Somebody gets the surplus wealth that labor produces and does not consume. Who is the Somebody? Such is the problem recently posited in the editorial columns of the New York Truth. Substantially the same question has been asked a great many times before, but, as might have been expected, this new form of putting it has created no small hubbub. Truth’s columns are full of it; other journals are taking it up; clubs are organizing to discuss it; the people are thinking about it; students are pondering over it. For it is a most momentous question. A correct answer to it is unquestionably the first step in the settlement of the appalling problem of poverty, intemperance, ignorance, and crime. Truth, in selecting it as a subject on which to harp and hammer from day to day, shows itself a level-headed, far-sighted newspaper. But, important as it is, it is by no means a difficult question to one who really considers it before giving an answer, though the variety and absurdity of nearly all the replies thus far volunteered certainly tend to give an opposite impression.
What are the ways by which men gain possession of property? Not many. Let us name them: work, gift, discovery, gaming, the various forms of illegal robbery by force or fraud, usury. Can men obtain wealth by any other than one or more of these methods? Clearly, no. Whoever the Somebody may be, then, he must accumulate his riches in one of these ways. We will find him by the process of elimination.
Is the Somebody the laborer? No; at least not as laborer; otherwise the question were absurd. Its premises exclude him. He gains a bare subsistence by his work; no more. We are searching for his surplus product. He has it not.
Is the Somebody the beggar, the invalid, the cripple, the discoverer, the gambler, the highway robber, the burglar, the defaulter, the pickpocket, or the common swindler? None of these, to any extent worth mentioning. The aggregate of wealth absorbed by these classes of our population compared with the vast mass produced is a mere drop in the ocean, unworthy of consideration in studying a fundamental problem of political economy. These people get some wealth, it is true; enough, probably for their own purposes: but labor can spare them the whole of it, and never know the difference.
Then we have found him. Only the usurer remaining, he must be the Somebody whom we are looking for; he, and none other. But who is the usurer, and whence comes his power? There are three forms of usury: interest on money, rent of land and houses, and profit in exchange. Whoever is in receipt of any of these is a usurer. And who is not? Scarcely any one. The banker is a usurer; the manufacturer is a usurer; the merchant is a usurer; the landlord is a usurer; and the workingman who puts his savings, if he has any, out at interest, or takes rent for his house or lot, if he owns one, or exchanges his labor for more than an equivalent, — he too is a usurer. The sin of usury is one under which all are concluded, and for which all are responsible. But all do not benefit by it. The vast majority suffer. Only the chief usurers accumulate: in agricultural and thickly-settled countries, the landlords; in industrial and commercial countries, the bankers. Those are the Somebodies who swallow up the surplus wealth.
And where do the Somebodies get their power? From monopoly. Here, as usual, the State is the chief of sinners. Usury rests on two great monopolies, — the monopoly of land and the monopoly of credit. Were it not for these, it would disappear. Ground-rent exists only because the State stands by to collect it and to protect land-titles rooted in force or fraud. Otherwise the land would be free to all, and no one could control more than he used. Interest and house-rent exist only because the State grants to a certain class of individuals and corporations the exclusive privilege of using its credit and theirs as a basis for the issuance of circulating currency. Otherwise credit would be free to all, and money, brought under the law of competition, would be issued at cost. Interest and rent gone, competition would leave little or no chance for profit in exchange except in business protected by tariff or patent laws. And there again the State has but to step aside to cause the last vestige of usury to disappear.
The usurer is the Somebody, and the State is his protector. Usury is the serpent gnawing at labor’s vitals, and only liberty can detach and kill it. Give laborers their liberty, and they will keep their wealth. As for the Somebody, he, stripped of his power to steal, must either join their ranks or starve.
Originally appeared in Liberty, August 6, 1881.