Unsocial Investments

by A. S. Johnson

The “new social conscience” is essentially a class phenomenon. While it pretends to the rôle of inner monitor and guide to conduct for all mankind, it interprets good and evil in class terms. It manifests a special solicitude for the welfare of one social group, and a mute hostility toward another. Labor is its Esau, Capital its Jacob. Let strife arise between workingmen and their employers, and you will see the new social conscience aligning itself with the former, accepting at face value all the claims of labor, reiterating all labor’s formulæ. The suggestion that judgment should be suspended until the facts at issue are established is repudiated as the prompting of a secret sin. For, to paraphrase a recent utterance of the Survey, one of the foremost organs of the new conscience, is it not true that the workers are fighting for their livings, while the employers are fighting only for their profits? It would appear, then, that there can be no question as to the side to which justice inclines. A living is more sacred than a profit.

It is virtually never true, however, that the workers are fighting for their “living.” Contrary to Marx’s exploded “iron law” they probably had that and more before the trouble began. But of course we would not wish to restrict them to a living, if they can produce more, and want all who can’t produce that much to be provided with it—and something more at the expense of others.

It may be urged that the employer’s profits also represent the livings of a number of human beings; but this passes nowadays for a reactionary view. “We stand for man as against the dollar.” If you say that the “dollar” is metonymy for “the man possessed of a dollar,” with rights to defend, and reasonable expectations to be realized, you convict yourself of reaction. “These gentry” (I quote from the May Atlantic) “suppose themselves to be discussing the rights of man, when all they are discussing is the rights of stockholders.” The true view, the progressive view, is obviously that the possessors of the dollar, the recipients of profits and dividends, are excluded from the communion of humanity. Labor is mankind.

The present instance is of course not the only instance in human history of the substitution of class criteria of judgment for social criteria. Such manifestations of class conscience are doubtless justified in the large economy of human affairs; an individual must often claim all in order to gain anything, and the same may be true of a class. Besides, the ultimate arbitration of the claims of the classes is not a matter for the rational judgment. What is subject to rational analysis, however, are the methods of gaining its ends proposed by the new social conscience. Of these methods one of wide acceptance is that of fixing odium upon certain property interests, with a view to depriving them immediately of the respect still granted to property interests in general, and ultimately of the protection of the laws. It is with the rationality of what may be called the excommunication and outlawing of special property interests, that the present paper is concerned.

In passing, it is worth noting that the same ethical spirit that insists upon fixing the responsibility for social ills upon particular property interests—or property owners—insists with equal vehemence upon absolving the propertyless evil-doer from personal responsibility for his acts. The Los Angeles dynamiters were but victims: the crime in which they were implicated was institutional, not personal. Their punishment was rank injustice; inexpedient, moreover, as provocative of further crime, instead of a means of repression. On the other hand, when it appears that the congestion of the slum produces vice and disease, we are not urged by the spokesmen of this ethical creed, to blame the chain of institutional causes typified by scarcity of land, high prices of building materials, the incapacity of a raw immigrant population to pay for better habitations, or to appreciate the need for light and air. Rather, we are urged to fix responsibility upon the individual owner who receives rent from slum tenements. Perhaps we can not imprison him for his misdeeds, but we can make him an object of public reproach; expel him from social intercourse (if that, so often talked about, is ever done); fasten his iniquities upon him if ever he seeks a post of trust or honor; and ultimately we can deprive him of his property. Let him and his anti-social interests be forever excommunicate, outlawed.


In the country at large the property interests involved in the production and sale of alcoholic beverages are already excommunicated. The unreformed “best society” may still tolerate the presence of persons whose fortunes are derived from breweries or distilleries; but the great mass of the social-minded would deny them fire and water. In how many districts would a well organized political machine urge persons thus enriched as candidates for Congress, the bench or even the school board? In the prohibition territory excommunication of such property interests has been followed by outlawry. The saloon in Maine and Kansas exists by the same title as did Robin Hood: the inefficiency of the law. On the road to excommunication is private property in the wretched shacks that shelter the city’s poor. Outlawry is not far distant. “These tenements must go.” Will they go? Ask of the police, who pick over the wreckage upon the subsidence of a wave of reform. Many a rookery, officially abolished, will be found still tenanted, and yielding not one income, but two, one for the owner and another for the police. The property represented by enterprises paying low wages, working men for long hours or under unhealthful conditions, or employing children, is almost ripe for excommunication. Pillars of society and the church have already been seen tottering on account of revelations of working conditions in factories from which they receive dividends. Property “affected by a public use,” that is, investments in the instrumentalities of public service, is becoming a compromising possession. We are already somewhat suspicious of the personal integrity and political honor of those who receive their incomes from railways or electric lighting plants; and the odor of gas stocks is unmistakable. Even the land, once the retreat of high birth and serene dignity, is beginning to exhale a miasma of corruption. “Enriched by unearned increment”—who wishes such an epitaph? A convention is to be held in a western city in this very year, to announce to the world that the delegates and their constituencies—all honest lovers of mankind—will refuse in future to recognize any private title to land or other natural resources. Holders of such property, by continuing to be such, will place themselves beyond the pale of human society, and will forfeit all claim to sympathy when the day dawns for the universal confiscation of land.


The existence of categories of property interests resting under a growing weight of social disapprobation, is giving rise to a series of problems in private ethics that seem almost to demand a rehabilitation of the art of casuistry. A very intelligent and conscientious lady of the writer’s acquaintance became possessed, by inheritance, of a one-fourth interest in a Minneapolis building the ground floor of which is occupied by a saloon. Her first endeavor was to persuade her partners to secure a cancellation of the liquor dealer’s lease. This they refused to do, on the ground that the building in question is, by location, eminently suited to its present use, but very ill suited to any other; and that, moreover, the lessee would immediately reopen his business on the opposite corner. To yield to their partner’s desire would therefore result in a reduction of their own profits, but would advance the public welfare not one whit. Disheartened by her partners’ obstinacy, my friend is seeking to dispose of her interest in the building. As she is willing to incur a heavy sacrifice in order to get rid of her complicity in what she considers an unholy business, the transfer will doubtless soon be made. Her soul will be lightened of the profits from property put to an anti-social use. But the property will still continue in such use, and profits from it will still accrue to someone with a soul to lose or to save.

In her fascinating book, Twenty Years at Hull House, Miss Jane Addams tells of a visit to a western state where she had invested a sum of money in farm mortgages. “I was horrified,” she says, “by the wretched conditions among the farmers, which had resulted from a long period of drought, and one forlorn picture was fairly burned into my mind…. The farmer’s wife [was] a picture of despair, as she stood in the door of the bare, crude house, and the two children behind her, whom she vainly tried to keep out of sight, continually thrust forward their faces, almost covered by masses of coarse, sunburned hair, and their little bare feet so black, so hard, the great cracks so filled with dust, that they looked like flattened hoofs. The children could not be compared to anything so joyous as satyrs, although they appeared but half-human. It seemed to me quite impossible to receive interest from mortgages upon farms which might at any season be reduced to such conditions, and with great inconvenience to my agent and doubtless with hardship to the farmers, as speedily as possible I withdrew all my investment.” And thereby made the supply of money for such farmers that much less and consequently that much dearer. This is quite a fair example of much current philanthropy.

We may safely assume that, however much this action may have lightened Miss Addams’s conscience, it did not lighten the burden of debt upon the farmer, or make the periodic interest payments less painful, and it certainly did put them to the trouble and contingent expenses of a new mortgage. The moral burden was shifted, to the ease of the philanthropist, and this seems to exhaust the sum of the good results of one well intentioned deed. Do they outweigh the bad ones?

So, doubtless, there are among our friends persons who, upon proof that factories in which they have been interested pay starvation wages, have withdrawn their investments. And others who, stumbling upon a state legislature among the productive assets of a railway corporation, have sold their bonds and invested the proceeds elsewhere. It is a modern way of obeying the injunction, “Sell all thou hast and follow me.” And not a very painful way, since the irreproachable investments pay almost, if not quite, as well as those that are suspect.

It is not, however, impossible to conceive of a property owner driven from one position to another, in order to satisfy this new requirement of the social conscience, without ever finding peace. Miss Addams put the money withdrawn from those hideous farm mortgages into a flock of “innocent looking sheep.” Alas, they were not so innocent as they seemed. “The sight of two hundred sheep with four rotting hoofs each was not reassuring to one whose conscience craved economic peace. A fortunate series of sales of mutton, wool and farm enabled the partners to end the enterprise without loss.” Sales of mutton? Let us hope those eight hundred infected hoofs are well printed on the butcher’s conscience.

And the net result of all these moral strivings? The evil investments still continue to be evil, and still yield profits. Doubtless they rest, in the end, upon less sensitive consciences. Marvellous moral gain!


We are bound to the wheel, say the sociological fatalists. All our efforts are of no avail; the Wheel revolves as it was destined. Not so. Our strivings for purity in investments, puny as may be their results in the individual instance, may compose a sum that is imposing in its effectiveness. How their influence may be exerted will best appear from an analogy.

It is a settled conviction among Americans of Puritan antecedents, and among all other Americans, native born or alien, that have come under Puritan influence, that the dispensing of alcoholic beverages is a degrading function. This conviction has not, to be sure, notably impaired the performance of the function. But it has none the less produced a striking effect. It has set apart for the function in question those elements in the population that place the lowest valuation upon the esteem of the public, and that are, on the whole, least worthy of it. In consequence the American saloon is, by common consent, the very worst institution of its kind in the world. Such is the immediate result of good intentions working by the method of excommunication of a trade.

This degradation of the personnel and the institution proceeds at an accelerated rate as public opinion grows more bitter. In the end the evil becomes so serious, so intimately associated with all other evils, social and political, that you hear men over their very cups rise to proclaim, with husky voices, “The saloon must go!” At this point the community is ripe for prohibition: accordingly, it would seem that the initial stages in the process, unpleasant as were their consequences, were not ill-advised, after all. But prohibition does not come without a political struggle, in which the enemy, selected for brazenness and schooled in corruption, employs methods that leave lasting scars upon the body politic. And even when vanquished, the enemy retreats into the morasses of “unenforcible laws,” to conduct a guerilla warfare that knows no rules. Let us grant that the ultimate gain is worth all it costs: are we sure that we have taken the best possible means to achieve our ends?

In the poorer quarters of most great American cities, there is much property that it is difficult for a man to hold without losing the respect of the enlightened. Old battered tenements, dingy and ill lighted tumbledown shacks, the despair of the city reformer. Let us say that the proximity of gas tanks or noisy railways or smoky factories consign such quarters to the habitation of the very poor. Quite possibly, then, the replacement of the existing buildings by better ones would represent a heavy financial loss. The increasing social disapprobation of property vested in such wretched forms leads to the gradual substitution of owners who hold the social approval in contempt, for those who manifest a certain degree of sensitiveness. The tenants certainly gain nothing from the change. What is more likely to happen, is a screwing up of rents, an increasing promptness of evictions. Public opinion will in the end be roused against the landlords; the more timid among them will sell their holdings to others not less ruthless, but bolder and more astute. Attempts at public regulation will be fought with infinitely greater resourcefulness than could possibly have been displayed by respectable owners. Perhaps the final outcome will be that more drastic regulations are adopted than would have been the case had the shifting in ownership not taken place. There would still remain the possibility of the evasion of the law, and it is not at all improbable that the progress in the technique of evasion would outstrip the progress in regulation, thus leaving the tenant with a balance of disadvantage from the process as a whole.

The most illuminating instance of a business interest subjected first to excommunication—literally—and then to outlawry, is that of the usurer, or, in modern parlance, the loan shark. To the mediæval mind there was something distinctly immoral in an income from property devoted to the furnishing of personal loans. We need not stop to defend the mediæval position or to attack it; all that concerns us here is that an opportunity for profit—that is, a potential property interest—was outlawed. In consequence it became impossible for reputable citizens to engage in the business. Usury therefore came to be monopolized by aliens, exempt from the current ethical formulation, who were “protected,” for a consideration, by the prince, just as dubious modern property interests may be protected by the political boss.

Let us summarize the results of eight hundred years of experience in this method of dealing with the usurer’s trade. The business shifted from the control of citizens to that of aliens; from the hands of those who were aliens merely in a narrow, national sense, to the hands of those who are alien to our common humanity. Such lawless, tricky, extortionate loan sharks as now infest our cities were probably not to be found at all in mediæval or early modern times. They are a product of a secular process of selection. Their ability to evade the laws directed against them is consummate. It is true that from time to time we do succeed in catching one and fining him, or even imprisoning him. For which risk the small borrower is forced to pay, at a usurer’s rate.

Social improvement through the excommunication of property interests is inevitably a disorderly process. Wherever it is in operation we are sure to find the successive stages indicated in the foregoing examples. First, a gradual substitution of the conscienceless property holder for the one responsive to public sentiment. Next, under the threat of hostile popular action, the timid and resourceless property owner gives way to the resourceful and the bold. The third stage in the process is a vigorous political movement towards drastic regulation or abolition, evoking a desperate attempt on the part of the interests threatened to protect themselves by political means—that is, by gross corruption; or, if the menaced interest is a vast one, dominating a defensible territory, by armed rebellion, as in our own Civil War. If the interest is finally overwhelmed politically, and placed completely under the ban of the law, it has been given ample time to develop an unscrupulousness of personnel and an art of corruption that long enable it to exist illegally, a lasting reproach to the constituted authorities.


Suppression of anti-social interests by the methods in vogue amounts to little more than their banishment to the underworld. And we can well imagine the joy with which the denizens of the underworld receive such new accessions to their numbers and power. For in the nature of the case, it is inevitable that all varieties of outcasts and outlaws should join forces. The religious schismatic makes common cause with the pariah; the political offender with the thief and robber. Such association of elements vastly increases the difficulty of repressing crime. The band of thieves and robbers in the cave of Adullam doubtless found their powers of preying vastly increased through the acquisition of such a leader as David. The problem of mediæval vagabondage was rendered well-nigh incapable of solution by the fact that any beggar’s rags might conceal a holy but excommunicated friar.

Let us once more review our experience with the usurer. As an outcast he offers his support to other outcasts, and is in turn supported by them. The pawnbroker and the pickpocket are closely allied: without the pawnshop, pocketpicking would offer but a precarious living; without the picking of pockets, many pawnshops would find it impossible to meet expenses. The salary loan shark often works hand in glove with the professional gambler; each procures victims for the other. The “hole-in-the-wall” or “blind tiger” provides a rendezvous for all the outcasts of society. “Boot-legging” is a common subsidiary occupation for the pander, the thief and the cracksman. Where it flourishes, it serves to bridge over many a period of slack trade. Franchises whose validity is subject to political attack, bring to the aid of the underworld some of the most powerful interests in the community. The police are almost helpless when confronted by a coalition of persons of wealth and respectability with professional politicians commanding a motley array of yeggs and thugs, pimps and card-sharpers.

Let us suppose that the developing social conscience places under the ban receipt of private income from land and other natural resources, and that a powerful movement aiming at the confiscation of such resources is under way. It is superfluous to point out that the vast interests threatened would offer a desperate resistance. The warfare against an incomparably lesser interest, the liquor trade, has taxed all the resources of the modern democratic state—on the whole the most absolute political organization known. In no instance has the state come out of the struggle completely victorious; the proscribed interest is yielding ground, if at all, only very slowly. What, then, would be the outcome of a struggle against the vastly greater landed interest? Perhaps the state would be victorious in the end. But for generations the landed interest would survive, if not by title of common law, at least by title of common corruption. And in the course of the conflict, we can not doubt that political disorder would flourish as never before, and that under its shelter private vice and crime would develop almost unchecked.

We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that the will of a mere majority is absolute in the state. The law is a reality only when the outlawed interests represent an insignificant minority. Arbitrarily to increase the outlawed interests is to undermine the very foundations of society.


The trend of the foregoing discussion, it will be said, is reactionary in the extreme. There are, as all must admit, private interests that are prejudicial to the public interest. Are they to be left in possession of the privilege of trading upon the public disaster—entrenching themselves, rendering still more difficult the future task of the reformer? By no means. The writer opposes no criticism to the extinction of anti-social private interests; on the contrary, he would have the state proceed against them with far greater vigor than it has hitherto displayed. It is important, however, to be sure first that a private interest is anti-social. Then the question is merely one of method. It is the author’s contention that the method of excommunication and outlawry is the very worst conceivable.

We are wont to hold up to scorn the British method of compensating liquor sellers for licenses revoked. It is an expensive method. But let us weigh its corresponding advantages. The licensee does not find himself in a position in which he must choose between personal destitution and the public interest. He dares not employ methods of resistance that would subject him to the risk of forfeiting the right to compensation. He may resist by fair means, but if he is intelligent, he will keep his skirts clear of foul. If his establishment is closed, he is not left, a ruined and desperate man, to project methods for carrying on his trade illicitly. On the contrary, the act of compensation has placed in his hands funds in which he might be mulcted if convicted of violation of the law. And if natural perversity should drive him to illegal practices, he would not find himself an object of sympathy on the part of that considerable minority that resent injustice even to those whom they regard as evil-doers.

There can be little doubt that by the adoption of the principle of adequate compensation, an American commonwealth could extinguish any property interest that majority opinion pronounces anti-social. We may have industries that menace the public health. Under existing conditions the interests involved exert themselves to the utmost to suppress information relative to the dangers of such industries. With the principle of compensation in operation, these very interests would be the foremost in exposing the evils in question. It is no hardship to sell your interest to the public. Does any one feel aggrieved when the public decides to appropriate his land to a public use? On the contrary, every possessor of a site at all suited for a public building or playground does everything in his power to display its advantages in the most favorable light.

And with this we have admitted a disadvantage of the compensation principle—over-compensation. We do pay excessively for property rights extinguished in the public interest. But this is largely because the principle is employed with such relative infrequency that we have not as yet developed a technique of compensation. German cities have learned how to acquire property for public use without either plundering the private owner or excessively enriching him. The British application of the Small Holdings Acts has duly protected the interests of the large landholder, without making of him a vociferous champion of the Acts.

Progressive public morality readers one private interest after another indefensible. Let the public extinguish such interests, by all means. But let the public be moral at its own expense.

A revolting doctrine, it will be said. Because men have been permitted, through gross defect in the laws, to build up interests in dealing out poisons to the public, are they to be compensated, like the purveyors of wholesome products, when the public decrees that their destructive activities shall cease? Because a corrupt legislature once gave away valuable franchises, are we and our children, and our children’s children, forever to pay tribute, in the shape of interest on compensation funds, to the heirs of the shameless grantees? Because the land of a country was parcelled out, in a lawless age, among the unworthy retainers of a predatory prince, must we forever pay rent on every loaf we eat—as we should do, in fact, even if we transformed great landed estates into privately held funds? Did we not abolish human slavery, without compensation, and is there any one to question the justice of the act?

We did indeed extinguish slavery without compensation to the slave owners. But if no one had ever conceived of such a policy we should have been a richer nation and a happier one. We paid for the slaves, in blood and treasure, many times the sum that would have made every slave owner eager to part with his slaves. Such enrichment of the slave owner would have been an act of social injustice, it may be said. The saying would be open to grave doubt, but the doctrine here advanced runs, not in terms of justice, but in terms of social expediency.

And expediency is commonly regarded as a cheap substitute for justice. It is wrongly so regarded. Social justice, as usually conceived, looks to the past for its validity. Its preoccupation is the correction of ancient wrongs. Social expediency looks to the future: its chief concern is the prevention of future wrongs. As a guide to political action, the superiority of the claims of social expediency is indisputable.


In the foregoing argument it has been deliberately assumed that the interests to be extinguished are, for the most part, universally recognized as anti-social. Slavery, health-destroying adulteration, the maintenance of tenements that menace life and morals, these at least represent interests so abominable that all must agree upon the wisdom of extinguishing them. The only point in dispute must be one of method. It is the contention of the present writer that when even such interests have had time to become clothed with an appearance of regularity, the method of extinction should be through compensation. By its tolerance of such interests, the public has made itself an accomplice in the mischief to which they give rise, and accordingly has not even an equitable right to throw the whole responsibility upon the private persons concerned.

Interests thus universally recognized to be evil are necessarily few. In the vast majority of cases the establishment of interests we now seek to proscribe took place in an epoch in which no evil was imputed to them. At first a small minority, usually regarded as fanatics, attack the interests in question. This minority increases, and in the end transforms itself into a majority. But long after majority opinion has become adverse, there remains a vigorous minority opinion defending the menaced interests. A hundred years ago the distilling of spirituous liquors was almost universally regarded as an entirely legitimate industry. The enemies of the industry were few and of no political consequence. Today in many communities the industry is utterly condemned by majority opinion. There is, however, no community in which a minority honestly defending the industry is absolutely wanting. Admitting that the majority opinion is right, it remains none the less true that adherents of the minority opinion would regard themselves as most grievously wronged if the majority proceeded to a destruction of their interests.

Where moral issues alone are involved, we may perhaps accept the view that the well considered opinion of the majority is as near as may be to infallibility. But it is very rarely the case that the question of the legitimacy of a property interest can be reduced to a purely moral issue. Usually there are also at stake, technical and broad economic issues in which majority judgment is notoriously fallible. Thus we have at times had large minorities who believed that the bank as an institution is wholly evil, and ought to be abolished. This was the majority opinion in one period of the history of Texas, and in accordance with it, established banking interests were destroyed by law. It is only within the last fifteen years that the majority of the citizens of that commonwealth have admitted the error of the earlier view.

In the course of the last twenty-five years, notable progress has been made in the art of preserving perishable foods through refrigeration. There are differences of opinion as to the effect upon the public health of food so preserved; and further differences as to the effect of the cold storage system upon the cost of living. On neither the physiological nor the economic questions involved is majority opinion worthy of special consideration. None the less, legislative measures directed against the storage interests have been seriously considered in a large number of states, and were it not for the difficulties inherent in the regulation of interstate commerce, we should doubtless see the practice of cold storage prohibited in some jurisdictions. Those whose property would thus be destroyed would accept their losses with much bitterness, in view of the fact that the weight of expert opinion holds their industry to be in the public interest.

What still further exacerbates the feeling of injury on the part of those whose interests are proscribed, is the fact that the purity of motives of the persons most active in the campaign of proscription is not always clear. Not many years ago we had a thriving manufacture of artificial butter. The persons engaged in the industry claimed that their product was as wholesome as that produced according to the time-honored process, and that its cheapness promised an important advance in the adequate provisioning of the people. We destroyed the industry, very largely because of our strong bent toward conservatism in all matters pertaining to the table. But among the influences that were most active in taxing artificial butter out of existence, was the competing dairymen’s interest.

It is asserted by those who would shift the whole burden of taxation onto land that they are animated by the most unselfish motives, whereas their opponents are defending their selfish interests alone. Yet a common Single Tax appeal to the large manufacturer and the small house-owner takes the form of a computation demonstrating that those classes would gain more through the reduction in the burden on improvements than they would lose through increase in burden on the land. Let it be granted that personal advantage is not incompatible with purity of motives. The association of ideas does not, however, inspire confidence, especially in the breasts of those whose interests are threatened.

Extinction of property interests without compensation necessarily makes our legislative bodies the battleground of conflicting interests. Honest motives are combined with crooked ones in the attack upon an interest; crooked and honest motives combine in its defense. Out of the disorder issues a legislative determination that may be in the public interest or may be prejudicial to it. And most likely the law is inadequately supported by machinery of enforcement: it is effective in controlling the scrupulous; to the unscrupulous it is mere paper. In many instances its net effect is only to increase the risks connected with the conduct of a business.

When England prohibited importation of manufactures from France, the import trade continued none the less, under the form of smuggling. The risk of seizure was merely added to the risk of fire and flood. Just as one could insure against the latter risks, so the practice arose of insuring against seizure. At one time, at any rate, in the French ports were to be found brokers who would insure the evasion of a cargo of goods for a premium of fifteen per cent. At the safe distance of a century and a half, the absurd prohibition and its incompetent administration are equally comic. At the time, however, there was nothing comic in the contempt for law and order thus engendered, in the feeling of outrage on the part of those ruined by seizures, and in the alliance of respectable merchants with the thieves and footpads enlisted for the smuggling trade.


It is a common observation of present day social reformers that an excessive regard is displayed by our governmental organs for security of property, while security of non-property rights is neglected. And this would indeed be a serious indictment of the existing order if there were in fact a natural antithesis between the security of property and security of the person. There is, however, no such antithesis. In the course of history the establishment of security of property has, as a rule, preceded the establishment of personal security, and has provided the conditions in which personal security becomes possible. Adequate policing is essential to any form of security. Property can pay for policing; the person can not. This is a crude and materialistic interpretation of the facts, but it is essentially sound.

How much personal security existed in England, five centuries and a half ago, when it was possible for Richard to carve his way through human flesh to the throne? The lowly, certainly, enjoyed no greater security than the high born. How much personal security exists in the late Macedonian provinces of the Turkish Empire, or in northern Mexico? It is safe to issue a challenge to all the world to produce an instance, contemporary or historical, of a country in which property is insecure and in which human life and human happiness are not still more insecure. On the other hand, it is difficult to produce an instance of a state in which security of property has long been established, in which there is not a progressive sensitiveness about the non-propertied rights of man. It is in the countries where the sacredness of private property is a fetich, that one finds recognition of a universal right to education, of a right to protection against violence and against epidemic disease, of a right to relief in destitution. These are perhaps meagre rights; but they represent an expanding category. The right to support in time of illness and in old age is making rapid progress. The development of such rights is not only not incompatible with security of property, but it is, in large measure, a corollary of property security. Personal rights shape themselves upon the analogy of property rights; they utilize the same channels of thought and habit. One of the most powerful arguments for “social insurance” is its very name. Insurance is recognized as an essential to the security of property; it is therefore easy to make out a case for the application of the principle to non-propertied claims.

Some may claim that the security of property has now fulfilled its mission; that we can safely allow the principle to decay in order to concentrate our attention upon the task of establishing non-propertied rights. But let us remember that we are not removed from barbarism by the length of a universe. The crust of orderly civilization is deep under our feet: but not six hundred years deep. The primitive fires still smoke on our Mexican borders and in the Balkans. And blow holes open from time to time through our own seemingly solid crust—in Colorado, in West Virginia, in the Copper Country. It is evidently premature to affirm that the security of property has fulfilled its mission.


The question at issue, is not, however, the rights of property against the rights of man—or more honestly—the rights of labor. The claims of labor upon the social income may advance at the expense of the claims of property. In the institutional struggle between the propertied and the propertyless, the sympathies of the writer are with the latter party. It is his hope and belief that an ever increasing share of the social income will assume the form of rewards for personal effort.

But this is an altogether different matter from the crushing of one private property interest after another, in the name of the social welfare or the social morality. Such detailed attacks upon property interests are, in the end, to the injury of both social classes. Frequently they amount to little more than a large loss to one property interest, and a small gain to another. They increase the element of insecurity in all forms of property; for who shall say which form is immune from attack? Now it is the slum tenement, obvious corollary of our social inequalities; next it may be the marble mansion or gilded hotel, equally obvious corollaries of the same institutional situation. Now it is the storage of meat that is under attack; it may next be the storage of flour. The fact is, our mass of income yielding possessions is essentially an organic whole. The irreproachable incomes are not exactly what they would be if those subject to reproach did not exist. If some property incomes are dirty, all property incomes become turbid.

The cleansing of property incomes, therefore, is a first obligation of the institution of property as a whole. The compensation principle throws the cost of the cleansing upon the whole mass, since, in the last analysis, any considerable burden of taxation will distribute itself over the mass. The principle is therefore consonant with justice. What is not less important, the principle, systematically developed, would go far toward freeing the legislature from the graceless function of arbitrating between selfish interests, and the administration from the necessity of putting down powerful interests outlawed by legislative act. It would give us a State working smoothly, and therefore an efficient instrument for social ends. Most important of all, it would promote that security of economic interests which is essential to social progress.