THE NATIONAL SUBSCRIPTION FOR THE GLASGOW BANK SHAREHOLDERS.
IT is with a sense of actual pain that we find ourselves unable to support the proposal now mooted in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London to open a National Subscription for the Shareholders in the City of Glasgow Bank, with the Lord Mayor and Provosts of those cities as Trustees. The claim of many of these unhappy people to the compassion of their fellow-citizens is, in many cases, of the strongest kind. A great majority of them, perhaps a thou- sand out of the twelve hundred and fifty, have been totally ruined by a catastrophe which they foresaw as little as they might have done an earthquake or a landslip. A large section of them are most respectable persons, in the decline of life, who have retired from trades or professions to live on their small realised properties, who cannot return to work again with any chance of success, and who have before them no prospect, except the poor-house or the grudging charities of relatives or friends. Hundreds have wives and children de- pendent on their incomes, and in all cases probably the ruin is that of households rather than of individuals. The Scotch papers are full of "painful cases," made all the more heart-breaking by the fortitude and patience of the sufferers, who display, in most instances, that pathetic resignation to the inevitable which one does not expect from the Scotch character, but so often finds in it. The terrible case, the ruin of five maiden ladies, the youngest of whom is seventy, which has so roused sympathy that the Times extracts a local poem on the subject, is no more than a striking example of a ruin which affects directly at the very least five thousand persons, of whom one-half at least are perfectly help- less. No shadow of active wrong-doing attaches to the ruined, nor have they even been actuated by ordinary greediness to be rich, or to enjoy unearned incomes. It has been shown by conclusive statistics that a large proportion bought their shares at a com- paratively recent period and at recent prices, and hoped only for the five per cent, which such people consider the natural interest of money, and which it is now, on safe security, so difficult or so impossible to obtain. There never was a calamity in which private or local charity was better justified, or in which the help of the rich could afford more direct relief, or was more deserved, so far as suffering can deserve assistance. We understand well the pity such sufferings in such people must arouse, and hold any man right who, to relieve them, sacrifices his own comfort, or begs from all he knows, or even, on behalf of extreme instances of helplessness, appeals to the entire community.
But nevertheless, we cannot support a national subscription, raised through quasi-official agency, and intended, like the Indian Famine Fund, to register the nation's opinion that the sufferers were irresponsible for their own distress. We cannot think it well that a whole people should use their efforts still further to diminish the public sense that the shareholders of an undertaking are responsible for its management, owe to the public something beyond mere ownership, and must bear the penalty not only of wrong acts, but of negligence, ill-management, and careless- ness in the investment of funds. It is that penalty which educates the people to distinguish between one security and another, teaches them not to assist fraud with their cash, and enforces on them the first lesson of commerce,—that every partner is in his degree a trustee for the rest. That respon- sibility is already too lightly felt, and to relieve the shareholders in a ruined Bank of it by a quasi-national act, is to help pre tanto in breaking down one of the strongest safeguards, almost the only remaining safeguard, for commercial morality, and for that caution in dealing with money which is almost as necessary to a community like ours as personal honesty
and thrift. The notion that a grand failure is a pure misfortune, and one for which the partners are irresponsible, is one far too widely diffused already, and one which it is wrong as well as inexpedient to make deeper, as a national subscription would inevitably do. All these Share- holders invested their money at their own discretion, in a concern which was managed by nominees whom they could have changed or controlled, or at the half-yearly meetings questioned as to the truth. They were at least as responsible as if they had started shops, in which latter case, had they failed, no stranger would have helped them. They were in theory owners, and knew it, and their responsibility cannot be wisely taken from their shoulders, and placed on those of the general people. That seems, and is, a bard sentence ; but if our readers will subject it to the test of comparison, they will see that it is just. The cases are very few in which a national subscription can be justified while a national vote would be condemned, yet who would defend a national Parliamentary vote for the Shareholders of the broken Bank ? It would be denounced as pillage of the taxpayer for a non-national concern. If the plea is character, the Shareholders in the City of Glasgow Bank are not more deserving than the relatives of any other bankrupt, or the dependents of any other rotten concern. Not a week passes without the failure of some "house," or "trust," or institution, ruining hundreds for whom no subscription is raised, and who suffer as much as these share- holders, without the alleviation of so much public sympathy. Or is it the powerlessness of the victims? They are not more powerless than the gas shareholders, of whom Mr. Edison, if his hopes come true, will send so many thousands into the Gazette. Or is it their multitude ? They cannot be a fiftieth of the families ruined by the collapse of Spanish Bonds, the repudiation of the Turkish Debt, the fall in all prices for mining produce, or even the general decline of trade. There is no national subscription for the thousand families thrown on the poor-rates when a great Lancashire mill gives way before the fall of prices in India, caused by the mad shipments of goods by speculators desirous only of drawing against the invoices. Or is the plea in this case the utter character of the ruin, as compared with the smallness of the investment, the surplusage of the penalty, as it were, over the offence. That is by far the beat plea, that surplu- sage being a consequence of a law which the community makes; and even that cannot be admitted. All penalties on the innocent are surplus penalties, and in every failure the innocent endure them. The shareholders all knew of their unlimited liability, and knew also that such liability was a risk they had no right to run. They might as well have made themselves partners in shops of which they did not understand the trade, or have taken partners into their own businesses of whom they did not know the names. There are certain forms of recklessness only to be palliated by the readiness of the reckless to bear their own liabilities, and the purchase of unlimited companies' shares is, in our day, one of them. Small investors have no more moral right to buy into such concerns than they have to engage in any other reckless enterprise, to start businesses they know nothing about, or to bet on fluctuations the cause of which they cannot foresee. They risk their household future just as much as the 'Change speculators who break every day, and for whom the general public never votes a penny, or we may add, shows any feeling beyond one of slight aggravation that they should ever have existed.
Nothing of all this, we repeat, applies to private or local subscriptions for any of the sufferers, or even to general subscrip- tions, provided that they are limited to defined cases, such as those of victims over sixty, or women, or children—that is, are definitely given to relieve suffering without lightening the burden upon the whole body. We have no desire to check the flow of charity in this or any other direction, but only to protest against any general effort to relieve traders by national charity of the consequences of reckless trading. It is a strange proof of the ascendancy which Directors acquire in our corporations, that their conduct should be so completely separated from that of their masters, the shareholders, and it is not one which we desire to see further justified by an informal national vote. The shareholders in all Banks ought to learn that in the last resort they are masters,—that they can compel, for instance, registration under the Limited Liability Act ; and that if they will take no trouble and give no orders, they must accept the pecuniary responsibility which by their abstinence from protest, while still remaining shareholders, they obviously elect to retain. "Miss Matty," in "Cranford," who cashes the note of the broken bank in which she has been ruined as a shareholder, is not intended as an example of human wisdom ; but she had a better idea of her moral re- sponsibility than the journals, in their just and humane compassion for human misery, are just now preaching.