“Do you know how it worked, that plan, and what it did to people? Try pouring water into a tank where there’s a pipe at the bottom draining it out faster than you pour it, and each bucket you bring breaks that pipe an inch wider, and the harder you work the more is demanded of you, and you stand slinging buckets forty hours a week, then forty-eight, then fifty-six — for your neighbors supper — for his wife’s operation — for his child’s measles — for his mother’s wheel chair — for his uncle’s shirt — for his nephew’s schooling — for the baby next door — for the baby to be born — for anyone anywhere around you — it’s theirs to receive, from diapers to dentures — and yours to work, from sunup to sundown, month after month, year after year, with nothing to show for it but your sweat, with nothing in sight for you but their pleasure, for the whole of your life, without rest, without hope, without end. . .From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. . .
“We’re all one big family, they told us, we’re all in this together. But you don’t stand, working an acetylene torch ten hours a day — together, and you don’t all get a bellyache — together. What’s whose ability and which of whose needs comes first? When it’s all one pot, you can’t let any man decide what his own needs are, can you? If you did, he might claim that he needs a yacht — and if his feelings is all you have to go by, he might prove it, too. Why not? If it’s not right for me to own a car until I’ve worked myself into a hospital ward, earning a car for every loafer and every naked savage on earth — why can’t he demand a yacht from me, too, if I still have the ability not to have collapsed? No? He can’t? Then why can he demand that I go without cream for my coffee until he’s replastered his living room?. . . Oh well . . . Well, anyway, it was decided that nobody had the right to judge his own need or ability. We voted on it. Yes, ma’am, we voted on it in a public meeting twice a year. How else could it be done? Do you care to think that would happen at such a meeting? It took us just one meeting to discover that we had become beggars — rotten, whining, sniveling beggars all of us, because no man could claim his pay as his rightful earning, he had no rights and no earnings, his work didn’t belong to him, it belonged to ‘the family,’ and they owed him nothing in return, and the only claim he had on them was his ‘need’ — so he had to beg in public for relief from his needs, like any lousy moocher, listing all his troubles and miseries, down to his patched drawers and his wife’s head colds, hoping that ‘the family’ would throw him the alms. He had to claim miseries, because it’s miseries, not work, that had become the coin of the realm — so it turned into a contest among six thousand panhandlers, each claiming that his need was worse than his brother’s. How else could it be done? Do you care to guess what happened, what sort of men kept quiet, feeling shame, and what sort got away with the jackpot?
“But that wasn’t all. There was something else that we discovered at the same meeting. The factory’s production had fallen by forty per cent, in that first half-year, so it was decided the somebody hadn’t delivered ‘according to his ability.’ Who? How would you tell it? ‘The family’ voted on that, too. They voted which men were the best, and these men were sentenced to work overtime each night for the next six months. Overtime without pay — because you weren’t paid by time and you weren’t paid by work, only by need.
“Do I have to tell you what happened after that — and int what sort of creatures we all started turning, we who had once been human? We began to hide whatever ability we had, to slow down and watch like hawks that we never worked any faster or better than the next fellow. What else could we do, when we knew that if we did our best for ‘the family,’ it’s not thanks or rewards that we’d get, but punishment? We knew that for every stinker who’d ruin a bunch of motors and cost the company money — either through his sloppiness, because we didn’t have to care, or through plain incompetence — it’s we who’d have to pay with our nights and our Sundays. So we did our best to be no good.
“There was one young boy who started out, full of fire for the noble ideal, a bright kid without any schooling, but with a wonderful head on his shoulders. The first year, he figured out a work process that saved us thousands of man-hours. He gave it to ‘the family,’ didn’t ask anything for it, either, couldn’t ask, but that was all right with him. It was for the ideal, he said. But when he found himself voted as one of our ablest and sentenced to night night work, because we hadn’t gotten enough from him, he shut his mouth and his brain. You can’t bet he didn’t come up with any ideas, the second year.
” What was it they’d always told us about the vicious competition of the profit system, where men had to compete for who’d do a better job than his fellows? Vicious, wasn’t it? Well they should have seen what it was like when we all had to compete with one another for who’d do the worst job possible. There’s no surer way to destroy a man than to force him into a spot where he has to aim at not doing his best, where he has to struggle to do a bad job, day after day. That will finish him quicker than drink or idleness or pulling stick-ups for a living. But there was nothing else for us to do except to fake unfitness. The one accusation we feared was to be suspected of ability. Ability was like a mortgage on you that you could never pay off. And what was there to work for? You knew that your basic pittance would be given to you anyway, whether you worked or not — your ‘housing and feeding allowance,’ it was called — and above that pittance, you had no chance to get anything, no matter how hard you tried. You couldn’t count on buying a new suit of clothes next year — they might give you a ‘clothing allowance’ or they might not, according to whether nobody broke a leg, needed an operation or gave birth to more babies. And if there wasn’t enough money for new suits for everybody, then you couldn’t get yours, either.
“There was one man who’d worked hard all his life, because he’d always wanted to send his son through college. Well, the boy graduated form high school in the second year of the plan — but ‘the family’ wouldn’t give the father any ‘allowance’ for the college. They said his son couldn’t got to college, until we had enough to sen everybody’s sons to college — and that we first had to everybody’s children through high school, and we didn’t even have enough fot that. The father died the following year, in a knife fight with somebody in a saloon, a fight over nothing in particular — such fights were beginning to happen all the time.
“Then there was an old guy, a widower with no family, who had one hobby, phonograph records. I guess that was all he ever got out of life.. In the old day, he used to skip meals just to buy himself some new recording of classical music. Well, they didn’t give him any ‘allowance’ for records — ‘personal luxury,’ they called it. But at that same meeting, Millie Bush, somebody’s daughter, a mean ugly little eight-year-old, was voted a pair of gold braces for her buck teeth — this was ‘medical need,’ because the staff psychologist had said that the poor girl would get an inferiority complex if her teeth weren’t straightened out. The old guy who loved music, turned to drink, instead. He got so you never saw him fully conscious anymore. But it seems like there was one thing he couldn’t forget. One night he came staggering down the street, saw Millie Bush, swung his fist and knocked all her teeth out. Every one of them.
“Drink, of course, was what we all turned to, some more, some less. Don’t ask how we got the money for it. When all the decent pleasures are forbidden, there’s always ways to the the rotten ones. You don’t break into grocery stores after dark and you don’t pick your fellow’s pockets to buy classical symphonies or fishing tackle, but if it’s to get stinking drunk and forget — you do. Fishing tackle? Hunting guns? Snapshot cameras? Hobbies? There wasn’t any ‘amusement allowance’ for anybody. ‘Amusement’ was the first thing they dropped. Aren’t you always supposed to be ashamed to object when anybody asks you to give up anything, if it’s not something that gave you pleasure? Even our ‘tobacco allowance’ was cut to where we got two packs of cigarettes a month — and this, they told us, was because the money had to go into the babies milk fund. Babies was the only item of production that didn’t fall, but rose and kept rising — because people had nothing else to do, I guess, and because they didn’t have to care, the baby wasn’t their burden, it was ‘the family’s.’ In fact, the best chance you had of getting a raise and breathing easier for a while was a ‘baby allowance.’ Either that or a major disease.
“It didn’t take us long to see how it all worked out. Any man who tried to play it straight, had to refuse himself everything. He lost his taste for pleasure, he hated to smoke a nickel’s worth of tobacco or chew a stick of gum, worrying whether somebody had more need for that nickel. He felt ashamed of every mouthful of food he swallowed, wondering whose weary night of overtime had paid for it, knowing that his food was not his by right, miserably wishing to be cheated rather than to cheat, to be a sucker, but not a blood-sucker. He wouldn’t marry, he wouldn’t help his folks back home, he wouldn’t put an extra burden on ‘the family.’ Besides, if he still had some sort of sense of responsibility, he couldn’t marry or bring children into the world, when he could plan nothing, promise nothing, count on nothing. But the shiftless and the irresponsible had a field day of it. The bred babies, the got girls into trouble, they dragged in every worthless relative they had from all over the country, every unmarried pregnant sister, for an extra ‘disability allowance,’ they got more sickness than any doctor could disprove, they ruined their clothing, their furniture, their homes — what the hell, ‘the family’ was paying for it! The found more ways of getting in ‘need’ than the rest of us could ever imagine — they developed a special skill for it, which was the only ability they showed.
“God help us, ma’am! Do you see what we saw? We saw that we’d been given a law to live by, a moral law, they called it, which punished those who observed it — for observing it. The more you tried to live up to it, the more you suffered; the more you cheated it, the bigger the reward you got. Your honesty was like a tool left at the mercy of the next man’s dishonesty. The honest ones paid, the dishonest collected. The honest lost, the dishonest won. How long could men stay good under this sort of law of goodness? We were a pretty decent bunch of fellows when we started. There weren’t many chiselers among us. We knew our jobs and we were proud of it and we worked for the best factory in the country, where old man Starnes hired nothing but the pick of the country’s labor. Within one year under the new plan, there wasn’t an honest man left among us. That was the evil, the sort of hell-horror evil that preachers used to scare you with, but you never thought to see alive. Not that the plan encouraged a few bastards, but that it turned decent people into bastards, and there was nothing else that it could do — and it was called a moral ideal!
“What was it we were supposed to want to work for? For the love of our brothers? What brothers? For the bums, the loafers, the moochers we saw all around us? And whether they were cheating or plain incompetent, whether they were unwilling or unable — what difference did that make to us? If we were tied for life to the level of the unfitness, faked or real, how long could we care to go on? We had no way of knowing their ability, we had no way of controlling their needs — all we knew was that we were beasts of burden struggling blindly in some sort of place that was half-hospital, half-stockyards — a place geared to nothing but disability, disaster, disease — beasts put there for the relief of whatever whoever chose to say was whichever’s need.
“Love of our brothers? That’s when we learned to hate our brothers for the first time in our lives. We began to hate them for every meal they swallowed, for every small pleasure they enjoyed, for one man’s new shirt, for another’s wife’s hat, for an outing with their family, for a paint job on their house — it was taken from us, it was paid for by our privations, our denials, our hunger. We began to spy on one another, each hoping to catch the others lying about their needs, so as to cut their ‘allowance’ at the next meeting. We began to have stool pigeons who informed on people, who reported that somebody had bootlegged a turkey to his family on some Sunday — which he paid for by gambling, most likely. We began to meddle into one another’s lives. We provoked family quarrels, to get somebody’s relatives thrown out. Any time we saw a man starting to go steady with a girl, we mad life miserable for him. We broke up many engagements. We didn’t want anyone to mary, we didn’t want any more dependents to feed.
” In the old days, we used to celebrate if somebody had a baby, we use to chip in and help him out with the hospital bills, if he happened to be hard-pressed for the moment. Now, if a baby was born we didn’t speak to the parents for weeks. Babies, to us, had become what locusts were to farmers. In the old days, we used to help a man if he had a bad illness in the family. Now — well, I’ll tell you about just one case. It was the mother of a man who had been with us for fifteen years. She was a kindly old lady, cheerful and wise, she us all by our first names and we all liked her — we used to like her. One day, she slipped on the cellar stairs and fell and broke her hip. We knew what that meant at her age. The staff doctor said that she’d have to be sent to a hospital in town, for expensive treatments that would take a long time. The old lady died the night before she was to leave for town. The never established the cause of death. No, I don’t know whether she was murdered. Nobody said that. Nobody would talk about it at all. All I know is that I — and that’s what I can’t forge! — I, too, had caught myself wishing that she would die. This — may God forgive us! — was the brotherhood, the security, the abundance that the plan was supposed to achieve for us!
I’m going to skip the description of the three Starnes siblings simply because of length. Rand’s descriptions of the three are a very analogous to the different mindsets of some liberals today. Let’s get back into it.
“At first, I kept wondering how it could be possible that the educated, the cultured, the famous men of the world could make a mistake of this size and preach, as righteousness, this sort of abomination — when five minutes of that should have told them what would happen if somebody tried to practice what they preached. Now I know that they didn’t do it by any kind of mistake. Mistakes of this size are never made innocently. If men fall for some vicious piece of insanity, when they have no way to make it work and no possible reason to explain their choice — it’s because they have a reason that they do not wish to tell. And we weren’t so innocent either, when we voted for the plan at the first meeting. We didn’t do it just because we believed that the drippy old guff they spewed was good. We had another reason, but the guff helped us to hide it from our neighbors and from ourselves. The guff gave us a chance to pass off as virtue something that we’d be ashamed to admit otherwise. There wasn’t a man voting for it who didn’t think that under a setup of this kind he’d muscle in on the profits of the men abler than himself. There wasn’t a man rich and smart enough but that he didn’t think that somebody was richer and smarter, and this plan would five him a share of his better’s wealth and brain. But while he was thinking that he’d get unearned benefits from the men above, he forgot about the men below who’d get unearned benefits, too.
He forgo about all his inferiors who’d rush to drain him just as he hoped to drain his superior. The worker who liked the idea that his need entitled him to a limousine like his boss’s, forgot that every bum and beggar on earth would come howling that their
need entitled them to an icebox like his own. That
was our real motive when we voted — that was the truth of it — but we didn’t like to think it, so the less we liked it, the louder we yelled about our love for the common good.
“Well, we got what we asked for. By the time we saw what is was that we’d asked for, it was too late. We were trapped, with no place to go. The best men among us left the factory in the first week of the plan. We lost our best engineers, superintendents, foremen and highest-skilled workers. A man of self-respect doesn’t turn into a milch cow for anybody. Some able fellows tried to stick it out, but they couldn’t take it for long. We kept losing our men, they kept escaping from the factory like from a pest-hole — till we had nothing left except the men of need, but none of the men of ability.
“And the few of us who were still any good, but stayed on, were only those who had been there too long. In the old days, nobody ever quit the Twentieth Century — and, somehow, we couldn’t make ourselves believe it was gone. After a while, we couldn’t quit, because not other employer would have us — for which I can’t blame him. Nobody would deal with us in any way, no respectable person or firm. All the small shops, where we traded, started moving out of Starnesville fast — till we had nothing left but saloons, gambling joints, and crooks who sold us trash at gouging prices. The alms we got kept falling, but the cost of living went up. the list of the factory’s needy kept stretching, but the list of its customers shrank. There was less and less income to divide among more and more people. In the old days, it used to be said that the Twentieth Century Motor trademark was as good as the karat mark on gold. I don’t know what it was that the Starnes heirs thought, if they thought at all, but I suppose that like all social planners and like savages, they thought that this trademark was a magic stamp which did the trick by some sort of voodoo power and that it would keep them rich, as it had kept their father. Well, when our customers began to see that we never delivered an order on time and never put out a motor that didn’t have something wrong with it — the magic stamp began to work the other way around; people wouldn’t take a motor as a gift, if it was marked Twentieth Century. And it came to where our only customers were men who never paid and never meant to pay their bills. But Gerald Starnes, doped by his own publicity, got huffy and went around, with an air of moral superiority, demanding that businessmen place orders with us, not because our motors were good, but because we needed the orders so badly.
“By that time, a village half-wit could see what generations of professors had pretended not to notice. What good would our need do to a power plant when its generators stopped because of our defective engines? What good would it do to a man caught on an operating table when the electric light went out? What good would it do to the passenger of a plane when its motor failed in mid-air? And if they bought our product, not because of it’s merit, but because of our need, would that be the good, the right, the moral thing to do for the owner of that power plant, the surgeon in that hospital, the maker of that plane?
“Yet this was the moral law that the professors and leaders and thinkers had wanted to establish all over the earth. If this is what it did in a single small town where we knew one another, do you care to think what it would do on a world scale? Do you care to imagine what it would be like, if you had to live and to work, when you’re tied to all the disasters and all the malingering of the globe? To work — and whenever any men failed anywhere, it’s you who would have to make up for it. To work — with no chance to rise, with your meals and your clothes and your home and your pleasure depending on any swindle, and famine, any pestilence anywhere on earth. To work — with no chance for an extra ration, till the Cambodians have been fed and the Patagonians have been sent through college. To work — on a blank check held by every creature born, bu men whom you’ll never see, whose needs you’ll never know, whose ability or laziness or sloppiness or fraud you have no way to learn and no right of question just to work and work and work — and leave it up to the Ivys and the Geralds of the world to decide whose stomach will consume the effort, the dreams and the days of your life. And this is the moral law to accept? This — a moral ideal?
“Well we tried it — and we learned. Our agony took four years, from our first meeting to our last, and it ended the only way it could end: in bankruptcy. At our last meeting, Ivy Starnes was the one who tried to brazen it out. She mad a short, nasty, snippy little speech in which she said that the plan had failed because the rest of the country had not accepted it, that a single community could not succeed in the midst of a selfish, greedy world — and that the plan was a noble ideal, but human nature was not good enough for it. A young boy — the one who had been punished for giving us a useful idea in our first year — got up, as we all sat silent, and walked straight to Ivy Starnes on the platform. He spat in her face. That was the end of the noble plan and of the Twentieth Century.”
Long, yes, but well worth reading, I think.
Our country, sadly, could find itself on a very similar path. It scares me to consider how familiar some of this scene sounds. I could probably have lifted parts of this passage and you would have thought I was quoting the administration.
Your comments are welcome.