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from his printed work, that his teaching will satisfy the two-fold desire of man; that it will be enlightened with intelligent economic views and give men what they want to know when they go out to fight, but that also it will send them forth with a pennon as well as with a sword, to keep before their eyes in the long battle the little flutter that means ideals, honor, yes, even romance, in all the dull details.
ECONOMIC ELEMENTS *
I ENTERTAIN some opinions concerning the issues raised by your questions, and though not strictly responsive, I will state them.
The real problem is not who owns, but who consumes, the annual product. The identification of
. these two very different questions is the source of many fallacies, and misleads many workingmen. The real evil of fifty-thousand-dollar balls and other manifestations of private splendor is that they tend to confirm this confusion in the minds of the ignorant by an appeal to their imagination, and make them think that the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers swallow their incomes like Cleopatra's dissolved pearl. The same conception is at the bottom of Henry George's Progress and Poverty. He thinks he has finished the discussion when he shows the tendency of wealth to be owned by the landlords. He does not consider what the landlords do with it.
I conceive that economically it does not matter whether you call Rockefeller or the United States owner of all the wheat in the United States, if that wheat is annually consumed by the body of the people; except that Rockefeller, under the illusion of self-seeking or in the conscious pursuit of power, will be likely to bring to bear a more poignant scrutiny of the future in order to get a greater return for the next year.
* A letter written in response to questions and not intended for print, but reprinted here, as it was published in a magazine (1904).
If then, as I believe, the ability of the ablest men under the present régime is directed to getting the largest markets and the largest returns, such ability is directed to the economically desirable end.
I have vainly urged our various statisticians to exhibit in the well-known form the proportions of the products consumed by the many and those consumed by the few, expressed in labor hours or in any other convenient way. This would show whether private ownership was abused for the production of an undue proportion of luxuries for the few. I do not believe the luxuries would be one per cent.
It follows from what I have said that the objections to unlimited private ownership are sentimental or political, not economic. Of course, as the size of a private fortune increases, the interest of the public in the administration of it increases. If a man owned one-half of the wheat in the country and announced his intention to burn it, such abuse of ownership would not be permitted. The crowd would kill him sooner than stand it.
But it seems to me that if every desirable object were in the hands of a monopolist, intent on getting all he could for it (subject to the limitation that it must be consumed, and that it might not be wantonly destroyed, as, of course, it would not be), the value of the several objects would be settled by the intensity of the desires for them respectively, and they
would be consumed by those who were able to get them and that would be the ideal result.
The first question put,* if I may be permitted to say so, seems to me rather fanciful. I see no way of answering it intelligently, and if I am right, it appears to imply an acceptance of what I have already tried to show to be a fallacy or confusion.
So far as I can answer it, what I should say would be this: All that any man contributes to the world is the intelligence which directs a change in the place of matter. A man does not create the thing he handles or the force he exerts. The force could be got cheaper if the directing intelligence were not needed. The whole progress of the world in a material way is to put the need of intelligence further back. It is obvious that the intelligence of an architect contributes more to the change of form which takes place in a house than that of all the laboring hands. How can any one measure the scope and value of remote causes of change? How can I compare the present effect on the lives of men of the speculations of Kant and of the empire of Napoleon? I should not think it absurd to assert that the former counted for the more, though, of course, it is impossible to prove it. My practical answer is that a great fortune does not mean a corresponding consumption, but a power of command; that some one must exercise that command, and that I know of no way of finding the fit man so good as the fact of winning it in the competition of the market.
* Whether a man can render services entitling him to a fortune as great as some of ours in America.
I already have intimated my opinion that the owner of a great fortune has public functions, and therefore, subject to legal questions which I am not considering, should be subject to some negative restraint. Among others, I should like to see him prohibited from giving great sums to charities which could not be clearly justified as long-sighted public investments.
The only other question on which I desire to say a word is the nature of taxes in this connection. Taxes, when thought out in things and results, mean an abstraction of a part of the annual product for government purposes, and cannot mean anything else. Whatever form they take in their imposition they must be borne by the consumer, that is, mainly by the working
men and fighting-men of the community. It is well that they should have this fact brought home to them, and not too much disguised by the form in which the taxes are imposed.