The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 4
Lecture X. The Consideration of the Present and Prospective Condition of Society Continued
Lecture X. The Consideration of the Present and Prospective Condition of Society Continued.
Additional examples of bad results of competition of individual interests—Disadvantages attending the division of labour—Difficulty of benefiting one individual without injuring others—Instance of charitable institutions-Question, Whether the destruction of human life or of corn is the greater public calamity?—State of the Irish peasantry—Impediments to the abandonment of luxuries by the Irish—The leading arrangements of society at present bear reference to self-interest—Christianity cannot become practical while this continues to be the case—Does human nature admit of such improvement, that the evils of individual competition may be obviated, and the moral sentiments rendered supreme?—Grounds for hope—Natural longing for a more perfect social condition—Schemes of Pluto, Sir T. More, the Primitive Christians, the Harmonites, and Mr Owen.
I proceed to point out some additional examples of the results of the competition of individual interests.
Apparently the evils of the selfish system have the tendency to prolong and extend themselves indefinitely. "We have seen, for example, that the institution of different employments is natural, springing from differences in native talent and inclination. This leads to the division of labour, by which every person has it in his power to confine his exertions to that species of art for which he has the greatest aptitude and liking; while, by interchanging commodities, each may acquire the things necessary to his own enjoyment. But under the present system, this institution is attended with considerable disadvantages. Workmen are trained to perform the minutes portions of labour on a particular article, and to do nothing else: one man can point a pin, and do no more; another can make the pin's head, but can finish no other part of it; one can make the eye of a needle, but can neither fashion the body, nor point it. In preparing steam-engines, there are different branches of trade, and different workshops for the different parts of the machine. One person makes boilers, another casts the framework and heavy iron-beams, a third makes cylinders, a fourth pistons, and soon; and the person who furnishes steam-engines to the public, merely goes to these different work-shops, buys the different parts of the skeleton, and his own trade consists in fitting them together and selling the engine entire.
These arrangements produce commodities better and cheaper, than if one man made the whole needle or pin, or one manufactory fabricated the whole steam-engine; but when we view the system in its moral effects, there is an attendant disadvantage. It rears a large number of workmen, who are ignorant of every practical art beyond the minute details of their own branch of industry, and who are altogether useless and helpless, except when combined under one employer. If not counteracted in its effects by an extensive education, it renders the workmen incapable of properly discharging their duties as parents, or members of. society, by leaving them ignorant of every thing except their narrow mechanical operations. It leaves them also exposed, by ignorance, to become the dupes of political agitators and fanatics, and makes them dependent on the capitalist Trained from infancy to a minute operation, their mental culture neglected, and destitute of capital they are incapable of exercising sound judgment of any subject, and of combining their labour and their skill for the promotion of their own advantage. They are, therefore, mere implements of trade in the hands of men of more enlarged minds and more extensive property; and as these men also compote page 54 keenly, talent against talent, and capital against capital, each of them is compelled to throw back a part of the burden on his artizans, demanding more labour, and giving less wages, to enable him to maintain his own position.*
Nor does the capitalist escape the evils of the system. In consequence of manufacturer competing with manufacturer, and merchant with merchant, who will execute most work, and sell his goods cheapest, profits fall extremely low, and the rate of interest, which is just the proportion of profit corresponding to the capital employed in trade, becomes depressed. The result is, that the artizan's wages are lowered to the verge of a decent subsistence, earned by his utmost exertions; the manufacturer and merchant are exposed to incessant toil and risk, and are moderately recompensed; and the capitalist, who desires to retire from active business, and live on the produce of his previous industry, in the form of interest, participates in their depression, and starves on the smallest pittance of annual return. Thus, selfish competition presents the anomaly of universal abundance co-existing with individual want, and leads to a ceaseless struggle to obtain objects fitted chiefly to gratify our inferior powers.
While the competition of individual interest continues to prevail in society, the field even of benevolence itself is limited. It becomes difficult to do good to one individual, or class of individuals, without doing an injury to others. Nothing, for example, can at first sight appear more meritorious and beneficial, than the institution of such charitable endowments as that of Heriot's Hospital, or the hospitals founded by the two Watsons, of this city; in which children of decayed or deceased parents, belonging to the industrious classes, are educated, provided for, and set out in life. Yet objections to them have been stated, on very plausible grounds. According to the principles which I have endeavoured to expound in the preceding lectures, children do not, in general, become destitute, except in consequence of great infringement of one or more of the natural laws, by their parents. If the parents died prematurely, they must, in most cases (for accidents will happen, even with the utmost care), have inherited feeble constitutions, or disobeyed, in their own persons, the organic laws; and the destitution of their children is the natural consequence of these causes. If the father have been in trade, have failed, and fallen into poverty, he must have been deficient in some important qualities or habits necessary to success. Now, amidst the competition of individual interests, there is always a considerable number of meritorious persons, who stand in the middle line between high and low endowments, who with great difficulty, are able to maintain themselves and their families in the station in which they were born, and who succeed in doing so, only by submitting to incessant toil, and great sacrifices of enjoyment. I have heard such persons make remarks like the following:—" Do you see that young man?—he was educated in Heriot's Hospital, and, by the influence of the managers of that institution, was received as an apprentice into a thriving mercantile establishment, into which I had in vain endeavoured to get one of my sons introduced. He is now head-clerk. Well! benevolence is not always justice:—that boy's father was sporting his horse and gig, and living like a gentleman, while I was toiling and saving;—he fell from his gig and broke his neck, when he had drunk too much wine. At his death, his affairs were found to be in bankruptcy; but he had good friends; his children were taken into the hospital, and here you see the end of it;—his boy comes out of the charity better educated than my sons; and, supported by the influence of the managers, he prevents mine from getting into a good situation, by stepping into it himself:—this, I say, may be benevolence, but it is not justice." This is not an imaginary dialogue; I have heard the argument stated again and again, and I could never see a satisfactory answer to it.' It would be cruelty to abandon the children, even of the victims of such misconduct as is here described, to want, crime, and misery; yet surely there must be some defect in the leading principle of 6ur social institutions, when a benevolent provision for them really has the effect of obstructing the path and hindering the prosperity of the children of more meritorious individuals.
I have heard this line of argument pushed still farther. An acute reasoner often maintained in my presence, that if one hundred unmarried men, and one thousand quarters of wheat, were both in one ship, the loss of the men would be no public evil, while the loss of the wheat would be a real one. He maintained his position by arguing that, in this country, the competition for employment is so great, that the removal of one hundred individuals from any branch of labour would only benefit those who were left, by. rendering the competition less arduous, and their remuneration greater; whereas the loss of one thousand quarters of wheat would necessarily lead to diminution of the diet of a certain number of the poorest of the people. All the wheat which we possess, he said, is annually consumed; if it be abundant, it is cheap, and the poor get a larger share: if it be scarce, it is dear, and the deficiency falls upon the poor exclusively: the loss even of one thousand quarters, therefore, would have stinted the poor, it may be only to a fractional, but still to a real extent, sufficient to establish the principle contended for; so that, continued my friend, British society is actually in that condition in which the loss of food is a greater public calamity than the loss of men.
* I confine the observations in the text to the case of mechanics who are uneducated. If they receive a good education, the more monotonous their employment is, they have the more spare energy for thought. Weavers who have once entered on reading, generally become intelligent, for their labour absorbs a small portion of mind; but if they have not been educated at all, they become dull and §stupid, or unsettled and vicious.
Another example of the solidity and consistency of the prevailing system may be noticed. Many persons imagine that there is no social obstacle to the rich leaving off their vanities and luxuries, and dedicating their surplus revenues to moral and religious purposes; on the contrary, that great good would result from their doing so; but the consequences, even of this virtuous measure, would, while the present system endures, prove highly detrimental to thousands of meritorious traders. Multitudes of laborious and virtuous families subsist by furnishing materials for the luxuries of the rich, and a change in the direction of their expenditure would involve these families in misfortune. Fluctuations in fashion, as taste varies, often occasion great temporary suffering to this class of the community, and a total abandonment of all luxurious indulgences, on the part of the wealthy, would involve them in irretrievable ruin.
We perceive, therefore, that the general arrangements of our existing social system, evidently bear reference to the supremacy of our lower faculties. The pursuit of wealth at present generally ends in the gratification of Self-Esteem and Love of Approbation. The attainment of power and distinction in politics, in rank, or in fashion, is the Alpha and Omega of our social machinery; yet it does not produce general happiness. Every moral, and I may almost say religious, advantage is incidental to, and not a part of, the system itself. There are laws to compel us to pay taxes for the maintenance of officers of justice, whose duty it is to punish crime after it is committed; but there are no general laws to prevent crime by means of penitentiaries and of abundant and instructive schools.† There are laws which tax us to support armies and navies for the purpose of fighting our neighbours; but no laws compel us to pay taxes for the purpose of providing, in our great cities, the humblest luxuries, nay almost necessaries for the indigent, such as medical hospitals, to receive them when in disease, or baths to preserve them in health, or reading-rooms, or places of instruction and amusement, in which their rational faculties may be cultivated and their comfort promoted, after their days of toil are finished. There are taxes to maintain the utterly destitute and miserably poor after they have fallen into that condition, but none to provide means for arresting them in their downward progress towards it. In short, the system, as one of self-interest, is wonderfully perfect. From the beginning to the end of it, prizes are held out to the laborious, intelligent, and moral, who choose to dedicate their lives, honestly and fairly, to the general scramble for property and distinction; while every facility is afforded to those less favourably constituted, who are incapable of maintaining the struggle, to sink to the lowest depths of wretchedness and degradation. When they have reached the bottom, and are helpless and completely undone, the hand of a meagre charity is stretched forth to support life, till disappointment, penury, or old age, consign them to the grave. The taxes occasioned by our national and immoral wars, render us unable to support imposts for moral objects.
* By a singular coincidence, starvation, from disease in the potato crop, is again afflicting unhappy Ireland, at the time when this edition is in the press (April 1846.)
† The United State of America are happily free from this reproach. In their provision for National Education, and in the management of their prisons, they are greatly in advance of Britain.
Under this system, the aim of the teacher of morality and religion is to render the operative classes quiet and industrious labourers, toiling patiently through this life in poverty and obscurity, and looking forward to heaven as their only place of rest and enjoyment. Under the selfish system, religion and morality do not aspire to the establishment on earth of the truly Christian condition—that in which each individual finds his neighbour's happiness an essential element of his own; in which he truly loves his neighbour as himself; and in which labour and the attainment of wealth are not the ends or objects of existence, but simply the means of enabling him to live in comfort and in leisure, to exercise habitually his moral and intellectual faculties, and to draw from these his chief enjoyments. According to the present system, the attainment of this condition is deferred till we arrive in heaven. But, if human nature be capable of realizing this state on earth, it is an error to postpone it till after death; more especially, as there is every warrant, both in reason and Scripture, for believing that every step which we shall make towards it in this life, will prove one of advance towards it in another.
It is now time, however, to enter on the consideration of the main subject of the present lecture—the question, Whether the human faculties, and their relations to external objects, admit of man ascending in the scale of morality, intelligence, and religion, to that state in which the evils of individual competition shall be obviated, and full scope be afforded for the actual supremacy of the highest powers?
On contemplating man's endowments in a general point of view, nothing would appear more simple and easy than practically to realize the general and permanent supremacy of the moral powers. We have seen that aptitude for labour is conferred on him by the Creator; and that, if enlightened in regard to his own constitution and the sources of his own welfare, he would desire to labour, for his own gratification, even independently of the reward, in the form of food, raiment, and physical abundance, which it is the means of procuring. Again, the earth, and the external world generally, are created with an admirable adaptation to his bodily and mental powers, so as to recompense him, by great rewards, for a very moderate extent of exertion in applying them to his own advantage. Further, man has been endowed with inventive and co-operative faculties, which confer on him a vast ingenuity, and render him capable of impressing, not only the inferior animals, but fire, air, earth, and water, into his service as labourers. And finally, he has received organs of Benevolence, prompting him to love all sentient beings, and to delight in their happiness; organs of Conscientiousness, desiring to see universal justice reign; organs of Ideality, which aspire after universal perfection and loveliness; with organs of Veneration, Wonder, and Hope, leading him to desire communion with God, and to rejoice in the contemplation of all that is pure, excellent, and beneficent.
With such a constitution, and placed in such circumstances, the wonder is that he has wandered in error and misery so long. Some light into the cause is afforded by Phrenology. In addition to these high moral and intellectual endowments, man possesses animal propensities, which are blind and selfish impulses. They are necessary for his sustenance, and their organs are the largest, most active, and earliest developed in his brain. They are prone to produce evil until they are directed and enlightened by his moral and intellectual powers. His ignorance of himself and of external nature, and his consequent inexperience of the happiness which he is capable of reaching, appear to have been the chief causes of his past errors; and the following among other reasons authorize us to hope for happier scenes hereafter: His propensities, although strong, are felt by all well-constituted minds to be inferior in dignity and authority to the moral and intellectual faculties. There is, therefore, in man a natural longing for the realization of a more perfect social condition than any hitherto exhibited, in which justice and benevolence shall prevail. Plato's "republic" is the most ancient recorded example of this desire of a perfect social state. Josephus describes the sect of the Essenes, among the Jews, as aiming at the same object. The "Essenes," says he, "despise riches, and are so liberal as to excite our admiration. Nor can any be found amongst them who is more wealthy than the rest; for it is a law with them, that those who join their order should distribute their possessions among the members, the property of each being added to that of all the rest, as being all brethren."—" They reject pleasure as evil; and they look upon temperance and a conquest over the passions as the greatest virtue." —(War, ii. ch. 7.) In the days of the apostles, an attempt was made by the Christians to realize these principles, by possessing all things in common. The same end is aimed at also by the Society of shakers and by the Harmonites of North America, and by the followers of Mr Owen in Britain: Plato's Republic, and Sir Thomas More's Utopia, which was a similar scheme, were purely speculative, and have never been tried. The word "Utopian," indeed, is usually applied to all schemes too perfect and beautiful to admit of being reduced to practice. The Essenes laboured in agriculture and in various trades, and seem to have maintained their principles in active operation for a considerable period of time. We are not told whether the primitive Christians formed themselves into an association for the purpose of producing wealth: so far as we know, however, they merely contributed their actual possessions, and then gave themselves up to religious duties; and as their stores were soon consumed, the practice ceased. The Harmonites are stated to have been a colony of Moravians united under one or more religious leaders: In their own country they had, from infancy, been taught certain religious tenets, in which they were generally agreed; they had all been trained to industry in its various branches, and disciplined in practical morality; and thus prepared, they emigrated with some little property, purchased a considerable territory in Indiana, which was then one of the back settlements of the United States, and proceeded to realize the scheme of common property and Christian brotherhood. They sustained many privations at first; but in time they built a commodious and handsome village, including a church, a school-house, a library, and baths. They cultivated the ground, and carried on various manufactures;—all laboured for the common good, and were fed and clothed by the community. They implicitly obeyed their chief pastor or leader, Mr Rapp, who exercised a mild though despotic authority over them. They lived as families page 57 in distinct dwellings, and enjoyed all the pleasures of the domestic affections; but their minds were not agitated by ambition, nor racked by anxiety about providing for their children. The latter were early trained to industry, co-operation, and religion; and if their parents died, they were at once adopted by the community. The Harmonites were not distracted with cares about old age or sickness, because they were then abundantly provided for. There was division of labour, but no exhausting fatigue A fertile soil, favourable climate, and moral habits, rendered moderate exertion sufficient to provide for every want. There were natural distinctions of rank; for all were subordinate to Mr Rapp; and the individuals most highly gifted filled the most important offices, such as those of religious instructors, teachers, and directors of works, and they were venerated and beloved by the other members accordingly; but no artificial distinctions found a place. This community existed many years, enjoyed great prosperity, and became rich. Mr Owen at last appeared, bought their property, and proceeded to try his own scheme. They then retired again into the wilderness, and recommenced their career. At that time they were about two thousand in number.
Here, then, the vice and misery which prevail in common society were in a great measure excluded; and though the external circumstances of the Harmonites were peculiarly favourable, their history shews what human nature is capable of accomplishing.
The leading principle of Mr Owen is, that human character is determined mainly by external circumstances; and that natural dispositions, and even established habits, may be easily overcome. Accordingly, he invited all persons who approved of his scheme, to settle at New Harmony; but as those who acted on his invitation had been trained in the selfish system, and were, in many instances, mere ignorant adventurers, they failed to act in accordance with the dictates of the moral sentiments and intellect, and Mr Owen's benevolent scheme proved completely unsuccessful. The establishment at Orbiston, in Lanarkshire, set on foot ten years ago, by the admirers of that gentleman, fell closely under my personal observation; and there the same disregard of the principles of human nature, and the results of experience, was exhibited. About three hundred persons, very imperfectly educated, and united by no great moral or religious principle, excepting the vague idea of co-operation, were congregated in a large building; they were furnished with the use of two hundred and seventy acres of arable land, and commenced the co-operative mode of life. But their labour being guided by no efficient direction or superintendence, and there being no habitual supremacy of the moral and intellectual powers among them, animating each with a love of the public good, but the reverse,—the result was melancholy and speedy. Without in the least benefiting the operatives, the scheme ruined its philanthropic projectors, most of whom are now either in premature graves, or emigrants to distant lands; while every stone which they reared has been razed to the foundation.
These details are not foreign to the subject in hand. They prove that, while ignorance prevails, and the selfish faculties bear the ascendency, the system of individual interests is the only one for which men are fitted. At the same time, the attempts above narrated shew that there is in the human mind an ardent aspiration after a higher, purer, and happier state of society than has ever yet been realized. In the words of Mr Forsyth, there is in some men "a passion for reforming the world and the success of Mr Rapp, at Harmony, shews that whenever the animal propensities can be controlled by the strength of moral and religious principle, cooperation for the general welfare, and a vast increase of happiness, become possible. As, however, individuals are liable to be led away on this subject, by sanguine dispositions and poetical fancies, our first object should be to judge calmly whether past experience does not outweigh, in the scale of reason, these bright desires and this almost solitary example, and teach us to regard them as dangerous phantoms, rather than indications of capabilities lying dormant within us. Certainly the argument founded on experience is a very strong one; yet it does not seem to me to be conclusive—and as the question of the capabilities of human nature is one of great and preliminary importance, a statement will be given in the next lecture of the reasons which render it probable that man is still susceptible of improvement to an unascertained extent. Our opinions on this point must necessarily exercise a great influence on our ideas of social duty; and the subject is, therefore, deserving of the fullest consideration.