Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Some Political and Social Aspects of the Tariff
By Edwin Lawrence Godkin (18311902)
[The New Princeton Review. 1887.]
THE PROBLEM which protectionists have to solve, touching the relations of the Government to industry in this country, would seem to be the production of a tariff which nobody will attacka very difficult task, we must all admit, if it is to be such a tariff as extreme protectionists really desire. As long as there exist, about the amount of protection needed, the doubt and mystery which we now witness; as long as the classes for whose protection the tariff is intended are as numerous and as clamorous as they now are, it will be impossible to satisfy them all by any protective tariff whatever. There is only one rule known to us by which a tariff can really be measured and defended. If the principle of raising duties for revenue only were once adopted, every one would know at a glance how high the tariff ought to be. There might be disputes about the distribution of its burdens among different commodities, but there would be none about the sum it ought to bring in. If there were in any year a surplus, every one would agree that the tariff ought to be lowered. If there were a deficit, every one would agree that it ought to be raised. We should thus, at least, get rid of the perennial contention about the weight of the duties, and we should no longer be dependent for stability on the wisdom of Congress.
Now let me consider another, and, from a social point of view, perhaps the most important, aspect of the tariff question. Can any one find, in the work of any American author, or in the speech of any American oratorI mean, of the free Statesprior to the civil war, any intimation that we should have, fully developed on American soil, within the present century, what has long been known in Europe as the labor question? In 1860 nobody here was seriously troubled by the condition or expectations of the working classes. In fact, Americans were not in the habit of thinking of working-men as a class at all. An American citizen who wrought with his hands in any calling was looked on, like other American citizens, as a man who had his fortunes in his own keeping, and whose judgment alone decided in what manner they could be improved. Nobody thought of him as being in a special degree the protégé of the State. In fact, the idea that he had a special and peculiar claim on State protection was generally treated as a piece of Gallic folly, over which Anglo-Saxons could well afford to smile. There was no mention of the free laborer in political platforms at that day, except as an illustration to Southern slave-holders of the blessings of which their pride and folly deprived their own society.
We have changed all this very much. Under the stimulation of the war tariff, not only has there been an enormous amount of capital invested in industrial enterprises of various sorts; not only have mills and furnaces and mines and protected interests of all sorts greatly multiplied, but there has appeared in great force, and for the first time on American soil, the dependent, state-managed laborer of Europe, who declines to take care of himself in the old American fashion. When he is out of work, or does not like his work, he looks about, and asks his fellow-citizens sullenly, if not menacingly, what they are going to do about it. He has brought with him, too, what is called the labor problem, probably the most un-American of all the problems which American society has to work over to-day .
Now, this labor problem, which so many statesmen and philanthropists and economists are trying their teeth on, is every day made more difficult, every day further removed from solution, by that fatal lesson of government responsibility for the condition of a particular class of a community, which every believer in high tariffs, every manufacturer who depends on the tariff, is compelled to preach. Of all the novelties which the last twenty-five years have introduced into American politics and society, decidedly the most dangerous is the practice of telling large bodies of ignorant and excitable voters at every election that their daily bread depends not on their own capacity or industry or ingenuity, or on the capacity or industry or ingenuity of their employers, but on the good-will of the Legislature, or, worse still, on the good-will of the Administration. In other words, the tariff issue, as it is called in every canvass, is an issue filled with the seeds of social trouble and perplexity .
The truth is, that the first field ever offered for seeing what the freedom of the individual could accomplish, in the art of growing rich and of diversifying industry, was offered on this continent. It was blessed with the greatest variety of soil and climate, with the finest ports and harbors, with the greatest extent of inland navigation, with the richest supply of minerals, of any country in the world. The population was singularly daring, hardy, ingenious, and self-reliant, and untrammelled by feudal tradition. That opportunity has, under the protective system, been temporarily allowed to slip away. The old European path has been entered on, under the influence of the old European motives; the belief that gold is the only wealth; that, in trading with a foreigner, unless you sell him more in specie value than he sells you, you lose by the transaction; that diversity of industry being necessary to sound progress, diversity of individual tastes, bent, and capacity cannot be depended on to produce it; that manufactures being necessary to make the nation independent of foreigners in time of war, individual energy and sagacity cannot be trusted to create them.
The result is that we have, during the last quarter of a century, deliberately resorted to the policy of forcing capital into channels into which it did not naturally flow. We thus have supplied ourselves with manufactures on a large scale, but in doing so we have brought society in most of the large towns, in the East, at least, back to the old European model, divided largely into two classes, the one great capitalists, the other day-laborers, living from hand to mouth, and dependent for their bread and butter on the constant maintenance by the Government of artificial means of support. Agriculture has in this way been destroyed in some of the Eastern States, and, what is worse, so has commerce.
Had individuals in America been left to their own devices in the matter of building up manufactures, it is possible that the gross production of the country in many branches would have been less than it is now; but it is very certain that American society would have been in a healthier condition, and American industry would have been taken out of politics, or, rather, would never have got into it. An agricultural population, such as that of the Northern States sixty years ago, was sure not to confine itself to one field of industry exclusively. Enterprise and activity, love of work and love of trying all kinds of work, were as marked features of the national character then as they are now. The American population could boast of much greater superiority over the European population than it can now. There was sure, therefore, to have been a constant overflow from the farms of the most quick-witted, sharp-sighted, and enterprising men of the community, for the creation of new manufactures. They would have toiled, contrived, invented, copied, until they had brought into requisition and turned to accountas, in fact, they did to a considerable extent in colonial daysone by one, all the resources of the country, all its advantages over other countries in climate, soil, water-power, in minerals, or mental or moral force. Whatever manufactures were thus built up, too, would have been built up forever. They would have needed no hot-house legislation to save them. They would have flourished as naturally and could have been counted on with as much certainty as the wheat crop or the corn crop. Instead of being a constant source of uncertainty and anxiety and legislative corruption, they would have been one of the mainstays of our social and political system. American manufactures would then, in short, have been the legitimate outgrowth of American agriculture. They would have grown as it grew, in just and true relations to it. They would have absorbed steadily and comfortably its surplus population, and the American ideas of mans capacity, value, and needs would have reigned in the regulation of the new industry.
The present state of things is one which no thinking man can contemplate without concern. If the protectionist policy is persisted in, the process of assimilating American society to that of Europe must go on. The accumulation of capital in the hands of comparatively few individuals and corporations must continue and increase. Larger and larger masses of the population must every day be reduced to the condition of day laborers, living from hand to mouth on fixed wages, contracting more and more the habit of looking on their vote simply as a mode of raising or lowering their wages, and, what is worse than all, learning to consider themselves a class apart, with rights and interests opposed to, or different from, those of the rest of the community.
What, then, is to be done by way of remedy? Nothing can be done suddenly; much can be done slowly. We must retrace our steps by degrees, by taking the duties off raw materials, so as to enable those manufactures which are nearly able to go alone, to get out of the habit of dependence on legislation, and to go forth into all the markets of the world without fear and with a manly heart. We must deprive those manufactures which are able to go alone already of the protection which they now receive, as the reward of log-rolling in Congress, in aid of those still weaker than themselves. And we must finally, if it be possible, by a persistent progress in the direction of a truly natural state of things, prepare both laborers and employers for that real independence of foreigners which is the result, simply and solely, of native superiority, either in energy or industry or inventiveness or in natural advantages.