Other people’s cabbages

The Mises Institute has a new book online, Ernest Benn’s “Confessions of a Capitalist.” I have read chapter one – “Introductory apology,” and Benn seems like a utilitarian, and a strong believer in capitalism because of the unsurpassed contribution of this economic system to society-

Science depends on fact as well as theory. The science of medicine would be a poor thing if it relied solely upon the theoretical. But the science of economics has been left almost entirely to the theorists. Except for Ricardo, I do not recall a single case of a man with much experience in the payment of wages who has ventured to write upon the theory of wages. I do not know of any other case where a man who has made a large profit has contributed to discussions upon the theory of profit. I propose, therefore, to offer myself as a sacrifice, as it were, upon the altar of economic truth, to take my doings and examine them in the light of theory—a process which, it is my hope, may be found to be useful in these days when the economic structure of society should be the concern and study of all.

I am further encouraged to embark upon this self-imposed task by the folly of many of the efforts that are made to defeat Socialism. Socialism will not be killed by the exploitation of the” Red’ Bogey,” by the appeal to the selfish instincts of those who happen to possess a little more than the average of this world’s goods. That would seem to be obvious, if only for the reason that these persons are in such an insignificant minority. The discussion must be lifted above personal consideration. It does not matter a row of pins to society, considered as a whole, whether I retain my income or not; whether, as an individual, I continue to occupy my present position of responsibility. The only thing that matters is the well-being of the whole, the good of the greatest number. The only question for debate is whether others are damaged or benefited by my operations and the size of my emoluments. If it can be shown that. my income could be taken from me and handed over to the unemployed, and that I could still live, and that the unemployed could live better by some process which had that effect, then the great majority of wealthy men would, I feel convinced, wave the Red Flag as vigorously and as enthusiastically as the most earnest Bolshevik. If, on the other hand, it is a fact, as I believe it to be, that my income is merely the index of the much bigger income enjoyed by a very large number of my fellow-men who, all of them, would lose such amenities as they now possess if my income were to go, then I have a case which must surely be examined, understood, and, if proved, accepted.

I am an unrepentant believer in private enterprise. I have failed to discover, in a long and diligent search, any material benefit which has ever reached mankind except through the agency of individual enterprise. I therefore regard the whole movement for creating wealth by political agencies as a snare and a delusion. For these reasons I see no essential difference between the Bolshevik of Russia and the numerous types of moderate Socialist. Both are committed to the abolition of private enterprise, and both are therefore destroyers of human comfort. The frantic efforts of the Socialist to exclude the Communist from the councils of the Labour Party are, to me, illogical and futile. I am reminded of two murderers who filled a good many newspaper columns a year or so ago. Their names were, I think, Bywaters and Thompson. Both directed their attentions to the same victim. The method of the one was to administer small doses of ground glass. The other adopted the more straight-forward and direct method of the dagger. The moderate Socialist is the ground-glass practitioner; the Communist uses the dagger. But, in so far as they are both bent upon the abolition of private enterprise, they are both murdering the chances of the human race to reach a higher standard of material comfort.

The comparison between the Communist and Socialist brings to mind a Bernard Shaw quote from Hazlitt’s book, which, incidentally, lists this book of Benn in its “library” – “A communist is nothing but a socialist with the courage of his convictions.”

My post title comes from a passage in the eighth chapter, which I haven’t read, but which is quoted by Jeff Tucker at the Mises blog-

The life of a business man does not lend itself to graphic description. Buying and selling does not make good “copy.” A man who stands behind the counter and serves out cabbages need not look for notoriety. If his cabbages are good, if his manners give no offence, if he refrains from excessive drink and conducts himself with ordinary propriety, he will in time be known as a “respected resident”; but in the main his life will pass without comment, and his only obituary notice will be the inscription on his gravestone. The man who wants to be somebody, on the other hand, and to produce good biographical material, must eat other people’s cabbages and devote himself to agitation. He must make speeches, and write to the papers. He must rail in public about the tenure of the land which produces the cabbages, expatiate on the mode of life of the man who sells the cabbages, or the man who brings them to market: he can, if he will, stir to its depths the public indignation over the price at which the cabbages are sold. In each, or any, of these ways he can become an infinitely more important person than the humdrum individual who merely sees that his fellows are provided with appropriate cabbages. The result of his work as an agitator may be to halve the supply of cabbages, to drive the cabbage merchant out of business; to produce conditions in which only the professional profiteer can venture to touch cabbages; to create artificial restrictions and regulations—in short, to ruin the industry. All this will make for greatness. The more public inconvenience caused by descanting on these questions, the higher will be the public estimate of the professional agitator. It would seem to be essential to make trouble, or at least to be associated with trouble, if you would become a great public character and leave behind a great biography. There is no good copy in the day by day or year by year monotony of an ordinary business career.

The man who eats “other people’s cabbages” – as good a description of a politician as any other, as also that of the modern day “liberal.”

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