by Edward Bellamy

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XVI. An excuse that condemned

"I have read," said Edith, "that there never was a system of oppression so bad that those who benefited by it did not recognize the moral sense so far as to make some excuse for themselves. Was the old system of property distribution, by which the few held the many in servitude through fear of starvation, an exception to this rule? Surely the rich could not have looked the poor in the face unless they had some excuse to offer, some color of reason to give for the cruel contrast between their conditions."

"Thanks for reminding us of that point," said the doctor. "As you say, there never was a system so bad that it did not make an excuse for itself. It would not be strictly fair to the old system to dismiss it without considering the excuse made for it, although, on the other hand, it would really be kinder not to mention it, for it was an excuse that, far from excusing, furnished an additional ground of condemnation for the system which it undertook to justify."

"What was the excuse?" asked Edith.

"It was the claim that, as a matter of justice, every one is entitled to the effect of his qualities--that is to say, the result of his abilities, the fruit of his efforts. The qualities, abilities, and efforts of different persons being different, they would naturally acquire advantages over others in wealth seeking as in other ways; but as this was according to Nature, it was urged that it must be right, and nobody had any business to complain, unless of the Creator.

"Now, in the first place, the theory that a person has a right in dealing with his fellows to take advantage of his superior abilities is nothing other than a slightly more roundabout expression of the doctrine that might is right. It was precisely to prevent their doing this that the policeman stood on the corner, the judge sat on the bench, and the hangman drew his fees. The whole end and amount of civilization had indeed been to substitute for the natural law of superior might an artificial equality by force of statute, whereby, in disregard of their natural differences, the weak and simple were made equal to the strong and cunning by means of the collective force lent them.

"But while the nineteenth-century moralists denied as sharply as we do men's right to take advantage of their superiorities in direct dealings by physical force, they held that they might rightly do so when the dealings were indirect and carried on through the medium of things. That is to say, a man might not so much as jostle another while drinking a cup of water lest he should spill it, but he might acquire the spring of water on which the community solely depended and make the people pay a dollar a drop for water or go without. Or if he filled up the spring so as to deprive the population of water on any terms, he was held to be acting within his right. He might not by force take away a bone from a beggar's dog, but he might corner the grain supply of a nation and reduce millions to starvation.

"If you touch a man's living you touch him, would seem to be about as plain a truth as could be put in words; but our ancestors had not the least difficulty in getting around it. 'Of course,' they said, 'you must not touch the man; to lay a finger on him would be an assault punishable by law. But his living is quite a different thing. That depends on bread, meat, clothing, land, houses, and other material things, which you have an unlimited right to appropriate and dispose of as you please without the slightest regard to whether anything is left for the rest of the world.'

"I think I scarcely need dwell on the entire lack of any moral justification for the different rule which our ancestors followed in determining what use you might rightly make of your superior powers in dealing with your neighbor directly by physical force and indirectly by economic duress. No one can have any more or other right to take away another's living by superior economic skill or financial cunning than if he used a club, simply because no one has any right to take advantage of any one else or to deal with him otherwise than justly by any means whatever. The end itself being immoral, the means employed could not possibly make any difference. Moralists at a pinch used to argue that a good end might justify bad means, but none, I think, went so far as to claim that good means justified a bad end; yet this was precisely what the defenders of the old property system did in fact claim when they argued that it was right for a man to take away the living of others and make them his servants, if only his triumph resulted from superior talent or more diligent devotion to the acquisition of material things.

"But indeed the theory that the monopoly of wealth could be justified by superior economic ability, even if morally sound, would not at all have fitted the old property system, for of all conceivable plans for distributing property, none could have more absolutely defied every notion of desert based on economic effort. None could have been more utterly wrong if it were true that wealth ought to be distributed according to the ability and industry displayed by individuals."

"All this talk started with the discussion of Julian's fortune. Now tell us, Julian, was your million dollars the result of your economic ability, the fruit of your industry?"

"Of course not," I replied. "Every cent of it was inherited. As I have often told you, I never lifted a finger in a useful way in my life."

"And were you the only person whose property came to him by descent without effort of his own?"

"On the contrary, title by descent was the basis and backbone of the whole property system. All land, except in the newest countries, together with the bulk of the more stable kinds of property, was held by that title."

"Precisely so. We hear what Julian says. While the moralists and the clergy solemnly justified the inequalities of wealth and reproved the discontent of the poor on the ground that those inequalities were justified by natural differences in ability and diligence, they knew all the time, and everybody knew who listened to them, that the foundation principle of the whole property system was not ability, effort, or desert of any kind whatever, but merely the accident of birth, than which no possible claim could more completely mock at ethics."

"But, Julian," exclaimed Edith, "you must surely have had some way of excusing yourself to your conscience for retaining in the presence of a needy world such an excess of good things as you had!"

"I am afraid," I said, "that you can not easily imagine how callous was the cuticle of the nineteenth-century conscience. There may have been some of my class on the intellectual plane of little Jack Horner in Mother Goose, who concluded he must be a good boy because he pulled out a plum, but I did not at least belong to that grade. I never gave much thought to the subject of my right to an abundance which I had done nothing to earn in the midst of a starving world of toilers, but occasionally, when I did think of it, I felt like craving pardon of the beggar who asked alms for being in a position to give to him."

"It is impossible to get up any sort of a quarrel with Julian," said the doctor; "but there were others of his class less rational. Cornered as to their moral claim to their possessions, they fell back on that of their ancestors. They argued that these ancestors, assuming them to have had a right by merit to their possessions, had as an incident of that merit the right to give them to others. Here, of course, they absolutely confused the ideas of legal and moral right. The law might indeed give a person power to transfer a legal title to property in any way that suited the lawmakers, but the meritorious right to the property, resting as it did on personal desert, could not in the nature of moral things be transferred or ascribed to any one else. The cleverest lawyer would never have pretended that he could draw up a document that would carry over the smallest tittle of merit from one person to another, however close the tie of blood.

"In ancient times it was customary to hold children responsible for the debts of their fathers and sell them into slavery to make satisfaction. The people of Julian's day found it unjust thus to inflict upon innocent offspring the penalty of their ancestors' faults. But if these children did not deserve the consequences of their ancestors' sloth, no more had they any title to the product of their ancestors' industry. The barbarians who insisted on both sorts of inheritance were more logical than Julian's contemporaries, who, rejecting one sort of inheritance, retained the other. Will it be said that at least the later theory of inheritance was more humane, although one-sided? Upon that point you should have been able to get the opinion of the disinherited masses who, by reason of the monopolizing of the earth and its resources from generation to generation by the possessors of inherited property, were left no place to stand on and no way to live except by permission of the inheriting class."

"Doctor," I said, "I have nothing to offer against all that. We who inherited our wealth had no moral title to it, and that we knew as well as everybody else did, although it was not considered polite to refer to the fact in our presence. But if I am going to stand up here in the pillory as a representative of the inheriting class, there are others who ought to stand beside me. We were not the only ones who had no right to our money. Are you not going to say anything about the money makers, the rascals who raked together great fortunes in a few years by wholesale fraud and extortion?"

"Pardon me, I was just coming to them," said the doctor. "You ladies must remember," he continued, "that the rich, who in Julian's day possessed nearly everything of value in every country, leaving the masses mere scraps and crumbs, were of two sorts: those who had inherited their wealth, and those who, as the saying was, had made it. We have seen how far the inheriting class were justified in their holdings by the principle which the nineteenth century asserted to be the excuse for wealth--namely, that individuals were entitled to the fruit of their labors. Let us next inquire how far the same principle justified the possessions of these others whom Julian refers to, who claimed that they had made their money themselves, and showed in proof lives absolutely devoted from childhood to age without rest or respite to the piling up of gains. Now, of course, labor in itself, however arduous, does not imply moral desert. It may be a criminal activity. Let us see if these men who claimed that they made their money had any better title to it than Julian's class by the rule put forward as the excuse for unequal wealth, that every one has a right to the product of his labor. The most complete statement of the principle of the right of property, as based on economic effort, which has come down to us, is this maxim: 'Every man is entitled to his own product, his whole product, and nothing but his product.' Now, this maxim had a double edge, a negative as well as a positive, and the negative edge is very sharp. If everybody was entitled to his own product, nobody else was entitled to any part of it, and if any one's accumulation was found to contain any product not strictly his own, he stood condemned as a thief by the law he had invoked. If in the great fortunes of the stockjobbers, the railroad kings, the bankers, the great landlords, and the other moneyed lords who boasted that they had begun life with a shilling--if in these great fortunes of mushroom rapidity of growth there was anything that was properly the product of the efforts of any one but the owner, it was not his, and his possession of it condemned him as a thief. If he would be justified, he must not be more careful to obtain all that was his own product than to avoid taking anything that was not his product. If he insisted upon the pound of flesh awarded him by the letter of the law, he must stick to the letter, observing the warning of Portia to Shylock:

Nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh; if thou tak'st more
Or less than a just pound, be it so much
As makes light or heavy in the substance,
Or the division of the twentieth part
Of one poor scruple; nay, if the scale do turn
But in the estimation of a hair,
Thou diest, and thy goods are confiscate.

How many of the great fortunes heaped up by the self-made men of your day, Julian, would have stood that test?"

"It is safe to say," I replied, "that there was not one of the lot whose lawyer would not have advised him to do as Shylock did, and resign his claim rather than try to push it at the risk of the penalty. Why, dear me, there never would have been any possibility of making a great fortune in a lifetime if the maker had confined himself to his own product. The whole acknowledged art of wealth-making on a large scale consisted in devices for getting possession of other people's product without too open breach of the law. It was a current and a true saying of the times that nobody could honestly acquire a million dollars. Everybody knew that it was only by extortion, speculation, stock gambling, or some other form of plunder under pretext of law that such a feat could be accomplished. You yourselves can not condemn the human cormorants who piled up these heaps of ill-gotten gains more bitterly than did the public opinion of their own time. The execration and contempt of the community followed the great money-getters to their graves, and with the best of reason. I have had nothing to say in defense of my own class, who inherited our wealth, but actually the people seemed to have more respect for us than for these others who claimed to have made their money. For if we inheritors had confessedly no moral right to the wealth we had done nothing to produce or acquire, yet we had committed no positive wrong to obtain it."

"You see," said the doctor, "what a pity it would have been if we had forgotten to compare the excuse offered by the nineteenth century for the unequal distribution of wealth with the actual facts of that distribution. Ethical standards advance from age to age, and it is not always fair to judge the systems of one age by the moral standards of a later one. But we have seen that the property system of the nineteenth century would have gained nothing by way of a milder verdict by appealing from the moral standards of the twentieth to those of the nineteenth century. It was not necessary, in order to justify its condemnation, to invoke the modern ethics of wealth which deduce the rights of property from the rights of man. It was only necessary to apply to the actual realities of the system the ethical plea put forth in its defense--namely, that everybody was entitled to the fruit of his own labor, and was not entitled to the fruit of anybody's else--to leave not one stone upon another of the whole fabric."

"But was there, then, absolutely no class under your system," said Edith's mother, "which even by the standards of your time could claim an ethical as well as a legal title to their possessions?"

"Oh, yes," I replied, "we have been speaking of the rich. You may set it down as a rule that the rich, the possessors of great wealth, had no moral right to it as based upon desert, for either their fortunes belonged to the class of inherited wealth, or else, when accumulated in a lifetime, necessarily represented chiefly the product of others, more or less forcibly or fraudulently obtained. There were, however, a great number of modest competencies, which were recognized by public opinion as being no more than a fair measure of the service rendered by their possessors to the community. Below these there was the vast mass of well-nigh wholly penniless toilers, the real people. Here there was indeed abundance of ethical title to property, for these were the producers of all; but beyond the shabby clothing they wore, they had little or no property."

"It would seem," said Edith, "that, speaking generally, the class which chiefly had the property had little or no right to it, even according to the ideas of your day, while the masses which had the right had little or no property."

"Substantially that was the case," I replied. "That is to say, if you took the aggregate of property held by the merely legal title of inheritance, and added to it all that had been obtained by means which public opinion held to be speculative, extortionate, fraudulent, or representing results in excess of services rendered, there would be little property left, and certainly none at all in considerable amounts."

"From the preaching of the clergy in Julian's time," said the doctor, "you would have thought the corner stone of Christianity was the right of property, and the supreme crime was the wrongful appropriation of property. But if stealing meant only taking that from another to which he had a sound ethical title, it must have been one of the most difficult of all crimes to commit for lack of the requisite material. When one took away the possessions of the poor it was reasonably certain that he was stealing, but then they had nothing to take away."

"The thing that seems to me the most utterly incredible about all this terrible story," said Edith, "is that a system which was such a disastrous failure in its effects on the general welfare, which, by disinheriting the great mass of the people, had made them its bitter foes, and which finally even people like Julian, who were its beneficiaries, did not attempt to defend as having any ground of fairness, could have maintained itself a day."

"No wonder it seems incomprehensible to you, as now, indeed, it seems to me as I look back," I replied. "But you can not possibly imagine, as I myself am fast losing the power to do, in my new environment, how benumbing to the mind was the prestige belonging to the immemorial antiquity of the property system as we knew it and of the rule of the rich based on it. No other institution, no other fabric of power ever known to man, could be compared with it as to duration. No different economic order could really be said ever to have been known. There had been changes and fashions in all other human institutions, but no radical change in the system of property. The procession of political, social, and religious systems, the royal, imperial, priestly, democratic epochs, and all other great phases of human affairs, had been as passing cloud shadows, mere fashions of a day, compared with the hoary antiquity of the rule of the rich. Consider how profound and how widely ramified a root in human prejudices such a system must have had, how overwhelming the presumption must have been with the mass of minds against the possibility of making an end of an order that had never been known to have a beginning! What need for excuses or defenders had a system so deeply based in usage and antiquity as this? It is not too much to say that to the mass of mankind in my day the division of the race into rich and poor, and the subjection of the latter to the former, seemed almost as much a law of Nature as the succession of the seasons--something that might not be agreeable, but was certainly unchangeable. And just here, I can well understand, must have come the hardest as well as, necessarily, the first task of the revolutionary leaders--that is, of overcoming the enormous dead weight of immemorial inherited prejudice against the possibility of getting rid of abuses which had lasted so long, and opening people's eyes to the fact that the system of wealth distribution was merely a human institution like others, and that if there is any truth in human progress, the longer an institution had endured unchanged, the more completely it was likely to have become out of joint with the world's progress, and the more radical the change must be which, should bring it into correspondence with other lines of social evolution."

"That is quite the modern view of the subject," said the doctor. "I shall be understood in talking with a representative of the century which invented poker if I say that when the revolutionists attacked the fundamental justice of the old property system, its defenders were able on account of its antiquity to meet them with a tremendous bluff--one which it is no wonder should have been for a time almost paralyzing. But behind the bluff there was absolutely nothing. The moment public opinion could be nerved up to the point of calling it, the game was up. The principle of inheritance, the backbone of the whole property system, at the first challenge of serious criticism abandoned all ethical defense and shriveled into a mere convention established by law, and as rightfully to be disestablished by it in the name of anything fairer. As for the buccaneers, the great money-getters, when the light was once turned on their methods, the question was not so much of saving their booty as their bacon.

"There is historically a marked difference," the doctor went on, "between the decline and fall of the systems of royal and priestly power and the passing of the rule of the rich. The former systems were rooted deeply in sentiment and romance, and for ages after their overthrow retained a strong hold on the hearts and imaginations of men. Our generous race has remembered without rancor all the oppressions it has endured save only the rule of the rich. The dominion of the money power had always been devoid of moral basis or dignity, and from the moment its material supports were destroyed, it not only perished, but seemed to sink away at once into a state of putrescence that made the world hurry to bury it forever out of sight and memory."

Return to the Equality Summary Return to the Edward Bellamy Library

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.