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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Chapter V. — A Socialist

page 19

Chapter V.

A Socialist.

My conversation with the shopkeeper seemed to have a salutary effect on a good many besides himself; for as he left a large number of those who were waiting their turn left with him, evidently pleased and well satisfied with what they had heard.

As they left one of the crowd rushed eagerly forward. He was excited, but with that kind of excitement which honest men feel when they think wrong has been done to others. He was a rather lean man, well-dressed, with high forehead, and very intelligent looking.

"It is plain that you have given every satisfaction to the middle class, and have earned the gratitude of the whole bourgeoisie," he said, with a bitter sneer. "They are to have their taxes reduced, railways and telegraphs provided, so that they can increase their profits, and have their children educated for nothing; and the working men are to be left to the mercies of the capitalist, with not even a workhouse to go to, lest the bourgeoisie might have to be taxed. Is this you idea of equal rights and equal liberties?"

For this kind of opposition I was scarcely prepared. But there was no mistaking the sincerity of the man, nor his honesty of purpose. To tell him that he was mistaken in thus interpreting my actions, and bid him have patience, that all would come right in the end, and so forth, was clearly out of question. The man was not to be pacified unless he could be satisfied first. And as it was my aim to enlist the sympathies of the people for my reforms, and to avoid as much as possible unnecessary friction, I said, after some moments of reflection:

"I am only enforcing the Constitution, for which, among others, you yourself have voted. If I put a wrong construction on it I sin in ignorance, and shall be thankful to you for putting me right."

This mollified him somewhat, and I could not help thinking at the moment how wrong it was for people who should pull together, to fall out with each other on account of difference of opinion as to the best methods of attaining their common end.

page 20

"What are my particular errors of omission or commission I asked.

"In the first place you have established no national work shops."

"On the contrary," I interposed, "the whole country is now one large national workshop, in which each can work to his, heart's content; where, when, and how he likes." But, heed less of my interruption, he continued:

"You have made no laws to restrict the powers of the capitalist, to limit the hours of labor, the rate of wages, or interest."

"But such laws would be against the spirit of the Constitution—our Democratic Constitution—which says that every citizen shall have perfect liberty, limited only by the like liberties of his fellow-citizens. If I should tell a man how many hours he is to work, or what he is to give in exchange for certain services, would this not be a flagrant interference with his personal liberties? Besides, such legislation is absolutely mischievous and could only result in the re-establishment of class rule and class legislation, from the evils of which we are just now trying to escape."

"Not only have you omitted doing all these things," he continued, again disregarding my answer, as if solely intent on his own thoughts, "but you have actually abolished what few taxes the capitalists had to pay—the Income and Property Tax, Probate duties, etc., thus allowing the wealthy to escape scot free."

"But surely you do not wish to abolish the well-to-do? I always was under the impression that you objected to poverty and that the object of good government was to extirpate this root and branch."

"Oh, certainly, if you put it that way! But how do you set about it?"

"By encouraging industry, in the first place, thrift in the second. Surely, it is good that the nation should possess as much as possible of all the good things which add to its comfort. Can it be that you regard wealthy citizens as an evil, and there fore wish to put a tax on them?"

"Come, sir, you evade the question. Is it not a fact that the few have piled up their millions at the expense of the many! And if they are not checked by taxation, what is to stop them from continuing the same thing?"

"They are ducked from getting what belongs to others, since all have now equal opportunities; but there is no check on anyone to prevent him from producing wealth, or from accumulating it, if he so choose. A person should not be fined for building a house or planting a tree; nor should a premium be offered for indolence or improvidence."

"Fined for building a house or planting a tree? You speak in enigmas."

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"Not at all. Every tax levied on industry is of the nature of a fine; that is, even if not intended as such, has the same effect as a fine. A tax on dogs tends to diminish their number. Or, supposing it were thought there were too many bachelors, then a bachelor's tax, if high enough, would encourage matrimony. In the one case you practically fine a man for keeping a dog; in the other for not getting married."

"Well, if dogs and bachelors are objectionable, is it not right to tax them?"

"Yes; and if wealth were objectionable we might tax that, too. But my object is to exterminate poverty, and not wealth."

"That's all very well. But if one man were not allowed to accumulate more than a certain amount, the remainder would be distributed among the others."

"How do you know there would be any remainder? Suppose we did determine that a man should not own more than a certain amount of wealth; is it not possible that he would waste more, or else stop production when he has reached his limit?"

"Well, I don't know. You are trying to theorize. This fact, however, remains, that people with money grind down the poor, and while idlers roll in wealth many workers are starving."

"That was a fact; and did but indicate that as a remedy for such a deplorable state of things we should discourage idleness and encourage the worker."

My Socialist visitor remained silent, and so I continued:

"It is for this reason that I spoke to the first applicant, whom you call a working man, as I did. He was not a worker by his own confession, although I hope he is one now. You should not fall into the error of calling every poor man a worker and every rich man an idler. You can find both workers and idlers in all classes"

"Then why not treat them all alike?"

"That is precisely what I am directed to do by our Constitution. There are now equal opportunities to all and favors to none. Whosoever likes to work is now free to do so, and may enjoy the full fruits of his labor. And if any would not work, neither should he eat, be his name Jack or Sir John."

"Then, after all your fine promises, you simply mean to pursue the 'let-it-alone' policy?"

"If by 'let-it-alone' policy you mean that each person is to be allowed to employ himself and enjoy himself as he or she may think fit, without anyone having the right of interference with their liberties, then 'Yes!' that is indeed the spirit of that principle for which you and the whole Democracy have been fighting for years past."

"Then you mean to allow the capitalist to grind down the workers without affording the latter the protection of the law?"

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"I merely substitute freedom for club rule. Under such conditions everybody can look after himself. You wish to rule by whims and fancies; I carry out principles."

"Not by whims and fancies, but by law."

"What you call Laws are but whims and fancies of people Laws are not, and cannot, be made by man, but are as old as the universe itself. All man has to do is to discover them—I mean, of course, the Laws of Nature; but these you ignore entirely, and think that by writing your own opinions—your whims and fancies—on parchment, you have manufactured a 'Law.' If such enactment fails in its intended purpose, you set about amending it; then amend the amendment, and so keep on tinkering from year's end to year's end—call it wisdom statesmanship, legislation. And when anyone points out to you that your enactments run counter to every natural law, then you exclaim, 'Theory, theory!'"

"You are simply a slave to principle."

"Yes, I confess my guilt on that head. I certainly have opinion and haphazard guesses of man. Men have now been tinkering at legislation these many centuries, and with what result you know. Under these circumstances, do you not think it high time to give Nature a trial, were it only to demonstrate the worthlessness of her laws compared with human wisdom?"

There was no reply to this, and so I continued in a more conciliatory tone:

"If this principle, upon which you and I and all schools of political thought are agreed, is a true one, let us have faith in it, and follow out its dictates to the letter. For if the principle is wrong, or if principles are not to be relied on at all, then pray by what can we be guided? Would you have us return to Party Government, with its appeals to ignorance, religious prejudices, and racial animosities, without either reason or principle? Or re-establish the rule of might?"

My visitor was not yet convinced. "That is all very well in theory. I commend your abolition of the land capitalist; but that in itself will be useless, unless you at the same time abolish all other capitalists and establish a system of State-directed production and distribution."

I glanced at the people behind him, whom, up till now, I had somehow regarded as a deputation of workmen on whose behalf he was pleading. But on closer examination I saw, to my surprise, that all those present were well dressed, and betrayed none of the characteristics of workmen. I called my visitor's attention to this fact, and he at once replied that he had not come with those people, but had headed a large number of unemployed, and that he could not explain how it was that they had all left. "These gentlemen," he added, "probably came to page 23 thank you for your partiality toward them;" this with another sneer.

An idea struck me. I saw plainly that an object lesson would be far more convincing to this man than abstract arguments; and I could read in the looks of those present that they came for other purposes than to express any gratitude toward me. So I said:

"Sir, you are right; we must not allow the laborers to be ground down, if they are really in that helpless condition you represent. If they cannot take care of themselves, we—that is, you and I—will look after them, and nurse them as we would helpless babies. To be honest with you, I myself do not think that your fears are well grounded. I think that in a fair and open field every true working man is able to hold his own, and look after himself. If I am mistaken in this, then I am on your side; for already have I made provision for the maimed and helpless. But first let us see what this influential deputation have come for; perhaps it may throw some side-light on the points which you have raised. So please remain where you are, and listen to their representations. "