Sin and Society

Chapter 6: The Rules of the Game

Edward Alsworth Ross

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IN the time when the family lived wholly off the produce of its own farm, questions of the distribution of wealth and of welfare could scarcely arise. But now that every man pours his product into some market, it enters in a way into social wealth and passes out of his control. What he shall have to show for it depends on factors which, as John Stuart Mill showed, are man-made rather than natural. He is obliged to enter a game, and to a degree his share of the Desirable depends on his success in that game. What hazards the game shall involve is largely within the will of organized society. Some temperaments want the risks great, the prizes big even if they must be few. Other temperaments want risk eliminated and something guaranteed for all. So long as both temperaments are present in society, it is

(136) safe to say that the game will be kept interesting by preserving something of risk. The establishment of the rules of the game lies within the province of society; and, seeing that the good or ill fortune of the player depends not only on his skill and means, but also on the rules of the game and how they are respected, it is worth while to consider the bearing on the social welfare of the various policies society may pursue.


According to Plato, when Socrates, on the morning of his last day, is urged by his friends to escape from prison, the philosopher refuses because in imagination he hears the Laws of Athens saying to him: " What do you mean by trying to escape but to destroy us, the Laws, and the whole city so far as in you lies? Do

(137) you think that a state can exist and not be overthrown in which the decisions of law are of no force and are disregarded and set at naught by private individuals?"

All failure to enforce law is bad, but in certain classes of law slackness is not so mischievous as it is in others. There is a group of laws aiming to restrain men from preying on the vices of their fellows and thereby weakening the physical and the moral fibre of the population. If saloon, dive, gambling den, betting ring, or poolroom bribe themselves free of these laws, they not only continue their work of ruin, but incidently the police is corrupted and, in a measure, all law is weakened.

Again, if the administration of justice becomes so feeble that the police cannot catch, nor the courts hang, the red slayer, the laws for the protection of persons become cobwebs and men resort freely to the personal redress of real or fancied wrongs. Murders and homicides would

(138) hardly be several times as frequent now as they were in1880, but for the fact that in this country for years only one slayer out of seventy has been brought to the gallows. The harvest is bloodshed, lynching mobs, and race friction.

There is, however, another type of law-impotence which loosens the masonry of the state itself, and hence menaces the sober and orderly people who are beyond the reach of the lawlessness of "waterfront," or "levee," or "tenderloin," or "Little Italy." This is failure to enforce the laws governing the conduct of groups or classes in their economic struggle, in a word, failure to uphold the rules of the game.

If the laws guarding the interests of one class are enforced, while the counterbalancing statutes protecting another class lie dormant, or if a law is enforced downward but not upward, or if Justice wields a sword on the poor but a lath on the

(139) rich and influential, the cheated class fiercely resolves to capture the state and to govern ruthlessly in its own interests. But, imbued with this vengeful spirit, government soon becomes the engine rather than the arbiter of conflicting interests, and the state sense perishes in the flame of class hate. This is why it may be more imperative to cut out alike Pinkertons and sluggers, to put down impartially corporation law-breaking and mob violence, than to enforce the ordinances for the "red light" district.

Suffering the big player to violate the rules of the game is doubly dangerous at the present stage. In twenty years two developments- the disappearance of free land in the rain belt, and the triumph of the big concern over the little -have narrowed the circle of opportunity for workingmen to achieve independence, and therefore tend powerfully to consolidate wage-earners into a conscious class. It does

(140) not yet appear whether this will make impossible that government by public opinion which has contributed so much to the good temper and steadiness of American society.

But there would remain government as compromise, and even on this lower plane the state may successfully guard the primary social interests. Not so, however, if hard-won political victory becomes a mockery because prosecutors are timid, or judges deferential, or executives suave, before the lusty law-breaker who is lord of the Desirable. "Jug-handled " administration of the laws kills the spirit of give-and-take, hardens the hearts of the outlawed class, and sets their jaws in the grim resolve to grasp the reins of power with a relentless hand and to retain them, if need be, by force.

The hustler's practice of "Get there-- anyhow!" is warm sand for the hatching of cockatrice's eggs. In Pennsylvania the

(141) law-abiding disposition was so weakened by the Standard Oil Company's example that a man who tapped a pipe-line and stole Standard oil for two years was found innocent by jurors who had heard him plead guilty. In California the Southern Pacific Railroad Company brought law into such contempt that the train robbers, Evans and Sontag, were befriended by nearly the whole local population. In certain Rocky Mountain states mine operators and miners have both well-nigh lost the state sense, and reach for a judgeship or a sheriffalty as unhesitatingly as in a fight one would reach for a crowbar. Thus breach of law begets counter-breach. "Slush funds" and chicane soon breed mobs and terrorism, which in turn engender deportations, kidnappings, and brutal trampling upon the constitutional rights of citizens and communities. Brickbat, "acid egg," dynamite, and torch arc in a way companion to - plum tree," " driftwood,"

142) gangster's gavel, and "bull pen." Nor is it easy to revive the olive tree, once the bramble has come up. It will take years of even-handed enforcement of law to restore to government in Colorado its lost prestige. A decade of Solon and Rhadamanthus cannot inspire the law-abiding spirit that one year of weak government or slack opinion can destroy. Hence the question of how the game is played may be more serious than the question of who wins. A selfish interest that fights in the open for the repeal of good laws is not to be censured in the same breath with an interest which seeks to chloroform these same laws by packing a commission, or "squaring " an inspector, or owning a judge.

To be sure, clash of interest arises as we leave behind the simple, homogeneous society of the early day; but it is not written that every such conflict shall invade politics and make the state its football. Knights

(143) jousting in the mediaeval tourney did not expect the keeper of the lists to enter the fray. An athletic team with the instinct of sportsmanship does not count on winning through the partiality of the umpire. Likewise farmers and middlemen, landlords and tenants, producers and consumers, manufacturers and mill-hands, single-line merchants and department stores, jostled together by circumstance, may fight with lawful weapons without laying hand to government. So long, indeed, as civic feeling is deep, the great majority of citizens shrink from using the state for the furtherance of their special group interests, and will not unite on such lines save to ward off the aggressions of some less scrupulous group.

The state inspires this reverence because it is felt to express our best selves. If happily constituted, it embodies our reason, fair-mindedness, and humaneness, not our passion, greed, and narrowness. This is why

(144) tax-payers will have their government build more solidly than they build themselves; why they will sanction in government sacrifices for a remoter posterity than they will sacrifice for individually; why they will not have their officers show in the punishment of criminals the vindictiveness, or in the treatment of dependents the parsimoniousness, they may feel in their own hearts.

Now, so long as battling groups feel that the law utters the best selves of their fellow citizens, they respect it, they hesitate to use it as an engine of their purposes. Moreover, they are content with the "square deal," because their dread of having the cards stacked against them prevails over the desire to stack them against others. But if government is weak or partial in upholding the rules of the struggle, or makes rules that favor one side as against the other, it forfeits this immunity. The arena of combat is shifted to politics. Impious hands are

(145) laid on the ark of the covenant. Into the law is injected now the greed of this class, now the vengefulness of that. As government thus degenerates, more and more expressing the common greed, hatred, and small-mindedness, instead of the common reason and conscience, it loses its power to command willing obedience, to conciliate jarring classes. This path leads to class war, and beyond that "the man on horseback."


Rules may be changed in the interest either of those about to enter the game, or of those actually in the game. The football code may be revised in order to benefit the sport, or in order to favor certain teams that happen to possess a star punter. So is it with changes in the laws. To be sure, they are made by men already in the game, -farmers, bankers, iron-moulders, etc., -

(146) but these men in their policies may be thinking of themselves or thinking of their posterity. A man knows not what his sons will become and where their special interests will lie. So far, therefore, as they are concerned for their children, farmers, bankers, and iron-moulders can agree, and the changes they can agree on will be such as will make the social game fairer for all. Their laws will be righteous, and those who are hit by them cannot pose as victims of class legislation." But when farmers or bankers or iron-moulders legislate for themselves as a class and to the damage of others, they pull the game askew and spoil it.

On considering how often in the last quarter century tariff protected businesses, the railroads, the public utility corporations, telegraph, telephone, express, lumber, coal, oil, insurance, and the various trusts have captured and operated the machinery of government, one savors a fine irony in calling ours a régime of "indi-

(147) -vidualism." Is it, then, a part of the game founded on private property and free enterprise to grant exclusive perpetual franchises, to exempt surplus values from taxation, to make the corporation charter a contract, to exalt corporations into citizens with a right to the enjoyment of interstate comity, to legitimate the holding company, to enjoin strikers from the exercise of fundamental rights, to debar a policy-holder from suing the management of an insurance company for an accounting, injunction, or receivership, save with the consent of the attorneygeneral of the state ? Indeed, it would be easy to name commonwealths that exemplify nothing but the covert domination of Big Business. But it is impossible that men should long acquiesce in a régime of sheer capitalism. There is sure to form a body of tangent opinion denying everything that capitalism affirms and affirming everything that capitalism denies. The Nemesis of treating private property, freedom of en-

148) terprise, and corporate undertaking as instruments of private gain rather than of public welfare, is the root-and-branch man who urges us to escape the Unendurable by taking refuge in the Impossible.

The revolutionary socialist charges to the competitive system " ills four fifths of which arise from monopoly. He saddles individualism with the sins of a commercialized politics, and sees the polluter of politics in capital rather than in Big Business. The abysmal inequalities of wealth he deems a natural development under private ownership of the instruments of production," rather than an outgrowth of privilege. In swollen fortunes he sees the vestibule not to plutocracy, but to social revolution. Policies which protect the independent concerns and the petty properties he finds "reactionary." He stigmatizes as "bourgeois" the endeavor to save the little investors from the maw of the predatory financier, and dreams of a coming soci-

(149) -ety moulded to the heart's desire of wageearners. Although, while rents and monopoly profits rise, the earnings of capital are falling, he proclaims the right of labor to the whole produce, and the wrongfulness of any return to the owner of capital. For a tested workable régime he offers a vague, ill-considered scheme built largely out of antitheses to the actual and sharply at variance with human nature on its present plane. Infatuated with his chimera, he lifts no finger to reach the near-by good, while his wild proposals excite apprehensions which hinder the progress of genuine constructive work.

The truth is, on the plane of our inherited institutions government might be so administered in the public-welfare spirit, that three fourths of the subversive sentiment existing would vanish. But the policy of "Score while you're in! " plays into the hands of the radicals who tell the workingman "there is no halfway house

(150) between capitalism and collectivism." "Our innings! " cries Big Business exultantly, and with fifty-year franchise laws, iniquitous tariff schedules, excessive railway-mail charges, grabbing of public mineral lands, corrupt sale of canals and gas plants, fake meat inspection, Niagara grabs, and the cynical denial of protection to labor, it plunges ahead, inviting the day when the cry will ring out, "To your tents, O Israel!" Every tampering with the simple logical rules of the game on the theory that if you take care of business business will take care of the general welfare, or if you take care of the capitalist the capitalist will take care of the workingman, adds to those who think the game itself so hopelessly bad that there is no use in trying to make it fair.

In the sphere of opinion nothing so favors the root-and-branch men as the ascendency of commercial standards of success. Certainly you may rate the business-

(151) -man by the money he has been able to make under the rules of his game. But the sages of all time agree that the writer, thinker, scholar, clergyman, jurist, officer, administrator, and statesman must not be mere profit seekers, nor may their social standing depend on their financial rating. The intrusion of Mammon's standards into such callings makes socialists of thousands who do not really believe that the exchange of money for labor is "exploitation."

Those who put their faith in a transfigured individualism should make haste to clean the hull of the old ship for the coming great battle with the opponents of private capital and individual initiative. Certainly many of the villainies and oppressions that befoul it are no more a part of individualism than are the barnacles and trailing weed a part of the vessel. Moreover, if they are to put up a good fight for the ship, it behooves them to rid it of the buccaneers, wreckers, and shanghaiers that now impudently claim

(152) the shelter of its flag, and by their sinister presence compromise the efforts of its legitimate defenders.


The enterprises that have succeeded by trampling on the laws have done worse than extort money from us. After all, the monopolist as such hurts us no more than a drouth, a May frost, the boll weevil, or the chinch bug; and these are not calamities of the first rank, for, though they lessen our comfort, they do not leave us less civilized. But as successful law-breaker, the monopolist takes from us more than money: he takes away our ideals, leaving us more ape and less man. For twenty years the writer has watched the effect upon college young men of the conspicuous triumph of the first great commercial pirate-the oil trust -

(153) over able competitors, common carriers, oil producers, public prosecutors, attorneys-general, courts, legislatures, newspapers, and leaders of opinion. Many left college for the battle of life with the conviction that the ideals of success held up by their instructors were unpractical. "The preachers and professors and commencement speakers are old fogies," says one. - This is n't the kind of world they think it is. They are fussy old maids, not strong men." "With all these fine principles," says another, -you'd be a dead one from the start. You'd never get into the game at all." "Money's the thing! With money you're It, no matter who kicks," says a third. "I'm going to climb into the band-wagon, not hoot at it as it goes by." So, for several college generations, one could mark in the ebb of generous ideals and the mounting of a precocious cynicism the working of the virus. If such vas the impression of triumphant lawlessness upon young men

154) whose horizon had been widened by academic culture, what must it have been upon the multitudes of callow youth that from the school-boy desk go ill-furnished forth into active life? The founder of the oil trust may give us back our money, but not if he send among us a hundred Wesleys can he give us back the lost ideals.


Many spiritual leaders imagine that the Kingdom of Heaven comes simply by regenerating souls, that as man after man turns his face upward society is duly uplifted. It would follow that the quiet work on individuals does not need to be supplemented by the recourse to law or public opinion, and that the Puritan's endeavor to establish righteousness is superfluous.

This may have been true before com-

(155) -petition became lord of life, but now that the few lead off while the rest must follow suit, much depends on giving the lead to the good man rather than the bad man. You may add to the number of good men, but, without enforced rules, it will be impossible for them to stay in the higher posts and callings. For the social trend denies most men a free hand. More and more the chief vocations come under the baton of competition, so that one may not maintain one's self in them at all unless one feels at liberty to do as his rivals are permitted to do. Those in the same line must move in lock step, and the pace is set by the meanest man who is allowed to continue in the business. The department store that pays its girls living wages and closes at six can hardly live in the same town with one that pays four dollars a week and closes at nine. If the price of glass jars is fixed by the manufacturer who overdrives little boys, every competitor must, unless he pos-

156) -sesses some offsetting advantage, conform to this practice. Leave the business he may, change it he cannot. If one dealer in foods successfully adulterates, his fellows must follow suit or else seek their patrons among the few who prefer a brand because it is dear. As for the dispenser of pure drugs, there is no place for him until the law steps in to standardize quality. The one shipper who extorts an illegal rate obliges all other shippers in his line to break the law or be snuffed out. So long as there are able attorneys willing to handle the corporation work just as it comes, clean or dirty, the lawyer who insists on picking and choosing must mildew in the basement of his profession. If the lavish use of money is countenanced in politics, no poor man can win without truckling to the contributors of campaign funds.

It is chiefly the directive groups in the social scale that are thus swayed by the twentieth man. The privates in the indus-

(157) -trial army do not move in lock step, for they keep step with their officer ; their performance is standardized for them by those who give out the work. Farmers are independent, and on the soil a man may still live up to his ideals. In the learned professions there are tricks, to be sure, but the quack cannot set the pace. But in business, finance, and politics it is more and more the case that all who maintain themselves therein must stand on about the same footing. Without pressure from outside, the moral level of practice will be low, and the good man will have to stagnate or get out. The rule of money in politics means "Wear the collar or quit." The control of the press by financial interests is a placard, "Stubborn truth-tellers not wanted." The reckless rivalry among life insurance companies advertises, "No room for the conservative manager." If it becomes common for dealers to give "commissions " to servants or purchasing agents, the sign might

158) as well be hung out, "No one who will not bribe need apply."

How vain, then, to expect to better conditions simply by adding to the number of good men! The converts would be obliged to join the multitudes who have their work cut out for them. They might, of course, hew coal or lay bricks or drive oxen. But business, finance, and politics and journalism-so potent in the allotment of wealth and of welfare, so authoritative in impressing standards on the rising generation -would become no whit better. There are already enough granite men to man the high posts; but, till the ways be cleared for them, they accumulate on the lower levels where, having no free hand, they feel no moral responsibility. By themselves they can get no foothold at the strategic points where conditions are made, where the weal or woe of thousands is determined. Without aid they cannot maintain themselves in these competitive fields. It is, therefore,

(159) the first duty of society to establish the righteous by lifting the plane of competition.

Pure food laws mean an open door for honest men in the purveying business. An efficient state insurance department means a chance for the 1° old-fashioned" manager. A stricter ethical code for the legal profession would enable certain briefless lawyers to forge to the front. Child-labor restriction is a godsend to the humane manufacturer. Outlawing the sweaters' dens may throw the ready-made clothing trade into the hands of reputable men. Already in banking we see a business, once the happy hunting ground of swindlers, which, by regulation, has come to be a field for honorable men.

It is easy to see what fifty years of public condemnation of liquor-selling has done in driving good men out of it. It is easy to foresee what a lively public appreciation and support of truth-telling newspapers, of plain-spoken preachers, of fearless scholars,

(160) of civic-minded lawyers, of conscientious merchants, of humane manufacturers, of upright officials, of zealous prosecutors, would do to populate these walks with good men.

How useless is character without opportunity can be read in our recent political history. In growing numbers during the late eighties and the nineties, party machines, lackey to the greedy interests, strove to retire from politics men of high ideals and independent spirit. If, during his trial term, the popular district attorney, mayor, legislator, or congressman spurned the collar, at the end a hidden trap-door fell, and he dropped to oblivion. If the ringsters could not scheme or slander or gavel him down in the nominating convention, they knifed him at the polls. Oiled by corporation money the machines did their work well, and the resulting survival of the pliable added steadily to the putty faces in public life.


Wiseacres laid the conspicuous decline in public men to general moral decay or to the superior attractions of the business career, blind to the like falling off in the character of the business men of the period, and unaware that the bulk of the American people are as rich as ever in red corpuscles. That the spinal sort found politics full of blocked stairways, while the gutta-percha manikins of the bosses and the Big Men of the Interests were carried smoothly upward in the party elevator, brought about, at last, that mortifying end-of-the-century situation when, over perhaps a third of the country, the upper floors of the political fabric showed a dwindling contingent of bold and public-spirited men. From the upward rush of sterling characters in the five years since the grip of the "organization" began to be loosened and the political stairways cleared, judge what eve lost during the decades when we let so many consciences

(162) knock vainly at the barred portals of public life!

Some, alive to the pace-setting power of the twentieth man, stigmatize competition as deteriorating and cry out that it is idle to expect improvement until the competitive system is abolished. This would be pouring out the baby with the bath. Competition may pursue an upward path or a downward path. When makers adulterate or lyingly advertise, or overdrive their help, or replace men with children, they follow the downward path. When they eliminate waste, improve their processes, utilize by-products, install better machines, they follow the upward path. Collective industry would avoid the downward path, but it might not follow the upward path. The true policy is to fence off the downward paths and leave competition free to spur rivals into the upward path.



Restraint breeds a resistance corresponding to the loss it imposes. When we go to short-chain the interests which prey on men's vices, they snap at us like jackals. Collective ownership of public utilities may quiet the special interests that now rage in the halter of regulation, but by the time their anti-civic career is ended another range of enterprises will be springing against the leash. We declare pipe-lines common carriers with the duty to file tariffs, and we get refusal, subterfuges, freak tariffs, and onerous requirements that bar independents from using the lines. If our children will not be called upon to fix gas prices and street car fares in the teeth of concentrated private interest, they will have their hands full in regulating railroad, telegraph, express, in-

(164) -surance, pipe-line, and news-service rates; wharf, dock, storage, and cotton-baling charges; the prices of oil, anthracite coal, ice, and school books; and in prescribing the conditions of manufacture and sale of articles all the way from dressed beef to corporation securities.

Every year the points of contact-and of friction -between government and private interests have multiplied. In the days of well-water, candles, sorghum, and flat boats, there were no water, gas, sugar, or railroad interests to vex politics. Homegrown food did not call for the inspector. Till the factory came there was no need to bar children from toil or to enforce the guarding of dangerous machinery. A generation ago the little razor-back gas and horse-car companies had no call to mix in politics; but the advent of water-gas and the trolley, coupled with urban growth, gave them the lard of monopoly profit to defend, and made the public-service cor-

165) -porations the arch-corrupters of city councils. Once the railroads competed, but their consolidators have driven the despairing shipper to look to government for protection. On all sides we see businesses that, feeling less and less the automatic curb of competition, will soon need the snaffle of public regulation.

As the smoke lifts we can mark just who are resisting law and corrupting government. In the cities the fight is chiefly with the vice-caterers and the public-service corporations. The former want a "wide open" town. The latter want unhampered enjoyment of their monopoly power. They are law-defying until they own the source of law and can get perpetual grants on easy terms with a free hand as to prices and fares and exemption of their franchise values from taxation. Battling along with these big interests are bankers scheming for deposits of city funds, rookery landlords in terror of the health-officer, business men

(166) intent on grabbing an alley or a waterfront, and contractors eager to "job" public works.

The state government labors heavily like a steamboat working through the sudd on the Upper Nile. The railroads want to avert rate regulation and to own the state board of equalization. The gas and street-railway companies want "ripper " legislation, the authorization of fifty-year franchises, and immunity from taxation of franchises or limitation of stock-watering. Manufacturers want the unrestricted use of child labor. Mining companies dread short-hour legislation. Publishers want their text-books foisted upon the schools. The baking-powder trust wants rival powders outlawed. The oil trust wants to turn safety inspection against the independents. A horde of harpies have the knife out for pure-food bills. Brewers, distillers, elevator combines, pet banks, rotten insurance companies -all have a

167) motive for undermining government by the people.

Thus time adds to the number of interests intent to break or to skew the rules of the game. The phalanx lengthens of those who want government to be of india rubber and not of iron. Of course this resistance produces results. Under a pressure of ten talents men collapse who were adamant under the pressure a single talent can exert. In view of the temptations we send them against, we ought not to marvel that so many public servants bend or break. It is not to be expected that government can withstand the growing strain without many structural improvements. In any case, it is certain that to the upholding of the rules of the game society must devote an increasing share of its thought and conscience.


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