THE MORALITY OF COMPETITION.
When it has occurred to me to say—as I have occasionally said—that, to my mind, the whole truth lies neither with the individualist nor with his antagonist, my friends have often assured me that I was illogical. Of two contradictory principles, they say, you must take one. There are cases, I admit, in which this remark applies. It is true, or it is not true, that two and two make four. We cannot, in arithmetic, adopt Sir Roger de Coverley's conciliatory view, that there is much to be said on both sides. But this logical rule supposes that, in point of fact, the two principles apply to the same case, and are mutually exclusive. I also think that the habit of taking for granted that social problems are reducible to such an alternative, is the source of innumerable fallacies. I hold that, as a rule, any absolute solution of such problems is impossible; and that a man who boasts of being logical, is generally announcing his deliberate intention to be one-sided. He is confusing the undeniable canon that of two contradictory propositions one must be true, with the assumption that two propositions are really contradictory. The apparent contradiction may be illusory. Society, says the individualist, is made up of all its members. Certainly: if all Englishmen died, there would be no English race. But it does not follow that every individual Englishman is not also the product of the race. Society, says the Socialist, is an organic whole. I quite admit the fact; but it does not follow that, as a whole, it has any qualities or aims independent of the qualities and aims of the constituent parts. Metaphysicians have amused themselves, in all ages, with the puzzle about the many and the one. Perhaps they may find contradictions in the statement that a human society is both one and many; a unit and yet complex; but I am content to assume that unless we admit the fact, we shall get a very little way in sociology.
Society, we say, is an organism. That implies that every part of a society is dependent upon the other parts, and that although, for purposes of argument, we may find it convenient to assume that certain elements remain fixed while others vary, we must always remember that this is an assumption which, in the long run, never precisely corresponds to the facts. We may, for example, in economical questions, attend simply to the play of the ordinary industrial machinery, without taking into account the fact that the industrial machinery is conditioned by the political and ecclesiastical constitution, by the whole social order, and, therefore, by the acceptance of corresponding ethical, or philosophical or scientific creeds. The method is justifiable so long as we remember that we are using a logical artifice; but we blunder if we take our hypothesis for a full statement of the actual facts. We are then tempted, and it is, perhaps, the commonest of all sources of error in such inquiries, to assume that conditions are absolute which are really contingent; or, to attend only to the action, without noticing the inevitable reactions of the whole system of institutions. And I would suggest, that from this follows a very important lesson in such inquiries. To say that this or that part of a system is bad, is to say, by implication, that some better arrangement is possible consistently with our primary assumptions. In other words, we cannot rationally propose simply to cut out one part of a machine, dead or living, without considering the effect of the omission upon all the other dependent parts. The whole system is necessarily altered. What, we must therefore ask, is the tacit implication as well as what is the immediate purpose of a change? May not the bad effect be a necessary part of the system to which we also owe the good; or necessary under some conditions? It is always, therefore, a relevant question, what is the suggested alternative? We can then judge whether the removal of a particular evil is or is not to be produced at a greater cost than it is worth; whether it would be a process, say, of really curing a smoky chimney or of stopping the chimney altogether, and so abolishing not only the smoke but the fire.
I propose to apply this to the question of "competition". Competition is frequently denounced as the source of social evils. The complaint is far from a new one. I might take for my text a passage from J. S. Mill's famous chapter on the probable future of the labouring classes. Mill, after saying that he agrees with the Socialists in their practical aims, declares his utter dissent from their declamations against competition. "They forget," he says, "that where competition is not, monopoly is; and that monopoly, in all its forms, is the taxation of the industrious for the support of indolence, if not of plunder." That suggests my question: If competition is bad, what is good? What is the alternative to competition? Is it, as Mill says, monopoly, or is any third choice possible? If it is monopoly, do you defend monopoly, or only monopoly in some special cases? I opened, not long ago, an old book of caricatures, in which the revolutionary leader is carrying a banner with the double inscription, "No monopoly! No competition!" The implied challenge—how can you abolish both?—seemed to me to require a plain answer. Directly afterwards I then took up the newspaper, and read the report of an address upon the prize-day of a school. The speaker dwelt in the usual terms upon the remorseless and crushing competition of the present day, which he mentioned as an incitement to every boy to get a good training for the struggle. The moral was excellent; but it seemed to me curious that the speaker should be denouncing competition in the very same breath with proofs of its influence in encouraging education. When I was a lad, a clever boy and a stupid boy had an equal chance of getting an appointment to a public office. The merit which won a place might be relationship to a public official, or perhaps to a gentleman who had an influence in the constituency of the official. The system was a partial survival of the good old days in which, according to Sam Weller, the young nobleman got a position because his mother's uncle's wife's grandfather had once lighted the King's pipe. The nobleman, I need hardly add, considered this as an illustration of the pleasant belief, "Whatever is, is right". As we had ceased to accept that opinion in politics, offices were soon afterwards thrown open to competition, with the general impression that we were doing justice and opening a career to merit. That the resulting system has grave defects is, I think, quite undeniable; but so far as it has succeeded in determining that the men should be selected for public duty, for their fitness, and for nothing else, it is surely a step in advance which no one would now propose to retrace. And yet it was simply a substitution of competition for monopoly. As it comes into wider operation, some of us begin to cry out against competition. The respectable citizen asks, What are we to do with our boys? The obvious reply is, that he really means, What are we to do with our fools? A clever lad can now get on by his cleverness; and of course those who are not clever are thrust aside. That is a misfortune, perhaps, for them; but we can hardly regard it as a misfortune for the country. And clearly, too, pressure of this kind is likely to increase. We have come to believe that it is a main duty of the nation to provide general education. When the excellent Miss Hannah More began to spread village schools, she protested warmly that she would not teach children anything which would tend to make the poor discontented with their station. They must learn to read the Bible, but she hoped that they would stop short of such knowledge as would enable them to read Tom Paine. Now, Hannah More deserves our gratitude for her share in setting the ball rolling; but it has rolled far beyond the limits she would have prescribed. We now desire not only that every child in the country should be able to acquire the elements of learning at least; but, further, we hope that ladders may be provided by which every promising child may be able to climb beyond the elements, and to acquire the fullest culture of which his faculties are capable. There is not only no credit at the present day in wishing so much, but it is discreditable not to do what lies in one's power to further its accomplishment. But, then, is not that to increase enormously the field of competition? I, for example, am a literary person, after a fashion; I have, that is, done something to earn a living by my pen. I had the advantage at starting of belonging to the small class which was well enough off to send its children to the best schools and universities. That is to say, I was one of the minority which had virtually a monopoly of education, and but for that circumstance I should in all probability have taken to some possibly more honest, but perhaps even worse paid, occupation. Every extension of the margin of education, everything which diffuses knowledge and intellectual training through a wider circle, must increase the competition among authors. If every man with brains, whether born in a palace or a cottage is to have a chance of making the best of them, the capacity for authorship, and therefore the number of competitors, will be enormously spread. It may also, we will hope, increase the demand for their work. The same remark applies to every profession for which intellectual culture is a qualification. Do we regret the fact? Would we sentence three-quarters of the nation to remain stupid, in order that the fools in the remaining quarter may have a better chance? That would be contrary to every democratic instinct, to the highest as well as the lowest. But if I say, every office and every profession shall be open to every man; success in it shall depend upon his abilities and merits; and, further, every child in the country shall have the opportunity of acquiring the necessary qualifications, what is that but to accept and to stimulate the spirit of competition? What, I ask, is the alternative? Should people be appointed by interest? Or is nobody to be anxious for official or professional or literary or commercial success, but only to develop his powers from a sense of duty, and wait till some infallible observer comes round and says, "Friend, take this position, which you deserve"? Somehow I do not think that last scheme practicable at present. But, even in that case, I do not see how the merits of any man are to be tested without enabling him to prove by experiment that he is the most meritorious person; and, if that be admitted, is not every step in promoting education, in equalising, therefore, the position from which men start for the race, a direct encouragement to competition?
Carlyle was fond of saying that Napoleon's great message to mankind was the declaration that careers should be open to talent, or the tools given to him who could use them. Surely that was a sound principle; and one which, so far as I can see, cannot be applied without stimulating competition. The doctrine, indeed, is unpalatable to many Socialists. To me, it seems to be one to which only the cowardly and the indolent can object in principle. Will not a society be the better off, in which every man is set to work upon the tasks for which he is most fitted? If we allowed our teaching and our thinking to be done by blockheads; our hard labour to be done by men whose muscles were less developed than their brains; made our soldiers out of our cowards, and our sailors out of the sea-sick,—should we be better off? It seems, certainly, to me, that whatever may be the best constitution of society, one mark of it will be the tendency to distribute all social functions according to the fitness of the agents; to place trust where trust is justifiable, and to give the fullest scope for every proved ability, intellectual, moral, and physical. Of course, such approximation to this result, as we can observe in the present order of things, is very imperfect. Many of the most obvious evils in the particular system of competition now adopted, may be summed up in the statement, that the tests according to which success is awarded, are not so contrived as to secure the success of the best competitors. Some of them, for example, are calculated to give an advantage to the superficial and the showy. But that is to say that they are incompatible with the true principle which they were intended to embody; and that we should reform our method, not in the direction of limiting competition, but in the direction of so framing our system that it may be a genuine application of Carlyle's doctrine. In other words, in all the professions for which intellectual excellence is required, the conditions should be such as to give the best man the best chance, as far as human arrangements can secure that object. What other rule can be suggested? Competition, in this sense, means the preservation of the very atmosphere which is necessary to health; and to denounce it is either to confirm the most selfish and retrograde principles, or to denounce something which is only called competition by a confusion of ideas. How easy such a confusion may be, is obvious when we look at the ordinary language about industrial competition. We are told that wages are kept down by competition. To this Mill replied in the passage I have quoted, and, upon his own theory, at any rate, replied with perfect justice, that they were also kept up by competition. The common language upon the subject is merely one instance of the fallacies into which men fall when they personify an abstraction. Competition becomes a kind of malevolent and supernatural being, to whose powers no conceivable limits are assigned. It is supposed to account for any amount of degradation. Yet if, by multiplying their numbers, workmen increase supply, and so lower the price of labour, it follows, conversely, by the very same reasoning, that if they refused to multiply, they would diminish the supply and raise the price. The force, by its very nature, operates as certainly in one direction as in the other. If, again, there is competition among workmen, there is competition among capitalists. In every strike, of course, workmen apply the principle, and sometimes apply it very effectually, in the attempt to raise their wages. It was often argued, indeed, that in this struggle, the employer possessed advantages partly due to his power of forming tacit combinations. The farmers in a parish, or the manufacturers in a business, were pledged to each other not to raise the rate of wages. If that be so, you again complain, not of competition, but of the want of competition; and you agree that the labourer will benefit, as in fact, I take it, he has undoubtedly benefited, by freer competition among capitalists, or by the greater power of removing his own labour to better markets. In such cases, the very meaning of the complaint is not that there is competition, but that the competition is so arranged as to give an unfair advantage to one side. And a similar misunderstanding is obviously implied in other cases. The Australian or American workman fears that his wages will be lowered by the competition of the Chinese; and the Englishman protests against the competition of pauper aliens. Let us assume that he is right in believing that such competition will tend to lower his wages, whatever the moral to be drawn from the fact. Briefly, denunciations of "competition" in this sense are really complaints that we do not exclude the Chinese immigrant and therefore give a monopoly to the native labourer. That may be a good thing for him, and if it be not a good thing for the Chinaman who is excluded from the field, we perhaps do not care very much about the results to China. We are so much better than the heathen that we need not bother about their interests. But, of course, the English workman, when he complains of the intensity of competition, does not propose to adopt the analogous remedy of giving a monopoly to one section of our own population. The English pauper is here; we do not want to suppress him, but only to suppress his pauperism; and he certainly cannot be excluded from any share in the fund devoted to the support of labour. The evil, therefore, of which we complain is primarily the inadequacy of the support provided, not,—though that may also be complained of,—the undesirable method by which those funds are distributed. In other words, the complaint may so far be taken to mean that there are too many competitors, not that, given the competitors, their shares are determined by competition, instead of being determined by monopoly or by some other principle.
We have therefore to inquire whether any principle can be suggested which will effect the desired end, and which will yet really exclude competition. The popular suggestion is that the remedy lies in suppressing competition by equalising the prizes. If no prizes are to be won, there will so far be less reason for competing. Enough may be provided for all by simply taking something from those who have too much. Now, I may probably assume that we all agree in approving the contemplated end—a greater equality of wealth, and especially an elevation of the lower classes to a higher position in the scale of comfort. Every social reformer, whatever his particular creed, would probably agree that some of us are too rich, and that a great many are too poor. But we still have to ask, in what sense it is conceivable that a real suppression of competition can contribute to the desired end. It is obvious that when we denounce competition we often mean not that it is to be abolished, but that it is to be regulated and limited in its application. So, for example, people sometimes speak as if competition were the antithesis to co-operation. But I need hardly say that individualists, as well as their opponents, may legitimately sing the praises of co-operation. Nobody was more forward than Mill, for example, and Mill's followers, in advocating the principles of the early co-operative societies. He and they rejoiced to believe that the co-operative societies had revealed unsuspected virtues and capacities in the class from which they sprang; that they had done much to raise the standard of life and to extend sympathy and human relations among previously disconnected units of society. But it is, of course, equally obvious that they have grown up in a society which supposes free competition in every part of its industrial system; that co-operative societies, so far as the outside world is concerned, have to buy in the cheapest and sell in the dearest market; that the rate of wages of their members is still fixed by competition; and that they encourage habits of saving and forethought which presuppose that each man is to have private ends of his own. In what sense, then, can co-operation ever be regarded as really opposed to competition? Competition may exist among groups of men just as much as among individuals: a state of war is not less a state of war if it is carried on by regiments and armies, instead of by mere chaotic struggles in which each man fights for his own hand. Competition does not mean that there should be no combination, but that there should be no monopoly. So long as a trade or a profession is open to every one who chooses to take it up, its conduct will be equally regulated by competition, whether it be competition as between societies or individuals, or whether its profits be divided upon one system or another between the various classes concerned. Co-operators, of course, may look forward to a day in which society at large will be members of a single co-operative society; or, again, to a time in which every industrial enterprise may be conducted by the State. Supposing any such aspiration to be realised, the question still remains, whether they would amount to the abolition or still only to the shifting of the incidence of competition. Socialists tell us that hitherto the labourer has not had his fair share of the produce of industry. The existing system has sanctioned a complicated chicanery, by which one class has been enabled to live as mere bloodsuckers and parasites upon the rest of society. Property is the result of theft, instead of being, as Economists used to assure us, the reward of thrift. It is hoped that these evils may be remedied by a reconstruction of society, in which the means of production shall all be public property, and every man's income be simply a salary in proportion to the quantity of his labour. If we, then, ask how far competition would be abolished, we may first make one remark. Such a system, like every other system, requires, for its successful working, that the instincts and moral impulses should correspond to the demands of the society. Absolute equality of property is just as compatible with universal misery as with universal prosperity. A population made up of thoroughly lazy, sensual, stupid individuals could, if it chose, work such a machinery so as to suppress all who were industrious, refined and intelligent. However great may be the revenue of a nation, it is a very simple problem of arithmetic to discover how many people could be supported just above the starvation level. The nation at large would, on the supposed system, have to decide how its numbers and wants are to be proportioned to its means. If individuals do not compete, the whole society has, presumably, to compete with other societies; and, in every case whatever, with the general forces of nature. An indolent and inefficient majority might decide, if it pleased, that the amount of work to be exacted should be that which would be just enough to provide the simplest material necessities. If, again, the indolent and inefficient are to exist at all,—and we can scarcely count upon their disappearance,—and if further, they are to share equally with the industrious and the efficient, we must, in some way, coerce them into the required activity. If every industrial organisation is to be worked by the State, the State, it would seem, must appeal to the only means at its disposal,—namely, the prison and the scourge. If, moreover, the idle and sensual choose to multiply, the State must force them to refrain, or the standard of existence will be lowered. And, therefore, as is often argued, Socialism logically carried out would, under such conditions, lead to slavery; to a state in which labour would be enforced, and the whole system of life absolutely regulated by the will of the majority; and, in the last resort, by physical force. That seems, I confess, to be a necessary result, unless you can assume a moral change, which is entirely different from the mere change of machinery, and not necessarily implied, nor even made probable, by the change. The intellectual leaders of Socialism, no doubt, assume that the removal of "injustice" will lead to the development of a public spirit which will cause the total efficiency to be as great as it is at present, or perhaps greater. But the mass who call themselves Socialists take, one suspects, a much simpler view. They are moved by the very natural, but not especially lofty, desire to have more wages and less work. They take for granted that if their share of the total product is increased, they will get a larger dividend; and do not stop to inquire whether the advantage may be not more than counterbalanced by the diminution of the whole product, when the present incitements to industry are removed. They argue,—that is, so far as they argue at all,—as though the quantity to be distributed were a fixed quantity, and regard capitalists as pernicious persons, somehow intercepting a lion's share of the stream of wealth which, it is assumed, would flow equally if they were abolished. That is, of course, to beg the whole question.
I, however, shall venture to assume that the industrial machinery requires a corresponding moral force to work it; and I, therefore, proceed to ask how such a force can be supposed to act without some form of competition. Nothing, as a recent writer suggests,—ironically, perhaps,—could be easier than to secure an abolition of competition. You have only to do two things: to draw a "ring-fence" round your society, and then to proportion the members within the fence to the supplies. The remark suggests the difficulty. A ring-fence, for example, round London or Manchester would mean the starvation of millions in a month; or, if round England, the ruin of English commerce, the enormous rise in the cost of the poor man's food, and the abolition of all his little luxuries. But, if you include even a population as large as London, what you have next to do is to drill some millions of people—vast numbers of them poor, reckless, ignorant, sensual, and selfish—to regulate their whole mode of life by a given code, and refrain from all the pleasures which they most appreciate. The task is a big one, and not the less if you have also to undertake that everybody, whatever his personal qualities, shall have enough to lead a comfortable life. I do not suppose, however, that any rational Socialist would accept that programme of isolation. He would hold that, in his Utopia, we can do more efficiently all that is done under a system which he regards as wasteful and unjust. The existing machinery, whatever else may be said of it, does, in fact, tend to weld the whole world more and more into a single industrial organism. English workmen are labouring to satisfy the wants of other human beings in every quarter of the world; while Chinese, and Africans, and Europeans, and Americans are also labouring to satisfy theirs. This vast and almost inconceivably complex machinery has grown up in the main unconsciously, or, at least, with a very imperfect anticipation of the ultimate results, by the independent efforts of innumerable inventors, and speculators, and merchants, and manufacturers, each of them intent, as a rule, only upon his own immediate profits and the interests of the little circle with which he is in immediate contact. The theory is not, I suppose, that this gigantic system of mutual interdependence should be abolished or restricted, but that it should be carried on consciously, with definite and intelligible purpose, and in such a way as to promote the interests of every fraction of society. The whole organism should resemble one worked by a single brain, instead of representing the resultant of a multitude of distracted and conflicting forces. The difficulties are obvious enough, nor need I dwell upon them here. I will not inquire whether it does not suppose something like omniscience in the new industrial leaders; and whether the restless and multifarious energy now displayed in discovering new means of satisfying human wants could be supplied by a central body, or a number of central bodies, made up of human beings, and, moreover, official human beings, reluctant to try experiments and strike into new courses, and without the present motives for enterprise, "Individualists" have enlarged sufficiently upon such topics. What I have to note is that, in any case, the change supposes the necessity of a corresponding morality in the growth of the instincts, the public spirit, the hatred of indolence, the temperance and self-command which would be requisite to work it efficiently. The organisation into which we are born presupposes certain moral instincts, and, moreover, necessarily implies a vast system of moral discipline. Our hopes and aspirations, our judgments of our neighbours and of ourselves, are at every moment guided and moulded by the great structure of which we form a part. Whenever we ask how our lives are to be directed, what are to be the terms on which we form our most intimate ties, whom we are to support or suppress, how we are to win respect or incur contempt, we are profoundly affected by the social relations in which we are placed at our birth, and the corresponding beliefs or prejudices which we have unconsciously imbibed. Such influences, it may perhaps be said, are of incomparably greater importance than the direct exhortations to which we listen, or than the abstract doctrines which we accept in words, but which receive their whole colouring from the concrete facts to which they conform. Now, I ask how such discipline can be conceived without some kind of competition; or, rather, what would be the discipline which would remain if, in some sense, competition could be suppressed? If in the ideal society there are still prizes to be won, positions which may be the object of legitimate desire, and if those positions are to be open to every one, whatever his circumstances, we might still have the keenest competition, though carried on by different methods. If, on the other hand, no man's position were to be better than another's, we might suppress competition at the price of suppressing every motive for social as well as individual improvement. In any conceivable state of things, the welfare of every society, the total means of enjoyment at its disposal, must depend upon the energy, intelligence, and trustworthiness of its constituent members. Such qualities, I need hardly say, are qualities of individuals. Unless John and Peter and Thomas are steady, industrious, sober, and honest, the society as a whole will be neither honest nor sober nor prosperous. The problem, then, becomes, how can you ensure the existence of such qualities unless John and Peter and the rest have some advantage in virtue of possessing them? Somehow or other, a man must be the better off for doing his work well and treating his neighbour fairly. He ought surely to hold the positions in which such qualities are most required, and to have, if possible, the best chance of being a progenitor of the rising generation. A social condition in which it made no difference to a man, except so far as his own conscience was concerned, whether he were or were not honest, would imply a society favourable to people without a conscience, because giving full play to the forces which make for corruption and disintegration. If you remove the rewards accessible to the virtuous and peaceful, how are you to keep the penalties which restrain the vicious and improvident? A bare repeal of the law, "If a man will not work, neither shall he eat," would not of itself promote industry. You would at most remove the compulsion which arises from competition, to introduce the compulsion which uses physical force. You would get rid of what seems to some people the "natural" penalty of want following waste, and be forced to introduce the "artificial" or legislative penalty of compulsory labour. But, otherwise, you must construct your society so that, by the spontaneous play of society, the purer elements may rise to the surface, and the scum sink to the bottom. So long as human nature varies indefinitely, so long as we have knaves and honest men, sinners and saints, cowards and heroes, some process of energetic and active sifting is surely essential to the preservation of social health; and it is difficult to see how that is conceivable without some process of active and keen competition.
The Socialist will, of course, say, and say with too much truth, that the present form of competition is favourable to anti-social qualities. If, indeed, a capitalist is not a person who increases the productive powers of industry, but a person who manages simply to intercept a share produced by the industry of others, there is, of course, much to be said for this view. I cannot now consider that point, for my subject to-day is the moral aspect of competition considered generally. And what I have just said suggests what is, I think, the more purely moral aspect of the question. A reasonable Socialist desires to maintain what is good in the existing system, while suppressing its abuses. The question, What is good? is partly economical; but it is partly also ethical: and it is with that part that I am at present concerned.
Any system of competition, any system which supposes a reward for virtue other than virtue itself, may be accused of promoting selfishness and other ugly qualities. The doctrine that virtue is its own reward is very charming in the mouth of the virtuous man; but when his neighbours use it as an excuse for not rewarding him, it becomes rather less attractive. It saves a great deal of trouble, no doubt, and relieves us from an awkward responsibility. I must, however, point out, in the first place, that a fallacy is often introduced into these discussions which Mr. Herbert Spencer has done a great deal to expose. He has dwelt very forcibly, for example, on the fact that it is a duty to be happy and healthy; and that selfishness, if used in a bad sense, should not mean simply regard for ourselves, but only disregard for our neighbours. We ought not, in other words, to be unjust because we ourselves happen to be the objects of injustice. The parable of the good Samaritan is generally regarded as a perfect embodiment of a great moral truth. Translated from poetry into an abstract logical form, it amounts to saying that we should do good to the man who most needs our services, whatever be the accidents which alienate ordinary sympathies. Now, suppose that the good Samaritan had himself fallen among thieves, what would have been his duty? His first duty, I should say, would have been, if possible, to knock down the thief; his second, to tie up his own wounds; and his third, to call in the police. We should not, perhaps, call him virtuous for such conduct; but we should clearly think him wrong for omitting it. Not to resist a thief is cowardly; not to attend to your own health is to incapacitate yourself for duty; not to apply to the police is to be wanting in public spirit. Assuming robbery to be wrong, I am not the less bound to suppress it because I happen to be the person robbed; I am only bound not to be vindictive—that is, not to allow my personal feelings to make me act otherwise than I should act if I had no special interest in the particular case. Adam Smith's favourite rule of the "indifferent spectator" is the proper one in the case. I should be impartial, and incline no more to severity than to lenity, because I am forced by circumstances to act both as judge and as plaintiff. So, in questions of self-support, it is obviously a fallacy to assume that an action, directed in the first instance to a man's own benefit, is therefore to be stigmatised as selfish. On the good Samaritan's principle, a person should be supported, ceteris paribus, by the person who can do it most efficiently, and in nine cases out of ten that person is himself. If self-support is selfish in the sense that the service is directly rendered to self, it is not the less unselfish in so far as it is necessarily also a service to others. If I keep myself by my labour, I am preventing a burden from falling upon my fellows. And, of course, the case is stronger when I include my family. We were all impressed the other day by the story of the poor boy who got some wretchedly small pittance by his work, spent a small portion of it upon his own needs, and devoted the chief part of it to trying to save his mother and her other children from starvation. Was he selfish? Was he selfish even in taking something for himself, as the only prop of his family? What may be the immediate motive of a man when he is working for his own bread and the bread of his family may often be a difficult question; but as, in point of fact, he is helping not only himself and those who depend on him, but also in some degree relieving others from a burden, his conduct must clearly not be set down as selfish in any sense which involves moral disapproval.
Let us apply this to the case of competition. The word is generally used to convey a suggestion of selfishness in a bad sense. We think of the hardship upon the man who is ousted, as much as of the benefit to the man who gets in; or perhaps we think of it more. It suggests to us that one man has been shut out for the benefit of his neighbour; and that, of course, suggests envy, malice, and all uncharitableness. We hold that such competition must generate ill-will. I used—when I was intimately connected with a competitive system at the university—to hear occasionally of the evil influences of competition, as tending to promote jealousy between competitors. I always replied that, so far as my experience went, the evil was altogether imaginary. So far from competition generating ill-will, the keenest competitors were, as a rule, the closest friends. There was no stronger bond than the bond of rivalry in our intellectual contests. One main reason was, of course, that we had absolute faith in the fairness of the competition. We felt that it would be unworthy to complain of being beaten by a better man; and we had no doubt that, in point of fact, the winners were the better men; or, at any rate, were honestly believed to be the better men by those who distributed honours. The case, though on a small scale, may suggest one principle. So far as the end of such competitions is good, the normal motives cannot be bad. The end of a fair competition is the discovery of the ablest men, with a view to placing them in the position where their talents may be turned to most account. It can only be achieved so far as each man does his best to train his own powers, and is prepared to test them fairly against the powers of others. To work for that end is, then, not only permissible, but a duty. The spirit in which the end is pursued may be bad, in so far as a man pursues it by unfair means; in so far as he tries to make sham performance pass off for genuine; or, again, in so far as he sets an undue value upon the reward, as apart from the qualities by which it is gained. But if he works simply with the desire of making the best of himself, and if the reward is simply such a position as may enable him to be most useful to society, the competition which results will be bracing and invigorating, and will appeal to no such motives as can be called, in the bad sense, selfish. He is discharging a function which is useful, it is true, to himself; but which is also intrinsically useful to the whole society. The same principle applies, again, to intellectual activity in general. All genuine thought is essentially useful to mankind. In the struggle to discover truth, even our antagonists are, necessarily, our co-operators. A philosopher, as a man of science, owes, at least, as much to those who differ from him, as to those who agree with him. The conflict of many minds, from many sides, is the essential condition of intellectual progress. Now, if a man plays his part manfully and honourably in such a struggle, he deserves our gratitude, even if he takes the wrong side. If he looks forward to the recognition by the best judges as one motive for his activity, I think that he is asking for a worthy reward. He deserves blame, only so far as his motives have a mixture of unworthy personal sentiment. Obviously, if he aims at cheap fame, at making a temporary sensation instead of a permanent impression, at flattering prejudices instead of spreading truth; or, if he shows greediness of notoriety, by trying to get unjust credit, as we sometimes see scientific people squabbling over claims to the first promulgation of some trifling discovery, he is showing paltriness of spirit. The men whom we revere are those who, like Faraday or Darwin, devoted themselves exclusively to the advancement of knowledge, and would have scorned a reputation won by anything but genuine work. The fact that there is a competition in such matters implies, no doubt, a temptation,—the temptation to set a higher value upon praise than upon praiseworthiness; but I think it not only possible that the competitors in such rivalries may keep to the honourable path, but probable that, as a matter of fact, they frequently,—I hope that I may say generally,—do so. If the fame at which a man aims be not that which "in broad rumour lies," but that which "lives and spreads aloft in those pure eyes and perfect witness of all-judging Jove," then I think that the desire for it is scarcely to be called a last infirmity—rather, it is an inseparable quality of noble minds. We wish to honour men who have been good soldiers in that warfare, and we can hardly wish them to be indifferent to our homage.
We may add, then, that a competition need not be demoralising when the competitors have lofty aims and use only honourable means. When, passing from purely intellectual aims, we consider the case, say, of the race for wealth, we may safely make an analogous remark. If a man's aim in becoming rich is of the vulgar kind; if he wishes to make an ostentatious display of wealth, and to spend his money upon demoralising amusement; or if, again, he tries to succeed by quackery instead of by the production of honest work, he is, of course, so far mischievous and immoral. But a man whose aims are public-spirited, nay, even if they be such as simply tend to improve the general comfort; who develops, for example, the resources of the country, and introduces new industries or more effective modes of manufacture, is, undoubtedly, in fact conferring a benefit upon his fellows, and may, so far, be doing his duty in the most effectual way open to him. If he succeeds by being really a more efficient man of business than his neighbours, he is only doing what, in the interests of all, it is desirable that he should do. He is discharging an essential social function; and what is to be desired is, that he should feel the responsibility involved, that he should regard his work as on one side the discharge of a social function, and not simply as a means of personal aggrandisement. It is not the fact that he is competing that is against him; but the fact, when it is a fact, that there is something discreditable about the means which he adopts, or the reward that he contemplates.
This, indeed, suggests another and a highly important question—the question, namely, whether, in our present social state, his reward may not be excessive, and won at too great a cost to his rivals. And, without going into other questions involved, I will try to say a little, in conclusion, upon this, which is certainly a pressing problem. Competition, I have suggested, is not immoral if it is a competition in doing honest work by honourable means, and if it is also a fair competition. But it must, of course, be added, that fairness includes more than the simple equality of chances. It supposes, also, that there should be some proportion between the rewards and the merits. If it is simply a question between two men, which shall be captain of a ship, and which shall be mate, then the best plan is to decide by their merits as sailors; and, if their merits be fairly tried, the loser need bear no grudge against the winner. But when we have such cases as sometimes occur, when, for example, the ship is cast away, and it becomes a question whether I shall eat you or you shall eat me, or, let us say, which of us is to have the last biscuit, we get one of those terrible cases of temptation in which the strongest social bonds sometimes give way under the strain. The competition, then, becomes, in the highest degree, demoralising, and the struggle for existence resolves itself into a mere unscrupulous scramble for life, at any sacrifice of others. That, it is sometimes said, is a parallel to our social state at present. If I gave an excessive prize to the first boy in a school and flogged the second, I should not be doing justice. If one man is rewarded for a moderate amount of forethought by becoming a millionaire, and his unsuccessful rivals punished by starvation or the workhouse, the lottery of life is not arranged on principles of justice. A man must be a very determined optimist if he denied the painful truth to be found in such statements. He must be blind to many evils if he does not perceive the danger of dulling his sympathies by indifference to the fate of the unsuccessful. The rich man in Clough's poem observes that, whether there be a God matters very little—
For I and mine, thank somebody, Manage to get our victual.
But, even if we are not very rich, we must often, I think, doubt whether we are not wrapping ourselves in a spirit of selfish complacency when we are returning to a comfortable home and passing outcasts of the street. We must sometimes reflect that our comfort is not simply a reward for virtue or intelligence, even if it be not sometimes the prize of actual dishonesty. To shut our eyes to the mass of wretchedness around us is to harden our hearts, although to open our hands is too often to do more harm than good. It is no wonder that we should be tempted to declaim against competition, when the competition means that so many unfortunates are to be crowded off their narrow standing-ground into the gulf of pauperism.
This may suggest the moral which I have been endeavouring to bring out. Looking at society at large, we may surely say that it will be better in proportion as every man is strenuously endeavouring to play his part, and in which the parts are distributed to those best fitted to play them. We must admit, too, that for any period to which we can look forward, the great mass of mankind will find enough to occupy their energies in labouring primarily for their own support, and so bearing the burden of their own needs and the needs of their families. We may infer, too, that a society will be the better so far as it gives the most open careers to all talents, wherever displayed, and as it shows respect for the homely virtues of industry, integrity, and forethought, which are essential to the whole body as to its constituent members. And we may further say that the corresponding motives in the individual cannot be immoral. A desire of independence, the self-respect which makes a man shrink from accepting as a gift what he can win as a fair reward, the love of fairplay, which makes him use only honest means in the struggle, are qualities which can never lose their value, and which are not the less valuable because in the first instance they are most profitable to their possessors. Nothing which tends to weaken such motives can be good; but while they preserve their intensity, they necessarily imply the existence of competition in some form or other.
It is equally clear that competition by itself is not a sufficient panacea. Whenever we take an abstract quality, personify it by the help of capital letters, and lay it down as the one principle of a complex system, we generally blunder. Competition is as far as possible from being the solitary condition of a healthy society. It must be not only a competition for worthy ends by honourable means, but should be a competition so regulated that the reward may bear some proportion to the merit. Monopoly is an evil in so far as it means an exclusive possession of some advantages or privileges, especially when they are given by the accidents of birth or position. It is something if they are given to the best and the ablest; but the evil still remains if even the best and ablest are rewarded by a position which cramps the energies and lowers the necessity of others. Competition is only desirable in so far as it is a process by which the useful qualities are encouraged by an adequate, and not more than an adequate, stimulus; and in which, therefore, there is not involved the degradation and the misery on the one side, the excessive reward on the other, of the unsuccessful and the successful in the struggle. Competition, therefore, we might say, could be unequivocally beneficial only in an ideal society; in a state in which we might unreservedly devote ourselves to making the best of our abilities and accepting the consequent results, without the painful sense in the background that others were being sacrificed and debased; crushed because they had less luck in the struggle, and were, perhaps, only less deserving in some degree than ourselves. So long as we are still far enough from having realised any such state; so long as we feel, and cannot but feel, that the distribution of rewards is so much at the mercy of chance, and so often goes to qualities which, in an ideal state, would deserve rather reprobation than applause, we can only aim at better things. We can do what in us lies to level some inequalities, to work, so far as our opportunities enable us, in the causes which are mostly beneficial for the race, to spread enlightenment and good feeling, and to help the unfortunate. But it is also incumbent upon us to remember carefully, what is so often overlooked in the denunciations of competition, that the end for which we must hope, and the approach to which we must further, is one in which the equivocal virtue of charity shall be suppressed; that is, in which no man shall be dependent upon his neighbour in such a sense as to be able to neglect his own duties; in which there may be normally a reciprocity of good services, and the reciprocity not be (as has been said) all on one side. There is a very explicable tendency at present to ask for such one-sided reciprocity. It is natural enough, for reasons too obvious to be mentioned, that reformers should dwell exclusively upon the right of every one to support, and neglect to point out the correlative duty of every one to do his best to support himself. The popular arguments about "old-age pensions" may illustrate the general state of mind. It is disgraceful, people say, that so large a proportion of the aged poor should come to depend upon the rates. Undoubtedly it is disgraceful. Then upon whom does the disgrace fall? It sounds harsh to say that it falls upon the sufferers. We shrink from saying to a pauper, "It serves you right". That sounds brutal, and is only in part true. Still, we should not shrink from stating whatever is true, painful though it may be. It sounds better to lay all the blame upon the oppressor than to lay it upon the oppressed; and yet, as a rule, the cowardice or folly of the oppressed has generally been one cause of their misfortunes, and cannot be overlooked in a true estimate of the case. That drunkenness, improvidence, love of gambling, and so forth, do in fact lead to pauperism is undeniable; and that they are bad, and so far disgraceful, is a necessary consequence. In such cases, then, pauperism is a proof of bad qualities; and the fact, like all other facts, must be recognised. The stress of argument, therefore, is laid upon the hardships suffered by the honest and industrious poor. The logical consequence should be, that the deserving poor should become pensioners, and the undeserving paupers. This at once opens the amazingly difficult question of moral merit, and the power of poor-law officials to solve problems which would certainly puzzle the keenest psychologists. Suppose, for example, that a man, without being definitely vicious, has counted upon the promised pension, and therefore neglected any attempts to save. If you give him a pension, you virtually tell everybody that saving is a folly; if you don't, you inflict upon him the stigma which is deserved by the drunkard and the thief. So difficult is it to arrange for this proposed valuation of a man's moral qualities that it has been proposed to get rid of all stigma by making it the right and duty of every one to take a pension. That might conceivably alter the praise, but it would surely not alter the praiseworthiness. It must be wrong in me to take money from my neighbours when I don't want it; and, if wrong, it surely ought to be disgraceful. And this seems to indicate the real point. We may aim at altering the facts, at making them more conducive to good qualities; but we cannot alter or attempt to decide by laws the degree of praise or blame to be attached to individuals. It would be very desirable to bring about a state of things in which no honest and provident man need ever fall into want; and, in that state, pauperism would be rightly discreditable as an indication of bad qualities. But to say that nobody shall be ashamed of taking support would be to ruin the essential economic virtues, and to pauperise the nation; and to try to lay down precise rules as to the distribution of honour and discredit, seems, to me, to be a problem beyond the power of a legislature. I express no opinion upon the question itself, because I am quite incompetent to do so. I only refer to it as illustrating the difficulties which beset us when we try to remove the evils of the present system, and yet to preserve the stimulus to industry, which is implied in competition. The shortest plan is to shut one's eyes to the difficulty, and roundly deny its existence. I hope that our legislators may hit upon some more promising methods. The ordinary mode of cutting the knot too often suggests that the actually contemplated ideal is the land in which the chickens run about ready roasted, and the curse of labour is finally removed from mankind. The true ideal, surely, is the state in which labour shall be generally a blessing; in which we shall recognise the fact—disagreeable or otherwise—that the race can only be elevated by the universal diffusion of public spirit, and a general conviction that it is every man's first duty to cultivate his own capacities, to turn them to the best possible account, and to work strenuously and heartily in whatever position he has been placed. It is because I cannot help thinking that when we attack competition in general terms, we are, too often, blinding ourselves to those homely and often-repeated, and, as I believe, indisputable truths, that I have ventured to speak to-day, namely, on the side of competition—so far, at least, on the side of competition as to suggest that our true ideal should be, not a state, if such a state be conceivable, in which there is no competition, but a state in which competition should be so regulated that it should be really equivalent to a process of bringing about the best possible distribution of the whole social forces; and should be held to be, because it would really be, not a struggle of each man to seize upon a larger share of insufficient means, but the honest effort of each man to do the very utmost he can to make himself a thoroughly efficient member of society.
The problem of which I propose to speak is the old dispute between Dives and Lazarus. Lazarus, presumably, was a better man than Dives. How could Dives justify himself for living in purple and fine linen, while Lazarus was lying at the gates, with the dogs licking his sores? The problem is one of all ages, and takes many forms. When the old Puritan saw a man going to the gallows, "There," he said, "but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford". When the rich man, entering his club, sees some wretched tatterdemalion, slouching on the pavement, there, he may say, goes Sir Gorgius Midas, but for—what? I am here and he there, he may say, because I was the son of a successful stock-jobber, and he the son of some deserted mother at the workhouse. That is the cause, but is it a reason? Suppose, as is likely enough, that Lazarus is as good a man as Midas, ought they not to change places, or to share their property equally? A question, certainly, to be asked, and, if possible, to be answered.
It is often answered, and is most simply answered, by saying that all men ought to be equal. Dives should be cut up and distributed in equal shares between Lazarus and his brethren. The dogma which embodies this claim is one which is easily refuted in some of the senses which it may bear, though in spite of such refutations it has become an essential part of the most genuine creed of mankind. The man of science says, with perfect truth, that so far from men being born equal, some are born with the capacity of becoming Shakespeares and Newtons, and others with scarcely the power of rising above Sally the chimpanzee. The answer would be conclusive, if anybody demanded that we should all be just six feet high, with brains weighing sixty ounces, neither more nor less. It is also true, and, I conceive, more relevant, that, as the man of science will again say, all improvement has come through little groups of men superior to their neighbours, through races or through classes, which, by elevating themselves on the shoulders of others, have gained leisure and means for superior cultivation. But equality may be demanded as facilitating this process, by removing the artificial advantages of wealth. It may be taken as a demand for a fair start, not as a demand that the prizes shall be distributed irrespectively of individual worth. And, whether the demand is rightly or wrongly expressed, we must, I think, admit that the real force with which we have to reckon is the demand for justice and for equality as somehow implied by justice. It is easy to browbeat a poor man who wants bread and cheese for himself and his family, by calling his demands materialistic, and advising him to turn his mind to the future state, where he will have the best of Dives. It is equally easy to ascribe the demands to mere envy and selfishness, or to those evil-minded agitators who, for their own wicked purposes, induce men to prefer a guinea to a pound of wages. But, after all, there is something in the demand for fair play and for the means of leading decent lives, which requires a better answer. It is easy, again, to say that all Socialists are Utopian. Make every man equal to-day, and the old inequalities will reappear to-morrow. Pitch such a one over London Bridge, it was said, with nothing on but his breeches, and he will turn up at Woolwich with his pockets full of gold. It is as idle to try for a dead level, when you work with such heterogeneous materials, as to persuade a homogeneous fluid to stand at anything but a dead level. But surely it may be urged that this is as much a reason for declining to believe that equal conditions of life will produce mere monotony, as for insisting that equality in any state is impossible. The present system includes a plan for keeping the scum at the surface. One of the few lessons which I have learnt from life, and not found already in copy-books, is the enormous difficulty which a man of the respectable classes finds in completely ruining himself, even by vice, extravagance, and folly; whereas, there are plenty of honest people who, in spite of economy and prudence, can scarcely keep outside of the workhouse. Admitting the appeal to justice, it is, again, often urged that justice is opposed to the demand for equality. Property is sacred, it is said, because a man has (or ought to have) a right to what he has made either by labour or by a course of fair dealings with other men. I am not about to discuss the ultimate ground on which the claim to private property is justified, and, as I think, satisfactorily established. A man has a right, we say, to all that he has fairly earned. Has he, then, a right to inherit what his father has earned? A man has had the advantage of all that a rich father can do for him in education, and so forth. Why should he also have the father's fortune, without earning it? Are the merits of making money so great that they are transmissible to posterity? Should a man who has been so good as to become rich, be blessed even to the third and fourth generation? Why, as a matter of pure justice, should not all fortunes be applied to public uses, on the death of the man who made them? Such a law, however impolitic, would not be incompatible with the moral principle to which an appeal is made. There are, of course, innumerable other ways in which laws may favour an equality of property, without breaking any of the fundamental principles. What, for example, is the just method of distributing taxation? A rich man can not only pay more money than a poor man, in proportion to his income, but he can, with equal ease, pay a greater proportion. To double the income of a labourer may be to raise him from starvation to comfort. To double the income of a millionaire may simply be to encumber him with wealth by which he is unable to increase his own pleasure. There is a limit beyond which it is exceedingly difficult to find ways of spending money on one's own enjoyment—though I have never been able to fix it precisely. On this ground, such plans as a graduated income-tax are, it would seem, compatible with the plea of justice; and, within certain limits, we do, in fact, approve of various taxes, on the ground, real or supposed, that they tend to shift burdens from the poor to the rich, and, so far, to equalise wealth. In fact, this appeal to justice is a tacit concession of the principle. If we justify property on the ground that it is fair that a man should keep what he has earned by his own labour, it seems to follow that it is unjust that he should have anything not earned by his labour. In other words, the answer admits the ordinary first principle from which Socialism starts, and which, in some Socialist theories, it definitely tries to embody.
All that I have tried to do, so far, is to show that the bare doctrine of equality, which is in some way connected with the demand for justice, is not, of necessity, either unjust or impracticable. It may be used to cover claims which are unjust, to sanction bare confiscation, to take away motives for industry, and, briefly, may be a demand of the drones to have an equal share of the honey. From the bare abstract principle of equality between men, we can, in my own opinion, deduce nothing; and, I do not think that the principle can itself be established. That is why it is made a first principle, or, in other words, one which is not to be discussed. The French revolutionists treated it in this way as a priori and self-evident. No school was in more deadly opposition to such a priori truths than the school of Bentham and the utilitarians. Yet, Bentham's famous doctrine, that in calculating happiness each man is to count for one, and nobody for more than one, seems to be simply the old principle in a new disguise. James Mill applied the doctrine to politics. J. S. Mill again applied it, with still more thoroughness, especially in his doctrine of representation and of the equality of the sexes. Accordingly, various moralists have urged that this was an inconsistency in utilitarian doctrine, implying that they, too, could make a priori first principles when they wanted them. It has become a sort of orthodox dogma with radicals, who do not always trouble themselves about a philosophical basis, and is applied with undoubting confidence to many practical political problems. "One man, one vote" is not simply the formulation of a demand, but seems to intimate a logical ground for the demand. If, in politics, one man is rightfully entitled to one vote, is it not also true that, in economics, one man should have a right to one income, or, that money, like political power, should be distributed into precisely equal shares? Yet, why are we to take for granted the equality of men in the sense required for such deductions? Since men are not equally qualified for political power, it would seem better prima facie that each man should have the share of power and wealth which corresponds to his powers of using, or, perhaps, to his powers of enjoying. Why should we not say, "To each man according to his deserts"? One practical reason, of course, is the extreme difficulty of saying what are the deserts, and how they are to be ascertained. Undoubtedly, equality is the shortest and simplest way but, if we take it merely as the most convenient assumption, it loses its attractive appearance of abstract justice or a priori self-certainty. Do a common labourer and Mr. Gladstone deserve the same share of voting power? If not, how many votes should Mr. Gladstone possess to give him his just influence? To ask such questions is to show that answering is impossible, though political theorists have, now and then, tried to put together some ostensible pretext for an answer.
What, let us ask, is the true relation between justice and equality? A judge, to take the typical case, is perfectly just when he ascertains the facts by logical inferences from the evidence, and then applies the law in the spirit of a scientific reasoner. Given the facts, what is the rule under which they come? To answer that question, generally speaking, is his whole duty. In other words, he has to exclude all irrelevant considerations, such as his own private interests or affections. The parties are to be to him merely A and B, and he has to work out the result as an arithmetician works out a sum. Among the irrelevant considerations are frequently some moral aspects of the case. A judge, for example, decides a will to be valid or invalid without asking whether the testator acted justly or unjustly in a moral sense, but simply whether his action was legal or illegal. He cannot go behind the law, even from motives of benevolence or general maxims of justice, without being an unjust judge. Cases may arise, indeed, as I must say in passing, in which this is hardly true. A law may be so flagrantly unjust that a virtuous judge would refuse to administer it. One striking case was that of the fugitive slave law in the United States, where a man had to choose between acting legally and outraging humanity. So we consider a parent unjust who does not leave his fortune equally among his children. Unless there should be some special reason to the contrary, we shall hold him to be unfair for making distinctions out of mere preference of one child to another. Yet in the case of primogeniture our opinion would have to be modified. Supposing, for example, a state of society in which primogeniture was generally recognised as desirable for public interests, we could hardly call a man unjust for leaving his estates to his eldest son. If, in such a state, a man breaks the general rule, our judgment of his conduct would be determined perhaps by considering whether he was before or behind his age, whether he was acting from a keener perception of the evils of inequality or actuated by spite or regardless of the public interests which he believed to be concerned. A parent treats his children equally in his will in regard to money; but he does not, unless he is a fool, give the same training or the same opening to all his children, whether they are stupid or clever, industrious or idle. But what I wish to insist upon is, that justice implies essentially indifference to irrelevant considerations, and therefore, in many cases, equality in the treatment of the persons concerned. A judge has to decide without reference to bribes, and not be biassed by the position of an accused person. In that sense he treats the men equally, but of course he does not give equal treatment to the criminal and innocent, to the rightful and wrongful claimant.
The equality implied in justice is therefore to be understood as an exclusion of the irrelevant, and thus supposes an understanding as to what is irrelevant. It is not a mere abstract assertion of equality; but the assertion that, in a given concrete case, a certain rule is to be applied without considering anything outside of the rule. An ideally perfect rule would contain within itself a sufficient indication of what is to be relevant. All men of full age, sound mind, and so forth, are to be treated in such and such a way. Then all cases falling within the rule are to be decided on the same principles, and in that sense equally. But the problem remains, what considerations should be taken into account by the rule itself? Let us put the canon of equality in a different shape, namely, that there should always be a sufficient reason for any difference in the treatment of our fellows. This rule does not imply that I should act in all cases as though all men were equal in character or mind, but that my action should in all cases be justified by some appropriate consideration. It does not prove that every man should have a vote, but that if one man has a vote and another has not, there should be some adequate reason for the difference. It does not prove that every man should work eight hours a day and have a shilling an hour; but that differences of hours or of pay and, equally, uniformity of hours and pay, should have some sufficient justification. This is a deeper principle, which in some cases justifies and in others does not justify the rule of equality. The rule of equality follows from it under certain conditions, and has gained credit because, in point of fact, those conditions have often been satisfied.
The revolutionary demand for equality was, historically speaking, a protest against arbitrary inequality. It was a protest against the existence of privileges accompanied by no duties. When the rich man could only answer the question, "What have you done to justify your position?" by the famous phrase of Beaumarchais, "I took the trouble to be born," he was obviously in a false position. The demand for a society founded upon reason, in this sense that a sufficient reason should be given for all differences, was, it seems to me, perfectly right; and, moreover, was enough to condemn the then established system. But when this demand has been so constructed as to twist a logical rule, applicable to all scientific reasoning, into a dogmatic assertion that certain concrete beings were in fact equal, and to infer that they should have equal rights, it ceased to be logical at all, and has been a fruitful parent of many fallacies. Reasonable beings require a sufficient reason for all differences of conduct, for the difference between their treatment of a man and a monkey or a white man and a black, as well as for differences between treatment of rich and poor or wise men and fools; and there must, as the same principle implies, be also a sufficient reason for treating all members of a given class equally. We have to consider whether, for any given purpose, the differences between human beings and animals, Englishmen and negroes, men and women, are or are not of importance for our purpose. When the differences are irrelevant we neglect them or admit the claim to equality of treatment. But the question as to relevance is not to be taken for granted either way. It would be a very convenient but a very unjustifiable assumption in many cases, as it might save an astronomer trouble if he assumed that every star was equal to every other star.
The application of this is, I think, obvious. The a priori assumption of the equality of men is, in some sense, easily refuted. But the refutation does not entitle us to assume that arbitrary inequality, inequality for which no adequate ground can be assigned, is therefore justifiable. It merely shows that the problem is more complex than has been assumed at first sight. "All men ought to be equal." If you mean equal in natural capacity or character, it is enough to say that what is impossible cannot be. If you propose that the industrious and idle, the good and bad, the wise and foolish, should share equally in social advantages, the reply is equally obvious, that such a scheme, if possible, would be injurious to the qualities on which human welfare depends. If you say that men should be rewarded solely according to their intrinsic merits, we must ask, do you mean to abstract from the adventitious advantages of education, social surroundings, and so forth, or to take men as they actually are, whatever the circumstances to which their development is owing? To ask what a man would have been had he been in a different position from his youth, is to ask for an impossible solution, and one, moreover, of no practical bearing. I shall not employ a drunkard if I am in want of a butler, whether he has become a drunkard under overpowering temptation or become a drunkard from inherited dipsomania. But if, on the other hand, I take the man for what he is, without asking how he has come to be what he is, I leave the source at least of all the vast inequalities of which we complain. The difficulty, which I will not try to develop further, underlies, as I think, the really vital difference of method by which different schools attempt to answer the appeal for social justice.
The school of so-called individualists finds, in fact, that equality in their sense is incompatible with the varied differences due to the complete growth of the social structure. They look upon men simply as so many independent units of varying qualities, no doubt, but still capable of being considered for political and social purposes as equal. They ask virtually what justice would demand if we had before us a crowd of independent applicants for the good things of the world, and the simplest answer is to distribute the good things equally. If it is replied that the idle and the industrious should not be upon the same footing, they are ready to agree, perhaps, that men should be rewarded according to their services to society, however difficult it may be to arrange the proportions. But it soon appears that the various classes into which society is actually divided imply differences not due to the individual and his intrinsic merits, but to the varying surroundings in which he is placed. To do justice, then, it becomes necessary to get rid of these differences. The extreme case is that of the family. Every one probably owes more to his mother and to his early domestic environment than to any other of the circumstances which have influenced his development. If you and I started as perfectly equal babies, and you have become a saint and I a sinner, the divergence probably began when our mothers watched our cradles, and was made inevitable before we had left their knees. Consequently, the more thorough-going designers of Utopia have proposed to abolish this awkward difference. Men must be different at their birth; but we might conceivably arrange public nurseries which should place them all under approximately equal conditions. Then any differences would result from a man's intrinsic qualities, and he might be said to be rewarded simply according to his own merits.
The plan may be tempting, but has its disadvantages. There are injustices, if we call all inequality injustice, which we can only attribute to nature or to the unknown power which makes men and monkeys, Shakespeares and Stephens. And one result is that the character and conduct of human beings depend to a great extent upon circumstances, which are accidental in the sense that they are circumstances other than the original endowment of the individual. In this sense, maternal love, for example, is unjust. The mother loves her child because it is her own, not because it is better (though of course it is better) than other children. So, as Adam Smith, I think, observed, we are more moved by our neighbour's suffering from a corn on his great toe than by the starvation of millions in China. In other words, the affections, which are the great moving forces of society, are unjust in so far as they cause us to be infinitely more interested in our own little circle than in the remoter members of humanity known to us only by report. Without discussing the "justice" of this arrangement, we shall have, I think, to admit that it is inevitable. For I, at least, hold that the vague and vast organism of humanity depends for its cohesion upon the affinities and attractions, and not vice versa. My interests are strongest where my power of action is greatest. The love of mothers for children is a force of essential value, and therefore to be cultivated rather than repressed, for no force known to us could replace it. And what is pre-eminently true in this case is, of course, true to a degree in others. Burke stated this with admirable force in his attack upon the revolutionists who expounded the opposite principle of abstract equality. "To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle," he says, "the germ, as it were, of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and mankind." The assertion that they desired to invert this order, to destroy every social link in so far as it tended to produce inequalities, was the pith of his great indictment against the French "metaphysical" revolutionists. They had perverted the general logical precept of the sufficient reason for all inequalities by converting it into an assuming of the equality of concrete units. They fell into the fallacy of which I have spoken; and many radicals, utilitarians, and others have followed them. They assumed that all the varieties of human character, or all those due to the influence of the social environment, through whose structure and inherited instincts every full-grown man has been moulded, might be safely disregarded for the purpose of political and social construction. They have spoken, in brief, as if men were the equal and homogeneous atoms of physical inquiry and social problems capable of solution by a simple rearrangement of the atoms in different orders, instead of remembering that they are dealing with a complex organism, in which not only the whole order but every constituent atom is also a complex structure of indefinitely varying qualities. In the recognition of this truth lies, as I believe, the true secret of any satisfactory method of treatment.
Does this fact justify inequality in general? Or does not the principle of equality still remain as essentially implied in the Utopia which we all desire to construct? We have to take it for granted that to each man the first and primary moving instinct is and must be the love of the little "platoon" of which he is a member; that the problem is, not to destroy all these minor attractions, to obliterate the structure and replace society by a vast multitude of independent atoms, each supposed to aim directly at the good of the whole, but so to harmonise and develop or restrain the smaller interests of families, of groups and associations, that they may spontaneously co-operate towards the general welfare. It is a long and difficult task to which we have to apply ourselves; a task not to be effected by the demonstration or application of a single abstract dogma, but to be worked out gradually by the co-operation of many classes and of many generations. If it is fairly solved in the course of a thousand years or so, I for one shall be very fairly satisfied. But distant as the realisation may be, we may or rather ought to consider seriously the end to which we should be working. The conception implies a distinction of primary importance towards any clear treatment of the problem. We have, that is, two different, though not altogether distinct, provinces of what I may, perhaps, call organic and functional morality. We may take the existing order for granted, and ask what is then our duty; or we may ask how far the structure itself requires modification, and, if so, what kind of modification. A man who assumes the existence of the present structure may act justly or unjustly within the limits so prescribed. He must generally be guided in a number of cases by some principle of equality. The judge should endeavour to give the same law to rich and poor; the parent should not make arbitrary distinctions between his children; the statesman should try to distribute his burdens without favouring one particular class, and so forth. A man who, in such a sense, acts justly may be described as up to the level of his age and its accepted established moral ideas, and is, therefore, entitled at least to the negative praise of not being corrupt or dishonest. He fulfils accurately the functions imposed upon him, and is not governed by what Bentham called the sinister interests which would prevent them from being effectually discharged for the welfare of the community. But the problem which we have to consider is the deeper and more difficult one of organic justice; and our question is what justice means in this case, or what are the irrelevant considerations to be excluded from our motives of conduct.
Between these two classes of justice there are distinctions which it is necessary to state briefly. Justice, as we generally use the word, implies that the unjust man deserves to be hanged, or, at least, is responsible for his actions. What "responsibility" precisely implies is, of course, a debatable question. I only need assume that, in any case, it implies that somebody is guilty of wrong-doing, for which he should receive an appropriate penalty. But in organic questions it is not the individual, but the race which is responsible; and we require a reform, not a penalty. An impatient temper leads us to generalise too hastily from the case of the individual to that of the country. We bestow the blame for all the wrongs of an oppressed nation, for example, upon the nation which oppresses. But in simple point of fact, the oppressed nation generally deserves (if the word can be fairly used) to share the blame. The trodden worm would not have been trodden upon if it had been a bit of a viper. Whatever the duty of turning the second cheek, it is clearly not a national duty. If we admire a Tell or Robert Bruce for resisting oppressors, we implicitly condemn those who submitted to oppressors. If a nation is divided or wanting in courage, public spirit, and independence, it will be trampled down; and though we may most rightfully blame the tramplers, it is idle to exonerate the trampled. It is easy, in the same way, to make the rich solely responsible for all the misery of the poor. The man who has got the booty is naturally regarded as the robber. But, speaking scientifically, that is, with the desire to state the plain facts, we must admit that if the poor are those who have gone to the wall in the struggle for wealth; then, whatever unjust weapons have been used in that struggle, the improvidence and vice and idleness have certainly been among the main causes of defeat. Here, as before, the question is not, who is to be punished? We can only settle that when dealing with individual cases. It is the question, what is the cause of certain evils? and here we must resist the temptation of supposing that the class which in some sense appears to profit by them, or, at least, to be exempt from them, has, therefore, any more to do with bringing them about than the class which suffers from them.
The reflection may put us in mind of what seems to be a general law. The ultimate cause of the adoption of institutions and rules of conduct is often the fact of their utility to the race; but it is only at a later period that their utility becomes the conscious or avowed reason for maintaining them. The political fabric has been clearly built up, in great part, by purely selfish ambition. Nations have been formed by energetic rulers, who had no eye for anything beyond the gratification of their own ambition, although they were clear-headed enough to see that their own ambition could best secure its objects by taking the side of the stronger social forces, and by giving substantial benefit to others. The same holds good pre-eminently of industrial relations. We all know how Adam Smith, sharing the philosophical optimism of his time, showed how the pursuit of his own welfare by each man tended, by a kind of pre-ordained harmony, to contribute to the welfare of all. Since his time we have ceased to be so optimistic, and have recognised the fact that the building up of modern industrial systems has involved much injury to large classes. And yet we may, I think, in great measure adopt his view. The fact that each man was rogue enough to think first of himself and of his own wife and family is not a proof or a presumption that he did not flourish because, in point of fact, he was contributing (quite unintentionally perhaps) to the comforts of mankind in general. What we have to reflect is that, while the bare existence of certain institutions gives a strong presumption of their utility, there is also a probability that when the utility becomes a conscious aim or a consciously adopted criterion of their advantage, they will require a corresponding modification intended to secure the advantages at a minimum cost of evil.
Premising these remarks as to the meaning of organic justice, we can now come to the question of equality. Justice in its ordinary sense may be regarded from one point of view as the first condition of the efficiency of the social organ. In saying that a judge is just, we imply that he is so far efficiently discharging his part in society—the due application of the law—without reference to irrelevant considerations. He is a machine which rightly parts the sheep and goats—taking the legal definition of goats and sheep—instead of putting some goats into the sheepfold, and vice versa. That is, he secures the accurate application of the purely legal rule. Organic justice involves an application of the same principle because it equally depends upon the exclusion of irrelevant considerations. It implies such a distribution of functions and of maintenance as may secure the greatest possible efficiency of society towards some end in itself good. Society of course may be organised with great efficiency for bad or doubtful ends. A purely military organisation, however admirable for its purpose, may imply a sacrifice of the highest welfare of the nation. Assuming, however, the goodness of the end, the greatest efficiency is of course desirable. We may, for our purposes, assume that the efficiency of a nation regarded as a society for the production of wealth is a desirable end. There are, of course, many other purposes which must not be sacrificed to the production of wealth. But power of producing wealth, meaning roughly whatever contributes to the physical support and comfort of the nation, is undoubtedly a necessary condition of all other happiness. If we all starve we can have neither art nor science nor morality. What I mean, therefore, is that a nation is so far better as it is able to raise all necessary supplies with the least expenditure of labour, leaving aside the question how far the superfluous forces should be devoted to raising comparative luxuries or to some purely religious or moral or intellectual purposes. The perfect industrial organisation is, I shall assume, compatible with or rather a condition of a perfect organisation of other kinds. In the most general terms we have to consider what are the principles of social organisation, which of course implies a certain balance between the various organs and a thorough nutrition of all, while yet we may for a moment confine our attention to the purely industrial or economic part of the question. How, if at all, does the principle of equality or of social justice enter the problem?
We may assume, in the first place, from this point of view, that one most obvious condition is the absence of all purely useless structures, whether of the kind which we call "survivals" or such as may be called parasitic growths. The organ which has ceased to discharge corresponding functions is simply a drag upon the vital forces. When a class, such as the old French aristocracy, ceases to perform duties while retaining privileges, it will be removed,—too probably, as in that case, it will be removed by violent and mischievous methods,—if the society is to grow in vigour. The individuals, as I have said, may or may not deserve punishment, for they are not personally responsible for the general order of things; but they are not unlikely to incur severe penalties, and what we should really hope is that they may be in some way absorbed by judicious medical treatment, instead of extirpated by the knife. At the other end of the scale, we have the parasitic class of the beggars or thieves. They, too, are not personally responsible for the conditions into which they are born. But they are not only to be pitied individually, but to be regarded, in the mass, as involving social disease and danger. More words upon that topic are quite superfluous, but I may just recall the truth that the two evils are directly connected. We hear it often said, and often denied, that the rich are growing richer and the poor poorer. So far, however, as it is true, it is one version of the very obvious fact that where there are many careless rich people, there will be the best chance for the beggars. The thoughtless expenditure of the rich without due responsibilities, provides the steady stream of so-called charity,—the charity which, as Shakespeare (or somebody else) observes, is twice cursed, which curses him that gives and him that receives; which is to the rich man as a mere drug to still his conscience and offer a spurious receipt in full for his neglect of social duties, and to the poor man an encouragement to live without self-respect, without providence, a mere hanger-on and dead-weight upon society, and a standing injury and source of temptation to his honest neighbours.
Briefly, a wholesome social condition implies that every social organ discharges a useful function; it renders some service to the community which is equivalent to the support which it derives; brain and stomach each get their due share of supply; and there is a thorough reciprocity between all the different members of the body. But what kind of equality should be desired in order to secure this desirable organic balance? We have to do, I may remark, with the case of a homogeneous race. By this I mean not only that there is no reason to suppose that there is any difference between the innate qualities of rich and poor, but that there is the strongest reason for believing in an equality; that is to say, more definitely, that if you took a thousand poor babies and a thousand rich babies, and subjected them to the same conditions, they would show great individual differences, but no difference traceable to the mere difference of class origin. I therefore may leave aside such problems as might arise in the Southern States of America, or even in British India, where two different races are in presence; or, again, the case of the sexes, where we cannot assume as self-evident, that the organic differences are irrelevant to political or social ends. So far as we are concerned, we may take it for granted that the differences which emerge are not due to any causes antecedent to and overriding the differences due to different social positions. If we can say justly (as has been said) that a poor man is generally more charitable in proportion to his means, or, again, that he is, as a rule, a greater liar or a greater drunkard than the rich man, the difference is not due to a difference of breed, but to the education (in the widest sense) which each has received. So long as that difference remains, we must take account of it for purposes of obtaining the maximum efficiency. We must not make the poor man a professor of mathematics, or even manager of a railway, because he has talents which, if trained, would have qualified him for the post; but we may and must assume that an equal training would do as much for the poor man as for the rich; and the question is, how far it is desirable or possible to secure such equality.