A Fair Exchange No Robbery

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Samuel Leavitt. "A Fair Exchange No Robbery." The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health. 61, 6 (December, 1875) 390-393.




[Note.—For several years the writer took an active part in a prominent, workingmen's lyceum in New York city. At one time some of the members were inclining to receive the plausible doctrine that honesty and justice between man and man could only be obtained by all people cxchanging services hour for hour; that, for instance, in exchanging products, a piece of goods, in procuring the material for which and in making it up the manufacturer consumed a certain number of hours, should be exchanged evenly for any other goods that cost the same number of hours of labor. A part of this ambitious scheme, which is founded upon the doctrines of Josiah Warren, was to make "an hour's work" a standard of value and basis for a monetary system. As the following essay was the principal means of putting a quietus upon the doctrine of "time equivalent" in that lyceum, it may be suggestive to some of the readers of the Phrenological who have been befogged by similar impracticable theories.—S. L.]

WE are told that an equitable exchange of services can only be accomplished by each man devoting an hour of his time in return for every hour devoted to him by others. Now, square Communism is very well in its way. I have a strong tendency in that direction myself. But the basic idea of every successful Communism that I ever heard of was self-denial for the good of others; and when people bring forward the doctrine of quality of compensation as a principle of equity, they must not think that they are bolstering up Communism; which has nothing to do with equations of services between man and man, but is built upon the supposed moral duty to "lay down the life for the brethren"—and thus create an equation of service between the individual and society—the duty of the strong to sacrifice themselves, on occasion, for the weak. Yet the old Romans, even, did not say, "For value received I will give my life for my country;" but "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"—"It is a sweet and a decorous thing to die for one's country."

The easiest way to upset this idea of balancing time against time is to use the argument called reductio ad absurdum—the reduction to absurdity. This can be done in various ways. For instance, a mature man enjoys the services of a number of persons in a day, and they are of various ages. Just where shall he draw the line in returning his services? Shall he give a quarter of an hour of his time in return, for the quarter of an hour's services from the fellow creature, aged ten years, who meets him in the street and "shines his boots?" Or, is he to give less return to a boy or girl, and only give an even return to the youth of either sex who happens to be twenty-one years old? It is not strange that men, conscious of the fact that the poorer classes meet with gross injustice at the hands of the rich, embrace this doctrine; but such extreme views can not be carried out, and only bring those who entertain them into discredit with accurate thinkers.

Here is another method, of reducing this doctrine to an absurdity. Turning from the matter of age to that of faculty, pray tell where this system of equivalents of time is to stop. Passing by absolute lunatics, I will ask this question: If a driveling, slobbering adult "looney," or "softie," who has just sense enough to do such work, carries a letter for me home to my house, and spends an hour at it, must I give him an hour of my time in return? My dog would do the work quicker and more surely, and a carrier-pigeon would do it in a twentieth part of the time.

Communism, as I said, is plain sailing; it is founded, not on an exchange of equal services between individuals, but on the benevolence of the strong, who yield, obedience to the certainly beautiful motto, "From each according to his ability, and to each according [391] to his necessity." This vaunted system of time equations, however, tends only to inextricable confusion. Following it, the strong in mind and body must fritter away half their time in calculating the time cost of services, and half in rendering a sort of quid pro quo to the children who run their errands and the maundering old dames of ninety years who darn their stockings, to the lame, the halt, the blind, the sick, the paralyzed, the moribund.

I believe that any society is rotten—as ours is now—where all these are not taken good care of by the strong, not as a charity, but as a duty; yet it can never be done by this balancing juggle—which it would set the most expert posture-master crazy to carry out for a single day. When he bought a brush from a blind brush-maker, he would have to find out what time the making of the brush occupied, and down with the equivalent dust or service. When he bought a wooden figure from the armless man who carves with his toes, he would be loth to tender the counterfinding service. When the legless man, who stumps along on a cushion fastened to his, posterior, using his arms for legs, went on an errand for our "equator," it would seem rather hard to him to put in an hour of his swift-footed traveling in return.

But for Darwinian equators I have an overwhelming reductio ad absurdum, because they can not consistently select any point in their descending scale of animal life where the line of fellow creatures ceases, A consistent Darwinian is always aristocratic, He believes in "big fish eat little fish," and "the survival of the fittest." But a philosopher of that school who believed in equal time exchanges would be in as sad a pickle as the ancients who believed in metempsychosis, and thought that the souls of their friends entered the lower animals. They were, therefore, horror-struck at the idea of killing any living thing. So, your Darwinian equator must give half an hour of his best comic and gymnastic effort, must try for that time to be in return "as funny as he can," when a monkey has spent a half hour in amusing him. Again, if he appropriates the store of chestnuts laid up by the squirrel, or the honey of the bee, or the eggs of the hen, or the silk of the silk-worm, he must cipher up and squarely face the terrific array of time equivalents, the return of' which, according to his theory, will make him "that noblest work of God," an honest man, who has not defrauded his fellow-creatures. My friends, this thing "won't work." Be Communists if you please, but for heaven's sake don't try to be equators, or you'll be "clean daft" before a week.

Communism has a tendency to take away much of the incentive to exertion and self-control; but this plan of time equivalents would result in utter demoralization; because there would be small need, while it was being carried; out, to consider either one's own right culture and development or that of "one's descendants. We must, as fast' as possible, so reorganize society as to afford all people equal opportunities of advancement; but to decree equal compensation to the wise and the foolish, the genius and the looney, the diligent and the lazy, would be usurious. It would afford all the evils of Communism without its benefits. The boy at school would say. "Why need I study hard? When I am a man I shall have as good pay as the grown-up boys who have burned the midnight oil in poring over books." The apprentice will say, "I shall shirk all I can; journeymen's wages are now all alike." The easy, pleasant trades would be thronged, and the unpleasant ones avoided. Men are tempted enough now, with all the horrors of poverty before them, to engage in such dissipations as weaken body and brain; but in an era of "equivalent time services" they would say, "Well, I'll have my fun, if 1 do impair my strength somewhat, I shall still be as good as the next man, or any other man, when pay-day comes."

But it is to the phrenologist and anthropologist that this doctrine seems most untenable. It is more and more clear that human beings are what their ancestors and the circumstances of, their ancestors made them. You can not gather grapes from thorn-trees, nor figs from thistles. The best and noblest minds are such because of the earnest self-denial and self-culture of the hard, steady work, in the right directions, of their progenitors. Bring the doctrine into general esteem that men and women are quite irresponsible; that they are what they are because of irresistible laws and circumstances; [392] that, therefore, each has an equal right to the enjoyment of the collective labor-products of all, and who will care to fit himself by arduous effort for what are now called "the higher walks of life?" for there will be no higher walks. Who will try to educate, ennoble, purify, and strengthen himself in the hope of having intelligent, noble, pure, strong, and healthy children? "I am as good as anybody!" will cry the lowest and laziest and stupidest. "I will not try to better myself," "I am no better than anybody else," will say some of the wisest, noblest, and strongest; "so; if that of wisdom, nobleness, and strength which inheres in me is not intrinsically superior to the characteristics of the idle and stupid, I will e'en sink to their level, for its hard work and no pay this thing of being a high-toned man."

Of all the arguments brought forward to substantiate this doctrine, few are weaker than this, that "knowledge is its own reward"—though the motto embodies a truth not available in this connection—and that, therefore, the states of information obtained by the scientist, artist, literary man, master-mechanic, lawyer, physician, etc., should not enable him to obtain more return for his labor than that obtained by dirt-shovelers, who had, and often have, little more brains than oxen. I refer to the wisest of them—a dirt-shoveler is often an angel or a genius in disguise.

Mind you, I say that things are all wrong now; the poor and the ignorant are utterly abused and wronged by the rich and the powerful-nut do not let us shut our eyes and go for these wrong-doers heads down, like bulls, for then we won't hit them in the right place. Let us go at them with our eyes open, and with scientific weapons, and we will pierce them under the fifth rib, between the joints of the harness of triple steel—their coat of mail of capital and vested right and legalized fraud. If a man who did not understand the nature of the animal should be sent to fight a rhinoceros with a sword, he would slash at him in vain. One who had studied the creature, would pierce him in a certain spot where there is an open joint in his bullet-proof hide.

But let us look now at this matter of "knowledge its own reward." Go over any list of trades or professions, and consider how many of them would be learned simply because the knowledge of them was delightful to the learner. How many trades and professions would be selected for the sake of the pleasure that would accrue from a knowledge of them? Would our friends, Drs. ----- and -----, the dentists, for instance, have spent years scraping out the fetid, rotten bones of the human mouth for the sake of the knowledge they obtained? No, no! There was money in it.

The real value of anything at any time and place is the average cost of its reproduction or replacement then and there. The value of gold and diamonds is to be discovered by dividing the world's product of them, for some recent period, into the miner's wages and material, transportation, etc., for that time. If a million pounds of gold costs two hundred million dollars to produce it, the value of gold is properly about $200 per pound, for it would cost about that to reproduce it. Now, apply the same rule to this vexed question of the value of a great invention by Arkwright, Fulton, or Morse, a great speech by Webster, Clay, or Beecher, a picture by Church or Bierstadt, a poem by Tennyson or Longfellow. It is not so hard to calculate this as one might suppose. You have only to remember that these inventions, speeches, pictures, and poems are the big gold nuggets and big diamonds of science, art and literature, obtained by certain experts, made such by the joint efforts of themselves, their progenitors, and society at large. I am not of those who deny the right of private property; though it is a nice business to decide between the rights of inventors, for instance, in. the product of their inventions and those of society. Millions are being stolen from the poor· just now by sharks under the guise of inventors and patentees. It was well enough for one or two of the original inventors in any line of mechanism to say, "'Behold great Babylon that I have builded,' the people must pay me a million." But "enough is enough." Society must step in presently and say, "Look here, Mr. Inventors, we acknowledge that this splendid fruit of your genius is the result, in a measure, of the brain capital accumulated by you and by your ancestors, and handed [393] down to you. We consider it legitimate that they should have the satisfaction of viewing from the spirit world these results of their industry, temperance, general self-denial and self-culture, and that you should be rewarded for yours. But you must remember that if .you had invented all the works of art the world has seen, and had your models around you in an uninhabited desert, they would not help you toa crust of bread. It is the fact that you are one of millions of human creatures that makes -your inventions of value to you. Therefore, 'we 'Claim the right to put a limit to your greed. We will give the principal inventors among you a million each, to 'reward you and encourage others; all other profit accruing from your labors shall belong to the public."

Thousands of human machines—of minds—are fed and educated by themselves, their friends, and society to go forth and dig and delve in the rich placers of science, art, and literature; it is only here and there one who is capable of turning up those big nuggets and big diamonds. The intrinsic value of these exceptional men is then certainly far greater than that of the estimable scavengers of which we hear so much. Any healthy man can be a good scavenger, but very few can invent a steam-engine. Observe, I am now discussing the intrinsic value of different men; the moral question as to whether every man should devote his powers freely to furthering human welfare does not come in here. I am treating of the value of great men. Who is to appropriate the wealth of thought and beauty and useful mechanism they create is another question. Suppose a company of men should undertake to produce upon some uninhabited island four men who could do such work as Morse, Webster, Bierstadt, and Longfellow have done, because they were unwilling to pay these men their high market rates for their work. Wouldn't they have their hands full? They would have to import into that island all the material necessary to establish the highest civilization, including men and women. They would have to establish agriculture, commerce, manufactures, schools, and colleges, and all the institutions that constitute the best modern life. Then they would have to wait until children were raised and trained and tested; and, perhaps, after all, it would be a hundred years before a happy combination of parental faculties would produce them a single great man. In fact, before they had been long at this costly experiment, they would say, "Well, Webster, we think it will be cheaper to pay you. $10,000 apiece for your great speeches, if you won't be a Communist and give them to us for nothing. And, Morse, we will give you a million for your telegraphs; and, Bierstadt and Longfellow, we'l1 give you $10,000 apiece for your best works. We find, that the cost of reproducing them is altogether more than we expected." So, you see, it is not worth our while to go it on the" equatorial line."


  • Samuel Leavitt, “A Fair Exchange No Robbery,” The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health 61, no. 6 (December 1875): 390-393.