Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Equitable Distribution of Wealth
By Abram Stevens Hewitt (18221903)
[Born in Haveretraw, N. Y., 1822. Died in New York, N. Y., 1903. The Mutual Relations of Capital and Labor. 1878.]
WE are brought face to face with the great underlying question whether property is equitably distributed. What are the facts? We find society practically divided into four classes. First, the very rich, who live without labor upon the proceeds of realized property, with superabundant means which they are free to employ either as capital in business or to minister to their own desires, whether commendable or censurable. Second, the great middle class, who know neither poverty nor great riches, who are as a rule engaged in useful employments, who have more or less of the comforts and luxuries of life, and who are above the reach of want. Third, the industrious working classes, who possess little property, but who gain a decent livelihood for themselves and their families by their daily labor. They may be said to be poor only in the sense that they are liable to be reduced to want by sickness or by the chances and changes of business depriving them of the opportunity to work. Fourth, the paupers, who neither work nor care to work.
If the first and fourth classes should cease to exist, humanity would not have cause to shed many tears. The problem, then, which society finds itself forced to solve, is engaged in solving, is the mode of getting rid of these two extreme classes without revolution and without injustice. The relations of the second and third classes would be readily adjusted, because the transition from one to the other is not only very easy, but very constant. The ties between them are often the ties of family. Their interests are identical, and their relations to each other are such as can be and are substantially regulated by the principles of justice. As between them, it is scarcely necessary to discuss the limitations of wealth. But when we come to consider the position of the very rich, we are met by the self-evident fact that they possess and control an amount of property which is far beyond the capacity of any class of human beings of their limited number to contribute by their own efforts to the sum total of human wealth. In fact, the present possessors have rarely accumulated the fortunes which they control. The possession of superfluous riches will not stand the test of human justice; and in affirming this I only repeat the conclusions to which the greatest thinkers and the best men who have ever lived have invariably been driven. But even if it were not reënforced by such authority, it is in accordance with the whole spirit and temper of the teachings of Christ himself. He nowhere condemns the ownership of property. On the contrary, when he tells us that the poor we shall have always with us, He expressly recognizes that there will be inequalities in the ownership of property. He states it as a fact. But He nowhere says that we shall always have the rich with us, and the spiritual danger of great riches is repeatedly enforced .
The points which I have sought to enforce are, that the great question now pending is the equitable ownership of property, and that no ownership which does not conform to the principles of justice will be tolerated by society.
That distribution has been undergoing a change during the whole Christian era, and that this change has been to distribute the ownership more and more over the great mass of society; in other words, that of all the wealth of the world there is a larger percentage to-day held by the majority of mankind than at any previous period in the history of the world.
That the conflict between capital and labor, which has assumed such prominence in our day, resulting in strikes, conciliation, and arbitration, is a healthful but transitional stage toward a more intimate and beneficent association of capital and labor through the corporative principle.
That in the nature of things it would seem that corporations must continue to grow and absorb the great bulk of the business of the world, but that these corporations will be organized upon a distribution of ownership among those who are engaged in them, so that in the end the business of the world will be conducted by men in association with each other, each being directly interested in the ownership of the enterprise in which he is engaged.
That the result of the better understanding thus produced will be such an economy in the work of production as to cheapen commodities and extend their consumption, whereby the condition of mankind will be greatly benefited, and the resources which are now utterly wasted in the strife between capital and labor, resulting in strikes and lockouts, may be appropriated toward the creation and maintenance of funds to insure the working classes against the temporary evils which are necessarily produced by the introduction of machinery and the dislocation of labor from causes over which they have no control; that society owes indemnity in such cases to the industrious poor, and that the principle of life insurance, adopted already by the British Government, points out the methods by which such indemnity may be provided, not only without imposing additional burdens upon the producing classes, but that such a provision will be a measure of positive economy, extinguishing pauperism and largely reducing the necessity for public charity.
I am not disturbed by the objection which will be made to some of my positions, that they are at war with the received principles of political economy. Political economy deals only with one side of human experiencethe laws of the production and distribution of wealth. It is founded upon observation, experience, and reason. Just as Christianity has assumed various phases in different ages of the world, so political economy will vary in its conclusions with the changes of society. Christianity, addressing itself to the moral nature of man, is the prime mover in producing these changes. Political economy must therefore follow and not lead Christianity, and will conform itself to the conclusions at which society arrives in its progress toward a permanent moral order. What that moral order will be, no man can pretend to predict, but that there is a procession toward it all men can see; and political economy takes its place among the elements which go to make up that procession, and its truths, when finally ascertained and settled, will be found to conform strictly to the higher laws which bind man to his Maker by the great bond of love.
Finally, there is one consideration which must never be lost sight of. If during the last hundred years there had been no industrial development, the questions which now stir society to its foundations would never have forced themselves on public attention. It is the marvelous improvement in the condition of the human race during the present century which has brought into prominence and created the necessity of dealing with the evils which in previous ages passed unnoticed or were accepted as inevitable. The very growth and abundance of wealth make the inequalities of its distribution more apparent. The standard of conscience has been raised with the standard of comfort. The conflicts between labor and capital are more intense because there is more to contend for. Privilege slowly but surely recedes before the advance of knowledge. The question By what right? penetrates the very heart of power, and is no longer answered by the plea of tradition. Thus at length the way is opened for the amelioration of humanity by growth instead of by revolution, and henceforth society will take no steps backward. Moreover, we can see, it may be as through a glass darkly, that the methods by which the possibility of peaceful progress has been reached are in accordance with a divine order, not to have been predicted, but to be clearly seen as it develops results, and points the way to new triumphs of justice.