The Emancipation of Business


Woodrow Wilson

In the readjustments that are about to be undertaken in this country not one single legitimate or honest arrangement is going to be disturbed; but every impediment to business is going to be removed, every illegitimate kind of control is going to be destroyed. Every man who wants an opportunity and has the energy to seize it, is going to be given a chance. All that we are going to ask the gentlemen who now enjoy monopolistic advantages to do is to match their brains against the brains of those who will then compete with them. The brains, the energy, of the rest of us are to be set free to go into the game,—that is all. There is to be a general release of the capital, the enterprise, of millions of people, a general opening of the doors of opportunity. With a spring of determination with what a shout of jubilance, will the people rise to their emancipation!

I am one of those who believe that we have had such restrictions upon the prosperity of this country that we have not yet come into our own, and that by removing those restrictions we shall set free an energy which in our generation has not been known. It is for that reason that I feel free to criticize with the utmost frankness these restrictions, and the means by: which they have been brought about. I do not criticize as one without hope; in describing conditions which so hamper, impede, and imprison, I am only describing conditions from which we are going to escape into a contrasting age. I believe that this is a time when there should be unqualified frankness. One of the distressing circumstances of our day is this: I cannot tell you how many men of business, how many important men of business, have communicated their real opinions about the situation in the United States to me privately and confidentially They are afraid of somebody. They are afraid to make their real opinions known publicly they tell them to me behind their hand. That is very distressing. That means that we are not masters of our own opinions, except when we vote, and even then we are careful to vote very privately indeed.

It is alarming that this should be the case. Why should any man in free America be afraid of any other man? Or why should any man fear competition,—competition either with his fellow-countrymen or with anybody else on earth?

It is part of the indictment against the protective policy of the United States that it has weakened and not enhanced the vigor of our people. American manufacturers who know that they can make better things than are made elsewhere in the world, that they can sell them cheaper in foreign markets than they are sold in these very markets of domestic manufacture, are afraid,—afraid to venture out into the great world on their own merits and their own skill. Think of it, a nation full of genius and yet paralyzed by timidity . The timidity of the business men of America is to me nothing less than amazing. They are tied to the apron strings of the government at Washington. They go about to seek favors. They say: "For pity's sake, don't expose us to the weather of the world; put some homelike cover over us. Protect us. See to it that foreign men don't come in and match their brains with ours." And, as if to enhance this peculiarity of ours, the strongest men amongst us get the biggest favors; the men of peculiar genius for organizing industries, the men who could run the industries of any country, are the men who are most strongly entrenched behind the highest rates in the schedules of the tariff. They are so timid morally, furthermore, that they dare not stand up before the American people, but conceal these favors in the verbiage of the tariff schedule itself,—in " jokers." Ah ! but it is a bitter joke when men who seek favors are so afraid of the best judgment of their fellow citizens that they dare not avow what they take.

Happily, the general revival of conscience in this country has not been confined to those who were consciously fighting special privilege. The awakening of conscience has extended to those who were enjoying special privileges, and I thank God that the business men of this country are beginning to see our economic organization in its true light, as a deadening aristocracy of privilege from which they themselves must escape. The small men of this I country are not deluded, and not all of the big I business men of this country are deluded. I Some men who have been led into wrong practices, who have been led into the practices of monopoly, because that seemed to be the drift and inevitable method of supremacy, are just as ready as we are to turn about and adopt the process of freedom. For American hearts beat in a lot of these men, just as they beat under our jackets. They will be as glad to be free as we shall be to set them free. And then the splendid force which has lent itself to things that hurt us will lend itself to things that I benefit us. And we,—we who are not great captains of I industry or business,—shall do them more good than we do now, even in a material way. If you have to be subservient, you are not even making the rich fellows as rich as they might be, because you are not adding your originative force to the extraordinary production of wealth in America. America is as rich, not as Wall Street, not as the financial centres in Chicago and St. Louis and San Francisco; it is as rich as the people that make those centres rich. And if those people hesitate in their enterprise, cower in the face of power, hesitate to originate designs of their own, then the very fountains which make these places abound in wealth are dried up at the source. By setting the little men of America free, you are not damaging the giants.

It may be that certain things will happen, for monopoly in this country is carrying a body of water such as men ought not to be asked to carry. When by regulated competition,—that is to say, fair competition, competition that fights fair,—they are put upon their mettle, they will have to economize, and they cannot economize unless they get rid of that water.

I do not know how to squeeze the water out, but they will get rid of it, if you will put them to the necessity. They will have to get rid of it, or those of us who don't carry tanks will outrun them in the race. Put all the business of America upon the footing of economy and efficiency, and then let the race be to the strongest and the swiftest.

Our program is a program of prosperity; a program of prosperity that is to be a little more pervasive than the present prosperity, and pervasive prosperity is more fruitful than that which is narrow and restrictive. I congratulate the monopolies of the United States that they are not going to have their way, - because, quite contrary to the* own theory, the | fact is that the people are wiser than they are | The people of the United States understand what these gentlemen do not, and if they will only give us leave, we will not I only make them rich, but we will make them happy. Because, then, their conscience will have less to carry. I have lived in a state I that was owned by a series of corporations. They handed it about. It was at one time owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad; then it was owned by the Public Service Corporation. It was owned by the Public Service Corporation when I was admitted, and that corporation has been resentful ever since that I interfered with its tenancy. But I really did not see any reason why the people should give up their own residence to so small a body of men to monopolize; and, therefore, when I asked them for their title deeds and they couldn't produce them, and there was no court except the court of public opinion to resort to, they moved out. Now they eat out of our hands; and they are not losing flesh either. They are making just as much money as they made before, only they are making it in a more respectable way. They are making it without the constant assistance of the legislature of the State of New Jersey. They are making it in the normal way, by supplying the people of New Jersey with the service in the way of transportation and gas and water that they really need. I do not believe that there are any thoughtful officials of the Public Service Corporation of New Jersey that now seriously regret the change that has come about. We liberated government in my state, and it is an interesting fact that we have not suffered one moment in prosperity.

What we propose, therefore, in this program of freedom, is a program of general advantage. Almost every monopoly that has resisted dissolution has resisted the real interests of its own stockholders. Monopoly always checks development, weighs down natural prosperity, pulls against natural advance.

Take but such an everyday thing as a useful invention and the putting of it at the service of men. You know how prolific the American mind has been in invention; how much civilization has been advanced by the steamboat, the cotton-gin, the sewing-machine, the reaping machine, the typewriter, the electric light, the telephone, the phonograph. Do you know, have you had occasion to learn, that there is no hospitality for invention nowadays? There

is no encouragement for you to set your wits at work to improve the telephone, or the camera, or some piece of machinery, or some mechanical process; you are not invited to find a shorter and cheaper way to make things or to perfect them, or to invent better things to take their place. There is too much money invested in old machinery; too much money has been spent advertising the old camera; the telephone plants, as they are, cost too much to permit their being superseded by something better.

However, there is monopoly, not only is there no incentive to improve, but, improvement being costly in that it "scraps" old machinery and destroys the value of old products, there is a positive motive against improvement. The instinct of monopoly is against novelty, the tendency of monopoly is to keep in use the old thing, made in the old way; its disposition is to " standardize " everything. Standardization may be all very well,—but suppose everything had been standardized thirty years ago,— we should still be writing by hand, by gas-light, we should be without the inestimable aid of the telephone (sometimes, I admit, it is a nuisance), without the automobile, without wireless telegraphy. Personally, I could have managed to plod along without the aeroplane, and I could have been happy even without moving-pictures.

Of course, I am not saying that all invention has been stopped by the growth of trusts, but I think it is perfectly clear that invention in many fields has been discouraged, that inventors have been prevented from reaping the full fruits of their ingenuity and industry, and that mankind has been deprived of many comforts and conveniences, as well as of the opportunity of buying at lower prices.

The damper put on the inventive genius of America by the trusts operates in half a dozen ways: The first thing discovered by the genius whose device extends into a field controlled by a trust is that he can't get capital to make and market his invention. If you want money to build your plant and advertise your product and employ your agents and make a market for it where are You going to get it? The minute you apply for money or credit, this proposition is put to you by the banks: "This invention will interfere with the established processes and the market control of certain great industries. We are already financing those industries, their securities are in our hands; we will consult them."

It may be, as a result of that consultation, you will be informed that it is too bad, but it will be impossible to " accommodate " you. It may be you will receive a suggestion that if you care to make certain arrangements with the trust, you will be permitted to manufacture. It may be you will receive an offer to buy your patent, the offer being a poor consolation dole. It may be that your invention, even if purchased, will never be heard of again.

That last method of dealing with an invention, by the way, is a particularly vicious misuse of the patent laws, which ought not to allow property in an idea which is never intended to be realized. One of the reforms waiting to be undertaken is a revision of our patent laws.

In any event, if the trust doesn't want you to manufacture your invention, you will not be allowed to, unless you have money of your own and are willing to risk it fighting the monopolistic trust with its vast resources. I am generalizing the statement, but I could particularize it. I could tell you instances where exactly that thing happened. By the combination of great industries, manufactured products are not only being standardized, but they are too often being kept at a single point of development and efficiency. The increase of the power to produce in proportion to the cost of production is not studied in America as it used to be studied, because if you don't have to improve your processes in order to excel a competitor, if you are human you aren't going to improve your processes; and if you can prevent the competitor from coming into the field, then you can sit at your leisure, and, behind this wall of protection which prevents the brains of any foreigner competing with you, you can rest at your ease for a whole generation.

Can any one who reflects on merely this attitude of the crusts toward invention fail to

understand how substantial, how actual, how great will be the effect of the release of the genius of our people to originate, improve, and perfect the instruments and circumstances of our lives? Who can say what patents now lying, unrealized, in secret drawers and pigeonholes, will come to light, or what new inventions will astonish and bless us, when freedom is restored?

Are you not eager for the time when the genius and initiative of all the people shall be called into the service of business? when newcomers with new ideas, new entries with new enthusiasms, independent men, shall be welcomed? when your sons shall be able to look forward to becoming, not employees, but heads of some small, it may be, but hopeful, business, where their best energies shall be inspired by the knowledge that they are their own masters, with the paths of the world open before them? Have you no desire to see the markets opened to all? to see credit available in due proportion to every man of character and serious purpose who can use it safely and to advantage? to see business disentangled from its unholy alliance with politics? to see raw material released from the control of monopolists, and transportation facilities equalized for all? and every avenue of commercial and industrial activity levelled for the feet of all who would tread it? Surely, you must feel the inspiration of such a new dawn of liberty!

There is the great policy of conservation, for example; and I do not conceive of conservation in any narrow sense. There are forests to conserve, there are great water powers to conserve, there are mines whose wealth should be deemed exhaustible, not inexhaustible, and whose resources should be safeguarded and preserved for future generations. But there is much more. There are the lives and energies of the people to be physically safeguarded.

You know what has been the embarrassment about conservation. The federal government has not dared relax its hold, because, not bona fide settlers, not men bent upon the legitimate development of great states, but men bent upon getting into their own exclusive control great mineral, forest, and water resources, have stood at the ear of the government and attempted to dictate its policy. And the government of the United States has not dared relax its somewhat rigid policy because of the fear that these forces would be stronger than the forces of individual I communities and of the public interest. What we are now in dread of is that this situation will be made permanent. Why is it that Alaska has lagged in her development? Why is it that there are great mountains of coal piled up in the shipping places on the coast of Alaska which the government at Washington will not permit to be sold? It is because the government is not sure that it has followed all the intricate threads of intrigue by which small bodies of men have tried to get exclusive control of the coal fields of Alaska. The government stands itself suspicious of the forces by which it is surrounded.

The trouble about conservation is that the government of the United States hasn't any policy at present. It is simply marking time.

It is simply standing still. Reservation is not conservation. Simply to say, " We are not going to do anything about the forests," when the country needs to use the forests, is not a practicable program at all. To say that the people of the great State of Washington can't buy coal out of the Alaskan coal fields doesn't settle the question. You have got to have that coal sooner or later. And if you are so afraid of the Guggenheims and all the rest of them that you can't make up your mind what your policies are going to be about those coal fields, how long are we going to wait for the government to throw off its fear? There can't be a working program until there is a free government. The day when the government is free to set about a policy of positive conservation, as distinguished from mere negative reservation, will be an emancipation day of no small importance for the development of the country.

But the question of conservation is a very much bigger question than the conservation of our natural resources; because in summing up our natural resources there is one great natural resource which underlies them all, and seems to underlie them so deeply that we sometimes overlook it. I mean the people themselves.

What would our forests be worth without vigorous and intelligent men to make use of them? Why should we conserve our natural resources, unless we can by the magic of industry transmute them into the wealth of the world? What transmutes them into that wealth, if not the skill and the touch of the men who go daily to their toil and who constitute the great body of the American people? What I am interested in is having the government of the United States more concerned about human rights than about property rights. Property is an instrument of humanity; humanity isn't an instrument of property. And yet when you see some men riding their great industries as if they were driving a car of juggernaut, not looking to see what multitudes prostrate themselves before the car and lose their lives in the crushing effect of their industry, you wonder how long men are going to be permitted to think more of their machinery than they think of their men. Did you never think of it,—men era cheap, and machinery is dear; many a superintendent is dismissed for overdriving a delicate machine, who wouldn't be dismissed for overdriving an overtaxed man. You can discard your man and replace him; there are others ready to come into his place; but you can't without great cost discard your machine and put a new one in its place. You are less apt, therefore, to look upon your men as the essential vital foundation part of your whole business. It is time that property, as compared with humanity, should take second place, not first place. We must see to it that there is no overcrowding, that there is no bad sanitation, that there is no unnecessary spread of avoidable diseases, that the purity of food is safeguarded, that there is every precaution against accident, that women are not driven to impossible tasks, nor children permitted to spend their energy before it is fit to be spent. The hope and elasticity of the race must be preserved; men must be preserved according to their individual needs, and not according to the programs of industry merely. What is the use of having industry, if we perish in producing it? If we die in trying to feed ourselves, why should we eat? If we die trying to get a foothold in the crowd, why not let the crowd trample us sooner and be done with it? I tell you that there is beginning to beat in this nation a great pulse of irresistible sympathy which is going to transform the processes of government amongst us. The strength of America is proportioned only to the health, the energy, the hope, the elasticity, the buoyancy of the American people.

Is not that the greatest thought that you can have of freedom,. the thought of it as a gift that shall release men and women from all that pulls them back from being their best and from doing their best, that shall liberate their energy to its fullest limit, free their aspirations till no bounds confine them, and fill their spirits with the jubilance of realizable hope?

Source: Woodrow Wilson, The New Freedom: A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People (New York: Double Day, Page and Company, 1913): 257-76.  The speeches in this book were taken from stenographic copies made during the campaign.