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Home | Mises Library | The Philosophy of Strikes

The Philosophy of Strikes

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Tags Free MarketsOther Schools of ThoughtProduction Theory

01/01/2010William Graham Sumner

[This essay first appeared in Harper's Weekly, September 15, 1883. It was republished in the collection On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner.]


The progress in material comfort which has been made during the last hundred years has not produced content. Quite the contrary — the men of today are not nearly so contented with life on earth as their ancestors were. This observation is easily explainable by familiar facts in human nature.

If satisfaction does not reach to the pitch of satiety, it does not produce content, but discontent; it is therefore a stimulus to more effort, and is essential to growth. If, however, we confine our study of the observation which we have made to its sociological aspects, we perceive that all which we call "progress" is limited by the countermovements it creates, and we also see the true meaning of the phenomena which have led some to the crude and silly absurdity that progress makes us worse off.

Progress certainly does not make people happier, unless their mental and moral growth corresponds to the greater command of material comfort which they win. All that we call progress is a simple enlargement of chances, and the question of personal happiness is a question of how the chances will be used. It follows that if men do not grow in their knowledge of life and in their intelligent judgment of the rules of right living as rapidly as they gain control over physical resources, they will not win happiness at all. They will simply accumulate chances which they do not know how to use.

The observation which has just been made about individual happiness has also a public or social aspect which is important. It is essential that the political institutions, the social code, and the accepted notions which constitute public opinion should develop in equal measure with the increase of power over nature. The penalty of failure to maintain due proportion between the popular philosophy of life and the increase of material comfort will be social convulsions, which will arrest civilization and will subject the human race to such a reaction toward barbarism as that which followed the fall of the Roman Empire.

It is easy to see that at the present moment our popular philosophy of life is all in confusion. The old codes are breaking down; new ones are not yet made; and even among people of standing, to whom we must look to establish the body of public opinion, we hear the most contradictory and heterogeneous doctrines about life and society.

The growth of the United States has done a great deal to break up the traditional codes and creeds which had been adopted in Europe. The civilized world being divided into two parts, one old and densely populated and the other new and thinly populated, social phenomena have been produced which, although completely covered by the same laws of social force, have appeared to be contradictory. The effect has been to disturb and break up the faith of philosophers and students in the laws, and to engender numberless fallacies among those who are not careful students.

The popular judgment especially has been disordered and misled. The new country has offered such chances as no generation of men has ever had before. It has not, however, enabled any man to live without work, or to keep capital without thrift and prudence; it has not enabled a man to "rise in the world" from a position of ignorance and poverty, and at the same time to marry early, spend freely, and bring up a large family of children.

The men of this generation, therefore, without distinction of class, and with only individual exceptions, suffer from the discontent of an appetite excited by a taste of luxury, but held far below satiety. The power to appreciate a remote, future good, in comparison with a present one, is a distinguishing mark of highly civilized men, but if it is not combined with powers of persevering industry and self-denial, it degenerates into mere daydreaming and the diseases of an overheated imagination.

If any number of persons are of this character, we have morbid discontent and romantic ambition as social traits. Our literature, especially our fiction, bears witness to the existence of classes who are corrupted by these diseases of character. We find classes of persons who are whining and faultfinding, and who use the organs of public discussion and deliberation in order to put forth childish complaints and impossible demands, while they philosophize about life like the Arabian Nights. Of course this whole tone of thought and mode of behavior is as far as possible from the sturdy manliness which meets the problems of life and wins victories as much by what it endures as by what it conquers.

Our American life, by its ease, exerts another demoralizing effect on a great many of us. Hundreds of our young people grow up without any real discipline; life is made easy for them, and their tastes and wishes are consulted too much; they grow to maturity with the notion that they ought to find the world only pleasant and easy.

Everyone knows this type of young person, who wants to find an occupation which he would "like," and who discusses the drawbacks of difficulty or disagreeableness in anything which offers. The point here referred to is, of course, entirely different from another and still more lamentable fact, that is, the terrible inefficiency and incapability of a great many of the people who are complaining and begging.

If anyone wants a copyist, he will be more saddened than annoyed by the overwhelming applications for the position. The advertisements which are to be found in the newspapers of widest circulation, offering a genteel occupation to be carried on at home, not requiring any previous training, by which two or three dollars a day may be earned, are a proof of the existence of a class to which they appeal. How many thousand people in the United States want just that kind of employment! What a beautiful world this would be if there were any such employment!

Then, again, our social ambition is often silly and mischievous. Our young people despise the occupations which involve physical effort or dirt, and they struggle "up" (as we have agreed to call it) into all the nondescript and irregular employments which are clean and genteel. Our orators and poets talk about the "dignity of labor," and neither they nor we believe in it.

Leisure, not labor, is dignified. Nearly all of us, however, have to sacrifice our dignity, and labor, and it would be to the purpose if, instead of declamation about dignity, we should learn to respect, in ourselves and each other, work which is good of its kind, no matter what the kind is. To spoil a good shoemaker in order to make a bad parson is surely not going "up"; and a man who digs well is by all sound criteria superior to the man who writes ill.

Everybody who talks to American schoolboys thinks that he does them and his country a service if he reminds them that each one of them has a chance to be president of the United States, and our literature is all the time stimulating the same kind of senseless social ambition, instead of inculcating the code and the standards which should be adopted by orderly, sober, and useful citizens.

The consequences of the observations which have now been grouped together are familiar to us all. Population tends from the country to the city. Mechanical and technical occupations are abandoned, and those occupations which are easy and genteel are overcrowded. Of course the persons in question must be allowed to take their own choice, and seek their own happiness in their own way, but it is inevitable that thousands of them should be disappointed and suffer.

If the young men abandon farms and trades to become clerks and bookkeepers, the consequence will be that the remuneration of the crowded occupations will fall, and that of the neglected occupations will rise; if the young women refuse to do housework, and go into shops, stores, telegraph offices and schools, the wages of the crowded occupations will fall, while those of domestic servants advance. If women in seeking occupation try to gain admission to some business like telegraphing, in competition with men, they will bid under the men. Similar effects would be produced if a leisure class in an old country should be compelled by some social convulsion to support themselves. They would run down the compensation for labor in the few occupations which they could enter.

Now the question is raised whether there is any remedy for the low wages of the crowded occupations, and the question answers itself: there is no remedy except not to continue the causes of the evil. To strike, that is, to say that the workers will not work in their chosen line, yet that they will not leave it for some other line, is simply suicide. Neither can any amount of declamation, nor even of law making, force a man who owns a business to submit the control of it to a man who does not own it.

The telegraphers have an occupation which requires training and skill, but it is one which is very attractive in many respects to those who seek manual occupation; it is also an occupation which is very suitable, at least in many of its branches, for women. The occupation is therefore capable of a limited monopoly. The demand that women should be paid equally with men is, on the face of it, just, but its real effect would be to keep women out of the business.

It was often said during the telegraphers' strike that the demand of the strikers was just, because their wages were less than those of artisans. The argument has no force at all. The only question was whether the current wages for telegraphing were sufficient to bring out an adequate supply of telegraphers. If the growing boys prefer to be artisans, the wages of telegraphers will rise. If, even at present rates, boys and girls continue to prefer telegraphing to handicraft or housework, the wages of telegraphers will fall.

Could, then, a strike advance at a blow the wages of all who are now telegraphers? There was only one reason to hope so, and that was that the monopoly of the trade might prove stringent enough and the public inconvenience great enough to force a concession — which would, however, have been speedily lost again by an increased supply of telegraphers.

Now let us ask what the state of the case would be if it was really possible for the telegraphers to make a successful strike. They have a very close monopoly; six years ago they nearly arrested the transportation of the country for a fortnight; but they were unable to effect their object. More recently the freight handlers struck against the competition of a new influx of foreign unskilled laborers, and in vain. The printers might make a combination, and try to force an advance in wages by arresting the publication of all the newspapers on a given day, but there are so many persons who could set type, in case of need, that such an attempt would be quite hopeless.

In any branch of ordinary handicraft there would be no possibility of creating a working monopoly or of producing a great public calamity by a strike. If we go on to other occupations we see that bookkeepers, clerks, and salesmen could not as a body combine and strike; much less could teachers do so; still less could household servants do so. Finally, farmers and other independent workers could not do it at all.

In short, a striker is a man who says, "I mean to get my living by doing this thing and no other thing as my share of the social effort, and I do not mean to do this thing except on such and such terms." He therefore proposes to make a contract with his fellowmen and to dictate the terms of it. Any man who can do this must be in a very exceptional situation; he must have a monopoly of the service in question, and it must be one of which his fellowmen have great need. If, then, the telegraphers could have succeeded in advancing their wages 15 percent simply because they had agreed to ask for the advance, they must have been far better off than any of the rest of their fellowmen.

Our fathers taught us the old maxim: Cut your coat according to your cloth; but the popular discussions of social questions seem to be leading up to a new maxim: Demand your cloth according to your coat. The fathers thought that a man in this world must do the best he could with the means he had, and that good training and education consisted in developing skill, sagacity, and thrift to use resources economically.

The new doctrine seems to be that if a man has been born into this world he should make up his mind what he needs here, formulate his demands, and present them to "society" or to the "state." He wants congenial and easy occupation, and good pay for it. He does not want to be hampered by any limitations such as come from a world in which wool grows, but not coats; in which iron ore is found, but not weapons and tools; in which the ground will produce wheat, but only after hard labor and self-denial; in which we cannot eat our cake and keep it; in which two and two make only four.

He wants to be guaranteed a "market," so as not to suffer from "overproduction." In private life and in personal relations we already estimate this way of looking at things at its true value, but as soon as we are called upon to deal with a general question, or a phenomenon of industry in which a number of persons are interested, we adopt an entirely conventional and unsound mode of discussion. The sound gospel of industry, prudence, painstaking, and thrift is, of course, unpopular; we all long to be emancipated from worry, anxiety, disappointment, and the whole train of cares which fall upon us as we work our way through the world.

Can we really gain anything in that struggle by organizing for a battle with each other? This is the practical question. Is there any ground whatever for believing that we shall come to anything, by pursuing this line of effort, which will be of any benefit to anybody?

If a man is dissatisfied with his position, let him strive to better it in one way or another by such chances as he can find or make, and let him inculcate in his children good habits and sound notions, so that they may live wisely and not expose themselves to hardship by error or folly; but every experiment only makes it more clear that for men to band together in order to carry on an industrial war, instead of being a remedy for disappointment in the ratio of satisfaction to effort, is only a way of courting new calamity.

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