The Western Socialist
Vol. 34 - No. 257
No. 3, 1967
pages 16-19

Study Class Material


At our last class a question came up in discussion of more than passing interest. It had to do with incentive as the driving force causing men to do more than they would otherwise do. The question is an important one and I would start off our present discussion by commenting on it and developing further on what was said previously.

The question has to do with our economic welfare. When we were very young we played baseball, football and other games. The driving force in these games — the thing that got the greatest effort out of us, apart from the sheer joy of the game — was the desire to win. This is true of all youngsters. The reward is victory, bringing acclaim of relatives and others.

But in the average mind there has to be a reward of another kind, whether in games or other activity, a monetary reward. So when we enter the field of employment it is generally considered that the greatest reward of this kind go to those who put out the greatest effort and that these rewards are the incentive — the driving force — behind the effort. It is also considered that without this incentive there is no need for special effort and consequently no special effort, with resulting stagnation in society.

It is true undoubtedly that two youngsters with the same mental and physical make-up and the same background and opportunity will probably be found in a few years with different amounts of wealth, the one putting out the greatest effort being the more prosperous of the two. But the question of incentive can't be reduced to such simple terms if the clearest picture is to be gained. Youngsters starting out in the "battle of life" do not usually start with the same mental and physical make-up and the same background and opportunity. The starting point is widely different in practice, so that two boys; equipped with the same driving force, arrive at different destinations because of other differences, and a fair number of cases can be shown of people with little or no excess of energy coasting along in luxury while others are struggling hard to make ends meet.


The fact is that most people struggle for their livelihood and struggle hard. They have to. Generally speaking the average youngster leaving school has to search at once for an employer. Several things may influence the kind of employment he gets. His educational background, for example, may fit him for "higher" forms of employment. This background, it should be noted, was not something of his own making. Whereas the average youngster leaves school at the age of 16 or 17 because he hasn't the means and his parents haven't the means to continue him at school, there are some who go beyond the public school to college or to a commercial or other kind of training school, so that, because of factors that the young people did not influence, one group gets off to a better start than the other, and without any special drives being brought into play or incentive influencing the outcome there is a difference in the monetary rewards received by the different youngsters. And it must be emphasized that both groups are required to work hard. There is a penalty if they do not which can be dismissal and this is a serious matter, one that the average person would avoid.

We see then that from one standpoint incentive plays no part in the outcome as it affects a great many people. Let me now repeat that the average youngster has to find employment on leaving school. That is true no matter how greatly he may wish it otherwise. The opportunities for gaining a livelihood, whether a good one or a poor one, are all contained for most people within the limits of some form of employment, meaning here the selling of one's services to some person or persons for a wage or salary. That is why he has to work hard. He has to work hard because the person who employs him is anxious to get as much in expended labor power as possible for his money. That's the way it is with those who spend money: they hope to get an awful lot for it, and in the cases of the employer modern society is constructed in such a way that he is able to get away with it. So this business of incentive has no practical application for the average person. Whatever his desires may be, it is his destiny in present day society to maintain an active, limited and insecure existence.

This applies too, although to a lesser extent, to doctors, lawyers and professional people generally. It is true that most of them have independent practices, but the tendency is away from this position towards one that is the same as that of the average worker, one that promises to have an adverse effect on the "rewards" they are now receiving, regardless of the drive that some of them may have exercised in arriving at their more favored position.


But there is one section of society, most of whose members exert themselves very little, yet who carry off the cream of society's produce. I refer now to the owning class or capitalist class. There is no doubt that some of them work hard, but that is not true of most of them, and the amount of work they do is not important to the size of their income. Mention could be made of the elder John D. Rockefeller who is said to have spent his last thirty years playing golf in Florida, yet whose wealth during that time increased enormously. You've all no doubt heard of the McCormick-Deering implement concern. One of the McCormick heirs, who had incidentally never done anything useful in his life yet always lived luxuriously, was at a certain age judged mentally incompetent and was kept confined for several years, yet his income, quite a substantial one, never stopped during those years. These people derived their income, obviously not because they worked hard, but simply because they owned property in the means of production which enabled them to live from the work of others. And that is true of the capitalist class generally. They don't all spend their time playing golf, nor are they all in institutions, although it can be said that they spend more time playing golf than we do. What can be said is that no matter what they do with their time, whether they work hard or not at all, their rewards are still far greater than ours. So the situation, viewed from the class standpoint, the standpoint of the working class on the one hand and the capitalist class on the other, is that the workers put out the greatest effort for the smallest reward and the capitalists put out the smallest effort for the greatest reward.

Perhaps this disposes of the incentive question as generally conceived. Let us now turn to another aspect of the question not considered in the discussions of those who would use the incentive drive to justify the existence of capitalism. People's rewards, it is said, are commensurate with their worth to society. Of what worth to society the elder Rockefeller was playing golf, or the McCormick heir playing perhaps with his toys, doesn't need to be discussed. But how does a Rockefeller or a McCormick during their most useful days, or a Henry Ford who used to collect old time fiddles, compare with the universally recognized thinkers and artists of history. A hundred years from now the world will still know of Socrates and Euclid, Newton and Einstein, Copernicus and Galileo. Who will then have heard of the Rockefellers, McCormicks and Fords? The names of Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Michelangelo will long be remembered, as also will be the names of Marx and Darwin; but who could name a single capitalist of their day? Were the great contributors to the arts and sciences of society rewarded greater than the owners of land and capital? If not, has the contribution of the owning classes to society been greater?


Now another question: Were the mighty works of Rembrandt, Marx and the others I have named and not named impelled by thought of great monetary gain? Bruno was burned at the stake; Galileo spent his last years in virtual imprisonment; Shubert lived and died in poverty, as also did Marx. The burial place of Mozart is not known; it is not even certain that he was buried. A lot could be said about the agony suffered by the really great contributers to the wealth of the world. They didn't all suffer, but the evidence is clear that they gave to the world what was in them without thought of personal reward and often in the face of great personal danger.

The incentive argument, no matter how you look at it, so long as your vision is clear and honest is not a good one as used to offset the socialist case. What is true is that capitalism stifles the kinds of incentive that really matter, the kinds that drove on the great men of the past. The child wins in a game and is proud, proud because his parents are proud and his friends are proud. That is his reward, and if he receives nothing else he is still ready to fight and win again. The artist and scientist give to the world what they can and are happy if their work is recognized; but they continue to give regardless of society's response — just as Darwin endured ostracism after his "Origin of Species" was published and Marx was attacked and reviled after the publication of almost every work he wrote.

Under socialism the child who would paint will paint, the child who would write will write, no matter in what direction the child's interests turn, society will make it possible for those interests to become fully developed. The genius that is buried in poverty today will be freed then from the things that restrained it. This can never be true of capitalism.

J. M.