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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

True Individualism--The Essential Preliminary
of a Real Social Advance (S587: 1900)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A previously unpublished essay that was included in the collection Studies Scientific and Social (S727). Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S587.htm

    [[p. 510]] Now that we have entered the last year of this our Nineteenth Century, in many respects the most eventful century for good and evil the world has witnessed, most thinking men are looking forward with anxious hope as to what of real good the Twentieth Century may have in store for humanity. Any words of hopeful guidance as to how we may help to bring about such good; any indication of the true path to such social regeneration as may not only enable the middle classes to reach a still higher pitch of refinement, but may raise up the masses from the deadly slough of want, misery, starvation and crime in which so many millions are now floundering, often from no fault of their own and in the midst of the most wealthy and most civilized countries in the world,--will certainly be welcome to the humane and thoughtful in all modern societies.

    It is clear, that if we wish to do any real good, we must cease to deal in generalities, or to suggest mere palliatives. We must seek for the fundamental error in our social system which has led to the damning result, that, in the latter half of the nineteenth century there has been a far greater mass of human misery arising directly from want--and an equal, perhaps greater, amount in proportion to population--than in the preceding century. This is clearly indicated by the figures given by the statistician Mulhall in 1883, in a paper read at the British Association. [[p. 511]] In the period 1774 to 1800--which may be taken as representing the latter half of the eighteenth century--he gives the wealth per head of the population of Great Britain at £110, and for 1860 to 1882, representing a corresponding period of the nineteenth century, at £216. But the purchasing power of money is estimated to have been so much greater in the earlier period that Mr. Mulhall calculates the effective income per head to have then been £227, or actually higher than in our own time. This apparent paradox can only be explained by the proportion of the very poor to the whole population being now exceptionally large, so that, although there has been such an enormous increase of total wealth and a considerable increase of very rich men, yet the great army of workers who produce this wealth has increased so much more largely that the proportion coming to them is smaller than ever. And this is quite in accordance with the evidence of Mr. Charles Booth, who has shown that about 1,300,000 of the population of London live "below the margin of poverty;" and if we add to these the inmates of the workhouses, hospitals, &c., we shall find that close upon one-third of the whole population are in this miserable condition; and we may be sure that in all our great manufacturing towns and cities, the proportion of the very poor is not much less.

    Again, we must remember that in the last century the majority of the workers lived in the rural districts or in the smaller towns, and possessed many additions to their means of living which they have now lost:--such as gardens, common-rights, wood for fuel, gleaning after harvest, pig and poultry-keeping, and often skim-milk or butter milk from the farms where they worked.

    It thus appears that the conclusions arrived at by myself from the statistics of poverty, suicide, insanity, physical deterioration, and crime, during the last forty years,1 are supported by a quite different set of facts, extending over a much longer period, and set forth by a statistical authority of the first rank, who has no special views to support. Let us therefore now consider the main [[p. 512]] problem. What is the fundamental error in our social system that has allowed this state of things to persist, notwithstanding all our increase in wealth, and how we may most certainly and most safely bring about the desired change to a social state in which none who are willing to work shall ever suffer the extreme of want?

The Society of the Future.

    I am myself convinced that the society of the future will be some form of socialism, which may be briefly defined as the organization of labour for the good of all. Just as the Post Office is organized labour in one department for the benefit of all alike; just as the railways might be organized as a whole for the equal benefit of the whole community; just as extensive industries over a whole country are now organized for the exclusive benefit of combinations of capitalists; so all necessary and useful labour might be organized for the equal benefit of all. When a combination or trust deals with the whole of one industry over an extensive area, there are two enormous economies; advertising, which under the system of competition among thousands of manufacturers and dealers wastes millions annually, is all saved; and distribution, when only the exact number of stores and assistants needful for the work are employed, effects an almost unimaginable saving over the scores of shops and stores in every small town, competing with each other for a bare living. What then would be the economy when all the industries of a whole country were similarly organized for the common good; and when all absolutely useless and unnecessary employments were abolished--such as gold and diamond mining except to the extent needed for science and art; nine-tenths of the lawyers, and all the financiers and stock-gamblers? It is clear that under such an organized system three or four hours work for five days a week by all persons between the ages of twenty and fifty would produce abundance of necessaries and comforts, as well as all the refinements and wholesome luxuries of life, for the whole population.

    [[p. 513]] But although I feel sure that some such system as this will be adopted in the future, yet it may be only in a somewhat distant future, and the coming century may only witness a step towards it; it is important that this step should be one in the right direction. The majority of our people dislike the very idea of socialism, because they think it can only be founded by compulsion. If that were the case it would be equally repulsive to myself. I believe only in voluntary organization for the common good, and I think it quite possible that we require a period of true individualism--of competition under strictly equal conditions--to develop all the forces and all the best qualities of humanity, in order to prepare us for that voluntary organization which will be adopted when we are ready for it, but which cannot be profitably forced on before we are thus prepared.

    In our present society the bulk of the people have no opportunity for the full development of all their powers and capacities, while others who have the opportunity have no sufficient inducement to do so. The accumulation of wealth is now mainly effected by the misdirected energy of competing individuals; and the power that wealth so obtained gives them is often used for purposes which are hurtful to the nation. There can be no true individualism, no fair competition, without equality of opportunity for all. This alone is social justice, and by this alone can the best that is in each nation be developed and utilized for the benefit of all its citizens. I propose, therefore, to state briefly what is the ethical foundation for this principle, and what its practical application implies.

The Law of Social Justice.

    In Herbert Spencer's volume on "Justice," forming Part IV. of his Principles of Ethics, he gives as the foundation of social justice the following:--

    "Of man, as of all inferior creatures, the law by conformity to which the species is preserved, is that among adults the individuals best adapted to the conditions of their existence shall prosper most, and that the individuals least adapted to the conditions of their [[p. 514]] existence shall prosper least--a law which, if uninterfered with, entails survival of the fittest, and spread of the most adapted varieties. And, as before, so here, we see that, ethically considered, this law implies, that each individual ought to receive the benefits and evils of his own nature and consequent conduct: neither being prevented from having whatever good his actions normally bring him, nor allowed to shoulder off on to other persons whatever ill is brought to him by his actions."

    The passage printed in italics is the "law of social justice" deduced from the law of the survival of the fittest, and it is appealed to again and again throughout the volume, but is usually indicated by the shorter formula--"each shall receive the benefits and evils due to his own nature and consequent conduct."2 In all our sports and trials of skill or endurance, we aim at equality of conditions for the competitors, who are all of nearly equal age and in good health, while their preliminary training has been nearly the same; and it is universally recognized that the skill or endurance of each can only be ascertained by such equal or fair conditions.

    But when it is a question, not of mere sports or amusements, but of the real battle of life, failure in which often means continuous hardship, want, or premature death, with the loss to friends and to the community of all those higher qualities or talents which were undeveloped through want of leisure or opportunity, we make no attempt whatever to give fair play to all alike. How much we lose by this unfairness no one can tell, but the poets have always recognized that there is such a loss. Gray tells of the "village Hampdens" and the "mute inglorious Miltons" that may have passed away unknown, and of the hearts "once pregnant with celestial fire"--

"But knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage
And froze the genial current of the soul":

[[p. 515]] while even the refined and critical Tennyson could say--

"Plowmen, shepherds, have I found, and more than once, and still could find, Sons of Gods and kings of men in utter nobleness of mind."

    And everywhere we see illustrations of the same fact in the fortunate accidents that have here and there rescued some great mind from a life of obscure drudgery. If Watt, the mathematical instrument maker, had not lived in Glasgow, where he had the model of a steam-engine sent him from the University for repair, the advent of the modern steam-engine might have been delayed half a century. If Faraday had not had a ticket given him to Sir Humphry Davy's lectures on chemistry at the Royal Institution, he might have always remained a working bookbinder, and the progress of electrical science might have been seriously checked. Numbers of our inventors and original thinkers have sprung from the ranks of peasants and mechanics, and we may be sure that many more who were equally gifted have been wholly lost to the world owing to the absence of favourable conditions at the right period of their lives, or to some inherent modesty or timidity that prevented them from forcing their way in spite of all obstacles. What we need in order to profit by all the skill, and talent, and genius that may exist in our whole population, is that all should have the education and the opportunities for developing whatever abilities they may possess, which are now accessible only to the higher and the wealthier classes; and when we find that this is also the teaching of philosophy, and that only in this way can we apply the fundamental principle of organic evolution to the development of the social organism, we have both experience and theory in favour of adopting it as a sure guide.

Equality of Opportunity.

    While discussing Herbert Spencer's "Justice" in an address to the Land Nationalization Society in 1892, I remarked:

    "It is strange that Mr. Spencer did not perceive that if this law of the connection between individual character and conduct and their [[p. 516]] economical results, is to be allowed free play, some social arrangement must be made by which all may start in life with an approach to equality of opportunities."

    Two years later this term was used and popularized by Mr. Benjamin Kidd in his "Social Evolution," and is now often used with approval by political and social writers, most of whom, however, do not appear to see all that it implies. The term includes all that is contained in Spencer's principle of social justice, and as it is much shorter and more expressive, it is well adapted to become the watchword of social reformers. Let us then see what its full application would really mean.

    Equality of Opportunity is absolute fair play as between man and man in the struggle for existence. It means that all shall have the best education they are capable of receiving; that their faculties shall all be well trained, and their whole nature obtain the fullest moral, intellectual, and physical development. This does not mean that all shall have the same education, that all shall be made to learn the same things and go through the same training, but that all shall be so trained as to develop fully all that is best in them. It must be an adaptive education, modified in accordance with the peculiar mental and physical nature of the pupils, not a rigid routine applied to all alike, as is too often the case now.

    It further implies that during this period of thorough education every endeavour shall be made to ascertain how the special faculties of each can be best utilized for the good of society and for his own happiness, and thus will be determined the particular work, both bodily and mental, to which each youth shall be trained, subject always to the demand for workers in the various industries or occupations.

    Yet further, equality of opportunity requires that all shall have an endowment to support them during the transition period between education and profitable employment, and to furnish them with such an outfit as their special avocations require.

[[p. 517]] Inheritance of Wealth causes Inequality.

    But even this is not all. We must also take care that inequality is not introduced by private gifts or bequests to individuals which might enable them to live permanently in idleness and luxury, since every one who so lives must necessarily be supported by the labour of others, and is in all essentials a pauper, as has been so forcibly urged in the remarkable work of Mr. A. J. Ferris--"Pauperizing the Rich." It is here that most people (including Herbert Spencer and Mr. Kidd) object to the application of the principle that every man shall receive the results of his own nature and conduct, or, in other words, shall have "equality of opportunity," as being unjust or injurious. But if this principle is the essential feature of social justice, its full application cannot be unjust; while if it is the true correlative in human society of survival of the fittest among the lower forms of life, it cannot be injurious.

    The difficulty seems to arise from the fact that if the accumulation of property either by the labour, the foresight, or the good fortune of an individual, is right, and is for the benefit of society as a whole, as is generally assumed, it is also assumed that the power of transferring this property to another must be also both right and beneficial. This, however, does not logically follow. If equality of opportunity is a true and just principle, then the society that gives to every man that equality, and protects him in his work throughout his life, may fairly claim to inherit any surplus wealth that he leaves behind him, in order to ensure similar advantages to all. And it is still more obvious, that a society which has adopted the principle of equality of opportunity as the only means of securing true individualism and competition under fair and equal conditions, may justly prevent individuals from introducing inequality by their injudicious gifts or bequests. From either point of view it follows, that society should protect itself by a strict regulation of the transmission or inheritance of wealth.

[[p. 518]] Public Debts Impolitic and Immoral.

    There is another consideration that is usually overlooked in this connection, and thus helps to obscure the real issue. Under our highly artificial and complex monetary system, the "property" left by rich men is seldom real wealth, but consists almost wholly of claims upon, or tribute exacted from society at large. Real wealth is highly perishable--food, clothing, houses, tools, machinery, &c.--and if such wealth were given to another in large quantities it would rapidly deteriorate or require a considerable annual expenditure to preserve its value. But by our money-market system of funds, stocks, shares, and rents, permanent incomes are derived from perishable wealth, to the injury of all who are forced to pay these incomes. Money has been diverted from its original and beneficial purpose of facilitating the mutual exchange of commodities--"a tool of exchange," as some economists have termed it--into a means of enabling large numbers of wealthy individuals to live permanently at the expense of their working fellow-citizens. This is the real reason of the objection of the ancient law-givers to usury, that it enables men to live without doing any useful work; and the objection of modern socialists to interest is, not that to take interest for the use of money is morally wrong, but that the general application of the principle of national or municipal interest-bearing debts, railway shares, &c., afford the conditions by which perishable wealth is changed into permanent property, and offers facilities for the most gigantic and harmful system of gambling the world has ever seen.

    All wealth so acquired is a means of impoverishing those whose work produces all the real wealth that is consumed annually. Adam Smith again and again states this fact, that the annual consumption of the whole population, including all the idle rich, is produced annually by the workers; and it is because the system of interest enables false wealth, which is really tribute exacted from the people, to go on increasing indefinitely, and thus tends [[p. 519]] continually to impoverish the workers and to increase the numbers of the idle, that it has been condemned as both impolitic and evil. And we now see that, as it leads to results which are opposed to "equality of opportunity," it is also ethically unjust.

Hereditary Wealth bad for its Recipients.

    There is yet another consideration which leads to the same conclusion as to the evil of hereditary or unearned wealth--its injurious effects to those who receive it, and through them to the whole community. It is only the strongest and most evenly balanced natures that can pass unscathed through the ordeal of knowing that enormous wealth is to be theirs on the death of a parent or relative. The worst vices of our rotten civilization are fostered by this class of prodigals, surrounded by a crowd of gamblers and other parasites, who assist in their debaucheries and seek every opportunity of obtaining a share of the plunder. This class of evils is too well known and comes too frequently and too prominently before the public to need dwelling upon here; but it serves to complete the proof of the evil effects of private inheritance, and to demonstrate in a practical way the need for the adoption of the just principle of equality of opportunity.


    Under such a system of society as is here suggested, when all were well educated and well trained and were all given an equal start in life, and when every one knew that however great an amount of wealth he might accumulate he would not be allowed to give or bequeath it to others in order that they might be free to live lives of idleness or pleasure, the mad race for wealth and luxury would be greatly diminished in intensity, and most men would be content with such a competence as would secure to them an enjoyable old age. And as work of every kind would have to be done by men who were as well educated and as refined as their [[p. 520]] employers, while only a small minority could possibly become employers, the greatest incentive would exist towards the voluntary association of workers for their common good, thus leading by a gradual transition to various forms of co-operation adapted to the conditions of each case. With such equality of education and endowment none would consent to engage in unhealthy occupations which were not absolutely necessary for the well-being of the community, and when such work was necessary they would see that every possible precautions were taken against injury. All the most difficult labour-problems of our day would thus receive an easy solution.

    I submit, therefore, that the adoption of the principle of Equality of Opportunity as our guide in all future legislation, should be acceptable to every social reformer who believes in the supremacy of Justice. To the individualist it would mean the fullest application of his principle of individual freedom limited only by the like freedom of others, since this principle is a mere mockery under the present negation of fair and equal conditions to the bulk of the citizens of all civilized states. And it should be equally acceptable to the socialist, because the greatest obstacle to his teachings would be removed by the abolition of ignorance and of that grinding poverty and want which leaves no time or energy for any struggle but that for bare existence. Equality of Opportunity, founded as it is upon simple Justice between man and man, is therefore well fitted to become the watchword of the social reformers of the Twentieth Century.

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1See my Wonderful Century, Chapter XX.
2It would operate, not as among the lower animals and plants by the actual destruction of the unfit, but by their less rapid increase, since, under equal conditions of education and mode of life, it is certain that marriage would be delayed till some industrial success had been reached by both parties.

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