Ethics of Democracy
Part 2. Individual
by Louis F. Post
Book 2, Chapter 2, Success
FAR am I from suggesting that even under prevailing industrial conditions the greatest success cannot be achieved by every one. There is a kind of success which, though commonly accounted failure, is success at its highest. The door to this is wide open to everybody, but few there be who wish to enter in thereat. Many of the "wrecks" which lie strewn along the shores of business and professional life are monuments to such success, a success which no triumph in business can equal. While all of these "wrecks" are significant of a state of society that is a withering rebuke to our professions of Christianity, many of them testify to glorious victories over temptations to achieve a success that would be ignoble.
Were this a sermon on success, it would pointedly distinguish the different kinds. It would show how success may consist on the one hand in building up character with reference to moral principle, or, on the other, in gaining more or less of the whole world and losing your own soul. And it would urge the lesson of the high mountain in the Holy Land, where the most successful Personality in all history signalized what a modern business man would have called his lack of business sense, with the thrilling exclamation : "Get thee behind me, Satan !" But this is not to be a sermon at any rate, not that kind of sermon. It is to be an unreserved inquiry into the possibilities of achieving the species of success which happy-go-lucky optimists admire, the kind of success whose treasures are subject to the ravages of moths and thieves and corruption.
Success of this kind also may, indeed, be achieved under prevailing industrial conditions. Though the way to it is not open to everybody, even its highest places are open to some in almost every generation. What your spurious optimists often say is true, that there is "always plenty of room at the top." There will probably never come a time under the most disordered industrial conditions when twenty thousand dollar men will not be demanded in excess of the supply. The characteristic evil of these conditions is not that there is scant room at the top, but that there is no room at the bottom, where in the nature of things room ought to be abundant. But roomy as it is at the top, those who get there must strain and strive to climb up on the shoulders of their fellows, with little regard for themselves and none whatever for the rights of others beyond what the law enforces and public opinion exacts. He who intends to secure even a moderate measure of success, as success goes, must be prepared to do so at the expense of the rights of his brethren and his own bodily health and moral integrity.
Let no one shrink at this assertion nor resent it. Every successful man, and every one who has intelligently observed the successful career of others, knows that it is only at the cost of racked nerves and either a racked or deadened conscience, that success is in these times secured. Would a man be successful in manufactures or commerce, he must plot and plan by day and by night to obtain privileges or advantages enabling him to exact tribute out of the sweat of his fellow men. Would he succeed at the bar, he must devote himself much less to the goddess of Justice than to the grasping interests of monopolist clients. Even in the ministry, he must lay the perfect ashlar of Gospel truth in a bed of soft cushions lest its squared corners bruise wealthy parishioners, or he will find himself a straggler from the ranks of successful clergymen. Let him go into any of the vocations, from petty retail merchant to great manufacturer, from bootblack to policeman, and he will learn to regard the measure of success he might reasonably look for, as something which he can get and keep only as others as meritorious, though maybe not so rapacious as himself, are headed off.
In these days of great social unrest, caused by the growing pressure upon the masses of men of poverty and fear of poverty, those of us who sympathize with the restless and are counted, if indeed we do not count ourselves, among them, are frequently assured not only that exceptionally adaptable persons may, but that all persons can, become rich if they try. It is the same Santa Claus story which projects the optimistic college graduate out into the swales and swamps of the business world after a will-o'- the-wisp.
Curiously enough this theory of life is not peculiar to the rich, nor even to those who have not laid aside their hopes of becoming rich. It is extremely popular even among the thriftless and shiftless poor. With amusing confidence men badly clothed and poorly fed, old men, too, to whom the world is no longer an inviting oyster, will often contend like a lawyer for his fee, that anybody can get rich if he tries - and has a little luck. They would have you believe that bad luck alone accounts for their own hapless condition.
And the thrifty poor, those who have worked and pinched all their lives but are passing their age in penury, those pathetic human creatures who are, as Cowper writes, -
"Letting down buckets into empty wells,they do not even admit luck as a factor, but are firmly convinced that getting rich is only a matter of working hard enough and intelligently enough and of saving enough. If they themselves are poor, with all their industry and thrift, why, "It's God's will !"
Then there are the industrious and thrifty who do get somewhat ahead. They are the small self-made men whom we have all met. Because they have a tuppenny share in some subtle scheme for making the many support the few, they imagine that they are superior creatures. In fact, they are but the willing retainers and stool pigeons of a privileged caste, feeding upon the leavings of their idle and thriftless but wealthy and unidentified masters. Of course they believe that anybody can succeed, for haven't they succeeded?
And this much, indeed, is doubtless true, that anybody who tries to get rich, and does the right things at the right times, will succeed - measurably, at least. But that is no more true of business than of crime. Is it retorted, then, that the contention that any one can get rich who tries is not an argument in promotion of crime? The retort would not be true. This contention is, indeed, not intended to encourage conventional larceny, but it is intended to encourage processes that have all the moral elements of larceny.
Larceny does not consist merely in violating larceny laws. Though there were no larceny laws, stealing would be none the less a moral crime. To steal is to appropriate another's just property against his will; and in the eye of the moral law the manner in which it is done makes no difference. Some men do it by stealth ; when detected they are imprisoned. Some do it by violence, using club or pistol or sandbag to enforce their nefarious demands ; they, too, are imprisoned when they are caught. Others do it by procuring the enactment of statutes authorizing wholesale depredation, or preventing the enactment of statutes abolishing predatory institutions. These are often rewarded with large loot and a place among "our best citizens." Some of them ascend to the judgment seat and sit in the chair of the law-giver. But it is larceny all the same. Legal and social distinctions there are, but there is no room for moral distinction. Morally it is all stealing.
When it is said that any one can get rich if he tries, does it mean that opportunities for adding to the world's wealth are abundant and that by utilizing them any one can become rich to the extent of his usefulness ? Or does it mean that without adding to the world's wealth he can if he tries secure to himself a share of what others add to it? There is the test. If it is said to mean the former, it isn't true. If the latter, it isn't honest. Neither is the latter true ; for though some may prosper by mere appropriation all cannot. What the prosperous gain their victims must lose.
The prime condition of success now most generally approved is somewhat different from that which prevailed two or three generations ago. In their youth men now of middle age were assiduously taught that their success would depend upon their piety. This idea was inculcated in the church, in the home, in the school ; and in debating societies lean arguments were fattened with it. It was the lesson of the marble-back story-books in Sunday-school libraries, and the burden of all other respectable vehicles of advice to the young. In the pietized imagination of that day the good boy was destined, if he escaped an early and joyous death, to become a rich and exemplary man.
Usually the illustrative examples were mythical. Yet living ones were not wanting. The theory did suffer serious strain when the millionaire Girard was mentioned; but all "infidels" had not committed themselves, as he had, to hostility to churches in their wills ; and even John Jacob Astor could be referred to, though with some reserve, as a poor and pious boy grown wealthy. Spectacular success, however, was not common then. The types were the little rich men of the neighborhood. With but few exceptions they were conspicuously pious; they had in almost all instances been poor boys ; and as uniformly as circumstances would permit, their success was attributed to their piety from youth up. Incidental advantages were often known to have contributed, but these fortuitous circumstances were not considered important enough to count.
When the piety of that period is analyzed, its nature seems to have been not unfairly exemplified by the little Negro of the wharves, who pushed and shoved and trampled upon his smaller companions to get the pennies a stranger threw over a ship's side in order to see the dusky youngsters scramble for them. After he had filled his pockets with the coin, of which he had strenuously prevented the others from getting a share, this ebony monopolist in embryo refused to entertain the stranger by dancing, even for good pay, because he had joined the church! Piety consisted, that is, chiefly in getting into church and keeping out of jail. Given those two conditions, and few questions were asked. So the pious were supposed to succeed, and the successful were supposed to be pious.
Not many sensible people to-day would attribute success to piety. Too many pious men have failed. Too many pious men are hopelessly poor. Too many of the unpious have been crowned with success. Even professional pietists no longer recommend piety for business reasons. Almost universally it is now understood that genuine piety is a positive bar to success ; and as for the other kind, however valuable hypocrisy may once have been as a commercial asset, it is valuable no longer. While ambitious business men are as careful as ever to keep out of jail, they are not so careful to get into church. Piety as a specific for success has been superseded by industry. The successful are now assumed to have been industrious, and the industrious are assured of success.
This notion is adopted and fondled and propagated not only by those who are ambitious to gain as much of the world as possible though they lose their own souls, but it is also approved and applauded and assiduously impressed upon the minds of youth by professional teachers of moral and spiritual philosophies. It is the latter day substitute for piety. But will it work any better? That is the question.
The best expression, perhaps, of this modern theory of success was "The Message to Garcia," a tract that once evoked very general applause. One railroad magnate, who had himself been successful, distributed copies broadcast among his unsuccessful subordinates to teach them how to rise. The tract told of a young military officer who early in the war with Spain was given a message by the war department to carry to the Cuban General, Garcia. The difficulties in the way of the messenger seemed insurmountable. But he made no protest and asked no questions. He had been told to carry a message to Garcia, and he did it. The tract might have gained in force if its author could have written a sequel describing the consequent success of the plucky young officer - his promotion, say, to the grade of brigadier-general. But that reward did not go to the officer who carried the message to Garcia ; it was reserved for the one who perpetrated a forgery upon Aguinaldo. Despite this suggestive anti-climax, however, the story of the message to Garcia was widely accepted as a true exposition of the secret of business success. When you are" told by your superiors to do something, don't hesitate, don't question, but do it; and business success is yours. That was the moral.
President McKinley spoke to the same effect at a colored school in Louisiana, during his continental tour in 1901. He told his youthful Negro hearers that if they would get an education, build up a good character, and be unfalteringly industrious, they would have "success anywhere and everywhere," and that this was true of blacks and whites alike. A survival of the pietistic theory was introduced there, in the allusion to building up a good character. There was also a reference to another theory of success, which once had general vogue but is now almost monopolized by ambitious schoolboys and college students - the theory that book education opens the way. But Mr. McKinley, like the author of "The Message to Garcia," laid his emphasis upon "unfaltering industry."
Most impressive, however, of all the teachers along this line has been Mr. Charles M. Schwab, the man who from an impoverished boyhood was reported to have risen by Garcia message-carrying methods to a salaried position of a million dollars a year. His stupendous success was regarded as a guaranty of his competency to advise. In an address to the graduates of a technical school in New York, Mr. Schwab summed up the now dominant philosophy of success in one pregnant sentence. "Everybody," said he, "is expected to do his duty; but the boy who does his duty, and a little more than his duty, is the boy who is going to succeed in this world."
The theory of success thus indicated resembles that which it has displaced. It requires an excess of the necessary virtue. This being granted, it is true. Just as the idea was true that the good boy would succeed, provided a large proportion of boys were not good, so is it true that the industrious boy may succeed, provided a large proportion of boys are not industrious. The industry must always be excessive or it doesn't count for success. In other words, this much belauded secret of success is effective only so long as most people don't act upon it.
If all were industrious equally, none could succeed. There would be a dead level. But all are not and cannot be equally industrious. Consequently if all try to succeed by exceptional industry, the great mass will come into a condition of virtual servitude to those of exceptional powers a servitude that would be all the more profitable to the successful ones on account of the high standard of industry the universal struggle for success would establish.
If, for illustration, the clerk who willingly works nine hours when the rule is eight, thereby gains promotion, and if all in the office are ambitious, the rivalry for success will result, if the employer also is ambitious, in extending the working day to nine hours. After that the clerk who would distinguish himself must work ten hours. And when in the course of time a new rivalry shall have raised office hours to this standard, willingness to work eleven hours will be the test of industrial worth. Nor would the rivalry end here. If all were striving for success, it would not end until the standard of office hours had been raised so high as to abolish general leisure, and a few men of exceptional endurance and abilities had become masters of the rest.
Returning from this illustration to the more general considerations which it roughly explains, if all workers were to do more than their duty in some degree, only the exceptional ones who did it in greater degree could win; and if all rose to that standard, the winners would be those who raised the standard still higher. Should the process go on, none could succeed finally but those who so far overleaped the limits of their duty as to go the full length of human endurance ; and then, even if all were endowed with equal endurance, success could no longer depend upon excessive industry. None could excel when all had reached the limit.
The time would never come, of course, when all workers would reach the highest standard of human endurance. Some would be physically too weak and others morally too sane. There would be some point at which the great mass would give up in despair ;* and when that point had been reached the social problem would be just where it is now, just where it would have remained if no universal desire to succeed by excessive industry had taken possession of the people. Then, as now, only the few could succeed. The difference would be that with the rest the strain for a bare living would be more tense, while the successful few would have to be stronger than ever and more insanely ambitious. Those who fell below the advanced standard would still be crowded to the wall, still be denounced as indolent, still be robbed of the lion's share of what they did produce; those who rose above the new standard would still thrive upon the unrequited toil of their brethren.
That industry is a virtue is profoundly true. It is one, moreover, which is too much neglected by all classes. The work of even laborious toilers is drudgery rather than industry, and a vast amount of upper class labor is hardly more useful or honest than "the process known as four of a kind." Whoever, therefore, writes anything or says anything calculated to stimulate wholesome industry renders a public service. But he who stimulates it by raising hopes of business success as the reward of industry - hopes which in the great majority of cases must turn to - ashes commits a social crime.
It is not true, as is often asserted, that the success of our rich men is attributable to doing more than their duty. While excessive devotion to their employers' interests may have given to their successful business career its original impulse, other factors have entered in to produce the successful result. Good or bad may these factors have been ; just or unjust ; sordid or not ; mean or manly - but they, and not alone fidelity to an employer's interests, not alone excessive devotion to duty, not alone extraordinary industry, have turned the scale for success or failure.
Many factors are necessary to success, and most important of all at the present time is some advantage whereby the industry of the unsuccessful may be forced to contribute to the success of those who succeed. Not until a man can live in fabulous luxury upon the labors of others is he accounted successful. For that reason alone industry is no guaranty of success in life. The industrious as a class cannot succeed so long as success consists in the possession by the successful of power to levy tribute upon the industry of the unsuccessful. To say otherwise is to make a contradiction in terms.
By natural law, success does depend upon industry; and the degree and intelligence of the industry does naturally determine the measure of the success. This would be true, also, in actual experience, if industry were identified exclusively with rendering service. Then success would not be merely a prize for the extraordinary feats of a few, and something almost as difficult to keep as to get. It would be the reward of all, and to each according to the measure of his usefulness. Each would get his own earnings. But industry is not exclusively identified with rendering service. It may be devoted in a slave country to acquiring slaves ; and there the successful man would be he who had acquired enough slaves to relieve him of all necessity for working. In more civilized communities it may be devoted to acquiring financial interests that are nourished by veiled systems of slavery. The principle is the same; it is only the method that differs. And just as it would be cruel mockery in a slave country to tell slaves that excessive industry would assure them business success, when in fact not they but their masters would profit by their greater activity, so is it in the country of higher civilization - indeed, it is even more cruel there, because more deceptive - to teach young men that success depends upon industry. It would be only the truth to teach that it depends upon monopoly.
Does not every intelligent man know, and will not every genuinely honest man admit, that the industrial power of the present time centers in monopoly? True enough, monopoly may be acquired through extraordinary industry, so long as the standards of work leave a margin for extraordinary labor feats; but it is the monopoly, all the same, and not industry, that finally makes success.
Monopoly is a process of levying tribute upon the industrious for the benefit of monopoly beneficiaries. When it exists, increased industry among non-monopolists cannot benefit them as a class. Some of their number may for a time by superior energy climb out of their class and become monopolists; but as soon as intensified industry becomes general all its profits go to fatten the monopoly class and not to enrich the industrious class.
Incentives to general industry are therefore popular with monopolists and their agents and organs of opinion, and with their dupes. If the people of this country could be induced to work harder in the hope that all may thereby win success, the value of monopolies would rise. But industry in general would be no better paid; and the industrious who did not push their activities above the level of the new standards would win no prizes. The frequently repeated advice which agents and beneficiaries of monopoly interests give to young men, that extraordinary industry is the key to success, is suggestive of the method of making the mule turn the mill by hanging a bundle of hay where it continually dangles before his nose but always eludes his reach.
Yet there is hope in this theory of business success. It does something in pushing aside the old idea that business success is the reward of piety. It will do more presently in demonstrating its own deceptiveness. Not more than two or three generations are likely to be fooled by it. After a little experience, the people may be trusted to recognize that under existing conditions success does not depend upon industry, as a rule of general application. Yet the true logic of the rule will lose none of its force. The conviction will still remain that industry, even though not the measure of success, certainly ought to be.
Let the people once look at the matter in that way, and the solution of the social problem will be at hand. They cannot long look upon it so without being put upon inquiry. They cannot feel that industry ought to be the measure of success, yet realize that it is not, without searching earnestly for the cause of this conflict between what ought to be and what is. And if they once set about searching for the cause, they will ultimately find it in the institution of monopoly - an institution so obtrusive, so bold, so comprehensively explanatory, as to make them wonder why they never thought of it before. When the theory that industry is the true measure of success once receives full and candid consideration, the doom of monopoly will have sounded. For then it will be seen that with equal natural opportunities secured to all, with justice established and monopoly abolished, the optimistic dream of the college graduate would come true: that without nerve strain or conscience strain all could succeed who tried to, and only those would fail who deserved to fail.
Meanwhile, however, this theory, as now exploited, is vicious and dangerous. It is dangerous because it will bitterly disappoint most of the young men who adopt it; and in their blind anger they may, if occasion occurs, neither weigh the wisdom nor count the cost of violence. Nothing could be better to produce reckless revolutionaires. It is vicious because it gives the youth of the country a fundamentally false idea of life. Though embodying a substantial truth, the truth that success is the natural reward of industry, this false theory of success deceptively inculcates the idea that existing social conditions actually permit the rewards of industry to find their natural objects. It conceals the monopolistic influences which now disturb the natural distribution of the proceeds of industry, and by doing that it falsifies the very truth it embodies, thus realizing Tennyson's thought that "a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies."
*An illustration from the actual experience of a well-known man was furnished by Lincoln Steffens in McClure's Magazine for August, 1903. Mr. Steffens was accounting for the success of Jacob A. Riis as a newspaper reporter when he worked for an afternoon newspaper. "Beaten at first," Mr. Steffens writes, "Riis soon was beating his rival reporters. They went to work at noon, he came down at eleven; they came at eleven, he at eight; they came at eight, Riis was soon covering the town from the time the morning papers went to press at 2 : 30 o'clock in the morning, and to that 'crazy' extreme the others would not follow."
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