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A WORLD IN PAWN.
IN future ages the nineteenth century may come to be distinguished as the period of mighty debts. At present what strikes observers most is the wonderful progress which the world seems to be making. The earth is being subdued at a speed and in a manner never dreamed of by our forefathers. Wilds untrodden till the other year are yielding fruit to the hand of the cultivator. Every decade one may say that new kingdoms become the possession of conquerors, whose right of ownership does not arise from the sword, but from the triumphs of science. The United States of America is the country to which we naturally turn for the most striking examples of this peaceful subjugation, but it is everywhere the same. Into Central or South America the populations of the older nations of Europe pour their surplus year by year, and every year sees new settlements spring into being, new railways built, new ports opened. Towns start up amid what a year or two ago were sleepy untenanted wildernesses, and beginnings are made of what may grow to be strong nations. It is the same in Australasia, though the pace may be slower; and in Africa, where the fever of progress, however, is only in its first stage. Over all the world, from Japan round again to China, men and nations are in movement, and "the old order changeth, yielding place to new." Upon its expansive, its swarming side the social history of this nineteenth century is full of the marvellous, is fascinating as a romance of the earthly paradise. Nor at any point can we stop short and say, "Here the development is complete. This nation has attained its full stature, and has only to rest henceforth and enjoy." On the contrary, the work done begets new work, the stage reached reveals far-away vistas towards which the eager peoples must toil while the passion of progress fires their blood. And if that be the case with old nations, like England or France, how much more in those virgin territories whose "resources" have as yet scarcely felt the touch of the settler. Looking abroad on the world from this standpoint, contrasting what men wish and hope to do with what they have already done, it is the glory of the illimitable future that overwhelms the imagination, not the splendid record of the past.
That is one side of the picture, but it has another. This onward march of the human race is not accomplished without cost, and as time passes it becomes increasingly obvious that in all cases the cost has not been counted. Along with the spirit of emulation displayed in subduing and peopling the woods and solitary places of the earth, we find a disposition to mortgage the future which has hitherto
suffered little or no restraint. No sooner has a group of settlers erected its township of wooden huts in a new region than it proceeds to borrow on its property. Little colonies with no more inhabitants than many an English town raise millions of money on the chances of becoming wealthy at a future day, and load themselves with rates and taxes before they are well rooted to their new possession. Thrift and painstaking are flung to the winds, and those who leave their homes in the old world to enter the new-driven away, perhaps, by the pressure of taxation-demand at once the same adjuncts of civilisation, the same facilities for conducting business, that they had at home. They heap upon themselves an accumulated load of the very burdens from which they fled. In this respect there could be few greater contrasts than that between the colonisations of to-day and those of even fifty years ago. More startling still would it be to compare the slow, painful, much-enduring labours of two centuries, by means of which the early settlers in Virginia and New England became possessed of homes and comforts, with the headlong progress of New Zealand, say, which had no railways as recently as 1870, and has now nearly 1,500 miles in operation; or with the ten years' growth of a western State in North America. Some of these States are now covered with networks of railways and boasting of cities of forty or fifty thousand inhabitants, which were hardly known to explorers a score of years ago. Colorado, for example, had a population of less than 40,000 in 1870, and in 1880 it was 194,000. In the same period Nebraska has sprung from 123,000 to 452,000, Kansas from 364,000 to 996,000, Dakota from 14,000 to 135,000, and so on. More progress was made in a decade than in other days would have occurred in a century.
But this progress has been possible only because people nowadays refuse to go as their fathers went. They mortgage the future, either by public or by private borrowings, in order to spring at once into the possession of all the appliances of a luxurious and science-nurtured civilisation. In a word, the new world has been put in pawn to the old, and the old has in turn mortgaged itself to future generations, and that with a rapidity which has left us no leisure for the consideration of the social and economic fruits which this state of bondage will be likely to bear. It is time, I venture to think, that we did pause and take stock, and not as regards the new world alone. In the old also the fashion has been, and is, to put everything in pawn which could be constituted a security. By means of little bits of paper which certify that a nation, or a town, or a great corporation owes an individual so much money, upon which a given amount of interest is to be paid till the principal is redeemed, the few have become masters over the labour of the many here in England to an extent wholly unappreciated by most of those who chatter glibly
about "national wealth," the "fruitfulness of capital," and so forth. It is obvious, however, that a variety of set phrases will not for very much longer suffice to keep out of sight the great questions pending between the rich and the poor-questions that spring from this state of subjection into which the few have brought the multitude by means of debt, far more than from any other cause. A week or two ago a little pamphlet was put into my hand, called The Funding System, or How the People are Plundered by the Middle Classes. It is published in Birmingham, and has circulated to a wide extent among the working population of the Midlands. In this little book the repudiation of national debt is boldly and openly advocated. Mr. Henry George's book on Progress and Poverty is another sign of the times. It is useless to laugh at his crude ideas on political economy, so called, or his peculiarly erratic exposition of the wages theory, or at his plan for the nationalisation of the land. Those who read the book most eagerly are not usually learned in matters of that kind; they simply know that the shoe pinches, that while a favoured few in the world seem to be in progress towards a goal of comfort and abundance they stand still. They feel the grinding of taxation ever pressing them nearer to the dust, and so they grasp at whatever will promise relief. And small wonder that they do. The extent to which the labour of the human race is mortgaged in old countries as well as new is perfectly appalling when the mind views it apart from the theories of progress and the doctrines of economists, by which getting into debt is justified. According to these, borrowing is good for the body corporate, though it may be bad for the individual. The fact that every pound borrowed at interest lays a mortgage on labour to at least the amount of that interest never appears to strike the minds of those who look only at the bright side of the picture. A New Zealand squatter once observed to the writer, in answer to a remonstrance about the rapidity with which that colony is ruining its future by ill-advised borrowing, "It is not by the population you must judge of the weight of our debt, but by the number of our sheep." But where would the sheep be without the labour that tends them? A clergyman once remarked to me, in a dogmatic way, that "money ought to be worth four per cent.," and the idea in his mind evidently was that "money" was a reproductive commodity, which had only to be sown to bring forth fruit. He but expressed, in short, the common notion about capital, and money, and interest. There can, however, be no "returns" upon money invested except from the labour of those to whom it is lent, or upon whom the charges of the loan are imposed; and there is no assumption more unjustifiable than the one that debt may increase the profitableness of labour. One of the most urgent questions of our time, therefore, is the influence which debts have, and are likely to have, on the well-being of the
communities by whom they have been contracted, or on whose backs they are laid. It is the main question to which I shall devote these papers, but before directly entering upon it, some ideas must be conveyed to the mind of the reader regarding the nature, magnitude, and distribution of the mortgages under which nations lie.
In dealing with such a subject the difficulty always is to fix a definite impression on the mind. The esteemed statistician who compiled the latest edition of Fenn on the Funds, says that in 1862 the aggregate national debts of the world came to two thousand six hundred and five millions, that they increased in the next decade roughly by two thousand millions more; that at the end of 1882 the aggregate was £5,394,000,000 notwithstanding the reductions which have taken place in our own debt and in that of the United States. These figures, however, convey only the most indefinite impression to the imagination. But we can see that within the space of twenty years the so-called national debts of the world have more than doubled, and as the great mass of these debts bear interest it is obvious also that the conditions of existence have been materially altered in less than a generation by the weight of that interest. If we deduct theodd £394,000,000 for debts which bear no interest through default, or scarcely any, like those of a number of Central American States and of Turkey, the remainder at four per cent, which is a low average, would imply a tax upon the labours of the civilised world amounting in gross to £200,000,000 per annum. But the average earnings of the workers by whom the bulk of these debts are borne do not exceed ten shillings per week. In India the average is far lower, and in Russia, Austria, and Hungary, as well as in Turkey and Italy, it is, I believe, under that figure. Put it, however, at £25 per annum and we shall find that the national debts under which so many populations now groan abstract annually a sum equal to the entire earnings of eight millions of people. Did each individual in these eight millions support a family of three persons only besides himself, the interest upon these debts would imply the absorption of the entire support of a population equal to that of the United Kingdom. Distributed as they are over a population whose numbers amount to perhaps five hundred millions, the weight of these debts is not of course felt after this fashion, but even so the burden is enormous. And on some nations it presses far more than others. Some nations in fact receive tribute from the others in the shape of interest on loans. The wealth which falls into the hands of the few augments the national income, and is in their case partially distributed again, easing the load of that favoured nation's own debts so far as its own. workers are concerned. But in countries like Italy, Hungary, Turkey, Egypt, or India, which have to remit to foreign usurers the charges upon their debt, its interest amounts to an everlasting strip
ping away of their resources. Nations most deeply mortgaged to aliens or to other nations are therefore those that we should expect to see suffer most from the sudden and altogether unprecedented growth of corporate obligations under which the debt-contracting system has thrust them. Debts may grow in the lending countries without being appreciably felt so long as their foreign loans bring good interest, but the constant sapping away of the resources of the borrowing countries may in reality be preparing a catastrophe which will make the ultimate fate of the lenders the most disastrous of all. That at all events is a question which it is necessary to face and to discuss with the most anxious attention at the present time. Most political economists nowadays have contracted the habit of treating national and corporate debts as if they were good things in themselves. In their view the heaping up of tremendous liabilities by a nation in its aggregate capacity does not breed the same mischief as the debts of private individuals. Hence debt of this larger order is usually spoken of as a thing to be fostered and treated as if it were an integral part of the "progress" which the world is making, instead of being, as it actually is, a threatening foe to that progress. I know of nothing more callous, and of few things more contemptible, than this modern fashion of treating the labour of the world as something good only for putting in pawn. The people by the sweat of whose brows the "interest" on national debts has to be provided are never considered. It is tacitly or openly assumed that if it be good for the lender to receive interest it must be good for the borrower to pay it. Under this comfortable doctrine the most self-governed nations pile up obligations faster than even the most unquestioned despots have dared to impose them.
And the debt contracting, the mortgaging of men's labour for the present generation and for generations yet unborn, does not end with the so-called national debt. In many civilised countries, and notably in the older countries of Europe, and in the United States of America and India, more or less enormous corporate burdens have been contracted, with or without popular sanction, for the purpose of constructing railways, and in not a few of them the local and municipal obligations now reach a total that would have appalled our grandfathers. What the exact amount of these obligations-of capital invested in sanitary, ornamental, or "reproductive works"-may be it is scarcely possible to say. But on railways alone three countries, England, France, and the United States, have spent nominally more than two thousand millions sterling.
It will, however, be better to leave these generalities and to turn to the facts relating to one or two prominent nations, so as to reach the core of the question to be discussed. Let us look at home to begin with. What is the position of England, and of the working population of