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Instead of A Book (1893/1897)

by Benjamin R. Tucker (1854-1939)


[III.] Money and Interest.

[III.6] A Baseless Charge.

[Liberty, October 15, 1881.]



My Dear Mr. Tucker:


IOB-III-6.1 It is entirely immaterial in this discussion whether my position is “odd” or otherwise. The question at issue must be settled, if settled at all, on its own merits; and no prejudice either for or against capital can affect the argument. Let us burden it with no irrelevant matter.
IOB-III-6.2 My question was simply this: Is a man who loans a plough entitled in equity to compensation for its use; and if not, why not?
IOB-III-6.3 This question (I say it with all respect) you evade. But, until it is answered, no progress can be made in this inquiry. It is no answer to say, “Let him sell his plough.” He does not sell it; he loans it, as he has a natural right to do. Another borrows it, as he has a natural right to do. I repeat: Is it just to pay for its use?
IOB-III-6.4 You gain nothing when you say, “Let him sell”; for, if I followed you there, it would only be to present the same question substantially in another form. You might then suggest another alternative, until we “swung round the circle,“ and came back to the first. So let us save time and meet it at once. If it cannot be met where I proposed it, I do not see that it can be answered anywhere. If your theory will not bear an application to the example I stated, what is it good for? I have never seen a good reason why the plough-maker is not entitled to pay for the use of his plough.
IOB-III-6.5 You refer me to certain “authorities,” – Brown and Ruskin. I do not bow to authorities on questions of this nature; and I supposed you did not. I ask for a reason, not a name. Brown’s proposition, which I affirm as stoutly as he does, does not answer my question. Ruskin is equally remote. He concludes that the case he examines is one of sale and purchase. That is not the case I stated at all. If there be an answer to my question, I am sure you are capable of stating it.
Cordially yours,
J. M. L. BABCOCK.
IOB-III-6.6 We have no wish to waste these columns in repetition; but this charge of evasion is a serious one, which can be thoroughly examined only by reviewing ground already traversed. One of the objections that we had in view in beginning the publication of this journal was the annihilation of usury. If in our first direct conflict with a supporter of usury we have been guilty of evasion, we are unfitted for our task, and ought to abandon it to hands more competent. But we unhesitatingly plead “not guilty.”
IOB-III-6.7 Mr. Babcock argued that the man who makes a plough and lends it is entitled to a portion of the loaf subsequently produced in addition to the return of his plough intact. He now asserts that we answered this by saying, “Let him sell his plough.” No, we did not. On the principle that only labor can be an equitable basis of price, we argued in reply as follows: “The maker of the plough certainly is entitled to pay for his work. Full pay, paid once; no more. That pay is the plough itself, or its equivalent in other marketable products, said equivalent being measured by the amount of labor employed in their production.” True or false, this answer is direct and tangible; in no sense is it evasive. Then Mr. Babcock asked this other and distinct question: “If he furnishes his ploughs only on condition that they be returned to him in as good a state as when taken away, how is he to get his bread?” We replied that we did not know, and that, if he was such a fool as to do so, we did not care. Nothing evasive here, either; on the contrary, utter frankness. Touched a little, however, by Mr. Babcock’s sympathy with the usurer thus threatened with starvation, we ventured the suggestion that, instead of lending his plough to the farmer, he might sell it to him, and thus get money wherewith to buy bread of the baker. This advice was gratuitous, we know; possibly it was impertinent, also; but was it evasive? Not in the least.
IOB-III-6.8 Finally, thinking that Mr. Babcock might agree, as we do, with Novalis that a man’s belief gains quite infinitely the moment another mind is convinced thereof, we called his attention to two other minds in harmony with ours on the point now in dispute, A. B. Brown and John Ruskin. But not as authorities, in Mr. Babcock’s sense of the word. Still, Mr. Brown being Mr. Babcock’s candidate for Secretary of State, and party candidates being supposedly representative in things fundamental, we deemed it not out of place to cite a proposition from Mr. Brown that seemed to us, on its face, directly contradictory of Mr. Babcock. To our astonishment Mr. Babcock accepts it as not inconsistent with his position, at the same time declaring it irrelevant. Argument ends here. If we hold up two objects, one if which, to our eyes, is red and the other blue, and Mr. Babcock declares that both are red, it is useless to discuss the matter. One of us is color-blind. The ultimate verdict of mankind will decide which. In quoting from Mr. Ruskin, however, we did not ask Mr. Babcock to accept him as an authority, but to point out the weakness of an argument drawn from an illustration similar to Mr. Babcock’s. Mr. Babcock replies by denying the similarity, saying that Ruskin “concludes that the case he examines is one of sale and purchase.” Let us see. Ruskin is examining a story told by Bastiat in illustration and defence of usury. After printing Bastiat’s version of it, he abridges it thus, stripping away all mystifying clauses:
IOB-III-6.9
James makes a plane, lends it to William on 1st of January for a year. William gives him a plank for the loan of it, wears it out, and makes another for James, which he gives him on 31st December. On 1st January he again borrows the new one; and the arrangement is repeated continuously. The position of William, therefore, is that he makes a plane every 31st of December; lends it to James till the next day, and pays James a plank annually for the privilege of lending it to him on that evening.
IOB-III-6.10 Substitute in the foregoing “plough” for “plane,” and “loaf” or “slice” for “plank,” and the story differs in no essential point from Mr. Babcock’s. How monstrously unjust the transaction is can be plainly seen. Ruskin next shows how this unjust transaction may be changed into a just one:
IOB-III-6.11
If James did not lend the plane to William, he could only get his gain of a plank by working with it himself and wearing it out himself. When he had worn it out at the end of the year, he would, therefore, have to make another for himself. William, working with it instead, gets the advantage instead, which he must, therefore, pay James his plank for; and return to James what James would, if he had not lent his plane, then have had – not a new plane, but the worn-out one. James must make a new one for himself, as he would have had to do if no William had existed; and if William likes to borrow it again for another plank, all is fair. That is to say, clearing the story of its nonsense, that James makes a plane annually and sells it to William for its proper price, which, in kind, is a new plank.
IOB-III-6.12 It is this latter transaction, wholly different from the former, that Ruskin pronounces a “sale,” having “nothing whatever to do with principal or with interest.” And yet, according to Mr. Babcock, “the case he examines [Bastiat’s, of course] is one of sale and purchase.” We understand now how it is that Mr. Babcock can charge us with evasion. He evidently considers his method of meeting a point to be straightforward. If it be so, certainly ours is evasive. If, on the other hand, our course has been straightforward, evasion is too mild a term for his. It is better described as flat misstatement; purely careless, of course, but scarcely less excusable than if wilful. Again we invite our friend to a careful examination (and refutation, if possible) of the arguments advanced.



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