Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapter VII

Stephen Leacock called the last chapter of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice “What Is Possible and What Is Not”, although he starts with what is not. Socialism is not, neither is individualism, or, he hastens to qualify, “at least the older individualism that we have hitherto made the basis of the social order.” He did not qualify his judgement of socialism. He could have said, but did not, “at least the all-encompassing socialism presented by Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward.” He gives no evidence that he knows anything about Marx or Engels, although he probably knew something. He mentions Marx in his 1903 Ph.D. thesis on The Doctrine of Laissez Faire, without suggesting he has read him. By the time he wrote his textbook on Political Science (published 1906), however, he certainly had. One could speculate on the reasons why he chooses Edward Bellamy as the spokesman for socialism and not Marx or the English, French, or German socialists he writes about elsewhere, but this is not the place. He is prepared to qualify individualism, but leaves the socialist alternative in an extreme state, forgetting his textbook admission that “the greater number of socialists now favor the amelioration of present conditions rather than their complete overthrow.”

He makes another extreme statement as he sets up for his recommendations in The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, written you will recall, in 1919, when he refers to “principle of selfishness that has been the survival instinct of existence since life first crawled from the slime of a world in evolution”. So much for the sharing ethic so prevalent among people living in aboriginal conditions on the edge of survival. Leacock himself is a convinced “sharist”,  however, as the recommendations themselves show.

A legislative code that starts from sounder principles than those which have obtained hitherto can do a great deal towards progressive betterment. Each decade can be an improvement upon the last. Hitherto we have been hampered at every turn by the supposed obstacle of immutable economic laws. The theory of “natural” wages and prices of a supposed economic order that could not be disturbed, set up a sort of legislative paralysis. The first thing needed is to get away entirely from all such preconceptions, to recognize that the “natural” order of society, based on the “natural” liberty, does not correspond with real justice and real liberty at all, but works injustice at every turn. And at every turn intrusive social legislation must seek to prevent such injustice.

Progressive betterment. An incremental approach, at least once the accumulated injustices of the past century have been mitigated, and the lessons of the latest Great War incorporated, jobs to be done through legislation. After all, he insists, if the legislative hammer and taxation can be used to fight a war, as they had so forcefully so recently, then they can be used for the positive betterment of people’s lives. The principle has been established.

What is radical in Leacock’s approach as laid out in this last crucial chapter, is not the content, but the cast of mind. What he recommends is, in brief, simply a comprehensive social safety net in the context of a liberal democracy that values individual creativity and enterprise and restrains individual greed and abuses of power.

The safety of the future lies in a progressive movement of social control alleviating the misery which it cannot obliterate and based upon the broad general principle of equality of opportunity.

Put into the plainest of prose, then, we are saying that the government of every country ought to supply work and pay for the unemployed, maintenance for the infirm and aged, and education and opportunity for the children.

The war had shown that social enterprise on the necessary scale was feasible in practical, legislative, productive, and financial terms. The external foe had been defeated. It was time to vanquish the internal enemy. It could be done. Q.E.D.

Leacock’s nation is a Both-And place, both individualistic and socialistic. The two ideologies may be poles apart, but they can mix perfectly well. The Unsolved Riddle is in our minds, in our belief, defiant of all experience, that one ideology is right and the other is wrong, that they cannot be mixed. Nothing but disaster, he insists, can follow the pure pursuit of one or the other. To believe in a perfect world or no world at all is ridiculous, even insane. The modern industrial system, even in his day let alone ours, is simply too complex for ideology. Pragmatism is the only way. That is what he believed, and that is what we believe. Enjoy the Muddle, he says. It works. Understand it. Cherish it. Laugh at it. Improve it. That is The Cause.

When we look broadly across his writings we see constant reference to four ways in which we can and must tune our minds, a quadruple Both-And, using Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. I am not going to suggest that Stephen Leacock pulled that off. In fact, I am not sure that any one person, however powerful the mind and wide the reading, can pull it off. That’s why we don’t like dictators. We do it together. Improvement is a collective act. The Muddle may be messy, and frighteningly verbose, but that’s how the magic happens.

* * * * * * *

This ends my explicit consideration of Leacock’s book. I have now begun to write my 100-years-later extension of his approach and cast of mind, my version of his book, the Preface to be released on Saturday of this week, a chapter a week thereafter for seven weeks. I am following his model slavishly, although in my own style. In this blog, from now until the end of December when the Anniversaries time ends, I will tell stories of My Discovery of Stephen Leacock, which continues, and gossip about his life and ideas. But I think I have delighted you enough with his economic and social ideas. It’s time to get back to the humour.

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