Monday, April 10, 2006


To the Editor of the New York Tribune:

You recently bestowed three columns and a half upon a notice of “Equitable Commerce: a New Development of Principles Proposed as Elements of New Society,” by Josiah Warren, with an incidental notice of “The True Constitution of Government” and “Cost the Limit of Price”--works upon the same general subject--”The Science of Society”--by myself. The criticism may be regarded as relating to the circle of principles advocated by Mr. Warren and myself rather than to either of us simply as writers, and hence I feel authorized to step aside from usage so far as to reply to the criticism, the conclusion arrived at, which I cannot but think an unfortunate one for you, being that Mr. Warren's theory of “Equitable Commerce” is a failure.

The books in question are not of the kind that can be profitably reviewed without being attentively read. The hurry and clatter of newspaper machinery are not, I am aware, favorable to the weighty consideration of those profound philosophical truths which lie much below the surface. If a critic under such circumstances, should fail, therefore, fully to grasp the significance of a circle of principles so revolutionary, and yet so simple, so perfectly harmonious in their relations to each other, so absolutely indispensable each to the working out of the other, and so thoroughly responsive to every demand of exalted human aspiration after Social Order and Freedom and Harmony, it should not be charged on him as a defect of acumen, or of sympathetic affinity for truth, but merely to the want of opportunity.

You accept and adopt the first of this circle of principles, “The Sovereignty of Individual,” but simply put in a caveat against the claim of exclusive originality on the part of Mr. Warren. This question of originality is one of little importance, and one to which no man would attach less consequence than Mr. Warren himself. The important question is, “Is it true?” and on this we agree. Nevertheless, it is, after all, likewise simply true that Mr. Warren is the first man in the world clearly to define this idea as a Principle, instead of a vague aspiration, to fix it in a Formula, to settle its Legitimate Limitation, to propound it as one of the Grand Practical Solutions of the Social Problem, and to connect it with its Correlated Principles in this solution. It is true that the idea, simply as such, as “more or less distinctly” pervaded the writings of nearly every modern reformer, that it swells and palpitates in every aspiration after a better future, and inspires even the blindest exertion after human emancipation. It is true that it is implicated remotely and prophetically in Fourier's formula of “Destinies proportional to Attractions,” as it is in the American Declaration of Independence, which affirms that all men are entitled to “Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”; but all this is a very different thing from the distinct announcement of the “Sovereignty of each individual to be exercised at his own Cost”, propounded as a scientific substitute for all Laws and Governments, and as one of the immediate working instrumentalities of Social Reform. So at least it seems to me. If it be not so, and Social Reformers of other schools accept and even claim the priority in the announcement of this Principle, as we accept and state it, why, so much the better; only don't let them get frightened when they discover the whole meaning of all they are committed to.

But in the next place you come upon the next of our principles in the circle,--namely, that “Cost is the Equitable Limit of Price.” From this you dissent, on grounds which show that have not fully grasped the idea of the manner in which Principles are appropriately put forth after all notion of authority or enforcement is abandoned. The gist of your objection is contained in the following statements:

We have said that the possession of property is essential to the Sovereignty of the Individual. In this statement we find the refutation of Mr. Warren's second principle, that “Cost is the Limit of Price.” According to this theory, equal amounts of [equally repugnant] labor are made to balance each other, without regard to the value of the product. Equitable Commerce, it maintains, is the exchange of the results of equal labor as virtual equivalents. A commodity which has cost you the labor of an hour is to be exchanged on equal terms for one that has cost me labor to the same amount of time, irrespective of the utility of the product to either party.


Individual property is based on the right of the Individual to the products of his own labor. But if the product of my labor is my own, no one can decide the terms on which I shall part with it but myself. The right of exchanging it at pleasure is involved in the right of ownership. The attempt to establish a compulsory law for this purpose is a gross violation of my acknowledged Sovereignty. This view, we think, is fatal to the theory in question, apart from the practical inconveniences that would arise from its application.

This indictment seems to consist of three counts, stated or implied. 1. That we deny that the Individual is entitled to the product of his own labor. 2. That we repudiate, in some sense not specified, the possession of property, and the right of exchanging it at pleasure. And 3. That we attempt to establish a compulsory law to regulate price in gross violation of our own other fundamental principle, “The Sovereignty of the Individual.” To all of these counts we simply plead not guilty, and put ourselves upon the country. Indeed, we are utterly unable to account for the fact that any man, having looked into our books, could have made them otherwise than by recurring to another of our principles. “Infinite Individuality,” which embraces and accounts for every conceivable diversity in the understanding of language.

The proposition that “the Individual is entitled too the products of his own labor”, cannot, it is true, be accepted without limitation and modification. If I have employed my labor in hunting, catching, and handcuffing you, and reducing you to submission, it can hardly be assumed as an axiom of Social Science that I become entitled to the ownership of you thereby. So, if I employ my superior wit, or skill, or accumulative labor, which is power, in reducing you by more subtle means to a condition of servitude, the axiom in question cannot be adduced in justification. In order to entitle me to the products of my own labor, my labor must have been justly bestowed; that is, it must have been exerted at my own cost; that is again, I must not throw the burdensome consequences of my conduct on others. Cost enters, therefore, in the final analysis, into the question of ownership. But let that pass. The question more immediately up now relates to the exchange of products confessedly belonging to the parties. We admit, under the modifications stated, that every man is entitled to the product of his own labor. Even this basis, chosen by our critic, excludes natural wealth, including uncultured or natural skill, from any claim for remuneration, and carries him headlong in our direction, as he will find when he has leisure to follow out his principle into its logical consequences

As to the second count, that we repudiate property and the right of accumulating and exchanging at will, we simply deny. We only repudiate the right of accumulating other peoples's property; and as for exchanges, they are the burden of our whole doctrine.

As to the third, the attempt to establish a compulsory law to regulate price. This you regard as a gross violation of the Sovereignty of the Individual. Verily, so do we; and if we attempted anything of the kind, undoubtedly “Equitable Commerce” would be a failure. It is simply for the reason that we do nothing of the sort that it is not a failure, and is not, saving the judgment of the “Tribune”, like to be. It is precisely for the reason that we hold the doctrine of the Sovereignty of the Individual that we are forever prohibited form establishing not only this, but any other compulsory law. But this does not, we apprehend, prohibit us from discovering, accepting, announcing, and acting upon Principles. It is precisely this difference between a compulsory law and a Principle which our critic has failed to apprehend, and which the world sadly needs to appreciate. It is this misapprehension which lies at the bottom of the hasty decision he has rendered upon the System of Principles brought to his attention, which being rectified, the decision itself goes to the ground as destitute of any support or validity. As this is the hinge of the whole matter at issue, therefore, let us endeavor to make it a little clear.

We do not deny your right to the product, and the full product of your labor. We allow you to retain the possession of it as long as you choose. Nay, further, if you determine to dispose of it, we do not require nor insist in any manner upon your disposing of it otherwise than upon any terms that you choose, if you can find a purchaser. We do not oppose a feather's weight to your entire freedom. We commit no encroachment upon the fullest exercise of your Individual Sovereignty. We cannot do so consistently with ourselves. We admit your full title to the freedom, first, of not selling at all, and then of selling for any price, no matter how great the hardship to the purchaser. In other words, you are entitled to the freedom of doing right or wrong, for the better or the worse, with what is clearly your own. This leaves the question, however, of what it is right or wrong for you to do, entirely upon to be settled, further on, by other principles—but to be settled still solely by and for yourself, with no foreign interference whatsoever. It is not possible that being thus entirely freed from compulsion, and thrown entirely upon yourself for a decision, you may wish to know for yourself which is the right and which the wrong principle upon which to carry on your exchanges—which will place you in harmonious, equitable, and the most truly advantageous relations with your fellow-men, which will bring you into antagonism with all the world, confusion, general insecurity of condition, and prevalent wretchedness. Will the man who shall communicate that knowledge to you thereby commit any breach of your Individual Sovereignty, provided he “adapts the supply to the demand”? If you are desirous of knowing the laws of health, and I make you aware of the Principle of Physiology which demands the ventilation of houses, is that “a gross violation of the Sovereignty of the Individual”? If I undertook to compel you to construct your habitation upon a given plan, even for your benefit, I admit that it would be so; but, is simply communicating the knowledge to such as want it any encroachment? If a dozen individuals, operated upon by such knowledge, voluntarily, in concert or separately, enlarge their windows or otherwise modify their residences to insure this desirable end, is there any surrender on their part of their Individual Sovereignty? Yet to assert this would be precisely equivalent to the fault found with our circle of Principles, by the “Tribune.”

It does not follow, because I have the right, and every other man has the right to the products of his labor and to the liberty of retaining them forever in his own hands, that it is, therefore, either right or best that all men should retain all their own products, and that there should be no commerce whatsoever. Neither does it follow, because any man has the right to the freedom to sell his products in any manner that he pleases, that it is, therefore, either right or best that he should sell them upon the very worst principle that can be conceived of. It cannot be rightly said that any man has a right to do wrong; but every man has the right to the freedom to do wrong. In other words, he has the right not to be interfered with in the exercise of his own judgment of right, although it may lead him to do what all the world pronounce wrong, provided only that he acts at his own cost, that is, that he do not throw the burdensome consequences of his acts on others.

Having thus completely disposed of the charge that the “Cost Principle” is per se an infraction of the other Principle--”The Sovereignty of the Individual”--the question returns, what is the right Principle to regulate the exchange of products between man and man? I ask this question, not for the purpose of enforcing that Principle compulsorily upon you, but for the purpose of satisfying the intellectual and moral attributes of my nature. You ask it, if at all, in the same manner, for yourself. In reply, we have placed before us two different Principles; one, that of the exchange of equivalent Values or Benefits; the other, that of the exchange of equivalent Costs or Burdens. One is the Value Principle, the other is the Cost Principle. The one now prevails in the world, the other we contend for—not, be it remembered, to enforce it upon any body, but as the true or right thing. I have found no less than two hundred and fourteen pates absolutely requisite to set forth, in the most condensed manner, the parallel between the two. I cannot repeat (in a newspaper article) what I have thus said. I cannot conceive how, having read the book, you could simply repeat the old theory, the wrong, the outrage, the civilized cannibalism of which are too patent to be either disguised or palliated. It is equally inconceivable how, having rad the book, you could reject the simplicity, the obvious truth, and the high harmonic results of the Cost Principle. We may, perhaps, seek for the solution in the radical misconception into which you had been betrayed by haste, and which I have endeavored to rectify.

Not having time or space here, then, to expound or defend the Cost Principle, permit me to conclude, dogmatically and prophetically, by affirming somewhat in relation thereto. It is nothing less than the grand reformatory idea in commerce, corresponding to the Protestant idea in the religious world, and to the idea of Self-Government in the political; and inasmuch as “Commerce is King,” pre-eminently so, in this age, it is the Grand Idea of the Age. It is now in its infancy. Many a man who will cast his eye over this discussion will hardly know what the words mean. “Cost the Limit of Price”, will be to him a jargon of terms. Nevertheless in those words is contained the Most Fundamental, the Most Potent, and the Most Revolutionary Idea of the nineteenth century; a watchword of Reform which comes not humbly, saying, “By your leave”, but with power, saying to the capitalist, “You must.” By means of it, the rendering of justice to labor is no longer to be a matter of Grace, but of Necessity. It is an idea, too, which is to permeate the public mind without bluster, without agitation. Already the organization of Equity Villages is going on with a quietness which leaves them to be sought for by those who have a demand for truer relations among men, and with a real success which will dispense with all criticism at an early day. The time is not distant when the fact that a leading Social reformer and reviewer pronounced the Cost Principle a failure, will be quoted among the Curiosities of Literature.


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