Portal Site for Russellian in Japan
On economic security
[From: Mortals and Others, v.1, 1975.］
The present age differs from the past in many respects. Perhaps not the least important of these is that, in former times, political power belonged to men who from their infancy had been assured of a comfortable income. In France until the Revolution, and in England until the present century, most aristocrats derived a comfortable income from their estates; they might, it is true, gamble it away, but even then it was generally possible - in France by a position at court, in England by an enclosure act - to retrieve the spendthrift's fallen fortunes. The laws were made by those who had no experience of poverty, no knowledge of the uncertainties of life, no understanding of struggle or competition.
In these opulent societies men had within their own circle a kind of easy good nature which made society very pleasant. They had also the leisure of mind for disinterested curiosity, they travelled in Italy and picked up old masters, they conversed with Arctic explorers and speculated about the Northwest Passage, and they were interested in the experiments of the ingenious Mr. Boyle, who was known as the father of chemistry and as the son of the Earl of Cork. In these respects the aristocratic societies which have disappeared were more civilised than the plutocratic societies which have taken their place.
In the world of the present day, a person with a secure income scarcely exists, with the possible exception of those Indian Princes who obtain a salary from the British Government on condition of living Europe. But even they are likely to lose their means of livelihood if India achieves freedom, since they are not overpopular with their less-fortunate countrymen. Apart from such rare exceptions, those who were rich yesterday are poor today, and those who are rich today know that they are likely to be poor tomorrow. The world is a restless, uneasy, struggling world, in which the leisurely culture of the past is rappidly disappearing.
But when one penetrates ever so little below the surface of the polished societies of the eighteenth century, another side of the picture presents itself. These men, so urbane, so polite, so civilised in their dealings within their own class, were toward other classes ruthless to a degree which democracy has now rendered impossible. The heartlessness of French aristocrats before the Revolution is a commonplace of conventional history, but the English aristocrats of the same period were at least equally ruthless. The French aristocrat was cruel to individuals; the English aristocrat was cruel to whole classes or districts. Between 1760 and 1820, by means of legistlation, average wages in England were halved.
Men whose circumstances have always been more comfortable than those of the majority are, as a rule, incapable of sympathy with those who are less fortunate. Sometimes they are frankly callous, sometimes they adopt the more nauseous view that happiness depends upon the soul and is independent of material well-being, so that they are doing no real harm to the poor in taking more than their share of this world's goods. Security depending upon exceptional privilege is unjust, and the man who has to find excuses for an injustice by which he profits is bound to acquire a distorted moral sense. On the other hand, the powerful men of the present day who are the victors in a free fight overestimate the value of ruthlessness and of the various acts by which success in competition is achieved.
There is only one way of preventing these opposite vices. Security would be good if it were not accompanied by injustice; there should, therefore, be security for all and not only for a fortunate few. This is possible, but not while the present competitive system survives.