It is hardly necessary to say that so shrewd an observer as I am could not fail to be struck by the situation of business in England. Passing through the factory towns and noticing that no smoke came from the tall chimneys and that the doors of the factories were shut, I was led to the conclusion that they were closed.
Observing that the streets of the industrial centres were everywhere filled with idle men, I gathered that they were unemployed: and when I learned that the moving picture houses were full to the doors every day and that the concert halls, beer gardens, grand opera, and religious concerts were crowded to suffocation, I inferred that the country was suffering from an unparalleled depression. This diagnosis turned out to be absolutely correct. It has been freely estimated that at the time I refer to almost two million men were out of work.
But it does not require government statistics to prove that in England at the present day everybody seems poor, just as in the United States everybody, to the eye of the visitor, seems to be rich. In England nobody seems to be able to afford anything: in the United States everybody seems to be able to afford everything. In England nobody smokes cigars: in America everybody does. On the English railways the first class carriages are empty: in the United States the "reserved drawingrooms" are full. Poverty no doubt is only a relative matter: but a man whose income used to be 10,000 a year and is now 5,000, is living in "reduced circumstances": he feels himself just as poor as the man whose income has been cut from five thousand pounds to three, or from five hundred pounds to two. They are all in the same boat. What with the lowering of dividends and the raising of the income tax, the closing of factories, feeding the unemployed and trying to employ the unfed, things are in a bad way.
The underlying cause is plain enough. The economic distress that the world suffers now is the inevitable consequence of the war. Everybody knows that. But where the people differ is in regard to what is going to happen next, and what we must do about it. Here opinion takes a variety of forms. Some people blame it on the German mark: by permitting their mark to fall, the Germans, it is claimed, are taking away all the business from England; the fall of the mark, by allowing the Germans to work harder and eat less than the English, is threatening to drive the English out of house and home: if the mark goes on falling still further the Germans will thereby outdo us also in music, literature and in religion. What has got to be done, therefore, is to force the Germans to lift the mark up again, and make them pay up their indemnity.
Another more popular school of thought holds to an entirely contrary opinion. The whole trouble, they say, comes from the sad collapse of Germany. These unhappy people, having been too busy for four years in destroying valuable property in France and Belgium to pay attention to their home affairs, now find themselves collapsed: it is our first duty to pick them up again. The English should therefore take all the money they can find and give it to the Germans. By this means German trade and industry will revive to such an extent that the port of Hamburg will be its old bright self again and German waiters will reappear in the London hotels. After that everything will be all right.
Speaking with all the modesty of an outsider and a transient visitor, I give it as my opinion that the trouble is elsewhere. The danger of industrial collapse in England does not spring from what is happening in Germany but from what is happening in England itself. England, like most of the other countries in the world, is suffering from the over-extension of government and the decline of individual self-help. For six generations industry in England and America has flourished on individual effort called out by the prospect of individual gain. Every man acquired from his boyhood the idea that he must look after himself. Morally, physically and financially that was the recognised way of getting on. The desire to make a fortune was regarded as a laudable ambition, a proper stimulus to effort. The ugly word "profiteer" had not yet been coined. There was no income tax to turn a man's pockets inside out and take away his savings. The world was to the strong.
Under the stimulus of this the wheels of industry hummed. Factories covered the land. National production grew to a colossal size and the whole outer world seemed laid under a tribute to the great industry. As a system it was far from perfect. It contained in itself all kinds of gross injustices, demands that were too great, wages that were too small; in spite of the splendour of the foreground, poverty and destitution hovered behind the scenes. But such as it was, the system worked: and it was the only one that we knew.
Or turn to another aspect of this same principle of self-help. The way to acquire knowledge in the early days was to buy a tallow candle and read a book after one's day's work, as Benjamin Franklin read or Lincoln: and when the soul was stimulated to it, then the aspiring youth must save money, put himself to college, live on nothing, think much, and in the course of this starvation and effort become a learned man, with somehow a peculiar moral fibre in him not easily reproduced to-day. For to-day the candle is free and the college is free and the student has a "Union" like the profiteer's club and a swimming-bath and a Drama League and a coeducational society at his elbow for which he buys Beauty Roses at five dollars a bunch.