"Really," said her mother, "Edith touched the match to quite a large discussion when she suggested that you should open the safe for us."
To which I added that I had learned more that morning about the moral basis of economic equality and the grounds for the abolition of private property than in my entire previous experience as a citizen of the twentieth century.
"The abolition of private property!" exclaimed the doctor. "What is that you say?"
"Of course," I said, "I am quite ready to admit that you have something--very much better in its place, but private property you have certainly abolished--have you not? Is not that what we have been talking about?"
The doctor turned as if for sympathy to the ladies. "And this young man," he said, "who thinks that we have abolished private property has at this moment in his pocket a card of credit representing a private annual income, for strictly personal use, of four thousand dollars, based upon a share of stock in the wealthiest and soundest corporation in the world, the value of his share, calculating the income on a four-per-cent basis, coming to one hundred thousand dollars."
I felt a little silly at being convicted so palpably of making a thoughtless observation, but the doctor hastened to say that he understood perfectly what had been in my mind. I had, no doubt, heard it a hundred times asserted by the wise men of my day that the equalization of human conditions as to wealth would necessitate destroying the institution of private property, and, without having given special thought to the subject, had naturally assumed that the equalization of wealth having been effected, private property must have been abolished, according to the prediction.
"Thanks," I said; "that is it exactly."
"The Revolution," said the doctor, "abolished private capitalism--that is to say, it put an end to the direction of the industries and commerce of the people by irresponsible persons for their own benefit and transferred that function to the people collectively to be carried on by responsible agents for the common benefit. The change created an entirely new system of property holding, but did not either directly or indirectly involve any denial of the right of private property. Quite on the contrary, the change in system placed the private and personal property rights of every citizen upon a basis incomparably more solid and secure and extensive than they ever before had or could have had while private capitalism lasted. Let us analyze the effects of the change of systems and see if it was not so."
"Suppose you and a number of other men of your time, all having separate claims in a mining region, formed a corporation to carry on as one mine your consolidated properties, would you have any less private property than you had when you owned your claims separately? You would have changed the mode and tenure of your property, but if the arrangement were a wise one that would be wholly to your advantage, would it not?"
"Of course, you could no longer exercise the personal and complete control over the consolidated mine which you exercised over your separate claim. You would have, with your fellow-corporators, to intrust the management of the combined property to a board of directors chosen by yourselves, but you would not think that meant a sacrifice of your private property, would you?"
"Certainly not. That was the form under which a very large part, if not the largest part, of private property in my day was invested and controlled."
"It appears, then," said the doctor, "that it is not necessary to the full possession and enjoyment of private property that it should be in a separate parcel or that the owner should exercise a direct and personal control over it. Now, let us further suppose that instead of intrusting the management of your consolidated property to private directors more or less rascally, who would be constantly trying to cheat the stockholders, the nation undertook to manage the business for you by agents chosen by and responsible to you; would that be an attack on your property interests?"
"On the contrary, it would greatly enhance the value of the property. It would be as if a government guarantee were obtained for private bonds."
"Well, that is what the people in the Revolution did with private property. They simply consolidated the property in the country previously held in separate parcels and put the management of the business into the hands of a national agency charged with paying over the dividends to the stockholders for their individual use. So far, surely, it must be admitted the Revolution did not involve any abolition of private property."
"That is true," said I, "except in one particular. It is or used to be a usual incident to the ownership of property that it may be disposed of at will by the owner. The owner of stock in a mine or mill could not indeed sell a piece of the mine or mill, but he could sell his stock in it; but the citizen now can not dispose of his share in the national concern. He can only dispose of the dividend."
"Certainly," replied the doctor; "but while the power of alienating the principal of one's property was a usual incident of ownership in your time, it was very far from being a necessary incident or one which was beneficial to the owner, for the right of disposing of property involved the risk of being dispossessed of it by others. I think there were few property owners in your day who would not very gladly have relinquished the right to alienate their property if they could have had it guaranteed indefeasibly to them and their children. So to tie up property by trusts that the beneficiary could not touch the principal was the study of rich people who desired best to protect their heirs. Take the case of entailed estates as another illustration of this idea. Under that mode of holding property the possessor could not sell it, yet it was considered the most desirable sort of property on account of that very fact. The fact you refer to--that the citizen can not alienate his share in the national corporation which forms the basis of his income--tends in the same way to make it a more and not a less valuable sort of property. Certainly its quality as a strictly personal and private sort of property is intensified by the very indefeasibleness with which it is attached to the individual. It might be said that the reorganization of the property system which we are speaking of amounted to making the United States an entailed estate for the equal benefit of the citizens thereof and their descendants forever."
"You have not yet mentioned" I said, "the most drastic measure of all by which the Revolution affected private property, namely, the absolute equalizing of the amount of property to be held by each. Here was not perhaps any denial of the principle itself of private property, but it was certainly a prodigious interference with property holders."
"The distinction is well made. It is of vital importance to a correct apprehension of this subject. History has been full of just such wholesale readjustments of property interests by spoliation, conquest, or confiscation. They have been more or less justifiable, but when least so they were never thought to involve any denial of the idea of private property in itself, for they went right on to reassert it under a different form. Less than any previous readjustment of property relations could the general equalizing of property in the Revolution be called a denial of the right of property. On the precise contrary it was an assertion and vindication of that right on a scale never before dreamed of. Before the Revolution very few of the people had any property at all and no economic provision save from day to day. By the new system all were assured of a large, equal, and fixed share in the total national principal and income. Before the Revolution even those who had secured a property were likely to have it taken from them or to slip from them by a thousand accidents. Even the millionaire had no assurance that his grandson might not become a homeless vagabond or his granddaughter be forced to a life of shame. Under the new system the title of every citizen to his individual fortune became indefeasible, and he could lose it only when the nation became bankrupt. The Revolution, that is to say, instead of denying or abolishing the institution of private property, affirmed it in an incomparably more positive, beneficial, permanent, and general form than had ever been known before.
"Of course, Julian, it was in the way of human nature quite a matter of course that your contemporaries should have cried out against the idea of a universal right of property as an attack on the principle of property. There was never a prophet or reformer who raised his voice for a purer, more spiritual, and perfect idea of religion whom his contemporaries did not accuse of seeking to abolish religion; nor ever in political affairs did any party proclaim a juster, larger, wiser ideal of government without being accused of seeking to abolish government. So it was quite according to precedent that those who taught the right of all to property should be accused of attacking the right of property. But who, think you, were the true friends and champions of private property? those who advocated a system under which one man if clever enough could monopolize the earth--and a very small number were fast monopolizing it--turning the rest of the race into proletarians, or, on the other hand, those who demanded a system by which all should become property holders on equal terms?"
"It strikes me," I said, "that as soon as the revolutionary leaders succeeded in opening the eyes of the people to this view of the matter, my old friends the capitalists must have found their cry about 'the sacred right of property' turned into a most dangerous sort of boomerang."
"So they did. Nothing could have better served the ends of the Revolution, as we have seen, than to raise the issue of the right of property. Nothing was so desirable as that the people at large should be led to give a little serious consideration on rational and moral grounds to what that right was as compared with what it ought to be. It was very soon, then, that the cry of 'the sacred right of property,' first raised by the rich in the name of the few, was re-echoed with overwhelming effect by the disinherited millions in the name of all."