11 February 2011

Freethought Friday #9: The Paradox of Wealth

(Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833 - 1890)

Usually I share a quotation regarding skepticism, 'the good life', or other such things...but tonight a bit of societal observation from "A Lay Sermon" caught my eye.

And now there is another trouble. Just as life becomes complex and as everyone is trying to accomplish certain objects, all the ingenuity of the brain is at work to get there by a shorter way, and, in consequence, this has become an age of invention. Myriads of machines have been invented -- every one of them to save labor. If these machines helped the laborer, what a blessing they would be! But the laborer does not own the machine; the machine owns him. That is the trouble. In the olden time, when I was a boy, even, you know how it was in the little towns. There was a shoemaker -- two of them -- a tailor or two, a blacksmith, a wheelwright. I remember just how the shops used to look. I used to go to the blacksmith shop at night, get up on the forge, and hear them talk about turning horse-shoes. Many a night have I seen the sparks fly and heard the stories that were told. There was a great deal of human nature in those days! Everybody was known. If times got hard, the poor little shoemakers made a living mending, half-soling, straightening up the heels. The same with the blacksmith; the same with the tailor. They could get credit -- they did not have to pay till the next January, and if they could not pay then, they took another year, and they were happy enough. Now one man is not a shoemaker. There is a great building -- several hundred thousand dollars' worth of machinery, three or four thousand people -- not a single mechanic in the whole building. One sews on straps, another greases the machines, cuts out soles, waxes threads. And what is the result? When the machines stop, three thousand men are out of employment, credit goes. Then come want and famine, and if they happen to have a little child die, it would take them years to save enough of their earnings to pay the expense of putting away that little sacred piece of flesh. And yet, by this machinery we can produce enough to flood the world. By the inventions in agricultural machinery the United States can feed all the mouths upon the earth. There is not a thing that man uses that can not instantly be over-produced to such an extent as to become almost worthless; and yet, with all this production, with all this power to create, there are millions and millions in abject want. Granaries bursting, and famine looking into the doors of the poor! Millions of everything, and yet millions wanting everything and having substantially nothing!
 Now, there is something wrong there. We have got into that contest between machines and men, and if extravagance does not keep pace with ingenuity, it is going to be the most terrible question that man has ever settled. I tell you, to-night, that these things are worth thinking about. Nothing that touches the future of our race, nothing that touches the happiness of ourselves or our children, should be beneath our notice. We should think of these things -- must think of them -- and we should endeavor to see that justice is finally done between man and man.

If you read the 'sermon' in full, you'll see Ingersoll condemn strikes and attempts at collectivization:  I don't know if I've used the description before, but he's a man living in the 19th century and who tries to realize the "24th century" through 18th century means. Though a raging liberal for his time, Ingersoll was cut from the same clothe as Thomas Jefferson and so on -- he believed the Republic was best served by a nation of family farmers and small business owners, curious given that much of his living came from drawing documents for corporations -- including the railroads that took advantage of all those family farmers and led to the Grange movement.  He seems to want people to behave and accomplish change in an orderly manner, through the ballot box....but even in his era machine politics had already taken over.

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