fessional management of property for others; in all organizations of every kind managed by officers in the interest of other members. I am not speaking of lack of fidelity towards those whose property is confided to the managers of the corporation. The question there is only one of simple probity, of dealing as an honorable trustee would deal with his cestuis. He will not take advantage of his position to make a profit at their expense. The true principle is that no director of a corporation should buy or sell stock in consequence of any information which he has acquired in that fiduciary capacity, and which is not equally accessible to all the stockholders; that he should not make any incidental profit by any transaction with his corporation--such as underwriting new issues of securities, unless on the same terms that are offered to all the stockholders.
The question of what is right and what is wrong in such cases may not always be perfectly obvious; and it may not always be perfectly easy to do one's duty; but difficulties far more serious arise in the manager's relations with other people. Take such matters as injurious trades, unhealthy tenements, unfair competition with rivals, oppressive treatment of employees, dishonest products, disregard of the public safety or comfort, dealing with public authorities which, even if not corrupt, are unconscionable. It is in questions of this kind that the evils of absentee-ownership are felt today. The investor does not inquire into them, or trouble himself about them. The stock is paying large dividends and is a good investment. It may be doing business in another state, or operating all over the country, and it is not easy to find out what is being done. Public opinion is of little value as a guide in such things, because it is usually ill-informed and is rarely aroused until an evil has become great. In short, the moral questions involved in the management of the corporation do not thrust themselves upon the stockholder, and are rarely brought to his notice. Like the absentee landlord of an estate he thinks of the stock as an investment, and regards it primarily, if not exclusively, from the point of view of revenue; and the revenue is independent of the morality of the management. Indeed it may be greater where the management is not too scrupulous. The stockholder, therefore, is essentially in the position of the absentee landlord; and the suffering falls on the persons with whom his corporation is brought into contact,--as it falls upon the tenantry or the slave gangs on an estate,--not because the stockholder is malicious or hard, or even indifferent, but because he is an absentee. He is not himself responsible for the management, or ever aware of its problems.
The manager, on the other hand, knows that the stockholders, while very keen about the amount of their dividends, are indifferent about the manner in which they are earned. He knows that so long as the stock is profitable he is unlikely to be asked questions about the management; but that if as a result of conscientiousness in his dealings there is a fall in the dividends he will be called to account sharply. The stockholders will say that while he is no doubt a good man, with high principles, he is not practical, lacking in business ability, and had better be replaced. Moreover, it is not merely that his interests would lead him to subordinate other questions to the size of the dividends, that this is the way to please his em- ployers, he is led in the same direction by a sense of loyalty to the corporation that he serves. He feels a sense of duty to do the best he can for it, to fight its battles, to push its interests, and a great deal of the wrong that is done is concealed from the actors by their devotion to the welfare of the concern. Even in charitable and educational institutions one feels this strongly. They struggle against one another to the detriment of the cause in which they profess to be engaged, until the army of the Lord sometimes reminds one of that of Midian which was destroyed before Gideon because every man's sword was against his fellow. If this be true of institutions whose professed object is unselfish, how much more of those whose primary object is gain. In such a case the manager has a sense of two distinct obligations, one to his stockholders and one to the public, and these are not infrequently more or less in conflict. For the one he will be called upon to account speedily by those who have power to discharge him: for the other he may be called to account by a vague, intangible public, which is very likely to visit his sins upon the innocent and let the guilty escape.
I remember well an upright client who said to me once that in business one could not help cracking the Golden Rule, but he tried not to break it. He was in the main managing his own property and that of his family, and he would have found it much harder to live up to his principles if he had been conducting his affairs for the benefit of a multitude of stockholders with whom he never came into contact, and to whom he could, therefore, not explain his position.
The difficulty has been increased by the intense competition of modern industrial life, where the margin of profit is very small and depends upon a close scrutiny of expenditure and revenue,--a scrutiny which the manager feels keenly, but the scattered owners and the public fail to comprehend. Corporations have enabled small property owners to co-operate in vast concerns, and have rolled up huge aggregations of capital, capable of increasing wealth and exerting power for good and harm on an unprecedented scale; but they have made those owners, in most cases, absentees, with all the evils of absentee-proprietorship.
These dangers can be lessened only if both owners and managers feel that property involves obligations; that it is not held for purely selfish gratification, but is affected with a trust for the community at large, to be discharged with a conscientious regard for the public welfare; that it is not merely the size of the dividends, but the service to our fellow men for which we must account. If we are moral beings we must assume that we hold property, and every other power that we possess, to promote moral ends; that it is not enough to comply with the low standard that the fashion of the day demands, but that unless we do our duty to the utmost we are unprofitable servants. A keen French observer remarked that he had heard of America as the land of the almighty dollar, but on visiting it he found that wealth was valued here for reasons different from those that prevailed in Europe. There it was regarded as cash to be spent for pleasure. Here it was prized for the power it conferred. Power to do what? To do good or harm? to magnify the possessor and crush obstacles to his will, or to promote the progress of the people? That is the question on which the destiny of our nation hangs.
Most college graduates own or manage property to some extent,--to a far greater extent than the average of the community,--and therefore it is important for them to think clearly upon these subjects. For good or for evil our social system is based upon the private ownership of property; but property involves duties as well as privileges, and it is on the proper discharge of these that the ownership is morally if not practically conditioned. The first duty of the owner of property is to manage it himself so far as he can. So far as he cannot it is his duty to see that it is managed as he ought to manage it himself; and a man who manages the property of others ought to do so with as large a sense of moral obligation as if it were his own. This may seem a paradox, but it is not. The temptation to be selfish for one's own profit is stronger, but for a good man it is easier to resist, than the temptation to be selfish in acting for the benefit of others. I am not speaking to bad men, to dishonest men, or men of hard selfishness; but to honest, upright and large-hearted men, who mean to do their duty in their day and generation. To such a man life consists not in the multitude of things that he possesses, but in the use that he makes of them.
If to a band of young men going abroad to do God's work in the world it seems strange to speak on such a sordid theme as the care of property, let it be remembered that the social relations brought about by the new forms of property lie at the basis of most of the intricate problems of modern life, and that the straight path to a righteous solution of those problems lies in a sense of duty on the part of the possessor. It is the habit of the day to decry loudly the iniquity of others, to assume that in attacking them we perform our public duty; that by reforming them we fulfill the moral law. Such an attitude has its value. It corrects gross abuses; but by itself it is not a principle that makes for the highest type of civilization. Carlisle remarked of the French Revolution that everyone wanted to reform the world, but no one began by reforming himself. Great moral improvements come from the conviction of moral obligation rather than from outside forces stimulated by selfish motives. Let no one think that he can manage property rightly with the utmost benefit to himself, or the last farthing of immediate profit to his fiduciaries. Let him not try to square his obligations wholly with his interests. Duty in every relation in life involves some sacrifice, or it would have no moral significance. It would be nothing but a highly intelligent selfishness. If you are not prepared for sacrifice you are not in harmony with a moral order in the world. "If you are not faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? If you have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own?