essays

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1897

After Nestor: Liquor & Tariffs

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

Tucker squares off with a reader and fellow editor who suggests some monopolies are necessary for liberty to thrive.

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

Part Two: The Individual, Society, and the State

 

A Libertarian’s Pet Despotisms. 

(published first in Liberty, January 1, 1887)

“There is nothing any better than Liberty and nothing any worse than despotism, be it the theological despotism of the skies, the theocratic despotism of kings, or the democratic despotism of majorities; and the labor reformer who starts out to combat the despotism of capital with other despotism no better lacks the only power to be worse than the foe he encounters.” These are the words of my brother Pinney of the Winsted Press, Protectionist and Greenbacker,—that is, a man who combats the despotism of capital with that despotism which denies the liberty to buy foreign goods untaxed and that despotism which denies the liberty to issue notes to circulate as currency. Mr. Pinney is driven into this inconsistency by his desire for high wages and an abundance of money, which he thinks it impossible to get except through tariff monopoly and money monopoly. But religious despotism pleads a desire for salvation, and moral despotism pleads a desire for purity, and prohibitory despotism pleads a desire for sobriety. Yet all these despotisms lead to hell, though all these hells are paved with good intentions; and Mr. Pinney’s hells are just as hot as any. The above extract shows that he knows Liberty to be the true way of salvation. Why, then, does he not steadily follow it?

 

Pinney Struggling with Procrustes. 

(published first in Liberty, March 12, 1887)

It is the habit of the wild Westerner, whenever he cannot answer a Bostonian’s arguments, to string long words into long sentences in mockery of certain fancied peculiarities of the Boston mind. Editor Pinney of the Winsted Press is not exactly a wild Westerner, but he lives just far enough beyond the confines of Massachusetts to enable him to resort to this device in order to obscure the otherwise obvious necessity of meeting me on reason’s ground. His last reply to me fruitlessly fills two-thirds of one of his long columns with the sort of buncombe referred to, whereas that amount of space, duly applied to solid argument, might have sufficed to show one of us in error. Whatever the characteristics of Boston intellect, generically speaking, in the particular Bostonian with whom he is now confronted Mr. Pinney would see, were he a student of human nature, an extremely hard-headed individual, about whose mind there is nothing celestial or supermundane or æsthetic or aberrant, and whose only dialectics consists in searching faithfully for the fundamental weakness of his adversary’s position and striking at it with swift precision, or else, finding none such, acknowledging defeat. But human nature—at least, Boston human nature—being a puzzle to Mr. Pinney, he mistakes me for a quibbler, a disputatious advocate, and a lover of logomachy. Let us see, then, by whom logomachy was first employed in this discussion.

In an unguarded moment of righteous impatience with the folly of the prohibitionists Mr. Pinney had given utterance to some very extreme and Anarchistic doctrine. I applauded him, and ventured to call his attention to one or two forms of prohibition other than that of the liquor traffic, equally repugnant to his theory of liberty and yet championed by him. One of these was the tariff. He answered me that “there is no analogy between prohibition and the tariff; the tariff prohibits no man from indulging his desire to trade where he pleases.” Right here logomachy made its first appearance, over the word “prohibit.” I had cited two forms of State interference with trade, each of which in practice either annoys it or hampers it or effectively prevents it, according to circumstances. This analogy in substantial results presented a difficulty, which Mr. Pinney tried to overcome by beginning a dispute over the meaning of the word “prohibit,”—a matter of only formal moment so far as the present discussion is concerned. He declared that the tariff is not like the prohibitory liquor law, inasmuch as it prohibits nobody from trading where he pleases. A purely nominal distinction, if even that; consequently Mr. Pinney, in passing it off as a real one, was guilty of quibbling.

But I met Mr. Pinney on his own ground, allowing that, speaking exactly, the tariff does not prohibit, but adding, on the other hand, that neither does the so-called prohibitory liquor law; that both simply impose penalties on traders, in the one case as a condition, in the other as a consequence, of carrying on their trades. Hence my analogy still stood, and I expected it to be grappled with. But no. Mr. Pinney, in the very breath that he protests against quibbling, insists on his quibble by asking if prison discipline is, then, so lax that convicted liquor sellers can carry on their business within the walls, and by supposing that I would still think prohibition did not prohibit, if the extreme penalty for liquor selling were decapitation. I do not dispute the fact that a man cannot carry on the liquor business as long as he is in prison, nor can Mr. Pinney dispute the fact that a man cannot sell certain foreign goods in this country as long as he cannot raise the money to pay the tariff; and while I am confident that decapitation, if rigorously enforced, would stop the liquor traffic, I am no less sure that the effect on foreign traffic would be equally disastrous were decapitation to be enforced as a tax upon importers. On Mr. Pinney’s theory the prohibitory liquor law could be made non-prohibitory simply by changing the penalties from imprisonment to fines. The absurdity of this is evident.

But, if I were to grant that Mr. Pinney’s quibble shows that there is no analogy between a prohibitory liquor law and a revenue tariff (which I do not grant, but deny), it would still remain for him to show that there is no analogy between a prohibitory liquor law and such a tariff as he favors,—one so high as to be absolutely prohibitory and yield no revenue at all,—or else admit his inconsistency in opposing the former and not the latter. He has not attempted to meet this point, even with a quibble.

One other point, however, he does try to meet. To my statement that his position on the abstract question of liberty involves logically opposition to government in all its functions he makes this answer:

“Between puritan meddling with a man’s domestic affairs, and necessary government regulation of matters which the individual is incompetent to direct, yet which must be directed in order to secure to the individual his rightful liberty, there is a distance sufficiently large to give full play to our limited faculties.”

But who is to judge what government regulation is “necessary” and decide what matters “the individual is incompetent to direct?” The majority? But the majority are just as likely to decide that prohibition is necessary and that the individual is incompetent to direct his appetite as that a tariff is necessary and that the individual is incompetent to make his own contracts. Mr. Pinney, then, must submit to the will of the majority. His original declaration, however, was that despotism was despotism, whether exercised by a monarch or a majority. This drives him back upon liberty in all things. For just as he would object to the reign of a monarch disposed to administer affairs rationally and equitably simply because he was a monarch, so he must object to the reign of a majority, even though its administration were his ideal, simply because it is a majority. Mr. Pinney is trying to serve both liberty and authority, and is making himself ridiculous in the attempt.


A Back Town Heard From. 

(first published in Liberty, August 13, 1887)

The Winsted Press makes a long leader to ridicule the Anarchists for favoring private enterprise in the letter-carrying business. It grounds its ridicule on two claims,—first, that private enterprise would charge high rates of postage, and, second, that it would not furnish transportation to out-of-the-way points. An indisputable fact has frequently been cited in Liberty which instantly and utterly overthrows both of these claims. Its frequent citation, however, has had no effect upon the believers in a government postal monopoly. I do not expect another repetition to produce any effect upon the Winsted Press; still I shall try it.

Some half-dozen years ago, when letter postage was still three cents, Wells, Fargo & Co. were doing a large business in carrying letters throughout the Pacific States and Territories. Their rate was five cents, more than three of which they expended, as the legal monopoly required, in the purchasing of the United States a stamped envelope in which to carry the letter intrusted to their care. That is to say, on every letter which they carried they had to pay a tax of more than three cents. Exclusive of this tax, Wells, Fargo & Co. got less than two cents for each letter which they carried, while the government got three cents for each letter which it carried itself, and more than three cents for each letter which Wells, Fargo & Co. carried. On the other hand, it cost every individual five cents to send by Wells, Fargo & Co., and only three to send by the government. Moreover, the area covered was one in which immensity of distance, sparseness of population, and irregularities of surface made out-of-the-way points unusually difficult of access. Still, in spite of all these advantages on the side of the government, its patronage steadily dwindled, while that of Wells, Fargo & Co. as steadily grew. Pecuniarily this, of course, was a benefit to the government. But for this very reason such a condition of affairs was all the more mortifying. Hence the postmaster-general sent a special commissioner to investigate the matter. He fulfilled his duty and reported to his superior that Wells, Fargo & Co. were complying with the law in every particular, and were taking away the business of the government by furnishing a prompter and securer mail service, not alone to principal points, but to more points and remoter points than were included in the government list of post-offices.

Whether this state of things still continues I do not know. I presume, however, that it does, though the adoption of two-cent postage may have changed it. In either case the fact is one that triumphs over all possible sarcasms. In view of it, what becomes of Editor Pinney’s fear of ruinous rates of postage and his philanthropic anxiety on account of the dwellers in Wayback and Hunkertown?

 

In Form a Reply, In Reality a Surrender. 

(published first in Liberty, September 10, 1887)

Appreciating the necessity of at least seeming to meet the indisputable fact which I opposed to its championship of government postal monopoly, the Winsted Press presents the following ghost of an answer, which may be as convincing to the victims of political superstition as most materializations are to the victims of religious superstition, but which, like those materializations, is so imperceptible to the touch of the hard-headed investigator that, when he puts his hand upon it, he does not find it there.

“The single instance of Wells, Fargo & Co., cited by B. R. Tucker to prove the advantage of private enterprise as a mail carrier, needs fuller explanation of correlated circumstances to show its true significance. As stated by Mr. Tucker, this company half a dozen years ago did a large business carrying letters through the Pacific States and Territories to distant and sparsely populated places for five cents per letter, paying more than three to the government in compliance with postal law and getting less than two for the trouble, and, though it cost the senders more, the service was enough better than government’s to secure the greater part of the business.”

This restatement of my statement is fair enough, except that it but dimly conveys the idea that Wells, Fargo & Co. were carrying, not only to distant and sparsely populated places, but to places thickly settled and easy of access, and were beating the government there also,—a fact of no little importance.

“Several facts may explain this: 1. Undeveloped government service in a new country, distant from the seat of government.”

Here the ghost appears, all form and no substance. “John Jones is a better messenger than John Smith,” declares the Winsted Press “because Jones can run over stony ground while Smith cannot.” “Indeed!” I answer; “why, then, did Smith outrun Jones the other day in going from San Francisco to Wayback?” “Oh! that may be explained,” the Press rejoins, “by the fact that the ground was stony.” The Press had complained against the Anarchistic theory of free competition in postal service that private enterprise would not reach remote points, while government does reach them. I proved by facts that private enterprise was more successful than government in reaching remote points. What sense, then, is there in answering that these points are distant from the government’s headquarters and that it had not developed its service? The whole point lies in the fact that private enterprise was the first to develop its service and the most successful in maintaining it at a high degree of efficiency.

“2. Government competition which kept Wells & Fargo from charging monopoly prices.”

If the object of a government postal service is to keep private enterprise from charging high prices, no more striking illustration of the stupid way in which government works to achieve its objects could be cited than its imposition of a tax of two (then three) cents a letter upon private postal companies. It is obvious that this tax was all that kept Wells, Fargo & Co. from reducing their letter-rate to three or even two cents, in which case the government probably would have lost the remnant of business which it still commanded. This is guarding against monopoly prices with a vengeance! The competitor, whether government or individual, who must tax his rival in order to live is no competitor at all, but a monopolist himself. It is not government competition that Anarchists are fighting, but government monopoly. It should be added, however, that, pending the transformation of governments into voluntary associations, even government competition is unfair, because an association supported by compulsory taxation could always, if it chose, carry the mails at less than cost and tax the deficit out of the people.

“3. Other paying business which brought the company into contact with remote districts and warranted greater safeguards to conveyance than government then offered to its mail carriers.”

Exactly. What does it prove? Why, that postal service and express service can be most advantageously run in conjunction, and that private enterprise was the first to find it out. This is one of the arguments which the Anarchists use.

“4. A difference of two cents was not appreciated in a country where pennies were unknown.”

Here the phantom attains the last degree of attenuation. If Mr. Pinney will call at the Winsted post-office, his postmaster will tell him—what common sense ought to have taught him—that of all the stamps used not over five per cent. are purchased singly, the rest being taken two, three, five, ten, a hundred, a thousand at a time. Californians are said to be very reckless in the matter of petty expenditures, but I doubt if any large portion of them would carry their prodigality so far as to pay five dollars a hundred for stamps when they could get them at three dollars a hundred on the next corner.

“These conditions do not exist elsewhere in this country at present. Therefore the illustration proves nothing.”

Proves nothing! Does it not prove that private enterprise outstripped the government under the conditions that then and there existed, which were difficult enough for both, but extraordinarily embarrassing for the former?

“We know that private enterprise does not afford express facilities to sparsely settled districts throughout the country.”

I know nothing of the kind. The express companies cover practically the whole country. They charge high rates to points difficult of access; but this is only just. The government postal rates, on the contrary, are unjust. It certainly is not fair that my neighbor, who sends a hundred letters to New York every year, should have to pay two cents each on them, though the cost of carriage is but one cent, simply because the government spends a dollar in carrying for me one letter a year to Wayback, for which I also pay two cents. It may be said, however, that where each individual charge is so small, a schedule of rates would cause more trouble and expense than saving; in other words, that to keep books would be poor economy. Very likely; and in that case no one would find it out sooner than the private mail companies. This, however, is not the case in the express business, where parcels of all sizes and weights are carried.

“No more would it mail facilities. A remarkable exception only proves the rule. But, if private enterprise can and will do so much, why doesn’t it do it now? The law stands no more in the way of Adams Express than it did in the way of the Wells & Fargo express.”

This reminds me of the question with which Mr. Pinney closed his discussion with me regarding free money. He desired to know why the Anarchists did not start a free money system, saying that they ought to be shrewd enough to devise some way of evading the law. As if any competing business could be expected to succeed if it had to spend a fortune in contesting lawsuits or in paying a heavy tax to which its rival was not subject! So handicapped, it could not possibly succeed unless its work was of such a nature as to admit the widest range of variation in point of excellence. This was the case in the competition between Wells, Fargo & Co. and the government. The territory covered was so ill-adapted to postal facilities that it afforded a wide margin for the display of superiority, and Wells, Fargo & Co. took advantage of this to such an extent that they beat the government in spite of their handicap. But in the territory covered by Adams Express it is essentially different. There the postal service is so simple a matter that the possible margin of superiority would not warrant an extra charge of even one cent a letter. But I am told that Adams Express would be only too glad of the chance to carry letters at one cent each, if there were no tax to be paid on the business. If the governmentalists think that the United States can beat Adams Express, why do they not dare to place the two on equal terms? That is a fair question. But when a man’s hands are tied, to ask him why he doesn’t fight is a coward’s question.

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