"I observe," pursued the doctor, "that Edith is getting very impatient with these dry disquisitions, and thinks it high time we passed from wealth in the abstract to wealth in the concrete, as illustrated by the contents of your safe. I will delay the company only while I say a very few words more; but really this question of the restoration of your million, raised half in jest as it was, so vitally touches the central and fundamental principle of our social order that I want to give you at least an outline idea of the modern ethics of wealth distribution.
"The essential difference between the new and the old point of view you fully possess by this time. The old ethics conceived of the question of what a man might rightfully possess as one which began and ended with the relation of individuals to things. Things have no rights as against moral beings, and there was no reason, therefore, in the nature of the case as thus stated, why individuals should not acquire an unlimited ownership of things so far as their abilities permitted. But this view absolutely ignored the social consequences which result from an unequal distribution of material things in a world where everybody absolutely depends for life and all its uses on their share of those things. That is to say, the old so-called ethics of property absolutely overlooked the whole ethical side of the subject--namely, its bearing on human relations. It is precisely this consideration which furnishes the whole basis of the modern ethics of property. All human beings are equal in rights and dignity, and only such a system of wealth distribution can therefore be defensible as respects and secures those equalities. But while this is the principle which you will hear most generally stated as the moral ground of our economic equality, there is another quite sufficient and wholly different ground on which, even if the rights of life and liberty were not involved, we should yet maintain that equal sharing of the total product of industry was the only just plan, and that any other was robbery.
"The main factor in the production of wealth among civilized men is the social organism, the machinery of associated labor and exchange by which hundreds of millions of individuals provide the demand for one another's product and mutually complement one another's labors, thereby making the productive and distributive systems of a nation and of the world one great machine. This was true even under private capitalism, despite the prodigious waste and friction of its methods; but of course it is a far more important truth now when the machinery of co-operation runs with absolute smoothness and every ounce of energy is utilized to the utmost effect. The element in the total industrial product which is due to the social organism is represented by the difference between the value of what one man produces as a worker in connection with the social organization and what he could produce in a condition of isolation. Working in concert with his fellows by aid of the social organism, he and they produce enough to support all in the highest luxury and refinement. Toiling in isolation, human experience has proved that he would be fortunate if he could at the utmost produce enough to keep himself alive. It is estimated, I believe, that the average daily product of a worker in America to-day is some fifty dollars. The product of the same man working in isolation would probably be highly estimated on the same basis of calculation if put at a quarter of a dollar. Now tell me, Julian, to whom belongs the social organism, this vast machinery of human association, which enhances some two hundredfold the product of every one's labor?"
"Manifestly," I replied, "it can belong to no one in particular, but to nothing less than society collectively. Society collectively can be the only heir to the social inheritance of intellect and discovery, and it is society collectively which furnishes the continuous daily concourse by which alone that inheritance is made effective."
"Exactly so. The social organism, with all that it is and all it makes possible, is the indivisible inheritance of all in common. To whom, then, properly belongs that two hundredfold enhancement of the value of every one's labor which is owing to the social organism?"
"Manifestly to society collectively--to the general fund."
"Previous to the great Revolution," pursued the doctor. "Although there seems to have been a vague idea of some such social fund as this, which belonged to society collectively, there was no clear conception of its vastness, and no custodian of it, or possible provision to see that it was collected and applied for the common use. A public organization of industry, a nationalized economic system, was necessary before the social fund could be properly protected and administered. Until then it must needs be the subject of universal plunder and embezzlement. The social machinery was seized upon by adventurers and made a means of enriching themselves by collecting tribute from the people to whom it belonged and whom it should have enriched. It would be one way of describing the effect of the Revolution to say that it was only the taking possession by the people collectively of the social machinery which had always belonged to them, thenceforth to be conducted as a public plant, the returns of which were to go to the owners as the equal proprietors and no longer to buccaneers.
"You will readily see," the doctor went on, "how this analysis of the product of industry must needs tend to minimize the importance of the personal equation of performance as between individual workers. If the modern man, by aid of the social machinery, can produce fifty dollars' worth of product where he could produce not over a quarter of a dollar's worth without society, then forty-nine dollars and three quarters out of every fifty dollars must be credited to the social fund to be equally distributed. The industrial efficiency of two men working without society might have differed as two to one--that is, while one man was able to produce a full quarter dollar's worth of work a day, the other could produce only twelve and a half cents' worth. This was a very great difference under those circumstances, but twelve and a half cents is so slight a proportion of fifty dollars as not to be worth mentioning. That is to say, the difference in individual endowments between the two men would remain the same, but that difference would be reduced to relative unimportance by the prodigious equal addition made to the product of both alike by the social organism. Or again, before gunpowder was invented one man might easily be worth two as a warrior. The difference between the men as individuals remained what it was; yet the overwhelming factor added to the power of both alike by the gun practically equalized them as fighters. Speaking of guns, take a still better illustration--the relation of the individual soldiers in a square of infantry to the formation. There might be large differences in the fighting power of the individual soldiers singly outside the ranks. Once in the ranks, however, the formation added to the fighting efficiency of every soldier equally an element so overwhelming as to dwarf the difference between the individual efficiency of different men. Say, for instance, that the formation added ten to the fighting force of every member, then the man who outside the ranks was as two to one in power compared with his comrade would, when they both stood in the ranks, compare with him only as twelve to eleven--an inconsiderable difference.
"I need scarcely point out to you, Julian, the bearing of the principle of the social fund on economic equality when the industrial system was nationalized. It made it obvious that even if it were possible to figure out in a satisfactory manner the difference in the industrial products which in an accounting with the social fund could be respectively credited to differences in individual performance, the result would not be worth the trouble. Even the worker of special ability, who might hope to gain most by it, could not hope to gain so much as he would lose in common with others by sacrificing the increased efficiency of the industrial machinery that would result from the sentiment of solidarity and public spirit among the workers arising from a feeling of complete unity of interest."
"Doctor," I exclaimed, "I like that idea of the social fund immensely! It makes me understand, among other things, the completeness with which you seem to have outgrown the wages notion, which in one form or other was fundamental to all economic thought in my day. It is because you are accustomed to regarding the social capital rather than your day-to-day specific exertions as the main source of your wealth. It is, in a word, the difference between the attitude of the capitalist and the proletarian."
"Even so," said the doctor. "The Revolution made us all capitalists, and the idea of the dividend has driven out that of the stipend. We take wages only in honor. From our point of view as to the collective ownership of the economic machinery of the social system, and the absolute claim of society collectively to its product, there is something amusing in the laborious disputations by which your contemporaries used to try to settle just how much or little wages or compensation for services this or that individual or group was entitled to. Why, dear me, Julian, if the cleverest worker were limited to his own product, strictly separated and distinguished from the elements by which the use of the social machinery had multiplied it, he would fare no better than a half-starved savage. Everybody is entitled not only to his own product, but to vastly more--namely, to his share of the product of the social organism, in addition to his personal product, but he is entitled to this share not on the grab-as-grab-can plan of your day, by which some made themselves millionaires and others were left beggars, but on equal terms with all his fellow-capitalists."
"The idea of an unearned increment given to private properties by the social organism was talked of in my day," I said, "but only, as I remember, with reference to land values. There were reformers who held that society had the right to take in taxes all increase in value of land that resulted from social factors, such as increased population or public improvements, but they seemed to think the doctrine applicable to land only."
"Yes," said the doctor, "and it is rather odd that, having hold of the clew, they did not follow it up."