Intellect not Labor the Creator of Wealth by Frederick Millar 1906
Posted this October 6 to commemorate the October Revolution
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The absurdity of the socialist's attempt to place the ordinary labour that is common to the many on the same level of wealthproducing and wealth-increasing value as the superior intelligence which is only possessed by the few may be shown by an imaginary but possible case. Suppose that here is a journeyman carpenter who has just finished making a deal table, and, while resting from his labour, is now thinking, with the socialist agitator, what a shame it is that the rich should be continually getting richer and the poor poorer. Let his gloomy reverie be interrupted by the following pointed question: "You say, do you not, that this deal table is the result of your labour?" "It ought to be if it isn't, for, according to yon clock, I have taken exactly eight hours in making it." "It is clear, then, that in this case, at any rate, you have made one step towards the realisation of the working man's Utopia as painted by certain Trade Unionists:—
Eight hours' work, eight hours' play,
Eight hours' sleep, and eight bob a day."
It would be a pity to spoil so elegant a piece of rhyme, or one might add: "And prices to remain the same for ever and ever." "Well, you have made this table much quicker than an idler could have done, there can be no doubt about that; but is the speed altogether due to your labour? Let us see. What is this you have got here? A bag of tools? Why, there are tools all over the shop; there must be, at least, thirty different kinds in this bag alone. In the making of this table you have had the help of tools for every operation. What would you have done without them? How long would it take you to make a table like this, if left to do the best you could without the aid of tools of any kind? Did you ever invent one of these useful instruments? Did you ever come across any man who had invented one? No, you never knew any man that had invented a tool, but you 'once knew a man that had improved one.' Good; and what proportion do you think this last exceptional genius bears to the number of those who do not even so much as improve upon old things, let alone invent new ones? However, you know plenty of people who make tools—that is to say, who copy the ideas expressed in the tools that others have invented. This is likely enough; but how many original people have you known as compared with the number of those that have not a spark of originality in their composition, and can therefore do naught but run, like sheep, in ruts laid down for them? Not many, I'll be bound."
Of course, it is easy enough to copy and profit by inventions and improvements after somebody else has made them; but in this world of mediocrity the vast majority of people go on, generation after generation, without ever thinking of a new utility of any kind. They can copy, and they can learn to use; but beyond this they do not appear to be able to advance a single step. This, at best, only tends to keep production at the same level; certainly it does not tend to increase it. Yet this is the most that can be said for the masses. With them, imitation is the rule; originality the rare exception. They move in the line of the least resistance. A man of average intelligence soon falls into the way of using and copying tools, and machines, and methods of production; but few men fall into the way of inventing them. It is easy to do anything when you once know how; but the man who first finds out the how and why of anything is worth a good many clever and painstaking imitators.
How rare is originality; how common mediocrity! Take, for instance, the case of an ordinary screw. For thousands of years mankind plodded along without ever thinking of so simple and useful a contrivance as this; and it was only yesterday that an exception to the many millions, "mostly fools," thought of making a spiral thread upon a common nail, thus turning the latter into a partial rivet that holds firmer than any nail. If the man who first thought of this had never afterwards attempted to do another stroke of work, he would have done far more to increase the wealth of the world than hundreds of average labourers working their regular eight hours per day from early youth to ripe old age. For the world is no richer by reason of the labour of average labourers; the latter work no harder to-day than they did 1,000 years ago—if, indeed, as hard—and yet their labour now results in far more wealth than it did then. Why? Because it has been rendered more productive by reason of the superior intelligence of the few.
Take the case of a saw. When labour is not rendered more easy and efficient by such an instrument as this, planks, that are now so necessary for the inner construction of buildings, have got to be split out of the trunks of trees by means of wedges—a most clumsy and wasteful method. Yet even this involves the use of tools (the expressions and embodiments, as we have seen, of the superior intelligence of the few), and could not be done without them. Labour alone might rend the trunk of a tree into separate pieces, though, to be sure, it would have a tough job on hand; but only labour facilitated by the concrete realisations of intellect, only labour working with tools, could split up the trunk of a tree with wedges, or saw it with a saw, or cut it with a knife. Labour makes the noise, but intellect is responsible for the tune. Men move by labour, but they only move efficiently and profitably by intellect. Labour is the wind, intellect the mill. There is as much wind blowing about now as there was 3,000 years ago; but some of it now grinds corn, saves time, and increases wealth. This difference is due, not to the wind, but to the wiser utilisation of the wind through intellect. And the same is true of labour. Without the inventions and improvements of the few, labour might produce a bare subsistence for naked savages, but it could not produce wealth, because wealth is essentially something over and above a bare subsistence. For a bare subsistence means consuming as fast as producing, and this is precisely what labour does when not enabled to be efficient and profitable by the superior intelligence of the few. So that the real truth is that wealth, as such—as something over and above a bare subsistence—so far from being due to labour, is rather due to that diminution of toil which enables things to be produced quicker than they are consumed; but such diminution is due to the time-shortening processes, methods, and inventions of the few.
It is said: "Well, if these particular inventions and improvements had not been thought of by those who did think of them, other persons coming afterwards would have found them out for us. We, therefore, owe no thanks to those who did find them out; they were on the way, and their so-called inventors merely happened to be lucky enough to be the first to get hold of them." This sort of reasoning is more plausible than sound. It seems to meet our argument without doing so. It fails to notice that "other persons coming afterwards" would still have been altogether exceptional persons, and altogether superior in point of intelligence to the general herd. Such a childish and crude reply, therefore, does not in the least degree help to dispose of our argument. It merely shifts that argument from one minority to another minority, from the few really intelligent people that have been to the few intelligent people that might have been. Those who object to our argument appear to fancy that inventions and improvements come of themselves. In point of fact, however, they do nothing of the kind. It is perfectly true, as objectors are never tired of pointing out, that they are often led up to by previous inventions and improvements—that, in fact, they are frequently the latest steps in a series of steps; but, then, equally true is it that the steps which preceded them, and rendered them possible, were in their turn equally due to the exceptionally original minds of comparatively few persons, and, without such original minds, would never have been taken at all. This the objectors pay no attention to. They think that, by shifting inventions from a real minority to an imaginary one, they can dispose of the argument that all improvement, all progress, and all wealth come from the few, and not from the many. They forget that a minority is a minority, whether it be real or imaginary, and that, consequently, the arguments which are reared upon it, in so far as it is a minority, are equally sound whether it be real or imaginary. If these objectors would dispose of our argument, let them prove that efficiency and profit-giving improvements come from the mass, instead of from an intelligence which is above it.
The fact is, the general mass of men are of far too dull and sluggish a character to do much for real advancement. When any forward step is taken, it is taken by somebody in particular, and not by everybody in general. When a useful invention is thought of, "the people" do not all think of it at once. They are far more ready to laugh and scoff together than to think together; and this no doubt proves their natural and infallible fitness for ruling themselves, or, rather, for giving themselves body and soul into the hands of flattering demagogues, since this is all that popular "self-government" practically amounts to.
"The people" jog along for ages with their wants most imperfectly supplied, until some particular individual thinks of supplying them better. Some simple arrangement is thought of, which saves both time and labour, and enables production to be carried on with greater efficiency and profit to all concerned. When it is first introduced, "the people " treat its introducer with indifference, not unfrequently with contempt; and, even when they come at last to know something of its value, all they say by way of thanks is: "Dear, dear; how strange that nobody should have ever thought of this before!"