Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

never be induced to make it, were it not for the increased social consideration which the new house will bring him. Where is the man who would lie awake at nights devising means of increasing his income, in the hope of being able to provide his wife with a carriage, were the use of the carriage the sole consideration? It is because of the éclat which the carriage will give, that he enters on these additional anxieties. So manifest, so trite, indeed, are these truths, that we should be ashamed of insisting on them, did not our argument require it.

For if the desire for that homage which wealth brings, is the chief stimulus to these strivings after wealth; then is the giving of this homage (when given, as it is, with but little discrimination) the chief cause of the dishonesties into which these strivings betray mercantile men. When the shopkeeper, on the strength of a prosperous year and favourable prospects, has yielded to his wife's persuasions, and replaced the old furniture with new, at an outlay greater than his ir come covers—when, instead of the hoped-for increase, the next year brings a decrease in his returns—when he finds that his expenses are out-running his revenue; then does he fall under the strongest temptation to adopt some newly-introduced adulteration or other mal-practice. When, having by display gained a certain recognition, the wholesale trader begins to give dinners appropriate only to those of ten times his income, with other expensive entertainments to match—when, having for a time carried on this style at a cost greater than he can afford, he finds that he cannot discontinue it without giving up his position: then is he most strongly prompted to enter into larger transactions; to trade beyond his means; to seek undue credit; to get into that ever-complicating series of misdeeds, which ends in disgraceful bankruptcy. And if these are the facts—the undeniable facts—then is it an unavoidable conclusion that the blind

THE BLIND HOMAGE TO WEALTH.

143

admiration which society gives to mere wealth, and the display of wealth, is the chief source of these multitudinous immoralities.

Yes, the evil is deeper than appears—draws its nutriment from far below the surface. This gigantic system of dishonesty, branching out into every conceivable form of fraud, has roots that run underneath our whole social fabric, and, sending fibres into every house, suck up strength from our daily sayings and doings. In every dining-room a rootlet finds food, when the conversation turns on So-and-so's successful speculations, his purchase of an estate, his probable worth—on this man's recent large legacy, and the other's advantageous match; for being thus talked aboứt is one form of that tacit respect which men struggle for. Every drawing-room furnishes nourishment, in the admiration awarded to costliness—to silks that are “rich,” that is, expensive; to dresses that contain an enormous quantity of material, that is, are expensive; to laces that are hand-made, that is, expensive; to diamonds that are rare, that is, expensive; to china that is old, that is, expensive. And from scores of small remarks and minutiæ of behaviour, which, in all circles, hourly imply how completely the idea of respectability involves that of costly externals, there is drawn fresh pabulum.

We are all implicated. We all, whether with selfapprobation or not, give expression to the established feeling. Even he who disapproves this feeling, finds himself unable to treat virtue in threadbare apparel with a cordiality as great as that which he would show to the same virtue endowed with prosperity. Scarcely a man is to be found who would not behave with more civility to a knave in broadcloth than to a knave in fustian. Though for the deference which they have shown to the vulgar rich, or the dishonestly successful, men afterwards com.

?

1

pound with their consciences by privately venting their contempt; yet when they again come face to face with these imposing externals covering worthlessness, they do as before. And so long as imposing worthlessness gets the visible marks of respect, while the disrespect felt for it is hidden, it naturally flourishes.

Hence, then, is it that men persevere in these evil practices which all condemn. They can so purchase a homage, which if not genuine, is yet, so far as appearances go, as good as the best. To one whose wealth has been gained by a life of frauds, what matters it that his name is in all circles a synonym of roguery? Has he not been conspicuously honoured by being twice elected mayor of his town? (we state a fact) and does not this, joined to the personal consideration shown him, outweigh in his estimation all that is said against him: of which he hears scarcely any thing? When, not many years after the exposure of his inequitable dealing, a trader attains to the highest civic distinction which the kingdom has to offer; and that, too, through the instrumentality of those who best know his delinquency; is not the fact an encouragement to him, and to all others, to sacrifice rectitude to aggrandizement? If, after listening to a sermon that has by implication denounced the dishonesties he has been guilty of, the rich ill-doer finds, on leaving church, that his neighbours cap to him; does not this tacit approval go far to neutralize the effect of all he has heard? The truth is, that with the great majority of men, the visible expression of social opinion is far the most efficient of incentives and restraints. Let any one who wishes to estimate the strength of this control, propose to himself to walk through the streets in the dress of a dustman, or hawk vegetables from door to door. Let him feel, as he probably will, that he had rather do something morally wrong than commit such a breach of usage, and suffer the

PUBLIC OPINION RESPONSIBLE.

145

resulting derision. And he will then better estimate how powerful a curb to men is the open disapproval of their fellows; and how, conversely, the outward applause of their fellows is a stimulus surpassing all others in intensity. Fully realizing which facts, he will see that the immorali. ties of trade are in great part traceable to an immoral public opinion.

Let none infer, from what has been said, that the pay. ment of respect to wealth rightly acquired and rightly used, is deprecated. In its original meaning, and in due degree, the feeling which prompts such respect is good. Primarily, wealth is the sign of mental power; and this is always respectable. To have honestly-acquired property, implies intelligence, energy, self-control; and these are worthy of the homage that is indirectly paid to them by admiring their results. Moreover, the good administration and increase of inherited property, also requires its virtues; and therefore demands its share of approbation. And besides being applauded for their display of faculty, men who gain and increase wealth are to be applauded as public benefactors. For he who as manufacturer or merchant, has, without injustice to others, realized a fortune, is thereby proved to have discharged his functions better than those who have been less successful. By greater skill, better judgment, or more economy than his competitors, he has afforded the public greater advantages. His extra profits are but a share of the extra produce obtained by the same expenditure: the other share going to the consumers. And similarly, the landowner who, by judicious outlay, has increased the value (that is, the productiveness) of his estate, has thereby added to the stock of national capital. By all means, then, let the right acquisition and proper use of wealth, have their due share of admiration.

But that which we condemn as the chief cause of com.

mercial dishonesty, is the indiscriminate admiration of wealth-an admiration that has little or no reference to the character of the possessor. When, as very generally happens, the external signs are reverenced, where they signify no internal worthiness—nay, even where they cover internal unworthiness; then does the feeling become vicious. It is this idolatry which worships the symbol apart from the thing symbolized, that is the root of all these evils we have been exposing. So long as men pay homage to those social benefactors who have

grown

rich honestly, they give a wholesome stimulus to industry; but when they accord a share of their homage to those social malefactors who have grown rich dishonestly, then do they foster corruption—then do they become accomplices in all these frauds of commerce.

As for remedy, it manifestly follows that there is none save a purified public opinion. When that abhorrence which society now shows to direct theft, is shown to theft of all degrees of indirectness; then will these mercantile vices disappear. When not only the trader who adulterates or gives short measure, but also the merchant who overtrades, the bank-director who countenances an ex. aggerated report, and the railway-director who repudi. ates his guarantee, come to be regarded as of the same genus as the pickpocket, and are treated with like disdain; then will the morals of trade become what they should be.

We have little hope, however, that any such higher tone of public opinion will shortly be reached. The present condition of things appears to be, in great measure, a necessary accompaniment of our present phase of progress.

. Throughout the civilized world, especially in England, and above all in America, social activity is almost wholly expended in material development. To subjugate Nature,

« AnteriorContinuar »