Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice: Chapters I and II

For the next four weeks I am going to walk you lightly through The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, as written by Stephen Leacock 100 years ago, syndicated chapter by chapter from late August to early October 1919, and published by S.B. Gundy in Toronto, the John Lane Company in New York, and John Lane, The Bodley Head in London in January 1920. This book has seven chapters; I am going to cover them at the rate of two per week for the first six, treating the last (“What Is Possible and What Is Not”)  by itself. This approach is easily justified, because much of Leacock’s analysis is dated, although his recommendations are not, at least in principle.

Certainly NOT dated is Leacock’s insight that Social Justice is an Unsolved Riddle, requiring an appropriate cast of mind and set of intellectual and policy tools. The cast of mind of an autocrat and the tools of a mechanic are not appropriate. He took these ideas as far as he could at the time. We may regret that he did not take them further. Better late than never. So here we go.

First we look at his ideas.

Chapter I. “The Troubled Outlook of the Present Hour”.

“These are troubled times.” So  he begins. He describes the troubles, beginning with industrial unrest due to the lingering turbulence of the World War One and all the post-war adjustments. “The world seems filled with money [inflated by war-time financial measures] and short of goods, while even in this very scarcity a new luxury has broken out.” The danger of revolution looms, as in Russia. He sees “a vast social transformation in which there is at stake, and may be lost, all that has been gained in the slow centuries of material progress and in which there may be achieved some part of all  that has been dreamed in the age-long passion for social justice.”

The surrounding “appalling inequality” is intolerable, and no longer necessary. Scarcity has been confronted by “the age of machinery and power”. Humanity entered a real “new world” when “the sudden progress of liberated science bound the fierce energy  of expanding stream [he may have written ‘steam’] and drew the eager lightning from the cloud.” Production steadily increased and would go on increasing, replacing want with surplus, becoming “an unconscious element in the thought and outlook of the civilized world.”

The story of material progress is well known, its “perplexing paradox … lies concealed within its organization.” “The essential contrast lies between the vastly increased power of production and its apparent inability to satisfy for all humanity the most elementary human wants; between the immeasurable saving of labor effected by machinery and the brute fact of the continuance of hard-driven, unceasing toil.” Why, he asks, does production of essentials expand and then, while scarcity still remains for some, re-direct itself to inessentials and on to the colossal human and material wastes of war and the frivolous wastes of luxury? And what should be done?

Chapter II: Live, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Leacock begins the second chapter, after tipping his hat to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, by summarizing the teaching of the first:

It has been shown that the age of machinery has been in a certain sense one of triumph, of the triumphant conquest of nature, but in another sense one of perplexing failure. The new forces controlled by mankind have been powerless as yet to remove want and destitution, hard work and social discontent. In the midst of accumulated wealth social justice seems as far away as ever.

That’s the first part the Unsolved Riddle. He then turns his attention to the cast of mind arising from this, what he calls the “outlook”, giving us a brief and interesting lecture on classical economic theory (Adam Smith and his 19th century followers)  and its understanding of the (somewhat qualified but still fundamental) importance of “[private] property, contract and the coercive state”, and the “further assumption of a general selfishness or self-seeking as the principal motive of the individual in the economic sphere.” He identifies this as “an unpalatable truth”, none the less “the most nearly true of all the broad generalizations that can be attempted in regard to humankind.” Earlier, however, he has drawn attention to one effect of industrial production, which has been the entanglement of people with their fellow citizens, until a person is “no longer an individualist …  [but] has become by brute force of circumstances a sort of collectivist, puzzled only as to how much of a collectivist to be.” Aha. Another dimension of the Unsolved Riddle.

Here, I think, we see Leacock floundering with the dilemma he does not really shake for the rest of his life. He wants to believe, insists on believing, on the idea of “every man for himself and his family”, of that kind of individualism, as a foundation of his ideology. And yet he recognizes that the “entanglement” caused by modern methods of production makes inevitable a kind of collectivism that requires a different way of thinking. He sees the Unsolved Riddle, but he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want to embrace it. Perhaps he fears the raw power of unchecked collectivism. He certainly fears that the “bosses” in a collectivist society (‘socialism’) will use their power for individualistic benefit, just as the oligarchs of finance and industry use theirs. The lash may pass into other hands; it will remain a lash, even possibly a worse one, and will be used as such. This is not an idle fear, as subsequent history has shown.

“The argument of the classicists (he means the classical economists) ran thus. If there is everywhere complete economic freedom, then there will ensue in consequence a régime of social justice.” He knows that doesn’t work; he knows that ‘socialism’ doesn’t work; he distrusts power in the hands of individuals no matter what system they work under. Just as did Tolstoy (according to Isaiah Berlin) he sees the complexity and multiplicity and fundamental unruliness of the human condition, which he seeks to moderate in the cause of Social Justice. Yet he distrusts (with good reason) all ideologies invented for the purpose. He does not see, or at least does not integrate the fragments of his vision into, the explicit idea that ‘Unsolvedriddleism’ as an ideology could be just what the doctor ordered. It may even be what we practise in our lives and politics.

He was surrounded by tidy thinkers and feared their scorn. He himself was an untidy thinker, and believed in the humanity and democracy of such an outlook. We will see more of his untidy thinking and what it may mean for us in the weeks ahead.

Next week: Chapters III and IV: The Failures and Fallacies of Natural Liberty; Work and Wages.

 

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