Ethics of Democracy

Part 5, Politico-Economic Principles
Chap. 7, Social Evolution

The basic principle of Economics, of the art of ordering the social relations of mankind, may then be summed up in the one word Justice.

- Lewis H. Berens, in "Toward the Light"

Are there no slaves to-day? While we sit here at play,
Have we no brothers in adversity?

None sorry nor oppressed, who without hope or rest
Must toil and have no pleasure in their toil?

These are your slaves and mine. Where is the right divine
Of idlers to encumber God's good soil?

There is no man alive, however he may strive,
Allowed to own the work of his own hands.

Landlords and water lords at all the roads and fords,
Taking their toll, imposing their commands.

- Bliss Carman

Not ermine clad, nor clothed in state,
Their title deeds not yet made plain;

But waking early, toiling late,
The heirs of all the earth remain.

Some day, by laws as fixed and fair
As guide the planets in their sweep,

The children of each outcast heir
The harvest fruits of time shall reap.

Some day without a trumpet's call,
This news shall o'er the earth be blown:

The heritage comes back to all;
The myriad monarchs take their own.

- Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Grimly the same spirit looks into the law of Property, and accuses men of driving a trade in the great boundless Providence which had given the air, the water, and the land to men to use and not to fence in and monopolize. ("The Times.") I cannot occupy the bleakest crag of the White Hills or the Allegheny Range, but some man or corporation steps up to me to show me that it is his. ("The Conservative.") Touch any wood, or field, or house lot on your peril; but you may come and work in ours for us, and we will give you a piece of bread. ("The Conservative.") Of course, whilst another man has no land, my title to mine, your title to yours, is at once vitiated. ("Man the Reformer.")

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Properly speaking, the land belongs to these two: To the Almighty God; and to all his Children of Men that have ever worked well on it, or that shall ever work well on it. No generation of men can or could, with never such solemnity and effort, sell Land on any other principle: it is not the property of any generation.

- Thomas Carlyle, in "Past and Present," Book III, Chapter VIII.

To any plain understanding the right of property is very simple. It is the right of man to possess, enjoy, and transfer, the substance and use of whatever he has himself created. This title is good against the world; and it is the sole and only title by which a valid right of absolute private property can possibly vest. But no man can plead any such title to a right of property in the substance of the soil.

- James Fintan Lalor, in "The Irish Felon," July 8, 1848.

It is easy to persuade the masses that the good things of this
world are unjustly divided - especially when it happens to be the
exact truth.

- Froude's "Caesar."

To affirm that a man can rightfully claim exclusive ownership in his own labor when embodied in material things, is to deny that any one can rightfully claim exclusive ownership in land. -("Progress and Poverty," Book VII, Ch. I.) So far from the recognition of private property in land being necessary to the proper use of land, the contrary is the case. Treating land as private property stands in the way of its proper use. Were land treated as public property it would be used and improved as soon as there was need for its use or improvement, but being treated as private property, the individual owner is permitted to prevent others from using or improving what he cannot or will not use or improve himself. -(Same, Book VIII, Ch. I.) We should satisfy the law of justice, we should meet all economic requirements, by at one stroke abolishing all private titles, declaring all land public property, and letting it out to the highest bidders in lots to suit, under such conditions as would sacredly guard the private right to improvements.... But such a plan, though perfectly feasible, does not seem to me the best. Or rather I propose to accomplish the same thing in a simpler, easier, and quieter way, than that of formally confiscating all the land and formally letting it out to the highest bidders.... We already take some rent in taxation. We have only to make some changes in our modes of taxation to take it all. What I, therefore, propose... is - to appropriate rent by taxation.... Now, inasmuch as the taxation of rent, or land values, must necessarily be increased just as we abolish other taxes, we may put the proposition into practical form by proposing - to abolish all taxation save that upon land values. (Same, Book VIII, Ch. II.)

- Henry George

Hither, ye blind, from your futile banding!
Know the rights and the rights are won.

Wrong shall die with the understanding,
One truth clear, and the work is done.

Nature is higher than Progress or Knowledge
Whose need is ninety enslaved for ten.

My word shall stand against mart and college:
The planet belongs to its living men!

- "Liberty," by John Boyle O'Reilly

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The Ethics of Democracy

by Louis F. Post

Part 5, Politico-Economic Principles
Chapter 7, Social Evolution

FEW things in human history are more obvious than the effect upon social institutions in general of changes in economic conditions. Restricted economic systems have always been prejudicial to the business, the politics, the art, the morals and even the religions of the societies that have tolerated them; while advances in economic freedom have everywhere been followed by improvement in all other spheres of social aspiration and effort.

This obvious historical truth could hardly be more impressively portrayed than in these eloquent words:

"Only in broken gleams and partial light has the sun of Liberty yet beamed among men, but all progress hath she called forth. Liberty came to a race of slaves crouching under Egyptian whips, and led them forth from the House of Bondage. She hardened them in the desert and made of them a race of conquerors. The free spirit of the Mosaic law took their thinkers up to heights where they beheld the unity of God, and inspired their poets with strains that yet phrase the highest exaltations of thought. Liberty dawned on the Phoenician coast, and ships passed the Pillars of Hercules to plow the unknown sea. She shed a partial light on Greece, and marble grew to shapes of ideal beauty, words became the instruments of subtlest thought, and against the scanty militia of free cities the countless hosts of the Great King broke like surges against a rock. She cast her beams on the four-acre farms of Italian husbandmen, and born of her strength a power came forth that conquered the world. They glinted from shields of German warriors, and Augustus wept his legions. Out of the night that followed her eclipse, her slanting rays fell again on free cities, and a lost learning revived, modern civilization began, a new world was unveiled; and as Liberty grew, so grew art, wealth, power, knowledge, and refinement. In the history of every nation we may read the same truth."*

So manifest is this order of social phenomena whereby social improvement follows advances in economic freedom, and not only with reference to past times but also in our own day, that social progress seems to be generated by economic modes; and from that inference materialistic evolutionists draw far-reaching conclusions. Economics becomes to them a sort of social protoplasm, out of which the higher institutions and even the ideals of society are progressively evolved.

The plausibility of this theory is greatly enhanced by the undeniable fact that institutions of higher degree are affected in character and direction by existing economic conditions. The economic struggle taints our politics with corruption, rests our morals on the shifting sands of utilitarianism, degrades our art to the commonplace or the sensational, and turns the high ideals of our religion into empty metaphors behind which lurks a loathsome dollar worship.

All this is because existing economic conditions force everybody into an all-absorbing devotion to the problem of securing a living. The higher qualities of human nature have consequently but little opportunity to develop freely. It by no means follows, however, that economic systems naturally determine the character and direction of those qualities. Nothing more is proved than that economic systems which force men to become absorbed in the problem of securing a living, hold the higher qualities of human nature down to their own low levels.

We may still infer, then, when changes in economic systems are followed by improvement on the higher planes of social life, that this result is due to another cause than materialistic evolution. So far from being limited to the theory that improved conditions on the higher planes are generated by economic change, we may fairly conclude that those conditions are attributable to the fact that the economic change has freed the higher qualities of men from the thraldom of bread winning. Instead of affording proof of materialistic evolution, such changes are instances of spiritual emancipation.

It is true, of course, that men must eat and drink and be clad before they can think effectively about art or morals, politics or religion, or in any other manner give free play to their higher faculties. They must, moreover, not only have all the bodily comforts that food and drink and clothing symbolize, but must also be reasonably assured of always having them, before their thoughts can soar very far above economic levels.

So long as economic necessities are forced into the foreground, higher impulses will be driven into the background. While the mind is worried with economic thoughts, moral and spiritual thoughts will be clouded. Any economic system, therefore, which perpetually stimulates a universal and obtrusive fear of want, must give direction and character to every other social institution. It does this, however, not by processes of generation or materialistic evolution, but by holding the higher functions of the mind in check.

Emancipate the higher human qualities by banishing want and fear of want, and social development will no longer be determined by economic adjustments. The higher human faculties, freed from the enthrallment of bodily needs, will rise toward their source - which is not material, but spiritual.

The theory that all social movement is generated and determined by economic adjustments, assumes that an effect can be greater than its original cause. It attributes the origin of the higher characteristics and possibilities of social life to the lower. And this extraordinary method of accounting for moral and spiritual qualities in man, is, heaven save the mark, sometimes called "scientific." It would be as scientific to assume that water naturally rises above its source, or that machinery naturally gives out more power than has been put into it.

Economic systems cannot be the original cause of institutions that rise above the economic. If morality, for instance, is evolved from economic conditions, an equal moral force must have been first involved into economic conditions. So, also, with art, politics, religion and all the rest. Nothing superior to economics can be got out of economics without having first been injected into economics. But that implies what materialistic evolutionists deny - a first cause or force, a force which descends from highest spirituality to lowest materiality and then returns. It is a force that in this respect may be likened to rays of sunlight which upon striking the face of a mirror are reflected back. The mirror does not generate the light it projects. Neither does the material generate the spiritual.

The manifestations of this force through the higher faculties of the human mind and heart may, indeed, be checked by obstructions along the lower levels through which it rises. But in no other sense can it be truly said to be directed or determined by those levels. They support and may be made to check it; but they have no vitality of their own to give. Remove the obstructions, and the higher faculties are no more determined by the lower functions than the volume of water in a reservoir is determined by the shape of the pipe through which it is received from its source in the mountain lake.

Given an economic condition from which the fear of want had been banished, and the higher functions of society would be determined, not by economic modes, but by moral ideals unobstructed and unpolluted by sordid anxieties and hopes and fears.

Nor need we think of such an economic condition as fanciful. On the contrary, it is entirely natural in the social state. It would be a reality to-day, under the existing economic system, but for immoral political interferences with the natural distribution of wealth. The possibilities of satisfying the material wants of mankind are practically unlimited. If all men who are willing to work for their living were allowed to work, and each who works were free to demand effectively the share which his work adds to current production, there would be neither want nor fear of want, but more than enough for all. But by setting up and perpetuating the institution of private ownership of the habitable globe, we have empowered a comparatively few to regulate by their own all-powerful interests the amount and character of work to be done and the shares into which the result shall be distributed. We have thereby perpetuated the problem of want and the fear of want.

What keeps this problem alive is not our economic system in itself, but one of our political institutions reacting upon our economic system, and an immoral institution at that. To be more specific, it is not competition, the essence of our economic system, that keeps the problem alive; it is land monopoly, which obstructs competition and makes it lop-sided. Abolish land monopoly, and the want problem would banish itself. Abolish land monopoly, and our economic system, freed from obstruction, would emancipate the higher human faculties.

So long as these are held in subjection to economic systems, whether the systems be selfishly plutocratic or fraternally socialistic, just so long will their activities be directed and determined by the debasing spirit of utilitarianism. But immediately upon their release their activities would come under the influence of moral ideals, derived, without sordid pollution or distortion, from the original moral force of the universe. This is the only social evolution which, being sound in natural principle, is wholesome in all its processes.

* "Progress and Poverty," Book X, Ch. V.

Materialistic evolutionism is a component in the of the Marxist school. Its central thesis in the Marxist case for communism is that private property has caused people put self-advancement ahead of the advancement of the species. [- online editor]

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