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Excerpts from Gorham Munson, Aladdin/s Lamp: The Wealth of the American People
(North American Review, September 1933)

Economic Puritanism

By GORHAM MUNSON

Who, as an exponent of the "new economics, " finds the chief resistance to Major Douglas's ideas in our moral attitude

It is singular that very few people have discovered the greatest stronghold of Puritanism. The Twentieth Century has witnessed a succession of forays against the survivors of a cult which in Milton achieved nobility, and these forays have generally been successful. But in what is now the most important part of a man's life, because it is the most obsessive, Puritanism is supreme and almost unquestioned. The victories have all been minor ones. Obnoxious book censors have been driven back and back, Prohibitionists are in retreat, manners have regained freedom, sex has lost its stigma; this has been the work of literary men, liberals in public life, scientists, reinforced by changing popular taste. But, with few exceptions, we are all Puritans in economics. Tribulation Wholesome can retire from field after field and yet gloat inwardly so long as he holds sway over men's industry, business and banking, and rule in these he does beyond a doubt. They constitute his key-position, and it has not been turned. Inasmuch as industry, business and banking control our lives, we are necessarily under Puritan domination.

It is now known that mankind has the means to live very well indeed. The means have been given men in the resources and fruitfulness of their planet, and in their own resourcefulness (science) and fruitfulness (invention). Beyond wild dreams they are rich in real wealth; that is, they can exploit their planet and deliver goods and services to themselves at any reasonable rate they desire. They can, but they are restrained from doing so. Paradoxically, they live in want in the midst of potential abundance. That restraint for men in general it is self-restraint is Puritanical. It is amazing that it has seldom occurred to men to examine the ethical and psychological character of this restraint. What in us are its sanctions?

Puritanism is a complex subject and the term has been often illegitimately broadened and simplified. But there is a consensus that legalism is a dominant characteristic of the Puritan. He is a dry legislator by temperament. But behind this legislative dryness there is a passion, sometimes called the will-to-power but more accurately it is the will-to govern. Live and let live is no part of the Puritan's creed. On the contrary, he is committed by his heart to a policy of compulsion. The history of Puritanism is a record of attempts to compel others into narrow ways, and to prohibit them from "indulgences" frowned upon by the legalist. For it happens that this legalist is ascetic by temperament, and hence his ideas of indulgence are very wide indeed.

Most of us will fail to recognize ourselves in this description. We are in revolt against the multiplication of laws, we have developed tolerance, and we object to one-sided ethical codes, be they gross asceticism or gross Epicurean¬ism. But in our economic views are we so balanced in judgment, so tolerant, so distrustful of goads and punishments as we are in our views on religion, philosophy, art and science?

It is claimed as a fact by one economic school of growing repute that an age of plenty and leisure for all can now be inaugurated. Think what that possibility means, and the issue should emerge with force. It means that within our old society of hard work and scarcity of rewards there is the seed of a new society in which work will be accomplished in semi-automatic fashion and goods and free time will be distributed lavishly to the population. It means the passing of economic whips and scorpions and the coming of absolute economic security for all. It means, to take a bio¬logical analogy, that collective man need no longer pay most attention to the functioning of his physical body but can enter on the life psychological; for in the social organism our industry, business and banking systems are in reality no more than the functions of metabolism and should not encroach on the cultural functions of the organism.

A claim which treads on the corns of a greater number of ingrained prejudices can hardly be imagined. Yet it is a claim which has been soberly advanced by a man whose temperament is obviously conservative and whose training has been scientific, and it has not only been presented as a genuine possibility, but the instrumentation for converting it into actuality has been elaborately worked out. I shall not here go into the theory of Social Credit of which Major C. H. Douglas of London is the sponsor, or explain the technique by which it will operate. But the very interesting statement was made at Oxford last year by Professor Gustav Cassell that the psychological basis of the present world crisis is American Puritanism, and that statement from such a source should set us thinking on the possibility that economic progress is obstructed most by moral prejudice and narrowness. That is my theme, in any case, though I find the Douglas teachings the most convenient for displaying the theme. The Social Credit proposals smoke the Puritan out of the present economic edifices faster than any other challenge with which I am acquainted.

Here is a pretty instance of the Puritan smoked out. In the Glasgow Evening Times last year there was published Major Douglas's draft scheme for Scotland, and it aroused consider¬able comment. A Scottish banker wrote to the paper to say that "if after the hardships of the past few years people suddenly find themselves in affluence through this wonderful scheme, is there any reason to doubt that they would again follow the impulses already exhibited by most of us, and show a marked distaste for wise and cautious spending?" To this Major Douglas answered, "Would it not be possible to organize Missions to the Puritans?"

Another instance will clinch the contention that there is a definite Puritan-freeman conflict involved in the progress of economics along the lines of an economy of plenty. A number of years ago Major Douglas and his lieutenant, the London editor, Mr. A. R. Orage, called on Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb to explain the Social Credit scheme of a retail price discount and dividends for all. Major Douglas refers to the inter¬view in one of his writings, and says that the principal objection of the Webbs was to the object of the scheme: the granting of real economic liberty to everyone. Mrs. Webb is reported to have exclaimed, "Why, under Social Credit the British workingmen will drink and debauch themselves to death!"

There is for many people a feeling of sinfulness in the spectacle of persons enjoying material plenty or in desiring it or in the thought that all may acquire material abundance, if a financial mechanism is devised to distribute our glut of goods. Tribulation Wholesome, who came to power in the Age of Scarcity before Watt harnessed solar energy for the benefit of man, still thinks that there is not enough to go round, that those who get a large share are hoggish, and that one's spirit goes to sleep with the acquirement of com¬forts, amenities and luxuries. He has the feeling that men should renounce riches, should work like horses and suffer deprivations, and should live in a state of artificial scarcity even if real scarcity has been abolished. But the sense of guilt about material possessions needs analysis.

Clearly, material possessions are innocent. Wine is not sottish, but the abuser of it is. The weaknesses of men are not the properties of things. To fear things, as Tribulation Wholesome does, is giving them too much importance; it is truly putting things in the saddle. The world has changed from the days when Tribulation Wholesome was a young fellow. Then it was true that one had to climb over one's fellows to secure a high standard of living, and it was true then that the privileged existed at the expense of the great majority. Men had to work long hours extorting from an obdurate earth a bare sufficiency. What more natural than the rationalization, as psychoanalysts call it, of this state of affairs? Toil and self-denial were sanctified; leisure and rich living were denounced - with a heavy touch of envy. Work and save was the prudent order of the day. If you didn't work and save, you were guilty of living on the backs of others, of heinous laziness, of unsocial behavior. You were going to the dogs in grand style or in rags.

But now there is agreement that the productive system can meet any reasonable demand on it by the community. In America it can gush forth goods and services to give every one a twenty thousand dollar a year standard of living. Things have, or rather should have, lost their scarcity-value and should now be available for their use value alone. It becomes therefore possible to take up a variety of attitudes about things. One should have the choice of the simple life or the life of a Croesus or of any standard in between. That is a matter for each individual to decide according to his tastes and desires, plus his willingness to make certain sacrifices to attain the most extravagant standards. But wickedness has nothing to do with it. For the fact of actual scarcity has been supplanted by the fact of potential plenty and this has invalidated the Puritan's rationalizations about material wealth.

Furthermore, this real wealth, the raising of the rate at which goods and services can be delivered, has been accomplished by the new slaves, our non-human machines. Man-hours in productive industry can be cut down and cut down and again cut down, releasing man for other forms of work which flower from a condition of leisure. There are a multitude of wholesome tribulations in the world, but those concentrated in economic life can now be eliminated. They are the tribula¬tions of sickness. The battle of man against psychological inertia can be transferred to other planes. But it will not be, so long as in the face of the machine and plenty, man distrusts both.

A generalization can be drawn from this. The economic Puritan distrusts deeply the pleasant and he glorifies the painful. Deprived by history of his old props, he is now an advocate of work for work's sake and of abstinence for abstinence's sake. This is so whether he is bourgeois or proletarian in point of view. Read the bourgeois exhortations in this time of crisis and then read the exhortations to revolution of the proletarian. It is the same note of distrust of the pleasant and glorification of the painful. We must sacrifice, we must be long-suffering, we must work very hard to recover from the depression: that is what the bourgeois tells us. We must not expect any short-cuts, we must undergo a painful bloody revolution, we must fight our way inch by inch by methods of suppression and violent re-education, grimly says the class-conscious proletarian. Neither concedes that the wit of man might find an easier method of distributing our great cornucopia of real wealth than by protracted sacrifice or by civil war.

It took scientists a long time to realize that they had a prejudice in favor of simplicity which reality might not share. The prejudice in economic thought is in favor of tremendous difficulties to conquer, whereas the solution to the economic problem might be ridiculously easy. Mark Twain wrote a story about a man who was imprisoned for twenty years and then walked out on the discovery that the jail door had never been locked. He had accepted the hypothesis that there were immense difficulties to escape the imprisoned world today, thanks perhaps to its Puritan strain, accepts this hypothesis and will not admit that it might be we could just walk out into economic freedom. No, the road to that lies over mines and barbed wire and trenches.

All the same, there is more excuse for the attitude just described than for the prejudices against "getting something for nothing." People have been taught to take pride in earning their way, and this is a legitimate pride. It is also accepted that legacies do not conflict with this pride, for it is understood that legacies are the results of other persons' earning their way and abstaining from consumption so well that tidy sums are handed on to their survivors. But now let us consider the following proposition and we shall find that if it doesn't scare up an irrational resistance in ourselves toward "getting something for nothing," it will scare it up in other people. There is a still funnier objection that often arises, though seldom stated frankly; it is this: "It is all right for me to get something for nothing; I am a man of sense; but my neighbour, that good-for-nothing, it will be very bad for him to receive National Dividends."

The proposition is National Dividends for every citizen. In abbreviated form, the argument for them runs like this:
Production exists for consumption. But consumption can not be financed by orthodox methods. It is necessary to add to the national income arising from engagement in production and this can best be done by the State's creating purchasing power and distributing it direct to the consumers in the form of national industrial dividends. These dividends will be calculated scientifically on the basis of the community's real credit, and they will not be inflationary because they will be coupled with price regulation. Now this seems like getting something for nothing. For the dividends are not a dole or a subsidy; nobody is taxed to make them up, they do not come from existing funds of purchasing power. They are newly created sums of money given to the members of the community. But they are not really something for nothing.

In 1827 Friedrich List, the honoured German economist, was living in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was very active in the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Manufactures and the Mechanical Arts. He wrote a number of letters on behalf of this society which were published and are now treasured as laying the foundations for economic nationalism. In attacking Adam Smith, List objected to the Scotsman's limited ideas of capital. There is, he said, significantly, a capital of the mind as well as of productive matter. The capital of the mind consisted of "the intelligence and social conditions of a nation." It comprised "a degree of industry, of instruction, of emulation, of enterprising spirit, of perseverance....a security of property, a market and consumption of necessaries and comforts of life, and a freedom." This idea has strengthened with the advance of science and technology and is now familiar to students as Veblen's "state of the industrial arts" and as Douglas's "common cultural inheritance." The point is that no one person owns this capital of the mind or can claim it. The capitalist can claim ownership of the tools of production, the workingman can claim ownership of his labor, and each is contributory to production. But who owns our inherited knowledge and techniques and processes which also enter into production? Only the community can claim this new factor of wealth-production, the capital of the mind, and to the community should go dividends based on its use. For the greatest factor in production nowadays is just this common cultural inheritance.

Thus, National Dividends are not at all something for nothing, but the re¬ward to this generation for the abstinence of previous generations. Yet a great many people object to them on principle and grow violent when they think of their neighbours receiving a free grant of purchasing power from the State.

Here, I think, we strike pretty close to the root-form of economic Puritanism, the form manifested by Mrs. Webb when she said the British workingman would go to hell under Social Credit and manifested likewise by Dr. Eisler, the monetary reformer, when he said he would not like to depend on anyone's good will for his morning cup of coffee. The basic form is simply distrust of one's fellow men. One extreme is Rousseauistic optimism about men, the exaggerated belief in the natural goodness of man. It coloured the early experiments in political democracy. It has been exploded. The other extreme is the Puritan distrust of man, the exaggerated belief in the natural badness of man. It is entrenched in our economic system. It is high time to blast it out.

Puritan economists hold that men are so incorrigibly lazy they must always be goaded to work. Unless they are compelled to work, they won't. They hold that the industrial system should be an instrument of social coercion, a form of moral governance. They look on leisure as a wonderful opportunity for the Devil. Satan finds mischief for idle hands. They feel that men do not deserve freedom, and ought not to have it even if deserving. Hell would be let loose if men walked not in fear of destitution.

It is reasonable to suppose that the truth about man lies somewhere between the extremes of cruel Puritanical distrust and silly Rousseauistic credulity. No one would deny that unjust and debasing economic conditions make men bestial, but the conditions can be changed, eliminating a great amount of senseless strain and anxiety, relieving the need for drunkenness and crime, creating an environment favourable to the worthier impulses of men. Our experience of mankind is after all limited. Life is still an experiment, and the experiment of economic democracy has never been tried.

No, it has not been tried by the Communists. There is a capitalist Puritanism in economics, but there is a communistic Puritanism as well. Both capitalist and Communist are believers in a policy of compulsion. Capitalist Puritanism is based on the premise that men must work to gain purchasing power, work being defined as employment in the productive system. Excellent premise for other ages but men have experienced rapidly the Age of the Machine and have now bewilderedly entered into the Age of Power. They are willing to take jobs, but power has abolished the jobs, thus cutting men from access to productive work in the capitalistic sense. Why then is there not made by common consent and at once an adjustment in financial economics to the Power Age? The answer is, such adjustment is blocked by capitalistic Puritanism, a hangover from the Age of Scarcity. A change in the financial system which would confer purchasing power on the community irrespective of employment threatens the system of rewards and punishment interwoven with the technique of producing and delivering goods and services. Industry has not the simple technical object of delivering the goods with maximum efficiency and minimum effort, but it must reward with riches and punish with poverty as well. Men are compelled to work by potent appeal to the motives of greed and fear, but in our new age they are driven in hordes against closed gates on which hang "No Help Wanted" placards. Inadequate income for all and the devil take the hindmost! Rewards for the strong, the cunning, the servile and the lucky; punishment, deserved or undeserved, for the rest. It is a crude and antiquated method of social control, and it can not last - though the change may be retrogressive and for the worst.

By Communist Puritanism is not meant simply the obvious sectarian religious element in communism on which so many have remarked, Berdyaev and A. J. Penty most forcefully of all. Almost every one recognizes in the characteristic attitudes of the Communist today toward art, toward the free play of the mind, toward the amenities, toward leisure, the old Puritan hatred of the expression of human individuality. Like the Puritan the Communist is a fanatical doctrinaire impatient with human nature as he finds it and determined to force it into a prescribed pattern. His solution, as Major Douglas noted over ten years ago, demands centralization of administration and a machinery by which individuals can be compelled to work, fight and so on. "The machine must be stronger than the man." The grim legalist to the fore again.

But all this is only the front of economic Puritanism. We must penetrate to the essence of the thing which is the refusal to admit that "the problem of unemployment" is really the problem of unpaid leisure. Paid leisure makes an economically free citizenry, and it is noteworthy that Communist propaganda emphasizes only the redistribution of existing income and employment for the unemployed and not, let us say, dividends for all and the steady enlargement of the leisured. Communism is dominated by a scarcity-complex, and while Marx did not forecast the first Communist revolution in an industrially backward nation, it is easy to see why the revolution should have occurred in a country like Russia rather than in England. For the Russian problem is Nineteenth Century and belongs to the recently ended Machine Age. It is the problem of bringing productive power up to consumption, the reverse of the problem of nations advanced into the Power Age who must equate consumption to tremendously . enhanced production.

The modern mind must clear itself of inherited prejudices about work and leisure. Specifically, it must take pseudo-morals out of production, and it must apply real morals to distribution of the fruits of industry.

The great question or our era is, will the spirit of economic reformation triumph or will the new spirit of economic renascence gather strength and overcome the class-spirit of reform? It seems proper to associate the reformation in its more extreme forms with the zeal of Fascist and Communist, though not with their worship of State authority, and to associate the renascence with such economic libertarians as the Douglas school and in lesser degree the Belloc-Chesterton Distributist group. The forerunners of the new spirit of economic renascence have, to begin with, grasped the fact of material plenty for everybody. They have grasped it emotionally and imaginatively; it is as vivid to them as is the fact to a poor man that by a legal struggle he can secure a fortune of, say, one hundred thousand dollars wrongfully withheld from him. The conviction of abundance for all lays the foundation for the mood of generosity and magnanimity. It opens new vistas for the development of the race. It is a sign that one great problem, the production-problem, has been solved.

Try to conceive what that means. It means that as great a step has been taken in social life as occurred in the first man whose body began to function semi-automatically, allowing his mind to fix on other than bodily concerns. It means that the problem is simply distribution, i.e., simply a money problem. This problem must be considered afresh; the discovery of new problems, the thrill of fresh approaches, the forging of new idea-keys-all these generate the excitement of a renascence.

But the money-problem must be approached in the scientific spirit. Irrelevant emotion, moral presuppositions must be excluded. It must be looked at in the Baconian way of regarding physical problems. This too is in the key of renascence. It is exemplified today more by men like the Nobel prize-winner in chemistry, Frederick Soddy, and the engineer, C. H. Douglas, than by professional economists lost in a maze of abstractions severed from physical realities. It is on the money-front that the adventurous spirit is now most at home.

Associated with monetary revolution are the traditional renascence values of liberty, leisure and culture. Given economic security now, an individual experiences a sense of freedom, he is able to initiate his own activities, his cultural interests rise to the surface. He is able to submerge his business life, his activities directed toward getting the means to exist; such activities become only one of his functions and are no longer completely engrossing. The aim of radical monetary reform is to give economic security to all, and to reproduce on the social scale the change in an individual who has inherited a fortune.

Some people will make a bad use of their new means for enjoying existence? Of course. The policy of inducement to work can't be trusted? There is good evidence it can. Things will go to pot? Possibly, but not probably. There is a risk. But the spirit of renascence takes risks. To stand still is to decline. The world today is a gigantic demonstration that we can not stand still and that there are only two ways to move; along the direction indicated by economic Puritanism with its policy of constraint and its gospel of work or along the direction forecast by monetary libertarians with their first drafts of a policy of inducement and their cardinal tenet of the value of leisure. To the slogans of economic Puritans they oppose the cry, adequate purchasing power for all and the devil take the reckless! The technical devices for economic liberty are, as I have said, outside the scope of this article; But as a preliminary for studying them nothing can be better than to perceive to what an extent our thinking in economics is shot through with Puritan assumptions. Awareness of them will clear the mind for the cool technical consideration it must give to proposed changes.


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