Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Acquisitive Society

by R. H. Tawney



No one needs to be reminded, again, of the influence of the same doctrine in the sphere of taxation. Thus the income tax was excused as a temporary measure, because the normal society was conceived to be one in which the individual spent his whole income for himself and owed no obligations to society on account of it. The death duties were denounced as robbery, because they implied that the right to benefit by inheritance was conditional upon a social sanction. The Budget of 1909 created a storm, not because the taxation of land was heavy in amount the land-taxes were trifling but because it was felt to involve the doctrine that property is not an absolute right, but that it may properly be accompanied by special obligations, a doctrine which, if carried to its logical conclusion, would destroy its sanctity by making ownership no longer absolute but conditional.

Such an implication seems intolerable to an influential body of public opinion, because it has been accustomed to regard the free disposal of property and the unlimited exploitation of economic opportunities, as rights which are absolute and unconditioned. On the whole, until recently, this opinion had few antagonists who could not be ignored. As a consequence the maintenance of property rights has not been seriously threatened even in those cases in which it is evident that no sen-ice is discharged, directly or indirectly, by their exercise. No one supposes, that the owner of urban land, performs qua owner, any function. He has a right of private taxation; that is all. But the private ownership of urban land is as secure to-day as it was a century ago; and Lord Hugh Cecil, in his interesting little book on Conservatism, declares that whether private property is mischievous or not, society cannot interfere with it, because to interfere with it is theft, and theft is wicked. No one sup- poses that it is for the public good that large areas of land should be used for parks and game. But our country gentlemen are still settled heavily upon their villages and still slay their thousands. No one can argue that a monopolist is impelled by "an invisible hand" to serve the public interest. But over a considerable field of industry competition, as the recent Report on Trusts shows, has been replaced by combination, and combinations are allowed the same unfettered freedom as individuals in the exploitation of economic opportunities. No one really believes that the production of coal depends upon the payment of mining royalties or that ships will not go to and fro unless ship-owners can earn fifty per cent, upon their capital. But coal mines, or rather the coal miner, still pay royalties, and ship-owners still make fortunes and are made Peers.

At the very moment when everybody is talking about the importance of increasing the output of wealth, the last question, apparently, which it occurs to any statesman to ask is why wealth should be squandered on futile activities, and in expenditure which is either disproportionate to service or made for no service at all. So inveterate, indeed, has become the practice of payment in virtue of property rights, without even the pretense of any service being rendered, that when, in a national emergency, it is proposed to extract oil from the ground, the Government actually proposes that every gallon shall pay a tax to landowners who never even suspected its existence, and the ingenuous proprietors are full of pained astonishment at any one questioning whether the nation is under moral obligation to endow them further. Such rights are, strictly speaking, privileges. For the definition of a privilege is a right to which no corresponding function is attached.

The enjoyment of property and the direction of industry are considered, in short, to require no social justification, because they are regarded as rights which stand by their own virtue, not functions to be judged by the success with which they contribute to a social purpose. To-day that doctrine, if intellectually discredited, is still the practical foundation of social organization. How slowly it yields even to the most insistent demonstration of its inadequacy is shown by the attitude which the heads of the business world have adopted to the restrictions imposed on economic activity during the war. The control of railways, mines and shipping, the distribution of raw materials through a public department instead of through competing merchants, the regulation of prices, the attempts to check "profiteering" the detailed application of these measures may have been effective or ineffective, wise or injudicious. It is evident, indeed, that some of them have been foolish, like the restriction of imports when the world has five years' destruction to repair, and that others, if sound in conception, have been questionable in their execution. If they were attacked on the ground that they obstruct the efficient performance of function if the leaders of industry came forward and said generally, as some, to their honor, have: "We accept your policy, but we will improve its execution; we desire payment for service and service only and will help the state to see that it pays for nothing else" there might be controversy as to the facts, but there could be none as to the principle.

In reality, however, the gravamen of the charges brought against these restrictions appears generally to be precisely the opposite. They are denounced by most of their critics not because they limit the opportunity of service, but because they diminish the opportunity for gain, not because they prevent the trader enriching the community, but because they make it more difficult for him to enrich himself; not, in short, because they have failed to convert economic activity into a social function, but because they have come too near succeeding. If the financial adviser to the Coal Controller may be trusted, the shareholders in coal mines would appear to have done fairly well during the war. But the proposal to limit their profits to 1/2 per ton is described by Lord Gainford as "sheer robbery and confiscation." With some honorable exceptions, what is demanded is that in the future as in the past the directors of industry should be free to handle it as an enterprise conducted for their own convenience or advancement, instead of being compelled, as they have been partially compelled during the war, to subordinate it to a social purpose. For to admit that the criterion of commerce and industry is its success in discharging a social purpose is at once to turn property and economic activity from rights which are absolute into rights which are contingent and derivative, because it is to affirm that they are relative to functions and that they may justly be revoked when the functions are not performed. It is, in short, to imply that property and economic activity exist to promote the ends of society, whereas hitherto society has been regarded in the world of business as existing to promote them. To those who hold their position, not as functionaries, but by virtue of their success in making industry contribute to their own wealth and social influence, such a reversal of means and ends appears little less than a revolution. For it means that they must justify before a social tribunal rights which they have hitherto taken for granted as part of an order which is above criticism.

During the greater part of the nineteenth century the significance of the opposition between the two principles of individual, rights and social functions was masked by the doctrine of the inevitable harmony between private interests and public good. Competition, it was argued, was an effective substitute for honesty. To-day that subsidiary doctrine has fallen to pieces under criticism; few now would profess adherence to the compound of economic optimism and moral bankruptcy which led a nineteenth century economist to say: "Greed is held in check by greed, and the desire for gain sets limits to itself." The disposition to regard individual rights as the center and pivot of society is still, however, the most powerful element in political thought and the practical foundation of industrial organization. The laborious refutation of the doctrine that private and public interests are coincident, and that man's self-love is God's Providence, which was the excuse of the last century for its worship of economic egotism, has achieved, in fact, surprisingly small results. Economic egotism is still worshiped; and it is worshiped because that doctrine was not really the center of the position. It was an outwork, not the citadel, and now that the outwork has been captured, the citadel is still to win.

What gives its special quality and character, its toughness and cohesion, to the industrial system built up in the last century and a half, is not its exploded theory of economic harmonies. It is the doctrine that economic rights are anterior to, and independent of economic functions, that they stand by their own virtue, and need adduce no higher credentials. The practical result of it is that economic rights remain, whether economic functions are performed or not. They remain to-day in a more menacing form than in the age of early industrialism. For those who control industry no longer compete but combine, and the rivalry between property in capital and property in land has long since ended. The basis of the New Conservatism appears to be a determination so to organize society, both by political and economic action, as to make it secure against every attempt to extinguish payments which are made, not for service, but because the owners possess a right to extract income without it. Hence the fusion of the two traditional parties, the proposed "strengthening" of the second chamber, the return to protection, the swift conversion of rival industrialists to the advantages of monopoly, and the attempts to buy off with concessions the more influential section of the working classes. Revolutions, as a long and bitter experience reveals, are apt to take their color from the regime which they overthrow. Is it any wonder that the creed which affirms the absolute rights of property should sometimes be met with a counter-affirmation of the absolute rights of labor, less anti-social, indeed, and inhuman, but almgmst as dogmatic, almost as intolerant and thoughtless as itself?

A society which aimed at making the acquisition of wealth contingent upon the discharge of social obligations, which sought to proportion remuneration to service and denied it to those by whom no service was performed, which inquired first not what men possess but what they can make or create or achieve, might be called a Functional Society, because in such a society the main subject of social emphasis would be the performance of functions. But such a society does not exist, even as a remote ideal, in the modern world, though something like it has hung, an unrealized theory, before men's minds in the past. Modern societies aim at protecting economic rights, while leaving economic functions, except in moments of abnormal emergency, to fulfil themselves. The motive which gives color and quality to their public institutions, to their policy and political thought, is not the attempt to secure the fulfilment of tasks undertaken for the public service, but to increase the opportunities open to individuals of attaining the objects which they conceive to be advantageous to themselves. If asked the end or criterion of social organization, they would give an answer reminiscent of the formula the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But to say that the end of social institutions is happiness, is to say that they have no common end at all. For happiness is individual, and to make happiness the object of society is to resolve society itself into the ambitions of numberless individuals, each directed towards the attainment of some personal purpose.

Such societies may be called Acquisitive Societies, because their whole tendency and interest and preoccupation is to promote the acquisition of wealth. The appeal of this conception must be powerful, for it has laid the whole modern world under its spell. Since England first revealed the possibilities of industrialism, it has gone from strength to strength, and as industrial civilization invades countries hitherto remote from it, as Russia and Japan and India and China are drawn into its orbit, each decade sees a fresh extension of its influence. The secret of its triumph is obvious. It is an invitation to men to use the powers with which they have been endowed by nature or society, by skill or energy or relentless egotism or mere good fortune, without inquiring whether there is any principle by which their exercise should be limited. It assumes the social organization which determines the opportunities which different classes shall in fact possess, and concentrates attention upon the right of those who possess or can acquire power to make the fullest use of it for their own self -advancement. By fixing men's minds, not upon the discharge of social obligations, which restricts their energy, because it defines the goal to which it should be directed, but upon the exercise of the right to pursue their own self interest, it offers unlimited scope for the acquisition of riches, and therefore gives free play to one of the most powerful of human instincts. To the strong it promises unfettered freedom for the exercise of their strength; to the weak the hope that they too one day may be strong. Before the eyes of both it suspends a golden prize, which not all can attain but for which each may strive, the enchanting vision of infinite expansion. It assures men that there are no ends other than their ends, no law other than their desires, no limit other than that which they think advisable. Thus it makes the individual the center of his own universe, and dissolves moral principles into a choice of expediences. And it immensely simplifies the problems of social life in complex communities. For it relieves them of the necessity of discriminating between different types of economic activity and different sources of wealth, between enterprise and avarice, energy and unscrupulous greed, property which is legitimate and property which is theft, the just enjoyment of the fruits of labor and the idle parasitism of birth or fortune, because it treats all economic activities as standing upon the same level, and suggests that excess or defect, waste or superfluity, require no conscious effort of the social will to avert them, but are corrected almost automatically by the mechanical play of economic forces.

Under the impulse of such ideas men do not become religious or wise or artistic; for religion and wisdom and art imply the acceptance of limitations. But they become powerful and rich. They inherit the earth and change the face of nature, if they do not possess their own souls; and they have that appearance of freedom which consists in the absence of obstacles between opportunities for self-advancement and those "whom birth or wealth or talent or good fortune has placed in a position to seize them. It is not difficult either for individuals or for societies to achieve their object, if that object be sufficiently limited and immediate, and if they are not distracted from its pursuit by other considerations. (The temper which dedicates itself to the cultivation of opportunities, and leaves obligations to take care of themselves, is set upon an object which is at once simple and practicable* The eighteenth century defined it. The twentieth century has very largely attained it. Or, if it has not attained it, it has at least grasped the possibilities of its attainment. The national output of wealth per head of population is estimated to have been approximately $200 in 1914. Unless mankind chooses to continue the sacrifice of prosperity to the ambitions and terrors of nationalism, it is possible that by the year 2000 it may be doubled.

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