Mind Your Own Business.
Or, ARE YOU A ROBOT?
'And stab my spirit broad awake!'
R. L. STEVENSON: The Celestial Surgeon.
'Just the same fine sort of fellows they were, agreeably dull-witted, as sent hundreds of thousands of Englishmen to cruel and useless deaths in France.' - H. G. WELLS.
What is your business? All business is your business. You may produce only one thing; but you buy many things. Food, clothing, houseroom, fuel, light, streets and roads, the means of locomotion and transport - they are all your business. That you should work hard at one thing by which you make a livelihood, and then allow yourself to be robbed at every turn, not so much by any glaring individual turpitude as by the faults and costs of chaotic and wasteful methods of production and supply, is a fool’s game. Yet that is the position of the man who myopically gives his attention to making money, and takes no heed of how his life is wasted in earning the wherewithal merely to pay his way, so that the end comes to most of us before we have given ourselves a chance to live.
The Main Chance.
If you are a man who mind ‘your own business’ according to current standards, you will probably scoff more or less at politicians of all schools, and you will give your thoughts to what you consider ‘the main chance.’ You will plume yourself upon the fact that you are not ‘deceived’ by either Stanley Baldwin, or Lloyd George, or Ramsay MacDonald; and as regards local politics, you will have an easy contempt for the members of your town council, county council, and education authority.
What will ‘They’ Do?
If you are a working man you will perhaps belong to your trade union because it is sometimes easier to belong to a union than not, and you are the kind of man who takes the line of least resistance. To be sure, you may be shrewd enough to see that it is the best organised callings that have the best wages (such as the close corporations of lawyers and doctors, where the non-unionist is not allowed); and in order to preserve the position won, you may realise the necessity of keeping up your union membership. But if you are an average man you will not be a trade union official. And if you are not, the chances are you will refer to the executive of your union as ‘they,’ as if the men you have elected had become a class apart, whom you expected to get things done for you without any co-operation or assistance on your part. You do not even regard them as particularly competent, while, as regards motives, you view them as just men like yourself, studying the main chance, and accepting official position for the sake of the salary, which is the one consideration that would tempt you to accept it. You will not for a moment believe that they are actuated by any large or disinterested desire to serve their fellow men in general and the members of their craft in particular. I have myself been a trade union branch secretary for a salary that was neither here nor there, and I know that the few pounds a-year was the least thing that appealed to me in doing work for which the salary was a ridiculously inadequate return. Even you know in your mind of minds that a trade union secretary who still continues to work at his trade is a more or less marked man, and that that of itself would be the chief reason why you would not have taken the job even in the unlikely event of its having been offered you. I say ‘the unlikely event,’ because I assume that you would not be particularly forward in matters affecting the general wellbeing.
Public Work, Valuable but Unvalued.
As regards politicians and members of local boards, you know that these are needed and wanted; that the community and the nation have to be run and that men are needed to do it. But as a reason for not being forward in politics, you contrive to persuade yourself that the men who take office do so because they like public work. And as you don’t; you assume the account is squared when you give them your vote and turn to your private amusements or money-making. You have no gratitude to the men who serve you in unsalaried office, and the reason must be that you set store by the ‘honour’ you confer upon them, and persuade yourself that they do the same.
It is an honour - a moral honour. Whoever gives the public his time, and therefore his money, for nothing acquires the double honour of conferring a disinterested service and taking part in work which, if well done, is more important than any kind of work for self, since the man who works for the public is working disinterestedly for the many, while the man who works for himself and his family is working self-regardingly. To borrow a simile from trade, the former is a disinterested wholesaler, the latter an interested retailer.
The public business is your business. You are one of the public. You have no moral right to expect service for nothing if you are not prepared to render such service yourself. You may not have the ability; but are you sure you have the will? The one so often depends on the other. Do not lay the consolatory unction to your soul that the public man finds public business pay him. There are men with good businesses who take part in public work; but their business, believe me, always suffers. If they retain their clientèle it will be in spite of their public work.
The Cost of Public Spirit.
Lord Asquith, who had a splendid practice at the bar before he took up politics, has just had to have a pension made up for him by his admirers. But he gave the old folk a pension as a matter of right from the State. Richard Cobden failed in business, and John Bright’s firm is reputed to have been more than once in difficulties. But Bright and Cobden did more between them to reduce the cost of living than all the rest of the nation together. Mr. Stanley Baldwin said he was living on his capital; and while I think he is a slack and dear servant at £5000 a-year, I recognise that the many years he has given to public work may have something to do with the fact that his business does not pay. Gladstone married the heiress of an encumbered property, and for all his financial ability, the estate continued to be encumbered; for his financial ability was displayed in the public service and not in the concerns of the Hawarden estate. Earl Balfour inherited a fortune: he never would have made it. Disraeli married money made by obscure people who neither wrote books nor governed a State, as he did. When William Pitt could not pay his coachbuilder’s account he ordered a new carriage. Burke was a poor man all his life.
Sheridan was both bankrupt and had a fire - Drury Lane Theatre no less. When, on seeking to draw near the burning building, he was pushed back by a soldier, he said, ‘You might let a man warm himself at his own fire!’
Charles Stewart Parnell, as leader of the Irish Nationalists, was a party to the promulgation of the Plan of Campaign, which included a No-Rent Manifesto, although he was a landlord. Asked by a reporter how the Plan was going, he answered that he did not know how it was going generally, but that his own tenants had, to a man, refused to pay their rents.
So that if you think men go into politics for money, there would seem to be plenty of reason why you should alter your opinion and consider whether there may not be motives of social service and public-spiritedness which are none the less real because they never exactly inspired you. Everybody can and ought to help. In the palmy days of Greece the person who took no part in public affairs was called idiotees, original of our word ‘idiot.’ With the inevitable increase of civic work, the number of public representatives must be immensely increased, and even now the quality is not even reasonably good.
Social Progress Hangs Fire.
I dwell on this matter of public spirit because it is the highest virtue and the rarest. Social adjustment in the interests of the general community everywhere hangs fire because the average man is an Individualist in practice, even when he has declared for the principles of the Labour Party. He is what he calls a rank-and-file member. It is easy to secure Parliamentary candidates, because there is both a salary and a recognised social status. The work of local government, however, goes a-begging, because it takes much time, has no pecuniary rewards, and carries no particular social status with it. Seats in the local bodies are largely left to shopkeepers and members of the building trades, whose motives tend to be reactionary rather than progressive.
There are now many centres which are represented in Parliament by Labour members returned with substantial majorities; but in the same constituencies it is rare to find, as might reasonably be expected, that Labour has a majority on the local bodies. Even Glasgow, which in imperial politics votes overwhelmingly Labour, does not return a Labour majority to the City Council. The reason is that men can be induced to take imperial politics seriously and equip themselves for public work, because Parliamentary membership is regarded as a career, while the at least equally important business of local government offers no corresponding temptation.
The Great Shoal.
This lack of good citizenship is the shoal upon which the Collectivist movement tends to be stranded. I write to claim that the public business is every man’s business, and that there can be no efficient social organization unless and until we can inspire the average man with the idea that local civic business is worthy of the best attention of the best minds among us. One is glad to think that Lord Rosebery did not disdain to be the first chairman of the London County Council, and that John Burns, Sidney Webb, and George Bernard Shaw have all taken part in local government.
We have to get out of our heads the idea that Collectivist representation must needs be a professional career, followed only by men who make a whole-time job of it. Parliament may pass any amount of legislation granting optional powers to local authorities; but if these remain constituted as at present that legislation will not be applied.
We see this particularly in regard to housing. England spent last year on subsidised house-building some 22½ millions, whereas Scotland, whose building arrears were much heavier, spent only 1½ millions. I am not in favour of subsidies; but if subsidies are going, communities are not doing themselves justice if they do not spend their quota, since they will have to find the money in taxation all the same. The fault of the Dutch was in giving too little and asking too much, but Scotland’s lethargy places her in fault in the opposite way. Her share of imperial taxation is roughly an eighth; but for housing she took about a fifteenth, and this is typical of the proportion of public money she secures for local purposes.
The elections are once again at hand, and nothing is so necessary as to point out that municipally Scotland is asleep. She sends her very full proportion of Labour legislators to Westminster. Indeed there is such a scarcity of good municipal candidates that it looks as if she had made too many M.P.s and drained off too much talent. England has also her leeway to make up; but it is nothing like so big as that of Scotland. Municipally Scotland is relatively stagnant. There is, for one thing, nothing in the north here resembling the English Municipal Sunday. Since ever I can remember, moreover, housing has always been a fairly live issue in English municipal politics; but it is only since the war that Scotland has taken any interest in housing, and it is very much of a minus quantity still. It is disgraceful to find numbers of well-to-do people here who do not even now understand anything about the subsidies. People who buy from a speculative builder a house on which £1oo of subsidy has been paid are greatly astonished when they are told that the general community has helped to pay part of the purchase price of their house.
PART TWO NEXT MONTH
To find past articles please use monthly archives.