THE SOCIAL POLICY OF THE FUTURE
I was constantly asked by socialists in America whether I really believed that society, as it is, is perfect, and that there are no evils and defects in it which are crying aloud for remedy. Unless I believed this—and that I could do so was hardly credible—I ought, they said, if I endeavoured to discredit the remedy proposed by themselves, to suggest another, which would be better and equally general, of my own.
Now, such an objection, as it stands, I might dismiss by curtly observing that I did not, and could not, suggest any remedy other than socialism, partly because the purport of my entire argument was that socialism, if realised, would not be a remedy at all; and partly because, for the evils that afflict society, no general remedy of any kind is possible. The diseases of society are various, and of various origin, and there is no one drug in the pharmacopoeia of social reform which will cure or even touch them all, just as there is no one drug in the pharmacopoeia of doctors which will cure appendicitis, mumps, sea-sickness, and pneumonia indifferently—which will stop a hollow tooth and allay the pains of childbirth.
But though such an answer would be at once fair and sufficient, if we take the objection in the spirit in which my critics urged it, the objection has more significance than they themselves suspected, and it requires to be answered in a very different way. Socialism may be worthless as a scheme, but it is not meaningless as a symptom. Rousseau’s theory of the origin of society, of the social contract, and of a cure for all social evils by a return to a state of nature, had, as we all know now, no more relation to fact than the dreams of an illiterate drunkard; but they were not without value as a vague and symbolical expression of certain evils from which the France of his day was suffering. As a child, I was told a story of an old woman in Devonshire who, describing what was apparently some form of dyspepsia, said that “her inside had been coming up for a fortnight,” and still continued to do so, although during the last few days “she had swallowed a pint of shot in order to keep her liver down.” The old woman’s diagnosis of her own case was ridiculous; her treatment of it, if continued, would have killed her; but both were suggestive, as indications that something was really amiss. The reasoning of Rousseau, who contended that the evils of the modern world were due to a departure from primeval conditions which were perfect, and that a cure for them must be sought in a return to the manner of life which prevailed among the contemporaries of the mammoth, and the immediate descendants of the pithekanthropos, was identical in kind with the reasoning of the old woman. The reasoning of the socialists is identical in kind with both. It consists of a poisonous prescription founded on a false diagnosis. But just as the