MR. LEITER'S " CORNER " IN WHEAT.
TO create a monopoly is, if you can effect it, the quickest and safest way of making a fortune yet invented by man. You buy at sixpence, and as nobody else has any of the article, you sell to the whole world at sevenpence, which if the whole world buys means millions. Fortunately it is also the most difficult way. It looks easy if you have money enough, for no law interferes with your purchases, and, except in the rarest cases, no one with power to execute the decree will forbid your asking for an article of commerce any price you please. In civilised countries the Government is usually loth to interfere, though we have known that done in the case of salt, and the chance of being lynched, even when much misery is inflicted, is exceedingly remote. The populace knows too little to hang the Mr. Leiters. There are, however, limitations on such speculations which operate with considerable effect. If the article is one of prime necessity, it is also an article existing in enormous quantities, and under conditions which make far-reaching purchases either impossible or exceedingly full of risk. The number of things which absolutely cannot be done with- out is exceedingly limited, even if we include the articles which mankind, though it could go on in their absence, will not consent to lose. Water is one of them, bread is another, and salt is a third, and we may add for prac- tical purposes the material of woollen or cotton clothing, meat, milk, alcohol in some form, iron, tobacco, and we rather think, as the world is now constituted, paper, and to a monopoly of each there are serious obstacles. The supply of water is protected in most places where it is scarce or difficult to distribute, by legislative enactment, and in others by the dread of popular rage, which might be very quickly excited, and would be both unscrupulous and cruel. To monopolise food in a besieged city is dangerous, but to monopolise water would mean death if the thirsty could inflict it. Buying up the world's supply of corn is safer, indeed quite safe, bat it requires enormous capital. It can hardly be attempted in more than one country, and the moment it is attempted the high price draws to the market the entire surplus of the world. Mr. Leiter, of Chicago, for example, succeeded in holding for a few weeks the whole American supply of wheat, and so sent up prices all over Europe and America, but before he began to reap his profit, Russia, India, Argentina, and a hundred smaller wheat - fields began pouring in their stocks till prices sunk again. He had, moreover, overestimated the shortage, a new and ample crop was on its way, it was necessary to sell to avoid loss, and the moment he sold the panic ended, and a " slump," or rapid fall of price, occurred which in a few days swept away his entire profits. He was a millionaire one week and a " plain man " the next, and even to gamblers an alternation of fortune like that is not attractive. Even in a land where Protection reigns the regrating of corn on the grand scale is very risky work. You can buy all there is if there is money enough, but the populace is sure to clamour, and the Government sure to yield, and when the ports are once open commerce is too strong for you. Tobacco Is from from the monopolist in much the same way. It exists almost everywhere, the stocks are very large, there is always a crop coming on, and though mankind will not entirely do without the weed, it can, and will, enormously
reduce its regular consumption. Salt has been repeatedly monopolised with success, but always by a Government, for while it is legal to sell it, it can be brought from half the world, and can be extracted at a price from many soils, as well as from sea-water. There is another limit, too, on the profit obtainable, even great Governments shrinking from the consequences of rendering salt unattainable by the poor.
They get sick for want of it, and they- grow murderously fierce. Alcohol, again, can hardly be monopolised except by a Government, for it can be made anywhere, by any one, and in any necessary quantity. All that is needed is a tin kettle, the grain, and a minute knowledge of distillation. Monopolies of meat or milk are difficult, because both articles are perishable, and both can be done without for limited periods without very acute suffering. Monopolies of bacon have been organised, and once or twice have succeeded, but the speculation is always hampered by the fact that the first attraction of bacon is its cheapness. If it becomes dear, substitutes for it are just as popular and just as easily procured. The supply of cotton and wool might, of course, be bought up by a syndicate with very large means, but it would be a dangerous experiment, the number of fibres which could be used being considerable, the crops annual, and the world's stock of used materials nearly inexhaustible. We are all contemptuous of shoddy, but it will do at a pinch. Why paper has not been monopolised we do not know. The consumption is enormous, and the power of manufacture at short notice strictly limited. We should think it quite possible for a syndicate to buy up all the paper in Europe and America, and raise tha price for a few months sufficiently to give themselves one highly satisfactory dividend. They could not do it, however, without the help of the paper manufacturers, and the risk incurred by the latter would be one of final ruin. The wild rage of the Press of the world would be a formid- able danger, the great consumers would unite to start their own factories, and in a year prices would have receded to their old level, while the ancient factories, with their great businesses, would be in the Bankruptcy Court. Practically, monopolists must be content to fly at smaller game, and they do not invari- ably bring even that down. A great firm did once, we believe, possess themselves, as they fancied, of all the indigo in the world, only to find that their high price drew quantities from countries where they did not know it existed ; while a very daring attempt to monopolise hops ran up the value, not of hops so much, as of camomile and other less innocent substitutes. Quinine has been monopolised repeatedly, to the no small trouble of hospitals ; the supply of rhubarb has been occasionally in one or two hands; and there are tales told of the fortunes made by buying up articles little known, but indispensable to certain processes of manufacture. As a rale, however, speculators find science a little too strong for them, and the only article we know of in which a true monopoly has been successfully maintained for many years is petroleum. Its managers have been wise enough to avoid unendurable prices ; they have therefore incurred little popular hatred ; they seem somehow to have surmounted the danger from strikes, which one would have expected to be formidable; and their chief, Mr. Rockefeller, is reputed to be the richest man in the world, and must certainly be in enjoy- ment of one of its largest incomes, which probably, as he is very like any other dissenting deacon, gives him no more pleasure than he would derive from ten thousand a year. Diamonds are only partially monopolised, the speculators controlling only one source of supply ; but still, that is the chief source, and as the few like diamonds to be dear while the many know nothing about them, many fortunes have been made in the article without any popular hatred being incurred. Mr. Leiter would have been lynched if German Socialists could have got at him ; but nobody wanted to lynch Mr. Barnato or Mr. Beit, though the latter is supposed to have accumulated sums " beyond the dreams of avarice."
It is not easy to define the moral objection to monopolies, though we all feel, as we do in the case of gambling, that there must be one somewhere if we could only find it. If it is right, and even praiseworthy, to buy and sell flour, why should it be wrong, even damnably wrong, to buy and sell all the flour in the world P When Governments do it, even in the case of an absolute necessary like salt, nobody protests; yet if a community may do it, why should not an individual ? We suspect the true answer is one which opinion constantly returns but the philosophers do not, namely, that monopoly is perfectly sinless, unless it compels you or enables you to " grind the face of the poor." That is wrong, not only under the Christian precept, but under the unwritten contract which enables human beings to live together in amity, and which we call civilisation. A man can have no right because he is rich to make life intolerable to the majority of his neighbours. Nor has he a right merely by the pressure of his wealth to skim the small resources which enable them to live in decency. If that is correct, it follows that monopolising is right or wrong, not in itself, but accord- ing to its subject. A good man may hold a share in a Diamond Trust, or even a Silk Trust, but could not without violence to his conscience hold one in a Wheat Trust, a Salt Trust, or a Trust, if there could be such a thing established, to monopolise the means of procuring fire. We can see no answer to that proposition, and should, therefore, see no moral objection to laws to prevent the regrating of necessary articles, except, of course, the difficulty, long since proved by experience, of carrying them out. We should, moreover, hold that a Salt Monopoly in the bands of a Government was utterly bad but for the fact, repeatedly proved in India, that the action of Government, otherwise indefensible, prevents the creation of a much more formidable monopoly in the hands of individuals. Precisely the same rule applies to the monopoly of any drug which is indispensable to health, or of any article—milk is the only one we can think of—the dearness of which might increase mortality or cause a per- ceptible increase in human suffering. The rale is rather rough and ready, and is exposed to the objection that for once conduct is judged rather by its consequences than by its motive; but it is the only rule which will work, or which is sure of support from the instinctive judgment of average mankind. A monopoly of a thing not particularly wanted does not seem bad, but the monopoly of a necessity is bad both from the view of the moralist and that of the politician.