SUPPOSE you own a million bushels of wheat and hold it in your own elevator, all free and clean. For the purpose of argument, let us say that you carry your own insurance, so that there is nothing to hinder you from doing what you like with that wheat. It is yours. Let us also suppose that there is a famine in the land and that the people are hungering for bread. Your price is two dollars a bushel. The people refuse to pay the price and you make no contract of sale. Mass meetings are held and you are denounced as an old skinflint, but you can stand that. You raise your price to three dollars a bushel. It appears that you would be within your rights. Now let us suppose that you lose your temper, being annoyed at ail this clamor, and you declare that you will show that rabble that you are not to be trifled with, and you proceed to burn down your elevator and its contents so that nobody may have your wheat. As soon as you destroy the property, you are committing an offense against public welfare. That is the one thing which, as owner of the wheat, you must not do, for that is waste.
Now waste is waste, whether it be occasioned by malice, by willfulness, through ignorance or through laziness; the effect is the same. Public welfare embraces the interest we have in common in all the things there are, and we must not offend against it. This is not socialism; it is philosophy.
Waste is the crime of to-day and it is especially the great crime of this awful war: waste in human life, in hope, in love, and in the common savings of us all. Millions of dollars’ worth of the savings of the people of this earth, all of them our brothers and our sisters, are daily burned up, exploded, and wasted in the madness of the nations; and even that is a trifle when we compare it to the great human value of the lives that are lost. It will not make any people rich; and we Americans, rarely fortunate in not being involved in the awful strife, shall find our part of the burden to bear. Some time the war will be over, and then waste must stop; it must stop if we are to advance in humanity and civilization over and beyond the yawning gap made by the lust of blood, pride of race, and the vanity of kings. The war has been in progress but a little while and already the cost of it is being borrowed from future generations; extra hard labor and sweat must come from infants now at their mothers’ breasts, to make good this debauch of blood and fire. And in the very measure that we waste is the sentence at hard labor upon the rising generation prolonged. We cannot get out of it by being American: the debt is upon us, in unequal measure it is true, but the debt, the obligation to make up the losses, is upon us all.
We cannot get away from the fact that we are all parts of one great organization, — divided up into nations and races and sects; but these divisions are slight compared with the fact that we are all partners in the great firm, and that the earth and its fullness is the firm’s property. The articles of copartnership are human laws and customs, but every normal one of us has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It takes some of the property to maintain this, and we should, if we have any conscience at all, contribute value for our share. But whether our contribution be great or slight, and whether our rewards be full or meagre, the one thing that we must not do is waste from the general store. In this respect, ownership is indeed stewardship; and the greater our possession, so much the greater is our responsibility.
Let us leave aside consideration of the industries with their preposterous destruction of values, and address ourselves to the incidents of daily life.
The great, packing-houses urge people to buy the cheaper cuts of meat because the demand for those of higher cost is so great that the prices are out of all proportion. Why do we not take the cheaper cuts and make more savory dishes out of them? Sheer, gross ignorance of the art of cooking and a stupid uncultured taste for what your true gourmet would scorn, is the real reason.
Suppose you build yourself a place in the country and begin to have your troubles. Your wife can’t keep servants, your garden is a failure, your drainage system clogs up, ‘everybody is trying to cheat me,’ you say, and the expense is beyond all reason. Well, do you want to know what the trouble is? It is ignorance, your ignorance. Why did you want to build yourself a lordly estate when you did not know how to administer it? Your grandfather knew how to run his part of the farm and your grandmother understood hers; and while they worked as you do not want to work, they did not do the evil thing that you are doing: they did not waste. Look back a generation or so at the great estates in England, Germany, France, — and in America, too. Did everybody cheat the lords of the manor and their ladies? They did not, and there was fully as much cupidity afoot then as there is now. The landholders knew their business, they were to the manner born. It appears that you do not know your business, and you do not deserve a big place in the country until you know how to administer it. Of course the ‘natives’ and the people in the village laugh at you; but the trouble is, you are not laughed at enough; you should be laughed at so much that you would quit the business of running a landed estate and proceed to inhabit a small place where you do not commit waste. It is your wastefulness that the people are laughing at, and they are doing a useful and praiseworthy act when they do so.
The sooner we learn this palpable fact, that wastefulness is an offense against public welfare and that whoever commits waste offends, the sooner we shall drive the wastrels back into their holes and provide for a better order of living all around.
Of course we must, in private life, do as the honorable Justices of the Supreme Court do: we must use the rule of reason. It may be that in going to your business in your yacht you find opportunity to plan out your day’s work more economically than if you were to come in on the train as a commuter. The point is, if it takes a dozen men and a poor man’s winter-supply of coal and a day’s interest on a snug competence to bring you to town, your coming must be worth while; it must pay for itself in augmenting the general store of the world’s wealth whether it belongs to you or to others. We cannot say that it is waste to maintain a yacht or any other luxury, provided that in maintaining it you contribute enough to warrant it.
Well, who is to tell whether you are committing waste or not ? You may be the most modest of men and contribute much and spend little, and on the other hand you may be a bounder and magnify an hundredfold your every little service. Who is to tell? Nobody, until your profligate habits become evident. Then it may become evident that you are a proper subject for scorn or taxation or something to bring you to your senses.
Your money, under usual conditions, is like so much wheat; you can put it out at interest, or speculate with it with a view to making much more or losing it; it is yours to hold and administer, but you must not destroy it.
You can destroy it by making it, as a whole, fail in productiveness. The idea that the milliners, jewelers, tailors, and purveyors of luxuries who minister to your vanity are each earning a living and so, by keeping money in circulation, are doing something useful, is all right so far as they are concerned, but it may not be all right as regards you. They may be making their living while you are wasting yours, and when the balance is struck, the deficit will show on your side, not theirs. They are pegging away, making what they can out of life, which is just what you may not be doing.
The real point is whether you are worth all this fuss or not. Is your contribution to the general welfare enough to warrant it? If so, well and good; go ahead and enjoy yourself. But it is just as well not to be wrong in this matter. A bank president may easily be too conservative and cause his bank to die of dry rot by excess of caution; but the great danger is that he may err on the other side and make loans which are not good. That spells ruin. In the same way you can hoard your money and live in a mean fashion while you are affluent, without gaining merit; but to squander what you have, no matter how rich you are, beyond those needs which make for comfort and right living and efficiency, is to offend against public welfare. It is doing what Old Skinflint did when he lost his temper and burned his wheat.
Suppose you hire a hundred men to carry stones from field number one to field number two, at the current rate of wages, and it takes, let us say, a month to do it. Then suppose you hire them to take the stones back from field number two to just where they found them in field number one. That will take another month. The men will have earned their wages; they will have given so much labor for the sum received. You, however, as administrator for what you have spent, which is that part of the world’s savings represented by five thousand days’ work, will have wasted it. The world’s store will have been depleted by five thousand days’ work.
Again we must use the rule of reason. Many industries, — indeed nearly all of them — often employ men in just such unprofitable tasks to maintain their organization, which is of great value. And there is work done for art which is hard to measure in concrete values but which is of prime necessity if we are ever to become civilized. We cannot live for utility alone without making the world too dreary a place to live in. But the fact remains that the composite savings of the world is a store in which we all have an interest. This store is being greatly depleted by the dreadful war now raging. The world will be much poorer after the war than it was before. The store will be less. Waste will be more quickly felt. Perhaps it would be well to trim our sails to meet the new conditions, to spend no more than we would think ourselves entitled to spend on luxuries and vain display if we were somebody else and were in the waters of tribulation.
There is neither art nor wisdom nor philosophy in prodigal waste. And it offends against the public welfare.