The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice

by Stephen Leacock. New York: John Lane Co., 1920. 12mo, 152 pp. $1.25.
THAT the world is in a bad way is very generally agreed. The morning papers read like bulletins from a sick-room; and since the patient is a public character, he receives gratis a vast amount of medical advice, both amateur and professional.
But the doctors disagree in diagnosis, prognosis, and remedy. Some think that the world is suffering from the effects of a recent debauch, and, being organically sound, needs nothing but rest and change, above all the avoidance of excitement. Others trace the trouble to a worldwide epidemic, originating in Eastern Europe and requiring a rigid quarantine. Others, believing that the trouble is more deep-seated, being the accumulated effect of causes that were in operation long before 1914, advocate the use of medicines or of the surgeon’s knife. There are those who fall back upon old-fashioned household remedies, such as frugality and hard work; still others advocate patent medicines, specifics, miraculous cures. Extremists think that there is nothing for it but to undertake a major operation involving the removal of organs that have hitherto been regarded as indispensable, like the private ownership of property.
Among those who are volunteering to doctor the world, Professor Leacock represents a mixture of firmness and moderation. He believes that the trouble is deep-seated and very serious. It signifies the breakdown of the traditional economic system. According to that system, if you assumed property, contract, and the coercive state, and then turned men loose to fight for gain among themselves, the result would be that the prices of commodities would be equivalent to their cost of production, and the distribution of wealth would conform with the principles of justice. But, on the contrary, says Professor Leacock, both prices and individual wealth result from the relative and fluctuating economic strength of capitalists, laborers, and consumers; a strength that depends on present possessions and militant organization. Under such a system there is not even any guaranty that the urgent and staple needs of all mankind will be provided for before the luxuries of the well-to-do, because the demand for the latter is a more effective economic demand than the poor man’s demand for food and clothes.
Now, the most serious danger, according to Professor Leacock, lies in the temptation to seek a remedy for the genuine evils of the existing system in the quack nostrums of the Socialist. Socialism is an idle dream because it is incompatible with man’s ineradicable selfishness. It begs the whole question in its idealization of human nature. So the present predicament of the world is like that of a man who, goaded into delirium by a lingering disease, and beckoned by a will-o’-the-wisp, may at any time step over a precipice and commit suicide.
All this Professor Leacock sets forth most effectively and convincingly. The diagnosis is skillful and terrifying. But his bedside manner is not such as to create any strong hope of recovery in the patient’s breast. He writes out a few prescriptions—‘social legislation,’ he calls them. The items are; education and opportunity for the children; work and pay for the unemployed, and maintenance for the aged and infirm; a minimum wage; a reduction of the hours of labor. Most significant is his failure to suggest anything that will humanize or democratize industry itself. The evils of the industrial system being ineradicable, he looks for compensation elsewhere.
The chief merit of the book lies in its vivid moderatism. The author has the rare ability to attack both extremes from the middle with the élan that is usually manifested only by extremists in their attacks on one another.
R. B. P.