. There is no need to construct elaborate calculations for the purpose of valuing one kind of labour in terms of another, or of establishing a common denominator for the value of all kinds of labour. The abolition of money is not necessarily part of the scheme of Collective Production. It is 'tacked on' to Collective Production because Socialists have taken up the idea that money is conducive to free Capitalism, as it undoubtedly is. But money could perfectly well co-exist with Collective Production, and that plan is not made in the least degree more practicable by being linked with a very clumsy form of inconvertible paper currency. The Socialists themselves admit that their State would want money, in so far as it had dealings with other States which had not yet adopted Socialism. But even here there is a very important omission. It does not follow that even if all the world were to adopt Socialism, every State and every community would adopt it on precisely the same terms. For instance, one State may fix its labour day at ten hours, another at eight, another at six. Under such circumstances, how are social labour values to be computed and equated? Schäffle may well ask 'whether the commonwealth of the Socialists would be able to cope with the enormous Socialistic bookkeeping, and to estimate heterogeneous labour correctly according to Socialistic units of labour-time.' It may here be noticed that Schäffle all through speaks of the Socialist State as a 'close' economic community. To me this appears to imply, among other things, a protectionist community. It is not expressly laid down, I am aware, by the Socialists, that favour ought to be shown to home labour as against the labour of foreigners; but this does appear to follow from the general scheme. The entire basis of Socialist criticism on existing institutions is the assumption that labour does not get its due. It is not complained that production falls short, but only that the things produced are 'unjustly' distributed; and the 'injustice' is declared to lie in the fact that the surplus value of labour is appropriated by capitalists. Labour is assumed to have a value in and for itself. These things being so, I can well understand how the labourers in a Socialistic State might be induced to demand that nothing should be imported into the 'close community' from without which could possibly be produced within. Nay, I can conceive a veto being put upon labour-saving inventions, in order that 'the bread might not be taken out of the mouths of the people.' The attack upon invention in invariably proceeds from labour, or from persons posing as champions of labour, and as invariably takes the form of accusing capitalists of using inventions in order to secure an unfair advantage over labour. Some Socialists, indeed, such as the Fabian essayists, attack not only patents but literary copyright as the creation of a vicious capitalist and individualist system. One would have thought that if there was a moral basis for private property anywhere, it would underlie that form of property which is described as 'property in ideas.' That an inventor should enjoy the profits of his invention—an artist, of his picture or statue—a musician, of his music—an author, of his literary ideas—all this seems almost self-evident, when we consider that these men have actually created the invention, the artistic work, the composition, and the literature. In their case, if anywhere, labour seems to have value in and for itself, and the fruit of labour to belong of right to its producer. Yet these are just the cases which the thoughtful Socialist ignores, and the rhetorical Socialist actually assails. Under these circumstances, it would be futile to ask how the system of Collective Production and payment by social labour-time would equate the labour of an inventor with that of a ploughman, or the labour of a poet with that of a weaver. Still, one may suppose that mechanical invention at any rate would not be absolutely excluded. I will not ask what would have been the 'social labour value' of James Watt's time when he sat watching the lid of his mother's teakettle being lifted off by the steam. But it is fair to ask what Boulton would have done if, instead of being a private capitalist, he had been a Socialist industrial chief, when Watt proposed to him to make experiments on the condensing steam-engine. Would he have had resources at his disposal? It is very doubtful. If he were paid his salary as overseer in labour-certificates, we may say certainly not. Would he have felt justified in taking up the 'social labour-time' of the workmen under his supervision in making experiments of a costly nature, which, for all he could possibly foresee, might come to nothing?
And this raises another question. What machinery does Socialism provide for 'writing off' obsolete investments? Would a Socialist State ever have adopted the railway as its carrying machinery, and if so, how would it have disposed of the colective capital invested in canals and stage-coaches?
But we need not have the recourse to any conjectures or hypothetical cases. There are instances in abundance. I will mention one, which fortunately refers to a matter concerning which there need be no dispute as to either principle or method. No Individualist will deny that the maintenance of lighthouses is one of the proper functions of Government. Every Socialist would, I think, earnestly maintain that Government is bound to adopt every improvement which can be shown to increase the efficiency of lighthouses, and is bound also to investigate and test every alleged improvement, in favour of which a reasonable primâ facie case can be made out. What has been the actual conduct of our own Board of Trade and Trinity House in regard to the improvement of lighthouse illuminants? I have before me a Blue Book of 143 pages, containing correspondence on the subject of the proposed supersession of oil by gas as a lighthouse illuminant. On the part of the Board of Trade and Trinity House, the entire correspondence is one prolonged effort to evade and shelve the discussion. Toward the end we read: 'The Board of Trade were not without hope that a limit might now be reached in which the whole of the lighthouse authorities could agree, as being the limit of illumination beyond which no practical advantage could result to navigation.' Well may Professor Tyndall remark upon this, 'The writer of this paragraph is obviously disappointed at finding himself unable to say to scientific invention, "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther." It would, however, be easier to reach the limit of illumination in the official mind than to fix the limit possible to our lighthouses.' This is the way in which the officials of our own day deal with a practical problem which is undoubtedly within their province; concerning which they are undoubtedly bound to seek for the most efficient appliances; and upon which they have the evidence of a man of science of the very first rank. The reason is not far to seek. Functionaries are under a chronic temptation to keep on standing upon old paths. They habitually defend the machinery and the methods to which they have got accustomed, and treat with coolness all proposals of reform or improvement. As I have already suggested, it seems very doubtful whether Socialist institutions could possibly admit of a Department for the Investigation of Inventions. To draw a hard and fast rule according to which all labour should be rewarded by a share in the actual product of other labour would be to negative every attempt at even mechanical improvement. As to art and literature, the position seems to need no comment. Experience teaches us that everything new in art and literature requires, so to speak, to create its own market for itself. Under Socialism, nothing could secure a market which could not be put upon the market at once—for which, as it may be said, there was not a demand already, even before the process of production should have begun.
And this leads to a further consideration. Is a State department really a good machine for either production or distribution? The experience of State departments under existing conditions seems to answer this question in the negative. The departments of shipbuilding, of ordnance, of soldiers' clothing, and many others, seem to be open to the charge of inefficiency, at least as compared with private establishments for producing similar objects. It is remarkable that the producing departments are never referred to in this connexion by exponents of Socialism. The defence of the efficiency of State departments is always made to rest upon the distributing agencies, and chief among these is the Post Office. Schäffle mentions also the State railway, which we have not in England, the telegraph, and the municipal gas and water supplies. Now the efficiency of the Post Office may be ungrudgingly admitted; but it must not be urged as proving more than it will bear.
In the first place, the Post Office has always been a monopoly. There never was a time when any private agency was permitted to compete with the State in the work of distributing letters. There has therefore been no opportunity of comparing State work in that department with private work. In the second place, the work of distributing letters is, after all, comparatively simple. We are accustomed, it is true, to hear and read of feats of great ingenuity in discovering obscure addresses; but these are he exceptions. It is in the department of letter-carrying, at all events, that the principal successes—it might almost be said the only successes—have been achieved. The telegraphic department is not a success either financially or administratively. The letter department largely supplements the cost of the telegraph department. In other words, people who write many letters, but send few telegrams, are made to pay for the accommodation afforded to the senders of many telegrams. Even in the letter-carrying department, there is plenty of room for improvement. It is very well managed, on the whole, in country places; but in London, and in large towns generally, the delivery of letters within the town leaves much to be desired. In this connexion I cannot refrain from noticing the breakdown of letter-delivery arrangements which has taken place at Christmas every year since the Christmas card came into fashion. The breakdown under the weight of exceptional complimentary correspondence is not even of our own day; for Charles Lamb, in his essay on Valentine's Day, writes of 'the weary and all-for-spent twopenny postman.' But, of course, in the vast proportions of the Christmas crush, it is necessarily modern, and the creation of the penny and halfpenny postage. One would think that if, by the mere fact of belonging to a department of Government, a preternatural faculty of dealing with statistics were conferred upon officials, the officials of the Post Office ought, after a brief experience, to have been able to foresee and provide for this recurring difficulty. Yet no sooner does Christmas come within measurable distance, than every Post Office is placarded and every newspaper filled, with plaintive appeals from the Postmaster-General to the Christmas card dispatching public, to 'post early, so as to ensure the punctual delivery of letters!'
It is worth noting, too, that the Post Office is not, strictly speaking, a working man's institution. It is the upper and middle classes who keep it going. The working class, or what is commonly so called, sends few letters and no telegrams. If what are usually called 'working' men and women corresponded by letter to anything like the extent to which correspondence is carried on by the commercial class alone, the revenue of the Post Office would be greatly enlarged. On the other hand, it is difficult to conceive how the telegraph system could possibly be administered, if that ever became a really popular institution. As it is, letters pay for telegrams, as already stated.
The arrangement whereby the surplus of receipts for letters is made to pay for the deficit in telegrams is the really Socialistic feature of the working of the Post Office. It may or may not be an advantage that the people who use the telegraph should do so at the expense of the larger public who write letters, but this proves nothing at all as to the probable success of the working of more complicated institutions by State machinery. As already pointed out, the delivery of letters is about as simple a work as any organisation could undertake, and next to it in simplicity is the transmission and delivery of telegrams. Nor should we omit to note to how great an extent the task of letter-delivery has been facilitated by railways and steam communication. It would be safe to say that but for these aids the penny post would at best have barely paid its way, if indeed it had not proved a total failure. Briefly it may be said that the success of the Post Office, such as it is, depends upon the circumstances which assimilate it to a private undertaking, and which at the same time cause it to differ from other Governmental institutions.
But it is not altogether fair to blame Governmental institutions, merely as such, for the shortcomings which they undoubtedly exhibit. The truth is that they share these shortcomings with all institutions in which industrial operations are conducted upon a large scale. Every large joint stock company, and especially every company whose business is of the nature of a monopoly, displays tendencies which are, after all, only carried out to an extreme in Government monopolies and in Government manufacturing establishments. Every great railway company is apt to be slow at adopting improvements and new or untried methods of business. That is because, in the first place, every such undertaking is upon a very large scale, and requires the co-operation of a great many heads and hands. Things must be done very much by fixed rule. There is less scope for personal initiative than in smaller and more elastic businesses. But in addition, the business is more or less of a monopoly. The public must use the railway in question, or go without the carrying facilities of which it stands in need. The only check upon the arbitrary power of the directors and other officials is the necessity of finding a dividend for the shareholders, and that check once taken away there is nothing to hinder the management from becoming despotic. Where there is less monopoly, the management is under greater inducements to strive after making the business popular. But it is not until we come to individual enterprise, where the merchant or shopkeeper or other head of the establishment is brought into direct personal relation with his customers, that the conduct of business becomes really elastic and automatic. It is because their personal gain or loss is not directly dependent upon the working of the institution that Government officials are less efficient than those of joint-stock companies, and the latter than those of private firms; these last themselves being inferior to the partners or proprietors, when they are brought into personal relations with the customers of the house.
I may be told that this is all speculation. As a matter of fact, I may be reminded, small traders are even more behind-hand than any big monopoly. If it were not so, how is it that so many private businesses are now being turned into joint-stock companies? My reply is that in all these cases the business began with private enterprise, and that not until private enterprise had pretty fully done its work did it become practicable to apply the joint-stock principle. I would add that this very principle is itself on its trial just now, and that it is premature to pronounce any judgment until we shall have had much larger experience. The analogous principle of co-operation would seem to be working fairly well as regards distribution, but not so well in production. We must remember also that the possession of large capital confers upon joint-stock enterprises an advantage which in some measure counterbalances, though it does not wholly neutralise, the special advantages attaching to private management. Nor should it be forgotten that this capital itself has been accumulated under private enterprise. The private businesses turned into limited companies are survivals; those that fall behind in the race are the failures of individualism, and no one affirms that individualism makes no failures. I for my part am disposed to think that the circumstances which cause large joint stock companies to resemble Government undertakings are drawbacks and not advantages. It appears to me that if railways could compete as omnibuses do, they would perform the carrying work of the country as cheaply and as efficiently as, on the whole, the omnibus services of London and other great cities perform the services which they render. Owing to exceptional circumstances, railway companies have to place themselves under State patronage, and therefore to submit to State control; and in so far as this is the case, it detracts from their efficiency. Owing, moreover, to the scale on which work has to be carried on, these large enterprises are all more or less tainted with the vice of departmentalism. To use a colloquial phrase, they are tied up with red tape. The terrible railway accident in June, 1889, in the north of Ireland, was largely due to the want of a proper system of brakes, and this want was itself due to slovenly management and a blind trust in old methods. There are plenty of railways still unprovided with fit appliances, despite Board of Trade inspection. I know of one line in the vicinity of a great seaport, two of whose suburban stations have no telegraph wire between them, and the railroad consists of a single line running along the face of a crag overhanging the sea. A postal telegraph line passes both stations, and a very trifling expenditure would connect it with both, but the directors 'do not see their way!'
I need not go on multiplying instances. The burden of proof lies upon those who assert that departmentalised management is superior to private enterprise. Their crucial instance, the Post Office, breaks down when it is tested. I think I have shown sufficient cause for my belief that private enterprise does not gain, but loses, by assimilation to State departmentalism. I may however be pardoned if I refer briefly to contemporary events. The strikes of policemen and postmen (June and July, 1890) seem to prove that a Government department is not necessarily more successful than a private firm or a joint-stock company in securing the contentment of the people who are in its employ.
On the whole, it seems that we should be warranted in drawing the conclusion that State departments are neither good producers, good distributors, nor good employers of labour, as compared with private producers, distributors, and employers.
I now come to a part of my task which I approach with some reluctance. There are certain social and economic matters which it is impossible to discuss without running a risk of offending certain perfectly legitimate susceptibilities, yet which must be discussed if a judgment of any value is to be formed on the social problem. I have elsewhere pointed out that the Collectivism community is always spoken of as a 'closed economic unit.' It is not easy to discover in the works of Schäffle or of any other exponent of Socialism whether they contemplate the exclusion of imported labour. If they do not, it only remains to be said that they are not honestly facing the consequences of their own system. If a collective production and distribution of wealth is to be carried on at all, it must be on the condition that the producers know exactly how much to produce, and that the distributors know exactly how much, and to whom, to distribute. This, as I have already shown, is a task beyond human power, even if the fluctuation of numbers could be to some extent foreseen. But we know that the fluctuation can by no means be foreseen, and we know the reason why. I have endeavored to lead up to my main question by referring in the first instance to the importation of foreign labour; but that in reality is only a very minor matter. In spite of the silence of Schäffle and other recognised exponents of the system, I suspect that no thoroughgoing Socialist would shrink from prohibiting foreign immigration. But there is an immigration which goes on day after day—an immigration of mouths to be fed, without, for the time being, hands to labour for food. Every child that is born is for years a helpless being, dependent upon others for its support, and incapable of rendering anything in return. Nay, more, every child renders its mother incapable of contributing to the support of the community for weeks, if not for months. The disablement of the mother maybe considered a matter of no very great consequence, but it is certainly a serious matter to the community to be compelled to maintain an entirely unproductive consumer for a period of some fourteen years. It may fairly be taken for granted that a Socialist community would not exact less in the way of education than is demanded by the community as at present existing. The present school age does not end until thirteen. We may be pretty sure that under Socialism the period would not be shorter, and might be longer. Even this is not all. The young person of thirteen or fourteen would then have to be provided with a vocation. How far any liberty of choice would or could be left is a difficult question, but fortunately it does not require a detailed answer. The liberty of choice must under any circumstances be limited by the number of vocations open to the candidate; and we may safely assume that this number would itself depend upon the judgment of the collective authorities. So, then, these authorities would have not only to provide for all the mothers who from time to time bore children, and for all the children from birth till about fourteen years old, but also to find employment for all the boys and girls who lived to the age of fourteen. Nor is even that all. They would be bound, in offering employment to each candidate, to hold out some reasonable expectation that such employment should be a provision for life. At present, under the ordinary régime of individualism and competition, the father of a family is as a general rule responsible for the careers of his children. The children themselves have some kind of a voice in choosing a trade or a profession. If a mistake is made, the consequences may, no doubt, be very disastrous; but as a rule, he who commits the error suffers the consequences. Every now and then it happens that a particular vocation is, so to speak, superseded and rendered obsolete. Still more often it happens that a candidate for employment adopts the wrong vocation, or that work drifts away to other quarters, so that although the employment itself may be prosperous enough, particular workers or classes of workers are thrown out. Under individualism, there takes place a survival of the fittest, which may be very cruel to individuals and to classes. One of the aims of collective production and distribution is to eliminate this survival, with its attendant cruelty. Can it be done?
We have seen that the more sober exponents of Socialism declare that there is no intention of interfering with family life. Even the extreme fanatics avoid the question, and seem to assume that it may somehow or other be expected to solve itself. But there are indications, underlying all the more outspoken utterances on the subject, that attempts would be made to limit the increase of the population. Curiously enough, the most earnest advocacy of artificial restraints on multiplication is to be found in John Stuart Mill's Political Economy; and Mill was not a Socialist or Collectivist. Mill, indeed, advocated a voluntary restriction which to most readers has seemed a quite unpractical and impracticable proposal. When we consider how other habits—that of drinking, for instance—which are admitted to be immoral and disgraceful, are nevertheless far too frequently and freely indulged, it is difficult to read Mill's speculations on this subject without a smile. But Mill, in spite of his enthusiasms, was a clear-headed man. He saw what the puzzle-headed latter-day fanatic does not see, that unless multiplication is to be somehow restrained, no artificial devices for promoting social prosperity have any chance of success. Whether, under a Collectivist régime, restraints on multiplication would in the long run succeed in promoting social prosperity is another question. My belief is that they would not. We have seen already that the scheme of Collectivism implies the regulation of employment. Every child must be maintained until his or her schooldays are over. Every youth and maiden, on leaving school, must be provided with some kind of employment. How is this to be done? What government, central or local, is wise enough and strong enough to perform such a task? If we suppose it placed in the hands of a very widely ramified local organisation—parish councils for example—is there not as much danger of their entering upon a course of competition as if they were private families?
We have seen that Schäffle explicitly disclaims any project of restrictions upon population, and that the fanatical Socialists, such as the Fabian essayists, are completely silent upon the subject. It may, nevertheless, be worthwhile to refer to the only country where such restrictions are actually in force under the influence of a public opinion such as Mill hoped might come into existence. France, which Mill held up as an example, is now beginning to complain that her population is becoming actually scanty. French statesmen are seriously talking of offering rewards to the parents of large families. The remedies for overpopulation, so eloquently advocated by Mill, have done their work rather too well. But is France free from complaints of the existence of a 'proletariat?' By no means. Is France free from Socialist agitation? By no means. Germany, it is true, is just at present the headquarters of the movement, and it is also true that France is more free than most other European countries from the evils brought about by the presence of what Socialists call a proletariat. But France has by no means laid aside Socialism. There are, it is true, no Saint Simons, no Fouriers, no Louis Blancs; but French workmen are as fond of the phrases of Socialistic agitation as ever they were. French men of letters, too, have by no means left off playing the role of eloquent Aaron to the inarticulate but suggestive Moses of German thought.
In spite of all this—in spite, especially, of the extremely meddlesome character of public authority—France is, in two respects, extremely far from being a Socialistic nation. Nowhere is private property so jealously guarded. Nowhere is what we may call the individualism of the family held so sacred. However willing he may be to observe self-imposed restraints, no Frenchman would tolerate for a moment a law prescribing a limitation on the number of his children. But the more clear-headed of the English philanthropists are beginning to see that some such law there must be if Socialism, or anything akin to Socialism, is to have effect. Schäffle, it is true, says the German Socialists do not demand any such law. The Fabian rhetoricians give the subject the go-by. But there are others who see clearly enough that it must come to such a law sooner or later. A writer in the daily press recently proposed that the clergy and the civil registrars should have a discretionary power to refuse marriage under certain circumstances to couples applying for their services. We know very well that the clergy would never exercise any such discretion. We maybe pretty sure that the civil registrars would not do so, any more than the clergy. But suppose they did, every one knows what the consequence would be. Restraints on marriage always result in an increase of illicit unions and of illegitimate births. Are we prepared to make cohabitation out of wedlock a crime? The mediaeval Church tried to do that, and conspicuously failed. Indeed, it is wonderful in how many instances modern Socialism is compelled, as it were, to hark back to the methods of mediaeval despotism, civil and ecclesiastical.
The situation may be summed up in a sentence: Socialism, without restraints on the increase of population, would be utterly inefficient. With such restraints, it would be slavery.
In a word, Socialism—the scheme of collective capital and collective production and distribution—breaks down the moment it is subjected to any practical test. Considered merely as a scheme for supplying the material wants of the community, it is seen at a glance to be totally incapable of adjusting the relation between supply and demand. I have suggested the practical test. If any Socialist were asked, 'Suppose Socialism established now, how many suits of clothes, and of what qualities, will have to be in stock for the township of Little Pedlington on the first of next June?' either he could not answer the question at all, or he would be compelled to fall back upon the device of a uniform. Still more difficult would it be to answer the question, 'Of the children born this year, how many boys do you propose to apprentice as tailors, and how many girls as dressmakers, in 1904?' Until Socialists can answer these questions, and others of like nature, Socialism has simply no locus standi as a practical scheme for the supply of material wants. That being so, à fortiori it is valueless as a scheme for the supply of wants which are not material. To do the enthusiasts of Socialism justice, none of them even pretend to include art and literature in their projects. This is all the more curious, because the present is a time when art and literature are being cultivated for the sake of profit more, apparently, than at any previous period of history. But inasmuch as the Socialist exponents, sober or enthusiastic, shirk the topic, I am entitled to say that they do not expect the Socialist community to cultivate art or literature.
In addition to all this, it seems to me a very open question (to say the least) whether Socialism would really promote the comfort of the entire working class, supposing that it could be worked without the difficulties I have noted. The energetic workman, it maybe conceded, would be successful under Socialism; but then, he is already successful under Individualism. All workmen, however, are not energetic. What of the man who is below the average, or barely up to it, in energy, honesty, and sobriety? What of the man who has no vices, but whose character is shiftless, irresolute, wanting in 'backbone'? Such a man, under Individualism, becomes a failure; what would be his fate under Socialism? I know of no infallible prescription whereby an idle man can be rendered industrious, or an irresolute one steady of purpose, except one—the sharp spur of want! Are Socialists prepared to suggest any other? If they are not, wherein is their system better than Individualism? If they are, what is it? The prison, perhaps, or the scourge? If so, some one maybe tempted to say concerning the tender mercies of the philanthropist what the inspired writer said concerning those of the wicked.
It remains only to sum up what I have attempted to prove, and I think succeeded in proving.
Socialism would be totally inefficient as a producing and distributing scheme. Society is not an army, which can be fed on rations, clothed in a uniform, and lodged in barracks. Even if it were, the task would be too much for Government departments, which habitually fail, or commit shortcomings, in dealing with the special classes which they do undertake to feed, clothe, and lodge. The army and navy are composed of young men, and picked men, who are, or ought to be, in good average health and vigour. Yet the supply departments of both services, it is acknowledged on all hands, leave much to be desired. How much more difficult would the task be of maintaining women, children, the aged and the sick!
I have dealt pretty fully with the one department of Government which is always called successful, and I have shown that the success which is claimed for it must, to say the least, be conceded subject to large qualifications. I have shown that Government departments are not more meritorious as employers of labour than they are as producers and distributors.
I have suggested that the scheme of Socialism is wholly incomplete unless it includes a power of restraining the increase of population, which power is so unwelcome to Englishmen that the very mention of it seems to require an apology. I have showed that in France, where restraints on multiplication have been adopted into the popular code of morals, there is discontent on the one hand at the slow rate of increase, while on the other, there is still a 'proletariat,' and Socialism is still a power in politics.
I have put the question, how Socialism would treat the residuum of the working class and of all classes—the class, not specially vicious, nor even necessarily idle, but below the average in power of will and in steadiness of purpose. I have intimated that such persons, if they belong to the upper or middle classes, are kept straight by the fear of falling out of class, and in the working class by positive fear of want. But since Socialism purposes to eliminate the fear of want, and since under Socialism the hierarchy of classes will either not exist at all or be wholly transformed, there remains for such persons no motive at all except physical coercion. Are we to imprison or flog all the 'ne'er-do-weels'?
I began this paper by pointing out that there are inequalities and anomalies in the material world, some of which, like the obliquity of the ecliptic and the consequent inequality of the day's length, cannot be redressed at all. Others, like the caprices of sunshine and rainfall in different climates, can be mitigated, but must on the whole be endured. I am very far from asserting that the inequalities and anomalies of human society are strictly parallel with those of material nature. I fully admit that we are under an obligation to control nature so far as we can. But I think I have shown that the Socialist scheme cannot be relied upon to control nature, because it refuses to obey her. Socialism attempts to vanquish nature by a front attack. Individualism, on the contrary, is the recognition, in social politics, that nature has a beneficent as well as a malignant side. The struggle for life provides for the various wants of the human race, in somewhat the same way as the climatic struggle of the elements provides for vegetable and animal life—imperfectly, that is, and in a manner strongly marked by inequalities and anomalies. By taking advantage of prevalent tendencies, it is possible to mitigate these anomalies and inequalities, but all experience shows that it is impossible to do away with them. All history, moreover, is the record of the triumph of Individualism over something which was virtually Socialism or Collectivism, though not called by that name. In early days, and even at this day under archaic civilisations, the note of social life is the absence of freedom. But under every progressive civilisation, freedom has made decisive strides—broadened down, as the poet says, from precedent to precedent. And it has been rightly and naturally so.
Freedom is the most valuable of all human possessions, next after life itself. It is more valuable, in a manner, than even health. No human agency can secure health; but good laws, justly administered, can and do secure freedom. Freedom, indeed, is almost the only thing that law can secure. Law cannot secure equality, nor can it secure prosperity. In the direction of equality, all that law can do is to secure fair play, which is equality of rights but is not equality of conditions. In the direction of prosperity, all that law can do is to keep the road open. That is the Quintessence of Individualism, and it may fairly challenge comparison with that Quintessence of Socialism we have been discussing. Socialism, disguise it how we may, is the negation of Freedom. That it is so, and that it is also a scheme not capable of producing even material comfort in exchange for the abnegations of Freedom, I think the foregoing considerations amply prove.
EDWARD STANLEY ROBERTSON