The Right to Live


THROUGHOUT history the curse of Democracy has been the mesmeric power that phrases exercise. Every country has its experience and no country seems to learn its lesson. Every popular movement has given rise to what a distinguished American has described as ‘practical fooleries of the sort which have generally ruined revolutions’ (Andrew Dickson White in his essay on Cavour in Seven Great Statesmen). Some countries, notably the United States, have succumbed to the fascination of abstract and unsound theories and yet have been able to survive them by ignoring them. Probably the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that ‘the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle’ peoples to assume a ‘separate and equal station’ proved awkward at the time of the American Civil War. Similarly the assertion that ‘ all men are created equal’ may prove to be uncomfortable propaganda if ever Socialism seriously raises its head in American politics, as may also the declaration in the Clayton Act of 1914 that ‘the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.’ These brief and ill-digested generalizations often turn out to be unpleasant boomerangs. So far, however, the United States has escaped the disturbing effects which frequently follow on their adoption. France, too, since the Revolution, has pursued the even tenor of her ways without any practical attempt to reconcile the incompatible first and second words of her national slogan, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ England has been more fortunate, for no such absurdities have been embodied in her historic constitutional documents. Magna Carta and the Act of Settlement, for instance, are prosaic reading, considering what vast changes they effected. Englishmen have no ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ and, being practical people, prefer to concentrate on actual issues; they have a healthy distrust of this kind of democratic vanity.

But even in practical England the fascination of the phrase is very strong. To-day, thanks mainly to post-war economic depression, England is suffering from a bad attack of democratic abstractions. The democratization of our machinery of government has resulted in a wide adoption of the idea of abstract ‘rights.’ That word is more used on political platforms in England to-day than any other. It underlies the whole programme of our Labor Party; it is the predominant factor in the propaganda work of the Liberal Party, and it is influencing more and more the legislative activities of the Conservative Party. To-day no candidate for political office, except perhaps in the City of London or a university constituency, would stand much chance of election if he boldly asserted that most of the alleged rights of the people had no foundation. The mass of the people to-day loves to be flattered, just as much as the Romans of old, the French of the Revolution, or the Americans of the time of Jefferson.

In all countries which, in their various ways, are treading the democratic path the big issue, independent of the coming and going of governments, is the advance of Socialist principles. For the time being the United States, thanks to her isolation and her present economic prosperity, is less affected than other countries. The Englishman looks on with envy at the minute size and the nonpolitical conduct of the American trade-unions and at the apparent content among American wageearners with the doctrines of individualism. But when economic depression comes in the United States, Americans will probably find that neither their high tariff nor Ellis Island gives much protection against the creeds of the Socialists, and then perhaps the reckless generalizations of the Declaration of Independence may prove awkward. Certainly in all the older democratic countries, and in Australia among the newer, the growth of Socialist doctrines has been enormous in the last twentylive years. And the basis of Socialism is a belief in abstract rights. Above all else the right to live is the predominant claim of Socialism.

This phrase, ‘the right to live,’ has many meanings. In the sense that every human being has a right to continue his existence if he can, the phrase is true and innocuous. This is the sense in which the idea is incorporated in the Declaration of Independence. But this is not the meaning usually attributed nowadays to it. In the political world it means that there is a right to be maintained by the community. The demand of the Socialist, whatever be his nationality, is founded on the assumption that everybody born into this world — unless, of course, he is of the ‘idle rich’ — has a right to be fed, housed, clothed, educated, insured, and pensioned. The right to live is meant as an assertion that people have a right to be guaranteed the necessaries of life for themselves and for as many children as they may happen to bring into the world. This is the doctrine that is in varying degrees permeating political propaganda in all democratic countries.

Once this conception of a right to live is faced and analyzed, its absurdity is quickly apparent. Englishmen are in a specially favorable position to realize this absurdity. We inhabit a country in which, according to the present habits of civilized people, it is impossible for us to grow all the food necessary for our maintenance. It is said that if all the inhabitants of Great Britain accepted potatoes as their main diet, then we should be self-supporting as regards food; but that is scarcely a practical proposition. Reasoning Englishmen understand that, if we do not export goods for sale to other countries or perform some other services for foreign lands, then we cannot obtain the food that we need from abroad. As a nation we can, then, only have a right to live if other countries have a corresponding duty to send us food supplies; but such a duty has never been suggested. Obviously, therefore, our national right to live is no part of the laws of Providence or of nature. If, therefore, we have no national right to live, how can Englishmen as individuals have any such right? The Socialist conception of an abstract right to maintenance for every individual, or at least for every wage-earner, implies an obligation on every individual to maintain his fellows. A right in the sense that Socialists use the word is only possible if there is a corresponding duty on someone else. So what the Socialist theory really amounts to is that we have a right to get what we want and equally a duty to give everybody else what he wants; it sounds a little like everybody living by taking in everybody else’s washing.

The plausible, though fallacious, objection to this argument is often made that there is this duty to maintain our fellows and that this duty is imposed by Christianity. The fallacy here lies in the failure to appreciate the difference between a moral duty and a legally imposed obligation. Every Christian acknowledges the precept, ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens,’ by which is meant that we are all under a duty of voluntary benevolence. This is poles apart from the kind of conscript charity which Socialism seeks to impose. If, for instance, a coal miner in the summer of 1926 came up to me and said, ‘Conditions with us are very bad, so please help me to feed my children,’ I should as a Christian feel a moral obligation to help. But if the coal miner said, ‘The economic conditions with us are such that I cannot get the wage that I feel I ought to have, therefore you have got to maintain me,’ surely there is no obligation imposed by Christianity to provide such maintenance. It is becoming increasingly fashionable to erect unsound economic theories upon a basis of misinterpreted Christianity, but so far as this right to live, as interpreted by the modern Socialists, is concerned there is no support to be found in Christian teaching.


There could be no better proof of the widespread adoption of the Socialist theory of the right to live than the coal strike in Great Britain which lasted from May to December, 1926. It was apparent in the summer of 1925 that the economic situation in the coal industry was such that the then rates of wages could not be continued. The necessary funds simply were not in existence. In August 1925 the agreements between coal owners and the Miners’ Federation came to an end, and a stoppage of work was avoided only by the Government undertaking to make up temporarily the difference between the previous wages and the wages that could be paid. While this subsidy lasted, an official Coal Commission surveyed the whole situation and in April 1926 made its report. Negotiations were then resumed. They broke down. The so-called General Strike took place, and failed lamentably. The official leaders of the whole trade-union movement then recommended the Miners’ Federation to accept the modified terms that were by that time available, but the Federation refused and a seven months’ strike ensued.

From August 1925 to the collapse of the strike in November 1926 it was never suggested that the colliery companies were not offering the maximum wages that could be afforded. It was said that by compulsory reorganization of the industry economies could be effected which would provide funds out of which higher wages could ultimately be paid, but not even the firebrand leaders of the Miners’ Federation claimed that future economies could at once increase the funds available for wages. The strike was called and continued simply and solely on the claim by the Miners’ Federation that they had a right to the standard of living obtaining before August 1925. The whole essence of the dispute was not only a right to live, but a right to live comfortably. The demand was that, irrespective of economic facts, the miners must be guaranteed their standard of living. The secretary of the Federation was quite candid on the point. He even went so far as to say that the Federation ‘stood for the maintenance of the old wages and conditions and the status quo whether one pit worked or one hundred.’ In other words, the claim was that, even if the bulk of the coal mines never reopened, the miners were entitled to their right to live.

This startling claim — made and adhered to for many months, it must be remembered, by the official of a Federation which represented over a million miners — is even now not withdrawn. Though the miners failed ignominiously to establish the principle, the demand for the right to live independently of economic conditions still continued and few, if any, politicians dare do other than render lip service to it. Many trades in England to-day have wage scales which are entirely out of proportion to the ability of the concerns to pay. These are the ‘sheltered’ trades, where there is no international competition. Thus the London tramway men struck work in 1924 when their demand for increased wages was refused. It was proved conclusively that not only could t he tramway undertakings — most of which are owned and worked by the municipality — not pay increased wages, but that they were losing hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money every year on the then existing scales of wages. No matter. The demand was made and the strike was called. A Labor Government happened to be in power and forced a settlement in which most of the demands of the trade-union were conceded. This was an acceptance of the principle of the right to live of which the Miners’ Federation were not slow to take advantage. Many other examples could be cited.

Though the miners failed to get this principle accepted in their case, the policy pursued by the (Conservative) Government during the seven months’ strike went very far toward an admission of state responsibility for the maintenance of all and sundry. Every miner on strike was allowed to draw what we in England call ‘out-relief’ for his family from the local government authorities. In the message to the United Press of America which Mr. Baldwin, the Prime Minister, sent in August 1926, it was stated that ‘it is estimated that the amount actually received from the Guardians [the local Poor Relief authorities] by the wives and children and other dependents of the miners in England and Wales per week during the month of June was not less than £230,000. In Scotland an approximate average of £25,600 per week was received during the same period.’ These figures were independent of voluntary charitable relief and of such other municipal relief as the provision of meals for school children, and so forth. These enormous sums were paid out week by week throughout the strike, and on November 16, 1926, shortly before the final collapse of the strike, the government spokesman in the House of Commons stated, rather proudly, that the cost of relief in mining districts during the strike was £5,800,000 above normal. The number of persons in receipt of poor relief in mining areas increased by 337 per cent during the strike. On the same day a Cabinet Minister declared that ‘it might not unfairly be said that the strike had been financed by the Boards of Guardians’ — the official local authorities, whose funds are derived solely from the ratepayers and taxpayers of the country. Not only were the wives and families of miners thus subsidized during the strike, but additional allowances were made, above the usual scale, to cover the fact that the miner himself was not legally entitled to relief.

That this could be the state of the law is scarcely credible. A powerful trade-union, knowing that its wage demands could only be met by means of a government subsidy, calls all its men on strike and, while the country loses hundreds of millions sterling in trade losses, the Government maintains the families of the strikers. Could there be any more glaring example of what the acceptance of the right to live leads to? Unfortunately there was legal authority for the Government’s policy. In 1900, in the case known as Attorney-General versus Merthyr Tydvil Board of Guardians, the English Court of Appeal laid it down that ‘able-bodied men who can, if they choose, obtain work which will enable them to maintain themselves, their wives and families, but who, by reason of a strike or otherwise, refuse to accept that work, are not entitled to relief, except that, if they become physically incapable of working, the Guardians may, to prevent their starving, give them temporary relief. The wives and children of such men, however, are entitled to relief.’

Can it be wondered at that great strikes, usually inspired by purely political motives, have become increasingly menacing? In 1919, 35,000,000 working days were lost in Great Britain and Northern Ireland through industrial disputes; in 1920 the number fell to 26,500,000; in 1923 it was 10,500,000; in 1925 it was 8,000,000, and from January to October, 1926 (a period which includes only six out of the seven months of the coal strike), the number was 143,500,000. If the right to live was ever really acknowledged, presumably the similar figure would be the number of workers multiplied by the number of working days in the year, and then perhaps the Socialist paradise would be achieved — in theory.

Lest it should be thought that a Government earns any gratitude by pouring out public money in thus accepting the right to live, let me quote an extract from a resolution passed by the executive of the Miners’ Federation in August 1926, when already complaints by the taxpayers were being heard against this squandering of public money: ‘The Government has definitely decided to assist the mine owners to defeat the miners by starvation.’ Throughout the strike, on every Socialist platform this accusation was made, and it is being repeated and will continue to be repeated for many months. Although the Government allowed public funds to the extent of nearly six millions sterling to be used in maintaining strikers’ families, the Government is charged by every Socialist politician with starving miners and their families. Every politician who is tempted to bribe the electorate out of the taxpayers’ money might well take warning. There is always someone round the corner who will bid higher.


The effects of the adoption of this part of the Socialist creed are multifarious. The most obvious is the enormous increase in national and local taxation, which in its turn intensifies unemployment by reducing the funds available for industrial enterprise and by increasing the selling price of commodities produced. According to Sir Robert Horne, M.P. (November 10, 1926), eleven shipyards on the Clyde, which paid in 1914 among them £17,000 for the poor rate, had in 1924—25 (before the coal strike) to pay £61,000. This was for local taxation only: but the social and moral effects are no less serious. Reliance on the State is incompatible with a true feeling of individual responsibility. It teaches men to ignore the possibilities of voluntary coöperation and self-help. During the British coal strike, a distinguished economist, Dr. Bowie, made the striking statement that ‘the miners had lost in wages through industrial disputes since the formation of their Federation a sum which would have enabled them to buy up — lock, stock, and barrel — the whole of the collieries of the country. In voluntary absenteeism they had lost an equal amount. The community had lost at least four times the present capital value of the collieries.’ It is always an expensive task to attempt to force public opinion or government authorities, and it is a tragic thought that in propaganda and strikes the miners of Great Britain have wasted — without in any way attaining their full object — at least as much as the purchase price of their industry. It is estimated that during this last coal strike alone the miners lost sixty millions sterling. There were previous coal strikes in 1912, 1920, and 1921.

But there is another and even more serious side to this. As Socialism progresses, it saps the self-respect of the public. Twenty years ago the ordinary Englishman felt it a disgrace if he or his family was compelled to receive public assistance in any form. Now, thanks largely to the Socialist schemes set on foot by Mr. Lloyd George under the name of Liberalism, this healthy feeling tends to disappear. It was Mr. Lloyd George in 1908 who raised the cry, ‘Ninepence for fourpence,’ in connection with the introduction of a compulsory scheme of state insurance. Such doctrines have spread. To-day poor relief has become the normal means of livelihood for countless thousands. In June 1926, Liverpool had 53,000 persons in receipt of outdoor relief alone. Sheffield had 43,000. These figures do not include the vast numbers who receive payments from the funds of the national insurance schemes. After the Great War there was a wave of sentimentalism in all the combatant countries. In England, among other things, it produced Section 9 (1) of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which enacted that ‘a person shall not be disqualified from being registered or from voting as a parliamentary or local government elector by reason that he or some person for whose maintenance he is responsible has received poor relief or other alms’ — a change in the law which upset a fundamental principle of British policy which had been established for nearly a century. It is scarcely surprising that elections today, both municipal and parliamentary, develop into orgies of bribery. After the last municipal elections, in November 1926, a Sheffield magistrate wrote to the Times to complain that the Labor manifesto in that city had one paragraph which stated ‘that all unemployed should either be found suitable work or paid the standard rate of trade-union wage’ — a demand which is merely the right to live in upto-date phraseology. ‘What earthly chance,’wrote the magistrate, ‘has a plain, straightforward civic worker, either Liberal or Conservative, against an inducement of this kind?’ Sheffield gave the answer. The Socialist Party swept the Sheffield City Council.

One extraordinary feature of this spread of Socialist doctrines is that it is in the face of hard experience in the past. A hundred years ago conditions were similar — thanks mainly to the Napoleonic Wars. A famous Poor Law Commission was appointed, and in 1832 it reported ‘that the fund which was directed to be employed in the necessary relief of the impotent is applied to purposes destructive to the morals of the most numerous class and to the welfare of all. . . . The great source of abuse is the outdoor relief afforded to the able-bodied.’ But in those days paupers had no votes. To-day it is a harder task to put matters right.

Two other instances showing the result of accepting the right to live may be briefly mentioned. During the Great War there arose in most countries a serious shortage in houses. In England it was necessary to pass a whole series of Rent Restriction Acts which limited the amount by which rent or mortgage interest could be increased and which put severe restrictions upon the right of a landlord to eject a tenant. At once enthusiastic believers in the right to live put forward all kinds of monstrous claims. It was necessary for the courts of law to decide that a chauffeur who lived rent-free in his employer’s premises could not indefinitely stay on, still paying no rent, when his employment terminated. In Glasgow an organized movement was set going to refuse to pay any rent at all for many months because some astute lawyer had found a technical flaw in the formal notices which landlords were by these Acts compelled to serve. A special act of Parliament was necessary to put this right. Such claims could never have been made if people were not becoming acclimatized to the idea that they had a right to be maintained at other people’s expense. During the short period that the Labor Party was in power at Westminster the Government actually introduced a bill to enact that no landlord could eject an unemployed tenant, even though the latter could pay no rent. That was going a little too far and the bill was withdrawn. Secondly, there is the serious effect on emigration. One is tempted to wonder whether Virginia or New Zealand would ever have been founded by emigrants from Great Britain if Socialist doctrines had been fashionable a few centuries ago. Given a right to live in the old country, why should anybody trouble to cross the seas? Already there is a serious falling off in the emigration statistics, a fall not by any means entirely due to the immigration policy of the newer countries.

One of the most extraordinary features of the Socialist outlook is that the Socialist, while making the biggest demands upon industry and the community, is usually the man who is least concerned to safeguard his industry or his country. It might be expected that the man who asserts a right to be maintained by the country would at least be the most patriotic. There would be theoretically some excuse for an ardent individualist to claim that, as he desired the maximum independence from his Government, he saw no reason why he should in any way sacrifice himself for the good of his country. Similarly the man who recognized that, if he did not like the conditions in any particular job, his only alternative was to find other work might be excused if he adopted an attitude of indifference toward the welfare of the industry in which he was engaged. But the Socialist is usually the most antisocial person in the community. During the Great War most of those who pursued an antinational policy were Socialists, and in all industrial disputes the Socialists are the most indifferent to the welfare of their industry. During the coal strike many Socialist leaders urged a policy that would have permanently ruined the coal mines. They recommended the withdrawal of the ‘safety men,’the men who worked the pumps and thus kept the mines in a condition that made a resumption of work possible. Many of the most ardent believers in the right to live advocated measures that would have rendered it impossible for either their industry or their country to maintain them.


At this stage, and possibly some minutes earlier, American readers of this review may be thanking God that they are not as other men are. Perhaps they are convincing themselves that England is degenerate and slowly dying. No English individualist would attempt to deny the gravity of the Socialist menace, but none the less he can remain an optimist. Dependence on the State, national corruption, overpopulation, and so on, are serious problems, but they are not more serious than others that England has tackled before. These problems are likely to be solved in the good old English way. The Great War and the economic leanness that followed have given the Socialists their chance, and we are not blind to the fact that their doctrines have made disturbing progress. But improving trade — and, despite the coal strike, trade is improving — will gradually cut the ground from under the feet of the Socialists.

Despite the widespread adoption in fact of the Socialist belief in the right to live, the theory as a theory has not been and is not likely to be adopted. Englishmen are not logical. Hundreds of thousands of the people who voted Labor at the municipal elections in November 1926 voted Conservative at the last general election and will do so again next time. Is it not significant that at the lowest moment of our trade depression a Conservative Prime Minister obtained a record majority? For the moment there is a glamour over Socialist doctrines, but such doctrines are alien to the deepest beliefs of the Englishman. For the moment we are living amid an orgy of corruption in certain local areas, but British politics none the less are cleaner than those of any other country. Corruption in shillings by Labor is certainly no worse than corruption in millions by Capital, and perhaps an Englishman may be excused in saying that he prefers to see a few wage-earners tried in a police court for corruptly drawing benefits from the State than to read of ex-cabinet ministers being tried for corruption. Modern England has no experience of the latter.

The most serious danger in the spread of Socialism is that it tends to demoralize the national character. It is, I confess, tending to do that now. But this cannot and will not go on. The Englishman, more than anybody else, has a hatred of being overgoverned. So far at least he agrees with Jefferson that that government is best which governs least. The simple fact is that the right to live must in the end involve conditions approaching slavery. In proportion as the State assumes responsibilities it asserts power. The State has some rights too, and this is what the Socialists forget. The more the State acknowledges its responsibility to maintain the individual, the more it will control the liberty of the individual. Our wage-earners are at the present time demanding more and more benefits from the State; politicians are vying with each other in offering them. Such benefits are accepted at the price of personal liberty. Already countless acts of Parliament and local regulations enable the authorities to interfere in the personal affairs of the wage-earners. If the demand for maintenance is carried into practice much further, the State out of sheer self-protection will still further extend its control. Already the wage-earners are, by the very reason that they accept benefits from the State for which they do not directly pay, subject to restrictions from which others who maintain their independence are free. Thus in every local area there is an army of school-attendance officers whose duty it is to sec that every child is sent to school. But their attentions are devoted solely to those whose children attend the free municipal schools. In England people of the ‘middle classes’ — with us the term has a wider and less offensive signification than in America — send their children to fee-paying schools. The official school-attendance officers never visit their homes, though presumably the local education authorities would have power to prosecute if they could prove that children were not receiving education. In fact, however, the authorities confine their control to the wage-earners. This is perhaps a slight, but none the less a significant, illustration of the tendency that official control follows dependence on the community.

The big practical objection to the acceptance by the State of a universal responsibility for its citizens is that in the end such responsibility must result in some attempt by the State to control numbers. The English are by no means a logical people, but in the end the logic is surely inevitable that, if the State accepts the principle that its people have a right to live in the sense of a right to maintenance, the State must endeavor to control the numbers of people for whom it is to be responsible. Thus the logical result of the demand of the Miners’ Federation for ‘the maintenance (by the State) of the old wages and conditions, whether one pit worked or one hundred,’ would be measures intended to secure the compulsory removal of the thousands of miners who are to-day surplus to the requirements of the industry. Ever since the Great War there have been thousands in the mining industry for whom sufficient work is not available. The cessation of the miners’ strike left many thousands who could not be reinstated for the simple reason that there were no places for them. There could be no answer to a demand by the State, once theories about the right to live were truly accepted, for powers for the compulsory transfer of surplus miners to other trades or even to other parts of the British Empire.

Many Socialist thinkers frankly realize this. Some of them even go so far as to propound schemes for state interference in such personal affairs as marriage and the procreation of children. Eugenists regard humanity as a vast stud farm. Given the general acceptance of Socialist doctrines, the State would soon find in the plans of the eugenists a useful means of self-defense. To a French, and certainly to a German, Socialist it might appear logical, and therefore sensible, that the State should attempt to restrict the numbers of people for whom it will accept responsibility. It is possible to imagine a Socialist in Leipzig going to the state bureau and filling up a form for permission to marry and have one child. If the state official explained that this permission was necessary so that the State might know how many mouths it would have to feed, all would be well. But there would be physical assault if the Englishman were so treated.

At the moment in England, Socialist tendencies are uppermost, but a countermovement can also be detected. The wage-earners in England will no longer be eager to sponge on the State when they realize that the State can become a nuisance. It remains true to-day as ever that the Englishman greatly prefers independence to state dependence. When trade improves, the Socialist orator will have little effect with his right-to-live theories. In spite of all the growth of Socialism the Englishman is an innate individualist and can be reckoned on to refuse to follow indefinitely in the wake of alien theorists like Karl Marx, or of leaders like Mr. Sidney Webb, who is obsessed with Bismarckian ideas of bureaucratic control. If comparisons are permissible, one could reasonably say that even amid the Socialist period the Englishman is at least as sturdily independent as the American, as is seen in the reception that he gives to such grandmotherly ideas as absolute Prohibition. All countries have their lapses from the principles of liberty, and, if the Englishman at the moment is tempted by his Socialist leaders to accept dependence on the State, the American accepts at the dictation of his employers and of his womenfolk a legal impediment against the drinking of beer.

No, the bed-rock truth is that the right to live and other Socialist conceptions are comparatively novel so far as practice is concerned, but they offend the inborn prejudices of English people and before long they are likely to be slowly abandoned. The Englishman is wonderful at changing his political coat. During the coal strike one of the worst areas was the County of Durham. But groups of Durham miners in 1916 organized bonfires in which they burned their War Loan certificates. They refused to make money out of other people’s sufferings, and thus set an example to the whole country — and, may an Englishman add, to America as well. It would be a big mistake to assume that, because in a period of post-war trade depression Socialist theories are making considerable headway, therefore England is steadily pursuing its way toward the Socialist goal. Similarly Americans will make a mistake if they assume that their present immunity from the plagues of Socialism will survive a period of industrial depression.