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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Our Social Troubles

Our Social Troubles.

Look where we will throughout the civilized world, what a seething mass of social trouble, of political unrest, meets our gaze. What tremendous and ruinous conflicts between labour and capital are taking place. How sharply, and more sharply, are the lines drawn between poverty and wealth, between enormous riches and luxury on the one hand, and grinding poverty and dire misery on the other. How the starving, and semi-starving millions multiply, how increasingly keen is the competition between manufacturers and traders, how small has become the margin of profit, and how more pronounced is the discontent of the working classes becoming day by day, and how increasingly menacing is their attitude. Hungry page 21 men, and especially those who have hungry wives and children, are dangerous animals, and we shall do well to find some means of removing the universal discontent that undoubtedly exists.*

We shrink with horror from the outrages of the Anarchists; but when we consider the terrible sufferings of the poor, are they to be wondered at? They say it is the only means they have of compelling those who have the power to take the necessary means to relieve their distress.

Where does all this trouble come from? Does it not come from the starving masses piled up in the great cities, and does it not arise from the fact that the mass of the people are cut off from the profitable use of the land. Cut off from the land, say my readers. Why, look at our magnificent railways, our splendid steam fleets. Quite true. We have the grandest transporting machine the world has ever seen or is ever likely to see; but how do we use it?

It is curious and instructive to note, that in those countries, where the railway system has attained its highest development, that there we find the greatest social misery, the deepest poverty; as for instance in England and America, and in these colonies in Victoria.

In my opinion the solution of the great and terrible poverty problem is to be found in these words: Give the people access to the land, and from the land to the market.

It is a very common error to suppose that because we have railways that therefore we have transit facilities. Railways have constantly been worked not to give transit facilities, but to debar certain men from sending their produce to market.

While railways have undoubtedly created enormous wealth, it is equally certain that they are more responsible than any other agency for the widespread poverty, misery, social turmoil, and discontent that pervades the world.

This is not owing to any defect in the railways themselves, but simply and solely to the ways in which they have been administered. Its railways, as I have said, form the most perfect transportation machine the world has ever seen, but the way in which this machine has been used and abused is a disgrace to modern civilisation.

I know that these words of mine will sound strange to those who have only a superficial knowledge of the question, and page 22 who are accustomed to think the administration of the English and American railways perfect. If these individuals would study the Board of Trade returns, and the evidence taken by the various commissions appointed by the two Governments, they would soon alter their opinions. Mr. R. A. Cooper, one of the leaders of the railway reform movement in England, in writing to me in reference to the mismanagement in New Zealand, says, 'Your experience is more than paralleled here.'

The report of the working of the Hungarian 'zone' system, a copy of which M. Gabriel de Baross, the Hungarian minister, was good enough to send me, shows how very unsatisfactory the system we are working proved in that country, and the necessity which existed for a radical change.

To quote General Booth; in a recent article, he says: 'There are three elements of national wealth—Production, Preparation, and Distribution. In the present state of civilisation the last two elements have had sufficient attention, but what is the good of this if we have no production.'

Probably ninety-nine men out of every hundred share the General's opinion, but is it a fact? I fear that he and they have been dazzled. They have thought of the splendid mercantile navies of the world, of its vast and complicated railway systems, its grand canals and waterways, and they have said, what more perfect distributing agency can you have? Quite true. I admit the great beauty, the grand perfection of the instrument, but again, what shall we say of the way it is being used, with this fact staring us in the face—that in our own Empire, in India and other places, to say nothing of Continental Europe, we have tens of thousands actually dying of starvation, and many millions on the verge of it, while here in New Zealand our farmers cannot get more than is. 6d. per bushel for their Indian corn, or in many cases 1s. 11d. for their wheat. There is surely something very wrong. It appears to me that poverty and misery are not so much due to the want of production as to the want of a proper system of conveying producers and produce to those parts of the world where they are most needed.

I have thought long and deeply over this terrible problem, and the conclusion I come to is this: that the cause of the trouble is the fact that for all practical purposes the great masses of the people are cut off from access to the land. Notwithstanding our grand transporting agency, owing to the system on which the charges are arranged, it is not possible for the masses to make use of it. This acts alike to the disadvantage of the owners of the instrument, and to those who would make use of it if they could.

* In a paper read before the Auckland Institute on the 21st September, 1885, and afterwards published in pamphlet form. I used these words:—"Remember that railways are a new institution. It is only half a century since they were introduced, and not more than twenty years since they were fully developed. We have not yet felt the full effects. It is the next ten years that will try us; and I say that during that period one of two things will happen—either a complete change in the (system of administration), or commercial and social ruin such as we have never seen before." This was written during a period of great prosperity. What do we see now?