Ergo and Presto!

Ergo and Presto!

In Henry George may be seen a pronounced type of the not uncommon combination of philosopher and juggler. He possesses in a marked degree the faculty of luminous exposition of a fundamental principle, but this faculty he supplements with another no less developed,—that of so obscuring the connection between his fundamental principle and the false applications thereof which he attempts that only a mind accustomed to analysis can detect the flaw and the fraud. We see this in the numerous instances in which he has made a magnificent defence of the principle of individual liberty in theory, only to straightway deny it in practice, while at the same time palming off his denial upon an admiring following as a practical affirmation. Freedom of trade is the surest guarantee of prosperity; ergo, there must be perfect liberty of banking; presto! there shall be no issue of money save by the government. Here, by the sly divorce of money-issuing from banking, he seems to justify the most ruinous of monopolies by the principle of liberty. And this is but an abridgement of the road by which he reaches very many of his practical conclusions. His simplicity and clearness as a philosopher so win the confidence of his disciples that he can successfully play the rôle of a prestidigitator before their very eyes. They do not notice the transformation from logic to legerdemain. For a certain distance he proceeds carefully, surely, and straightforwardly by the method of ergo; and then, when the minds of his followers are no longer on the alert, presto! he suddenly shouts, and in a twinkling they are switched off upon the track of error without a suspicion that they are not still bound direct for truth. It is this power to prostitute a principle to the furtherance of its opposite, to use truth as a tool of falsehood, that makes Mr. George one of the most dangerous men among all those now posing as public teachers.(36 ¶ 1)

One of the latest and craftiest of his offences in this direction was committed in the Standard of June 23, in a discussion of the copyright problem. A correspondent having raised the question of property in ideas, Mr. George discusses it elaborately. Taking his stand upon the principle that productive labor is the true basis of the right to property, he argues through three columns, with all the consummate ability for which credit is given him above, to the triumphant vindication of the position that there can rightfully be no such thing as the exclusive ownership of an idea.(36 ¶ 2)

No man, he says, can justly claim ownership in natural laws, nor in any of the relations which may be perceived by the human mind, nor in any of the potentialities which nature holds for it…. Ownership comes from production. It cannot come from discovery. Discovery can give no right of ownership…. No man can discover anything which, so to speak, was not put there to be discovered, and which some one else might not in time have discovered. If he finds it, it was not lost. It, or its potentiality, existed before he came. It was there to be found…. In the production of any material thing—a machine, for instance—there are two separable parts,—the abstract idea or principle, which may be usually expressed by drawing, by writing, or by word of mouth; and the concrete form of the particular machine itself, which is produced by bringing together in certain relations certain quantities and qualities of matter, such as wood, steel, brass, brick, rubber, cloth, etc. There are two modes in which labor goes to the making of the machine,—the one in ascertaining the principle on which such machines can be made to work; the other in obtaining from their natural reservoirs and bringing together and fashioning into shape the quantities and qualities of matter which in their combination constitute the concrete machine. In the first mode labor is expended in discovery. In the second mode it is expended in production. The work of discovery may be done once for all, as in the case of the discovery in prehistoric time of the principle or idea of the wheelbarrow. But the work of production is required afresh in thecase of each particular thing. No matter how many thousand millions of wheelbarrows have been produced, it requires fresh labor of production to make another one…. The natural reward of labor expended in discovery is in the use that can be made of the discovery without interference with the right of any one else to use it. But to this natural reward our patent laws endeavor to add an artificial reward. Although the effect of giving to the discoverers of useful devices or processes an absolute right to their exclusive use would be to burden all industry with most grievous monopolies, and to greatly retard, if not put a stop to, further inventions, yet the theory of our patent laws is that we can stimulate discoveries by giving a modified right of ownership in their use for a term of years. In this we seek by special laws to give a special reward to labor expended in discovery, which does not belong to it of natural right, and is of the nature of a bounty. But as for labor expended in the second of these modes,—in the production of the machine by the bringing together in certain relations of certain quantities and qualities of matter,—we need no special laws to reward that. Absolute ownership attaches to the results of such labor, not by special law, but by common law. And if all human laws were abolished, men would still hold that, whether it were a wheelbarrow or a phonograph, the concrete thing belonged to the man who produced it. And this, not for a term of years, but in perpetuity. It would pass at his death to his heirs or to those to whom he devised it.(36 ¶ 3)

The whole of the preceding paragraph is quoted from Mr. George’s article. I regard it as conclusive, unanswerable. It proceeds, it will be noticed, entirely by the method of ergo. But it is time for the philosopher to disappear. He has done his part of the work, which was the demolition of patents. Now it is the prestidigitator’s turn. It remains for him to justify copyright,—that is, property, not in the ideas set forth in a book, but in the manner of expressing them. So juggler George steps upon the scene. Presto! he exclaims: Over and above any labor of discovery expended in thinking out what to say, is the labor of production expended on how to say it. Observe how cunningly it is taken for granted here that the task of giving literary expression to an idea is labor of production rather than labor of discovery. But is it so? Right here comes in the juggler’s trick; we will subject it to the philosopher’s test. The latter has already been quotedL The work of discovery may be done once for all … but the work of production is required afresh in the case of each particular thing. Can anything be plainer than that he who does the work of combining words for the expression of an idea saves just that amount of labor to all who thereafter choose to use the same words in the same order to express the same idea, and that this work, not being required afresh in each particular case, is not work of production, and that, not being work of production, it gives no right of property? In quoting Mr. George above I did not have to expend any labor on how to say what he had already said. He had saved me that trouble. I simply had to write and print the words on fresh sheets of paper. These sheets of paper belong to me, just as the sheets on which he wrote and printed belong to him. But the particular combination of words belongs to neither of us. He discovered it, it is true, but that fact gives him no right to it. Why not? Because, to use his own phrases, this combination of words existed potentially before he came; it was there to be found; and if he had not found it, some one else would or might have done so. The work of copying or printing books is analogous to the production of wheelbarrows, but the original work of the author, whether in thinking or composing, is analogous to the invention of the wheelbarrow; and the same argument that demolishes the right of the inventor demolishes the right of the author. The method of expressing an idea is itself an idea, and therefore not appropriable.(36 ¶ 4)

The exposure is complete. But will Mr. George acknowledge it? Not he. He will ignore it, as he has ignored similar exposures in these columns of his juggling with the questions of rent, interest, and money. The juggler never admits an exposure. It would be ruinous to his business. He lies low till the excitement has subsided, and then bobs up serenely and suavely to hoodwink another crowd of greenhorns with the same old tricks. Such has been juggler George’s policy heretofore; such it will be hereafter.(36 ¶ 5)