The way out is to re-establish property. Destitution means nothing else than the absence of property. We say of the destitute man that he is compelled to obey a master, because property in the means of livelihood are in that master’s hands. To be paid a sufficient wage is not the same thing as to own; for he who pays the wage controls him who receives it.
The whole meaning of property is the economic freedom which it bestows upon the individual or family possessing it. Well-distributed property does not create special privilege, it does not enable men to live without working and to exploit the labor of others while they themselves are idle. A man who lives in his own house exploits no one. A man possessing his share in the factory in which he works exploits no one. A man possessing national bonds, the proceeds of which are equivalent to the taxes he pays for the meeting of the interest of national bonds, exploits no one. The interest he receives will not be exactly equivalent to his share of taxpaying to meet such interest. Some will have more, some less. But a widely distributed national debt creates no sense of injustice. It is the few taxing the many that does so. All the theoretical injustice of attaching to exploitation one class by another lessens and nearly disappears where property is fully distributed. Where it is only income that is well-distributed men are still under the thumb of whoever or whatever pays that income, but where ownership is well-distributed the owners are, all of them, free men.
Of course, an exact distribution of ownership would be an ideal, and therefore impossible, state of affairs: but a condition of society in which the greater part of citizens owned enough to be economically free is practicable, and possible of attainment. So far from being an imaginary Utopian scheme it has been accepted for centuries throughout societies numbering millions and is to be found peaceably and successfully at work over the greater part of the civilized earth at this moment. Only where men are living under the curse of Industrial Capitalism is well divided property unfamiliar.
Yes, a redistribution of property so that a sufficient proportion of citizens may own is the “Way Out,” and the only human and just and permanent way out, from the crying evils of Industrial Capitalism and servile conditions which it threatens to produce unless we apply our remedy in time.
Well distributed property is its own guarantee of survival. It produces among the owners customs and laws—the Guild and the Village Community—which prevent property from falling into the hands of the few. It builds up of itself the habits required for the preservation of economic freedom. You may see that for yourselves by watching society at work in any country where property is already well-distributed.
Here it will be objected that well-distributed property is not possible in modern industry on account of the expense of the great new instruments of production. “The smith,” we are told, “the carpenter at his bench, the cobbler and his handmade boots, have gone for ever because centralized power and the new machinery which it activates has driven the small producer from the field. In the same way the large store and a chain of stores in the same hands, have driven the small distributor from the field. You may, it is admitted, “restore well divided property among independent farmers, but you can never, in future, restore it among industrial workers.”
Now this argument is false in two ways. First, it is false because even the most expensive machinery can belong, and does belong, as well all know, to shareholders. Secondly it is false because a great deal of that concentration of property which is called “inevitable” is not inevitable at all. It is merely the product of uncontrolled competition.
Discovery and invention have, it is true, produced, much larger industrial units of production than our fathers knew—for instance in the way of ships, of land transport, and instruments and materials used for building. But discovery and invention also advantaged certain lesser units. There is no better example of this than the electronic motor and the facile distribution of electric power. These between them could have restored masses of small producers had they been taken advantage of in time.
In other words, there is still plenty of room for the small units of industrial production. Where the nature of the new instruments makes small units impossible there is nothing to prevent those who work with the large new units holding those units co-operatively as members of a Guild.
The idea of the Guild has almost died out because the anarchy and greed of the modern world has destroyed the thing, but there is nothing to prevent its being restored.
The Guild is essentially an association of free owners who work co-operatively any instruments which is too expensive for separate ownership by a single member. The great sculptures of the middle ages were produced by guilds using instruments quite beyond reach of the small individual members, but easily obtainable and controlled by the community of owners.
Let it be remembered that this aim of ours for the restoration of private property among a determining number of the community, the distribution of property among the masses of citizens who should thus be made free, does not contradict state ownership of certain functions. What it contradicts is the false doctrine of general or preponderant state ownership, or what is worst of all universal State ownership. The State exists for the family and the individual; not these for the State.
In many European countries where highly divided property is the rule, railways are State owned, and in all without exception, the Post Office.
There is no hard and fast line, but the general principle is clear enough. Any free and well ordered state includes a proportion of State ownership which is based upon private ownership in the hands of as many citizens and families as possible at any rate, of so many as to make the principle determining character of society. Such ownership may be co-operative in the form of the Guild where large units are necessary or as in the case of nearly all agriculture and a great deal of industry as well, owned in small units by craftsmen.
The function of distribution should also follow the same lines. Where there must be concentration in a large unit, that unit should be organized as a Guild; but in the vast majority of cases a small unit of distribution—the small store—is sufficient.