Monopoly Ethics

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[Attributed to, and published separately by, J. S. Loveland. See The Spiritual Offering, II, 3 (July 1878) 114, 159.]



The agitation respecting railroad freights and fares brings certain grave questions of morality into discussion, and will ultimately force upon the public conscience their consideration and settlement, in spite of the earnest efforts to ignore them. The railroad men are great sticklers for "vested rights!" "We ask, who vested them, and for what? Was there not a contract, by implication at least, between them and the vesting party, (the people) which guaranteed certain things, as a quid pro quo for the rights so vested? And, when complaint is made that the "rights of property" are invaded by the tariff bills of Wisconsin, and some other states, are we not justified in pushing our inquiries farther, and asking, What is the fundamental principle of rightful ownership? Simple profession is not sufficient. It must be ownership justly acquired, and justly retained; whether of houses, lands, money, or franchises. The railroad men, in addition to their road-bed and rolling stock, profess certain franchises as incorporated companies. And, if the attainment of the same involved certain reciprocities between the parties, it is difficult to see how complaint of infringement of rights can be made with any grace whatever, when only those reciprocities are sought to be obtained. Or, to make the case still plainer, we may affirm that the question of the ownership, or confiscation of property, is not involved in this discussion. The ownership is not challenged by the States in question. But, it is the mode of their use. Their franchises are "vested rights," to be sure. But, there can be no rights without correlative duties. These "rights" were vested for a purpose. That purpose was the use which they were to subserve to the people who conferred these franchises. No people could be so stupid as to bestow such favors with no prospect of benefit therefrom. The people complain that their gifts are used to oppress rather than aid them. They demand a remedy, and put their demand in the form of authoritative regulation of railroad tariffs. The owners demur, and ask, May we not do what we please with our own? The answer is easy. To a certain extent, we may use our own as we please, but there are limitations to this rule. Let our railroad magnates essay to convert their fine offices in our city into nuisances, and they will soon see them abated, no matter what the amount of money the nuisance might yield them. We may not use our own to the injury or annoyance of another.

Railroads, and all means of transportation, are largely communistic in character. Men do not build railroads for their own private use. They are for the use of the public, and the conditions created by their existence compel their use. To dispense with them is simply impossible. They are individualistic so far as property ownership is concerned; that is, individuals have paid for their construction and outfit, with the exception of those aided by subsidies and grants of the public lands. Still there is a form of ownership retained by the people as an equivalent for the franchises conferred; and that ownership is the right of equitable use. The right to use a railroad is as perfect as is the right of the public to the accommodations of a hotel, and even more so. But the people complain that their rights are infringed by the imposition of extortionate rates for fares and freights. The railroad men reply that it is simply a question of profit, and belongs exclusively to themselves. They demand to know who has any right to define the limit of their profit. And this challenge brings the ever recurring, but never adjusted, question of rent, profit, and interest, before us for solution. If the money lender may exact one, two, or three per cent, a month for his loan; if banks and other monied institutions may make their twenty per cent, dividends; if the trader may impose twenty-five or one hundred per cent, profit on his goods, or the landlord receive ten to fifty per cent, rent on his houses and lands; why may not the railroad men demand such profits as please them? All of them take advantage of people's necessities; and "fair profits" are just what can be realized by the skillful arts of extortion. It cannot be denied that the same principle is involved in all these cases. "Things are worth what they will bring," states it with sufficient clearness; hence: if money will bring five per cent, a month, in consequence of the desperate condition of some debtor, it is worth that rate of interest 1 Or if misfortune compels some houseless wanderer to hire a dwelling, paying fifty per cent, rent, it is worth that amount I Or any price, which the needs of the people and the rapacity of the trader may make possible, is, according to this theory, only the just value of the goods sold. This may be correctly termed the "moral standard" of all existing monopolies, whether railroad or others. Were it the "standard" of monopolies only, the remedy for present social evils would be easily found and applied. Unfortunately, however, the masses of mankind adopt, without question, the same code of social morality which we have designated as " Monopoly Ethics." And it is impossible for us to see the difference in principle between the railroad which absorbs in freight all the surplus of the farmer's fruit and grain, and of that same farmer who absorbs all the products of the laborer's toil, except what is necessary to support him in a working condition. Can any one? The transportation monopolies and the distributing ones—the go-betweens—are accused of nearly or quite robbing the producing classes. How do they do it? By carrying out the principle that "a thing is worth what it will bring;" hence, if their services in carrying and distributing can be made to bring them all, or nearly all, the surplus products of the country's labor, then are they justly entitled to the same. If scarcity, on the one hand, and necessity on the other can justly regulate the price of labor, commodities, money, etc., then the course of railroads, and of all other monopolies, is right and good; and we have no just cause of complaint. Can any one show the contrary? We defer to another article farther discussion.


  • Finance, “Monopoly Ethics,” Common Sense, A Journal of Live Ideas 1, no. 37 (January 30, 1875): 436.




In a prior article it was submitted that the "Moral Standard" of all monopolies is embodied in tho common phrase, "a thing is worth what it will bring." And, so far as the social status is concerned, this rule is of universal application. It works both ways, which is supposed to prove the perfectness of any rule. For instance, if the monopolist has created a "corner" in produce, stocks or transportation facilities, and demands prices that are ruinous to those who are compelled to pay them, he is ready to defend himself with the universal rule. So also the money lender—the Land Lord and all kinds of monopolists. On the other hand, if times are dull and hard, and laborers are to be employed, wages are remarkably cut down, because, "a thing is worth (only) what it will bring. Thus the rule works both ways. It is as good for the Bulls as the Bears of our progressive (?) civilization. It covers the demand for excessive prices and changes in one direction, and approves of the lowest ones in the other.

No wonder Democritus laughed at the stupid folly of mankind, if the financial thimble-rigging of to-day was prevalent in ancient Greece. Nor need we be astonished that the Money Cormorants consider the working masses as only fit to be devoured at leisure. But there is surely room for sadness when the toiling millions are seemingly only intent on preparing the banquet of the cannibals who prey upon them. Or, throwing metaphor aside, it is lamentable that the mass accept, as an axiom, the sentence we have quoted as the moral guide of the monopolist. What! are we never to have a standard of value resting on a scientific basis? Is our labor, and what it produces and creates, ever to be at the mercy of those whose only study is to absorb all the surplus of such productions? Will the people forever watch the gambling tricks of the go-betweens, and applaud their smartness when they are all the while robbed by the same? Let us hope not. But ere the play will cease on the one hand, and want and misery on the other, the cursed sorcery, which lurks in the principle of the monopolist, must be exposed and abandoned. It is not true that "a thing is worth what it will bring." Actual values are not created by the scarcities and "corners" which the gambling speculator may create.

The real worth or value of anything cannot be measured by the wants or necessities of the parties who wish to make a purchase. A starving man might be compelled to pay a thousand dollars for a meal of victuals; but will any one be so stupid as to assert that a few ounces of provisions can have any such enormous value? Nor can the use which the article may subserve to the buyer or borrower have anything to do with the worth or value. A loan of a few hundred dollars might save a valuable farm from forced sale, and prevent an estimable family from sinking into poverty and ruin; but to measure the rate of interest by the benefit is entirely and totally wrong. The most needy, those least able to pay a large interest, are the ones who do have to pay it. So, also, in the purchase of goods, the poorest are obliged to pay the most extravagant prices. Does the wealth of the rich or the destitution of the poor make one or two cents difference in the value of the pound of sugar which they respectively purchase? Of course not. How then are we to ascertain the value of articles, if we inexorably shut out of the equation the condition of the purchaser? I answer; by instituting a standard of common sense and honesty.

The real value of exchangeable commodities is defined by the amount of labor necessary for their production. Human labor is the only just and proper measure of real values. Hence, the only equitable or honest price of anything having a real value is the cost of its production. "Cost the limit of price," is the honest standard of price, as it is the only common sense measure of value. Then, instead of saying "a thing is worth what it will bring," which is the exponent of Monopoly Ethics, we say: Things are worth what they cost; no more, no less; and, by cost, we mean the labor expended in their production and transportation.

It must be apparent to every reader that if labor is to be the measurer of values, and all things derive their value from such measurement, itself cannot be measured by them. They can, at most, only be representative of labor, as a bank bill is supposed to represent specie. Money will be simply a labor tally ; different pieces representing different lengths of time employed in labor. There can then be no cutting down the price of labor, for the length of time employed is the price.

It is the misfortune and folly of producers, the world's workers, that they allow the robber class, the traders, to establish a fictitious, an ever fluctuating price, not only for the products of their labor, but for the labor itself.

Labor is life. For what is life but the sum total of those forces which constitute us men? And what is labor but the expenditure of a portion of those forces? Labor products, then, represent a certain quantum of expended life; or, to put it in another form, a given amount of life force has been transmuted into another form. Hence, labor and labor products will always be found in strict correspondence to eachother in estimated value. And the never ceasing change in prices will continue as long as the workers allow their lives to be estimated by a money standard, and that money the "specie basis " of to-day.

If men allow their labor to be estimated by gold and silver coins, the money of the trading class, they thereby consent to be slaves, and slaves they are. The Money of Civilization (?) (specie) is the ready instrument by which the Ethics of Monopoly are established. Having no fixed, because no scientific, value, it fluctuates every day in the year; hence, the price of nothing can be depended upon from one week to another. This incessant fluctuation in the price of labor products, made possible by a specie money, perpetually robs the laborer and enriches the monopolist. There being no fixed standard of value for anything (and there can be none with our specie money) renders it easy for the monopolist to establish and enforce his rule, that "a thing is worth what it will bring." A cental of wheat of good quality will afford the same nutriment one year as another; hence it has the same intrinsic value through all the ages. Why then the eternal change in its commercial value or price? Because of specie money and the Ethics of the monopolist. But, to close this article, I submit that the establishment of the scientific, the common sense standard, "Cost the limit of price," will at once prevent this ruinous fluctuation in commercial values or prices. Let it not be forgotten, however, that the railroad monopolist has adopted no new principle of commercial morality. He simply applies in his department what the people allow in all others. To strike at his application of the rule, while it is allowed to be just, is worse than folly; it is a crime. If you accept the principle don't wince at its application. More anon.



  • Finance, “Monopoly Ethics—No. 2,” Common Sense, A Journal of Live Ideas 1, no. 38 (February 6, 1875): 448-449.