Commentary: Individual Interest and Universal Good

By: The FHE Team

Owen is another utopian socialist. A “doer” more than a “talker,” he founded the famous New Lanark Mills in Scotland as an example of the viability of co-operative factory communities. Many industrialists actually visited these “model factories” and some even adopted parts of Owen’s system. Owen attempted to extend these into agriculture – advocating collective farming, as in New Harmony, Indiana.

Although most of these efforts failed, he continued on his social work – becoming the head of one of the largest trade union federations in Britain in 1843. His emphasis on action rather than academics make him an honorable mention in our politics section.

Individual Interest and Universal Good

Original Work by Robert Owen

It has been, and still is, a received opinion among theorists in political economy, that man can provide better for himself, and more advantageously for the public, when left to his own individual exertions, opposed to, and in competition with his fellows, than when aided by any social arrangements, which shall unite his interests individually and generally with society. This principle of individual interest, opposed, as it is perpetually, to the public good, is considered, by the most celebrated political economists, to be the cornerstone of the social system and without which, society could not subsist. Yet when they shall know themselves, and discover the wonderful effects, which combination and unity can produce, they will acknowledge that the present arrangement of society is the most antisocial, impolitic, and irrational, that can be devised; that under its influence, all the superior and valuable qualities of human nature are repressed from infancy, and that the most unnatural means are used to bring out the most injurious propensities; in short, that the utmost pains are taken to make that which by nature is the most delightful compound for producing excellence and happiness, absurd, imbecile, and wretched. Such is the conduct now pursued by those who are called the best and wisest of the present generation, although there is not one rational object to be gained by it.

From this principle of individual interest have arisen all the divisions of mankind, the endless errors and mischiefs of class, sect, party, and of national antipathies, creating the angry and malevolent passions, and all the crimes and misery with which the human race has been hitherto afflicted. In short, if there be one closet doctrine more contrary to truth than another, it is the notion that individual interest, as the term is now understood, is a more advantageous principle on which to found the social system, for the benefit of all, or of any, than the principle of union and mutual cooperation. The former acts like an immense weight to repress the most valuable faculties and dispositions, and to give a wrong direction to all the human powers. It is one of those magnificent errors (if the expression may be allowed) that when enforced in practice, brings ten thousand evils in its train.

The principle on which these economists proceed, instead of adding to the wealth of nations or of individuals, is itself the sole cause of poverty; and but for its operation, wealth would long ago have ceased to be a subject of contention in any part of the world. If, it may be asked, experience has proved that union, combination, and extensive arrangement among mankind, are a thousand times more powerful to destroy, than the efforts of an unconnected multitude, where each acts individually for himself — would not a similar increased effect be produced by union, combination, and extensive arrangement, to create and conserve? Why should not the result be the same in the one case as in the other? But it is well known that a combination of men and of interests, can effect that which it would be futile to attempt, and impossible to accomplish, by individual exertions and separate interests. Then why, it may be inquired, have men so long acted individually, and in opposition to each other?

This is an important question, and merits the most serious attention.

Men have not yet been trained in principles that will permit them to act in unison, except to defend themselves or to destroy others. For self-preservation, they were early compelled to unite for these purposes in war. A necessity, however, equally powerful will now compel men to be trained to act together, to create and conserve, that in like manner they may preserve life in peace. Fortunately for mankind, the system of individual opposing interests, has now reached the extreme point of error and inconsistency; — in the midst of the most ample means to create wealth, all are in poverty, or in imminent danger, from the effects of poverty upon others.

The reflecting part of mankind, have admitted in theory, that the characters of men are formed chiefly by the circumstances in which they are placed; yet the science of the influence of circumstances, which is the most important of all the sciences, remains unknown for the great practical business of life. When it shall be fully developed, it will be discovered, that to unite the mental faculties of men, for the attainment of pacific and civil objects, will be a far more easy task than it has been to combine their physical powers to carry on extensive warlike operations.

The discovery of the distance and movements of the heavenly bodies; of the time-pieces; of a vessel to navigate the most distant parts of the ocean; of the steam engine, which performs, under the easy control of one man, the labor of many thousands; and of the press, by which knowledge and improvements may be speedily given to the most ignorant, in all parts of the earth; — these have, indeed, been discoveries of high import to mankind; but important as these and others have been in their effects, on the condition of human society, their combined benefits in practice, will fall far short of those which will be speedily attained by the new intellectual power, which men will acquire through the knowledge of “the science of the influence of circumstances over the whole conduct, character, and proceedings of the human race.” By this latter discovery, more shall be accomplished in one year, for the well-being of human nature, including, without any exceptions, all ranks and descriptions of men, than has ever yet been effected in one or in many centuries. Strange as this language may seem to those whose minds have not yet had a glimpse of the real state in which society now is, it will prove to be not more strange than true.

Are not the mental energies of the world at this moment in a state of high effervescence. Is not society at a stand, incompetent to proceed in its present course, and do not all men cry out that “something must be done”? That “something,” to produce the effect desired, must be a complete renovation of the whole social compact; one not forced on prematurely, by confusion and violence; not one to be brought about by the futile measures of the Radicals, Whigs, or Tories, of Britain, — the Liberals or Royalists of France, — the Illuminati of Germany, or the mere party proceedings of any little local portion of human beings, trained as they have hitherto been, in almost every kind of error, and without any true knowledge of themselves. No! The change sought for, must be preceded by the clear development of a great and universal principle which shall unite in one, all the petty jarring interests, by which, till now, nature has been made a most inveterate enemy to itself. No! extensive, nay, rather, universal as the rearrangement of society must be, to relieve it from the difficulties with which it is now overwhelmed, it will be effected in peace and quietness, with the good will and hearty concurrence of all parties, and of every people. It will necessarily commence by common consent, on account of its advantages, almost simultaneously among all civilized nations; and, once begun, will daily advance with an accelerating ratio, unopposed, and bearing down before it the existing systems of the world. The only astonishment then will be that such systems could so long have existed.

Under the present system, there is the most minute division of mental power and manual labor in the individuals of the working classes; private interests are placed perpetually at variance with the public good, and, in every nation, men are purposely trained from infancy to suppose that their well-being is incompatible with the progress and prosperity of other nations. Such are the means by which old society seeks to obtain the desired effects of life. The details now to be submitted, have been devised upon principles which will lead to an opposite practice; to the combination of extensive mental and manual powers in the individuals of the working classes; to a complete identity of private and public interest, and to the training of nations to comprehend that their power and happiness cannot attain their full and natural development, but through an equal increase of the power and happiness of all other states. These, therefore, are the real points of variance between that which is, and that which ought to be.