The Wages Question: A Treatise on Wages and the Wages Class
By Francis A. Walker
Francis A. Walker’s
The Wages Question is generally credited as having demolished the prior, antiquated “wages fund” theory of wages [see Book I, Chapters
IX]. In the process, Walker simultaneously laid the groundwork for
John Bates Clark’s definitive descriptions of the marginal products of labor and capital. His interest in the nature of the firm contributed to
Frank H. Knight’s work by clearly describing the factors of production and how to categorize their rewards into wages, rent, and profits.Walker’s work and influence served as models not only because he discussed production, labor, and wages with unusual clarity for his time, but also because his interest in monetary issues (influenced by his father, also an economist) enabled him to describe the
difference between nominal and real values. His clarifications of monetary issues coincided with concurrent national interests in
the gold/silver/bimetallism parity controversies of the late 1800s, and the meaning of money for an economy. Walker later wrote a textbook that was used in classrooms till the publication of
Principles of Economics.Walker became the first President of the
American Economic Association. His professorships at Yale and MIT changed the courses of their economics programs. His leadership abilities were evident in every realm of his life, including his stint as a General during the Civil War. His devotion to economics as a profession paved the way for many generations of U.S. economists.For all his contributions, Walker’s popularity may also have been one of the main sources of the promulgatation of many current misunderstandings. His views of
Thomas Robert Malthus’s writings may have been the source of the popular subsequent mis-association of Carlyle’s 1849 term, the
“dismal science,” with Malthus. (Walker’s interest in labor and wages naturally led him to consider population, but may also have caused him to emphasize pressures inherent in rapid population growth, race, and class distinctions over
Malthus’s original interest in the economic incentives that deter overpopulation.) Walker’s general views and influence may have led to other underlying divisions behind different strains in macro- and micro-economic research that persist to this day.Lauren F. Landsburg
First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Young courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
- Front Matter
- Part I, Chapter 1
- Part I, Chapter 2
- Part I, Chapter 3
- Part I, Chapter 4
- Part I, Chapter 5
- Part I, Chapter 6
- Part I, Chapter 7
- Part I, Chapter 8
- Part I, Chapter 9
- Part II, Chapter 10
- Part II, Chapter 11
- Part II, Chapter 12
- Part II, Chapter 13
- Part II, Chapter 14
- Part II, Chapter 15
- Part II, Chapter 16
- Part II, Chapter 17
- Part II, Chapter 18
- Part II, Chapter 19
- Concluding Remarks
OF capital it is not necessary to discuss here either the origin or the office. Many economists carefully exclude land from the lists of capital. What Ricardo calls “the original and indestructible
*74 powers of the soil,” not being the creation of labor, and commanding, as they do, for their possessor, an annual remuneration, over and above the proper returns of labor (as determined by the yield of the poorest soils under cultivation), are, these writers hold, not in the nature of capital.
But whatever be the economical nature or the social justification of rent, the facts that land almost everywhere bears its price proportioned to this annual income; that a great part of all the land in possession to-day in civilized countries was actually acquired by purchase, through the payment of undoubted capital; that this interchange of fixed and circulating capital is constantly taking place, land always practically having its price in denominations of capital, capital surely commanding the use or fee of land; and finally that no small part, often by far the greatest part, of the selling price of land represents, on any theory of rent, the actual investment of capital merged indistinguishably with the original productive powers of the soil, these facts justify me, I think, for all present purposes, in embracing alike the proprietors of land and the owners of
other forms of wealth which may be used productively, in one capital-class.
Capital, then, whether in land or in some other form, if it be employed productively, yields a return to its owner over and above the remuneration of the labor applied. The laws which govern these returns of capital it is not necessary to discuss here. My only concern with the capital class is to define its membership and ascertain how far that coincides with the membership of the employing class.
But, first, a definition. When capital is employed reproductively by the owner, the generic term, returns, sufficiently describes the increase of production effected thereby. When capital is employed by a person not the owner, “returns” still describe the increased product; but the special terms, rent and interest, come into use to characterize the sums paid out of those returns to the owner. I say “out of those returns,” for commonly rent and interest are something less than the amount by which the product has been enhanced, otherwise it would not ordinarily be worth the while to borrow and become responsible for the capital so applied, though it may happen, and not infrequently does, that the desire of the borrower (I use the term here generically, to include the occupier of land) to relieve himself of dependence on an employer, by coming into possession himself of the agencies and instrumentalities of production, may lead him to pay more, as interest or rent, than the returns of capital, measured by the excess of the product over the value of his labor expressed in wages at current rates.
It seems to me best that the words rent and interest should only be used where capital is actually leased or loaned. There is, indeed, highly respectable authority for
saying of a man cultivating his own land, that he
pays rent to himself, or of one using his own circulating capital, that he
pays interest to himself. But it is better to avoid all such strained uses of words which have a precise meaning, by which they fill an important place in economical terminology. Let the returns of capital remain the generic term, while rent and interest are employed only with respect to payments for capital actually leased or loaned.
Who, then, constitute the capital class? Who receive the returns of capital?
With that vast body of property, real and personal, which is employed in production by peasant proprietors, or occupiers of land under a practically indefeasible tenure, whether guaranteed by law or imperative custom, this treatise has nothing to do, except that it may be noted in passing that those who speak of the capitalist as the employer of labor, are obliged to regard these peasant proprietors or occupiers as their own employers, another instance of a perversion of economical terms made necessary by a false analysis.
If we turn to England and Scotland, where the soil is cultivated under farmer-rents, we do not find the owners of land employing agricultural labor to any considerable extent, except in the ornamentation of grounds, payment for which is made out of revenues already acquired, and the sums so paid are hence, according to our definition, not wages, but salary or stipend. Where agricultural laborers are employed for profit in England, it is almost universally by a middle-man, a farmer, who, on the one hand, leases the land from the owner, and on the other agrees with the laborer for his work, by the year, the month, or the day, obligating himself to pay landlord and laborer at fixed rates, and looking to his own enterprise and economy to secure his own remuneration out of a product which varies continually with good or ill fortune, with good or ill management. The English farmer is, however, almost
necessarily the owner of circulating capital to some extent, not only to guarantee the landlord’s rent and the laborers’ wages, but also to purchase live stock, seed, tools, and machinery, and to make advance of wages while the crops are growing. But he is not necessarily the owner of circulating capital to anything like the extent to which he uses it; good character and a reputation for business capacity will enable him, under the modern organization of credit, to command the use of far more than he actually possesses.
In France, peasant proprietorship gives form to the agriculture of the country; but even under the old régime the seignior-capitalist did not directly employ labor, and Arthur Young pokes fun at the great lords who, desiring the reputation of cultivating the soil, when that had become a fashion in France, let out on shares portions of their estates immediately about the chateau! In the United States the land is, as a rule, held either by persons corresponding industrially to the “peasant proprietors” of Europe, but rejecting that term, and calling themselves very inappropriately “farmers,” or by larger operators who hold the fee of the land and cultivate it by hired labor. Land leased for purposes of agriculture is here highly exceptional. But while the legal owner of the land is thus in a considerable degree the employer of labor, it is to a very large extent capital borrowed on note or mortgage which enables him to eke out the purchase money of the “farm,” to stock it, and to pay wages in anticipation of the crop.
We thus see that even in agriculture, where the effects of lordship still survive, the capitalist is not necessarily the employer of labor, nor is the employer of labor limited in his operations by the extent of his personal ownership of capital. But if we turn to the department of mechanical industry, in which lordship never had existence, and all that has survived from feudal times (the trades unions, as
the illegitimate successors of the ancient guilds) is antagonistic to the employer’s authority; a department which is eminently the field of “new men,” and in which the hereditary principle is reduced to a minimum, we find the assumption that the capitalist is the employer, the employer the capitalist, monstrously unreal. True it is that the employer should be a capitalist, that he should have possession of some accumulations, not only to guarantee
*75 the loans he contracts and the wages he becomes responsible for, but also to steady his own operations, lest he should act as one who has everything to gain and nothing to lose; true it is that able employers come to own an increasing share of the capital used in their increasing business; and that the larger their accumulations become, the greater the freedom and strength with which they conduct business. Yet it still remains that the employer is not an employer because he is a capitalist, or in proportion as he is a capitalist. Of capitalists under our modern organization of industry, but a small minority employ labor; of employers few but use capital far in excess of what they own. Moreover the employer who owns little capital; the employer who owns much, and the employer who owns perchance all he employs, are not to be distinguished in their industrial attitude and relations, or in the nature, or, generally we may say, in the extent of their operations; but differ only in the ease, freedom, and security with which they conduct their respective businesses. And that difference is, in ordinary times, not very noticeable. One employer, indeed, is down on the books of the Commercial Agency with A five times repeated, and his paper is known as
‘gilt edged.” Another must be content to be rated lower by the Agency, live smaller, pay a little more interest on loans, run around a little more lively before the close of banking hours, and be served after his betters. But the outside world sees very little difference, granting them equality of business ability, in their employment of labor or conduct of affairs.
Who, then, are the capitalists who are not employers of labor? I answer, first, those who by age, sex, or infirmity are disabled from active operations; men retired from business, women of all ages, children and young persons of both sexes, the crippled and incompetent for whom provision has been made; these, in the order of nature, own a large part of the property of the world. If their wealth is in their own hands, they know their limitations, and do not undertake to employ it personally; if their wealth is held for them, the responsibilities of the trustee or guardian are incompatible with the ventures of manufacture or trade. Secondly, those who, from dignity and love of leisure, as is especially the case with men of inherited means, are indisposed to increase their store by active exertions, but live upon their income; and those who are engaged in professions
*76 which do not allow the investment of their earnings. Thirdly, the laboring classes, whether receiving wages or salaries, who are able, even out of scanty earnings, to make savings which they are, from the nature of their industrial position, unable to apply personally to production. Small as are the individual contributions of this class to the loanable capital of a community, the statistics of the savings banks show what is the virtue of a large multiplier. There might be added, perhaps should be added, to the vast aggregate of capital thus constituted, the accumulating profits of industries
which are already full of capital up to the point of “diminishing returns,” where overflow must take place into newer branches of production. Thus no small part of the net annual profits of agriculture in Somersetshire and Hampshire go up to London to be loaned to the manufacturers of Yorkshire and Lancashire;
*77 while in the United States the current is reversed, and the manufacturing dividends of New England go to the West to be invested in agriculture, which can still afford to pay eight, ten, and even twelve per cent. Here again we have a large body of capital, which, though the owners of it are employers in some branch of industry, yet goes to swell the aggregate of loanable capital to which employers who are not capitalists, or who wish to be employers beyond the extent which their own capital permits, may resort under the modern organization of credit.
It is so clear that the membership of the capitalist class is not coincident with that of the employing class, not withstanding the use by the economists of the word capitalist to signify the employer of labor; and the subject of the relation of the capitalist to the employer is, as far as I have occasion to consider it, so simple, that I should not have devoted a separate chapter to this class, but have defined it in remarks introductory of the employing class proper, were it not that I desired to emphasize this my difference with the text-book writers; and secondly and chiefly, that it becomes necessary for me to take exception to the use, by the same writers, of the word Profits, an exception best taken under the present title.
My exception is not on linguistic grounds. Profits, so far as the etymology of the word goes, might include interest, rent, wages, and the gain derived from the conduct
of business, any one or all of these. The economists generally use the word to express the returns of capital.
*78 I propose to express by it the gains of the employing class, letting the returns of capital stand as previously explained in this chapter. By what, then, do the economists express that which I call profits? I answer, that as they refuse to the employing class a separate entity,
*79 so they, logically enough, practically deny the existence of profits distinctly from the returns of capital. If the employer, who is assumed to become an employer because he is a capitalist, and to the extent to which he is a capitalist, gives his personal attention and his time to the business, they acknowledge that he receives an addition to his income on that account, which addition they define as “the wages of supervision and management.” This they regard as belonging strictly to the category of wages, and treat the case precisely as if the employer or “capitalist” had dispensed with a paid overseer, superintendent, or manager, and drawn the salary of the position himself—otherwise his “profits” are all the proper returns of capital. If he chooses to withdraw his personal attention and retain the overseer, superintendent, or manager, then his “profits” have no such foreign admixture.
But inasmuch as the theory of distribution offered in
this treatise requires the recognition of the employers of labor as a distinct industrial class (see Chapter XIV), performing a function of high importance, something beyond “supervision and management,” as exercised by hired agents, it is evident that a term is needed to designate the share of this class in the product of industry. Now, while the use which the text-books make of the term Profits is, as has been said, not objectionable on linguistic grounds, that which is here proposed certainly corresponds far better to the popular usage, at least in America. I cannot speak with assurance in respect to the significance of the word in England; but with us, few practical men would understand a manufacturer’s or a merchant’s profits to include his interest-account. Webster’s Dictionary gathers the American sense of the word correctly in the following definition: “The
profit of the farmer and the manufacturer is the gain made by sale of produce or manufactures, after deducting the value of the labor, materials, rent, and all expenses,
together with the interest of the capital employed, whether land, machinery, buildings, instruments, or money.” And since this use of the word agrees thus with the speech of practical men, while the term, Returns of Capital, is perfectly descriptive of the object to which it is applied, I trust the reader will not revolt at being asked to carry through the further course of this enquiry the definition of Profits, as the remuneration of the employing class, or the gains of business.
According to our analysis and definition, then, the parties to the distribution of the product of modern industry, in its highest organization, and the shares they respectively receive, are as follows:
|1. The Wages Class||Wages.|
|2. The Capitalist Class||Returns of Capital (Rent: Interest).|
|3. The Employing Class||Profits.|
Are the returns of capital already at or near the minimum? A very common answer to complaints respecting the inadequacy of wages, or to schemes for securing their increase, is that the returns of capital are already as low as it is for the interest of the laborers themselves they should go; that if a smaller annual return were to be made to the capitalist for the use of his accumulated wealth, the disposition to save would be so far affected thereby as to reduce the store of capital, and thus diminish employment. I am embarrassed in making quotations from economical writers to show the direction of this argument, by the fact that they generally use the word profits
*80 to express the returns of capital (including remuneration for its risk), but with always a possible addition of “the wages of supervision and management.” It is, therefore, difficult to say whether, in a specific instance, the rate of interest is referred to alone, or the remuneration of the man of business, after estimating the proper returns of capital, is also included. But as the latter element is treated as of comparatively slight importance, I think I may assume that, when Professor Cairnes says “Profits are already at or within a hand’s breadth of the minimum,”
*81 he refers chiefly, if not wholly, to the returns upon capital. Of course, if profits be at the minimum, any increase of wages which involved a further reduction in the returns of capital,
*82 would unquestionably be detrimental. Prof. Fawcett thus works out the effects of such a reduction: “If profits are diminished, there is not so great an inducement to save, and the amount of capital accumulated will decrease; the wages fund will consequently
be diminished, and there will be a smaller amount to distribute among the laboring classes.”
But I fail wholly to understand what evidence Prof. Cairnes can have had that the returns of capital are at o[???] near the minimum. If he had in view the fact that in England the rate of interest and the returns from capital invested in land are now so low that a continually increasing amount of capital is going abroad to newer countries, this is undoubtedly true; but it affords no proof that the rate of interest in England has reached the point where a further reduction would touch the principle of frugality in the quick. Every dollar of British capital fortunately invested in Australia or the United States helps to cheapen the materials of British manufactures, and to widen the market for British products. So long as these new countries enjoy such extraordinary natural advantages, English capital will doubtless continue to go abroad; but were these countries filled up with capital, so as to bring the rate of interest down to what it is in England, where is the reason for believing that Englishmen would not save their wealth for the sake of an annual return lower than the present? The return to an investor in the British consols, which are regarded as the ideal security, is about three and three-sevenths per cent. per annum. The insurance companies realize about four and one-half per cent. on their investments. Railway shares paying five per cent. a year sell ordinarily close on 100. Could Prof. Cairnes have meant that, if Englishmen could not get five per cent. for their capital, or at least three and three-sevenths per annum, they would consume it in self-indulgence? But we know that the Dutch have accumulated vast savings on still lower inducements, for the rate of interest in Holland long ruled at two and one-half per cent., while the government borrowed freely at two per
cent. Nor have we any grounds for assuming that even a lower rate might not find people still saving, be it from profits, from wages, or from the returns of previously existing capital.
One consideration of importance, which is often lost sight of in this connection, is that the motive to save contains an element besides the expectation of an annual income from the accumulation. Saving is also in the nature of an insurance against the casualties of life. The strength of this motive to self-denial for the sake of insurance alone, is seen in communities where there are no banks, as in many of the departments of France, and no means of ordinary investment, where yet vast sums are accumulated by the peasantry.
*84 Not the less in countries where banks afford the safe and sure means of deriving present revenue from savings, does this desire to save, as an insurance against the inevitable ills of life, constitute a considerable part of the motive to accumulation. Men would in a degree provide against old age and sickness, provide for the possible widowhood and orphanage of those dependent on them, were there no interest on money; and saving thus, a very low rate of interest on absolutely safe investments would call their funds into productive use.
Now this view, the justice of which cannot, I think, be questioned, affords the means of judging somewhat more critically the statement of Prof. Fawcett just quoted. Prof. Fawcett says, If wages are enhanced, profits are diminished, and hence less capital will be accumulated. But we know, both from the reason of the case and from the statistics of the savings banks, that capital may be accumulated from wages as well as from profits, whether we understand by that term, the returns of capital, or the
gains of business. Does any one say, a reduction in the rate of interest would affect the disposition of the laborers to save out of their wages equally with the disposition of the capitalist or the employers, to save out of their earnings? I answer, no, decidedly not. The motive to save, for the sake of insurance, operates with far greater force among the laboring class than among the more fortunate classes. Thus, taking the case of a hundred laborers working for one employer, can it be doubted that the desires of all these individuals, even if we make deduction of spendthrifts and drunkards, to provide against old age, sickness, and the premature death of the bread-winner, would constitute a stronger force to direct towards savings an extra thousand pounds of wages, than would the corresponding desire on the part of the single employer, in the matter of an extra thousand pounds of profits? That this would be so in France or Germany, would not, I think, be questioned by any Frenchman or German. If it should not prove so in England, it would be in no small degree due to the fact that the tenure of the land, the true savings banks of the people, has been so much embarrassed by statute and by judicial fictions.
It should, of course, be expected that a large and sudden increase of wages, due to general industrial causes like that which took place four years ago in the iron and coal
*85 trades of Great Britain, would, most likely, human nature being what it is, be employed in ministering, more or less, to folly and vice, or squandered in expenditures, not perhaps hurtful in themselves, but unnecessary, and therefore, as against a strong reason for saving, mischievous. The possible increase of wages which I have in view is rather a steady advance due to the increasing mobility of labor from the growth of the industrial virtues, enabling the
wages class to resort more promptly to their market, and to press their employers more closely with a truly effective competition. Wages thus won would, in general, be well employed.
So much for that desire to make savings as an insurance against the contingencies of life and health, which is one element of the principle of frugality. Of the other, and doubtless more important, element, the desire to secure an annual income from investments, or from the personal use of capital, it is not necessary to speak here at any length. I know no reason for believing that interest in any country has reached its minimum, that is, the point where the desire to spend overpowers the disposition to save, in such a proportion of instances as to waste capital, or to prevent it from increasing proportionally to population and to the opportunities for its reproductive use at current rates.
It is quite another question whether it makes any difference whether the returns of capital are at the minimum, or are very much above that point. I have already
*86 quoted a paragraph from Prof. Perry in which he takes the ground that if, from any cause, an undue amount of the product of industry goes to the share of the capitalist-employer, nothing can defeat the tendency that the excess shall be restored to wages. Prof. Cairnes, in his “Leading Principles,” has expressed himself on the same question as follows:
“Thus, supposing,” he says, “a group of employers to have succeeded, as no doubt would be perfectly possible for them, in temporarily forcing down wages by combination in a particular trade, a portion of their wealth previously invested would now become free—how would it be employed? Unless we are to suppose the character of a
large section of a community to be suddenly changed in a leading attribute, the wealth so withdrawn from wages would, in the end, and before long, be restored to wages. The same motives which led to its investment would lead to its reinvestment, and once reinvested, the interests of those concerned would cause it to be distributed amongst the several elements of capital in the same proportion as before. In this way
covetousness is held in check by covetousness, and the desire for aggrandizement sets limits to its own gratification.”
The doctrine here seems to be that the desire for accumulation, or aggrandizement,
*87 is a constant force, and thus the effects of covetousness, through the employer’s efforts to give the laborer as little as may be for his services, are compensated by the effects of covetousness through the employer’s efforts to make a profit on the amount thus saved by again employing it in the purchase of labor. The motives to investment and reinvestment are therefore equal.
Now it seems to me that this doctrine is inconsistent with any recognition of the varying strength of the economical motives. While in particular instances, with persons of the miserly disposition, the passion for accumulation may grow with increasing wealth, the observation of every one must convince him that, with the vast majority of men, especially in this age of refinement and of artificial wants, the impulse to spend luxuriously acquires force, after the comforts and decencies of life are once provided for, faster than the impulse to save; that large incomes are not applied as severely and judiciously to further getting as are moderate incomes; that the rich expend their revenues with a lavishness, a capriciousness and a heed-lessness which are unknown to men of smaller means. If this be so, and, with full regard to no inconsiderable number
of particular instances to the contrary, I do not think it will be denied, then the motives to reinvestment cannot be held to be necessarily equal to the motives to investment; and instead of covetousness being held in check by covetousness, luxuriousness comes in to consume a portion at least of such excessive gains.
It needs to be noted, moreover, that, upon Prof. Cairnes’ own doctrine of “non-competing groups,”
*88 it would not follow that the sums thus taken from one body of laborers in excessive profits will be restored in wages to the class or classes suffering such losses. Capital having, on Prof. Cairnes’ statement, a much higher degree of mobility than labor, the body of laborers to be benefited by such restoration of profits to wages, will not necessarily, or even probably, be identical with that which was in the first instance depleted. And if a right distribution of the products of industry be important to secure the highest industry and zeal in future production, then incontestibly, in addition to all considerations of the iniquity of thus bleeding one class for the benefit of others, we have a strictly economic argument against the theory of the practical indifference of the present proportions of wages and profits.
But we may go further and say that all this kind of reasoning in economics which makes the employing or the capitalist class, in a state of imperfect competition, the guardians of the wages class, in such a way that it really doesn’t matter whether the laborer gets all the wages he might, or even, at any specified time, gets any at all, because excessive profits will further enrich those other classes who hold their wealth as a sort of sacred trust for him, so that at another time he will get all the more, if he gets less or nothing now—all this sort of reasoning is much to be distrusted.
And I cannot sufficiently express my astonishment that an economist of Prof. Cairnes’ eminent ability, who made the most important contribution ever offered in modification of the theory of competition, and who pointed out the frightful hiatus in Bastiat’s composition of the Economical Harmonies,
*89 should have fallen into the trap at this point. Anything more contradictory of his own doctrine of the extensive failure of competition, and the want of harmony between the interests of the workman and the employer, as each understands his interests and is prepared to act with reference thereto, than this assumption of the certain restoration to wages of all sums taken for excessive profits, it would be impossible to conceive.
It is a poor rule that doesn’t work both ways. Yet writers who hold it to be of no consequence at all that the “capitalists” should, by pressure brought upon the laborers, reduce their wages below the equitable point, since the extra profits thus acquired are certain to be restored to wages, seem to regard it as a subject of just apprehension lest laborers should, by trades unions or strikes, bring a pressure to bear, on their side, which might reduce profits unduly. But why should not such extra wages be
restored to profits, just as certainly, peacefully, and automatically? What difference does it make if the “capitalist,” in any given time or place, gets an inadequate profit, or indeed no profit at all? He will only get just so much more the next time. Certainly, if the laborer can wait to have excessive profits restored to wages, the “capitalist” can wait to have extra wages restored to profits.
This notion of a see-saw between wages and profits is well hit-off in a story which Governor Winthrop tells: “I may upon this occasion report a passage between one of Rowley and his servant. The master being forced to sell
a pair of oxen to pay his servant his wages, told his servant he could keep him no longer, not knowing how to pay him the next year. The servant answered him that he would serve him for more of his cattle. But how shall I do (saith the master) when all my cattle are gone? The servant replied,
you shall then serve me, and so you may have your cattle again.”
*90 Surely, if a man becomes an employer in industry, only because he is a capitalist, and as he is a capitalist, the servant in this story was not more of a wag than of a political economist.
No, in a state of imperfect competition, the employer is not the laborer’s guardian, or the trustee of his earnings. The workman’s legitimate wages are a great deal better in his own pocket, or standing in his own name on the books of the savings bank, than paid into the hands of the employer as extra profits. The reasoning to the contrary, on the assumption of a vital harmony of interests, cannot fail to remind one of the economical plea, with which it is point by point identical, once so widely urged, that the owner’s interest would abundantly protect the slave against physical abuse or privation. It is also closely analogous with the political plea by which the privileged classes have always sought to show that it really didn’t matter how much political power was entrusted to them; that the interests of rich and poor, high and low were indissolubly bound up together, so that if one suffered, all must suffer with it; and that, therefore, the class most intelligent, most apt for government, having most leisure for public affairs, with, moreover, the largest stake in society, might safely be trusted to make and execute all laws, their own true and permanent interests prohibiting them from any and every course prejudicial to the lower classes, who
could not, it was urged, be in any way oppressed but that social and industrial disorders would afford immediate retribution for the neglect of duty or abuse of power on the part of their self-constituted guardians.
The argument is a very pretty one, but alas! and alas! what a dreary and sickening tale is that of the exactions and oppressions of the Old Regime! There is no class fit to determine its own rights and prescribe the duties of others. Inevitably will tyranny be engendered, whenever there is weakness or helplessness on the one side.
Noblesse oblige; and the sentiments of compassion and charity go far to mitigate the natural severity of legislation and administration; but, after all, there is only one way in which the rights of any body of men can be secured, and that is by being placed in their own keeping.
Part II, Chapter XIV