This section of the book is from the "A Man and His Money" book, by Harvey Reeves Calkins , published in 1915.
Our study is to be of property and income, wages and wealth. As property and wealth seem fundamental, and, in the thought of the average man, are the basis of all material prosperity, let our study begin with some plain definitions. Our discussion need not concern itself directly with "big" property nor "little" property, nor with the perplexing social and industrial problems that grow out of poverty and wealth. These must be considered by themselves. We shall seek, rather, to know the meaning of property itself, and understand its hidden power. A gardener with a wheelbarrow of vegetables, and a merchant with a shipload of ore, they will be equally concerned, if not equally interested, in what we have to say.
What, then, is property? and what is wealth? It is quick work to say, after the manner of the older economists, that property includes such things as land, houses, machinery, securities; and that wealth consists of merchandise, cattle, crops, fruits, and other products. Among modern social economists property and wealth no longer mean the possession of things, but, rather, power. They would insist that wealth is "the power to tax labor, by possessing the legal right to exclude labor from its field of operation, save at the price of rent, profit, or interest." But, whether one prefers the definition of the older economists, or is attracted by the keen analysis of the modern social economists, it is evident that the possession of things must continue to be the basis of wealth, even if, in strict logic, it may not be regarded as the wealth itself. Therefore it seems reasonable to say that when a man possesses land and houses, merchandise and crops, he is surely prosperous, and that when he possesses them in great abundance, he is rich; that is, he wields great power.
At first glance it would appear that this statement is necessarily true, and must be always true; but, scrutinized more closely, it will be seen that the statement is never absolutely true at all. Property is not some real thing of which I secure the legal title, and wealth does not consist of natural and useful products of which I hold rightful possession; neither do these things convey the power of wealth which most men covet. Indeed, property and wealth, and the power that these imply, do not consist in things at all, but always in something else—in some quality, or circumstance, or relation that may be wholly remote from the things themselves, and as immaterial as the rose-color of an evening cloud. The most unsubstantial wealth in the world is mere substance, and the power that depends on things is weak indeed. This is not preaching; it is cold finance.
"But," one queries, "land cannot evaporate, and rich soil must always mean riches to its fortunate owner ?" It is a dream of the unknowing. A generation ago certain Chicago financiers purchased land in New Mexico. It was for the ranging of cattle. But conditions changed and they found the breeding of cattle in that section an unprofitable business. The land remains, thousands of acres of pure virgin soil capable of immense productiveness. But there is no water, and the skies are cloudless. The Pecos River is near, but the hope of profitable irrigation is so remote that no one will undertake it. If a denser population would warrant the cost of the excavation, or if capital would risk an uncertain venture in the hope of future returns, there might emerge a property where now stretch miles and miles of merely sun-baked soil, worthless even for taxes. That is, the land is inherently rich and of immense possible fertility, and yet it is not property at all. To make it property there must be added to the material soil that immaterial yet very real thing which men call "confidence."
In the same way buildings under certain conditions may be called property, while, under other conditions, they become mere aggregations of wood and iron and refuse stone. A deserted town, with gaping, silent houses, needs no added argument to prove that men, and not things, are the basis of property. The fears and hopes and changing purposes of people are the invisible foundations of cities. If these foundations are shaken, the untenanted buildings that remain are but the ghosts of vanished properties. There is no breath in them. So also, in our swift industrial evolution, certain costly and intricate machinery is to-day a property of almost indispensable worth, but to-morrow a fugitive thought passes through the brain of an inventive workman, suggesting some better or cheaper method of manufacture, and straightway millions of costly property is changed to worthless scrap. Surely, the unseen is more real even than the seen.
Tangible and real property can thus fade into unreality before one's very eyes. It must be, therefore, that all that class of property which we call securities, that is, stocks, bonds, shares, mortgages—those shadow-pictures which represent the "real" property behind them—that these are even less real than the originals which they represent Their worth as property is wholly subject to those immaterial influences which make men hopeful or distrustful. An east wind in Boston or a foggy morning in Chicago may depress securities to the panic point because the men who hold them are depressed.
If such vicissitude marks the way of property which we call "real" or "fixed," what changeful fortunes must attend those perishable products on which men also base their material wealth! In the fall of 1910 thousands of barrels of prime apples lay rotting in the orchards all through the Central West. As apples they were well-nigh perfect; as produce they were not worth hauling to town. The laconic "No market" told the whole story. A year or two later thousands of acres of wheat in North Dakota was left standing in the fields until winter snows enveloped it, and the bulk of it was lost. This was no farmer's neglect. The price of wheat was low; therefore the level of farm wages could not command the labor market; there were not sufficient men to harvest and thresh the crop—that was all. Merchants need not be reminded how fashions change, how a stock of merchandise grows stale, and how wealth that was full in the promise becomes shrunken in the hand. Or, as it sometimes happens, an unexpected turn, a foreign war, or a new invention will lift a given product to a range of unparalleled importance, and wealth grows full again.
What strange thing is this? Evidently, property and wealth do not inhere in land or houses or crops or merchandise, but in something else that has neither form nor substance, yet has immense power to influence these material things. Some invisible element touches property and it stands upon its feet, it moves and throbs with life; but when that element is withdrawn, property falls back again, a dead and inert thing. That invisible element is value. It cannot be fully defined nor wholly analyzed; it can only be observed in its effects, and the manner of its working remembered. Value in property is like life in a man. like music in a harp, like steam in a cylinder, like electricity in a coil of wire. With-out it property is a lifeless thing which no man cares for, but with it the thing becomes an animate and vital power, capable of tremendous service.
The old game of nursery conundrums asks the question, "When is a door not a door?" and the answer comes laughing out of the years, "When it is ajar!" But it is no laughing nursery sprite, it is the grim genius of actual affairs which asks men every day the question, "When does property cease to be property?" Fortunate is the man who learns the answer early in the game! Not dead things, whatsoever they are, but the vital element that moves them—this is property. When that vital element departs property ceases. The essence of property is value.
It is a dull-eyed wonder to many good people that business, farming, trade, commerce, should engross men of fine spiritual fiber. How they can endure the drudgery of it is an amazement, but how such gross things as iron and land and wheat and wool can actually fascinate them is beyond all comprehension! They should be dreaming of music, not mules, and their souls should reach out after sermons, not stocks! But this is remarkable blundering. The man of fine fiber could not be centered nearer to the throbbing heart of things than when he is bending over his ledger, dreaming of coal and corn. The fascination of the musician's studio is not the rose-wood frame of his piano, nor its ivory keys, nor its tense wires; it is the immaterial music which is lured forth by his touch. The fascination of the merchant's warehouse is not the dead hulk of merchandise that piles the floor but the value of it. The salesman can quote a price and sign a voucher, the drayman can measure and move a bale after it is sold, but it requires the fine poise of mental and spiritual mastery to discern the value that lies hidden in the bale, and be able to lure it forth. The man who can do this thing is a discerner of the thoughts and motives of men and can touch the secret springs of action. He is not dealing with things at all but with forces. He is therefore the spiritual brother of the musician, the poet, and the preacher.
Can such a man be exhorted to "be less absorbed in his business"? Shall the poet be less absorbed in his song, or the scientist in his investigations? That a man of fine spiritual tone can be wholly devoted to cotton and sugar and leather, to lands and railways and city blocks, ought to be a revelation to himself and to all men that there is hidden within and proceeding from these gross material things an immaterial influence or force which appeals to his higher nature, as color and form appeal to the soul of an artist. And this is the very truth. The intangible and elusive element which so fascinates him is value, the soul of property. It holds him because it ought to hold him; because it is linked up with the elemental forces of the universe. To make of property a sordid thing is to miss the fineness of it altogether. A property owner is moving, and must move, among the potent spiritual agencies of the world. It is value, and not things, that absorbs him, and this remains true even though his motive should sink to sordid depths, and he himself be classed among the agencies of spiritual evil. Herein he may know that he himself is spiritual, and that he does not actually deal in the gross and material things which he handles.
Now, in considering this subtle element of value, we have to do with an immaterial human force more sensitive than the wings of a humming bird. If the inward story of the great business world could be faithfully reported, men would be astounded to discover that transactions involving millions have turned on some immaterial mental impression, some apparently illogical whim which could hardly be defined, much less defended. This mysterious element eludes investigation, and yet nothing in all the material world is quite so real. Men clearly recognize but cannot comprehend it. It is always present in the background of our thought when we judge of material things. Whether we are speaking of pumpkins or pianos, of handspikes or houses, it answers the question, "What is it worth?" It is as though an electrician would register the strength of an electric current. He cannot see and he does not comprehend what it is that he is measuring, and yet the dial-plate before him clearly shows the "pull" of a subtle and hidden power. In some such manner we measure that elusive human force called value. We cannot comprehend it, yet we plainly recognize its "pull." The figures on the dial-plate are usually written in terms of money, but the subtle force or element whose strength is thus registered always penetrates back behind the dial-plate, and makes itself known in terms of Tightness, or fitness.
For instance, the material thing whose value we may desire to register is a house. As a house is primarily intended to be a shelter and habitation for a family, it would seem that the only thing needful is to inquire concerning the size, construction, and condition of the building, and this would determine its value. But it is not so. The house has no absolute and independent value in itself at all, but only as it is related to a hundred material, social, and spiritual facts in the life of men. Where is the house situated, in the country or in the city? If in the country, what kind of a community surrounds it? Is it near malarial land? Is there a school convenient? Is there a church within driving distance? Are the people in the valley Americans or Bohemians ? If in the city, where is the house located? Is it near the college? Is it close to the mills? What of the neighborhood? Are the people jolly? Are they cultured? Are they religious? Is the house conveniently arranged for balls? Is there a secluded room for study and quiet? Has it a wine cellar? Is there a conservatory? What about a play-room for the children? Was there ever a death in the house? Did anyone ever say it was haunted? Could the roof-terrace be fitted up as an observatory? Would the neighbors object to a dancing pavilion on the lawn? How would they enjoy a Tuesday prayer meeting in the drawing room? How many bathrooms are there?
Now, what is the value of the house? Evidently, there can be no answer to the question until Mr. Roe and Mr. Doe make known what sort of a house they desire. When they have made known their judgment and the result has been registered, it is noted that in the opinion of Mr. Roe the value of the house is so much, while in the opinion of Mr. Doe the value is so much more. Is there then a double value in the house? No, the value does not exist in the house at all, but in a certain quality or sense of fitness which proceeds from the house and influences the mind, very much as light proceeds from a lamp and influences the eye. This influence or force touches the mind of Mr. Roe and causes him to say, "The house is worth so much"; it touches the mind of Mr. Doe and he says, "So much." That is, the dial-plate of value registers a different amount, not because of any difference in the house, but because the two men are different. If it be said that the house has a general or "market" value of a certain amount, it is merely saying that this same influence or force which touched the minds of Mr. Roe and Mr. Doe has also touched the minds of a hundred other men, and a hundred different figures on the dial-plate have been averaged together. This much is not difficult to understand. But, when we seek to penetrate back behind the dial-plate in order that we may analyze this hidden influence or force, we find that we are dealing with the springs of life and character. A man seeks to measure the value of a house, but the house has registered the compass and caliber of the man.
In all that we are saying the sum is this: Value, which is the essence of property, is a quality of fitness or Tightness which proceeds like a hidden force from some object or from some action into the mind of a man, and causes him to say, "This will be a benefit, it will be an advantage." The origin of this hidden force is apparent when we read the Christian Scriptures, for it is written by James the apostle, "Every desirable benefit and every perfect advantage is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights."1 That is to say, true and perfect value is perfect utility, perfect fitness, perfect advantage; it appeals to a perfect perception of "fitness" or "rightness." Value, therefore, when finally considered, is found to be a spiritual force and comes from God. It is for this reason that property and wealth, when honorably acquired, must be classed among the spiritual gifts which good men covet.
1 Epistle of James, 1. 17. Literal Greek.
Human experience has demonstrated this a thousand times. Real value is always right value. Dishonest men or stupid men can inflate or depress prices, but they cannot inflate or depress values. Value alwavs advertises its own truth. Mr. Roe may make a misjudgment and disturb its balance, but Mr. Doe will come presently and restore the equilibrium. This is why prices that are inflated on the one hand, or depressed on the other, are a source of unrest among the people. There is some artificial hindrance which interferes with the true register of value. It must be removed so that prices may flow forward or backward until they represent actual value; for value is always right. True value, and therefore honest property, benefits the man who creates it, the man who sells it, the man who buys it, and the man who uses it; it is therefore in very truth a "desirable benefit" and a "perfect advantage." It must be so, for value is the soul of property. It cometh down from the Father of lights.