This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
We shall get the principles of such a discussion, in their bare form, by taking the extreme actual cases of this mode of consumption.
There have been instances in which the people of cities, and even generally of States, have claimed work at the hands of government, to support life; and we find that such provision has been at times really made.
We will suppose the claim to be founded on absolute necessity, no work whatever being offered at private hands. The state, in compassion or from fear, employs the mass of its laborers on public works, and pays them from the public purse.
What is the real condition of things? It is one of two: —-
1st, If the work so performed is unnecessary, having been arranged solely to meet the popular emergency, this is merely a mode of government charity. So much is taken out of the resources of the state to maintain its indigent citizens. It comes finally as a tax on all productive industry. The classes that create values are called on to contribute, it may be largely and painfully, to feed and clothe those which do not.
How does this answer the conditions of a successful charity?
(a) Such artificial industries require great expense beyond the simple wages which the laborer receives from the national treasury. If these workmen were employed only in digging trenches to fill them up again, the additional cost would be only for tools to work with and land to work over. But government, in such cases, always maintains a certain semblance of purpose. There is a pretence of usefulness, immediately or remotely. This generally calls for a great amount of material, in one form or another, all of which makes a dead loss to the community, not even the poor getting it as charity. Such is the case where costly public buildings, or vessels of war, are constructed simply to provide labor for the destitute. Often the expense to the state is many times greater than the sum which is divided among the suffering poor. There are, besides, the salaries of officials, in great numbers, to superintend the labor; no inconsiderable item in public industries.
(6) We have, on the other hand, an advantage; viz., that this mode of receiving charity saves the self-respect of the workman. If government adjusts the rate of wages intelligently, it is certain that none but those who really need employment will seek it; and in receiving wages for work, even if that work is fictitious, they will not feel degraded. Of course, it is economically very desirable that the instinct of self-support should be kept strong and keen among the laboring class.
(c) There is also the consideration that these artificial enterprises entail a burden on the future. The work, when completed, is handed over to the public authorities, to be an object of costly maintenance, till happily destroyed by time or violence. In this way a tax is perpetuated on the community for a relief that was perhaps of the most temporary character.
2d, If the work to be performed is, in whole or in part, necessary or desirable, the pay of the laborer is so far taken out of the denomination of charity. He has rendered a real advantage, — it may be to the full extent of the wages he receives. Neither government nor his fellow can question his right to the remuneration, or taunt him with pauperage. Still, supposing this mode of employment necessary, we have some important considerations presented.
(a) Though the laborer renders the full value of his wages, the public often does not receive it. It is a perfectly established principle, that, in most departments of industry, government cannot compete with individuals. The dishonesty and indifference of its agents need not be dwelt on here. It is a recognized maxim of business, that self-interest and personal observation are the conditions of that intelligence and economy which secures success. How entirely evident it is, that the public will seldom, if ever, be fortunate enough to obtain officers who can, if they would, manage its affairs as their own!
(b) There are times and cases in which this wholesale employment by government may be useful, even if we allow the superior cheapness of individual work. There are great enterprises which can be undertaken only by the constituted authorities of the nation. There are duties, not only too large for private or corporate power, but too important to be left to the chances of individual management. Such, of course, is the maintenance of civil and military police, which, so far as it is necessary, must be in public hands, and cannot be let or farmed out, consistently with the honor and dignity of government.