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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 4

Will-o' the Wisp

page 106

Will-o' the Wisp.

History according to a somewhat fallacious proverb, repeats itself. Hence, when any strange incident or important movement occurs, the newspaper scribe and the politician set about to find a precedent. The usual diligent search has been made in the case of the present strike, and nothing like it can be discovered. No such example is on record of men in steady work, well-paid, and on the best terms with their employers, suddenly throwing up their situations without any principle at stake, and without being able to render a reason for their conduct. We have seen rational and respectable men, who, in an unlucky hour, had submitted to the influence of a mesmerist, perform strange and humiliating antics on a public stage in the sight of their friends and associates. We have seen them greedily devour raw onions and potatoes under the impression that they were eating apples, and submit to painful personal indignities without wincing, while under the spell. The labor unions are just now under a similar fascination. Millar, the Renowned Mesmerist, tells them that they are crushed by organized capital, and they cry out under the fancied burden. He commands them to break contracts, to paralyse trade, to inflict the cruelest wrongs upon their own innocent wives and little ones—to exchange the independence of honestly-earned wages for a pauper's dole from a relief fund, and they follow his bidding like men in a dream. For every previous labor revolt there has been, if not justification, some more or less plausible excuse—for this there is none. There is no dispute, there is no issue for arbitration or mediation. There is the remarkable and unprecedented phenomenon of an effect with no apparent cause.

That an occult influence is at work cannot be denied. When the mesmerist would suspend his subject's volition he dazzles his eyes. Strange that so slight a thing should for the time being dethrone one's reason; but the fact is indisputable. Men and women, every year, dazed by the rushing waters of Niagara, have cast themselves into perdition by an irresistible impulse of sudden insanity. And the eyes of Labor have been dazzled. A sudden and wide-spread epidemic of lunacy has seized upon thousands of hard-working men who not long since were rational beings. Not, as a rule, given to much reading, or connected thinking, but possessed of a certain amount of shrewd common-sense, of a rough conscientiousness, of honest pride in duty well performed, of a sense of the claims of home and family, and by no means destitute of the religious faculty; industrious, independent, and law-abiding—the very strength of the community: what strange infatuation has possessed these men that they have submitted themselves body and soul to an unknown mesmeric quack? Their eyes have been dazzled. They have read—no, not read, but skimmed— « Progress and Poverty, » and « Looking Backward. »

To read either of those books in the true sense of the word is no mean feat. It demands heroic consecration. To skim them—to gather from them the stimulus to restless discontent with which they are pervaded; to absorb the insidious flatteries they convey—is an easy matter: and the fact that both these mischievous books exercise a powerful influence in the movements of the age, is about the gravest indictment that could be brought against the judgment and the critical faculty of the average reader. The two books are on different lines—they are irreconcilable; but their effect in dazzling the mental vision and beclouding the moral faculty, is practically the same.

Bellamy's book was at first taken by intelligent critics as a huge joke. If we are to believe the author—who ought to know—it was not so intended. Yet never was there a popular book dealing with social problems that betrayed so little knowledge of human nature, and so poor a grasp of social conditions. It is based upon assumptions, of which these are among the chief:

That the moral quality of the individual, and consequently of society, is determined by environment.

That the state of poverty and toil is one of misery and irresistible inducement to evil.

That a state of wealth and material comfort necessarily involves happiness.

That human nature is so constituted that no man would wrong or take advantage of his fellow were he not compelled to such action by the irresistible needs of self-preservation.

All these fallacies, which belong chiefly to the moral sphere, may be deduced—if not from Henry George also, from any of the single-tax organs or advocates who own him as their prophet. Added to these, however, Mr Bellamy has a cluster of economic fallacies of his own. Mr George would have the State the sole landlord, and maintains that under this condition all social wrongs would be righted. Mr Bellamy would go still further. He would make the State the sole landlord, capitalist, contractor, organizer, manager, publisher, trader, producer, retailer, educator, carrier, &c, and every man a State pensioner. The State is to be responsible not only for the maintenance, but for the support in comparative affluence, of each of its members—even to providing theatrical entertainments and concerts. How such provision is to be made for all does not appear, but this fundamental difficulty is got rid of by the crowning economic fallacy of all—

That management by the State is more efficient and economical than that of private enterprise!

With « no change in human nature » —with nothing more than the complete engulfment of the individual in the State—an economic paradise is to be attained. That this bundle of fallacies—circulated, as it has been, by tens of thousands—is an exciting factor in the present causeless revolt, which actually threatens a civil war in Australia—is manifest, for it is quoted by the leaders of the movement as their text-book, and in New South Wales a clumsy attempt was actually made to realize some of its conditions by force.

As a literary effort the book is a dismal failure. Compared with « The Coming Race » or « Erewhon » —social satires which may be read and re-read with profit and pleasure—it is an abortion. « Dr. Leete » is the most intolerable bore who ever prosed through a novel, and the only attractive character in the book—the young lady—is a product of nineteenth-century conditions and civilization in grotesque and anomalous surroundings. Mr Bellamy appears to have laid Swedenborg under contribution, and transplanted some of the spirit-world into his twentieth-century Boston—forgetting that the economic problems which mortals have to face are not supposed to exist on the other side. But his ideal state of society barely transcends that of those milder societies of infernals described by the Swede, who delude themselves with the idea that they are in heaven. If Mr Bellamy did go to the source we have indicated, it is to be regretted that he did not profit by the illustrious old philosopher's teaching on the universal law of equilibrium of forces, on which the whole universe depends. So long as summer and winter, seed-time and harvest endure, so long will individualism keep socialism in check, and vice versâ. In politics, in religion, in economics, there will ever be two parties—those who are strong in their own independence, and those who feel necessity laid upon them to subject their wills and their consciences to others. Bellamy's theory, that human impulses are naturally angelic, and that all moral and social evils are the result of environment, is very flattering to self-conceit, but so utterly contrary to experience that it is no wonder that the bona fides of his book was questioned. That certain conditions are fraught with special temptations is undoubted; and, strange to say, page 107Mr Bellamy has imagined a state of society of the worst possible kind for the discipline and development of the moral faculties. A society without religion, whose preachers address themselves solely to their hearers' self-esteem—without an incentive to exertion, with unlimited idle time, with no sense of personal or social responsibility— would be a nursery of crime and vice that would shame the Cities of the Plain. Mr Bellamy has painted the social conditions of the present time in the blackest colors; but society, as it exists to-day, with all its faults, is infinitely preferable to the commonwealth he depicts as the paradise of socialism. However, he has flattered his readers' vanity. Men's eyes are dazzled with « Looking Backward, » and they have followed an ignis fatuus—a phantom that has already led more than one of them to destruction.

In the preceding article we have referred to the manner in which the unions have allowed themselves to be beguiled by the flattering doctrine that all social evils are the outcome of external circumstances—that the diseases of the body politic are caused, and may be cured, by external applications. As an example of the way in which such teachings are swallowed we quote the following from a single-tax organ in the north: « Mr E maintains that 'the seat of the evil is in the greedy, jealous selfishness of human nature.' We do not take this view of the matter; we do not think that human nature is as bad as all that comes to; we contend that, given just and free conditions, under which selfishness would not be as it is now, an absolute necessity, selfishness would soon die a natural death. No, the fault does not lie with human nature; it springs from human laws. Men do not prefer to work long hours; they do not sweat and oppress each other for the fun of the thing. They do it, in most cases, because they must. » In an authorized manifesto of the Trades Council in Wellington setting forth a political creed, after making the most of social difficulties, they add: « 3. We believe that this unhappy condition is the natural outcome of ill-advised legislation and inefficient Government. » A likeminded writer in a Nelson paper says: « Poverty is a deadly foe to virtue: take away the temptation and you will abate the scandal. » He might with greater truth have written « wealth » instead of « poverty. » It is chiefly in association with idleness that either condition is one of moral danger.

Truth may not always be pleasant; but it is wholesome and bracing. One of the best and soundest books on political economy ever written—Hoyle's « National Resources and how they are Wasted » —has never become popular: it is too truthful. It has been sneered at, but never answered—for the sufficient reason that it is unanswerable. Mr Bradlaugh, in his debate with Hyndman, spoke of thrift. « Thrift is bosh, » yelled one of the audience. In those three pregnant words are summarised the leading doctrine of the socialistic party of the day. « That man, » says the Napier Herald, « spoke for himself and tens of thousands of others. » « Thrift is bosh » would be the appropriate motto for every copy of « Progress and Poverty » and « Looking Backward » that has issued from the press. One would scarcely expect anyone seriously to defend the idle and thriftless blockhead who interrupted Mr Bradlaugh, but he has found a seconder in Napier, who, in a half-column letter, suggests that the exclamation was made by a « thinker. » (Mr Bradlaugh, of course, has no claim to such a title.) He seriously argues that sobriety and thrift, if generally practised, would ruin the community. « Why, » he asks, « is thrift of any value in saving a man from poverty and the fear of poverty? Because it is not generally observed, thereby giving those who do observe it an advantage over their fellows. That is the whole secret of the advantage of thrift. If every man, woman, and child in the colony started tomorrow with the same habits of thriftiness all round, and continued to put them into practice with the same efficiency, the wage-earner would be no better off at the end of a given period, supposing us to be governed by the same politico-economic conditions as now. » If every one were sober the effect would be more awful still: « If they were to sober up all the 'drunks' in the colony to-morrow, and make them useful members of society, they would only intensify the present depression in the labor market, and wages would go down to a lower point than ever we have seen them. And why? Because there would be so many more able-bodied men to do the work which is offering, and they would compete with each other by lowering the price of labor. Unionism has now to face the 'free labor' difficulty; it would possibly then increase. »

Some of the prominent men in the movement have a severe attack of Bellamy. At a unionist meeting in Wellington, a certain Mr Cliffe predicted that the Bellamistic paradise would be realized « within fifty years. » Mr Bellamy himself allowed 115 years for a social change such as has never occurred in a millennium. Mr J. A. Millar, at Oamaru, « believed that the outcome of the present dispute would be a great grand commonwealth where all would be employed and paid by the State. » But more significant than all was the desperate attempt by the Labor Defence Committee in Sydney last month, to engage the State in competition with private enterprise. Having decreed a complete blockade of trade, which they failed to accomplish, they passed the following resolution:—

In the event of any real necessity arising from active steps taken in the labor dispute, the Government should prevent any section in the community from being deprived of the necessaries of life, and the various organizations will undertake to place all labor required at the disposal of the State.

This is sufficient to show that the trivial squabbles between employers and employed are in no sense the cause of the present agitation; but that it is part of a wide-spread movement—a movement which has for its objects the abolition of private property, the extinction of individual liberty, the destruction of existing institutions, and the establishment of a tyranny in which ignorant, ambitious, and irresponsible leaders shall grasp supreme control in the name of the State.

We need not « look backward » as far as Solomon to find orthodox economic teaching. We will quote sound doctrine from three English writers whose works have stood the test of a century. Pope has written:

For forms of government let fools contest— Whate'er is best administered is best.

Dr Johnson moralizes:

How small, of all that human hearts endure, The part which laws or kings can cause or cure!

And Franklin, the thorough-going radical, in his trenchant style, says: « He who tries to persuade the workman that he can arrive at fortune otherwise than by industry and thrift is a liar and a criminal.»