“The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always do so when they can. ”
Let us ask, first, how the problem happens to arise. It isn’t just a fanciful affair, a puzzle to be worked on for sport or entertainment. If a man has to decide whether to seek gain for himself or gain for his fellows, it can only be because circumstances are such that he cannot do both. If he could do both, if the two were never incompatible, the problem could not arise. He could then gratify his wishes with the happy knowledge that he was injuring nobody, or that he was actually helping others. There must, therefore, be certain social circumstances, which make one man’s gain a loss to others. These circumstances are chiefly two: (1) a scarcity of goods and services, and (2) the exploitation of one group of men by another group. Let us look at these further.
(1) Scarcity means that there are not enough goods and services to satisfy the normal wants of all members of society. It means that there are not enough houses, clothes, food, medical care, education and so forth, for everybody to have as much of them as he wants or even as much as he needs. From this insufficiency it follows that the possession of things by some people entails the lack or loss of them in others. Those who have, not unreasonably want to keep; and those who have not, with equal reason want to get. There ensues a competition, always vigorous and sometimes violent, which would never exist in a society of genuine abundance. For what would be the point of taking food from another’s mouth, if there were so much of it available that you, on the other hand, wouldn’t need to take it, and he, on the other, could easily replenish his loss?
But as things are now, most people don’t get all they need, still less all they want. They see no reason (for there is no reason) why they should be deprived. They see other people grasping, some of them successfully. It looks as though it were “human nature” to do so. Perhaps they had better get in there and grasp too. If they begin to philosophize about this, the first thing you know they will talk like Machiavelli: “The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always do so when they can”*. Success will bring a semblance of security, whereas failure will bring poverty, disease and death. Under such conditions, what arguments can persuade men towards social-mindedness? As Lincoln Steffens once observed, it was not the serpent which corrupted man; it was the apple.
(2) Exploitation means the appropriation to oneself of the products of other people’s labour without full compensation. The exploited person works part of the time for himself and part for somebody else. In the Middle Ages, the lords did the same with their serfs. In modern society, employers make a profit upon the labour for their employees.
Now, the interests of these groups are opposed. The employer cannot exist at all unless he makes a profit, and he cannot be secure unless he makes a large profit. But whether he increases the profits by lowering wages or raising prices, the effect on wage earners is to lower their standard of living, they do so at the expense of profits. Its a mistake to suppose that either group acts out of personal greed. Given the system, the employer has to do what he does, or he will cease to be an employer; the employees has to do what he has, or he will cease to be at all. The one seeks to maintain his social role, the other simply to maintain himself.
In economic conditions of this sort, it is very difficult to urge the superior merit of being a tad deceptive. Humanitariasm, personal reform, and the dawning of an inner light may mitigate the conflict somewhat; but the conflict itself cannot be removed unless we remove also the conditions which produce it. This brings us within the sight of our answer.
How does one solve a problem? If the problem is merely theoretical, one can solve it by analyzing it into its parts and assembling those parts into a coherent system. If the problem is, however, practical, one solves it by performing those acts which will put the problem out of existence. Suppose I have the “problem” of getting to Chandini Chowk. I solve it by taking a metro or bus or my car, that is to say, by doing those things which will get me there.
Now, for many years people have tried to solve the problem stated till now. And they have been reaching no answers. They have failed. They have failed because the problem is not theoretical but practical. Its solution not lies in constructing paragraphs of reason and ethics, but in the creation of a new society.
When mankind has attained a state in which goods and services abound and exploitation has ceased, there will be no social reason why your welfare should be incompatible with mine. Selfishness and deception, having no longer anything important to do, will whither away, taking our problem with it
Can we reach the goal? Well, maybe not you and I, who are aging under the strains of the present world. Our best hope will be to move the Leviathan a little, so that our children and their children can begin to see dawn. Even before the harnessing of atomic energy, abundance was a very possible thing. Now it must seem that the possibilities are without limit. The human race, which abolished slavery and serfdom, which learned and practices political democracy, cannot be eternally thwarted of control over its entire social destiny. It may appear a fabled and Utopian dream, but dreams far more fabled and Utopian have come true.
The dreams men dream in sleep are mist and shadow. The dreams men dream while waking can become the substance of the world.