My Discovery of England by Stephen Leacock
VII.--Business in England. Wanted--More Profiteers
It is hardly necessary to say that so shrewd an observer as I am could not fail to be struck by the situation of business in England. Passing through the factory towns and noticing that no smoke came from the tall chimneys and that the doors of the factories were shut, I was led to the conclusion that they were closed.
Observing that the streets of the industrial centres were everywhere filled with idle men, I gathered that they were unemployed: and when I learned that the moving picture houses were full to the doors every day and that the concert halls, beer gardens, grand opera, and religious concerts were crowded to suffocation, I inferred that the country was suffering from an unparalleled depression. This diagnosis turned out to be absolutely correct. It has been freely estimated that at the time I refer to almost two million men were out of work.
But it does not require government statistics to prove that in England at the present day everybody seems poor, just as in the United States everybody, to the eye of the visitor, seems to be rich. In England nobody seems to be able to afford anything: in the United States everybody seems to be able to afford everything. In England nobody smokes cigars: in America everybody does. On the English railways the first class carriages are empty: in the United States the "reserved drawingrooms" are full. Poverty no doubt is only a relative matter: but a man whose income used to be 10,000 a year and is now 5,000, is living in "reduced circumstances": he feels himself just as poor as the man whose income has been cut from five thousand pounds to three, or from five hundred pounds to two. They are all in the same boat. What with the lowering of dividends and the raising of the income tax, the closing of factories, feeding the unemployed and trying to employ the unfed, things are in a bad way.
The underlying cause is plain enough. The economic distress that the world suffers now is the inevitable consequence of the war. Everybody knows that. But where the people differ is in regard to what is going to happen next, and what we must do about it. Here opinion takes a variety of forms. Some people blame it on the German mark: by permitting their mark to fall, the Germans, it is claimed, are taking away all the business from England; the fall of the mark, by allowing the Germans to work harder and eat less than the English, is threatening to drive the English out of house and home: if the mark goes on falling still further the Germans will thereby outdo us also in music, literature and in religion. What has got to be done, therefore, is to force the Germans to lift the mark up again, and make them pay up their indemnity.
Another more popular school of thought holds to an entirely contrary opinion. The whole trouble, they say, comes from the sad collapse of Germany. These unhappy people, having been too busy for four years in destroying valuable property in France and Belgium to pay attention to their home affairs, now find themselves collapsed: it is our first duty to pick them up again. The English should therefore take all the money they can find and give it to the Germans. By this means German trade and industry will revive to such an extent that the port of Hamburg will be its old bright self again and German waiters will reappear in the London hotels. After that everything will be all right.
Speaking with all the modesty of an outsider and a transient visitor, I give it as my opinion that the trouble is elsewhere. The danger of industrial collapse in England does not spring from what is happening in Germany but from what is happening in England itself. England, like most of the other countries in the world, is suffering from the over-extension of government and the decline of individual self-help. For six generations industry in England and America has flourished on individual effort called out by the prospect of individual gain. Every man acquired from his boyhood the idea that he must look after himself. Morally, physically and financially that was the recognised way of getting on. The desire to make a fortune was regarded as a laudable ambition, a proper stimulus to effort. The ugly word "profiteer" had not yet been coined. There was no income tax to turn a man's pockets inside out and take away his savings. The world was to the strong.
Under the stimulus of this the wheels of industry hummed. Factories covered the land. National production grew to a colossal size and the whole outer world seemed laid under a tribute to the great industry. As a system it was far from perfect. It contained in itself all kinds of gross injustices, demands that were too great, wages that were too small; in spite of the splendour of the foreground, poverty and destitution hovered behind the scenes. But such as it was, the system worked: and it was the only one that we knew.
Or turn to another aspect of this same principle of self-help. The way to acquire knowledge in the early days was to buy a tallow candle and read a book after one's day's work, as Benjamin Franklin read or Lincoln: and when the soul was stimulated to it, then the aspiring youth must save money, put himself to college, live on nothing, think much, and in the course of this starvation and effort become a learned man, with somehow a peculiar moral fibre in him not easily reproduced to-day. For to-day the candle is free and the college is free and the student has a "Union" like the profiteer's club and a swimming-bath and a Drama League and a coeducational society at his elbow for which he buys Beauty Roses at five dollars a bunch.
Or turn if one will to the moral side. The older way of being good was by much prayer and much effort of one's own soul. Now it is done by a Board of Censors. There is no need to fight sin by the power of the spirit: let the Board of Censors do it. They together with three or four kinds of Commissioners are supposed to keep sin at arm's length and to supply a first class legislative guarantee of righteousness. As a short cut to morality and as a way of saving individual effort our legislatures are turning out morality legislation by the bucketful. The legislature regulates our drink, it begins already to guard us against the deadly cigarette, it regulates here and there the length of our skirts, it safeguards our amusements and in two states of the American Union it even proposes to save us from the teaching of the Darwinian Theory of evolution. The ancient prayer "Lead us not into temptation" is passing out of date. The way to temptation is declared closed by Act of Parliament and by amendment to the constitution of the United States. Yet oddly enough the moral tone of the world fails to respond. The world is apparently more full of thugs, hold-up men, yeg-men, bandits, motor-thieves, porchclimbers, spotters, spies and crooked policemen than it ever was; till it almost seems that the slow, old-fashioned method of an effort of the individual soul may be needed still before the world is made good.
This vast new system, the system of leaning on the government, is spreading like a blight over England and America, and everywhere we suffer from it. Government, that in theory represents a union of effort and a saving of force, sprawls like an octopus over the land. It has become like a dead weight upon us. Wherever it touches industry it cripples it. It runs railways and makes a heavy deficit: it builds ships and loses money on them: it operates the ships and loses more money: it piles up taxes to fill the vacuum and when it has killed employment, opens a bureau of unemployment and issues a report on the depression of industry.
Now, the only way to restore prosperity is to give back again to the individual the opportunity to make money, to make lots of it, and when he has got it, to keep it. In spite of all the devastation of the war the raw assets of our globe are hardly touched. Here and there, as in parts of China and in England and in Belgium with about seven hundred people to the square mile, the world is fairly well filled up. There is standing room only. But there are vast empty spaces still. Mesopotamia alone has millions of acres of potential wheat land with a few Arabs squatting on it. Canada could absorb easily half a million settlers a year for a generation to come. The most fertile part of the world, the valley of the Amazon, is still untouched: so fertile is it that for tens of thousands of square miles it is choked with trees, a mere tangle of life, defying all entry. The idea of our humanity sadly walking the streets of Glasgow or sitting mournfully fishing on the piers of the Hudson, out of work, would be laughable if it were not for the pathos of it.
The world is out of work for the simple reason that the world has killed the goose that laid the golden eggs of industry. By taxation, by legislation, by popular sentiment all over the world, there has been a disparagement of the capitalist. And all over the world capital is frightened. It goes and hides itself in the form of an investment in a victory bond, a thing that is only a particular name for a debt, with no productive effort behind it and indicating only a dead weight of taxes. There capital sits like a bull-frog hidden behind water-lilies, refusing to budge.
Hence the way to restore prosperity is not to multiply government departments and government expenditures, nor to appoint commissions and to pile up debts, but to start going again the machinery of bold productive effort. Take off all the excess profits taxes and the super-taxes on income and as much of the income tax itself as can be done by a wholesale dismissal of government employees and then give industry a mark to shoot at. What is needed now is not the multiplication of government reports, but corporate industry, the formation of land companies, development companies, irrigation companies, any kind of corporation that will call out private capital from its hiding places, offer employment to millions and start the wheels moving again. If the promoters of such corporations presently earn huge fortunes for themselves society is none the worse: and in any case, humanity being what it is, they will hand back a vast part of what they have acquired in return for LL.D. degrees, or bits of blue ribbon, or companionships of the Bath, or whatever kind of glass bead fits the fancy of the retired millionaire.
The next thing to be done, then, is to "fire" the government officials and to bring back the profiteer. As to which officials are to be fired first it doesn't matter much. In England people have been greatly perturbed as to the use to be made of such instruments as the "Geddes Axe": the edge of the axe of dismissal seems so terribly sharp. But there is no need to worry. If the edge of the axe is too sharp, hit with the back of it.
As to the profiteer, bring him back. He is really just the same person who a few years ago was called a Captain of Industry and an Empire Builder and a Nation Maker. It is the times that have changed, not the man. He is there still, just as greedy and rapacious as ever, but no greedier: and we have just the same social need of his greed as a motive power in industry as we ever had, and indeed a worse need than before.
We need him not only in business but in the whole setting of life, or if not him personally, we need the eager, selfish, but reliant spirit of the man who looks after himself and doesn't want to have a spoon-fed education and a government job alternating with a government dole, and a set of morals framed for him by a Board of Censors. Bring back the profiteer: fetch him from the Riviera, from his country-place on the Hudson, or from whatever spot to which he has withdrawn with his tin box full of victory bonds. If need be, go and pick him out of the penitentiary, take the stripes off him and tell him to get busy again. Show him the map of the world and ask him to pick out a few likely spots. The trained greed of the rascal will find them in a moment. Then write him out a concession for coal in Asia Minor or oil in the Mackenzie Basin or for irrigation in Mesopotamia. The ink will hardly be dry on it before the capital will begin to flow in: it will come from all kinds of places whence the government could never coax it and where the tax-gatherer could never find it. Only promise that it is not going to be taxed out of existence and the stream of capital which is being dried up in the sands of government mismanagement will flow into the hands of private industry like a river of gold.
And incidentally, when the profiteer has finished his work, we can always put him back into the penitentiary if we like. But we need him just now.