Essentials of Economic Theory - As Applied to Modern Problems of Industry and Public Policy
by John Bates Clark
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

An Influence that perverts the Forces of Progress.—We have to deal, not only with such retarding influences, but with a positive perversion of the force that makes for progress. Everywhere we have perceived that competition—the healthful rivalry in serving the public—is essential in order that the best methods and the most effective organization should be selected for survival, and that industry should show a perpetual increase in productive power. In our study of the question whether improved method and improved organization tend to promote or to check further improvement, we have found that these beneficent changes are naturally self-perpetuating, so long as the universal spring of progress, competition, continues. A proviso has perforce been inserted into our optimistic forecast as to the economic future of the world—if nothing suppresses competition, progress will continue forever.

Monopoly and Economic Progress.—The very antithesis of competition is monopoly, and it is this which, according to the common view, has already seated itself in the places of greatest economic power. "Competition is excellent, but dead," said a socialist in a recent discussion; and the statement expresses what many believe. There is in many quarters an impression that monopoly will dominate the economic life of the twentieth century as competition has dominated that of the nineteenth. If the impression is true, farewell to the progress which in the past century has been so rapid and inspiring. The dazzling visions of the future which technical gains have excited must be changed to an anticipation as dismal as anything ever suggested by the Political Economy of the classical days—that of a power of repression checking the upward movement of humanity and in the end forcing it downward. No description could exaggerate the evil which is in store for a society given hopelessly over to a regime of private monopoly. Under this comprehensive name we shall group the most important of the agencies which not merely resist, but positively vitiate, the action of natural economic law. Monopoly checks progress in production and infuses into distribution an element of robbery. It perverts the forces which tend to secure to individuals all that they produce. It makes prices and wages abnormal and distorts the form of the industrial mechanism. In the study of this perverting influence we shall include an inquiry as to the means of removing it and restoring industry to its normal condition. We shall find that this can be done—that competition can be liberated, though the liberation can be accomplished only by difficult action on the part of the state.

The comparatively Narrow Field of Present Action by the State.—Economic theory has always recognized the existence and the restraining action of the civil law, which has prohibited many things which the selfishness of individuals would have prompted them to do. Certain officers of the state constitute, as we saw in an early chapter, one generic class of laborers, one of whose functions it is to retain in a state of appropriation things on which other men have conferred utility—that is, to protect property, and so to cooeperate in the creation of wealth. In a few directions they render services which private employers might render in a less effective way. The state, through its special servants, educates children and youth, guards the public health, encourages inventions, stimulates certain kinds of production, collects statistics, carries letters and parcels, provides currency, improves rivers and harbors, preserves forests, constructs reservoirs for irrigation, and digs canals and tunnels for transportation. In these ways and in others it enters the field of positive production; but in the main it leaves that field to be occupied by private employers of labor and capital. Business is still individualistic, since those who initiate enterprises and control them are either natural persons or those artificial and legal persons, the corporations.

The Growing Field of Action by Corporations.—Until recently there has been comparatively little production in the hands of corporations great enough to be exempt from the same economic laws which apply to a blacksmith, a carpenter, or a tailor. Individual enterprise and generally free competition have prevailed. The state has not checked them and the great aggregations of capital to which we give the name "trusts" have not, in this earlier period, been present in force enough to check them. The field for business enterprise has been open to individuals, partnerships, and corporations; they have entered it fearlessly, and a free-for-all competition has resulted. This free action is in process of being repressed by chartered bodies of capitalists, the great corporations, whom the law still treats somewhat as though in its collective entirety each one were an individual. They are building up a semi-public power—a quasi-state within the general state—and besides vitiating the action of economic laws, are perverting governments. They trench on the freedom on which economic laws are postulated and on civic freedom also.

How Corporations pervert the Action of Economic Laws.—Whatever interferes with individual enterprise interferes with the action of the laws of value, wages, and interest, and distorts the very structure of society. Prices do not conform to the standards of cost, wages do not conform to the standard of final productivity of labor, and interest does not conform to the marginal product of capital. The system of industrial groups and subgroups is thrown out of balance by putting too much labor and capital at certain points and too little at others. Profits become, not altogether a temporary premium for improvement,—the reward for giving to humanity a dynamic impulse,—but partly the spoils of men whose influence is hostile to progress. Under a regime of trusts the outlook for the future of labor is clouded, since the rate of technical progress is not what it would be under the spontaneous action of many competitors. The gain in productive power which the strenuous race for perfection insures is retarded, and may conceivably be brought to a standstill, by the advent of corporations largely exempt from such competition. There is threatened a blight on the future of labor, since the standard of wages, set by the productivity of labor, does not rise as it should, and the actual rate of wages lags behind the standard by an unnaturally long interval. There is too much difference between what labor produces and what it ought to produce, and there is an abnormally great difference between what it actually produces and what it gets.

The Fields for Monopolies of Different Kinds.—Monopoly is thus a general perverter of the industrial system; but there are two kinds of monopoly, of which only one stands condemned upon its face as the enemy of humanity. For a state monopoly there is always something to be said. Even socialism—the ownership of all capital, and the management of all industry by governments—is making in these days a plea for itself that wins many adherents, and the demand that a few particular industries be socialized appeals to many more. The municipal ownership of lighting plants, street railways and the like, and the ownership of railroads, telegraph lines, and some mines by the state are insistently demanded and may possibly be secured. We can fairly assume that, within the period of time that falls within the purview of this work, general socialism will not be introduced. In a few limited fields the people may accept governmental monopolies, but private monopolies are the thing we have chiefly to deal with; and it is to them, if they remain unchecked, that we shall have to attribute a disastrous change in that generally honest and progressive system of industry which has evolved under the spur of private enterprise.

Two Modes of Approaching a Monopolistic Condition.—The approach to monopoly may be extensive or intensive. A fairly complete monopoly may be established in some part of the industrial field, and the area of its operations may then be extended. Smelters of iron and steel, after attaining an exclusive possession of their original fields of production, may become carriers, producers of ore, makers of wire, plate, and structural steel, and builders of ships, bridges, etc.

On the other hand, a great corporation may have, at the outset, but little monopolistic power, and it may then acquire more and more of it within the original field of its operations. It may at first make competition difficult and crush a few of its rivals, and then, as its power increases, it may make competition nearly impossible in the greater part of its field and drive away nearly all the rivals who remain. It is necessary to form a more accurate idea than the one which is commonly prevalent of what actual monopolies are, of what they really do, of what they would do if they were quite free to work their will, and of what they will do, on the other hand, if they are effectively controlled by the sovereign state. Regulation of monopolies we must have; that is not a debatable question. The sovereignty of the state will be preserved in industry and elsewhere, and it is perfectly safe to assert that only by new and untried modes of asserting that sovereignty can industry hereafter be in any sense natural, rewarding labor as it should, insuring progress, and holding before the eyes of all classes the prospect of a bright and assured future. We are dependent on action by the state for results and prospects which we formerly secured without it; but though we are forced to ride roughshod over laissez-faire theories, we do so in order to gain the end which those theories had in view, namely, a system actuated by the vivifying power of competition, with all that that signifies of present and future good.

The Nature of a True Monopoly.—The exclusive privilege of making and selling a product is a monopoly in its completest form. This means, not only that there is only one establishment which is actually creating the product, but there is only one which is able to do so. This one can produce as much or as little as it pleases, and it can raise the price of what it sells without having in view any other consideration than its own interest.

The Possibility of the Form of Monopoly without the Power of It.—A business, however, may have the form of a monopoly, but not its genuine power. It may consolidate into one great corporation all the producers of an article who send their goods into a general market, and if no rivals of this corporation then appear, the public is forced to buy from it whatever it needs of the particular kind of goods which it makes. Consumers of A''' of our table may find that they can get none of it except from a single company. Yet the price may conceivably be a normal one. It may stand not much above the cost of production to the monopoly itself. If it does so, it is because a higher price would invite competition. The great company prefers to sell all the goods that are required at a moderate price rather than to invite rivals into its territory. This is a monopoly in form but not in fact, for it is shorn of its injurious power; and the thing that holds it firmly in check is potential competition. The fact that a rival can appear and will appear if the price goes above the reasonable level at which it stands, induces the corporation to produce goods enough to keep the price at that level. Under such a nearly ideal condition the public would get the full benefit of the economy which very large production gives, notwithstanding that no actual competition would go on. Prices would still hover near the low level of cost. The most economical state conceivable is one in which, in many lines of business, a single great corporation should produce all the goods and sell them at a price so slightly above their cost as to afford no incentive to any other producer to come into the field. Since the first trusts were formed the efficiency of potential competition has been so constantly displayed that there is no danger that this regulator of prices will ever be disregarded. Trusts have learned by experience that too great an increase in the prices of their products "builds mills." It causes new producers who were only potentially in the field actually to come into it and to begin to make goods. To forestall this, the trusts have learned to pursue a more conservative policy and to content themselves with smaller additions to the prices of their wares. If it were not for this regulative work of the potential competitor, we should have a regime of monopoly with its unendurable evils; and if, on the other hand, the regulator were as efficient as it should be, we should have a natural system in which complete freedom would rule. The limitless difference between these conditions measures the importance of potential competition.[1]

[1] For an early statement of this principle the reader is referred to the chapter on "The Persistence of Competition," by Professor F. H. Giddings, in a work entitled "The Modern Distributive Process," written jointly by Professor Giddings and the present writer. This chapter first appeared as an article in the Political Science Quarterly for 1887.

Cost of Production in Independent Mills a Standard of Price.—A consolidated company will ultimately have a real but small advantage over a rival in the cost of producing and selling its goods; but at present the advantage is often with the rival. His plant is often superior to many of those operated by the trust. When the combination brings its mills to a maximum of efficiency and then reaps the further advantage which consolidation itself insures, it will be able to make a small profit while selling goods at what they cost in the mills of its rival. This cost which a potential competitor will incur if he actually comes into the field sets the natural standard of price in the new regime of seeming monopoly; and it will be seen that if this natural price really ruled, the monopoly would have only a formal existence. It would be shorn of its power to tax the public.

Partial Monopolies now Common.—What we have is neither the complete monopoly nor the merely formal one, but one that has power enough to work injury and to be a menace to industry and politics. If it long perverts industry, it will be because it perverts politics—because it baffles the people in their effort to make and enforce laws which would keep the power of competition alive. In terms of our table the subgroups are coming to resemble single overgrown corporations. Each of them, where this movement is in progress, is tending toward a state where it will have a single entrepreneur—one of those overgrown corporations which resemble monopolies and are commonly termed so.

Complete monopolies, as we have said, they are not; and yet, on the other hand, they are by no means without monopolistic power. They are held somewhat in check by the potential competition we have referred to, but the check works imperfectly. At some points it restrains the corporations quite closely and gives an approach to the ideal results, in which the consolidation is very productive but not at all oppressive; while elsewhere the check has very little power, oppression prevails, and if anything holds the exactions of the corporation within bounds, it is a respect for the ultimate power of the government and an inkling of what the people may do if they are provoked to drastic action.

Two Policies open to the State.—The alternatives which are open to us are, in this view, reduced to two. Consolidation itself is inevitable. If, in any great department of production, it creates a true monopoly which cannot be otherwise controlled, the demand that the business be taken over by the government and worked for the benefit of the public will become irresistible. If it does not become a true monopoly, the business may remain in private hands. Inevitable consolidation with a choice between governmental production and private production is offered to us. We are at liberty to select the latter only if potential competition shall be made to be a satisfactory regulator of the action of the great corporations.

The Future Dependent on Keeping the Field open for Competitors.—Potential competition, on which, as it would seem, most of what is good in the present economic system depends, has also the fate of the future in its hands. Existing evils will decrease or increase according as this regulator shall work well or ill. Yet it is equally true that the government has the future in its hands, for the potential competition will be weak if the government shall do nothing to strengthen it. It is, indeed, working now, and has been working during the score of years in which great trusts have grown up; but the effects of its work have been unequal in different cases, and it is safe to say that, in the field as a whole, its efficiency has, of late, somewhat declined. With a further decline, if it shall come, prices will further rise, wages will fall, and progress will be retarded. The natural character of the dynamic movement is at stake and the continuance of so much of it as now survives and the restoration of what has been lost depend on state action.

The Impossibility of a Laissez-faire Policy.—Great indeed is the contrast between the present condition and one in which the government had little to do but to let industry alone. Letting free competitors alone was once desirable, but leaving monopolies quite to themselves is not to be thought of. It would, indeed, lead straight to socialism, under which the government would lay hands on business in so radical a way as to remove the private entrepreneurs altogether. If we should try to do nothing and persist too long in the attempt, we might find ourselves, in the end, forced to do everything. What is of the utmost importance is the kind of new work the government is called on to do. It is chiefly the work of a sovereign and not that of a producer. It is the work of a law-giving power, which declares what may and what may not be done in the field of business enterprise. It is also the work of a law-enforcing power, which makes sure that its decrees are something more than pious wishes or assertions of what is abstractly right. All of this is in harmony with the old conception of the state as the protector of property and the preserver of freedom. The people's interests, which the monopoly threatens, have to be guarded. The right of every private competitor of a trust to enter a field of business and to call on the law for protection whenever he is in danger of being unfairly clubbed out of it, is what the state has to preserve. It is only protecting property in more subtle and difficult ways than those in which the state has always protected it. The official who restrains the plundering monopoly, preserves honest wealth, and keeps open the field for independent enterprise does on a grand scale something that is akin to the work of the watchman who patrols the street to preserve order and arrest burglars.

A Possible Field for Production by the State.—There is a possibility that in a few lines of production the American government may so far follow the route marked out by European states as to own plants and even operate them, and may do so in the interest of general competition. It may construct a few canals, with the special view to controlling charges made by railroads. It may own coal mines and either operate them or control the mode of operating them, for the purpose of curbing the exactions of monopolistic owners and securing a continuous supply of fuel. It may even own some railroads for the sake of making its control of freight charges more complete. Such actions as these may be slightly anomalous, since they break away from the policy of always regulating and never owning; nevertheless, they are a part of a general policy of regulation and a means of escape from a policy of ownership. The selling of coal by the state may help to keep independent manufacturing alive, and carrying by the state may do so in a more marked way. If so, these measures have a generally anti-socialistic effect, since they obstruct that growth of private monopoly which is the leading cause of the growth of socialism.

Evils within the Modern Corporation.—The great corporation brings with it some internal evils which might exist even if it never obtained a monopoly of its field. In this class are the injuries done by officers of the corporation to the owners of it, the stockholders. A typical plundering director has even more to answer for by reason of what he does to his own shareholders than because of what he and the corporation may succeed in doing to the public. In the actual amount of evil done, the robbing of shareholders is less important than the taxing of consumers and the depressing of wages, which occur when the effort to establish a monopoly is successful; but in the amount of iniquity and essential meanness which it implies on the part of those who practice it, it takes the first rank, and its effect in perverting the economic system cannot be overlooked. The director who buys property to unload upon his own corporation at a great advance on its cost, or who alternately depresses the business of his corporation and then restores it, in order that he may profit by the fall and the rise of the stock, not only does that which ought to confine his future labors to such as he could perform in a penitentiary, but does much to vitiate the action of the economic law which, if it worked in perfection, would give to the private capitalist a return conformable to the marginal product of the capital he owns. A sound industry requires that the state should protect property where this duty is now grossly neglected.

If more publicity will help to do this,—if lighting street lamps on a moral slum will end some of the more despicable acts committed by men who hold other men's property in trust,—sound economics will depend in part on this measure, but it depends in part on more positive ones.

The investment of capital is discouraged and an important part of the dynamic movement is hindered wherever shareholders are made insecure; and therefore the entire relation of directors to those whose property they hold in trust needs to be supervised with far more strictness than has ever been attempted under American law. When invested capital shall be quite out of the range of buccaneers' actions, it will produce more, increase more rapidly, and the better do its part toward maintaining the wages of labor.

Perversions of the Economic System by the Action of Promoters.—The state will be carrying out its established policy if it shall effectively control the action of promoters in their relation to prospective investors. The man who is invited to become a stockholder has a right to know the facts on which the value of the property offered to him depends. How many plants does the consolidated corporation own? How much did they cost? What is their present state of efficiency? What have been their earnings during recent years? Concerning these things and others which go to make up a correct estimate of the value of what the promoter is selling, the purchaser needs full and trustworthy information, and an obvious function of the law is to see that he gets it. That such action would guard investors' personal rights is, of course, a reason for taking it; but the reason that here appeals to us is the fact that it would remove a second perversion of the economic system, accelerate the increase of capital, and help in securing a distribution of wealth which would be more nearly in accordance with natural law.

Perversions of the System caused by the Action of Corporations in their Entirety.—More directly within the domain of pure economics is the relation between the typical great corporation and the majority of the public which is wholly outside of it. In the common mind this relation also often appears as that of plunderers and plundered, and what it often has actually been, is a relation between corporations which have exacted a certain tribute and a body of consumers which has had to pay the tribute. Bound up with this general relation between the manufacturing corporation and the consuming public is one between it and producers of raw material which it buys and with laborers whom it hires. In this last relation what is endangered is the normal rate of pay, present and future. The type of measure which protects consumers protects the other parties who are affected by the great corporation's policy. Workers are safe and producers of raw materials are measurably so if the power of competition in the making and selling of the goods is kept alive. If we prevent the trust from taking tribute from the purchasing public, we shall by the same means prevent it from oppressing laborers and farmers.

Why the Business of a Monopoly should never be regarded as a Private Interest.—The people are already putting behind them and ought to put completely out of sight and mind the idea that the business of a monopoly is a private enterprise which its officers have a right to manage as they please. A corporation becomes a public functionary from the time when it puts so many of its rivals out of the field that the people are dependent on it. As well might the waiter who brings food to the table claim that the act is purely his own affair and that the customers and the manager have no right of interference, however well or ill the customers may be served, as a combination of packers might claim that any important detail of their business concerns them only. The illustration is a weak one; for in the case of a trust which controls a product that is needed by the public, it is the full majesty of the people as a whole which is in danger of being set at naught. Such a company is a public servant in all essential particulars, and although it is allowed to retain a certain autonomy in the exercise of its function, that autonomy does not go to the length of liberty to wrong the public or any part of it. The preservation of a sound industrial system requires that governments shall forestall injuries which the interests of the monopolistic corporation impels it to inflict. No discontinuance of essential services, no stinting of them, and no demand for extortionate returns for them can be tolerated without a perversion of the economic system. The natural laws we have presented will work imperfectly if, for example, the danger of a coal famine shall forever impend over the public or if this fuel shall be held at an extortionate price. Workmen, indeed, have a larger stake than have others in the maintenance of a fair field for competing producers and an open market for labor, but other classes feel the vitiating of the industrial system which occurs when the fair field and the open market are absent.

Why the Motive which once favored Non-interference in Industry by the State now favors Interference.—We have said that what is needed is vigorous action by the state in keeping alive the force on which the adherents of a laissez-faire policy rested their hope of justice and prosperity. These fruits of a natural development have always depended on competition, and they still depend on it, though its power will have to be exerted in a new way. This requires a special action by the state; but in taking such action the government is conforming its policy to the essential part of the laissez-faire doctrine. It lays hands on industry to-day for the very reason which yesterday compelled it to keep them off—the necessity of preserving a beneficent rivalry in the domain of production.

America the Birthplace of Consolidated Corporations.—Consolidations of the kind that require vigorous treatment by the state have their special home in America. They have taken on a number of forms, but are coming more and more into the most efficient form they have ever assumed, that of the corporation. The holding company is the successor of the former trust. The method of union by which stockholders in several corporations surrendered their certificates of stock to a body of trustees and received in return for them what were called trust certificates, has been abandoned, and the readiness with which this has been done has been due to the fact that there are better modes of accomplishing the purpose in view. A new corporation can be formed, and, thanks to those small states which thrive by issuing letters of marque, it can be endowed with very extensive powers. It can, of course, buy or lease mills, furnaces, etc., but what it can most easily do is to own a controlling portion of the common stock of the companies which own the plants. The holding company has a sinister perfection in its mode of giving to a minority of capital the control over a majority. It is possible that the actual capital of the original corporation may be mainly a borrowed fund and may be represented by an issue of bonds, while the stockholders may have contributed little to the cost of their plants and their working capital; and yet this common stock may confer on its owners the control of the entire business. The corporation that buys a bare majority of this common stock may have an absolute power over the producing plants and their operations. If the holding company should secure much of its own capital by an issue of bonds, the amount which its own stockholders would have to contribute would be only a minute fraction of the capital placed in their hands, and yet it might insure to them the control of a domain that is nothing less than an industrial empire, if indeed they are not themselves obliged to surrender the government of it to an innermost circle composed of directors.

Earlier Forms of Union.—There are forms of union which are less complete than this and have been widely adopted. There was the original compact among rival producers to maintain fixed prices for their goods. It was a promise which every party in the transaction was bound in honor to keep, but impelled by interest to break; and it was morally certain to be broken. There was this same contract to maintain prices strengthened by a corresponding contract to hold the output of every plant within definite limits. If this second promise were kept, the first would be so, since the motive for cutting the price agreed upon was always the securing of large sales, and this was impossible without a correspondingly large production; but security was needed for the fulfillment of the second promise. This security was in due time afforded, and there was perfected a form of union which was a favorite one, since it did not merge and extinguish the original corporations, but allowed them to conduct their business as before, though with a restricted output and with prices dictated by the combinations. As a rule each of the companies paid a fine into the treasury of the pool if it produced more than the amount allotted to it, and received a bonus or subsidy if it produced less. This form has more of kinship with the Kartel of Germany than the other American forms, and it might have continued to prevail in our country if the law had treated it with toleration. It leaves the power of competition less impaired than does the consolidated corporation, of which the laws are more tolerant. By repressing those unions which can be easily defined and treated as monopolies we have called into being others which are far more monopolistic and dangerous. The economic principles on which the regulation of all such consolidations rests apply especially to the closer unions which take the corporate shape. To the extent that other forms of union have any monopolistic power the same principles apply also to them; but we shall see why it is that the pools which the law forbids have little of this power and the corporations have much of it.

The Condition which precludes True Monopoly.—A monopoly grows up when a company keeps such perfect guard over its economic field that new rivals cannot enter without exposing themselves to peril. As we have seen, it is not always necessary that the rival company should be formed. It is enough that it should be able to be formed and to enter the field with safety. In that case it will actually appear if an inducement is offered. Such an inducement is always afforded when the trust puts an unnaturally high price on its product—a price above that standard set by the cost of production which would rule in a normal market.

Specific Means of Repressing Competition.—In practice a condition is created in which the new competitors are reluctant to appear; for the consolidated company has dangerous weapons with which it can assail them. It can often secure specially low rates for the transportation of its products, and this is sometimes enough to make the competitor's prospect hopeless. Further, the "trust"—with or without the aid offered by the special and low freight charges—can enter the particular corner of the field where a small rival is operating, sell goods for less than they cost, and drive off the rival, while maintaining itself by the high prices it exacts everywhere else. Again, it may reduce the price of one variety of goods, which a particular competitor is making, and crush him, while it makes a profit on all other varieties of goods. Still again, it may resort to the "factor's agreement," by refusing to sell at the usual wholesalers' rate any of its own products to a merchant who handles products of its rivals. If some of its goods are of a kind that the merchant must have, this measure brings him to terms, causes him to refuse to handle independent products, and makes it difficult for the rival producer to reach the public with his tender of goods. The trust can organize special corporations for making war on competitors while itself evading responsibility. A bogus company which, in an aggravated case, is a rogue's alias for a parent corporation, may be formed for the purpose of more safely doing various kinds of predatory work.

The Economic Necessity of Doing what is legally Difficult.—From the point of view of an economic theorist it is enough to show that the practices which cut off the potential competitor from a safe entrance into the field of production so pervert the economic system as to hold in abeyance its most fundamental force, that of competition. They vitiate the action of every law which depends on competition. Value, wages, interest, profits, and the very structure of society feel the perverting effect of this repression of the force that under normal conditions serves to adjust them. From a practical point of view it is enough to show that the existence of such practices—if the monopolies that grow out of them shall continue and increase—present to the people the alternative of accepting an economic state which is unendurable, or accomplishing, in a legal way, what many already pronounce impossible. For the purpose of this treatise it suffices to point to the fact that few attempts worth mentioning have been made to suppress any of these practices except the first—that of favoritism in connection with freight charges—and that in the case of this practice only a beginning of serious effort has been made. While there is some excuse for abandoning a purpose when long and determined effort to execute it has failed, there is no possible excuse for concluding, in advance of such effort, that a systematic policy which gives a promise of saving us from an intolerable outcome is impracticable. All the props of monopoly should be taken away and not one merely, and before this shall be tried radical measures will not be in order. Socialism will not be fairly before the people's parliament till it shall come as the only escape from a condition of private monopoly. What economic law clearly shows is that monopoly will not come if the practices on which it depends shall be suppressed, and the people may be trusted to determine whether the suppression is or is not possible. That they may decide this question the issue that depends on it must be brought before them; and all that falls within the sphere of the economist is the stating of the effects of monopoly, the causes of its existence, and the public action that if taken will remove these causes. The preservation of a normal system of industry and a normal division of its products requires the suppression of all those practices of great corporations on which their monopolistic power depends.



Of all the various clubs used by trusts for attacking rivals and driving them from the field, the first in order is the one which depends on getting special rates for transportation. Railroads develop monopolies within their own sphere and also contribute greatly to the development of monopolies elsewhere. The second fact is the more important, but both require attention. By reason of its special connection with producers' monopolies does the function of the common carrier have much to do in deciding the question whether an economic revolution is or is not impending. It is safe to say that it is imminent as a possibility and will become probable if the favoritism shown by carriers to great shippers is not effectually repressed.

How the Consolidation of Railroads makes the Repression of Favoritism Easy.—It is also safe to say that such repression will be easy if the consolidation of railroads themselves shall actually go to the utmost possible length. With all lines under one central control and earnings entirely pooled, there would be no motive for granting special favors to any shipper except as it might come through a corrupt relation between the shipper and some officials of the railroads. To the carrying corporation the giving of a rebate would merely mean a surrendering of some possible profits. With railroads consolidated the threat of the great shipper to divert his freight from one line to another would lose all its effectiveness, and the interests of the stockholders in the general carrying company would demand high rates from all. The law forbidding rebates and all other forms of favoritism would assist the railroad company in carrying out its own policy, and would be obeyed with the readiness with which an order to pocket an increased gain is naturally complied with.

A Danger which becomes greater as Discriminations become Fewer.—This reveals the fact that the consolidation which makes the suppressing of discriminations easy will make an all-round advance of rates possible, in so far as merely economic influences are concerned. Nothing but the power of the state itself can prevent this; and while the consolidation that would be perfect enough to stop discriminations has not yet taken place, enough of consolidation has been secured to cause some advance in the general scale of freight charges and to threaten much more. It already rests with the government to avert this second evil. Monopolies extending throughout the field of production would mean a demand for socialism which could hardly be resisted; and even a few monopolies in industry assisted by a great one in transportation would mean much the same thing.

General Economic Principles governing Transportation.—With a view to determining the bearing which transportation has on the problem of economic freedom, and thus on the prospect of avoiding the alternative of state socialism, we need to state the essential principles in the theory of railway transportation.

The fact that makes a vast amount of carrying necessary is that agriculture is subject to a law of diminishing returns, while manufacture obeys an opposite law. In tilling the soil labor and capital yield less and less as more and more of them are used in a given area; and therefore both of these agents need to extend themselves widely over the land in order to use it economically. In the production of staple crops which can be freely carried across sea and continent, the natural tendency is to scatter a rural population with some approach to evenness over all the land available for such crops. Market gardening requires less land per man and the areas devoted to it are much more densely peopled; but even within this department of agriculture the law holds true that too much labor and capital must not be bestowed upon an acre of ground. In a general way agriculture diffuses population, while manufacturing concentrates it. This latter work is done most economically in great establishments.

The Law of Diminishing Returns from Land not restricted to that used in Agriculture.—It is commonly said that manufacturing is unlike agriculture in that it is subject to a law of increasing returns; but this statement is true only when its terms are carefully interpreted. The diminishing returns from agriculture and the increasing returns from manufacturing are not two opposite effects from the same cause. There is, indeed, a logical anomaly in contrasting them with each other. In agriculture we get smaller and smaller results per unit of labor and capital when we overwork a piece of ground of a given size by putting more and more labor and capital on it. The trouble here is that land, on the one hand, and labor and capital, on the other, are not combined in advantageous proportions; and exactly the same effect is produced by the same cause in manufacturing. One can overtax a mill site by confining larger and larger amounts of capital within a given area. If the site is so small that the building has to be carried far into the air and supplied with walls strong enough to resist the jar of machinery on many floors, manufacturing becomes a far less economical operation than it would be if the site were larger and the mill lower. The gain from centralizing the manufacturing process comes in part from the increased size of the particular establishments; but that requires that every part of the plants, land included, should be increased. As the whole of an establishment becomes larger its product becomes cheaper; but, in the enlargement, there should be no undue stinting in the amount of land used. In both agriculture and manufacturing, then, there is a loss of productive power when areas of land are disproportionately small, as compared with amounts of labor and artificial capital; but in the realm of manufacturing large establishments under single entrepreneurs combining the agents of production in the right proportion increase the productive power of men and instruments as they do not in agriculture. Great farms show no such economy as great mills.

Basis of the Law of Increasing Returns in Manufacturing.—There would be some increase of returns in manufacturing from making the establishments large even if the work were done by hand; but by far the greater part of the advantage is due to machinery. The invention of the steam engine was the beginning of it, and that of textile machinery afforded a quick continuation of the revolutionary change. In nearly all lines of production, outside of agriculture, machinery is far too elaborate to be used in household industry. One may say that the transformation of the world into one enormous farm dotted over with great workshops, with all the social and political changes which that involves, was brewing in the tea-kettle which the boy Watt is said to have watched, as the lid was raised by puffs of steam and the possibility of a steam engine suggested itself. The mechanical force of steam began at once to centralize manufacturing. That made increased transporting necessary, and it was not long before the same element, steam, provided the means of this extensive transportation. It is necessary, of course, to carry the products of the farm to the mill, and also to carry manufactured goods back to the farm; and neither of these things would have been required on any large scale under a system of household industry. The economy which leads to this lies altogether in the greater cheapness of the manufacturing. The difference between the cost of fashioning materials in the home and that of doing it in the mill is so large that it would have brought about the building of mills and the creation of manufacturing centers, with the carrying which it involves, if neither railroads nor steamboats had come into being. The growth of factory villages had made some headway at a time when no elaborate machinery existed; but if that condition had continued, manufacturing centers would have been smaller, more numerous, and more scattered than they have been. It is the cheapness of carrying by railroads and steamships which has made it possible to get the fullest benefit from the so-called law of increasing returns in manufacturing.

Mining as related to Transportation.—Mining is a process which has to be local, because ores and coal are furnished by nature in a local way; and one might mention this as a second cause of extensive transportation. A great part of the carrying so occasioned depends, indeed, on the growth of the manufacturing centers, since mills and furnaces need great quantities of fuel. A means of heating private dwellings, of cooking food, etc., might conceivably be supplied in a local way, by the growth of forests; but the fuel needed for the centers of manufacturing and commerce has to come from distant points. The law of increasing returns in manufacturing, then, and natural location of mines are the most generic causes of transportation. The system which has resulted gives to everybody more and better food, as well as more and better goods of every kind, than he could possibly have had if the primitive system of local manufacturing had continued. The cheapness with which form utility is created in the mill and place utility on the railroad are the two causes which are at work.

The Rivalry between Producers of Form Utility and Producers of Form and Place Utilities.—In the technical language of economics, there has been a contest in efficiency between that creating of form utility which is done when goods are made in households or in small villages, and that joint process of creating form and place utility which consists in making goods at central points and carrying them to the widely scattered homes of consumers. The latter process, involving as it does the necessity of creating two utilities instead of one, is now by far the cheaper.

The Ultimate Limit of Charges for Transportation.—Charges for transportation have as one extreme limit the difference between the cost of making goods at one point and the cost of making them at another. This rule is applicable, of course, only to those numerous cases in which it is physically possible to create the goods at both points. If they can be made at point A for ten dollars, by using five days' labor, and at point B for twenty dollars, by using ten days' labor, ten dollars would furnish the extreme limit of a possible charge for carrying them from A to B. In a certain number of cases the actual charge approximates this extreme limit. With a mill in A, working with much economy, and a number of household workshops in B producing with less economy, the product of the large mill may invade the territory supplied by the little workshops, and the carrier may receive in return for transportation about as much as the difference between the two costs of production. With a great mill at A and a small one at B, the same thing may happen.

Narrower Limits usually Applicable.—In by far the larger number of cases such a difference between costs is more than the carrier can get. Usually there is some alternative mode of procuring goods at B which does not involve actually making them on the spot at a serious disadvantage. It may be possible to convey them to B from a third locality, C, where they are made in an advantageous way. If this carrying is done by some process in which competition rules,—if, for instance, C is not far from B, so that goods can be carried thither by drays,—the cost of making the goods in C plus the natural or competitive cost of conveying them to B will together make up the natural cost of procuring them in this latter locality. The difference between that and the cost of making them in the great center which we have called A will constitute the limit of the freight charge from that city to B; and even though between these two points the carrier has a monopoly of the traffic, he can get no more.[1]

[1] For a case in which a railroad can get the entire difference between the cost of goods at the point from which it carries them and their cost at the place of delivery, but voluntarily refrains from doing so, see the note at the end of this chapter.

Other Applications of the Same Rule.—This rule applies even where goods made in C have to be carried great distances, provided the carrying is done in some competitive way, at a low rate based on cost. Consumers in B may have the option of bringing the goods by water, along the coast or across an ocean, at a rate that makes the cost of procuring them at B not much above the cost of making them at A. If so, this small difference of costs represents all that any carrier can get for moving them from A to B, and though this carrying may be done by a railroad which has a monopoly of its route, its service will command no higher rate than the one which is thus naturally set for it. The rate is governed by costs, though not by costs incurred by the railroad. Whenever competition rules, the returns for any productive function tend to conform to costs, and we here suppose that it does so rule (1) in the making of goods at A, and (2) in the procuring of the goods by some alternative method at B. The difference between these costs sets the maximum limit of the freight charge between A and B, and this may exceed the cost of this service and leave a profit for the carrier who uses this route.

Freight Charges and Value.—The return for a productive operation of any kind whatsoever is directly based on the value which it imparts to something; and in the case of carrying, the value is measured by the amount of "place utility" which the carrying creates. This is merely one application of a universal law. What the goods are worth where they are consumed, less what they are worth where they are made, equals what can be had for moving them from the one point to the other. Freight charges are gauged by the principle of "value of service," but so also are the charges for making the goods. When things are produced and used at the same place, the producer's returns equal the value of his product, and this is fixed by the principle of final utility. It is, however, a truism of economics that this value itself tends under competition to conform to the cost of creating it. In our illustration the manufacturing returns are fixed by the value of service and also by the cost of service, and so are the returns for transporting the goods from C to B; but the returns for carrying them from A to B, where monopoly prevails, are not governed by the cost of service but by costs elsewhere incurred.

Freight Charges and Cost.—The law of costs as well as the law of value holds good, in general, in connection with transportation. Competition in this department tends to bring values created to a certain equality per unit of cost and to reward the labor and capital which are used in carrying as well as they are rewarded elsewhere, and not better. If our table of industrial groups were elaborated, there would be between A and A', as well as between A' and A'', and between adjacent subgroups throughout the chart, a symbol which should represent the work done by the carrier; and the fact would appear that naturally this work is neither favored nor injured in the apportionment of rewards. Free competition, if it existed in perfection everywhere, would be a perfectly undiscriminating distributor of earnings, and would apportion all returns according to costs.

A''' A'' A' A

Variations of Freight Charges from Static Standards.—Place values are not an exception to the general rule of value; and yet freight charges actually remain at a greater distance from the standards furnished by the direct costs of carrying than do the returns for other services from corresponding standards. There is an approach to monopoly in this department, and, when direct competition exists, it is a more imperfect process here than it is elsewhere. Moreover, the costs which here figure as an element in the adjustment of freight charges are of a peculiar kind, which, although not unknown in other departments of production, have nowhere else so great influence and importance. The study of railroads and their charges is baffling, not because the economic forces do not here work at all, but because here they encounter a resistance which is exceptionally strong and persistent. The quasi-monopoly which elsewhere continues only briefly lasts long in this department of production; but it is subject to the same principles which everywhere rule.

The Modes of Approaching the Study of Freight Charges.—In studying freight charges we may, if we choose, start with the intricate tariffs of railroads, as they now stand, and try to find some principle which, if applied, would bring order out of the mass of capricious and inconsistent rates. Such a rule will ultimately be needed, but it can best be obtained by examining at the outset the transportation which is done by simple means and under active competition. It will be found (1) that basic principles apply to all transportation whether it be by railroad or by simpler means; (2) that in the early development of every system of common carrying the action of these principles is disturbed; (3) that in the case of the more primitive systems the disturbances are soon overcome, but that they continue longer and produce far greater effects in the case of railroads; (4) that one important influence of this kind tends naturally to disappear, while another continues and calls for regulation by the state; and (5) that this regulation needs to be based on natural tendencies and to conform to the laws which, when competition rules, govern the returns of all classes of producers.

A Typical Instance of Partial Monopoly in Transportation.—We may now trace the development out of a purely competitive condition of a simple instance of what is usually termed monopoly, though in a rigorous use of terms it can hardly be so called. It is a monopoly the power of which is limited. So long as goods made at A are carried to B by some primitive method which insures the presence of competing carriers, the returns for carrying will tend only to cover costs. By a normal adjustment the price of the goods at A only repays the costs of making them, and if these and the carrying charge amount to less than the costs of making the goods at C and transporting them to B, none of them will come to B in this latter way. Makers at A and carriers on the route from there to B will possess the market, and the place value which the goods acquire when taken to B will be fixed directly by the costs of carrying.

It is when there is no effective competition on the route between A and B, while there is free competition in making the goods both at A and at C, and also in carrying them from C to B, that a typical case of a partial monopoly is presented.

The price of the goods at A is a definite amount fixed by competition between producers, and the price at B is also a definite amount fixed by competition between different makers at C and between different carriers between C and B. The difference between these amounts sets the limit of the charge for carrying from A to B; but in that operation there is, for a brief period, no effective competition. For simplicity let us say that this carrying is at first done by a single wagon owned by its driver, and that his charge for the service he renders nearly equals the difference between the cost of making the goods at A and that of obtaining them at B from some alternative source. This lone and honest driver is thus illustrating the practice of the modern railroad, in that he is "charging what the traffic will bear." The goods he transports have one natural value at A and another at B. These two values are determined separately and in ways that are quite independent of the carrier and his policy. When he begins to do his work, he charges an amount which about equals the difference between the two values.

The Impossibility of Long-continued Profits in the Case of Primitive Carriers.—With the growth of traffic direct competition will soon appear. A second wagon will be put on the route and then more, and the strife for freight will bring down the charges to the level of cost. For a brief season a favored drayman was able to get nearly the entire difference between the value of the goods at the point where they are made and their value at the point where they are used, as these two values were determined by independent causes with which he had nothing to do. Now, he and his rivals can, indeed, get the difference between the value of the goods at the one point and their value at the other; but this difference is now directly determined by the carrying charge. That charge, again, is determined by the cost of rendering the service. There was a brief interval when the value of the service and the cost of it were different amounts; but now they coincide. We shall see that the essential difference between carrying by primitive means and carrying by railroad is in the fact that in the latter case the period when value and cost are different is greatly prolonged.

The Appearance of a More Efficient Competitor.—With the growth of traffic a sailing vessel comes into use on a route connecting A with B, and the cost of thus conveying goods is less than that of conveying them over the roadway. The charge made by the sailing vessel is lower than that made by the teamsters, and the goods are thus delivered at B cheaply enough both to attract to the water route all carrying from A and to put an end to all carrying from C. The former carriers between B and C lose their business, and the makers at C lose some part of theirs, in the same way that any producer loses the traffic when he is underbid by rivals. The public is the gainer to the extent of the reduction which takes place in the cost of the goods as delivered to consumers in the market at B; nevertheless, the situation still involves a limited monopoly. The sailing vessel now has no effective rival, and can charge "what the traffic will bear," and that is very nearly the cost of conveying the goods by wagons. The advent of the vessel has benefited the public; yet it is regarded as constituting a new monopoly, and the benefit which the public gets is less than it will get when a really effective competitor of the sailing craft makes its appearance.

A Principle governing Charges by Unequal Competitors.—The principle which, in this instance, governs the freight charges is one which is active in all departments of production. We have seen that a maker of goods who has just acquired a monopoly of a superior method may, for a time, charge what the goods cost as made by inferior processes. If the manufacturer has some patented machinery which effects a great economy, he is not at once obliged to govern his prices by what the goods cost in his own mill, but may charge about what they would cost if they were made by the inferior machinery which he formerly used. This is what they still cost in the mills of certain rivals, and it thus appears that competition of a sort fixes his price for the goods he creates, but it is the competition of less capable producers and fails to benefit the public as the rivalry of equals would do. If there is evil in such a monopoly as this, it is not because the public is injured by the advent of the cheaper method. The improvement usually begins to confer benefit on consumers at the moment of its arrival, through the effort of the efficient producer to secure traffic. It causes the prices to go down, though the fall is at first only a slight one, and the consumer's case against the monopoly of method is on the ground of his failure to receive a further benefit. He will get that further benefit whenever a producer who can compete on even terms with the one who now commands the field shall make his appearance.

Unequal Competition Typical of Carriers.—Our recent illustration represents a similar condition in carrying. The public gets a slight gain from the advent of a sailing vessel; but it fails to get the further benefit that the advent of a second vessel will ultimately bring. For a time the freight charge stands nearly at what teamsters have charged. For cheaper rates the public must wait for the advent of another vessel.

The Cause of the Partial Monopoly in Carrying.—There is nothing to prevent a second schooner from being put on this route, if the returns to be expected should warrant it. At the outset the new vessel would get only about a half of the amount of traffic enjoyed by the first, and the rates would probably be reduced by the competition between the two. Until the returns of the first vessel become large it has no rivalry to fear, but it is clear that its monopoly is held by a very precarious tenure. It is not likely long to enjoy the benefit of any charges which yield much profit. The growth of traffic will in due time bring the competing vessel, and the rule of returns that only cover costs will again assert itself. The owner of the first sailing craft has been able for a time to charge "the value of the service" he has rendered, as that value was determined independently of his own action; but now this value itself depends on his action and that of rival carriers using the same route, and it adjusts itself at the level of cost.

The Effect of partly Unused Vessels for Carrying.—The case illustrates another principle which is equally general. The entrepreneur whose capacity for producing is only partially utilized may often take some orders at less than it costs to fill them, as cost is usually understood, and he will still be the gainer. In manufacturing as well as in carrying there are "fixed charges"; there are costs which stand at a definite amount which is independent of the volume of traffic, while other costs increase as the volume grows. These are the "variable costs," and they have to be further classified, since some of them do not increase as rapidly as the business grows, while others increase with the same rapidity as does the business. The makers of sewing machines, typewriters, reapers, and mowers, and indeed machinery generally, can usually increase their product without correspondingly increasing their outlay. They can make goods and sell them in a foreign market at rates which would injure and might even ruin them if they were applied to the sales made in their own country. This fact is most obvious when the manufacturer's machinery is not all kept running or when it all runs only a part of the time. Increasing the output is then a particularly cheap operation. When a carrier's facilities are partially unused—when a ship carries a cargo in one direction and returns in ballast, or when it sails on both trips with its hold only half full—it is ready to carry additional goods at a low rate provided that this policy will not demoralize its existing business. In our illustration we have assumed that some merchandise is made at A and consumed at B, but it may well be that goods of some sort are produced at B and consumed at A. There may be stone quarries at B and there may be need of stone for paving or building at A, and the vessel may carry a return cargo of this kind at any rate which does not greatly exceed the mere cost of loading and unloading it and be better off for so doing. If the entire difference between the cost of the stone at B and the cost of producing it at A from some other source is a very slight one, the amount of it still represents all that the ship can get for carrying the stone. The utmost that the traffic will bear is this difference in costs; and yet the business will be accepted, for the return exceeds the merely variable costs which it entails. The fixed charges, the interest on the cost of the vessel, and the outlay for maintaining it do not need to be paid in any part from the returns of this extra business. They are already provided for.

If instead of returning from B with a hold quite empty, the vessel made both voyages with a hold only half full, the result would be similar. It would then be in a position to make a low bid for further freight in both directions. If this entails no cutting of the rates for carrying the original goods, the vessel can take further goods with advantage at any rate above the merely variable costs.

Production which is Advantageous though it does not repay all Costs.—There are two general conditions under which it is advantageous, both in making goods and in carrying them, to extend production, though the further returns which are in this way gained do not cover all costs. First, the producer must have an unused capacity for making or carrying goods. In such a case it is possible to make or carry an increment of goods without entailing on himself an increment of cost that is proportionate to the amount carried. In his bookkeeping his original business is charged with costs amounting to a certain sum per unit of goods produced or carried. His further business is charged with a smaller outlay per unit.

Secondly, it must be possible to demand separate and independent returns for the different increments of goods, so that cutting the rate charged for one part of the traffic does not entail cutting the rate charged for the other. In the case of a manufacturer this is secured, either by carrying some goods to a remote and entirely independent market, or by producing some new kind of goods the low price of which will have no effect on the sales or the prices of the other kinds. In the case of the carrier it is accomplished in a variety of similar ways. He can take return cargoes at a low rate. If he stops at different ports along his route he can charge less for goods landed at certain ports than for those landed at others. He can classify his freight and carry some of it at a rate at which he could not afford to carry the whole. With the growth of traffic, however, this condition tends to disappear. Its existence requires that the carrier should have facilities only partially used. As the ship acquires fuller and fuller cargoes, it ceases to be advantageous to fill the hold with goods which pay lower rates than others; just as a mill, which may have run for a time partly on goods that yield a large return and partly on those which yield a small one, gradually discards the making of the cheaper goods as the demand for the dearer kind increases. The vessel which can get full cargoes of profitable merchandise will cease to devote any space to what is less profitable. In the end the ship in our illustration will be transporting in both directions all the first-class freight it can take, and will accept neither the stone nor the merchandise consigned to ports to which it can be carried only at the cheap rates.

Result of Effective Competition throughout the Carrier's Route.—The condition just described—that of full cargoes of profitable goods—inevitably attracts a rival vessel, and the ordinary effects of competition then begin to show themselves. The vessels pursue the same route, cater to the same traffic, and if they try to get business from each other, bring down their charges. The warfare may even bring them to reduce the rates to the level at which only variable costs are covered—a policy that, if persisted in, would bankrupt them both; and here, as well as in the case of railroads, there is a powerful motive for combining and ending the war. It usually causes a merely tacit agreement to "live and let live"—a concurrent refraining from the fatal extreme of competition. The reductions, as made, have to be general and to apply to all parts of the traffic, and unless each part of the freight carried earns a pro rata share of the fixed charges incurred in the business, the traffic is carried at a loss. On the supposition which we have made—that the special and comparatively unprofitable increment of carrying was discontinued as soon as the first vessel could use its entire cargo space in transporting goods of a high class—the arrival of the second vessel may cause the less profitable carrying to be resumed, since there will not be enough of the better sort to afford two full cargoes. Moreover, a normal kind of competition will stop short of the warfare which drives both rivals into bankruptcy, and will leave the rates at a level at which the receipts of each carrier cover all his outlays.[2]

[2] A full discussion of the limits of freight charges would take account of the fact that "what the traffic will bear" is an elastic amount. An infant industry will bear less than a mature one; and moreover, a rate that it will bear without being taxed out of existence may be sufficient to stunt its growth. A railroad may be interested in hastening its growth. When goods have one cost at A and another at B, a railroad company may carry them from the one point to the other for less than the difference between the costs because it wishes the industry at A to grow and furnish freight. Farmers who are introducing a new crop in a section of country remote from a market may be encouraged by a rate for carrying which leaves them a margin of profit. It is when a branch of production has more nearly reached its natural dimensions that the charge for carrying its product tends to approach its highest limit.



Simple Cases of Charging "What the Traffic will Bear."—The value of a study of primitive carriers and their policy lies in the fact that it illustrates principles which apply to transportation by a complicated system of railroads, although in this latter case they are not easily discerned. Imperfect competition is what exists in the department of carrying. So long as a railroad is without any rival it may, in some cases, charge for moving goods from one point to another about as much as the cost of making them at the latter point exceeds the cost at the former. This is the simplest case of charging what the traffic will bear. Or, again, the situation may be dominated by producers at a third point who can make goods and get them carried to the place we may term the market for less than the cost of making them directly in this latter place. In such a case the road may demand nearly the amount by which the cost of making the goods at an accessible third point and moving them to the one which is their market exceeds the cost of making them in the place first named; and this is a slightly less simple case of charging what the traffic will bear. It is appropriating the difference between two natural values neither of which the railroad itself fixes.

Charges based on Various Kinds of Cost.—The charges of the railroad may be limited by the competition of inferior carriers who use its own route, such as teamsters whose wagons use a public highway running parallel to its own track. Here charges are based on costs, but not on those which the railroad incurs. They are the costs which the teamsters incur; and if the railroad has much business, its own costs are less and it makes a profit. The charges may be based on costs incurred by more economical carriers, like owners of ships, and in such a case the rate which the railroad can get may be less than its own costs, if these are figured in the simple way of dividing a total outlay by a total number of units of freight transported. The rate is based on the shipowners' costs, and these are so low as to bankrupt the railroad if it should reduce all its charges to such a level. It reduces them thus only on the particular route where competition by water is encountered, and keeps them elsewhere at the higher level. In the case of shipments by rail over such routes "what the traffic will bear" is determined by the low charges established by the ships; and this means that it is determined by a certain definite cost of carrying goods between the very points which the railroad connects.

The Exceptional Importance of Fixed Charges in the Case of Railroads.—The railroad, in the case just noticed, carries its rates below costs, as these are computed in a simple way, but keeps the lowest of them somewhat above the variable costs which we have defined; and there appears the important fact that the fixed costs incurred by the railroad form an unprecedentedly large part of its total expenses. The interest on the outlay it makes for roadbed, track, bridges, tunnels, terminals, etc., is something for which there is no fair parallel in the case of wagons or ships. This is the first unique fact concerning railroads and their policy; and the second is that they continue very long in that intermediate state which we have illustrated by the ship which had only a partial cargo and was impelled to take some traffic at a special and low rate. For many years the railroad only partially utilizes its plant; and so long as that is the case its natural policy is one of drastic discrimination between different portions of its business. A third great point of difference between the railroad and other carriers appears if, while its capacity is still only partially utilized, it encounters the direct rivalry of other railroads that are eager for business; competition then takes a shape which impels the participants irresistibly into some kind of combination. The union may be tacit or formal, and it may depend on personal relations or on some merging of corporations; but toward something that will make the rival lines act concurrently and with mutual toleration the situation impels them with unique force.

The general features of railroad rates, then, are—

(1) Some charges based on the difference between the natural value of merchandise at the point of origin and its value at the point of delivery, as this latter value is determined by causes independent of the rates charged for transportation between the two points;

(2) The adjustment of other charges according to costs incurred by independent carriers operating between the same points;

(3) The exceptional importance of the railroad's "fixed costs" and the drastically discriminating rates to which this leads;

(4) The irresistible motive for combination where direct competition appears between railroads connecting the same points.

We speak of the condition of railroads as an intermediate state because it is one out of which a natural development takes other carriers when their capacity for service is fully utilized. The same cause—a complete utilization of the plants—would have a like effect in the case of railroads; but the cause is so slow in coming into full operation that few persons think of it as affecting the problem at all. The problem of freight charges on railroads is usually regarded as if the intermediate state were destined to be perpetual. It is, however, entirely true that a full utilization of the plants of railroads would tend to take them out of this state. If the increase of business came after a combination had been effected, it would tend to put a stop to the sharp discriminations to which the eager quest for traffic has led. Different shippers could more easily secure equally favorable treatment. Freight of a low grade would be less desired, since the space it would require might otherwise be available for business of a more profitable kind, and the rates on such freight would rise. The increased traffic would make it possible to earn large dividends without increasing charges on the lower grades of freight, and while greatly reducing the charges on the higher grades; but no economic force would be available for securing this adjustment. The state, by positive regulation, might secure it and might bring the earnings and the charges of the railroads more or less nearly to the normal standards which prevail where competition rules; but if competition were here to begin, it would result quite otherwise. It would restore the old condition of partially utilized cars, track, etc., and cause a new strife for traffic, which would cause some freight to be taken at very low rates, but would lead to inevitable consolidation and higher charges.

In general industry competition tends so to adjust prices as to yield interest on capital, wages for all varieties of labor, including labor of management, and nothing more, and this is the outcome elsewhere demanded by a growth of business coupled with a theoretically normal and perfect action of competition; but the peculiarities of competition between railways do not bring about the evolution which would give this result. Combination is effected long before the returns from the total traffic are made normal and before the returns from different parts of it are brought into their legitimate relation to each other. After the union of rival companies, railroads continue to be in that intermediate state in which the effect of an unused capacity for carrying has its natural effect in charges which discriminate widely between different localities and between different kinds of freight. The railroad traffic does, indeed, begin to follow the course which we have illustrated in the case of transportation by water. It takes a few steps in that direction, but further progress is then stopped by combinations.

The fundamental laws of economics still apply. The static standard of freight charges exists, and one can form some idea of what actual charges would be if the forces which elsewhere tend to bring prices to their theoretical standards could here operate unhindered. The hindrances, however, are such as definitely to preclude such a result. The rates do not become in a true sense normal. Even under such active competition as at times exists they do not become so, while without competition they never tend to become so. It would, however, be a gross mistake to assume that static standards have no application whatever to railway transportation. The whole subject is most easily understood when those standards are first defined and the baffling influences which prevent actual rates from conforming to them are then separately studied. There are influences which bring the various charges of railroads within a certain definable distance of normal standards.

The situation of railroads we take as we find it—one of complete consolidation in case of many roads, and of harmonious action, or quasi-consolidation, in the case of others. In general their charges are fixed by the place value they create, as that value is established by influences other than the charges themselves. It might seem that the charge for carrying fixes the place value. Whatever a railroad demands for carrying goods from A to B measures the enhanced value which they get in the moving; but if they would have possessed at B the same value that they now have, even though the railroad had not existed at all, it is evident that it is this value minus the value of the goods at A which fixes the charges for carrying, rather than that these charges fix the place value. We have seen in very simple and general cases how this principle works, and have now very briefly to trace the working of it in the case of a system of railroads. The special method of reckoning costs to which we have referred is an important element in the process.

"Costing" comparatively Simple in the Bookkeeping of Competing Producers.—In the study of ordinary industries we have encountered conditions which render the bookkeeping of a producer simple and cause him to charge all his costs, in a pro rata fashion, to his entire product. If his goods and those of his rivals are of one kind and are sold in a single market, a cut in the price of any one portion of the product involves a corresponding cut on the entire output. It is not possible to single out any particular increment for a reduction of price and leave the rate unchanged on the remainder. Where products are of different kinds it is possible to make a classification of them so as to get a large profit on some, a small one on others, and none at all on still others. When competition has not done its full work, something of this kind happens in many departments of business. A condition of unequal gain from different portions of an output lingers long after some effects of competition have been realized. In the end, however, it must yield if competition itself does its complete work, and whenever we adhere heroically to the hypothesis of the static state, we preclude this inequality of charges. Rivals who contend with each other for profitable business bring the prices of the goods which afford the most gain to such a level that a mill which makes this type of goods will pay no more in proportion to its capital than one which makes other types. The total cost of production, fixed and variable alike, would at that time, as we have seen, be barely covered, and might correctly be apportioned in a pro rata manner among all parts of the product.

The Effect of Increasing Business on Comparative Charges.—Competition of this perfect kind does not exist in manufacturing and is far from existing in the department of carrying, and it is important to know whether with growing business and greatly tempered rivalry there is any tendency toward the equalization of charges and the simplifying of the mode of reckoning costs. When a mill has more orders than it can fill, those it wishes to be rid of are the ones which yield the smallest profit. They encumber the mill and prevent the filling of more profitable orders; and the natural mode of reducing the amount of this undesirable part of the output is to raise the charges on it. This comes about without much aid from competition, for when all producers find their capacity overtaxed, they have no motive for contending sharply for business. Underbidding has for its purpose attracting business from rivals and is an irrational operation when all have orders enough and to spare. Competition is largely in abeyance when the business any one can have is overabundant.

These Principles Applicable to Carrying.—What we here assert concerning goods manufactured by independent mills would be true of goods carried by independent vessels, if they plied between the same two ports with no intermediate stops. If their capacity should at any time be overtaxed, they would not reduce the charges on higher grades, but they would raise them on the lower grades, and the classification of freight would lose some of its significance. The lowering of the charges on the high grades of freight would come when the profits of the business should attract new carriers, who would naturally seek for the traffic that paid the best, till all kinds paid about alike. The mode of reckoning costs might then become simple—a pro rata division of total outlays among all parts of the business.

The Condition of Uniform Costing never realized upon Railroads.—Not a single one of the essential conditions of equalized charges and uniform costing is now realized upon railroads, and there is only one of them that is approximated. Separate markets for different parts of the traffic are provided by the nature of the business. Every point to which goods are conveyed furnishes such a distinct market, and the service of carrying goods to it is paid for by a distinct set of customers. It follows, therefore, that some rates can be cut without affecting others, and they regularly are so. The second condition, that of bringing the carrying capacity of railroads into the fullest possible use, is attainable, but it is very remote. At times there is a congestion of freight and, in general, the capacity of existing plants is more nearly used than it heretofore has been; but by an addition to the rolling stock they could carry more than they do and the additional traffic would cost far less than the portion already carried. Moreover, with no addition to the rolling stock, very considerable enlargements of traffic could at many points be made. Thirdly, competition between railroads is not at present effective enough to bring about a reduction of the higher charges and make returns and costs simple. Combination takes place long before the discriminating charges are abandoned. Low-grade freight continues to be carried side by side with the high-grade which pays better. Charges to terminal points continue to be low, while charges to intermediate points are high. In a sense one may say that a tendency to discontinue these practices exists, but it is a tendency that is so effectually resisted that its natural results are only in small part realized. If a dam is built across a reservoir, holding the waters on one side ten feet above those on the other, one may say that the waters have a tendency to reach a uniform level, since the power of gravity is exercised in that direction; but the dam baffles the tendency. And so in railroad operations something interferes which checks the force of competition or removes it altogether, long before the discriminations in freight charges are removed or very much reduced.

An Intermediate State made relatively Permanent.—As we have said, the condition of traffic on railroads is analogous to what in the case of manufacturers and primitive carriers would be regarded as a transitional state soon to be left behind; but in the case of railroads it is relatively permanent. It is the condition in which certain natural economic forces are working vigorously, and, if they were not counteracted by other forces, would end by making natural adjustments and establishing normal rates for the carrier as well as the manufacturer. In this intermediate state the natural forces are counteracted and the adjustments are never made, and what we have to study is the degree in which they are approximated.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse