The Decline of Duty
IT is difficult to estimate the tendencies of a period accurately, and, in attempting to measure the forces and determine the direction of the currents which indicate the general movement, there are at present some particularly misleading and confusing agencies to be encountered, and if possible avoided. In the first place, it never follows that the things which are most in evidence are the most important and influential, or typical. There is a strong temptation to believe that they are so, for whatever is persistently thrust upon our attention naturally seems more considerable than unobtrusive matters. In the second place, the commercial principle governs the gathering and distribution of intelligence, and this fact is significant. The press, being a business the ultimate purpose of which is money-making, employs all its activity in ascertaining what will suit the public taste. Different newspapers cater to different classes, and find it profitable to provide varied intelligence. But as a rule they appear to have discovered that the sensational is the best paying line, and the popularity of this kind of reading matter is proved by the fact that the journals which have obtained the largest circulation have done so mainly by adhering to this method. It may thus be regarded as a safe inference that the populace like sensationalism, but it would not be equally safe to infer that the popularity of sensationalism indicates the existence of the state of affairs which sensational papers seem to establish. It is important to bear in mind that the mass of a nation’s doings never find a chronicler, and that of the things which do get recorded nine tenths are evil deeds, breaches of law, and casualties. In a nation of fifty odd million there must always be enough sensational happenings to furnish the press with lively matter. The demand for this class of reading imparts an artificial blackness to the only register of current events which is kept. One consequence of the capricious and partial selection of news for publication is the development of exaggerated apprehensions for the future. The tendency to generalize is common to most men, but generalizations based on such exhibits as the modern press makes are peculiarly liable to error. The great main current of national life must be represented by the silent masses, that live in obedience to the laws, pursue industries quietly, support the national institutions as a matter of course, and keep the conscience of the nation in respect of all ethical, religious, and patriotic questions. So long as the conservatism of these masses remains, the general course followed by the country will be the same; but it is not a foregone conclusion that the masses are even now as conservative as ever. Change sufficiently extensive to affect national life palpably must be the work of time; and though we have from the first facilitated the introduction and growth of new ideas by our system of immigration, even the most radical alterations in belief are certain to proceed very slowly, in comparison with those surface indications which deceive so many observers and produce so much premature alarm.
But though all attempts to estimate the tendencies of a period are surrounded by difficulties, it is possible to reach an approximately correct view of the situation at any time by weighing fairly and cautiously a number of manifestations on different lines. If at the present time such an experiment does not result in confirming the fears of impulsive and too precipitate thinkers, it certainly does tend to produce a conviction that the prevailing tendencies are not reassuring, and that there is more than usual need for circumspection and anxious vigilance.
The most serious vice of the period is perhaps the decline of the sense of responsibility, the non-recognition of duty. It is not intended to be conveyed that this manifestation is general, but that it has become so conspicuous as to challenge attention. The most striking exhibition of it just now is in tradesunionism, but it is not confined to that department of organized labor. It has been growing up for many years. It may be that in its more repulsive aspect it is a legacy of the war, though no doubt much of it belongs, in a broad sense, to the inherent weakness of humanity. Decline in the sense of responsibility manifests itself in many ways : in business dishonesty; in corporate rapacity; in acts of concerted vengeance and oppression, such as several Western communities have united in, against the railroads ; in political demagogism; in political venality; in the spread of commercial and financial adulteration and fraud; in the betrayal of trusts ; in the magnifying of rights and the minimizing of obligations. Now if it is found that all these things have been done and are still being done, the conclusion that there is ground for some uneasiness will probably be admitted reasonable and just. Nor must it be overlooked that the persistence of many evils of the time is facilitated quite as much by the passivity, amounting to acquiescence, of many, as by the bold greed or overweening selfishness of the few. Public indifference to abuses is accountable for their increase in many instances, and this indifference is itself the result of an absorption in the pursuit of private gain which excludes public spirit.
It is sometimes asserted that the decay of religious belief is at the bottom of whatever demoralization we suffer from, and scientific skepticism is accused of destroying faith in Christianity. There is reason to doubt the soundness of this hypothesis. Undoubtedly skepticism is bolder and more outspoken today than it was half a century ago ; but unbelief had been making way quietly long before the evolutionary philosophy was formulated, and it is necessary to go very far back in history to find a time when what is called faith in Christianity really meant more than an intellectual consent to doctrines scarcely ever regarded as applicable to daily life. When formal Christianity seemed most firmly established, its professors were not less eager and not much more scrupulous in their pursuit of wealth than at present. Their professions were louder, but their conduct was not more in conformity with the doctrines they asserted belief in. The plain truth is that Christianity as a rule of life has never yet been accepted by Christendom; for acceptance in any true sense implies obedience, and that there has never been. There is no evidence of any weight for the assumption that the new philosophy has lowered the moral standard to an appreciable extent. Such adherence to Christianity as the world is willing to render is still apparent. Notwithstanding complaints of the decline of religion in New England, as shown by the abandonment of churches, religious statistics exhibit strong vitality in all the externals of the faith. In the West, where the great stream of settlement flows, new churches are springing up continually, and little difficulty is experienced in procuring funds for their maintenance. In fact, the manifestations of loose morality most conspicuous in these days occur generally rather in defiance of religious professions than in accordance with infidelity or agnosticism. A significant fact in this connection is the appearance among the sturdiest members of the Roman Catholic Church of some of the strongest evidences of declining conscientiousness ; that is to say, among the Irish workingmen, who in their trades-unions have exhibited quite as marked a disposition to ignore their obligations and to magnify their rights as could any skeptic.
Were it asserted that the real trouble with the churches consisted in their failure to convert the world to Christianity, it would not be easy to dispute the proposition; for no man can study the teachings of Christ and the conduct of the so-called Christian nations without perceiving that the two proceed upon different lines, towards radically divergent ends. Nothing can be more unjust than to charge upon Christianity the defects of modern civilization, for there never has been a truly Christian civilization, and the prospects for one today are anything but bright. To say that Christianity has proved a failure is indeed to trifle with the truth of history. It has not been tried yet, and it is not one of the least hopeful signs of the times that a disposition to give it a serious probation is developing simultaneously in several quarters. What applied Christianity could have done for the world it has no means of knowing so far. The people in all times, since the second century, have simply received so much of the doctrine as could be held without surrendering their besetting sins. Progress there has been, and growth of humanizing ideas, but very little advance in the line of accord with the primitive religion. The masses, too, have for many years been practically beyond the pale of the church. They do not go to worship. They do not retain the old beliefs. it is not so much that they have been infected by the new philosophy, of which they know little. But they are pessimists through poverty. Life for them is so cruel and ceaseless a struggle that they have neither time nor inclination for theological schemes of thought. This world exacts too much from them. They do not care to hear of another. To many, such annihilation would seem consolatory, but their thoughts never travel so far out of their narrow circle of sufferings and privations. Still there is a skeptical influence at work even in the lowest classes. It is the irony of destiny that the working hypothesis of the philosopher becomes, in descending, the dogma of the ignorant man. The evolutionary theory is not comprehended of the populace, but the doubts it suggests have been roughly interpreted as positive negations. Agnosticism is reversed, and the non-existence of deity is postulated with confidence. Just so the skepticism of the encyclopædists in filtering through to the French masses became blank atheism.
This is an age of rank materialism, and the prevailing tone finds an echo in the whole social structure. There has never been a period when wealth counted for more than at present. There has never been a time, it might be added, when the morality of the means of acquiring wealth counted for less. The greed of gain overmasters everything. The boldest and the least scrupulous attain the most commanding positions, and though they may be abused they are none the less accepted as leaders and yielded to as conquerors in the battle of life. The poor, of course, see all this, and draw their own conclusions from it. Men wonder that socialism and anarchism should find a footing in this republic. There is no ground for surprise ; there is no mystery about the matter. The simple truth is that socialism and anarchy have found standing among us because the conditions here are in many respects identical with those of the Old World. Inequalities exist which are not the result of superior virtue, but of superior vice. Men are rich, not because they have honestly earned wealth, but because they have dishonestly stolen it. Colossal fortunes are raised upon acts of spoliation no whit more defensible than the plunderings of the Middle Ages, and these ill-won fortunes are held, by the tacit consent of society, to be inviolable. A desire to overthrow a system under which such things can be done is not only natural, but inevitable, and there is much more in it than the wild and reckless lust of anarchy, which it is customary to assume as the inspiring motive.
It is not the decay of faith that is mainly accountable, however, for any of the existing evils. It may be that the decay of works has more to do with the matter. Nor is it impossible that in the adoption of a living Christianity may be found the sole remedy for dangers which seem to increase with the progress of our thoroughly materialistic civilization. That question, however, must be deferred for the time. Passing from the educated classes to the less educated and the uneducated, we find that the most active influence in operation is that of trades-unionism, and the results of this influence are in several respects disquieting. It is the object of the democratic philosophy to stimulate individualism. It cannot be said that the largest success hitherto attained in this direction is altogether comforting. Individualism has shown a strong tendency toward the fostering of selfishness and the neglect of community interests. It certainly has promoted material progress, given us many great enterprises, hastened the settlement and development of the country, and intensified all the national energies. Trades-unionism, on the other hand, opposes itself to individualism, and in a mischievous way. Before going further, it must be said clearly that the organization of labor appears to be both necessary and just. It is the only method by which labor can protect itself against the rapacity of capital and the iron pressure of competition. That is undoubtedly true as regards the laboring masses. It applies less fully to the minority of superior workmen. For these the unorganized condition must be preferable, for their natural destiny is to rise above the ranks, and to become employers themselves. Yet though labor organization may be proper, it is the fact that its operation is frequently against the interests both of the workingmen and of society, and that it threatens to produce a state of servitude and dependence wholly inimical to the democratic system, and incompatible with the maintenance of true civic freedom. of its pretensions, proceeds as though it really were what it asserts itself to be, and defers to its often ignorant and impracticable demands with a prompt servility which increases the general confusion and magnifies the general danger.
In all consideration of what is called the labor question it is necessary to begin by recognizing the fact that the assumption of the generic term “ labor ” by the trades-unions is unwarranted and misleading. The acceptance of the term, moreover, has had decidedly confusing results. The press and the politicians, by employing it carelessly and freely, have helped to strengthen the false impression that it is really the entire labor element of the country which is concerned. The truth is that the Knights of Labor and all the other trades-unions together constitute no more than a minority of the workingmen of the United States ; that the non-union workingmen are twice or three times as many as the union men; and that consequently no clear or just ideas can be formulated on the whole question so long as the right of the organized workingmen to speak for labor generally is tacitly conceded. The importance of this point is further shown when the relation of organized to unorganized labor is examined. According to the organs and spokesmen of the trades-unions, there is trouble only between capital and labor. But every strike exposes the fallacy of this position ; for no sooner have the men in any employment struck than their places are sought eagerly by others, who are willing to accept all the conditions rejected by them. The new-comers represent unorganized labor. They are the majority. They are men who have not yet been drummed into the ranks ; who have not surrendered their rights and liberties as citizens; who retain the privilege of working for whom they please, at such wages as they choose to accept; who do not permit a “ walking delegate ” to determine whether their wives and children shall have plenty or go hungry. Every great strike yet undertaken has been broken and beaten by the action of unorganized labor, but the representatives of organized labor continue the farce of pretending that their associations alone have any right to be considered as workingmen. The offensive if meaningless epithet “ scabs ” has been invented to designate those who exercise their undoubted rights as American freemen, and take work where they can find it, without asking the permission of some Jack-in-office calling himself a " master workman ” (perhaps on the principle lucus a non lucendo). Thus a definite effort to ostracize and discredit men who are acting entirely within their rights, and who are to be commended for preferring industry to loafing and practical independence to virtual serfhood, is one of the most conspicuous results of labor organization. Unfortunately, the politician, seeing only the minority of organized labor, and blinded by the audacity
The attitude of the trades-unions towards non-union men is clearly at war with the theory of a true democracy. It cannot escape attention, either, that those who would, if they could, prevent by force non-union men from obtaining work, and who, failing coercion, resort to abuse and denunciation, are not exempt from the inclination to tyrannize which they are so fond of charging upon the employers. In the recent succession of strikes, indeed, the impression has been conveyed that the trades-union men are taught to regard employers as the Catholics in the Middle Ages regarded heretics ; that is, as not entitled to be kept faith with at all. For in many instances men who were forced to admit that they had no grievances at all — nay, that they were treated with especial kindness and consideration — dropped their work instantly at the command of some stranger, and coolly abandoned and put at peril the interests of those who had behaved generously to them. In several of these strikes the whole proceedings were so irrational, reckless, and fatuous that they can only be explained on the theory that the men really believed the preposterous assertions of their leaders, and confided in their ability to paralyze industry and commerce by striking. A natural inference from this proof of extraordinary credulity is that many workingmen join the unions on the strength of false promises and assurances, though there is reason to believe that still more are impelled to join by moral coercion. Once members, it is curious how soon they come to regard all outsiders with disfavor or open enmity, and how naturally the jeer “ scab ” rises to their lips, when speaking of some comrade who has not seen fit to become a union man or a “ Knight.” The union man in effect is a sectary, and he exhibits all the characteristics of the type.
In both the relations aboved noted — that of the union man toward his nonunion fellow, and that which he holds toward his employer — the same lack of conscientiousness, of a sense of duty, is apparent. That is a strange kind of progress which produces such effects ; which tends to obscure and extinguish in masses of men the perception of what they owe to others, and to magnify abnormally their idea of what others owe to them. Still more remarkable is it to find that with this morbid development of blind selfishness there goes an indifference to the deprivation of civic rights which is unprecedented. The world has, it is true, often witnessed the spectacle of nations surrendering their own liberties in order to crush those of their neighbors, and this is a result which the lust of foreign conquest inevitably produces. But never before has there been seen a tendency to surrender liberty in order to enslave others, in the name of greater freedom and under democratic institutions. The Knights of Labor can, of course, never succeed by striking unless they can prevent others from taking the work they give up. But they can never achieve this lawfully unless they have enrolled all labor in their ranks. If the time ever comes when that end is accomplished, strikes will doubtless succeed; they will succeed, that is to say, until they reach the point when it becomes cheaper for the employers to stop their business than to yield. When that point has been reached, it will be in order to introduce some of the legislative measures tried by the French a hundred years ago. It is true that all of these attempts to dragoon capital and to control industry, commerce, and finance failed signally, notwithstanding the fact that they were backed by the guillotine. But inasmuch as each generation seems doomed to learn even the simplest lessons of political economy for itself, it may be that we shall have to go back to first principles before the truths are realized that there are many things which a majority vote cannot bring to pass, and many, too, which even unlimited material power cannot accomplish.
But the trades-unions look to one end only. They claim to be organized for the protection and general advance of the interests of labor. Are the interests of labor then confined to the securing of the highest possible pay for the least possible amount of work ? Does the man who contracts to do certain work take upon himself no obligations toward his employer ? Has “ duty ” ceased to have any significance for the modern workingman ? It seems as if these questions must all be answered in the affirmative. The trades-union system discourages industry, excellence, emulation, conscientiousness. It seeks to keep down, to degrade, to deprive of natural superiority, the best class of workmen. It seeks to reduce all to a common level; the level, namely, of the least thrifty and the least capable. In order to frustrate the action of the law of nature, which always gives the victory to the fittest in the struggle for existence, this agency deliberately undertakes to paralyze the fittest, and bring them down to the plane of the least fit. In carrying out this purpose other natural laws have to be violated, and moral laws also. All feeling of sympathy with the employer, all sense of obligation, all sentiment of kindliness or gratitude, must be repressed. The cardinal tenet of the system is that capital is an enemy, to be spoiled like the Egyptians whenever possible, but to be trusted never. Many enlightened and broad-minded employers of labor have of late years tried various schemes for the improvement of the condition of their men. In the majority of cases these efforts have been defeated through the suspicion and ill-will engendered by the labor organizations. And indeed, if workmen are made to believe that the capital which furnishes employment for them ought to belong to them, and would so belong if right were done, it is not wonderful that the relations between them and their employers should be strained.
But it would be less than just to the trades-unions to put the whole responsibility upon them. It is due to them to point out that the decline of conscientiousness and the sense of duty is observable also among those who do not belong to unions, though it may not be so conspicuously displayed. Several manufacturers who employ unorganized labor have made special efforts to increase the comfort of their hands ; providing them, for example, with cheap and nutritious meals, with clean and well-ventilated work-rooms, with civilized appliances for removing the dirt of the working hours. But whenever the maintenance of such arrangements has depended in any way upon the making of an effort by the work-people, or the expenditure of a little trouble, or the amendment of an old and bad habit, failure has resulted, simply from the indifference or obstinate conservatism of the people themselves. Of course it may be said, and said truly, that a higher class of work-people would not thus have refused to be helped forward. That deserves to be remembered, but the fact remains that we have to deal with all classes of labor, and that the lower class not seldom counts for more than any other in the fixing of current tendencies. At a time, too, when society generally, and not labor alone, seems to be suffering from a kind of moral relaxation. it is to be expected that the same defects will be found in widely separated strata. For every period has its general average of morality, and as a rule the prevailing vices of a period are distributed impartially, the chief differences in manifestation being due to variety in the environment.
The normal tendency of trades-unionism being to weaken the sense of obligation to employers, it is not surprising that the sense of obligation toward the community generally should also be diminished. This may be seen in the marked indifference of strikers to the inconvenience or positive suffering and injury their proceedings entail upon the public, with whom they have no cause of quarrel, and upon whose sympathy they are so largely dependent in the last resort. The late attempt to create a coal famine in New York was a conspicuous illustration of this. The fact that an artificial scarcity of coal must cause severe hardship to the poor did not weigh at all with the strikers. The consideration that people in their own class would feel the effect of the movement first and most sharply counted for nothing with them. Even the obvious circumstance that there was no strong probability of success did not deter them from entering upon an experiment which, as the event proved, only put money in the pockets of the retail dealers, and took it away from those who could least afford it. The whole tendency of the strike, in fact, was to make the poor poorer, and the policy of extending it operated in the same way, by throwing out of employment thousands of men who had no grievance against their employers, and the effect of whose cessation from work was simply to furnish employment to non-union men. It was made evident, however, that the managers of the strike deliberately sought to bring pressure upon the public by subjecting them to severe privation ; the theory being that when the deprivation became intolerable the people at large would in some way — never explained or defined — compel the employers to yield. Nothing could be less practical than this whole project, but the significant point in it is its de pendence upon an unstated but clearly implied assumption, — the assumption, namely, that the strikers had a perfect right not merely to stop work themselves, but to prevent any one else from accepting the employment they had abandoned. They, in short, claimed a monopoly of labor; ignored, or rather denied, the rights of the majority of workingmen, who are not members of any union ; and proceeded upon the theory that the public had no option but to submit to the consequences of this open and systematic subversion of the law of the land. Thus the alleged rights of one comparatively small body of laborers were set up against the rights and interests, first, of all non-union workingmen; second, of all the poor of New York ; third, of the public at large ; and great suffering, loss, and inconvenience were caused to the community by this obstinate and perverse insistence upon rights which, as a matter of fact, were pure fictions.
It might be thought that the more clearly A became convinced of his own rights as a citizen, the more he would recognize and respect B’s rights. But when citizen A joins the Knights of Labor, he at once begins to ignore all the rights of B, who has not joined, and poor B becomes a “ scab ” in his eyes, and consequently a fit target for brickbats and clubs. The perversion of ideas which trades-unionism fosters seems to pervade the whole course of many workingmen. The system begins by fettering the man’s capacities. Apparently, the main object aimed at is the whittling down of the service rendered to the finest point possible. A natural result is the deterioration of the work done. It loses in quality as well as quantity. The sense of responsibility is next attacked. There ceases to be any realization of duty on the part of the workman. His employer can no longer depend upon him. If a heavy contract is in hand, he is more likely than in a slack time to stop work. He refuses to be bound by his own engagements. This is partly due to the surrender he has made of his freedom. A workman who is pledged to obey the finger-snap of any “ walking delegate ” who comes into the shop or factory is an irresponsible being. He is the bond-slave of his own organization, which may at any moment, and without consulting him, deprive him of work, and take the bread out of the mouths of his children. A man who has given himself over to such a despotism is certainly no longer a free agent; but it must be remembered that he makes the surrender because he thinks that it will be for his advantage, and that he could hardly hold this opinion if he perceived at all clearly the nature and extent of his obligations to his fellow-men. As it is, the course upon which he has entered gradually extends his moral deterioration. The over-exacting, careless workman becomes the over-exacting, careless citizen. He is disposed to carry the theory of trades-unionism into society generally. His view of his social rights expands as his conception of his social duties diminishes. He no longer recognizes as his neighbors any but those who belong to his organization, and even those he is prepared to sacrifice without compunction when his own interests are in view. This has been shown recently by the pressure put upon various bodies of men to make them join what was called a “ sympathetic ” strike. In one instance the only possible result of going out was to reduce the wages of the strikers, for the general demand was for a lower rate than that they were receiving. The utter absurdity of requiring these men to strike, under the circumstances, had no influence whatever with the managers, who compelled the poor fellows to stultify themselves by demanding a reduction of pay. But to what extent must the moral backbone of any set of men have been softened before they are prepared to submit to dictation so plain ly hostile to their nearest interests !
All progress deserving of the name depends upon self-help. Paternalism, no matter in what kind, is weakening and demoralizing. The present labor movement, however, has gone astray at the outset, and it tends more and more to erratic and mischievous courses. The worst evils which afflict labor it leaves untouched, or, what is worse, it makes crutches of them. Nothing in the relations between capital and labor is of half the importance of the relations between labor and drink, for instance; yet what has trades-unionism done to check intemperance ? When men go on strike, the first place they make for is the saloon. There they waste their earnings and savings, while talking about their grievances. They squander their substance willfully, and then charge the consequent suffering upon capital or upon society. When coöperative industries are suggested to wage-earners, the staple objection raised is want of capital. With the organization of the trades-unions, however, it would be perfectly feasible to raise a fund of several millions for investment in such enterprises, if the millions were not every year poured into saloon tills. Trades-unionism does not teach thrift. The workingmen who rise and become employers themselves are not the victims of paternalism, but the men who rely on their own exertions and their own sacrifices from the first. They are the men who possess and exercise independence and self-restraint; who eschew self-indulgence, and do their duty wherever they may be.
Not long ago a master workman, leader or manager of the largest body of organized workingmen in the Eastern States, was examined by a legislative committee as to the views and aims of his association. He talked much about the desirability of getting “ government ” to do many things. He believed all the transportation agencies ought to be conducted by the government; that all the factories should be controlled in the same way ; that all the telegraph and steamship lines, and finally all the great industries, should be handed over to government. Paternalism ran rampant in this man’s brain, evidently, but he doubtless spoke what numbers of his fellows are thinking; and they are thinking such deplorable nonsense chiefly because the school of trades-unionism has trained their ideas in the direction of dependence. There is nothing so fatal to the growth of vigor and capacity as the habit of leaning upon something or somebody, — the habit of sitting still, and expecting some outside force to remove all the difficulties of life. This, too, tends to moral decadence, for the sense of duty must be weakened by whatever belief leads men to think themselves in any way entitled to extraneous assistance, or generates in them a conviction that the world is under obligations to equalize conditions which are quite as often the outcome of vices and deficiencies as the undeserved product of blind circumstance.
There is another kind of labor in which the same general defects and disabilities are apparent. The complaints concerning what is called domestic service are peculiar to no time, but the present day offers some emphasized causes of dissatisfaction which illustrate the drift of the period. The increasing exactions of the servant class are everywhere noticed, and with this growth of the demand for higher wages proceeds a decline of average capacity and sense of duty. Housekeepers deplore the unsympathetic attitude of servants, and declare that the latter seem to care nothing for the conscientious performance of their duties, nothing for the interests of their employers, nothing even for their own reputation for competency. To get as much as possible, and to give as little as possible in return, appears to be the aim they have set before themselves, in short. Doubtless the culpability is not all on one side. As in the disputes between capital and labor the former is amenable to reproof no less than the latter, so in the case of house service the mistresses no less than the servants are accountable. Often the sense of responsibility is wanting quite as much with the employer as with the employed. Often servants are treated with so complete an overlooking of their humanity that they must be more than human not to resent it. Still oftener they are left to their own devices by women whose ignorance of housekeeping prevents them from exercising supervision, or whose abandonment to selfish and frivolous indulgence renders them indifferent to the comfort of their families; and in these circumstances servants are not much to he blamed if they neglect their work, or take the easiest methods in dealing with it. Of course the self-respecting, conscientious worker will do his or her duty without any compulsion; but this class appears to be dying out. After making whatever allowance is just, the existence of a marked tendency to exact excessive remuneration for distinctly inferior and slovenly work must be admitted to be a trait of the period, and one which is certainly not becoming less accentuated.
If it is an inevitable effect of the republican system that politicians should be demagogues, insincere, untruthful, tricky, and wanting in patriotism, the fact is a serious and ominous one; but that American politicians are to-day conspicuous for these qualities is unhappily not to be seriously disputed. If in the ranks of labor we find a weak sense of duty, the same phenomenon is not less apparent when we examine politics. The ordinary politician appears to be so short-sighted that he can only perceive what is brought close under his eyes, and therefore he attaches undue importance to the noisy manifestations of blatant minorities. He is afflicted with so marked a moral instability that his policy is forever one of expediency ; and he considers that expedient which puts him in line with the loudest clamor of the moment. His chief anxiety, his main object, is to keep or obtain votes, and because he is purblind and without fixed principles, he does things to compass this end which may almost make patriots despair. Consider, for example, the recent action of Congress in passing the Dependent Pensions Bill. The measure was not only unnecessary, not only an extravagance; it was one of the most audacious schemes of plunder, one of the most profligate and demoralizing plans to squander the surplus in the treasury, ever conceived. Already the public gratitude had been cruelly imposed upon by pension legislation. Already imposture and fraud had been fostered by laws which enabled the least deserving to recover heavy sums as backpay, together with support for the future. But nothing equal in impudent dishonesty to the Dependent Pensions Bill had been projected. Under the provisions of that act, probably from seventyfive to one hundred and fifty million dollars a year would have been called for. Practically it is impossible to set a limit to the expenditure, because it must have depended almost entirely upon the amount of the rapacity capable of being brought into operation by a law which threw down all barriers, and invited every rogue, adventurer, shirk, bounty-jumper, deserter, and loafer to come forward in person or by his family, and share the benevolence of the government. Now it cannot be maintained that the character of this monstrous bill was not known to Congress. It is notorious that it was urged with indecent activity by the claim agent class, who, it may be assumed, had most to expect from it. As a matter of course, no honorable veteran ever dreamed of demanding legislation of the kind. Many old soldiers openly denounced it, and protested with just indignation that it was an insult to the Grand Army and to all honest men who had served the country. But Congress, with the true politician’s low view of things, imagined it would make the soldier vote “ solid,” and neither Republicans nor Democrats ventured to oppose the measure. Bad as it was known to be, it passed both houses. Congress shuffled off its responsibility on the President, and had he not been more keenly alive to his duty it would have become a law by the action of the American people’s sworn representatives and agents.
Another flagrant example of prevailing want of conscientiousness is the passage of the Interstate Commerce Bill. It was demonstrated incontrovertibly that this measure must, if faithfully carried out, injure not only corporate but public interests seriously. It was frankly admitted that this was the case. It was cheerfully conceded by numbers of Congressmen that the bill was a bad one. But for all this they voted for its passage, and it became a law. The explanation given was that some portion of “ the people ” demanded a law which would restrict the power of the railroads; and though there was no reason to believe that the proposed act would not hurt the people much more than the corporations, it was enacted. In both these cases the most striking fact is the absolute irresponsibility manifested by the national legislature, —an irresponsibility so complete as to warrant the inference that honorable members really are incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong. But it would be unjust to convey the impression that Washington is the focus of such exhibitions of unfaithfulness to duty. The current political record swarms with episodes, accusations, suspicions, all indicating general acceptance of the view that it is only safe always to predicate the worst in matters of the kind. The gamut of infamy runs from the “ selling out ” of a congressional candidate to the alleged purchase of more than one seat in the United States Senate, and in regard to each and every ugly episode the matterof-fact manner of its reception shows a familiarity with similar affairs far more suggestive than creditable as to the past. Labor and politics are not the only fields in which demoralization is manifested. In the heavy vote cast for Henry George, in New York, last autumn, something else than politics was concerned. It was as a special kind of reformer that Mr. George was supported, and he drew around him quite a brilliant gathering of educated men, including college professors, Catholic and Protestant clergymen, authors, journalists, and professional men. These men were most enthusiastic in the advocacy of his land doctrines. One of them, Dr. McGlynn, has since revolted against his ecclesiastical superiors on this ground, and in doing so has nailed his colors to the mast, amid the loud approval of his fellow disciples of the Georgian creed, boldly proclaiming his adhesion to a policy of naked confiscation ; that is to say, of open and unashamed robbery. Now when men of intellect and education, men of thoroughly amiable character and benevolent disposition, find it possible to assimilate and indorse a doctrine so flagrantly immoral and dishonest as that which forms the cap-sheaf of Mr. George’s ingenious sophistries and fallacies, it must be inferred that there is more in this aberration than a few isolated cases of mental confusion; and perhaps if it is concluded that a distinct stream of tendency is thus curiously thrown into relief, the idea may not be a fanciful one.
The disturbance of old views and moral tenets has been proceeding quite insidiously in many ways and for some time. There are some who would even affirm that the churches have not quite escaped the prevalent contagion; who would point, for example, to the so-called Andover Heresy case, and ask if the very existence of such a dispute was compatible with the candor and ingenuousness which ought to be looked for in such a quarter. Whether it is worth any one’s while to spend time in discussing such a doctrine as that of future probation is one question, but certainly not the most important. That, from an ethical point of view, is, whether it is justifiable, for men who have undertaken to teach certain views, to make material changes in their instruction, changes which could not have been contemplated by the founders of the institution in whose employ they are, without resigning their positions. That such a question should have to be brought up for discussion and determination is in itself significant; even more so, perhaps, than the inability of many people to perceive the gist of the dispute between Dr. McGlynn and his church. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that if the decline of the sense of duty and conscientiousness is apparent in many places and many ways, there are sufficient reasons for the change, and reasons which have to do with the general trend of the age. The materialism of the time is its most conspicuous characteristic. The pursuit of wealth and what wealth will bring absorbs nine tenths of the available human energy. In making rules and regulations for the maintenance of order and for the preservation of that individual freedom held to be most conducive to the general welfare, law has been far more influential than ethics. The consequence is that we live under a code which is largely conventional, and which, if it does not enjoin immorality, produces many sinister effects by ignoring its social consequences. No man fairly grounded in ethics can fail to recognize the grotesque inconsistency of a system under which the man who, by elaborate deception and misrepresentation, cheats his fellows on Wall Street out of a fortune is held to be “ smart ” and clever, and is welcomed by honest men and women without hesitation ; while the man who breaks into a store and steals a few dollars’ worth of goods is sent to prison for a long term of years. No clear-sighted observer can avoid perceiving the preposterousness of such a system. The scoundrel whose cold-blooded calculation results in the ruin of hundreds; who is directly responsible for as much misery as a minor war could cause; who drives men to suicide, women to shame, children to privation and suffering; whose every dollar is, without figure of speech, stolen from his neighbors, passes tranquil and admired through the world, reaps all possible material benefit from his ill-gotten wealth, and receives, at all events so far as can be seen, the respect and deferential submission of society. He may even violate the laws so plainly that he can no longer remain in this country. In such a case, however, he has but to pass over the frontier, and immediately he is able to live with all the vulgar ostentation of a rich thief, and is visited by his “ loyal ” friends — that is, by persons who do not think a little matter, such as an embezzlement, deserving of strong reproof; and in a short time he comes to be regarded as an unfortunate but good-hearted fellow, who is inconvenienced by the vexatious rigor of the laws.
If the inequities of the law and of social observances are patent to the least prejudiced observer, it is not to be expected that they should escape the notice of that class which has most reason to complain of, because it feels most directly, these inequalities. It is indeed of little use to counsel the practice of all the virtues to those whom circumstances or their own deficiencies exclude from the pleasures which material prosperity brings, and who realize with ever-growing bitterness the fullness of the success which so often attends upon bold unscrupulousness. Nor must it be forgotten that when the standard of a period is material prosperity, and the general energies are devoted to that pursuit, the prevailing tendencies will inevitably weaken the inclination of the masses, who can never expect wealth by traveling in the old grooves, to respect conventional rules, and the manifest triumph in notorious instances of money over morality will strengthen the disposition to turn to modes of acquisition not less reprehensible than menacing to the security of the state. The decline in the sense of duty may not as yet have reached the point of danger. To exaggerate its extent or its importance would be as little justifiable as to underrate them. But it cannot be overlooked that all the tendencies here spoken of are in active operation, and that in the absence of a reactionary influence they must be expected to become stronger every year.
Unfortunately, the only serious effort that is being made to remove the discontents of the masses is in line with the general movement of materialism. It is tacitly assumed that the one aim of human exertion deserving development is material prosperity. The working classes seek to increase their opportunities in this direction even while denouncing the consequences of absorption in the pursuit. The one good to be striven for, according to the modern creed, is riches ; and it is quite as much the faith of those who fail as of those who succeed. The question where this will lead ns eventually is therefore a practical one. If we have made up our minds that material life is the only one to be considered, it becomes necessary to ascertain what influence the universal acceptance of this tenet is likely to have, not only upon popular opinion, but upon popular conduct. As yet we are only upon the threshold of the new epoch, and we are not wholly committed to it. A sense of the possibility of a higher life still lingers among us. If most of us have ceased to pay more than a lipworship to the spiritual, a certain decorous habit of external reverence for it remains, and perhaps covers some ashes from which the fire has not quite departed. We pride ourselves upon intellectual advance, not always with the best of reasons. We have certainly grown in suavity and the courtesies of social culture, though this suavity not seldom becomes the disguise of community weakness and that lack of public spirit which is best described by the term “ incivism.” That such polish as exists does not necessarily indicate any growth in true chivalry, or any emancipation from actual self-indulgence descending to boorishness, is proved by the fact that a people who once prided themselves upon their considerateness in the treatment of women now habitually, in our great cities, keep their seats in the public conveyances, and allow women to stand. It is but a little matter, perhaps, yet not without its significance.
So far the encouragement of individualism his been the national object. Unquestionably it has had splendid material results. To-day labor is opposing this method of development by a system which discourages individualism, and seeks to accomplish large purposes through a subordination, discipline, and self-sacrifice suggesting rather the system invented by Ignatius Loyola than anything to be expected from the democratic nineteenth century. No matter what the character of the instrument employed, however, the ultimate aim is identical with that of the nation, namely, material prosperity. Everywhere the influence of the spiritual upon life is declining, and this notwithstanding some appearances to the contrary. Intellectual discussion of spiritual ideas does not compensate for the absence of spirituality in actual conduct. Intellectual assent to doctrines never translated into practice has indeed been the world’s favorite method of evading its higher duties and obligations in all times. To-day, however, we are passing beyond the conventional hypocrisies of our ancestors, and are actually demolishing edifices which they at the worst only neglected, while pretending to venerate. Nothing need be said here as to the validity or non-validity of the modern destructive criticism. For the purposes of this argument it is only necessary to record the fact of its development, and to consider its effects upon contemporary thought and conduct. It must be reckoned with as one of the agencies which are moulding the age for good or for evil. The general reasoning upon it is crude but practical. If, it is argued, this is the only life to be lived, then it can be made worth living only by gratifying every impulse and indulging every desire which can be gratified and indulged without outraging the rights of others so much as to expose us to their active enmity or interference. No doubt this is a false theory of life from any point of view ; as false from that of the atheist as from that of the Christian. But the many are not philosophers, and it seems to them reasonable and just, and they put it in practice to the best of their ability, if with sorry enough results. Their failure to make it answer their expectations unfortunately suggests to them the suspicion that the fault lies in the existing order of things, which they easily persuade themselves has been arranged entirely to suit the prosperous. A natural sequence of such reflections is impatience with, then hatred of, and finally a desire to overthrow, the system supposed to have such drawbacks. Materialism encourages the lust of possession, and sharpens the zeal for the use and abuse of power. Before the war of the rebellion a Southern statesman once observed in a public address, “ The poor will not always consent to remain poor, with the ballot in their hands.” Perhaps there was some touch of prophetic insight in that observation. Certainly the march of materialism seems to be bringing us daily nearer to a period when the question suggested may be forced upon the consideration of the country. A materialist civilization can never be a safe one. When it appears most prosperous and firmly established, it may be undermined and tottering to its fall. For it must rest rather upon the common greed than the common sense of justice, and the more democratic its system the greater will be its danger. Wealth and all that it implies cannot be an efficient substitute for those higher tendencies which expand the mind while subduing the passions ; which teach the inferiority of pursuits and desires bounded by the narrow space of physical existence ; which lend to the doctrine of human brotherhood a meaning and a force it cannot derive from mere philosophy ; and which afford a compensation for the trials of circumstance and condition in giving to those who follow them a contentment independent of fortune and a hope beyond the reach of human vicissitude.
George Frederic Parsons.