Chapter 18 — The Paradox

The opinion 
that finds most influential expression is that labor-saving invention, although it may sometimes cause temporary inconvenience or even hardship to a few, is ultimately beneficial to all. On the other hand, there is among working men a widespread belief that labor-saving machinery is injurious to them, although, since the belief does not enlist those powerful special interests that are concerned in the advocacy of protection, it has not been wrought into an elaborate system and does not get anything like the same representation in the organs of public opinion.

Now, should we subject this question to such an examination as we have given to the tariff question we should reach similar results. We should find the notion that invention ought to be restrained as incongruous as the notion that trade ought to be restrained-as incapable of being carried to its logical conclusions without resulting in absurdity. And while the use of machinery enormously increases the production of wealth, examination would show in it nothing to cause inequality in distribution. On the contrary, we should see that the increased power given by invention inures primarily to labor, and that this gain is so diffused by exchange that the effect of an improvement which increases the power of labor in one branch of industry must be shared by labor in all other branches. Thus the direct tendency of labor-saving improvement is to augment the earnings of labor. Even the monopoly of a labor-saving invention, while it can seldom be maintained for any length of time, cannot prevent a large (and generally much the largest) part of the benefits from being diffused.*

From this we might conclude with certainty, that the tendency of labor-saving improvements is to benefit all, and especially to benefit the working class, and hence might naturally attribute any distrust of their beneficial effects partly to the temporary displacements which, in a highly organized society, any change in the forms of industry must cause, and partly to the increased wants called forth by the increased ability to satisfy want.

It can be proved that labor-saving invention tends to benefit labor, but that this tendency is in some way aborted is even more clearly evident in the facts of today than it was when John Stuart Mill questioned whether mechanical invention had lightened the day's toil of any human being. That in some places and in some occupations there has been improvement in the condition of labor is true. But not only is such improvement nowhere commensurate with the increase of productive power; it is clearly not due to it. It exists only where it has been won by combinations of workmen or by legal interference. It is trade unions, not the increased power given by machinery, that have in many occupations in Great Britain reduced hours and increased pay; it is legislation, not any improvement in the general condition of labor, that has stopped the harnessing of women in mines and the working of little children in mills and brickyards. Where such influences have not been felt, it is not only certain that labor-saving inventions have not improved the condition of labor, but it seems as if they had exerted a depressing effect — operating to make labor a drug instead of to make it more valuable.

The problem we must solve to explain why free trade or labor-saving invention or any similar cause fails to produce the general benefits we naturally expect, is a problem of the distribution of wealth. When increased production of wealth does not proportionately benefit the working classes, it must be that it is accompanied by increased inequality of distribution.

In the social phenomena we are considering, it is not merely that with increasing wealth the share that some classes obtain is not increased proportionately; it is that it is not increased absolutely, and that in some cases it is even absolutely, as well as proportionately, diminished.

To get an illustration that will cover this point let us go back to Robinson Crusoe's island, which may well serve us as an example of society in its simplest and therefore most intelligible form.

The discovery of the island which we have heretofore supposed, involving calls by other ships, would greatly increase the wealth which the labor of its population of two could obtain. But it would not follow that in the increased wealth both would gain. Friday was Crusoe's slave, and no matter how much the opening of trade with the rest of the world might increase wealth, he could only demand the wages of a slave — enough to maintain him in working ability. So long as Crusoe himself lived he would doubtless take good care of the companion of his solitude, but when in the course of time the island had fully come into the circle of civilized life, and had passed into the possession of some heir of Crusoe's, or of some purchaser, living probably in England, and was cultivated with a view to making it yield the largest income, the gulf between the proprietor who owned it and the slave who worked upon it would not merely have enormously widened as compared with the time when Crusoe and Friday shared with substantial equality the joint produce of their labor, but the share of the slave might have become absolutely less, and his condition lower and harder.

It is not necessary to suppose positive cruelty or wanton harshness. The slaves who in the new order of things took Friday's place might have all their animal wants supplied. They might have as much to eat as Friday had, might wear better clothes, be lodged in better houses, be exempt from the fear of cannibals, and in illness have the attendance of a skilled physician. And seeing this, island "statisticians" might collate figures or devise diagrams to show how much better off these toilers were than their predecessor, who wore goatskins, slept in a cave and lived in constant dread of being eaten, and the conclusions of these gentlemen might be paraded in all the island newspapers, with a chorus of:

"Behold, in figures that cannot lie and diagrams that can be measured, how industrial progress benefits everybody, even the slave!"

But in things of which the statistician takes no account they would be worse off than Friday. Compelled to a round of dreary toil, unlightened by variety, undignified by responsibility, unstimulated by seeing results and partaking of them, their life, as compared with that of Friday, would be less that of men and more that of machines.

And the effect of such changes would be the same upon laborers such as we call free — free, that is to say, to use their own power to labor, but not free to that which is necessary to its use. If Friday, instead of setting Crusoe's foot upon his head, in token that he was thenceforward his slave, had simply acknowledged Crusoe's ownership of the island, what would have been the. difference? As he could only live upon Crusoe's property on Crusoe's terms, his freedom would simply have amounted to the freedom to emigrate, to drown himself in the sea, or to give himself up to the cannibals. Men enjoying only such freedom — that is to say, the freedom to starve or emigrate as the alternative of getting someone else's permission to labor — cannot be enriched by improvements that increase the production of wealth. For they have no more power to claim any share of it than has the slave. Those who want them to work must give them what the master must give the slave if he wants him to work enough to support life and strength. When they can find no one who wants them to work, they must starve, if they cannot beg. Grant to Crusoe ownership of the island, and Friday, the free man, would be as much subject to his will as Friday, the slave; as incapable of claiming any share of an increased production of wealth, no matter how great it might be nor from what cause it might come.

And what would be true in the case of one man would be true of any number. Suppose ten thousand Fridays, all free men, all absolute owners of themselves, and but one Crusoe, the absolute owner of the island. So long as his ownership was acknowledged and could be enforced, would not the one be the master of the ten thousand as fully as though he were the legal owner of their flesh and blood? Since no one could use his island without his consent, it would follow that no one could labor, or even live, without his permission. The order, "Leave my property" would be a sentence of death. This owner of the island would be to the other ten thousand "free men" who lived upon it, their land lord or land god, of whom they would stand in more real awe than of any deity that their religion taught them reigned above. For as a Scottish landlord told his tenants: "God Almighty may have made the land, but I own it. And if you don't do as I say, off you go!"

No increase of wealth could enable such "free" laborers to claim more than a bare living.

The opening up of foreign trade, the invention of labor-saving machines, the discovery of mineral deposits, the introduction of more prolific plants, the growth of skill, would simply increase the amount their landlord would charge for the privilege of living on his island, and could in no wise increase what those who had nothing but their labor could demand. If Heaven itself rained down wealth upon the island that wealth would be his.

And so, too, any economy that might enable these mere laborers to live more cheaply would simply increase the tribute that they could pay and that he could exact.

Of course, no man could utilize a power like this to its full extent or for himself alone. A single landlord in the midst of ten thousand poor tenants, like a single master amid ten thousand slaves, would be as lonely as was Robinson Crusoe before Friday came. The human being is by nature a social animal, and no matter how selfish such a man might be, he would desire companions nearer his own condition. Natural impulse would prompt him to reward those who pleased him, prudence would urge him to interest the more influential among his ten thousand Fridays in the maintenance of his ownership, while experience would show him, if calculation did not, that a larger income could be obtained by leaving to superior energy, skill, and thrift some part of what their efforts secured. But while the single owner of such an island would thus be induced to share his privileges with a class who would thus partake with him in the advantages of any improvement that increased the power of producing wealth, there would yet remain a class, the mere laborers of only ordinary ability, to whom such improvement could bring no benefit. And it would only be necessary to be a little chary in granting permission to work upon the island, so as to keep a small percentage of the population constantly on the verge of starvation and begging to be permitted to use their power to labor, to create a competition in which, bidding against each other, men would of themselves offer all that their labor could procure save a bare living, for the privilege of getting that.

We find in civilized countries a large class who, while they have power to labor, arc denied any right to the use of the elements necessary to make that power available, and who, to obtain the use of those elements, must either give up in rent a part of the produce of their labor, or take in wages less than their labor yields. A class thus helpless can gain nothing from advance in productive power. Where such a class exists, increase in the general wealth can only mean increased inequality in distribution. And though this tendency may be a little checked as to some of them by trade unions or similar combinations which artificially lessen competition, it will operate to the full upon those outside of such combinations.

And, let me repeat it, this increased inequality in distribution does not mean merely that the mass of those who have nothing but the power to labor do not proportionately share in the increase of wealth. It means that their condition must become absolutely, as well as relatively, worse. It is in the nature of industrial advance — it is of the very essence of those prodigious forces which modern invention and discovery are unloosing — that they must injure where they do not benefit. These forces are not in themselves either good or evil. They bring good or evil according to the conditions under which they are exerted. In a state of society in which all men stood upon an equality with relation to the use of the material universe their effects could be only beneficent. But in a state of society in which some men are held to be the absolute owners of the material universe, while other men cannot use it without paying tribute, the blessing these forces might bring is changed into a curse — their tendency is to destroy independence, to dispense with skill and convert the artisan into a "hand," to concentrate all business and make it harder for an employee to become his own employer, and to compel women and children to injurious and stunting toil.

And that this must be the tendency of labor-saving invention or reform in a society where the planet is held to be private property, and the children that come into life upon it are denied all right to its use except as they buy or inherit the title of some dead man, we may see plainly if we imagine labor-saving invention carried to its farthest imaginable extent.

Is it not true, then, it may be asked, that protection, for the reason at least that it does check that freedom and extension of trade which are essential to the full play of modern industrial tendencies, is favorable to the working classes?

My reply would be negative. Not only has protection — which is merely the protection of producing capitalists against foreign competition in the home market — tendencies in itself toward monopoly and inequality, but it is impotent to check the concentrating tendencies of modern inventions and processes. To do this by "protection" we must not only forbid foreign commerce, but restrain internal commerce. We must not only prohibit any new applications of labor-saving invention, but must prevent the use of the most important of those already adopted. We must tear up the railway and go back to the canal boat and freight wagon; cut down the telegraph wire and rely upon the post-horse; substitute the scythe for the reaper, the needle for the sewing machine, the hand loom for the factory; in short, discard all that a century of invention has given us, and return to the industrial processes of a hundred years ago. This is as impossible as for the chicken to go back to the egg. A man may become decrepit and childish, but once manhood is reached he cannot again become a child.

No; it is not in going backward, it is in going forward, that the hope of social improvements lies.


*For a fuller examination of the effects of machinery see my Social Problems.