One further illustration to the same ethic. A very long time ago there lived in a poor village, a carpenter, who was a philosopher, as all my heroes are in their way. James worked from morning till night with his two strong arms, but his brain was not idle for all that. He was fond of reviewing his actions, their causes, and their effects. He sometimes said to himself, “With my hatchet, my saw, and my hammer, I can make only coarse furniture, and can only get the pay for such. If I only had a plane, I should please my customers more, and they would pay me more. But this is all right; I can only expect services proportioned to those which I render myself. Yes! I am resolved, I will make myself a plane.”
However, just as he was setting to work, James reflected further: “I work for my customers 300 days in the year. If I give ten to making my plane, supposing it lasts me a year, only 290 days will remain for me to make my furniture. Now, in order that I be not the loser in this matter, I must earn henceforth, with the help of the plane, as much in 290 days as I now do in 300. I must even earn more; for unless I do so, it would not be worth my while to venture upon any innovations,” James began to calculate. He satisfied himself that he should sell his finished furniture at a price which would amply compensate him for the ten days devoted to the plane; and when no doubt remained in his mind on this point, he set to work. I beg the reader to note, that the power that exists in the tool to increase the productiveness of labor, is the basis for the successful solution of the experiment that James the carpenter proposed to make.
At the end of ten days, James had in his possession an admirable plane, which he valued all the more for having made it himself. He danced for joy—for like the girl with her basket of eggs, he reckoned in anticipation all the profits he expected to derive from the ingenious instrument; but, more fortunate than she, he was not reduced to the necessity of saying good-by, when the eggs were smashed, to the expected calf, cow, pig, as well as the eggs, together. He was building his fine castles in the air, when he was interrupted by his acquaintance William, a carpenter in the neighboring village. William having admired the plane, was struck with the advantages that might be gained from it. He said to James:
W. You must do me a service.
J. What service?
W. Lend me the plane for a year.
As might be expected, James at this proposal did not fail to cry out, “How can you think of such a thing, William? But if I do you this service, what will you do for me in return?”
W. Nothing. Don’t you know that John Ruskin says a loan ought to be gratuitous? Don’t you know that Proudhon and other notable writers and friends of the laboring classes assert that capital is naturally unproductive? Don’t you know that all the new school of liberal advanced writers say we ought to have perfect fraternity among men? If you only do me a service for the sake of receiving one from me in return, what merit would you have?
J. William, my friend, fraternity does not mean that all the sacrifices are to be on one side; if so, I do not see why they should not be on yours. Whether a loan should be gratuitous I don’t know but I do know that if I were to lend you my plane for a year it would be giving it you. To tell you the truth, that was not what I made it for.
W. Well, we will say nothing about the modern maxims discovered by the friends of the working classes. I ask you to do me a service; what service do you ask me in return?
J. First, then, in a year the plane will be used up, it will be good for nothing. It is only just that you should let me have another exactly like it; or that you should give me money enough to get it repaired; or that you should supply me the ten days which I must devote to replacing it.
W. This is perfectly just. I submit to these conditions. I engage to return it, or to let you have one like it, or the value of the same. I think you must be satisfied with this, and can require nothing further.
J. I think otherwise. I made the plane for myself, and not for you. I expected to gain some advantage from it, by my work being better finished and better paid; by improving my condition. What reason is there that I should make the plane, and you should gain the profit? I might as well ask you to give me your saw and hatchet! What a confusion! Is it not natural that each should keep what he has made with his own hands, as well as his hands themselves? To use without recompense the hands of another, I call slavery; to use without recompense the plane of another, can this be called fraternity?
W. But, then, I have agreed to return it to you at the end of a year, as well polished and as sharp as it is now.
J. We have nothing to do with next year; we are speaking of this year. I have made the plane for the sake of improving my work and condition: if you merely return it to me in a year, it is you who will gain the profit of it during the whole of that time. I am not bound to do you such a service without receiving anything from you in return; therefore, if you wish for my plane, independently of the entire restoration already bargained for, you must do me a service which we will now discuss; you must grant me remuneration.
And this was what the two finally agreed upon: William granted a remuneration calculated in such a way that, at the end of the year, James received his plane quite new, and in addition a new plank, as a compensation for the advantages of which he had deprived himself in lending the plane to his friend.
It was impossible for anyone acquainted with the transaction to discover the slightest trace in it of oppression or injustice.
The singular part of it is, that, at the end of the year, the plane came into James’s possession, and he lent it again; recovered it, and lent it a third and fourth time. It has passed into the hands of his son, who still lends it. Poor plane! How many times has it changed, sometimes its blade, sometimes its handle. It is no longer the same plane, but it has always the same value, at least for James’s posterity. Workmen; let us examine further these little stories.
I maintain, first of all, that the sack of corn and the plane are here the type, the model, a faithful representation, the symbol of all capital; as the half bushel of corn and the plank are the type, the model, the representation, the symbol of all interest. This granted, the following are, it seems to me, a series of consequences, the justice of which it is impossible to dispute.
First. If the yielding of a plank by the borrower to the lender is a natural, equitable, lawful remuneration, the just price of a real service, we may conclude that, as a general rule, it is in the nature of capital when loaned or used to produce interest. When this capital, as in the foregoing examples, takes the form of an instrument of labor, it is clear enough that it ought to bring an advantage to its possessor, to him who has devoted to it his time, his brains, and his strength. Otherwise, why should he have made it? No necessity of life can be immediately satisfied with instruments of labor; no one eats planes or drinks saws, unless, of course, he is a magician. If a man determines to spend his time in the production of such things, he must have been led to it by the consideration of the increased power these instruments give to him; of the time which they save him; of the perfection and rapidity they give to his labor; in a word, of the advantages they procure for him. Now these advantages, which have been obtained by labor, by the sacrifice of time that might have been used for other purposes, are we bound, as soon as they are ready to be enjoyed, to confer them gratuitously upon another? Would it be an advance in social order if the law so stated, and citizens should pay officials for enforcing such a law by force? I venture to say that there is not one amongst you who would support it. It would be to legalize, to organize, to systematize injustice itself, for it would be proclaiming that there are men born to render, and others born to receive, gratuitous services. Grant, then, that interest is just, natural, and expedient.
Second. A second consequence, not less remarkable than the former, and, if possible, still more conclusive, to which I call your attention, is this: Interest is not injurious to the borrower. I mean to say, the obligation in which the borrower finds himself, to pay a remuneration for use of capital, cannot do any harm to his condition. Observe, in fact, that James and William are perfectly free, as regards the transaction to which the plane gave occasion. The transaction cannot be accomplished without the consent of one as well as of the other. The worst that can happen is that James may ask too much; and in this case, William, refusing the loan, remains as he was before. By the fact of his agreeing to borrow, he proves that he considers it an advantage to himself; he proves that after every calculation, whatever may be the remuneration or interest required of him, he still finds it more profitable to borrow than not to borrow. He only determines to do so because he has compared the inconveniences with the advantages. He has calculated that the day on which he returns the plane, accompanied by the remuneration agreed upon, he will have effected more work, with the same labor, thanks to this tool. A profit will remain to him, otherwise he would not have borrowed. The two services of which we are speaking are exchanged according to the law that governs all exchanges, the law of supply and demand. The demands of James have a natural and impassable limit. This is the point at which the remuneration demanded by him would absorb all the advantage that William might find in making use of a plane. In this case, the borrowing would not take place. William would be bound either to make a plane for himself, or do without one, which would leave him in his original condition. He borrows because he gains by borrowing. I know very well what will be told me. You will say, William may be deceived, or, perhaps, he may be governed by necessity, and be obliged to submit to a harsh law.
It may be so. As to errors in calculation, they belong to the infirmity of our nature, and to argue from this against the transaction in question, is objecting to the possibility of loss in all imaginable transactions, in every human act. Error is an accidental fact, which is incessantly remedied by experience. In short, everybody must guard against it. As far as those hard necessities are concerned that force persons to borrow under onerous conditions, it is clear that these necessities existed previously to the borrowing. If William is in a situation in which he cannot possibly do without a plane, and must borrow one at any price, does this situation result from James having taken the trouble to make the tool? Does it not exist independently of this circumstance? However harsh, however severe James may be, he will never render the supposed condition of William worse than it is. Morally, it is true, the lender will be to blame if he demands more than is just; but in an economical point of view, the loan itself can never be considered responsible for previous necessities, which it has not created, and which it relieves to a certain extent. But this proves something to which I shall return. It is evidently for the interest of William, representing here the borrowers, that there shall be many Jameses and planes, or, in other words, lenders and capitals. It is very evident that if William can say to James, “Your demands are exorbitant; there is no lack of planes in the world;” he will be in a better situation than if James’s plane was the only one he could borrow. Assuredly, there is no maxim more true than this—service for service. But let us not forget that no service has a fixed and absolute value compared with others. The contracting parties are free. Each pushes his advantage to the farthest possible point, and the most favorable circumstance for these advantages is the absence of rivalship. Hence it follows that if there is a class of men more interested than any other in the creation, multiplication, and abundance of capital goods, it is mainly that of the borrowers. Now, since capital goods can only be formed and increased by the stimulus and the prospect of remuneration, let this class understand the injury they are inflicting on themselves when they deny the lawfulness of interest, when they proclaim that credit should be gratuitous, when they declaim against the pretended tyranny of capital, when they discourage saving, thus forcing capital to become scarce, and consequently interest to rise.
Third. The anecdote I have just related enables you to explain this apparently objectionable phenomenon, which is termed the duration or perpetuity of interest. Since, in lending his plane, James has been able, very lawfully, to make it a condition that it should he returned to him at the end of a year in the same state in which it was when he lent it, is it not evident that he may, at the expiration of the term, lend it again on the same conditions? If he resolves upon the latter plan, the plane will return to him at the end of every year, and that without end. James will then be in a condition to lend without end; that is, he may derive from it a perpetual interest. It will be said that the plane will be worn out. That is true; but it will be worn out by the hand and for the profit of the borrower. The latter has taken this gradual wear into account and taken upon himself, as he ought, the consequences. He has reckoned that he shall derive from this tool an advantage that will allow him to restore it to its original condition after having realized a profit from it. As long as James does not use this capital himself, or for his own advantage—as long as he renounces the advantages that allow it to be restored to its original condition—he will have an incontestable right to have it restored, and that independently of interest.
Observe besides that if, as I believe I have shown, James, far from doing any harm to William, has done him a service in lending him his plane for a year; for the same reason, he will do no harm to a second, a third, a fourth borrower, in the subsequent periods. Hence you may understand that the interest from capital is as natural, as lawful, as useful, in the thousandth year, as in the first. We may go still further. It may happen that James lends more than a single plane. It is possible, that by means of working, of saving, of privations, of discipline, of activity, he may come to be able to lend a multitude of planes and saws; that is to say, to do a multitude of services.
I insist upon this point—that if the first loan has been a social good, it will be the same with all the others; for they are all similar, and based upon the same principle. It may happen, then, that the amount of all the remunerations received by our honest operative, in exchange for services rendered by him, may suffice to maintain him. In this case, there will be a man in the world who has a right to live without working. I do not say that he would be doing right to give himself up to idleness—but I say that he has a right to do so; and if he does so, it will be at nobody’s expense, but quite the contrary. If society at all understands the nature of things, it will acknowledge that this man subsists on services that he receives certainly (as we all do), but that he receives lawfully in exchange for other services, that he himself has rendered, that he continues to render, and that are real services, inasmuch as they are freely and voluntarily accepted.
And here we have a glimpse of one of the finest harmonies in the social world. I allude to leisure: not that leisure that the warlike and tyrannical classes arrange for themselves by the plunder of the workers, but that leisure which is the lawful and innocent fruit of past activity and economy.
In expressing myself thus, I know that I shall shock many received ideas. But see! Is not leisure an essential spring in the social machine? Without it the world would never have had a Newton, a Pascal, a Fênelon; mankind would have been ignorant of all arts, sciences, and of those wonderful inventions prepared originally by investigations of mere curiosity; thought would have been inert—man would have made no progress.4 On the other hand, if leisure could only be explained by plunder and oppression—if it were a benefit that could only be enjoyed unjustly, and at the expense of others, there would be no middle path between these two evils; either mankind would be reduced to the necessity of stagnating in a vegetable and stationary life in eternal ignorance from the absence of wheels to its machine—or else it would have to acquire these wheels at the price of inevitable injustice, and would necessarily present the sad spectacle, in one form or other, of the ancient classification of human beings into masters and slaves. I defy anyone to show me, in this case, any other alternative. We should be compelled to contemplate the Divine plan that governs society with the regret of thinking that it presents a deplorable chasm. The stimulus of progress would be forgotten or, which is worse, this stimulus would be no other than injustice itself. But no! God has not left such a chasm in His work of love. We must take care not to disregard His wisdom and power; for those whose imperfect meditations cannot explain the lawfulness of leisure, are very much like the astronomer who said, at a certain point in the heavens there ought to exist a planet that will be at last discovered, for without it the celestial world is not harmony, but discord.
Therefore I say that, if well understood, the history of my humble plane, although very modest, is sufficient to raise us to the contemplation of one of the most consoling but least understood of the social harmonies.
It is not true that we must choose between the denial or the unlawfulness of leisure; thanks to rent and its natural duration, leisure may arise from labor and saving. It is a pleasing prospect, which everyone may have in view; a noble recompense, to which each may aspire. It makes its appearance in the world; it distributes itself proportionately to the exercise of certain virtues; it opens all the avenues to intelligence; it ennobles, it raises the morals; it spiritualizes the soul of humanity, not only without laying any weight on those of our brethren whose lot in life makes severe labor necessary, but it relieves them gradually from the heaviest and most repugnant part of this labor. It is enough that capital should be formed, accumulated, multiplied; should be lent on conditions less and less burdensome; that it should descend, penetrate into every social circle, and that by an admirable progression, after having liberated the lenders from onerous toil, it should bring a similar liberation to the borrowers themselves. For that end, the laws and customs ought all to be favorable to economy, the source of capital. It is enough to say, that the first of all these conditions is not to alarm, to attack, to deny that which is the stimulus of saving and the reason of its existence—interest.
As long as we see nothing passing from hand to hand, in the operations of loan, but provisions, materials, instruments, things indispensable to the productiveness of labor itself, the ideas thus far exhibited will not find many opponents. Who knows, even, that I may not be reproached for having made a great effort to burst what may be said to be an open door. But as soon as money makes its appearance as the subject of the transaction (and it is this which appears almost always), immediately a crowd of objections are raised. Money, it will be said, will not reproduce itself, like your sack of corn; it does not assist labor, like your plane; it does not afford an immediate satisfaction, like your house. It is incapable, by its nature, of producing interest, of multiplying itself, and the remuneration it demands is a positive extortion.
Who cannot see the sophistry of this? Who does not see that money is only an instrumentality that men use to represent other values, or real objects of usefulness, for the sole object of facilitating their exchanges of commodities or services? In the midst of social complications, the man who is in a condition to lend scarcely ever has the exact thing the borrower wants. James, it is true, has a plane; but, perhaps, William wants a saw. They cannot negotiate; the transaction favorable to both cannot take place, and then what happens? It happens that James first exchanges his plane for money; he lends the money to William, and William exchanges the money for a saw. The transaction is no longer a simple one; it is resolved into two transactions, as I explained above in speaking of exchange. But for all that, it has not changed its nature; it still contains all the elements of a direct loan. James has parted with a tool which was useful to him; William has at the same time received an instrument that facilitates his work and increases his profits; there is still a service rendered by the lender, which entitles him to receive an equivalent service from the borrower; and this just balance is not the less established by free mutual bargaining. The obvious natural obligation to restore at the end of the term the entire value of what was borrowed still constitutes the principle of the rightfulness of interest.
At the end of a year, says Mr. Thoré, will you find an additional dollar in a bag of a hundred dollars?
No, certainly if the borrower puts the bag of one hundred dollars on the shelf. In such a case, neither the plane nor the sack of corn would reproduce themselves. But it is not for the sake of leaving the money in the bag, nor the plane on the shelf, that they are borrowed. The plane is borrowed to be used, or the money to procure a plane. And if it is clearly proved that this tool enables the borrower to obtain profits he could not have made without it; if it is proved that the lender has given up the opportunity of creating for himself this excess of profits, we may understand how the stipulation of a part of this excess of profits in favor of the lender is equitable and lawful.
Ignorance of the true part money plays in human transactions is the source of the most fatal errors. From what we may infer from the writings of Mr. Proudhon, that which has led him to think that gratuitous credit was a logical and definite consequence of social progress, is the observation of the phenomenon that interest seems to decrease almost in direct proportion to the progress of civilization. In barbarous times it is, in fact, a hundred percent, and more. Then it descends to eighty, sixty, fifty, forty, twenty, ten, eight, five, four and three percent. In Holland, it has even been as low as two percent. Hence it is concluded that “in proportion as society comes to perfection, the rate of interest will diminish and finally run down to zero, or nothing, by the time civilization is complete. In other words, that which characterizes social perfection is the gratuitousness of credit. When, therefore, we shall have abolished interest, we shall have reached the last step of progress.” This is mere sophistry, and as such false arguing may contribute to render popular the unjust, dangerous, and destructive dogma that credit should be gratuitous, by representing it as coincident with social perfection, with the reader’s permission I will examine in a few words this new view of the question.