The Future in America

by H.G. Wells

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Chapter VIII - Corruption

Chapter VIII - Corruption from The Future in America


The Problem of the Nation

So, it seems to me, in this new crude continental commonwealth, there is going on the same economic process, on a grander scale, indeed, than has gone so far in our own island. There is a great concentration of wealth above, and below, deep and growing is the abyss, that sunken multitude on the margin of subsistence which is a characteristic and necessary feature of competitive industrialism, that teeming abyss where children have no chance, where men and women dream neither of leisure nor of self-respect. And between this efflorescence of wealth above and spreading degradation below, comes the great mass of the population, perhaps fifty millions and more of healthy and active men, women and children (I leave out of count altogether the colored people and the special trouble of the South until a later chapter) who are neither irresponsibly free nor hopelessly bound, who are the living determining substance of America.

Collectively they constitute what Mr. Roosevelt calls the "Nation," what an older school of Americans used to write of as the People. The Nation is neither rich nor poor, neither capitalist nor laborer, neither Republican nor Democrat; it is a great diversified multitude including all these things. It is a comprehensive abstraction; it is the ultimate reality. You may seek for it in America and you cannot find it, as one seeks in vain for the forest among the trees. It has no clear voice; the confused and local utterances of a dispersed innumerable press, of thousands of public speakers, of books and preachers, evoke fragmentary responses or drop rejected into oblivion. I have been told by countless people where I shall find the typical American; one says in Maine, one in the Alleghenies, one "farther west," one in Kansas, one in Cleveland. He is indeed nowhere and everywhere. He is an English-speaking person, with extraordinarily English traits still, in spite of much good German and Scandinavian and Irish blood he has assimilated. He has a distrust of lucid theories, and logic, and he talks unwillingly of ideas. He is preoccupied, he is busy with his individual affairs, but he is—I can feel it in the air—thinking.

How widely and practically he is thinking that curious product of the last few years, the ten-cent magazine, will show. In England our sixpenny magazines seem all written for boys and careless people; they are nothing but stories and jests and pictures. The weekly ones achieve an extraordinarily agreeable emptiness. Their American equivalents are full of the studied and remarkably well-written discussion of grave public questions. I pick up one magazine and find a masterly exposition of the public aspect of railway rebates, another and a trust is analyzed. Then here are some titles of books that all across this continent are being multitudinously read: Parson's Heart of the Railway Problem, Steffens's Shame of the Cities, Lawson's Frenzied Finance, Miss Tarbell's Story of Standard Oil, Abbott's Industrial Problem, Spargo's Bitter Cry of the Children, Hunter's Poverty, and, pioneer of them all, Lloyd's Wealth Against Commonwealth. These are titles quoted almost at hap-hazard. Within a remarkably brief space of time the American nation has turned away from all the heady self-satisfaction of the nineteenth century and commenced a process of heart searching quite unparalleled in history. Its egotistical interest in its own past is over and done. While Mr. Upton Sinclair, the youngest, most distinctive of recent American novelists, achieved but a secondary success with his admirably conceived romance of the Civil War, Manassas, The Jungle, his book about the beef trust and the soul of the immigrant, the most unflattering picture of America that any one has yet dared to draw, has fired the country.

The American nation, which a few years ago seemed invincibly wedded to an extreme individu[Pg 119]alism, seemed resolved, as it were, to sit on the safety valves of the economic process and go on to the ultimate catastrophe, displays itself now alert and questioning. It has roused itself to a grave and extensive consideration of the intricate economic and political problems that close like a net about its future. The essential question for America, as for Europe, is the rescue of her land, her public service, and the whole of her great economic process from the anarchic and irresponsible control of private owners—how dangerous and horrible that control may become the Railway and Beef Trust investigations have shown—and the organization of her social life upon the broad, clean, humane conceptions of modern science. In every country, however, this huge problem of reconstruction which is the alternative to a plutocratic decadence, is enormously complicated by irrelevant and special difficulties. In Great Britain, for example, the ever-pressing problem of holding the empire, and the fact that one legislative body is composed almost entirely of private land-owners, hampers every step towards a better order. Upon every country in Europe weighs the armor of war. In America the complications are distinctive and peculiar. She is free, indeed, now to a large extent from the possibility of any grave military stresses, her one overseas investment in the Philippines she is evidently resolved to forget and be rid of at as early a date as possible. But, on the other[Pg 120] hand, she is confronted by a system of legal entanglements of extraordinary difficulty and perplexity, she has the most powerful tradition of individualism in the world, and a degraded political system, and she has in the presence of a vast and increasing proportion of unassimilable aliens in her substance—negroes, south European peasants, Russian Jews and the like—an ever-intensifying complication.



Now what is called corruption in America is a thing not confined to politics; it is a defect of moral method found in every department of American life. I find in big print in every paper I open, "GRAFT." All through my journey in America I have been trying to gauge the quality of this corruption, I have been talking to all kinds of people about it, I have had long conversations about it with President Eliot of Harvard, with District-Attorney Jerome, with one leading insurance president, with a number of the City Club people in Chicago, with several East-Siders in New York, with men engaged in public work in every city I have visited, with Senators at Washington, with a Chicago saloon-keeper and his friend, a shepherd of votes, and with a varied and casual assortment of Americans upon[Pg 121] trains and boats; I read my Ostrogorsky, my Otünsterberg, and my Roosevelt before I came to America, and I find myself going through any American newspaper that comes to hand always with an eye to this. It is to me a most vital issue in the horoscope I contemplate. All depends upon the answer to this question: Is the average citizen fundamentally dishonest? Is he a rascal and humbug in grain? If he is, the future can needs be no more than a monstrous social disorganization in the face of divine opportunities. Or is he fundamentally honest, but a little confused ethically?...

The latter, I think, is the truer alternative, but I will confess I have ranged through all the scale between a buoyant optimism and despair. It is extraordinarily difficult to move among the crowded contrasts of this perplexing country and emerge with any satisfactory generalization. But there is one word I find all too frequently in the American papers, and that is "stealing." They come near calling any profitable, rather unfair bargain with the public a "steal." It's the common journalistic vice here always to overstate. Every land has its criminals, no doubt, but the American, I am convinced, is the last man in the world to steal. Nor does he tell you lies to your face, except in the way of business. He's not that sort of man. Nor does he sneak bad money into your confiding hand. Nor ask a higher price than he means to accept. Nor cheat on exchange. For all the frequency of[Pg 122] "graft" and "stealing" in the press head-lines, I feel the American is pretty distinctly less "mean" than many Europeans in these respects, and much more disposed to be ashamed of meanness.

But he certainly has an ethical system of a highly commercial type. If he isn't dishonest he's commercialized. He lives to get, to come out of every transaction with more than he gave.

In the highly imaginative theory that underlies the realities of an individualistic society there is such a thing as honest trading. In practice I don't believe there is. Exchangeable things are supposed to have a fixed quality called their value, and honest trading is, I am told, the exchange of things of equal value. Nobody gains or loses by honest trading, and therefore nobody can grow rich by it. And nobody would do business except to subsist by a profit and attempt to grow rich. The honest merchant in the individualist's dream is a worthy and urbane person who intervenes between the seller here and the buyer there, fetches from one to another, stores a surplus of goods, takes risks, and indemnifies himself by charging the seller and the buyer a small fee for his waiting and his carrying and his speculative hawking about. He would be sick and ashamed to undervalue a purchase or overcharge a customer, and it scarcely requires a competitor to reduce his fee to a minimum. He draws a line between customers with whom he deals and competitors with whom he[Pg 123] wouldn't dream of dealing. And though it seems a little incredible, he grows rich and beautiful in these practices and endows Art, Science, and Literature. Such is the commercial life in a world of economic angels, magic justice and the Individualist's Utopia. In reality flesh and blood cannot resist a bargain, and people trade to get. In reality value is a dream, and the commercial ideal is to buy from the needy, sell to the urgent need, and get all that can possibly be got out of every transaction. To do anything else isn't business—it's some other sort of game. Let us look squarely into the pretences of trading. The plain fact of the case is that in trading for profit there is no natural line at which legitimate bargaining ends and cheating begins. The seller wants to get above the value and the buyer below it. The seller seeks to appreciate, the buyer to depreciate; and where is there room for truth in that contest? In bargaining, overvaluing and undervaluing are not only permissible but inevitable, attempts to increase the desire to buy and willingness to sell. Who can invent a rule to determine what expedients are permissible and what not? You may draw an arbitrary boundary—the law does here and there, a little discontinuously—but that is all. For example, consider these questions that follow: Nothing is perfect in this world; all goods are defective. Are you bound to inform your customer of every defect? Suppose you are, then are you bound to[Pg 124] examine your goods minutely for defects? Grant that. Then if you intrust that duty to an employee ought you to dismiss him for selling defective goods for you? The customer will buy your goods anyhow. Are you bound to spend more upon cleaning and packing them than he demands?—to wrap them in gold-foil gratuitously, for example? How are you going to answer these questions? Let me suppose that your one dream in life is to grow rich. Suppose you want to grow very rich and found a noble university, let us say?

You answer them in the Roman spirit, with caveat emptor. Then can you decently join in the outcry against the Chicago butchers?

Then turn again to the group of problems the Standard Oil history raises. You want the customer to buy your goods and not your competitor's. Naturally you do everything to get your goods to him, to make them seem best to him, to reduce the influx of the other man's stuff. You don't lend your competitor your shop-window anyhow. If there's a hoarding you don't restrict your advertisements because otherwise there won't be room for him. And if you happen to have a paramount interest in the carrying line that bears your goods and his, why shouldn't you see that your own goods arrive first? And at a cheaper rate?...

You see one has to admit there is always this element of overreaching, of outwitting, of fore-stalling, in all systematic trade. It may be refined,[Pg 125] it may be dignified, but it is there. It differs in degree and not in quality from cheating. A very scrupulous man stops at one point, a less scrupulous man at another, an eager, ambitious man may find himself carried by his own impetus very far. Too often the least scrupulous wins. In all ages, among all races, this taint in trade has been felt. Modern western Europe, led by England, and America have denied it stoutly, have glorified the trader, called him a "merchant prince," wrapped him in the purple of the word "financier," bowed down before him. The trader remains a trader, a hand that clutches, an uncreative brain that lays snares. Occasionally, no doubt, he exceeds his function and is better than his occupations. But it is not he but the maker who must be the power and ruler of the great and luminous social order that must surely come, that new order I have persuaded myself I find in glimmering evasive promises amid the congestions of New York, the sheds and defilements of Niagara, and the Chicago reek and grime.... The American, I feel assured, can be a bold and splendid maker. He is not, like the uncreative Parsee or Jew or Armenian, a trader by blood and nature. The architecture I have seen, the finely planned, internally beautiful, and admirably organized office buildings (to step into them from the street is to step up fifty years in the scale of civilization), the business organizations, the industrial skill—I visited a trap and chain factory[Pg 126] at Oneida, right in the heart of New York State, that was like the interior of a well-made clock—above all, the plans for reconstructing his cities show that. Those others make nothing. But nevertheless, since he, more than any man, has subserved the full development of eighteenth and nineteenth century conceptions, he has acquired some of the very worst habits of the trader. Too often he is a gambler. Ever and again I have had glimpses of preoccupied groups of men at green tables in little rooms, playing that dreary game poker, wherein there is no skill, no variety except in the sum at hazard, no orderly development, only a sort of expressionless lying called "bluffing." Indeed, poker isn't so much a game as a bad habit. Yet the American sits for long hours at it, dispersing and accumulating dollars, and he carries its great conception of "bluff" and a certain experience of kinetic physiognomy back with him to his office....

And Americans talk dollars to an astonishing extent....

Now this is the reality of American corruption, a huge exclusive preoccupation with dollar-getting. What is called corruption by the press is really no more than the acute expression in individual cases of this general fault.

Where everybody is getting it is idle to expect a romantic standard of honesty between employers and employed. The official who buys rails for the[Pg 127] big railway company that is professedly squeezing every penny it can out of the public for its shareholders as its highest aim, is not likely to display any religious self-abnegation of a share for himself in this great work. The director finds it hard to distinguish between getting for himself and getting for his company, and the duty to one-self of a discreet use of opportunity taints the whole staff from manager to messenger-boy. The politicians who protect the interests of the same railway in the House of Commons or the Senate, as the case may be, are not going to do it for love either. Nobody will have any mercy for their wives or children if they die poor. The policeman who stands between the property of the company and the irregular enterprise of robbers feels his vigilance merits a special recognition. A position of trust is a position of advantage, and deserves a percentage. Everywhere, as every one knows, in all the modern States, quite as much as in China, there are commissions, there are tips, there are extortions and secret profits, there is, in a word, "graft." It's no American specialty. Things are very much the same in this matter in Great Britain as in America, but Americans talk more and louder than we do. And indeed all this is no more than an inevitable development of the idea of trading in the mind, that every transaction must leave something behind for the agent. It's not stealing, but nevertheless, the automatic cash-register becomes more[Pg 128] and more of a necessity in this thickening atmosphere of private enterprise.


Political Dishonesty

It seems to me that the political corruption that still plays so large a part in the American problem is a natural and necessary underside to a purely middle-class organization of society for business. Nobody is left over to watch the politician. And the evil is enormously aggravated by the complexities of the political machinery, by the methods of the presidential election that practically prescribes a ticket method of voting, and by the absence of any second ballots. Moreover, the passion of the simpler minded Americans for aggressive legislation controlling private morality has made the control of the police a main source of party revenue, and dragged the saloon and brothel, essentially retiring though these institutions are, into politics. The Constitution ties up political reform in the most extraordinary way, it was planned by devout Republicans equally afraid of a dictatorship and the people; it does not so much distribute power as disperse it, the machinery falls readily into the hands of professional politicians with no end to secure but their immediate profit, and is almost inaccessible to poor men who cannot make their[Pg 129] incomes in its working. An increasing number of wealthy young men have followed President Roosevelt into political life—one thinks of such figures as Senator Colby of New Jersey, but they are but incidental mitigations of a generally vicious scheme. Before the nation, so busy with its diversified private affairs, lies the devious and difficult problem of a great reconstruction of its political methods, as a preliminary to any broad change of its social organization....

How vicious things are I have had some inkling in a dozen whispered stories of votes, of ballot-boxes rifled, of votes destroyed, of the violent personation of cowed and ill-treated men. And in Chicago I saw a little of the physical aspect of the system.

I made the acquaintance of Alderman Kenna, who is better known, I found, throughout the States as "Hinky-Dink," saw his two saloons and something of the Chinese quarter about him. He is a compact, upright little man, with iron-gray hair, a clear blue eye, and a dry manner. He wore a bowler hat through all our experiences in common, and kept his hands in his jacket-pockets. He filled me with a ridiculous idea, for which I apologize, that had it fallen to the lot of Mr. J.M. Barrie to miss a university education, and keep a saloon in Chicago and organize voters, he would have looked own brother to Mr. Kenna. We commenced in the first saloon, a fine, handsome place, with mirrors and tables and decorations and a con[Pg 130]sumption of mitigated mineral waters and beer in bottles; then I was taken over to see the other saloon, the one across the way. We went behind the counter, and while I professed a comparative interest in English and American beer-engines, and the Alderman exchanged commonplaces with two or three of the shirt-sleeved barmen, I was able to survey the assembled customers.

It struck me as a pretty tough gathering.

The first thing that met the eye were the schooners of beer. There is nothing quite like the American beer-schooner in England. It would appeal strongly to an unstinted appetite for beer, and I should be curious to try it upon a British agricultural laborer and see how many he could hold. He would, I am convinced, have to be entirely hollowed out to hold two. Those I saw impressed me as being about the size of small fish-globes set upon stems, and each was filled with a very substantial-looking beer indeed. They stood in a careless row all along the length of the saloon counter. Below them, in attitudes of negligent proprietorship, lounged the "crowd" in a haze of smoke and conversation. For the most part I should think they were Americanized immigrants. I looked across the counter at them, met their eyes, got the quality of their faces—and it seemed to me I was a very flimsy and unsubstantial intellectual thing indeed. It struck me that I would as soon go to live in a pen in a stock-yard as into American politics.

That was my momentary impression. But that line of base and coarse faces seen through the reek was only one sample of the great saloon stratum of the American population in which resides political power. They have no ideas and they have votes; they are capable, if need be, of meeting violence by violence, and that is the sort of thing American methods demand....

Now Alderman Kenna is a straight man, the sort of man one likes and trusts at sight, and he did not invent his profession. He follows his own ideas of right and wrong, and compared with my ideas of right and wrong, they seem tough, compact, decided things. He is very kind to all his crowd. He helps them when they are in trouble, even if it is trouble with the police; he helps them find employment when they are down on their luck; he stands between them and the impacts of an unsympathetic and altogether too-careless social structure in a sturdy and almost parental way. I can quite believe what I was told, that in the lives of many of these rough undesirables he's almost the only decent influence. He gets wives well treated, and he has an open heart for children. And he tells them how to vote, a duty of citizenship they might otherwise neglect, and sees that they do it properly. And whenever you want to do things in Chicago you must reckon carefully with him....

There you have a chip, a hand specimen, from[Pg 132] the basement structure upon which American politics rest. That is the remarkable alternative to private enterprise as things are at present. It is America's only other way. If public services are to be taken out of the hands of such associations of financiers as the Standard Oil group they have to be put into the hands of politicians resting at last upon this sort of basis. Therein resides the impossibility of socialism in America—as the case for socialism is put at present. The third course is the far more complex, difficult and heroic one of creating imaginatively and bringing into being a new state—a feat no people in the world has yet achieved, but a feat that any people which aspires to lead the future is bound, I think, to attempt.


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