Instead of A Book (1893/1897)

by Benjamin R. Tucker (1854-1939)

[III.] Money and Interest.

[III.5] Capital’s Claim to Increase.

[Liberty, October 1, 1881.]

IOB-III-5.1 Liberty’s strictures, in her last issue, upon the proposal of the Massachusetts Greenbackers, adopted at their Worcester convention, to ask the legislature to compel all corporations to distribute their profits in excess of six per cent. among the employees in proportion to their wages has stirred up Mr. J. M. L. Babcock, the author of that singular project, to a defence of it. And in defending it against Liberty, he is obliged to do so in behalf of capital. It seems a little odd to find this long-time defender of the rights of labor in the rôle of champion of the claims of capital; but we remember that he is one who follows the lead of justice as he sees it, take him where it may.
IOB-III-5.2 Before preceding to the main question, he gives us two minor points to settle. First, he very pertinently asks why we “grieve” at his course. We answer by taking it all back. As he says, Liberty should rejoice, rather than grieve, at the honest exercise of the right to differ. When we hastily said otherwise, we said a very foolish thing. Yes, worse than that; in so far we were false to our own standard. Mr. Babcock has Liberty’s sincerest thanks for recalling her to her own position. May he and all never fail to sharply prod us, whenever they similarly catch us napping!1
IOB-III-5.3 Second, he assumes that the profit idea cannot be ridiculous (as we pronounced it), since its converse is not well established or generally accepted. To say that the no-profit theory is not well established is to beg the principal question under discussion; to say that, because the theory is not generally accepted, the friends that it has are not entitled to ridicule the position of its enemies is not in accordance with the nature of ideas or the custom of Mr. Babcock. How often have we listened with delight to his sarcastic dissection and merciless exposure to the light of common sense of some popular and well-nigh universal delusion in religion, politics, finance, or social life! He is in the habit of holding ridiculous all those things, whoever supports them, which his own reason pronounces absurd. And he is right in doing so, and wrong in saying that we ought not to follow his example. So, while it is clear that on the first minor point Mr. Babcock has the better of Liberty, on the second Liberty as decidedly has the better of Mr. Babcock.
IOB-III-5.4 Now to the question proper. Labor, says our friend, never gains anything by extravagant claims. True; and no claim is extravagant that does not exceed justice. But it is equally true that labor always loses by foolish concessions; and in this industrial struggle every concession is foolish that falls short of justice. It is to be decided, then, not whether Liberty’s claim for labor is extravagant, but whether it is just. “Whatever contributes to production is entitled to an equitable share in the distribution!” Wrong! Whoever contributes to production is alone so entitled. What has no rights that Who is bound to respect. What is a thing. Who is a person. Things have no claims; they exist only to be claimed. The possession of a right cannot be predicated of dead material, but only of a living person. “In the production of a loaf of bread, the plough performs an important service, and equitably comes in for a share of the loaf.” Absurd! A plough cannot own bread, and, if it could, would be unable to eat it. A plough is a What, one of those things above mentioned, to which no rights are attributable.
IOB-III-5.5 Oh! but we see. “Suppose one man spends his life in making ploughs to be used by others who sow and harvest wheat. If he furnishes his ploughs only on condition that they be returned to him in as good state as when taken away, how is he to get his bread?” It is the maker of the plough, then, and not the plough itself, that is entitled to a reward? What has given place to Who. Well, we’ll not quarrel over that. 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. But if he lends his plough and gets only his plough back, how is he to get his bread? asks Mr. Babcock, much concerned. Ask us an easy one, if you please. We give this one up. But why should he lend his plough? Why does he not sell it to the farmer, and use the proceeds to buy bread of the baker? See, Mr. Babcock? If the lender of the plough “receives nothing more than his plough again, he receives nothing for the product of his own labor, and is on the way to starvation.” Well, if the fool will not sell his plough, let him starve. Who cares? It’s his own fault. How can he expect to receive anything for the product of his own labor if he refuses to permanently part with it? Does Mr. Babcock propose to steadily add to this product at the expense of some laborer, and meanwhile allow this idler, who has only made a plough, to loaf on in luxury, for the balance of his life, on the strength of his one achievement? Certainly not, when our friend understands himself. And then he will say with us that the slice of bread which the plough-lender should receive can be neither large nor small, but must be nothing.
IOB-III-5.6 To that end we commend to Mr. Babcock the words of his own candidate for Secretary of State, nominated at the Worcester convention, A. B. Brown, editor of The Republic, who says: “The laborers of the world, instead of having only a small fraction of the wealth in the world, should have all the wealth. To effect this all monopolies should be terminated, – whether they be monopolies of single individuals or ‘majorities,’ – and labor-cost must be recognized as the measure and limit of price.” If Mr. Brown sticks to these words, and the Greenbackers to their platform, there is going to be a collision, and Mr. Brown will keep the track. But lest Mr. Brown’s authority should not prove sufficient, we refer Mr. Babcock to one of his favorite authors, John Ruskin, who argues this very point on Mr. Babcock’s own ground, except that he illustrates his position by a plane instead of a plough. Mr. Babcock may find his words under the heading, “The Position of William,” immediately following his own letter to us. If he succeeds in showing Mr. Brown’s assertions to be baseless and Mr. Ruskin’s arguments to be illogical, he may then come to Liberty for other foes to conquer. Till then we shall be but an interested spectator of his contest.

IOB-III-5.n1.1 1 Reading this paragraph eleven years later, I am inclined to regret that I wrote it. So few are the manifestations of good nature in my polemical writings, that I can ill afford to disown any of them; but it really seems that on this occasion I tried a little too hard to be fair. [Online editor’s note: don’t worry, he made up for it in the exchange that followed. – RTL] The grief for which I thus apologized was over the fact that Mr. Babcock held an opinion in favor of injustice, – not over the fact that, holding such an opinion, he gave expression to it.

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