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(idea icon)1912

The Wisconsin Idea

by Charles McCarthy


THE reason for the Wisconsin legislative program is not hard to find. There is really but one cause and it presents but one problem, which is basic to all others, and no advancement of human welfare or progress of civilization can take place until a solution is found.

The problem is one with which the whole American people is grappling. It presents no particular mystery nor is it difficult to understand.

Take up any newspaper. What are the headlines?--Monopoly--Trusts--Trusts and the tariff--High cost of living--Predatory wealth.

Pick up a President's message. Can there be any doubt about it? Always the same--something strong and oppressive, almost unreachable, in some way entangled with courts, lawyers and litigation--always having the power to attain its object--always possessing FORCE.

Force? How can these things have Force? Have they armies, guns or the attributes of those who usually possess force? If not, how can they oppress?

Suppose when you went to buy food the man who had it asked you ten dollars when it was worth only one, and putting a gun at your head made you give him the other nine dollars. Would the contracting parties be on equal footing? One of the parties added Force to the contract to make it favorable to him. Suppose he did not make use of the gun and yet you could not buy the food from any other man, because he had a monopoly and you would be obliged to give him the other nine dollars. Would he not be doing the same thing, adding force to contract? The only difference is that one time he used a gun and the other time monopoly. Wealth would concentrate quickly in your community, would it not--and Force also?

Suppose that this condition existed almost universally and that certain people possessed natural monopoly in oil, iron, coal and the necessities of life, and others possessed artificial monopoly in franchises, transportation facilities, patents, etc.,--is there any doubt that the problem is the same, and the cause of it--unequal conditions of contract?

The remedy? It is easy to say "equalize the conditions between these two," but how can it be done? Everything in life is unequal but it is inequality that makes men strive. Can you put a penalty on sturdiness, intelligence or efficiency? How big must be the force and how great the inequality? A herd philosophy of absolute equality is foreign to our genius.

A remedy based upon a philosophy of "the weak to live and the strong to die" obviously cannot serve our purpose. History and the common experience of life teach us that adversity has its place in the success of a nation. A man, a plant or a nation cannot be kept in a mollycoddle stage and develop true virility. Pain and strong winds are the friends of nations, as of men.

The moment we begin to equalize the conditions of men we are on dangerous ground. The fierce fight of competition must remain; the adventurous spirit in fearless attack against great odds is the very soul of the spirit of our people.

Civilization has not arisen under the hot sun where nature seems too kind. It has its chief seat where the elements and the stubborn soil force men to use their might; and sheer necessity makes great men and great countries; but again too much ice and snow stunts life and ambition; the Esquimaux builds nothing but a snow hut. A temperate zone in business, in which men may live, work and develop the best that is in them for themselves and for all, must be created and carefully protected. There is a limit to free play. As John Stuart Mill said:--

"Energy and self-dependence are, however, liable to be impaired by the absence of help, as well as by its excess. It is even more fatal to exertion to have no hope of succeeding by it than to be assured of succeeding without it."

But can a legislature, even if it were perfect, justly say whether gas should be ninety or ninety-five cents?

During a crowded legislative session how can it determine and put into law a schedule of prices for oil and coal or of railroad rates? Even if this were possible, are we not basing all on the presumption that the legislature is willing and ready to do our will? It is not so simple as this; as an editorial in the Chicago Tribune, commenting on recent events in the state of Illinois, expresses it:--

"Before the corporation robber can be suppressed it will be necessary to suppress the corporation incendiary who supports him and the political jackpotter who plays into the hands of both."

It is not so easy to get regulation from the legislature as it may seem. The people who possess Force use it in this connection as freely as they use it elsewhere, and the legislative machinery is not yet so complete that it always follows the wishes of the people.

The judges? Can we turn to them? Well, the Man in the Street looks dubious when you ask him. This matter of contract in relation to monopoly has somehow been strangely muddled in the courts; we are still looking in vain for any real relief from that quarter. The truth is, that the judges are like the legislators; even if they are clear-brained and brave enough, how can they fix the price of gas at ninety instead of ninety-five cents? What means have they for studying carefully every cog in the great machinery of commerce? They were not constituted for this duty, and as umpires can scarcely assume control of a legislative and administrative problem. Americans do not want their judges to be legislators.

Yet a frenzy of judicial remedy seems to have seized us. We have all selected our favorite "trust busters," and the newspapers are full of stories of the deeds of these mighty men. The street corner orator yells "Bust them," "Dissolve them," "Imprison them."

Professor R. T. Ely, in his book on trusts, quotes newspaper headings of twenty years ago as follows:--

"Black Eye for the Trusts--Important Decision handed down in Chicago."

"The Standard Oil Trust has resolved upon dissolution."

"Pools are hit Hard--United States Supreme Court Upholds Sherman Act--Decision is a Surprise--Virtually Declares all Traffic Agreements Illegal--Competition will be Open--Managers greatly Concerned."

"Trusts in a Panic--Tobacco Combine Makes the First Important Surrender, etc."

"Trusts Busted--Far-reaching Effects of the Supreme Court Decision."

Familiar friends these, are they not?

As Professor Ely says:--

"Comment on these utterances of the press is scarcely necessary to-day. If there is any serious student of our economic life who believes that anything substantial has been gained by all the laws passed against trusts, by all the newspaper editorials which have thus far been penned, by all the sermons which have been preached against them, by all the speeches of politicians denouncing them, this authority has yet to be heard from. Forms and names have been changed in some instances, but the dreaded work of vast aggregation of capital has gone on practically as heretofore. The writer does not hesitate to affirm it as his opinion that efforts along lines which have been followed in the past will be equally fruitless in the future."

But the man who has FORCE is the employer of men and women. Little homes and villages and the happiness of thousands depend upon him. After all, he is in our midst; he is a part of us and we cannot "tear him to pieces," "dissolve him," or "bust him." Would stopping the railroad or closing the electric light plant be of any benefit to us? The remedy must be complex and varied. The evils considered here are as old as the world and inherent wherever human frailty meets human strength. They are involved in every human attribute, and no rule of thumb or cut and dried theory can affect them wholly or completely.

However, there is a difference between a mountain and a molehill, and the great and glaring wrongs can be righted. Relieve the individual from even a little unjust force and he will do the rest. As long as he knows how to fight, is not complacent, nor overwhelmingly handicapped, the result will never be in doubt.

No plan can be made which will be successful, even temporarily, unless we probe for sound basic ideas. If this problem of concentrated wealth and power is world wide and world old, let us try to view it in its right relations, in order that our plan for the future may not topple over because its base is not sufficiently broad.

Every schoolboy knows that nations apparently have a childhood, a strong youth and a gradual coming of age and decay. In the youthful period, caste and wealth are not prominent. The fighting man of a Saxon horde or a Daniel Boone is respected and self-sufficient. A man is rated as a man. After a tribe has been settled for a hundred years, we find that a few seem to be in the lead, having land, wealth and power, while others seem to be gradually drifting downward in the scale. Finally, a few hundred years later, we find conditions such as exist in Russia, with concentrated wealth, caste and power on one hand and extreme poverty on the other. As John Boyle O'Reilly once said:--

"A small class in every country has taken possession of property and government, and makes laws for its own safety and the security of its plunder, educating the masses, generation after generation into the belief that this condition is the natural order and the law of God. By long training and submission the people everywhere have come to regard the assumption of the rulers and owners as the law of right and common sense, and their own blind instincts, which tell them that all men ought to have a plenteous living on this rich earth, as the promptings of evil and disorder."

If this has been the course of history, are there not lessons to be learned? Is there not some way of keeping history from repeating itself? Is there not some means by which we can maintain the youth of the nation, keep poverty at a minimum, and wealth, caste and privilege from commanding, conquering and finally destroying the nation?

Let us look at this crude diagram. Perhaps it will show how far-reaching the remedy must be.

In the diagram to the left, marked Stage 1, you will notice the word Wealth at the top and the word Poverty at the bottom; between these two extremes is a square representing the American people in 1850. It represents a time in America when the great monopolies had not been formed; when Force in contract did not exist to the extent that it does to-day; there was plenty, and it was not necessary to use force. Was there not free land, oil, minerals, etc.? Wherein lay the advantage of monopoly?

To the right of this is Stage 2, which is intended to represent conditions in 1912. A small rectangle will be seen directly under the heading Wealth. This shows the change that has taken place. One per cent of the people now possess over fifty per cent of the wealth. Yet the strong, independent American spirit is still evident in the class represented halfway between Wealth and Poverty; notice the other small rectangle at the bottom--the very poor. Does any one maintain that this picture is untrue? Some might consider the rectangle representing the very poor too small, but for our purpose--to illustrate the basic conditions of society in relation to the Wisconsin idea--it will serve very well.

On the extreme right is Stage 3. It needs no comment. The sad history of many a country can be pictured by that little diagram because concentrated wealth means power, caste, privilege, corruption and decay of every ideal, whether of manhood, morals or patriotism. Are not the crumbled remains of what were once prosperous cities scattered in the waste places of the earth sufficient proof of all this? We need not exaggerate this picture, and we cannot.

With these diagrams before us the question with which we are concerned is, are we following the same path? Will the slow grind of a hundred years or more lead to the inevitable decay which seems to come to all nations? Are the seeds sown and the causes for decay already with us? Are the corrupting influences of the concentrated wealth of to-day to continue, adding force to force while government and individuals are swept under, until Stage 3 comes into existence? Since the American revolution, throughout the world, and particularly in Europe, there has been such an advance in the science of government and economics, in education and general intelligence, that we are tempted to hope that history may not repeat itself. If that hope is justified, it will be due to the new economic philosophy everywhere guiding the lives of men and nations in the old countries.

When one sees Germany, once a country of poor peasants, shot over by every conquering swashbuckler, transformed by the might of intelligence, noble philosophy and keen foresight into a shining example for the rest of the world, we feel certain that our own country cannot long remain indifferent. The world is being aroused by her enthusiasm. England with her crowded cities--poverty and discontent stalking everywhere--is profiting by Germany's experience, and, guided by her wise Chancellor Lloyd George, is determined to use similar devices to obtain the same results.

While in America Stage 2 has been gradually approaching Stage 3, in Germany, Stage 3 of one hundred and fifty years ago has gradually approached Stage 2--yes, even Stage 1.

Let us consider one of the ancient cities now deserted and buried. It was, after all, a beehive, and the cause of its decay was a very simple one--the drones shirked while the workers bore the burdens; the drones increased and the workers bore more burdens, and so it continued until the workers could bear no more; they became dulled, disheartened and discontented, and the pauper and the proletariat appeared. The drones would do no work, and soon the whole structure came tumbling down, to lie covered with the sands of the desert. Selfish power, bad government and oppression brought about its ruin. Why? Because men forgot that prosperity exists for the benefit of the human being and for no other purpose. If prosperity does not uplift the mass of human beings, it is not true prosperity, however it may be counterfeited by a grand show of fair cities or the glories of its riches.

Indeed, if there is a magnificent building built in any city which is not, either directly or indirectly, for the purpose of improving the opportunities and increasing the happiness of all the manhood of the country, it is built for no purpose, and were better not in existence.

This the German knows. This the American, secure still in the mighty phrases of the Declaration of Independence, glorying in the tarnished grandeur of the Constitution, boasting of his riches and the power and might of his material things, has not yet discovered.

Our civilization, with its wealth and prosperity, must be made to exist for its true purposes--the betterment, the efficiency and the welfare of each individual. The Germans have shown us the way; we need not adopt all their methods, but we will do well to accept their philosophy, for there is no patent on it. America must cope with this new devastating influence of wealth sanely and successfully so that greater prosperity and more equitable distribution of its benefits under just laws will result.

A German prince of the olden time awoke one morning and found that he had no money. He sent for his treasurer, who, in answer to his demand, declared that there was none, that war, robbery, famine and injustice had done their work too well. Alarmed by this reply the prince asked the treasurer what could be done about it, to which he replied: "My lord, we cannot collect taxes unless the farms produce; the farms will not produce unless the farmer works them intelligently; he cannot do that unless he receives a fair profit, protection and an opportunity to live like a man rather than a beast. Give me a portion of the realm; let me keep peace and do justice, and the farmer will produce more and will pay you more taxes." The prince was convinced and gave him what he asked. The treasurer drove out the cheating rascals who had acted as judges; he punished the drunken soldier; he protected the weak against the strong; he imprisoned the usurer and dismissed the tax farmer; he provided markets and exchanges which were honest; he invested heavily in roads and bridges; but best of all he taught the MAN. He made a better man, a more efficient machine; he taught him how to be a better farmer; in short, he did what our efficiency expert, Mr. Taylor, does to-day in a great factory. To accomplish this he did not hesitate because of expense, yet the investment was good, and after a time the prince received more taxes while more happiness and prosperity came into the land.

This story and that of the ruined city are one, and the problem they reveal is our problem. It is possible that their solution may be ours. With all these digressions in mind, let us return to our diagram. Let us consider the problems which would confront a business efficiency expert. Let us suppose that we are working with him and put down the questions which come to our minds. They may help us in reaching a solution.

How did Stage 1 become Stage 2? To find this out we must consider what is represented by the thin line beneath wealth.

Who are our richest men? Are they not the men who have made use of that Force in contract which comes from monopoly, artificial or natural? The long list of oil magnates, railroad kings, etc., certainly seems to prove it.

Could they have won without Force? Perhaps the strong and intelligent might have done so--very slowly, to be sure--but the concentration of wealth would not have been so great.

Are there not bankers, members of the stock exchanges and middlemen? Yes, but are they not all entangled with Force? Do they not manipulate that mysterious Force in contract? Are not the powers of credit and monopoly practically one?

Would it not be well to keep that thin line beneath wealth in Stage 2 from growing? Can it be accomplished?

Why not demand that when monopoly of any kind exists, it shall be restricted to a reasonable gain? Why not say that it shall not discriminate unjustly nor use its great power against the public welfare? If monopolies possess such Force that one man cannot compete with them, why not let the state--all men combined--control them? Why not oppose Force by Force? Is there any other way? When business affects the interests of all, is it not something more than a private matter for the concern of a private individual?

Why not take by taxation some of that wealth acquired by Force? Why allow idle sons and daughters to waste this wealth; why not tax them by graduated income, inheritance and increment taxes, so that they bear a burden proportionate to their strength, in order that the burden of maintaining the state shall not fall so heavily on the poor? Will this be permitted? Will not that same dreaded Force terrorize our legislators? They are but human, with business interests and families to support.

Why not make public the affairs of monopolies, so that they cannot buy the votes of electors or legislators? Why not limit the power of wealth in elections? It cannot buy the whole people, can it? If not, why not make our legislators directly responsible to us so that we may watch them? Why not simplify the whole machinery of nomination and election so that we are certain to elect the men we want--men of honesty and strength?

But do not the trusts defy our laws after we have passed them? Who is powerful enough to enforce them for us? The courts? Theoretically, yes, but practically, do we not need something nearer to the legislators--a strong right arm of the legislature? Should we not have a vigilant servant who, with the help of trained experts wily enough to cope with every turn, will relentlessly administer and enforce? Should not this servant be a friend of the poorest citizen, a friend to whom in unfair dealings he may turn and receive justice quickly and surely?

But the efficiency expert will say that we have omitted the principal problem. The German treasurer in the story went down to the unit--the Man. Why not teach the man to look out for his own interests? We must make him more efficient so that he can plant more and make more. This is a difficult task if he is the slave of economic necessity, because it will necessarily cost money. Truly, but can we not obtain some of that money from the graduated taxation of which we have already spoken, or in the way that Lloyd George is getting it? Why not invest something in the farmer and the mechanic so that he will become more efficient, so that he will have a better home, better prospects, and greater skill, which will be an advantage to him in contract? While we are teaching him this, why not teach him how to live so that he may be strong and vigorous; why not show him his rights under the law and advise him as to the most advantageous way in which to market his goods, whether it be his skill as a mechanic or his oats?

We have followed a long and winding path, Mr. Reader, to show that no one categorical explanation of the Wisconsin idea can be given.

Although no definite plan has ever been laid, strangely enough the development of the efficiency of the individual and the safeguarding of his opportunity, the jealous guarding of the governmental machinery from the invasion of the corrupting force and might of concentrated wealth, the shackling of monopoly, and the regulating of contract conditions by special administrative agencies of the people have been under way to some slight extent in Wisconsin.

Why should not the state be the Efficiency Expert? Should the state stand idle while its lands are despoiled and its people are placed in bondage to a few of its members? How have the great monopolies gathered their power, save by taking to themselves governmental powers because, under a worn-out doctrine of so-called industrial freedom, the government did not utilize all its functions? Is it better to allow such irresponsible parties to have the power of fixing rates and prices rather than the state? Is it better to permit them to make the laws rather than the state? Can they fix market and credit conditions, say who shall be permitted to do business, and in what manner, better than the state? The power to tax is the power to destroy. Shall we allow them to lay whatever tax they see fit upon industry and to shift their own burdens where they will? Shall we allow them, when they are fined for wrong-doing, to shift the fine to the persons who imposed it by the simple process of raising the rates or prices?

The reader will find no dogmatic conclusions set forth in these pages. He will be disappointed if he expects certain vivid pictures of perfect legislation or administration or clear-cut philosophy. He will find, on the contrary, a seemly comprehension of the difficulties of the problem as above outlined and a groping after and testing of one device after another to serve in combating the tendencies considered. He will find that patient research and care have been the watchwords used everywhere. It will be explained how one piece of machinery made another necessary, how educational, industrial and welfare legislation were deemed the wise and necessary accompaniment of legislation intended to revolutionize the electoral machinery, which itself became necessary in order to initiate and assure great economic legislation.

Always he will find the constant harking back to the just regulation of the conditions of contract between the powerful and the weak whenever public interest demanded it--the cause of the supreme struggle with which the movement began and with which every milestone is marked.

And, Mr. Reader, do not think that this program could be started or forwarded on its way for one moment without conflict. It is all very well to talk of constructive legislation as if it had been outlined in a blue print by some political science architect, but do not forget for an instant that there was a relentless war in this state for many many years and each advance was made only as a result of that war. The history of that struggle has been told by others. This little book attempts to show what has been the outcome of that struggle and of the combination of circumstances and conditions which made good soil for certain ideas to take deep root.