Words That Men Live By
William Allen White (1937)
WASHINGTON, D. C., Sept. 20, 1937 – Once in a blue moon an angry voice rises out of the mists of public debate to speak the plaints and complaints of that indefinable person – Mr. John Q. Public – torn as always between the conflicts of political parties, capital and labor, or even conservative liberal thinking.
Here such a voice was raised by William Allen White, distinguished editor of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, and already revered in his lifetime as the sage of the public mind – at 69 years of age the militant spokesman for the individual with no organization behind him, the little man who is just trying to get along.
Mr. White gave one of his rare acceptances to an invitation to make a speech, in order to stand before the American Management Congress, meeting here. What he said gave little comfort to any faction among the contending forces in the American economy; but his words will be applauded by millions.
In this discussion I am supposed to represent the public – the American consumer. He is a mythical character who never lived on land or sea, but for that matter, the capitalist is a myth and the worker’s status is an economic hypothesis. It is trite to say that in America we are all more or less owners, all workers of high or low degrees, and certainly we are all consumers. We are all the children of John Q. Public, and our interests as members of the consuming public are after all our chief end and objective as citizens of our democracy.
Let me begin by telling you both, laborer and capitalist, that you have got us citizen consumers in a pretty sad mess. Every time we consumers think of what one of you has done we are dead sore at each of you until we begin to think of what the other has done. Let me start on capital, the employer. Not that he is more to blame than labor. But he is more responsible. He enjoys more freedom. He could have done better. You employers have wasted twenty years since the end of the World War. In those twenty years, a little intelligent self-interest, a little foresight – not much – would have solved equitably the problems that are now pressing upon us, problems that have been adjusted in haste and in the emergency of calamity. Take the eight-hour day. You knew that it was coming. Why didn’t you men willingly, sensibly, grant it? But no. You had to fight it, every inch, and make the consuming public think you were greedy – when you were not. You were just dumb – dumb to give labor a sense of deep antagonism. Take the old age pension and job insurance to cover seasonal and technological unemployment. A thousand voices rose across the land, telling you of the trouble ahead. What did you do? You put cotton in your ears, and if you could hear through the cotton you began yelling “Communism!” at the academician and the liberal politician and spokesmen of the consuming public. Everyone realized 20 years ago and more that sooner or later, with the pensions of the Civil War gone which took care of the aged until the World War, we should have old age pensions as a federal problem. Yet you employers let a generation of old people, unprovided for, begin to clamor for old age pensions and begin to listen to demagogues with silly panaceas. Then, having squandered your substance, you turned your men on the street in the days of the locust, and put into the hands of the most adroit politician America has ever seen the votes of ten million men whom your slipsshod social viewpoint rendered jobless. If a dozen or twenty years ago you, Mr. Capitalist, had used the social sense of the average man in the street, this problem of unemployment and old age pensions would not be handing to your arch-enemies an organized subsidized class-conscious proletariat which can be voted to your destruction. By your sloth you created the particular head devil who is mocking you. He is your baby. You begot him two decades ago in the days of your youth when you were going to handle your business in your own way and no man could come into your shop and tell you how to run it!
But labor has been so Solomon. The proper business of a labor union is to get higher wages, better hours and good shop conditions for the workmen. But when labor en masse plunks its vote for its own party, then the spirit of party loyalty begins to obscure labor’s objectives – high wages, short hours, decent shop conditions. Thus class-conscious labor leaders become more interested in their party welfare than in the fundamental objectives of labor unions. So we shall have the class-conscious political worker trading his vote not for the immediate objective of wages, hours and shop conditions, but for power for his political labor boss. The political labor boss will ask the workers to swallow a whole ticket in order to dominate a whole government. He would turn a democracy into a contest between two class-conscious parties, a class-conscious proletariat and a class-conscious plutocracy. In that setup where is the Consumer; where indeed is the compromise between labor union militant and undefiled – yes; the vertical union and the closed shop? Yes. But a class-conscious labor party in a democracy – no! If labor insists upon maintaining its class lines of bitter intransigent hostility to all capital, the American middle class – old John Q. Public and his heirs and assigns – will not support labor.
This is a middle-class country and the middle class will have its will and way. For the middle class is the real owner of American industry. The middle class is also 80 per cent worker and the consumer of 80 per cent of American industrial production in the home market. The middle class thinks and feels chiefly as The Consumer. And before the middle class demands an increase in either interest for inventors or higher wages for the worker, the middle class will demand fair prices and a stable industry. That means industrial peace. No peace is lasting until it is founded upon that essential equitable compromise between the contending forces – capital and labor – known as justice.
~ Postlogue ~
There has been, of course, no sequel.
Voices raised on behalf of the commonalty of us all bear little weight, since politicians, capitalists, labor – or whatever you will – know that unorganized feelings have little consequence. We divide and vote.
But down through the years, there is a definite sequel that becomes known only at a time and under circumstances when, tired of being pushed around by special groups, the public forgets its immediate identification with class or mass and indicates, “a plague on both your houses.”Printable version