BLOG: A 1922 Address About Labor

Excerpt of a Humanist address, “What’s Wrong With the World,” delivered to First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis by Rev. John Dietrich, January 29, 1922. This is an excerpt of an excerpt, focusing on economics. 

…. There are some people who think that the present economic system was foisted upon society by a group of men who had deliberately made up their minds to exploit humanity for their own private gain. Such people reflect more heat than light in the study of this problem, for nothing could be father from the truth. The present system grew up naturally in response to certain vital needs of that time and with all the faults that the system contains for us today, it was probably as good a system as could under the circumstances have been devised for those earlier times. …

With the invention of all kinds of machinery the doors were thrown wide open for the mechanical production of goods on a scale never before dreamed of. The immediate problem was to interest men who had the money and brains and executive ability in the building of factories, the installation of machinery, and the organization of plants. In addition it was necessary to have raw materials from which to produce the goods and this meant the building of railroads and steamships and the opening up of communications to the hitherto inaccessible portions of the earth. In short, the great immediate problem 100 years ago was the problem of production.

…. The system of private control which was the natural outgrowth from previous conditions provided itself to be highly successful because it furnished the necessary incentive for men to devote themselves and their money to building up the new industry, and that incentive was largely the desire of the individual to make profits. This profit-incentive was a most effective motive and did result without question in the rapid building up of the machine basis of production.

In the same way the principle of free competition stimulated men to produce as large a volume of goods as possible and as cheaply as was consistent with profit-making, and at the same time served the best interests of society, thus meeting the problem of that day in a natural way.

… The principle of free contract between employer and employee was also a perfectly natural development since each manufacturer gathered his individual workers about him to help him run his factory. There was no association of employees on the one hand or union of employees on the other. The relations between employer and employee rested on a purely individual basis… The new industrial system that grew up with the coming of the new industrial age was not deliberately and maliciously planned. As most things in this world it came as natural response to the needs of that time.

Now, 100 Years Later, in 1922

But not only have 100 years rolled by, but greater changes have come into human life in these 100 years than in thousands of preceding years, and we are … seeking to make ourselves believe that they are still fit for our needs today, whereas the fact is that they have been entirely outgrown and are no longer adequate for man’s needs. The results of that society today is about as restive as a 16-year-old boy trying to wear an 8-year-old suit.

… The thing most needed today in the industrial world is not any longer to furnish incentive to men to invest their money, but rather to furnish incentive to the worker to do his best and also to awaken in him the fullest measure of cooperation… In this respect what real incentive can there by under the principle of private control where the worker has no share in the profits and no voice in the shaping of conditions under which he works? …

So long as labor was willing to be treated as merely a tool of production, subject to the beck and nod of the employer, this problem did not exist; but today the worker knows himself to be no longer a tool of production but primarily a human being, entitled to all the rights and privileges of other human beings; and as such he will not do his best nor be inclined to give his hearty cooperation until he feels that he is also sharing some of the responsibility and reaping some of the rewards of the business.

It is this fundamental human need that causes the increasing demand on the part of labor for some share in the control of the means of production and a larger part in the product itself. The principle of private control that still exists utterly ignores this human need and thus fails to meet in any true sense the problem of today.

Freedom of marketplace?

Free competition is still supposed to operate, in theory, but in fact we know that it has entirely disappeared. As industries multiplied the competition became more and more keen and bitter until finally it was necessary to form associations of combinations of allied industries in order to keep prices high enough to insure a sufficient profit. These combinations grew larger and larger until they culminated in the gigantic trusts that today control the price of practically all our commodities… with the small shopkeepers in combination to protect themselves from free competition. This has given opportunity for profiteering in every line, which no one even attempts to conceal, until in every kind of business the slogan today is “Charge all the traffic will bear.”

In regard to the third principle of freedom from government restriction the problem today seems to be reversed. It is not so much the problem of how to keep the restricting hand of industry off of industry, as how to keep the restricting hand of industry off of government.

With the tremendous growth of our large industries and the centralization of large amounts of capital in the hands of a few people, and with the interlocking directorates of the various industries until all of the economic power in the world is concentrated in a few offices and banks, so-called “big business,” as Mr. Roosevelt suggested some years ago, has become the invisible power behind the political throne, to the absolute ruination of all our political ideals.

These are the reasons why I venture to affirm that society has outgrown its economic garments. We are seeking to live our economic life in a system, the fundamental principles of which were adapted to the problems of 100 years ago, but which do not in any sense meet, or satisfy the very different problems of today; and our widespread industrial unrest grows out of the fact that we are seeking to wear the old garments which are utterly inadequate to the vastly changed industrial life of our times.

Click here for thoughts from the same address about morality.

The original introduction and concluding remarks are here.

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