The Socialistic Conscience and the Rich

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Free Life, May 1898.
The Socialistic Conscience and the Rich

A member of St. John's College, Oxford, writes: --"If we were starting a society with no historical past, I might begin by considering your programme, though even then I do not think I should accept it. But as it is, we have the institution of unequal private property firmly established. Whatever else property means, it means this: that the man who possesses a large amount of it has a large power of controlling the actions of his neighbours with or without their consent. Therefore, on the principles of individual liberty, a society which allows bound to put special restriction on their use of their property, for the sake of guarding the liberty of poor men. E.g. if the laws allow a man to own land, that is, to keep other people from walking on it if he chooses, they ought also to prevent him from keeping people off it, except where he can prove that they would damage his crops or look through his windows. So again, if I cannot work at a trade without the permission of an employer, the laws ought to prescribe the cases in which an employer may refuse his permission--supposing him to be a large employer with the power of refusing thousands of men at once."

Auberon Herbert replies: I cannot see how "the historical past" affects the question. Either Liberty or compulsion--one of the two--is the right method; and the sooner we try seriously to follow the right method, the better, whatever our past has been. Let the dead past bury its dead. Our concern is not with the past; but with the future that can be moulded as we chose to determine.

The writer goes on to say that he who has much property controls his neighbours; and therefore--so the argument appears to run--let us control him. Let us examine the argument. In the first place it should be remarked that because AB does a particular thing, such action of AB does not afford in itself any sufficient reason why CD should in his turn do the same thing. Wrongs don't correct wrongs. One wrong is not made better by committing another wrong of the same kind, but greater in degree. If it is a wrong thing to own property on account of the control of others, said to be inherent in it, why imitate and reproduce the particular wrong--the control of others--and control AD the owner because he controls others. Surely that is a topsy-turvey way of remedying a special wrong--to plant another of the same kind by the side of it. Let us try to see a little more clearly. If the control of others is wrong, then where the wrong exists, let us seek out remedies which are in themselves free from their wrong.

....[T]he Socialist conscience acts in such matters in a very curious fashion. It objects very vehemently to the compulsion said to be exercised by the owner of property, but it does not object to any amount of compulsion, though carried to the very furthest lengths--compulsion forbidding a man to labour for whom he will, to do what he likes with his earnings, to possess and enjoy private property, to direct the affairs of his own family--when undertaken in the interests of Socialism. The Socialistic conscience... away[s] with the mild and indirect form of compulsion that is necessary for the defence of property, but it cheerfully accepts the universal disqualification of every individual as regards the use of his own faculties for his own advantage.

It is true, I admit,at once that the rights of property carry with them a certain amount of indirect compulsion. If A owns and enjoys a piece of land, a house, or a coat, it is clear that B cannot own and enjoy it. But except as regards that particular article, no disqualification is placed upon B. He is left free to acquire in an open market another piece of land, another house or coat. The compulsion under which he is said to suffer will be exerted in his favour as soon as he himself owns property. The compulsion placed upon him as regards this particular article owned by A is simply a necessary part of the freedom of acquiring which belong also to him (B) and will in turn be exerted on his behalf against C, D, and E whenever he (B) acquires and enjoys any form of property. The compulsion only comes in as a necessary consequence of the freedom acquiring and possessing; it is not--as in the case of the Socialists--a limitation primarily, directly, and arbitrarily placed upon faculties; but it is a compulsion that arises out of the freedom of exercising faculties, and the necessity to protect this freedom.

Under the Socialistic system matters are wholly reversed. The Socialist starts not with freedom but compulsion. It is the far-reaching groundwork of his system. He applies it unhesitatingly to the exercise of all faculties. He practically says to men: "Your faculties are not your own. They are confiscated to the State. What you earn shall go to the State and shall return to you in such form and measure as the State allows. We place upon you this universal disqualification; and although it is your individual labour that gives value to all this world-material that surrounds you, yet you shall never be allowed to possess it as individual property, except in such infinitesimal quantities as the one great owner--the State--shall permit. In so-called common property of State property you shall share; but you shall possess nothing in your own way and for your own selves. You, the individuals, are good to labour, are good to give value by your labour to world-material, but you are not good to possess and enjoy the fruits of your labour as individuals."

Now considering the enormous extent of this arrogant compulsion—inherent in in the Socialistic scheme--I don't think it fairly lies in the mouth of any person, who agrees or sympathises with the Socialists, to object to property of the ground of compulsion....Those who really object to compulsion cannot consistently propose to get rid of a system where the compulsion is as 5 per cent and replace it by a system where the compulsion is as 99 per cent. I appeal to the fair sense of the writer of this letter and ask him if such a line of argument can be held to be perfectly straightforward. If property is to be disallowed on the ground of the compulsion, that indirectly arises out of it, how in any consistent fashion can you defend a system that, whether true or false, right or wrong,in itself is confessedly based throughout on compulsion?

The writer has also overlooked a slip in his own argument. Because an owner is allowed to compel non-owners to abstain from trespassing on his land, therefore he himself must be subject to compulsion, and must be obliged to allow people to walk on his land. But if he is obliged to allow others to walk on his land, then his compulsion of others ceases, and it cannot be a ground for exercising compulsion upon him.

There is another sentence in this letter which deserves a short comment. "Therefore, on the principle of individual liberty, a society which allows rich men is bound to put special restrictions," etc. There are a good many propositions crowded into these twenty words, to some of which I must object. In the first place the principles of individual liberty do not distinguish between rich and poor men. They assert the free exercise of faculties, and the free enjoyment of what is won through exercise of faculties for all persons, rich or poor, without distinction. If distinctions are to be drawn between rich and poor, the writer should have spoken not of the principles of individual liberty but of the principles of Socialism. The writer goes on and speaks of "a society which allows rich men." But here again he forgets that he cannot even for the moment base himself on the principles of individual liberty, and yet at the same time continue to stand on his Socialistic platform. The principles of individual liberty have nothing to do with "Society allowing rich men." Those who believe in Liberty principles, assert certain rights for all men--rights which arise out of the physical and moral nature of men.... They recognize no "allowances" on the part of that abstraction "Society." They recognise no right--except the right of force--on the part of 3 men out of 5 (which is what we mean when we speak of Society) to give to or to withhold from rich men the right of existence. This idea of Society (that is of the 3 men made omnipotent over the 2 men) giving and withholding what it likes is a purely Socialistic idea. It is the idea of unlimited power; of power unchecked by existing moral rights; of power that may do exactly what seems good to it, and that rests on the basic fact that 3 men are stronger than 2. As this idea is the very opposite of the principles of individual liberty, the two things--the Socialistic idea and the liberty idea--should be kept distinct, not fused together in one sentence. Would the writer not have put the case more exactly if he had said, "We Socialists, who believe in the omnipotence of the 3 men over the 2 men, think that if the 3 men are to allow rich men to exist they should only be allowed to do so under certain conditions--such as, they should not have too much property." That, as an expression of Socialistic opinion, is clear enough, but for mere clearness sake it should not be mixed up with the principles of Individual Liberty, with which it has nothing to do.

Lastly, I would appeal to the writer to reconsider the hopeless confusion and uncertainty that his system of half-recognising and half-disallowing property would lead us into. When the thoroughgoing consistent Socialist disallows all possession of private property outside the State wage, we know what he means. But who could know what the meaning of property would be when it was free and open to anyone who did not damage crops or look through windows to make use of his neighbour's property? Might the public picnic on the further edge of the lawn, or snare nightingales in the covert? If not, why not? What line, what limits can be drawn when once you have entered upon this vague and fanciful territory--without any fixed boundary or land mark--of property that belongs in unascertained shares partly to the owner and partly to the public. If there is one thing which men require in the interests of their toil as well as of peace and security, it is that the conditions as regards property should be founded on definite principles, and should be in themselves simple and fixed; and even the privilege of walking across a rich man's lawn, without looking in at the windows, would be dearly bought by the universal uncertainty and confusion which must arise, if ever the 3 men (who represent Society) are invited to arrange and rearrange according to their constantly-changing fancies, the terms on which property may be owned, and the terms on which the outside public may share in its ownership.

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