Some centuries before the Christian era, a Jew merchant, reported to have made one of the largest fortunes of his time (held also in repute for much practical sagacity), left among his ledgers some general maxims which have been preserved even to our own days. They were held in respect by the Venetians who placed a statue of the old Jew on the angle of one of their principal buildings. Of late years these writings have fallen into disrepute, being opposed to the spirit of modern commerce.
He says for instance in one place: 'The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a vanity tossed to and fro of them that seek death'; adding in another, with the same meaning: 'Treasures of wickedness profit nothing; but truth delivers from death.' Both these passages are notable for their assertions of death as the only real issue and sum of attainment by any unjust scheme of wealth. If we read instead of 'lying tongue', 'lying label, title, pretence or advertisement', we shall more clearly perceive the bearing of these words on modern business.
Again the wise man says: 'He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches shall surely come to want.' And again more strongly: 'Rob not the poor because he is poor; neither oppress the afflicted in the place of business. For God shall spoil the soul of those that spoiled them.'
This 'robbing the poor because he is poor' is especially the mercantile form of theft, consisting in taking advantage of a man's necessities in order to obtain his labour or property at a reduced price. The ordinary highwayman robs the rich, but the trader robs the poor.
But the two most remarkable passages are the following:
'The rich and the poor have met.
God is their maker.'
'The rich and the poor have met.
God is their light.'
They 'have met.' That is to say, as long as the world lasts the action and counteraction of wealth and poverty is just as appointed a law of the world as the flow of stream to sea: 'God is their maker.' But also this action may be either gentle and just, or convulsive and destructive; it may be by rage of devouring flood or by lapse of serviceable wave. And which of these it shall be, depends on both rich and poor knowing that God is their light.
The flowing of streams is in one respect a perfect image of the action of wealth. Where the land falls, the water flows. So wealth must go where it is required. But the disposition and administration of rivers can be altered by human forethought. Whether the stream shall be a curse or a blessing depends upon man's labour and administrating intelligence. For centuries districts of the world, rich in soil and favoured in climate, have lain desert under the rage of their own rivers; not only desert, but plague-struck. The stream which, rightly directed, would have flowed in soft irrigation from field to field—would have purified the air, given food to man and beast, and carried their burdens for them on its bosom—now overwhelms the plain and poisons the wind; its breath pestilence, and its work famine. In like manner human laws can guide the flow of wealth. This the leading trench and limiting mound can do so thoroughly that it shall become water of life—the riches of the hand of wisdom; or on the contrary, by leaving it to its own lawless flow, they may make it the last and deadliest of national plagues: water of Marah—the water which feeds the roots of all evil.
The necessity of these laws of distribution or restraint is curiously overlooked in the ordinary economist's definition of his own 'science'. He calls it the 'science of getting rich'. But there are many sciences as well as many arts of getting rich. Poisoning people of large estates was one employed largely in the middle ages; adulteration of food of people of small estates is one employed largely now. All these come under the general head of sciences or arts of getting rich.
So the economist in calling his science the science of getting rich must attach some ideas of limitation to its character. Let us assume that he means his science to be the science of 'getting rich by legal or just means'. In this definition is the word 'just' or 'legal' finally to stand ? For it is possible that proceedings may be legal which are by no means just. If therefore we leave at last only the word 'just' in that place of our definition, it follows that in order to grow rich scientifically, we must grow rich justly; and therefore know what is just. It is the privilege of the fishes, as it is of rats, and wolves, to live by the laws of demand and supply; but it is the distinction of humanity to live by those of right.
We have to examine then what are the laws of justice respecting payment of labour.
Money payment, as stated in my last paper, consists radically in a promise to some person working for us, that for the time and labour he spends in our service today we will give or procure equivalent time and labour in his service at any future time when he may demand it.
If we promise to give him less labour than he has given us, we under-pay him. If we promise to give him more labour than he has given us, we over-pay him.
In practice, when two men are ready to do the work and only one man wants to have it done, the two men underbid each other for it; and the one who gets it to do is under-paid. But when two men want the work done and there is only one man ready to do it, the two men who want it done overbid each other, and the workman is over-paid. The central principle of right or just payment lies between these two points of injustice.
Inasmuch as labour rightly directed is fruitful just as seed is, the fruit (or 'interest' as it is called) of the labour first given, or 'advanced', ought to be taken into account and balanced by an additional quantity of labour in the subsequent repayment. Therefore the typical form of bargain will be: If you give me an hour today, I will give you an hour and five minutes on demand. If you give me a pound of bread today, I will give you seventeen ounces on demand and so on.
Now if two men are ready to do the work and if I employ one who offers to work at half price he will be half-starved while the other man will be left out of employment. Even if I pay due wages to the workman chosen by me, the other man will be unemployed. But then my workman will not have to starve, and I shall have made a just use of my money. If I pay due wages to my man, I shall not be able to amass unnecessary riches, to waste money on luxuries and to add to the mass of poverty in the world. The workman who receives due wages from me will act justly to his subordinates. Thus the stream of justice will not dry up, but gather strength as it flows onward. And the nation with such a sense of justice will be happy and prosperous.
We thus find that the economists are wrong in thinking that competition is good for a nation. Competition only enables the purchaser to obtain his labour unjustly cheap, with the result that the rich grow richer and the poor poorer. In the long run it can only lead the nation to ruin. A workman should receive a just wage according to his ability. Even then there will be competition of a sort, but the people will be happy and skilful, because they will not have to underbid one another, but to acquire new skills in order to secure employment. This is the secret of the attractiveness of government services in which salaries are fixed according to the gradation of posts. The candidate for it does not offer to work with a lower salary but only claims that he is abler than his competitors. The same is the case in the army and in the navy, where there is little corruption. But in trade and manufacture there is oppressive competition, which results in fraud, chicanery and theft. Rotten goods are manufactured. The manufacturer, the labourer, the consumer,—each is mindful of his own interest. This poisons all human intercourse. Labourers starve and. go on strike. Manufacturers become rogues and consumers too neglect the ethical aspect of their own conduct. One injustice leads to many others, and in the end the employer, the operative and the customer are all unhappy and go to rack and ruin. The very wealth of the people acts among them as a curse.
Nothing in history has been so disgraceful to human intellect as the acceptance among us of the common doctrines of economics as a science. I know no previous instance in history of a nation's establishing a systematic disobedience to the first principles of its professed religion.
The writings which we (verbally) esteem as divine not only denounce the love of money as the source of all evil, and as an idolatry abhorred of the deity, but declare mammon service to be the accurate and irreconcilable opposite of God's service; and whenever they speak of riches absolute and poverty absolute, declare woe to the rich and blessing to the poor.
True economics is the economics of justice. People will be happy in so far as they learn to do justice and be righteous. All else is not only vain but leads straight to destruction. To teach the people to get rich by hook or by crook is to do them an immense disservice.