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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Chapter VI. — Deputation of Railway Directors

page 24

Chapter VI.

Deputation of Railway Directors.

My surmises were correct, and my Socialist opponent had not long to wait before he could see that these people had not come to thank me for anything I had done; but rather to urge upon me the adoption of the same measure as he himself advocated—viz., to tax Capital rather than Land.

They were boisterous, but not very self-confident, and gave me the impression that they intended to overawe and frighten me into submission.

Their spokesman, a rather portly gentleman, commenced in an imperious tone:

"We have come to demand the instant repeal of those disastrous proclamations which are working the ruin of the country. We shall not submit to—"

Here I interposed, reminding him that I represented the Sovereign People, and that I must insist on more respectful language. That while they were free to place before me their complaints, and to expect redress if they could make out a good case, they were not allowed to refuse obedience to the law as it stood.

"If the law is bad," I continued, "you are free to agitate for its repeal; but while it is in force it must be obeyed. You know this doctrine, since you have preached it often enough yourselves. Now you may proceed. What is it you have to say?"

"We have to inform you, then, that since your proclamation has been issued the country has been ruined. Millions of capital have been destroyed, and unless there is a speedy repeal of this in—er—this—er—this disastrous law, bankruptcy is staring the nation in the face."

I was not much alarmed by the statement; for, though there were many of them, they were neither the whole nation nor representatives of the whole nation. So I said calmly:

"Will you please state who you are, and what interest you represent? Clearly you cannot mean the whole nation, since many who have been here before you have expressed their satisfaction with the new administration."

page 25

"Yes," replied the spokesman; "those whom you have benefited by plundering us."

I again sternly rebuked the speaker, and warned him against again using such disrespectful language. He then explained that those present were directors of the several railway companies, and that since this new proclamation their companies had been utterly ruined. This was serious news; railways are important industrial undertakings, and I had no intention of hampering their usefulness. I said as much, which seemed to give reassurance and hope to the deputation. "Please explain to me in what manner this change has affected you," I continued.

"It has affected us in a manner," said the speaker, which you could not have foreseen; which only shows how dangerous it is to experiment with old-established institutions. In the first place, you have taxed away all the revenue we have derived from our land, and have taxed in addition all the land over which the lines are running."

"But I have remitted all your other taxes," I said, "and in that respect have placed you on an equality with every other industrial undertaking."

"Yes, yes; but, as I told you, you do not yet understand all the effects which this has had. Our employees demand exorbitant wages, which would not leave a single penny profits."

"Then don't pay the wages, if they are exorbitant."

"But what are we to do? We cannot get enough men as it is, and if we stopped working the lines, how could we afford to pay the tremendous Land Tax? In less than a month or so this would absorb all our rolling stock and buildings; while, thanks to your administration, the value of the land, for which we have paid so dearly, is gone already."

"But if your employees are so extortionate, why not replace them by recruiting from the army of unemployed?"

The speaker waxed indignant, and there was great murmuring among the deputation.

"You are absolutely ignorant of the condition the country is in, and therefore unfit for the position you occupy. Unemployed, indeed, when I tell you that we are unable to get sufficient hands to cope with the tremendous traffic, which has increased to nearly double its amount, and not a man to be had for love or money! We are left entirely to the mercy of our employees."

"That explains why the mass of unemployed have left you. They have evidently learnt already to stand on their own legs, and mean to dispense with their nurses," I whispered to the Socialist. And turning to the speaker, I said aloud:

"But surely the country cannot then be in such a disastrous state as you represented. You really confuse me."

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Here one of the deputation stepped forward, a man with a fine head, closely shaven face, and frank and noble countenance His demeanor was deferential and polite, in pleasing contrast to the angry looks of the majority.

"I think I can explain matters to you, sir, and perhaps [unclear: als] to my fellow-Directors, who I think take a somewhat one-sided view of the matter. Under the circumstances this is perhaps natural. Since you have opened the racecourse, allowing everybody to compete on equal terms, those who formerly enjoyed exclusive privileges do not find it so easy to get their accustomed swag. We find that others can run faster than ourselves, and get the prizes. For myself I will not complain, but throw of the old traditions which now are hampering me, and try again my strength under the new conditions."

Instead of explaining, you only puzzle me more and more."

"I will be plain then. You have opened up the natural opportunities to the people, and now everyone is able to make the best of his abilities. At first I too considered your proposals sheer madness, because I thought that, even if you did open up the land, everybody would not be fit to start farming. I don't know why, but the idea of land reform always suggested to me that it meant everybody should be a farmer. But I now see that that is neither necessary nor even possible. You have certainly taught us that railway dividends come as much from land as do potatoes. The farmers, who are now making good profits, employ builders to improve their habitations, buy carpets, furniture, clothing, and all manner of other conveniences. The manufacturers and tradespeople are all busy, and, of course, earning good money. These too try to improve their conditions. Most of them were really out at elbow, barely having been ablet to provide themselves with the merest necessities of life. But now that they are in a position to do so everybody is buying and sending out orders on one hand, and supplying others with such articles as they themselves produce or deal in. This gave a sudden and great impetus to all trades, and, of course, also to the railways. The army of unemployed vanished as if by magic Under these conditions everybody naturally demands for his services an equal counter-service. The laborer has no longer to beg for employment, and unless people are willing to pay him what he thanks his labor is worth, he refuses to part with it. I cannot blame him, for we do the same; we have raised our rates on the railways, and people pay cheerfully."

"Yes; but have we anything of it?" asked the former speaker "[unclear: oes t] not all go away again in wages or in taxes?"

"It does, certainly. Those who work the railways get the benefit, leaving to us just about enough to recoup us for the wear and tear of rolling plant, and such return as would be page 27 about an equitable return for the rent of our buildings and other plant."

The deputation got a little noisy, each of them attempting to remonstrate at the same time with the last speaker for his frankness, for which they called him a Judas and other coarse names.

I again interfered, and after some difficulty succeeded in restoring quiet. Turning to the first speaker, I said:

"This is a somewhat different picture to what you drew, and is most satisfying and gratifying. Instead of having ruined the nation, I find that the nation is prosperous; and I fail to see what you have come to complain about. If the wages of all those engaged in railway work are higher, surely you, as the managers of the concern, must share in the general prosperity. For if each man is in a position to put his own price on his labor, you, as the most important officials, must be able to command good salaries for your services. I mean your wages of superintendence."

The man whom I addressed bit his lip and was silent, as were the rest, excepting the gentleman who made the former frank statement.

"If you will pardon me, sir, for saying so," he said, "I think my friend was right when he said you were ignorant on many points of railway management. We, as Directors, have nothing to do with the management or superintendence of railway work proper. Our business is, or I should rather say was, to receive the balance-sheet and the earnings of the men and to declare dividends. Of course, there are still earnings, and still dividends to be declared; but now a rent collector could perform the work for us."

"Well, and is that so bad? I should say your rents for buildings, and so on, should be more secure now than formerly; and considering that houses and rolling-stock represent labor, and that labor is well paid, their value, I should think, would be enhanced."

"It is. But railway carriages and buildings don't last for ever, as does the land. Nor was our chief revenue derived from this source. We had a profit on every man we employed; this is now gone. And as population increased and trade improved, so the value of our lands improved. This is now gone too. Our shares formerly went up, whether our carriages and buildings were new or old. Now they go down every day, as our plant depreciates. And if we wanted to keep our plant in the same condition, we could draw no dividends at all, since all we receive would be absorbed for depreciation, to repair or replace the old stock."

"Would you please explain this point a little more clearly I said.

page 28

"Certainly. Supposing you built a house, a carriage, or [unclear: an] engine. This would not last for ever."

"Of course not."

"Well, then, supposing an engine to last for twenty years then you would not pay for an engine that has been in work ten years the same price as if it were new. And if you lent that engine on hire, you could not get more for its use than just what would replace another engine of the same kind by the time it is used up, since everybody is in a position to command whatever he needs, and is unwilling to pay usury. The same applies, of course, to our plant and rolling stock. If we could withdraw the money which we earn for its use, the carriages, engines, etc, would depreciate, and would ultimately be all used up. And if we keep things in repair, replacing old stock by new, we could draw no dividends at all."

"But then your plant and stock are left you."

"Indeed!" exclaimed the first speaker. "And you would have us provide the public with convenience for nothing?"]

"But you do not provide it for nothing, if they enable you to replace what they consume. Would you have more in return than what you give?"

"Oh! it is no good arguing with him," they said; "we had better stop traffic altogether, and see then whether the people will stand it"

"I will answer for that," I said, rising from my seat. "The plant is yours, and you can do with it whatever you please gentlemen. The land is yours also, so long as you choose to keep it, and pay the rent for it to the State. If you do not care to keep it you are allowed to pick up your rails and sleepers and do with them as you please; and the State would have to provide new railway lines for the people."

This deliverance put an end to their bluster. They were terror-stricken. And I considered the moment opportune to make them a proposal, which I thought would be of advantage to the State and convenient to themselves. I said:

"In a country of such general prosperity, where penniless and ignorant people are in apposition to earn comfortable livings, men like yourselves, who have education, abilities, and substance to start with, should not be in despair. Abilities you undoubtedly possess, but hitherto you have wasted them on unholy objects—that is, in finding out ways and means how to make profit at the expense of your fellow-men. I do not blame you for having done so, nor do I reproach you. You were the creatures of circumstances, as were the rest of us. Now a new order has set in. And I doubt not but that your abilities will soon find outlets in more legitimate, and perhaps even more profitable channels. You may not care to continue under the new conditions the worries incidental to company management, page 29 and could employ, perhaps, your wealth in other ways more congenial to your tastes under the altered circumstances. If so, the State is willing to relieve you of all your responsibilities, and to pay you for every rail, nail, brick, or sleeper its full price at present valuation."

"In less than five minutes they agreed to my proposals, and I gave instructions to have the plant surveyed and appraised.

Thus the highroads of the country became the property of the nation by voluntary surrender.