Now, in the case of water-supply, there is virtually no competition. Even the possibility of it is limited to a very small number of individuals or companies, whose interest prompts them, except during occasional short periods, not to compete but to combine. In such a case, the system of private supply loses all that, in other cases, forms its recommendation. The article being one of indispensable necessity, the arrangement between the companies and the consumer is as much compulsory as if the rate were imposed by Government; and the only security for the efficient performance by the companies of what they undertake, is public opinion, a check which would operate much more effectually on a public board.
To establish the alleged parity between the supply of water and that of food, it would be necessary to suppose, that food could only be brought to London at so great an expense, and by arrangements on so large a scale, as to limit the supply to seven or eight associations. Were these the necessary conditions of the supply of food, the public would certainly require that either the article should be supplied, or the terms of its supply fixed and controlled, by a public authority. The question is not between free trade and a Government monopoly. The case is one of those in which a practical monopoly is unavoidable; and the possession of the monopoly by individuals constitutes not freedom but slavery; it delivers over the public to the mercy of those individuals.
These evils, then—great poverty, and that poverty very little connected with desert—are the first grand failure of the existing arrangements of society. The second is human misconduct; crime, vice, and folly, with all the sufferings which follow in their train. For, nearly all the forms of misconduct, whether committed towards ourselves or towards others, may be traced to one of three causes: Poverty and its temptations in the many; Idleness and in the few whose circumstances do not compel them to work; bad education, or want of education, in both. The first two must be allowed to be at least failures in the social arrangements, the last is now almost universally admitted to be the fault of those arrangements—it may almost be said the crime. I am speaking loosely and in the rough, for a minuter analysis of the sources of faults of character and errors of conduct would establish far more conclusively the filiation which connects them with a defective organization of society, though it would also show the reciprocal dependence of that faulty state of society on a backward state of the human mind.
One thing there is, which if it could be affirmed truly, would relieve social institutions from any share in the responsibility of these evils. Since the human race has no means of enjoyable existence, or of existence at all, but what it derives from its own labour and abstinence, there would be no ground for complaint against society if every one who was willing to undergo a fair share of this labour and abstinence could attain a fair share of the fruits. But is this the fact? Is it not the reverse of the fact? The reward, instead of being proportioned to the labour and abstinence of the individual, is almost in an inverse ratio to it: those who receive the least, labour and abstain the most. Even the idle, reckless, and ill-conducted poor, those who are said with most justice to have themselves to blame for their condition, often undergo much more and severer labour, not only than those who are born to pecuniary independence, but than almost any of the more highly remunerated of those who earn their subsistence; and even the inadequate self-control exercised by the industrious poor costs them more sacrifice and more effort than is almost ever required from the more favoured members of society. The very idea of distributive justice, or of any proportionality between success and merit, or between success and exertion, is in the present state of society so manifestly chimerical as to be relegated to the regions of romance. It is true that the lot of individuals is not wholly independent of their virtue and intelligence; these do really tell in their favour, but far less than many other things in which there is no merit at all. The most powerful of all the determining circumstances is birth. The great majority are what they were born to be. Some are born rich without work, others are born to a position in which they can become rich work, the great majority are born to hard work and poverty throughout life, numbers to indigence. Next to birth the chief cause of success in life is accident and opportunity. When a person not born to riches succeeds in acquiring them, his own industry and dexterity have generally contributed to the result; but industry and dexterity would not have sufficed unless there had been also a concurrence of occasions and chances which falls to the lot of only a small number. If persons are helped in their worldly career by their virtues, so are they, and perhaps quite as often, by their vices: by servility and sycophancy, by hard-hearted and close-fisted selfishness, by the permitted lies and tricks of trade, by gambling speculations, not seldom by downright knavery. Energies and talents are of much more avail for success in life than virtues; but if one man succeeds by employing energy and talent in something generally useful, another thrives by exercising the same qualities in out-generalling and ruining a rival. It is as much as any moralist ventures to assert, that, other circumstances being given, honesty is the best policy, and that with parity of advantages an honest person has better chances than a rogue. Even this in many stations and circumstances of life is questionable; anything more than this is out of the question. It cannot be pretended that honesty, as a means of success, tells for as much as a difference of one single step on the social ladder. The connection between fortune and conduct is mainly this, that there is a degree of bad conduct, or rather of some kinds of bad conduct, which suffices to ruin any amount of good fortune; but the converse is not true: in the situation of most people no degree whatever of good conduct can be counted upon for raising them in the world, without the aid of fortunate accidents.
It may be said that of this hard lot no one has any reason to complain, because it befalls those only who are outstripped by others, from inferiority of energy or of prudence. This, even were it true, would be a very small alleviation of the evil. If some Nero or Domitian were to require a hundred persons to run a race for their lives, on condition that the fifty or twenty who came in hindmost should be put to death, it would not be any diminution of the injustice that the strongest or nimblest would, except through some untoward accident, be certain to escape. The misery and the crime would be that any were put to death at all. So in the economy of society; if there be any who suffer physical privation or moral degradation, whose bodily necessities are either not satisfied or satisfied in a manner which only brutish creatures can be content with, this, though not necessarily the crime of society, is a failure of the social arrangements. And to assert as a mitigation of the evil that those who thus suffer are the weaker members of the community, morally or physically, is to add insult to misfortune. Is weakness a justification of suffering? Is it not, on the contrary, an irresistible claim upon every human being for protection against suffering? If the minds and feelings of the prosperous were in a right state, would they accept their prosperity if for the sake of it even one person near them was, for any other cause than voluntary fault, excluded from obtaining a desirable existence?
It is almost needless for me to repeat that these things are said, not with a view to draw any practical conclusions respecting the rights of labour, but to show that no practical conclusions of any kind can be drawn from such premises; and because I think, with Mr. Thornton, that when we are attempting to determine a question of social ethics, we should make sure of our ethical foundation. On the questions between employers and labourers, or on any other social questions, we can neither hope to find, nor do we need, any better criterion than the interest, immediate and ultimate, of the human race. But the author’s treatment of the subject will have a useful effect if it leads any of those friends of democracy and equality, who disdain the prosaic consideration of consequences, and demand something more high-flown as the ground on which to rest the rights of the human race, to perceive how easy it is to frame a theory of justice that shall positively deny the rights considered by them as so transcendent, and which yet shall make as fair a claim as theirs to an intuitive character, and shall command by its evidence the full conviction of as enlightened a thinker, and as warm a supporter of the principal claims of the labouring classes, as the author of the work before us.
Again, the author, in his chapter on the Rights of Capital [pp. 124ff.], very truly and forcibly argues, that these are a portion of the rights of labour. They are the rights of past labour, since labour is the source of all capital; and are sacred, in the same sense, and in an equal degree, with those of present labour. From this he deduces the equal legitimacy of any contract for employment, which past labour may impose on the necessities of present labour, provided there is no taint of force or fraud. But is there no taint of force or fraud in the original title of many owners of past labour? The author states the case as if all property, from the beginning of time, had been honestly come by; either produced by the labour of the owner himself, or bestowed on him by gift or bequest from those whose labour did produce it. But how stands the fact? Landed property at least, in all the countries of modern Europe, derives its origin from force; the land was taken by military violence from former possessors, by those from whom it has been transmitted to its present owners. True, much of it has changed hands by purchase, and has come into the possession of persons who had earned the purchase-money by their labour; but the sellers could not impart to others a better title than they themselves possessed. Movable property, no doubt, has on the whole a purer origin, its first acquirers having mostly worked for it, at something useful to their fellow-citizens. But, looking at the question merely historically, and confining our attention to the larger masses, the doctrine that the rights of capital are those of past labour is liable even here to great abatements. Putting aside what has been acquired by fraud, or by the many modes of taking advantage of circumstances, which are deemed fair in commerce, though a person of a delicate conscience would scruple to use them in most of the other concerns of life—omitting all these considerations, how many of the great commercial fortunes have been, at least partly, built up by practices which in a better state of society would have been impossible—jobbing contracts, profligate loans, or other abuses of Government expenditure, improper use of public positions, monopolies, and other bad laws, or perhaps only by the manifold advantages which imperfect social institutions gave to those who are already rich, over their poorer fellow-citizens, in the general struggle of life? We may be told that there is such a thing as prescription, and that a bad title may become a good one by lapse of time. It may, and there are excellent reasons of general utility why it should; but there would be some difficulty in establishing this position from any principle. It is of great importance to the good order and comfort of the world that an amnesty should be granted to all wrongs of so remote a date that the evidence necessary for the ascertainment of title is no longer accessible, or that the reversal of the wrong would cause greater insecurity and greater social disturbance than its condonation. This is true, but I believe that no person ever succeeded in reconciling himself to the conviction, without doing considerable violence to what is called the instinctive sentiment of justice. It is not at all conformable to intuitive morality that a wrong should cease to be a wrong because of what is really an aggravation, its durable character; that because crime has been successful for a certain limited period, society for its own convenience should guarantee its success for all time to come. Accordingly, those who construct their systems of society upon the natural rights of man, usually add to the word natural the word imprescriptible, and strenuously maintain that it is impossible to acquire a fee-simple in an injustice.
Here, then, are two theories of justice arrayed against each other in order of battle: theories differing in their first principles, markedly opposed in their conclusions, and both of them doctrines claiming to command assent by their own light—to be evident by simple intuition: a pretension which, as the two are perfectly inconsistent, must, in the case of one or other of them, be unfounded, and may be so in the case of both. Such conflicts in the domain of ethics are highly instructive, but their value is chiefly negative; the principal use of each of the contrary theories is to destroy the other. Those who cherish any one of the numerous systems of moral duty, may learn from such controversies how plausible a case may be made for other systems repugnant to their own; and the adepts of each may discover, that while the maxims or axioms from which they severally set out are all of them good, each in its proper place, yet what that proper place is, can only be decided, not by mental intuition, but by the thoroughly practical consideration of consequences; in other words, by the general interest of society and mankind, mental and bodily, intellectual, emotional, and physical, taken together. Mr. Thornton seems to admit the general happiness as the criterion of social virtue, but not of positive duty—not of justice and injustice in the strict sense: and he imagines that it is in making a distinction between these two ideas that his doctrine differs from that of utilitarian moralists. But this is not the case. Utilitarian morality fully recognises the distinction between the province of positive duty and that of virtue, but maintains that the standard and rule of both is the general interest. From the utilitarian point of view, the distinction between them is the following:—There are many acts, and a still greater number of forbearances, the perpetual practice of which by all is so necessary to the general well-being, that people must be held to it compulsorily, either by law, or by social pressure. These acts and forbearances constitute duty. Outside these bounds there is the innumerable variety of modes in which the acts of human beings are either a cause, or a hindrance, of good to their fellow-creatures, but in regard to which it is, on the whole, for the general interest that they should be left free; being merely encouraged, by praise and honour, to the performance of such beneficial actions as are not sufficiently stimulated by benefits flowing from them to the agent himself. This larger sphere is that of Merit or Virtue.
Is scarcely ever—nay, might almost be said to be absolutely never—the fact. With one notable exception, that of labour, commodities are almost never offered unreservedly for sale; scarcely ever does a dealer allow his goods to go for what they will immediately fetch—scarcely ever does he agree to the price which would result from the actual state of supply and demand, or, in other words, to the price at which he could immediately sell the whole of his stock. Imagine the situation of a merchant who could not afford to wait for customers, but was obliged to accept for a cargo of corn, or sugar, or sundries, the best offer he could get from the customers who first presented themselves; or imagine a jeweller, or weaver, or draper, or grocer, obliged to clear out his shop within twenty-four hours. The nearest approach ever made to such a predicament is that of a bankrupt’s creditors selling off their debtor’s effects at a proverbially ‘tremendous sacrifice;’ and even they are, comparatively speaking, able to take their time. But the behaviour of a dealer under ordinary pressure is quite different from that of a bankrupt’s assignees. He first asks himself what is the best price which is likely to be presently given, not for the whole, but for some considerable portion of his stock, and he then begins selling, either at that price or at such other price as proves upon trial to be the best obtainable at the time. His supply of goods is probably immensely greater than the quantity demanded at that price, but does he therefore lower his terms? Not at all, and he sells as much as he can at that price, and then, having satisfied the existing demand, he waits awhile for further demand to spring up. In this way he eventually disposes of his stock for many times the amount he must have been fain to accept if he had attempted to sell off all at once. A corn dealer who in the course of a season sells thousands of quarters of wheat at fifty shillings per quarter, or thereabouts, would not get twenty shillings a quarter if, as soon as his corn ships arrived, he was obliged to turn the cargoes into money. A glover who, by waiting for customers, will no doubt get three or four shillings a pair for all the gloves in his shop, might not get sixpence a pair if he forced them on his customers. But how is it that he manages to secure the higher price? Simply by not selling unreservedly, simply by declining the price which would have resulted from the relations between actual supply and actual demand, and by setting up his goods at some higher price, below which he refuses to sell.