This appears to be a fundamental economic law: Every physical, mental, or spiritual advantage offered to an honest working man or woman increases his economic efficiency. Therefore even the selfish policy of shrewd corporations to-day is to screw up, and not down; while the more philanthropic are beginning to see, in their social power, a luminous opportunity to do a god-like service.
But the capitalist, however just or generous, cannot do for a man what he cannot or will not do for himself. Too many workers imagine that a living-wage is to be given to each man, no matter how he behaves or works. This is a false assumption. Underlying all human effort, there runs a final law, that of Compensation: What I earn, I shall some day have. This is a very different proposition from this: What I do not earn, I want to have! For every stroke of human toil, the universe assigns a right reward—a reward, not of money only, but of peace of heart, joy, and the possibilities of helpfulness. But when the work done has not been done faithfully, or well, or honestly, or in the right spirit, the reward is lessened to that exact degree. To the end of time, the idle and the lazy must, if they are dependent on their own exertions, be ill housed and fed. If a man wastes, or his wife does, he must not complain that his income will not support him. If he lets opportunities of sustenance and advancement go by, the capitalist is not to be held to account.
There are two chief kinds of economic difficulties. One is the problem of the capitalist: How much ought I to pay? The second is that of the working-man: How much service must I render? How much ought I to be paid? Of the second kind, nearly every phase of it begins right here, that men and women demand for labor something which they have not earned. They do careless, indifferent, shiftless, reckless work, and then demand a living-wage. The capitalist is not inclined to raise his scale of prices, knowing that he has built up his business by prudence, sagacity, and tireless application—the very qualities which his dissatisfied employees lack.
We need not pay—we ought not to pay—for incompetence, for impertinence, for disobedience of orders, for laziness, for shirking, for cheating, or for theft. To do so is a social wrong. It is the wrong that lies back, not only of sinecures and spoils, but of employing incompetent and wasteful cooks and dressmakers.
What we make of our lives through wages depends upon ourselves. For instance, a man gives each of five boys twenty-five cents for sweeping snow off his sidewalks. One boy tosses pennies, and loses his quarter by gambling. One boy buys cigarettes, and sends his money up in smoke. One boy buys newspapers, and sells them at a profit which buys him his dinner. A fourth boy buys seeds, plants them, and raises a tiny garden which keeps him in beans for a whole season, The fifth boy buys a book which starts him on the career of an educated man: he becomes an inventor and a man of means. The man who paid out the twenty-five cents to each boy is in no way responsible for the success or failure of their investment of this quarter. He is responsible only for the fact that he did or did not pay a fair price for the work.