Parity for the Industrialist, Laborer and Farmer
"THE STAKE IS VERY GREAT"
By EDWARD A. O'NEAL, President, American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D. C.
Delivered before War Council of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, 31st Annual Meeting Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, April 27, 1943
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 504-505.
IN THE war effort, this Nation is demonstrating conclusively that it can out-produce any nation in the world. It is fundamentally important that we never lose sight of this fact when we consider future national policies.
If we can produce abundantly for war, we certainly can produce abundantly for peace. We have matchless natural resources, productive farms, industrial capacity, skilled labor, intelligent and ingenious management, and above all, the aggressive and determined spirit of a free people—which, added together should without question spell prosperity and happiness for all people who are willing to work. And yet, at the outbreak of the war, we had spent seven long years trying to whip the unemployment problem, without success.
Obviously, there was something wrong with our approach. If there is any one cause to which can be assigned the bulk of the blame for poverty in the midst of plenty, I believe that that cause was the artificial barriers that we had erected to the free flow of trade and commerce—price barriers, wage barriers, monopoly barriers—barriers of every sort that restricted production and distribution of goods, barriers that discouraged the ambitious and disheartened those who could not find productive jobs.
For years we had boasted of our price levels, our wage levels, our standards of living, and implicit in our boasting was the idea that our welfare had been maintained because we had set ourselves off from the rest of the world. We had created a fortified citadel, secure from the swirling world forces that were engulfing the world, or so we thought! In the light of what happened, how childlike was our smugness and our false sense of security!
We are talking here today of domestic unity, rather than of international unity, and I mention our past policies of national economic isolationism merely to point out that the various groups within our Nation have followed the same pattern in domestic affairs, by practicing domestic group isolationism, with results that are apparent to every one of us.
Under the historic policy that we as a Nation have followed, the industrialist asked for and secured tariff protection to permit him to charge higher prices or asked for monopoly privileges which would protect his price level. For a long time, industry prospered under this system. The available market was big enough to assure affluence for the privileged few, as long as our immigration policies assured them of a plentiful supply of labor at low wages. Too often during that era, the economy that resulted from technological advances was translated to increased dividends to the few, rather than increased wages to the many. During that period, agriculture was not so much concerned, because our growing population and the European demand provided a market for all we could produce.
Gradually, labor began to organize to secure the advantages of collective bargaining, and they pushed their advantage aggressively as immigration tapered off, reducing the competition for jobs. Labor took its cue from the industrial policies which, superficially, seemed to have worked so well. Higher wages, shorter hours, reduced production, monopoly privileges-all these were asked for and obtained by labor.
With both industry and Labor protected by these economic rigidities and bottlenecks, the farmer soon found himself out in the cold, and he too began to demand national policies which would give him privileges equivalent to those enjoyed by other groups.
Before the farmer could achieve his protection, however, the entire system had broken down and chaos engulfed the land. Farmers tried the tariff route, but it proved useless on commodities produced in surplus volume.
The Government stepped in, and its policies, generally speaking, followed the old, familiar pattern. To overcome existing rigidities, more rigidities were imposed. To provide more employment, hours of work were reduced so that production per man was lowered. Wages were raised. Prices were raised to insure a profit for the manufacturer. To get people out of debt, more were contracted. To get more money, our dollars were cut up to make ten where there were six before. When the well played out in spite of pump-priming, the remedy was more water poured in at the top.
The primary aim inherent in every experiment that was tried was to improve the well-being of the average citizen in terms of money. After seven long years of slow progress, our fundamental national problem was still unsolved, the electric stimulus of war pushed our economic machinery into high gear. The tempo has been accelerated steadily until now, on the farm and in the factory, we are producing at a rate never before equalled in the world, jobs are available for all, and in spite of greatly increased taxes, our people as a whole are living better than they have ever lived before, and they have more money left, above living expenses and taxes, than they have ever had in history.
But our basic problem remains unsolved. There is fat on the framework of that problem, but that fat can quickly be lived up, and the bony structure will show through in tune unless fundamental changes are made in national policies.
My appeal to you men representing the great economic groups is to close your eyes to the picture as of today and get down to earth in your thinking for the future. I am convinced that it will be utterly impossible for this Nation ever to isolate itself from the rest of the world again without making another world war a necessity within another twenty years. I am convinced that if we attempt to maintain an artificially inflated price and wage structure that that structure will crash again, and that the results will threaten the survival of our cherished institutions of democracy.
If we could only get over our unsound practice of thinking in terms of money, and think instead in terms of commodities, goods, services and the meeting of human needs, we could begin to see the picture in true perspective. I ask the labor leader: If an adequate standard of living and security for old age can be had with wages of a dollar an hour, would not that be just as desirable as the same things attainable on the basis of wages of two dollars an hour? I ask the industrialist: If you could sell twice the volume of goods at half the current price, will you not be just as well off, and will not the country be vastly benefited? Certainly the farmer will be satisfied with dollar wheat if that dollar represents fair-exchange value.
It must be obvious to anyone that if we can have economic balance, or parity, among the various groups, there will be free exchange of goods and services; and since there is no visible limit to the wants and needs of the people for goods to make existence more comfortable and enjoyable, there is no reason why production and consumption should not grow steadily providing increased employment and constantly improving business. The only way to increase the national income is through greater production of goods and services. The only way to enable everybody to have more is to produce more. Distribution will take care of itself if only our price and wage systems are so adjusted that all can trade on a fair-exchange basis. Certainly it is obvious that we can not attain this happy objective if each of the different groups attempts to erect barriers around it in the tragically mistakenidea that members within each group can maintain their own welfare without reference to the welfare of all other groups.
Undoubtedly we have a long way to go before we can attain the goal that I have been discussing. We are still not far enough out of the tooth-and-claw stage of civilization. Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs of progress. I believe that the experience we have had during the past ten years, when we tried to bring about reforms largely through government action, has convinced most of us that we can't assign the job entirely to government, and that true progress can be made only through more voluntary action on the part of the groups themselves.
Is labor happy over present government participation in labor affairs? Is the industrialist happy over governmental administration of policies affecting his interests? Is the farmer happy over the controls that government has assumed, and now seeks to perpetuate, over agricultural affairs? I ask you.
Don't misunderstand me. I know there was no choice at the time but to have the government step in. But I say to you that government had to step in because of our own failure to keep order in our respective houses, because of the group isolationism that we had misguidedly practiced because we could not see outside of our own pasture, due to the high barriers we had erected around our own little playgrounds. But once the government had the ball, it insisted that it should carry the ball on every play. It wasn't long until we were exposed to all the evils of bureaucracy, officiousness and action based on theoretical thinking.
In searching for reasons for the prevailing dissatisfaction, you may assign full weight to the dislocations of war, to distorted perspectives in viewing current developments, and to all the weaknesses that human nature is heir to, and still you can not find the complete answer. There is something deeper, more fundamental, back of it. That something, in my opinion, is a human reluctance to do something because you have to do it. If more reliance were placed on voluntary action by the various groups, I believe a spirit of cooperation would develop that would sweep everything before it to reach goals that are at present undreamed of.
It is a challenge to the best that is in all of us. The stake is very great. If we fail to meet the challenge, then good-bye to freedom and individual rights!