previous next

Chapter 25: the complaint of the poor

It is impossible for a prosperous and comfortable person to understand the point of view of the dissatisfied-whether in the case of the ordinary socialist or of Mr. Howells-without keeping in mind such facts as the following, which the writer happens to know pretty directly: A poor cobbler was troubled, as many men are, with an insatiable love of mechanical invention; and this was finally concentrated on a mechanism for “tying and binding” in connection with a “reaper.” It was for a need then very imperfectly filled, and promised great rewards if successful. He worked at it for years, impoverishing his family for it, until his wife implored him to give it up altogether. Getting it at last, however, into final shape, he carried it to one of the chief establishments which manufactured reapers, and offered it for inspection and sale. [172] After a little examination it was rejected decisively as being too complicated; the inventor went home in despair, put his model away under his bench, and promised his wife to abstain from inventions thenceforward. A few weeks or months passed, and a shabby man one day came to the door asking to see it, and saying that he himself had invented a reaper, and it might be worth while for them to join forces. Pulling out the rejected model from under the bench, the inventor showed it, and finally sold it for a small sum to the visitor. It turned out afterwards that the shabby man was an employee of the great establishment which had nominally rejected the invention, and had taken this mean way to buy it for a song. It has since proved immensely profitable. If taxed with the trick, those concerned would simply reply that business was business, and each man must look out for himself.

This precise story may not be true, though it rests on good authority. That it might be true there is no question. It is the possibility of its being true which vitiates all theories of the dignity of wealth. If wealth were, as is sometimes asserted, simply the cumulative result of industry, patience, and honesty, it would not be hard to treat it with a certain reverence. [173] Where one man has grown rich by economy, energy, and skill, and another has grown or remained poor by indolence or incapacity, there wealth seems to denote qualities that claim respect, and men do not grudge the deference shown to it. It is because men of any experience all know instances to the contrary, and have watched the many examples of tricks like that applied to this poor cobbler, that they denounce all wealth as a fraud upon the community. Sow a victim, and you reap a socialist.

Yet it is so difficult to resist the prestige of success, and so easy to believe the great man to be also good, that people are not, in the individual case, very critical. It is easy to convince one's self that gossip is malicious, that one does not know all the details. At any rate, in the next generation the facts grow wholly vague; they represent old scandal; they no more vitiate the inheritor of a fortune than the nobleman or noble lady of to-day, in England or Austria, is vitiated in reputation by the fact that the original dukedom or earldom may have been bought by the dishonor of an ancestor. But all this, or even the fact that the privileged position is well used, does not usually propitiate the mind of the socialist [174] or even of the philosophic critic. His question is whether the money of the so-called benefactor is to be regarded as an actual gift or as an act of restitution-giving back to the community its rightful share hitherto withheld. If these benefactors were really publicspirited-thus the malcontents reason — they would not object to an income-tax, for instance, which would put the gift in a more unequivocal form. Probably there never was a time or place where more money was spent than is devoted here and now, by rich men, for the benefit of the community. The trouble is that the wealth increases in spite of it, and so does poverty. Moreover, the wealth does not get the credit of what it really does. Its occasional follies and extravagances and titled marriages are before all men's eyes; its acts of benevolence are less advertised, and not so interesting for purposes of gossip. Many men of profuse generosity are really simple and retiring in personal habits, but these are usually ignored. The only American millionaire whom one finds habitually reverenced in the more radical newspapers is Peter Cooper, and this not so much for the money he spent as for the way he spent it; and, in part, from his greenback and other theories. [175]

It is impossible not to recognize that much of the distrust of wealth on the part of the poor has come from the mere increase of the figures employed to describe it; that we count by millions instead of by thousands, and that the word multi-millionaire has become necessary. Greville records, fifty years ago, the registering of a will bequeathing the largest fortune ever known in England-over a million pounds, or five million dollars. Only that! It is a great step from this to the period when all the newspapers condoled with the daughters of a single American family for being limited by their father's will to ten million dollars apiece. There was such a general expression of sympathy that one expected to see a proposal to take up collections for them in Sunday-schools or by penny-in-a-slot boxes. Since then, moreover, the maximum figure of wealth has increased so rapidly that it haunts the imagination, especially of the poor. All the old theories, as that wealth would be limited, in this country, by the absence of primogeniture, or checked by cutting off the old sources of supply, such as the India trade-all these have vanished. Then the question recurs, for those who are poor and philosophers at the same time, what is the outcome to be? It is [176] almost as difficult to reconcile the principles of republican society with the existence of billionaires as of dukes. Meanwhile, as to the question of outcome, the most courageous theorizers differ fundamentally. Henry George and Edward Bellamy agree as to the disease, but prescribe remedies almost absolutely opposite. It is perhaps fortunate that it is so, for it gives people time to open their eyes and to think.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Austria (Austria) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
William Dean Howells (1)
Henry George (1)
Peter Cooper (1)
Edward Bellamy (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1896 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: