Ethics of Democracy

Part 3, Business Life
Chap. 3, Service for Service

Strange is the game the world doth play -
Rouge et Noir, with the counters gold!
Red with blood and black with sin;
Few and fewer are they that win
As the ages pass untold.

- Charlotte Perkins Stetson

When John on Patmos looked into the New
Jerusalem, he saw a wondrous thing;
The streets of that fair city were all paved
With that which earth most dear and precious holds -
With purest gold, o'er which the happy feet
Of all the habiters of Heaven went up
And down. So might not this declare for us
The proper place of gold in that Society
Whose frame to-day we strive with so much toil
To shape according to our Vision's plan?
A place of use, in truth, on which to build
And act; only for use, to walk upon,
To smooth the way to worship and to work?

But we, in earth's old manner, straight
Reverse this use and fight God's good intent.
Instead of making pavements of our gold,
We beat it out and hammer it into
A dome, and raise it up into a sky
Above our heads. And then, because we can
No more behold the stars, nor can the sun
Shine through; because earth's furious furnace-heat,
Reflected, burns to dust our heart's sweet flowers;
Because our lives begin to pale and faint
Within the twilight we ourselves have made,
We bitterly complain to heaven, and cry
That no kind Providence has planned the world.

- Orville E. Watson

Peace between Capital and Labor, is that all that you ask?
Is peace, then, the only thing needful?
There was peace enough in Southern slavery.
There is a peace of life and another peace of death.
It is well to rise above violence.
It is well to rise superior to anger.

But if peace means final acquiescence in wrong - if your aim is less than justice and peace, forever one - then your peace is a crime.

- Ernest Crosby, in The Whim

What shall I do to be just?
What shall I do for the gain
Of the world for its sadness?
Teach me, O Seers that I trust!
Chart me the difficult main
Leading out of my sorrow and madness;
Preach me the purging of pain.
Shall I wrench from my finger the ring
To cast to the tramp at my door?

Shall I tear off each luminous thing
To drop in the palm of the poor?
What shall I do to be just?
Teach me, O Ye in the light,
Whom the poor and the rich alike trust;
My heart is aflame to be right.

- Hamlin Garland

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The Ethics of Democracy

by Louis F. Post

Part 3, Business Life
Chapter 3, Service for Service

SO accustomed have men become to the association of elegant leisure with civilization that they realize only with considerable mental effort that civilization depends neither upon leisure nor a leisure class, but altogether upon interchange of work. Service for service is the condition of civilized life. It is this that gives us comfortable shelter and clothing, that keeps us supplied with food, that furnishes us with all our implements, and that enables us to accumulate knowledge and diversify skill.

Should we altogether cease serving one another, civilization would quickly collapse. Though men may live without serving, it is only through some degree of interchange of service that they can live civilized lives. The less intense and just this interchange, the lower the grade of civilization; the more perfect the interchange, both in its economic and its moral qualities, the higher the civilization it will generate and maintain. Service for service - in other words, wholesome business - is the central law of social development.

In the civilized state with which we of this generation are acquainted, most exchanges of service take the form of exchanges of substantial objects which have been shaped by human art - by work. Some exchanges are, indeed, of work itself. Barbers, physicians, teachers, some classes of household servants, actors, lawyers, and so on, do not shape substantial objects and trade them; they render direct personal service. But most exchanges of service take the form of exchanges of artificial objects.

Exchanges of these objects, however, depend upon the principle of service for service. The objects are congealed or crystallized service. A familiar type is bread. By no immediate service alone could anyone furnish us with bread. The field must first be plowed and seeded, the mill must first be made and managed, and the flour must be baked in an oven that must first be built. When bread comes to the table, therefore, it is an embodiment of all the different kinds of service which have brought it there; from that of the farmer to that of the baker, from that of the miner and machinist to that of the transporter. And as with bread, so with all artificial things in the way of food, clothing, shelter, luxuries, and the artificial materials and machinery for producing them. They are products of labor, and in exchanging them we are essentially exchanging service for service, work for work.

Hardly less evanescent, nevertheless, are these things than direct personal service. Some kinds of artificial objects thus embodying service are quickly consumed, and even those that are lasting last but a little while - a month or two, a year or two, or possibly a generation or two. Though we often speak of saving, such things cannot be saved. The civilization of to-day rests not upon the saved-up products of earlier generations, but upon interchanges of service in this generation, and to a great degree in this year, or month, or week, or day.

It is often explained that the idle rich are living upon the accumulated savings of their ancestors. They live upon nothing of the kind. Imagine a rich young man as breakfasting upon toast which his great-great-grandmother had made, and eggs that his great-great-grand-father had saved up! So far from his doing that, the toast and eggs he eats are those which some of his own fellow inhabitants of this planet have caused to come to him at this very time. Some of his brethren have rendered him a service by working for him, and if he renders in exchange no equivalent service for others with his own work, then, somewhere, sometime, in the complex circles of exchange, some one has to that extent given service for which he has not received service.

Service cannot be saved. Even when congealed in consumable things, it can be saved for only a little while. Society as a whole lives almost literally from hand to mouth. The work that is done to-day serves the wants of to-day. We cannot save it for future generations.

But individuals can and do save obligations to work. And this is what is really meant by saving wealth. Nor is such saving necessarily incompatible with the principle of service for service. If a farmer, for example, works a day for his neighbor in corn-planting time, with an understanding that the neighbor is to help him in harvest, he will in effect have saved a day's service from cornplanting time till harvest time. Or if a farmer delivers 100 bushels of grain to the storekeeper upon an agreement that he shall have its equivalent in dry goods upon demand, and he does not demand them for a year, he will in effect have saved the dry goods. Suppose, however, that instead of giving the farmer credit for his wheat the storekeeper pays him money for it, and that the farmer does not spend that money until the next year; then the farmer will in effect have saved the things he ultimately buys. But the storekeeper, instead of giving either credit or money, may give the farmer his note payable in a year, and by mutual agreement this note may be renewed from year to year, until the farmer dies, leaving it to his son; and after successive renewals it may come to his grandson, to whom finally it is paid with money and the money used to hire a cook to toast bread and boil eggs. The principle will be the same. The service or goods so procured will in effect have been saved up through those three generations, though in fact the cook was not born until after the wheat for which the note was given had been consumed, nor the eggs laid until the day before they were served. In all these instances there is an exchange of service for service.

The fact that the service in one direction was rendered long before the service in the other, makes no difference. So long as all the processes of the transaction are voluntary on the part of all parties concerned, it is immaterial whether or not the interchange is concurrent. The essential thing is that when a service is rendered it shall be in exchange for an equivalent service, whether the equivalent service be rendered concurrently, or has been rendered in the past, or is to be rendered in the future. This is what constitutes service for service.

If all obligations to serve represented service rendered or to be rendered, there would be no volcanic rumblings in the development of civilization. No one could then complain of unmerited poverty, nor would any be undeservedly rich. For if each rendered service only as he received or had received or was to receive an equivalent in service, suffering from poverty would imply voluntary idleness, and the possession of great wealth would imply great industry and usefulness. It is an indisputable truth, however, that most of the obligations to serve which constitute the so-called wealth of the leisure classes represent neither service rendered nor to be rendered by the possessors, but only power acquired.

To illustrate this side of the matter, let us suppose a ten-dollar bill extorted by a highwayman from a workingman whose wages it is. The workingman had rendered service, and this bill was his certificate of title to receive service in return. But now he loses the power to demand that service. The robber has acquired it. So the workingman will have rendered ten dollars' worth of service without getting any service, and the robber will have gained ten dollars' worth of service without rendering any.

In that case the workingman is plundered in defiance of law. But there would be no essential difference if the law justified the act. There are instances in which the law does justify precisely such acts. The institution of slavery is one. A master's title to his slave is an obligation upon the slave to serve. He must serve as his master orders. The law compels him to. Yet he never has received and never is to receive equivalent service in return. As with the robbed workingman, the slave must render service without getting service, while his master gets service without rendering any. The principle of service for service is ignored. It is the same, though the process is more subtle, when private monopolies are carved out of public functions. When, for instance, the streets of a city are turned over to private corporations for street car purposes, and the corporations charge for fares more than could be exacted for the same service in competitive conditions, the excess is upon a footing precisely with the ten dollars extorted from the workingman in defiance of law, and with the labor extorted from the slave pursuant to law. To the extent of that excess the passengers are forced to render service without getting service, and the corporations get service without rendering any.

The most universal method, however, as it is the fundamental one, of getting service without giving service, through the enforcement of legal obligations to serve, is that of land monopoly. This method operates to effect the result in two ways: First, by extorting private compensation for the enjoyment of a common right; secondly, by abnormally lessening opportunities to use land, and thereby abnormally reducing the price of service.

All incomes from land - not from its use, but from the mere power of forbidding its use - are unearned. That is, they consist of services rendered by others for which no service is rendered in return. For no man can render his fellow man a service by "allowing" him to use land, any more than he can render him a service by "allowing" him to breathe. There is no service in either case unless it has been preceded by a commensurate injury. If an enemy grabs my throat and chokes me, he may indeed do me a service by then "allowing" me to breathe. But if he had in the first place respected my natural right to breathe, there would have been no need for his permission. To call such permission a service is to wrench language and trifle with thought. The same remark is true of the "service" of allowing men to use land, to which all men's rights are equal if there is such a thing as morality in the universe. It is only by previously divesting men of their natural right to land that they can ever be made to feel that permission to use land is a service. The principle of service for service demands that service by work shall be repaid with service by work. Nothing else satisfies it. Consequently rent exactions for private benefit as compensation for permission to use land are hostile to this principle. They enable the beneficiaries to that extent to get service without giving any, and therefore compel others to give service to the same extent without getting any.

The system of land monopoly which thus enables land monopolists to get service without giving service, produces the secondary effect noted above - the effect, that is, of abnormally lessening opportunities to use land, and thereby abnormally reducing the price of service. This effect is infinitely more subtle and vastly more oppressive than the first, which consists merely in extorting private compensation for a common right; but upon a little reflection it will be apprehended. Through occasional phenomenal rises of some land in rent-yielding qualities, whereby some families have become very rich - acquiring thereby great power to exact service without rendering any - a craze for buying land and holding it for a rise has become chronic, in consequence of which the whole earth, though but slightly used, is almost completely monopolized. One result of this is to set the service-rendering elements of society into deadly competition with one another for opportunities to use the earth in rendering service. For use of the earth is necessary in all occupations. A city storekeeper, for example, requires more land for his business than a country farmer does for his - measuring the land by value. The inevitable effect of that competition has been to reduce the value of service, as compared with the value of opportunities to render service, until those who render it must invariably give more service than they receive. So the principle of service for service in society is turned topsy-turvy.

The two kinds of obligation to serve which I have thus attempted to distinguish - those that represent service and those that extort it - are commonly confused by the habit of speaking of all interchange or rendering of service in terms of money. It is by money, that is, that we measure service, whether we measure it for purposes of exchange or for purposes of extortion. If we hire a man to work for us, or buy a consignment of goods, we fix the value in terms of dollars. We do the same if we buy a lot of land to hold for a rise or buy a slave to do our work. Yet in the one case the expression in dollars means that we are arranging to exchange service for service; whereas in the other it means that we are arranging to exchange a power of extorting service. The moral nature of the transactions is confused by the commercial terms in which both are expressed.

There arises, therefore, a feeling that money itself is in some sense an unholy thing. In some churches, for instance, collections are not taken up because the jingle of money in church is felt to be offensive. And in many churches where collections are taken, they are regarded as unavoidable evils; a sense of incongruity is often felt and sometimes expressed. Yet there should be no such feeling regarding money that has been earned by service. To drop such money into the contribution box of any society is to say: "I have done this much work for this cause and here is the certificate." But so much of the money that goes into contribution boxes represents not service for the cause, but extortion for the cause, that it is little wonder a sense of incongruity between money boxes and church worship is felt and expressed both within and without the churches.

Such is the kind of money that people would get were their wishes granted when they wish to be rich. To wish to be rich is to wish to be able to get service without giving service. It is therefore the most selfish possible wish. Yet it is often made in what purports to be a philanthropic spirit. We sometimes wish we might be rich so that we could lighten the burdens of the poor. But why not wish that the poor might be rich so that they could lighten their own burdens? Zangwill's Jew understood this thing to a nicety. After praying the Lord to give him $100,000, upon his promise to distribute $50,000 of it among the poor, he added: "But, Lord, if you can't trust me, then give me $50,000, and distribute the other $50,000 among the poor yourself." It all comes back to the original proposition that obligations to serve are essentially of two kinds: those which certify to exchange of service, and those which certify to a legal power of extorting service. This distinction must always be kept clear.

Of the justice of the former species of obligation there can be no question. When men freely contract for an exchange of service, whether in the form of direct personal service or of substantial products of labor, or partly in one and partly in the other, the obligation of him who gets service to return its equivalent is a moral obligation. But the obligation which represents power to extort service without certifying to the rendering of service is immoral and must be condemned. If one gets without working, others must work without getting; and that is something which no school of ethics can frankly approve. It is essentially robbery.

The Bible also condemns it. That venerable volume commands us not to steal. It admonishes us, furthermore, to do to others as we would have them do to us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves - neither more nor less, but the same. And in it we are distinctly told that he who will not work shall not eat, a text which is frequently enough quoted against parasitical tramps but seldom against parasitical millionaires. In fact the Bible is replete with condemnations of extortion of service. In this way only are its otherwise incomprehensible condemnations of the rich to be explained. For the rich, in the opprobrious sense, are not those who have much in the way of obligations requiring others to serve in exchange for service rendered, but those who have anything in the way of obligations to serve which do not represent service rendered.

As Henry George says:* "Is there not a natural or normal line of the possession or enjoyment of service? Clearly there is. It is that of equality between giving and receiving.... He who can command more service than he need render, is rich. He is poor, who can command less service than he does render or is willing to render; for in our civilization of to-day we must take note of the monstrous fact that men willing to work cannot always find opportunity to work. The one has more than he ought to have; the other has less. Rich and poor are thus correlatives of each other; the existence of a class of rich involving the existence of a class of poor, and the reverse; and abnormal luxury on the one side and abnormal want on the other have a relation of necessary sequence. To put this relation into terms of morals, the rich are the robbers, since they are at least sharers in the proceeds of robbery; and the poor are the robbed. This is the reason, I take it, why Christ, who was not really a man of such reckless speech as some Christians deem him to have been, always expressed sympathy with the poor and repugnance of the rich. In his philosophy it was better even to be robbed than to rob. In the kingdom of right-doing which he preached, rich and poor would be impossible, because rich and poor in the true sense are the results of wrong-doing.... Injustice cannot live where justice rules, and even if the man himself might get through, his riches his power of compelling service without rendering service must of necessity be left behind. If there can be no poor in the kingdom of heaven, clearly there can be no rich! And so it is utterly impossible in this, or in any other conceivable world, to abolish unjust poverty, without at the same time abolishing unjust possessions. This is a hard word to the softly amiable philanthropists who, to speak metaphorically, would like to get on the good side of God without angering the devil. But it is a true word nevertheless."

Verily it is a true word. If the extortion of service is to be abolished and the world left free to exchange service for service, then those obligations to serve which represent naked legal power and not service rendered, must be unconditionally abolished. To pay their beneficiaries for their loss of extorting power would be merely to substitute one form of extortion for another. Whoever is rich because he possesses legal power to compel the rendering of service without rendering or having rendered therefor an equivalent service, must in justice lose that power. So long as he retains it the natural law of service for service cannot operate. It is only by his losing his power to extort service that others can be restored to their right to exchange service.

And this restoration is necessary, not only in fairness to the wronged, but for the general good. As Ruskin said in his lecture on "Work," "the first necessity of social life is the clearness of the national conscience in enforcing the law that he should keep who has justly earned"; a law, he added, and as George more fully explains, which "is the proper distinction between rich and poor."

* "Science of Political Economy," Book II, Ch. XIX.

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