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An essay by Elbert Hubbard

Reflections On Progress

Title:     Reflections On Progress
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

Renan has said that truth is always rejected when it comes to a man for the first time, its evolution being as follows:

First, we say the thing is rank heresy, and contrary to the Bible.

Second, we say the matter really amounts to nothing, anyway.

Third, we declare that we always believed it.

Two hundred years ago partnerships in business were very rare. A man in business simply made things and sold them--and all the manufacturing was done by himself and his immediate family. Soon we find instances of brothers continuing the work the father had begun, as in the case of the Elzevirs and the Plantins, the great bookmakers of Holland. To meet this competition, four printers, in 1640, formed a partnership and pooled their efforts. A local writer by the name of Van Krugen denounced these four men, and made savage attacks on partnerships in general as wicked and illegal, and opposed to the best interests of the people. This view seems to have been quite general, for there was a law in Amsterdam forbidding all partnerships in business that were not licensed by the state. The legislature of the State of Missouri has recently made war on the department store in the same way, using the ancient Van Krugen argument as a reason, for there is no copyright on stupidity.

In London in the seventeenth century men who were found guilty of pooling their efforts and dividing profits, were convicted by law and punished for "contumacy, contravention and connivance," and were given a taste of the stocks in the public square.

When corporations were formed for the first time, only a few years ago, there was a fine burst of disapproval. The corporation was declared a scheme of oppression, a hungry octopus, a grinder of the individual. And to prove the case various instances of hardship were cited; and no doubt there was much suffering, for many people are never able to adjust themselves to new conditions without experiencing pain and regret.

But we now believe that corporations came because they were required. Certain things the times demanded, and no one man, or two or three men could perform these tasks alone--hence the corporation. The rise of England as a manufacturing nation began with the plan of the stock company.

The aggregation known as the joint-stock company, everybody is willing now to admit, was absolutely necessary in order to secure the machinery, that is to say, the tools, the raw stock, the buildings, and to provide for the permanence of the venture.

The railroad system of America has built up this country--on this thing of joint-stock companies and transportation, our prosperity has hinged. "Commerce, consists in carrying things from where they are plentiful to where they are needed," says Emerson.

There are ten combinations of capital in this country that control over six thousand miles of railroad each. These companies have taken in a large number of small lines; and many connecting lines of tracks have been built. Competition over vast sections of country has been practically obliterated, and this has been done so quietly that few people are aware of the change. Only one general result of this consolidation of management has been felt, and that it is better service at less expense. No captain of any great industrial enterprise dares now to say, "The public be damned," even if he ever said it--which I much doubt. The pathway to success lies in serving the public, not in affronting it. In no other way is success possible, and this truth is so plain and patent that even very simple folk are able to recognize it. You can only help yourself by helping others.

Thirty years ago, when P. T. Barnum said, "The public delights in being humbugged," he knew that it was not true, for he never attempted to put the axiom in practice. He amused the public by telling it a lie, but P. T. Barnum never tried anything so risky as deception. Even when he lied we were not deceived; truth can be stated by indirection. "When my love tells me she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies." Barnum always gave more than he advertised; and going over and over the same territory he continued to amuse and instruct the public for nearly forty years.

This tendency to cooeperate is seen in such splendid features as the Saint Louis Union Station, for instance, where just twenty great railroad companies lay aside envy, prejudice, rivalry and whim, and use one terminal. If competition were really the life of trade, each railroad that enters Saint Louis would have a station of its own, and the public would be put to the worry, trouble, expense and endless delay of finding where it wanted to go and how to get there. As it is now, the entire aim and end of the scheme is to reduce friction, worry and expense, and give the public the greatest accommodation--the best possible service--to make travel easy and life secure. Servants in uniform meet you as you alight, and answer your every question--speeding you courteously and kindly on your way. There are women to take care of women, and nurses to take care of children, and wheel chairs for such as may be infirm or lame. The intent is to serve--not to pull you this way and that, and sell you a ticket over a certain road. You are free to choose your route and you are free to utilize as your own this great institution that cost a million dollars, and that requires the presence of two hundred people to maintain. All is for you. It is for the public and was only made possible by a oneness of aim and desire--that is to say cooeperation. Before cooeperation comes in any line, there is always competition pushed to a point that threatens destruction and promises chaos; then to divert ruin, men devise a better way, a plan that conserves and economizes, and behold, it is found in cooeperation.

Civilization is an evolution.

Civilization is not a thing separate and apart, any more than art is.

Art is the beautiful way of doing things. Civilization is the expeditious way of doing things. And as haste is often waste--the more hurry the less speed--civilization is the best way of doing things.

As mankind multiplies in number, the problem of supplying people what they need is the important question of Earth. And mankind has ever held out offers of reward in fame and money--both being forms of power--to those who would supply it better things.

Teachers are those who educate the people to appreciate the things they need.

The man who studies mankind, and finds out what men really want, and then supplies them this, whether it be an Idea or a Thing, is the man who is crowned with the laurel wreath of honor and clothed with riches.

What people need and what they want may be very different.

To undertake to supply people a thing you think they need but which they do not want, is to have your head elevated on a pike, and your bones buried in Potter's Field.

But wait, and the world will yet want the thing that it needs, and your bones will then become sacred relics.

This change in desire on the part of mankind is the result of the growth of intellect.

It is Progress, and Progress is Evolution, and Evolution is Progress.

There are men who are continually trying to push Progress along: we call these individuals "Reformers."

Then there are others who always oppose the Reformer--the mildest name we have for them is "Conservative."

The Reformer is either a Savior or a Rebel, all depending on whether he succeeds or fails, and your point of view. He is what he is, regardless of what other men think of him. The man who is indicted and executed as a rebel, often afterward has the word "Savior" carved on his tomb; and sometimes men who are hailed as saviors in their day are afterward found to be sham saviors--to wit, charlatans. Conservation is a plan of Nature. To keep the good is to conserve. A Conservative is a man who puts on the brakes when he thinks Progress is going to land Civilization in the ditch and wreck the whole concern.

Brakemen are necessary, but in the language of Koheleth, there is a time to apply the brake and there is a time to abstain from applying the brake. To clog the wheels continually is to stand still, and to stand still is to retreat. Progress has need of the brakeman, but the brakeman should not occupy all of his time putting on the brakes.

The Conservative is just as necessary as the Radical. The Conservative keeps the Reformer from going too fast, and plucking the fruit before it is ripe. Governments are only good where there is strong Opposition, just as the planets are held in place by the opposition of forces. And so civilization goes forward by stops and starts--pushed by the Reformers and held back by the Conservatives. One is necessary to the other, and they often shift places. But forward and forward Civilization forever goes--ascertaining the best way of doing things.

In commerce we have had the Individual Worker, the Partnership, the Corporation, and now we have the Trust.

The Trust is simply Corporations forming a partnership. The thing is all an Evolution--a moving forward. It is all for man and it is all done by man. It is all done with the consent, aye, and approval of man.

The Trusts were made by the People, and the People can and will unmake them, should they ever prove an engine of oppression. They exist only during good behavior, and like men, they are living under a sentence of death, with an indefinite reprieve.

The Trusts are good things because they are economizers of energy. They cut off waste, increase the production, and make a panic practically impossible.

The Trusts are here in spite of the men who think they originated them, and in spite of the Reformers who turned Conservatives and opposed them.

The next move of Evolution will be the age of Socialism. Socialism means the operation of all industries by the people, and for the people. Socialism is cooeperation instead of competition. Competition has been so general that economists mistook it for a law of nature, when it was only an incident.

Competition is no more a law of nature than is hate. Hate was once so thoroughly believed in that we gave it personality and called it the Devil.

We have banished the Devil by educating people to know that he who works has no time to hate and no need to fear, and by this same means, education, will the people be prepared for the age of Socialism.

The Trusts are now getting things ready for Socialism.

Socialism is a Trust of Trusts.

Humanity is growing in intellect, in patience, in kindness--in love. And when the time is ripe, the people will step in and take peaceful possession of their own, and the Cooeperative Commonwealth will give to each one his due.

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's essay: Reflections On Progress