The second plan to have to examine is that of giving to each person what she deserves. Many people, especially those who are comfortably off, think this is what happens at present: that the industrious and sober and thrifty are never in want, and that poverty is due to idleness, improvidence, drinking, betting, dishonesty, and bad character generally. They can point to the fact that a labour whose character is bad finds it more difficult to get employment than one whose character is good; that a farmer or country gentleman who gambles and bets heavily, and mortgages his land to live wastefully and extravagantly, is soon reduced to poverty; and that a man of business who is lazy and does not attend to it becomes bankrupt. But this proves nothing that you cannot eat your cake and have it too; it does not prove that your share of the cake was a fair one. It shows that certain vices make us rich. People who are hard, grasping, selfish, cruel, and always ready to take advantage of their neighbours, become very rich if they are clever enough not to overreach themselves. On the other hand, people who are generous, public spirited, friendly, and not always thinking of the main chance, stay poor when they are born poor unless they have extraordinary talents. Also as things are today, some are born poor and others are born with silver spoons in their mouths: that is to say, they are divided into rich and poor before they are old enough to have any character at all. The notion that our present system distributes wealth according to merit, even roughly, may be dismissed at once as ridiculous. Everyone can see that it generally has the contrary effect; it makes a few idle people very rich, and a great many hardworking people very poor.
On this, intelligent Lady, your first thought may be that if wealth is not distributed according to merit, it ought to be; and that we should at once set to work to alter our laws so that in future the good people shall be rich in proportion to their goodness and the bad people poor in proportion to their badness. There are several objections to this; but the very first one settles the question for good and all. It is, that the proposal is impossible and impractical. How are you going to measure anyone's merit in money? Choose any pair of human beings you like, male or female, and see whether you can decide how much each of them should have on her or his merits. If you live in the country, take the village blacksmith and the village clergyman, or the village washerwoman and the village schoolmistress, to begin with. At present, the clergyman often gets less pay than the blacksmith; it is only in some villages he gets more. But never mind what they get at present: you are trying whether you can set up a new order of things in which each will get what he deserves. You need not fix a sum of money for them: all you have to do is to settle the proportion between them. Is the blacksmith to have as much as the clergyman? Or twice as much as the clergyman? Or half as much as the clergyman? Or how much more or less? It is no use saying that one ought to have more the other less; you must be prepared to say exactly how much more or less in calculable proportion.
Well, think it out. The clergyman has had a college education; but that is not any merit on his part: he owns it to his father; so you cannot allow him anything for that. But through it he is able to read the New Testament in Greek; so that he can do something the blacksmith cannot do. On the other hand, the blacksmith can make a horse-shoe, which the parson cannot. How many verses of the Greek Testament are worth one horse-shoe? You have only to ask the silly question to see that nobody can answer it.
Since measuring their merits is no use, why not try to measure their faults? Suppose the blacksmith swears a good deal, and gets drunk occasionally! Everybody in the village knows this; but the parson has to keep his faults to himself. His wife knows them; but she will not tell you what they are if she knows that you intend to cut off some of his pay for them. You know that as he is only a mortal human being, he must have some faults; but you cannot find them out. However, suppose he has some faults he is a snob; that he cares more for sport and fashionable society than for religion! Does that make him as bad as the blacksmith, or twice as bad, or twice and quarter as bad, or only half as bad? In other words, if the blacksmith is to have a shilling, is the parson to have six pence, or five pence and one-third, or two shillings? Clearly these are fools' questions: the moment they bring us down from moral generalities to business particulars it becomes plain to every sensible person that no relation can be established between human qualities, good or bad, and sums of money, large or small.
It may seem scandalous that a prize-fighter, for hitting another prize-fighter so hard at Wembley that he fell down and could not rise within ten seconds, received the same sum that was paid to the Archbishop of Canterbury for acting as Primate of the Church of England for nine months; but none of those who cry out against the scandal can express any better in money the difference between the two. Not one of the persons who think that the prize-fighter should get less than the Archbishop can say how much less. What the prize- fighter got for his six or seven months' boxing would pay a judge's salary for two years; and we all agree that nothing could be more ridiculous, and that any system of distributing wealth which leads to such absurdities must be wrong. But to suppose that it could be changed by any possible calculation that an ounce of archbishop of three ounces of judge is worth a pound of prize-fighter would be sillier still. You can find out how many candles are worth a pound of butter in the market on any particular day; but when you try to estimate the worth of human souls the utmost you can say is that they are all of equal value before the throne of God:And that will not help you in the least to settle how much money they should have. You must simply give it up, and admit that distributing money according to merit is beyond mortal measurement and judgement.
What, according to the author, do the generous and public spirited people need to become rich?
"On the other hand, people who are generous, public spirited, friendly, and not always thinking of the main chance, stay poor when they are born poor unless they have extraordinary talents."
According to the author generous people need extraordinary talents to become rich.
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