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But the War gave it an enormous boost. Business men have learned how to make the most of their opportunities. And while there are not a few Americans who refuse to make all the money they can, and find their happiness in producing or retailing needed goods at the lowest possible cost, the general trend has been heavily in the direction of reaping the greatest possible financial harvest. And this is the chief cause of that very great inequality in the distribution of wealth which we noted in the preceding chapter.
It seems obvious that Privilege and Profiteering must be curbed if our American system is to be retained. For a while we can muddle along with a comparatively small class of people raking in large profits, at one end of the scale, and a larger class of people at the other end of the scale lacking the essentials of life. But not forever. It will mean eventually reform or revolution. And by revolution much that is precious in our American tradition might be lost. So the conservative people, who make up the bulk of our population, must find some method of preventing the fortunate holders of the strategic positions in our economic life from profiting inordinately from their situation, and, at the same time, a method of ensuring to the poorest laborers a decent livelihood.
This is the aim of much of the "progressive” legislation of the past generation. A beginning has been made. But-as the experience of the last few years shows-only a beginning. We have minimum wage laws now in many States; the minimum is usually set below the standard of comfortable or even efficient living, is quite too low to be satisfactory; but it is a beginning. We have the machinery of taxation used to divert a part of the excess profits of fortunate industries to the State. The Excess Profits Taxwhich leaves an eight per cent profit untaxed, and takes only a small percentage of the profits above eight per cent—went but a little way toward rectifying the situation; but the idea behind it was sound. The graduated Income Tax and Inheritance Tax go much further toward paring down the fortunes of the rich, and enable the State to raise its revenue without exacting too much from the poorer classes.
Of particular interest is the movement toward differentiating between "earned” income (wages, salaries up to a figure that can be honestly thought earned, professional receipts—i.e. what a man gets for his labor) and "unearned" income (interest on bonds, bank-deposits, and loans, dividends on stock, rent from land and property owned, excess profits from industry). It is no part of the American tradition to denounce unearned income. But it is an implication of our ideal of Equality that one class of society should not be allowed to divert to itself by this means such a large proportion of the national income that there is too little left for the greater numbers who are not property owners.
To allow that is not a legitimate Individualism-which would seek to give every individual a fair chance—but individual or class selfishness.
It is doubtful whether taxation alone can remedy the excessive distortion of our distribution of wealth. It is quite possible that we may have to resort to State regulation of prices and wages. Perhaps we must come to State ownership of natural resourcesthe coal-mines, the oil-wells, the forests, the waterpower sites. It is no part of the plan of this volume to discuss the pros and cons of the highly intricate economic problems involved. The point of this chapter is simply that ways must be found and utilized to cure the generally recognized evils of Privilege and Profiteering. The continuance of our American traditions depends, among other things, upon our success in this undertaking.
Success in this undertaking would be the realization of what Roosevelt meant by the Square Deal. In his address to the Ohio Constitutional Convention, in 1912, he declared, “This country, as Lincoln said, belongs to the people. So do the natural resources which make it rich. . . . It will help the people little to conserve our national wealth unless the benefits which it can yield are secured to the people." .
The fact is, in a nutshell, that prosperity—and all the human goods that material prosperity makes possible—has been far too dependent upon the accident of birth. To give every child, so far as possible, an equal start in the race, we should see to it that, however poor his parents may be, he has a chance for health and education and an adequate livelihood. We must recognize that every child belongs not only to his parents but to the nation; he is a potential asset or a potential weakling, incompetent, or even criminal. We must send him into life fairly equipped for the struggle. And on the other hand, we must see to it that the possession of the strategic positions by a group of owners of land and resources and important industries does not make it too difficult for him to succeed, and win for his family a fair share of the good things of life. It is not that we begrudge luxury and power to the fortunate and clever, but that we must have a Square Deal for those who are less fortunate or less clever in the acquisitive line. As Wilson has written, "America was set up that she might be different from all the nations of the world in this: that the strong could not push the weak to the wall."
J. A. Ryan, Distributive Justice.
480 H. A. Overstreet, in International Journal of Ethics, vol. 25,
A. K. Rogers, in International Journal of Ethics, vol. 28, p.
143, 406. J. H. Hollander, in Atlantic Monthly, vol. 110, p. 492.