Lyman Abbott.

Christianaity and social problems online

. (page 6 of 25)
Online LibraryLyman AbbottChristianaity and social problems → online text (page 6 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

erty should be held in common. One form of
socialism is so far communistic that it maintains
that a large section of property should be held in
common. It maintains that all that property
which is used in productive labor should be held
in common. This is the doctrine of " Looking
Backward." A man may own the cane with which
he walks, but not the spade with which he digs.
He may own a bicycle if he rides it for pleasure,

1 Nitti, Catholic Socialism, p. 78.


but not if he rides it to business. He may own
his house, but not his factory. He may own that
which is used for enjoyment, but not that which
is used for productive service. That is a phase
of communism. The essence of communism is
always, however, this : that private property is a
mistake ; that the family is the ideal ; that all
property should be owned in common, and all
industry directed by a common head.

The Bible teaches no such doctrine, and con-
tains nothino^ which favors such doctrine. It con-
demns in scathing terms the oppression of the
poor by the rich. It condemns using money as the
standard and measurement of life. It pronounces
making acquisition the end of life as a supreme
folly. It demands justice from the rich toward the
poor, and urges charity from the rich toward the
poor. But nowhere does it condemn the acquisi-
tion of private property ; nowhere does it intimate
an opinion in favor of the owning of property in
common. Laveleye gives quotations from the
early Fathers in which, quite in the spirit of mod-
ern communism, they condemn the acquisition of
wealth as a sin and its possession as a disgrace : —

"The rich man is a thief" (St. Basil). "The rich
are robbers ; a kind of equality must be effected by
making gifts out of their abundance. Better all things
were in common " (St. Chrysostom). " Opulence is
always the product of a theft, committed, if not by the
actual possessor, by his ancestors " (St. Jerome).
" Nature created community ; private property is the


offspring of usurpation " (St. Ambrose). " In strict
justice, everything should belong to all. Iniquity alone
has created private property " (St. Clement).^

These utterances are not in the spirit of the
Bible. On the contrary, the Old Testament de-
clares that it is God who bestows wealth, as a
reward for virtue, so that it becomes, though by
no means an infallible sign, yet a sign of holiness
and of divine favor .2 The Biblical condemnations
of the vice of acquisitiveness imply by their very
phraseology that there is a legitimate acquisition
and a noble use of wealth. " Woe unto him that
buildetb his house by unrighteousness and his
chambers by wrong, that useth his neighbors'
service without wages and giveth him not for his
work," ^ implies that there is a building which is
right, and a hiring of service which is honorable.
" Riches kept by the owner thereof to their hurt " ^
indicates that they may be employed to advan-
tage. The condemnation of an evil use is not the
same as the condemnation of all use ; and the
mere fact that it is always the abuse, not the use,
of property which is condemned, implies that there
is a use which is commendable. There is as little
authority in the New Testament as in the Old for
the indiscriminate condemnation of private prop-
erty. Christ repeats the beatitude of the Hebrew
Psalter : " Blessed are the meek, for they shall

^ Laveleye, Socialism of To-day, Introd. p. xix.

2 Deut. viii. 18. » Jer. xxii. 13. ^ Eccles. v. 13.


inherit the earth." He adds to the promises of
the ancient law the sanction of his own promise :
" There is no man that hath left house, or bre-
thren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or
children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's,
but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this
time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mo-
thers, and children, and lands, with persecutions ;
and in the world to come eternal life." ^ These
are not the promises of a communist, or the
founder of a communistic system. If some pas-
sages in the New Testament, when superficially
read, appear to condemn the acquisition of prop-
erty, a more careful reading corrects the misappre-
hension. Christ does indeed say, " Woe unto you
that are rich ; " '^ but, in adding the reason, " for
you have received your consolation," he both inter-
prets and limits the woe to those who have made
riches the object of life. Paul does indeed declare
that they who icill ^ be rich fall into temptation,
but both the original and the context make it clear
that he condemns only those who make the acqui-
sition of riches the purpose of their life. It is
indeed true that James denounces rich men, but it
is rich men who have " lived in pleasure on the

1 Mark x. 30. I can see no reason for thinking this means
merely greater enjoyment of what the disciple has ; on its face it
means absolute increase of possession, and history confirms the
promise as thus understood.

2 Luke vi. 24.

^ Tim. vi. 9. hi Se fiov\6fx€voi irAowTetj/, i. e. those "who will to
be rich.


earth and been wanton." ^ It is true that Christ
pictures Lazarus as in Abraham's bosom and the
rich man as tormented in hell, but it is because
the rich man passed by in indifference the poor
man who lay uncared for at his door.^ It is true
that the rich young ruler is told to sell that which
he has and give to the poor if he would have
treasure in heaven, but it is also true that He who
discerned the secret hearts of men saw in this
seeker after the kingdom one who " trusted in
uncertain riches," and applied to him the same
touchstone of loyalty which he had applied to the
twelve who had left all to follow the Master.^

In his teaching, Christ never condemns private
property ; he impliedly approves it. He compares
the kingdom of heaven to a merchantman who sold
all that he had in order to purchase one pearl.^
He compares it to a capitalist who apportions his
property among his stewards in unequal portions ;
unto one he gave five talents, to another two, to
another one, to every man according to his sev-
eral ability. And in the day of reckoning the
only one who is condemned is he who has done
nothing: to increase the store intrusted to him.^
The command in the analogous parable, " Occupy
till I come," is rightly rendered by the Revised
Version, "Trade herewith till I come." ^ And
the issue of the parable indicates the object of
the trading, — increase of wealth. It is indeed a

1 Jas. V. 5. 2 Luke xvi. 19-21, 25. ^ Mark x. 17-27.

* Matt. xiii. 45, 46. ^ Matt. xxv. 14-30. ^ Luke xix. 12-27.


truism that there can be no distribution without
accumulation, no beneficence without acquisition,
no giving without something first obtained which
may be given.

Christianity, then, puts no discouragement on
industry. It recognizes the ambition to acquire
property as a worthy ambition, provided it is under
right direction and guided to right ends. The
first duty a man owes is the duty of earning his
own livelihood, and the livelihood of those who are
intrusted to him. This is one of the foundation
virtues. It underlies all civilization, all commer-
cial well-being, all individual manhood. When
acquisitiveness rules and love serves, the man is
wrong; but when acquisitiveness serves and love
rules, the man is right. The ambition to acquire,
if acquisition is made subordinate to high and noble
ends, is a noble ambition.

Christ's cure for the evils of acquisitiveness is
not communistic. It is that intimated in the para-
ble of the talents before referred to. Property is
a trust. Whatever a man possesses is given to
him, but the gift is not absolute ; it is a gift in
trust. He is to use it for the benefit of the whole
community. He is to consider himself only as a
single member of that community. The doctrine
that property is a trust is implied in the law,
" Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." If
love means emotional ecstacies, this is not a com-
mand to love at all. No man is entranced by his
own picture, thrilled by his own love-letters, or de-


sirous to caress himself. To love one's neighbor
as one's self is to count one's self one of the com-
munity, and treat all as worthy of equal consid-
eration. If it is right to respect a neighbor's
property, it is right to respect one's own ; but it
is not right to have one law for one's self and an-
other for the neighbor.^ He who loves his neigh-
bor as himself will count his own interests part of
the common interests ; his rights will be measured
in his judgment by the rights of his neighbor.
Personal welfare and public welfare will become
identified. Egoism and altruism will be coopera-
tive, not conflicting. The doctrine that property
is a trust is explicit in the teachings of Christ con-
cerning property. Man is a steward ; to different
men are given different possessions ; each one is to
trade with the talents intrusted to him, but all are
to give account to the Master in a future day of
reckoning.^ Christ reinforces this truth by show-
ing the wisdom as well as the beauty of beneficence.
Even the unjust steward, who does not care for his
Master's interests, or for those of the tenants, is
shrewd enough to seek the tenants' favor by his
administration of his Master's estate for the ten-
ants' benefit.^ The right use of property is one of
the tests of the judgment day. The faithful and
wise servant is one who sees that his Lord has
made him ruler in order that he may give to the
servants of the household meat in due season.'^

1 See Ps. xii. 2 ; Deut. xxv. 13-15. ^ Matt. xxv. 14-30.

8 Luke xvi. 1-12. ^ Luke xii. 42.


Not skill to acquire, but skill to bestow, is evi-
dence of wisdom. The man who, when his barns
are full to bursting, purposes to build greater barns
for more grain, and whom the world calls shrewd
and prosperous, Christ calls Fool ! ^ For such a
man knows only how to accumulate, not how to
distribute. Once Christ affords a picture of the
contrast between Paradise and Gehenna.^ He who
is sentenced to torment is the rich man who did
not recognize this law of trust, but left the poor
at his gate uncared for. Once Christ furnishes a
dramatic picture of the day of judgment.'^ Men
are separated before the Son of Man in that day,
one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep
from the goats. And the blessed are those who
have used their opportunities to feed the hungry,
clothe the naked, visit the stranger, comfort the
imprisoned ; and the outcast are those who did not
so use them. This is Christ's law of ownership.
Property is a trust. Every man who has property
is a trustee. Whether it is one dollar or a hun-
dred and fifty million dollars, in no way affects
the nature of the responsibility. Any man who
uses his property, or any part of his property, for
himself alone, is guilty of a breach of trust. He
is a defaulter before God. For his defalcation
he must at the last give account. It will not be
enough that he has earned the money honestly;
nor that he has not used it oppressively ; nor that
he has given certain portions of it — a tenth, for

1 Luke xii. lH-21. -' Luke xvi. 19-31. ^ Matt. xxv. 31-46.



example — in what he calls benevolence. It is not
his to use. No part of it is his to use. To the
affirmation, " What 's mine 's mine," the answer
of Christ is, " It is not." No man owns anything.
At the last every man must meet the question,
" How have you administered the trust ? " If he
is wise he will be asking himself this question day
by day.

This teaching of Jesus Christ is not poetic,
allegorical, fanciful. The proj^het by intuition
perceives what slow-thoughted science by patient
investigation subsequently demonstrates. The doc-
trine that property is a trust rests on a scientific
basis. It is the teaching of political science as
well as of the Christian religion.

In forty years, from 1850 to 1890, the wealth of
this country is estimated to have grown from a
little over seven thousand million to a little over
sixty-five thousand million, or from $307 per
capita to $1,036.01 per capita.^ What is the
secret of this marvelous growth in wealth ?

It is, first of all, discovery.^ We have found in
this land unmeasured wealth, which God has in

1 The exact figures as given by the census reports are as fol-
lows : —

1870 J






1 Currency = about $24,000,000 in gold.
2 See ch. vi. for specific figures.


ages long past stored here, — forests in Northern
and Northwestern States, waiting to do obeisance
to the woodman's axe ; water-jjower in North-
eastern streams, waiting to be lassoed and har-
nessed by Yankee enterprise ; harbors and great
river-ways, built long before river and harbor bills
were dreamed of ; coal in Pennsylvania mines and
oil in subterranean reservoirs, waiting for pick and
blast to call them forth ; wheat and corn, sleeping
in Western prairies until Prince Labor should
awaken them with his wand to fruitful life ; gold
and silver in Colorado and California mines, im-
prisoned until civilization should unbolt their
prison doors and summon them forth. To whom
belong of right these treasures which are not of
our making ? To the peoj^le first in possession of
the soil ? Then they belong to the despoiled Indian
races. To the first discoverers? Then to the
Spanish and French races; certainly not to the
present owners, who are neither the discoverers
nor their heirs or assigns. To the men who bring
them from their hiding-places and make them of
value to mankind ? Then the forest belongs to
the woodman, the coal mine to the operator, the
prairie to the cultivator of the soil. Something
might perhaps be said for each of those hypo-
theses ; the one hypothesis that cannot easily be
defended in the court of reason, upon any theory,
is the hypothesis on which we have in fact acted, —
that they belong of right to the strongest (or to the
most grasping and unscrupulous) in a struggle, not


for existence, but for luxury and power. This
wealth has been like a shower of silver pieces flung
out into a populous Italian street by a passer-by.
We have all scrambled for it ; a few of the strong-
est have won the prize, and the rest look on with
covetous eyes. This wealth of the continent was
here when our ancestors arrived here. It is not
the product of our capacity and our industry. It
belongs to Him who put it here. And unless we
suppose that He put it here for the benefit of a
few men, unless we deny that He is the Father
'' from whom every family in heaven and on earth
is named," then it was put here for the benefit of
all his children. Whether it is administered by
the nation as a nation, or by individuals to whom
the course of events has given control of it, it is a
sacred trust for all, not the special privilege and
possession of the few.

It does not come within the scope of this volume
to discuss the Single Tax ; nor the doctrine on
which it rests, that land is not a proper subject of
personal ownership. It is certain that the land
and its contents were recognized by the Old Testa-
ment law as belonging to God as the King of the
Hebrew people.^ It is equally certain that the law
of eminent domain recognizes no less the doctrine
that in the last analysis they belong to the sovereign
power of the nation, whei-ever that power may be
lodged. If land is made a subject of private
ownership, it is only because the sovereign power

J Lev. XXV. 23 ; Deut. xxii. 43 : 2 Chron. vii. 20 ; Joel iii. 2.


deems such an arrangement better for the common
welfare than is common ownership. Whether that
opinion is correct or not, is not primarily a ques-
tion of morals but of economics, and questions
of economics it is not my purpose in this volume
to discuss. It is enough here to point out the
unquestionable fact that, if land and its contents
are proper subjects of personal ownership, they
are so only on the hypothesis that the owner is a
trustee, and that by such trusteeship the com-
mon welfare is better promoted than by joint con-
trol. There is neither moral nor scientific basis
— nor, for that matter, historical or legal basis —
for the notion that the land and its contents be-
long, or can by any possibility belong, to the acci-
dental owner to use for himself, in disregard of
public welfare. The scientific alternative is be-
tween personal ownership in trust for the commu-
nity, and public or communal ownership.

Next to discovery of wealth hidden in the earth
is what we call invention, which is, in truth, simply
the discovery and application of a like wealth hid-
den in the forces of nature. We are rich beyond
all previous ages because we have found a way
to make Nature do our work and accumulate our
wealth for us. God puts his power at our disposal.
He is the Genius of the lamp who has come to do
our bidding, — to be, as it were, our servant. His
watercourses grind our grist for us ; his fire sum-
mons from the water its secret energy, and puts at
our service unestimated horse-power to drive our


machinery for us ; his lightning comes from the
clouds to carry our messages, and light our streets
and public halls and private houses. The ancient
Hebrew literature contains the story of blind Sam-
son grinding in the prison of his enemies. In
America it is God who is grinding for his children ;
we are blind, not He. There is not a spark of
electricity that runs across the wires, not a sound
that trembles on the telephone, not a throb of the
steam-engine, not a drop of falling water in cascades,
which is not the work of God. For whom ? For
the few fortunate men who have had the skill to
discover these latent forces, or the sagacity to take
advantage of some one else's discovery ? No, for
his entire family. There is a reason in justice, and
a reason in expediency, why the nation should give
a large measure of the first profits to the men whose
insight first discovers, whose wisdom first applies
to useful service, these divine forces. But the
forces themselves are not private projierty ; they
belong to humanity. The very existence of our
patent laws is public testimony to the truth that
every such force is public property ; private prop-
erty only so far as the public chooses for its own
benefit to relinquish its larger right.

A third source of national wealth has been in
franchises created by the people for the public
welfare, and transformed into private wealth
through public neglect and j^rivate sagacity. The
railroads of the United States are estimated as
worth above ten thousand million dollars, about


one half of which is represented by stock.^ What
gives them their value? It is not the roadbed,
the iron or steel rails, the stations and surrounding
grounds: it is that the railroads are the public
highways. Formerly our public highways afforded
poor facilities for locomotion, but they were free ;
now they afford admirable facilities for locomo-
tion, but they are private property. The telegraph
wires are the nerves of the nation ; the railroads
are its arterial system. The body politic has sold
or given away its nerves and its arteries. The nation
could well afford to pay liberally the men who
invented the telegraph and created the railroad
system. It could afford to pay well for poles and
wires, for roadbed and stations. If it choose to
leave pole and wire, roadbed and station, under
private control, it may certainly do so. Whether
that is wise or not is matter for further considera-
tion. Here it must suffice to say that the wealth
of both telegraph and railroad, of long interstate
lines and of short electric or horse-car lines, is due
to the fact that they are indispensable means of
inter-communication ; this wealth is derived from
the public and belongs to the public. Like the
wealth of the forests, the mines, and the prairies,
like the wealth of gravitation, fire, electricity, it
is a wealth of the people, and belongs of right to
the people.
' Twenty-five years ago this was radical, not to say

1 Beport of Interstate Commerce Commission, 1894, on Statistics
of Railways in the U. S., 267.


revolutionary, doctrine. It is so no longer. It is
established and recognized law. The courts have
affirmed that the railroads are the highways of the
nation, and that the railroad companies are the
servants of the nation and are subject to its con-
trol.^ Both state and national legislation are
based upon this fundamental principle. The ap-
pointment of Railroad Commissioners by the State,
the creation of an Interstate Commission by the
nation, both assume the correctness of this prin-
ciple. So far as these great franchises are con-
cerned, the law of the land and the princij^les of
Jesus Christ agree. Railroad property is a trust ;
the owners are trustees ; and the trust is one which
the courts will compel the trustees to administer in
the interest and for the benefit of the people.

But if these elements of wealth — the land and
its contents, natural forces and their uses, and the
great highways — are somewhat more apparently
common wealth than are the products of individual
industry of hand and brain, they are not really
more so. Not only these values, but all values of
any considerable consequence, are themselves the
products of that civilization which is the common
contribution of the nation. The wealth of America
has attracted hither millions of immigrants, and
has given to our country a growth unprecedented,
which fills the student of national life sometimes
with a sense of exaltation, sometimes with a sense

1 See cases cited by A. B. Stickney : The Railway Problem, Ap-
pendix, p. 2.39.


of awe akin to alarm. But it is this immigration
which has created the wealth. These hungry
mouths have given a value to our breadstuffs ; these
multiplied homes have made a market for our coal ;
these rushing hordes of immigrants and traders
have enriched our railway companies. No man
ever by himself created or ever can create wealth.
Into the locomotive have entered the hopes and
fears, the successes and failures, the labors and
achievements, of many lives now ended. The rail-
road owner cannot and does not recompense the
grave. Our best vases to-day cost Palissy the pot-
ter many a pang, though he never saw them ; and
for the sake of them his wife and children often
went supperless to bed. Can we pay them ? The
wharfage of New York city, which, with reckless
lack of prevision, has been allowed to become
private property, is valued solely because of the
three million people who live on and about Man-
hattan Island. Every farmer in Illinois helps to
enhance the value of the Illinois Central Rail-
road ; every shopkeeper in New York adds to
the value of every w^arehouse. Thus it is clear
that our wealth is, in its source and origin, a com-
mon wealth. Our system of exchange is a rude
method of balancing values with one another.
Possibly there may be no better one discoverable ;
possibly no amendment of it may be conceivable.
But no thouo'htful man will contend that it affords
absolute adjustment or represents a divine equity.
The wealth of everv millionaire comes from the


resources of the land of which he has got con-
trol ; or from natural forces, the chief grist of
which falls into his bag ; or from public fran-
chises, given by the State and created by the
State ; or from that general profit which grows
spontaneously out of the presence and power of a
generally diffused civilization and an increasing
population. The least part of it is that which his
own effort has created.

It does not follow that all this property is to be
held in common and administered in common, but
it does follow that every man who controls any
part of this property, whether it has come from the
soil, or from natural forces, or from public high-
ways, or from what he calls private enterprise, has

Online LibraryLyman AbbottChristianaity and social problems → online text (page 6 of 25)