The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice

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The Great Stephen Leacock

Thanks to expired copyrights, The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice by the woefully unheralded writer and thinker Stephen Leacock (dubbed the Canadian Mark Twain) is available for free as an e-book. The humorist/economist echoes social problems that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago when he published the essay. If you’re concerned that this is century-old hippie babble, have no fear: Leacock is an unabashed critic of socialism. Yet the problems he inspects, and the solutions he proposes, would ironically land him on the wrong side of polemic name-calling in today’s world. It’s a shame that reason has a political bias these days.

I was going to write a review here, since I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s challenging and thoughtful, and echoes many of the sentiments I’ve felt and even written about – only Leacock is more erudite and polished. But, instead of use my words to describe his, I’ll skip the middle man and provide some excerpts from the book itself.

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“[Industrialization] offers, to those who see it aright, the most perplexing industrial paradox ever presented in the history of mankind. With all our wealth, we are still poor. After a century and a half of labor-saving machinery, we work about as hard as ever.”

“For the great majority of workers, the interest of work as such is gone. It is a task done consciously for a wage, one eye upon the clock…The life of a pioneer settler in America two hundred years ago, penurious and dangerous as it was, stands out brightly beside the dull and meaningless toil of his descendant.”

“If the ability to produce goods to meet human wants has multiplied so that each man accomplishes almost thirty or forty times what he did before, then the world at large ought to be about thirty or fifty times better off. But it is not. Or else, as the other possible alternative, the working hours of the world should have been cut down to about one in thirty of what they were before. But they are not. How, then, are we to explain this extraordinary discrepancy between human power and resulting human happiness?”

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“And everybody, or nearly everybody, bases on these obvious facts a series of entirely erroneous conclusions. Because we cannot change the part we are apt to think we cannot change the whole. Because one brick in the wall is immovable, we forget that the wall itself might be rebuilt.”

“It is the restriction of individualism by the force of organization and by legislation that has brought to the world whatever social advance has been achieved by the great mass of the people.”

“The obligation to die must carry with it the right to live. If every citizen owes it to society that he must fight for it in case of need, then society owes to every citizen the opportunity of a livelihood.”

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“It is clear now that our fortunes are not in our individual keeping. We stand or fall as a nation. And the nation which neglects the aged and infirm, or which leaves a family to be shipwrecked as the result of a single accident to a breadwinner, cannot survive as against a nation in which the welfare of each is regarded as contributory to the safety of all.”

“No society is properly organized until every child that is born into it shall have an opportunity in life. Success in life and capacity to live we cannot give. But opportunity we can. We can at least see that the gifts that are laid in the child’s cradle by nature are not obliterated by the cruel fortune of the accident of birth: that its brain and body are not stunted by lack of food and air and by the heavy burden of premature toil. The playtime of childhood should be held sacred.”

“The educated world repeated to itself these grotesque fallacies till it lost sight of plain and simple truths. Seven o’clock in the morning is too early for any rational human being to be herded into a factory at the call of a steam whistle. Ten hours a day of mechanical task is too long: nine hours is too long: eight hours is too long. I am not raising here the question as to how and to what extent the eight hours can be shortened, but only urging the primary need of recognizing that a working day of eight hours is too long for the full and proper development of human capacity and for the rational enjoyment of life.”

“If we could in imagination disregard for a moment all question of how the hours of work are to be shortened and how production is to be maintained and ask only what would be the ideal number of the daily hours of compulsory work, for character’s sake, few of us would put them at more than four or five. Many of us, as applied to ourselves, at least, would take a chance on character at two.”

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