Whom Do We Trust to Spread the Wealth Around?

"The notion that there is a reservoir of wealth somewhere, either in the possession of the government or the rich, which might be made to diffuse 'plenty through a smiling land,' is a delusion to which nearly all the writings of the ethical economists tend to spread, and it is probably the most mischievous delusion which has ever taken hold on the popular mind.  It affects indirectly large numbers of persons, who, if it were presented to them boldly and without drapery, would probably repudiate it.  But it steals into their brain through sermons, speeches, pamphlets, Fabian essays, and Bellamy utopias, and disposes them, on humanitarian grounds, to great public extravagances, in buildings, in relief work, in pensions, in schools, in high State wages and philanthropic undertakings which promise at no distant day to land the modern world in bankruptcy.  It will be very well if the century closes without witnessing this catastrophe in France or Italy, or both, --the two countries in which the democratic theory of the inexhaustibility of State funds has been carried furthest.  It is diffusing through the working class of all countries, also, more and more every day, not only envy and hatred of the rich, but an increasing disinclination to steady industry, and an increasing disposition to rely on politics for the bettering of their condition.  The Unions in England have already announced openly that it is no longer to strikes, but to Parliament they must look for elevation, and of course all that Parliament can do for them is either to give them more money for less labor, or to spend other people's money on them in increasing their comforts...

"Next in importance to the delusion that there is somewhere a great reservoir of wealth, which can still be drawn on for the general good, is the delusion that there is somewhere a reservoir of wisdom still untapped which can be drawn on for the execution of a new law of distribution...  Now there are only three laws of distribution of which I can form any conception.  One would be a natural law, like the law of gravitation, which automatically divided among all concerned, as soon as completed, the results of any given piece of production, without any care on the part of anybody, and of which nobody could complain any more than of the earth's attraction.  Another would be a law formed by some authority, which everybody would acknowledge as final, and to which all would submit, either owing to the overwhelming force at its command, or to the universal confidence in its justice.  The third would be the present law, which I may call the law of general agreement, under which everybody gets the least for which he will labor, and the least for which he will save and invest.  If there be any other than these, I am unable to think it.

"The first of these, I presume, does not need discussion.  There never will be any natural distributive force to which we shall all have to submit as we submit to the law of chemical affinity or proportion.  The division of the products of human labor and capital will always be the subject of some sort of human arrangement, in which the human will will play a more or less prominent part.  So that the second of these laws would have to be the result of some kind of understanding as to who or what the deciding authority should be, to which all would have to submit without murmuring.  Thus far in the history of mankind it has never been possible to come to such an agreement even on matters touching the feelings much less nearly than one's share of the products of one's labor.  No government, spiritual or temporal, has ever existed, which had not to keep in subjection a hostile minority by the use of force in some shape.  The Pope in the Middle Ages came nearer seeming the voice of  pure justice than any other power that has ever appeared in the Western world.  But Christendom was never unanimously willing to let him arrange even its political concerns, and I do not think it ever entered into the head of the most enthusiastic papist to let him arrange his domestic affairs--so far as to say what his wages or his profits should be.  The guilds came near doing this in various trades, but their authority was maintained by the power of expulsion.  When the whole of civil society becomes a guild, this power cannot be exercised, because there will be no place for the expelled man to go.  To make him submit, there would have to be some sort of compulsion be put upon him.  In other words, he would have to be enslaved by being compelled to labor against his will for a reward which he deemed inadequate. Except on the assumption, which the smallest knowledge of human nature makes ridiculous, that everybody is sure to be satisfied with what he gets for his work, any law of distribution emanating from a human authority would necessarily result in slavery.  In truth it is impossible to conceive any plan of State socialism which would not involve the slavery of some portion of the population, unless we can picture to ourselves unanimity concerning the things on which men under all previous régimes have been most apt to differ."

--E.L. Godkin, "Who Will Pay the Bills of Socialism?The Forum (June 1894): 394-405.

I particularly like the part about the Pope in the Middle Ages as coming "nearer seeming the voice of pure justice than any other power that has ever appeared in the Western world." If you can't trust the Pope to share the wealth out to everybody's satisfaction, whom can you trust?


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