Montreal, October 15, 2011 • No 293


Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.


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Taking a Look at Edward Bellamy's
Looking Backward


by Edward W. Younkins


          Edward Bellamy’s popular novel, Looking Backward 2000-1887, is frequently cited as one of the most influential books in America between the 1880s and the 1930s. This novel of social reform was published in 1888, a time when Americans were frightened by working class violence and disgusted by the conspicuous consumption of the privileged minority. Bitter strikes occurred as labor unions were just beginning to appear and large trusts dominated the nation’s economy. The author thus employs projections of the year 2000 to put 1887 society under scrutiny. Bellamy presents Americans with portraits of a desirable future and of their present day. He defines his perfect society as the antithesis of his current society. Looking Backward embodies his suspicion of free markets and his admiration for centralized planning and deliberate design.


          Looking Backward is a promotional argument and an attempt to informally educate the American public through the medium of the romantic novel. From this perspective, it is like Ayn Rand’s monumental Atlas Shrugged (1957)─both present blueprints for the future and have been potential sources for social change. Looking Backward launched a national political movement based on a system of scientific and systematic socialism as readers of the day embraced Bellamy’s novel. By the early 1890s, there were 165 Bellamy Clubs. In Looking Backward, Bellamy called his ideology “nationalism,” and never used the term “socialism.” This ideology viewed the nation as collectively activated in the pursuit of sustenance and survival. As a philosophy of collective control of the nation’s economy, its goal was to rationalize the functions of production and distribution. To this day, many American intellectuals have been attracted to such a system of economic paternalism.

          Julian West, a thirty-year-old privileged aristocrat in 1887 Boston, is the main character and narrator of Looking Backward. Having been born into an upper class family, he thought himself to be superior to the working masses and believed that he deserved his privileged life. West is the third generation of his family to have a great deal of money. He is set to marry Edith Bartlett when a house he is having built is completed. Strikes had delayed the completion of West’s house and he, therefore, simply viewed labor conditions as an annoyance due to the setbacks in its construction. He looked at strikes with anger and disdain. West was unconcerned about the great divide between the rich and poor and the gaps between social classes.

          On May 30, 1887, Decoration Day, Julian attends ceremonies celebrating and remembering Civil War veterans with Edith Bartlett and her family. He suffers from a sleeping disorder, and upon returning home, he retires to his soundproof and fireproof underground sleeping chamber. In the secluded vaulted bedroom, Dr. Pillsbury, a trained mesmerist, puts Julian into a deep trancelike sleep. Only Dr. Pillsbury and Julian’s servant, Sawyer, knew how to wake him. That night the house burns down and Julian is assumed to have died in the fire along with Sawyer. Edith also thought that Julian had perished. Even she did not know about the sleeping disorder, the hypnosis, and the sleeping chamber. The basement vault is not discovered and West is left undisturbed to sleep for 113 years with his organs and functions in a state of suspended animation.

          In the year 2000, Dr. Leete, a retired physician, discovers the vault and Julian’s ageless and uncorrupted body (he has not aged a day) when he is excavating for a new laboratory. The excavation reveals the hidden cellar and West’s perfectly preserved body. When Julian awakens he meets Dr. and Mrs. Leete and their daughter, Edith, and he finds himself in very unfamiliar territory─the 20th century is vastly different from the 19th. Throughout the rest of the novel West questions Leete about the changes that had occurred. As a spokesman for the 20th century and for Bellamy’s ideas on social reform, Dr. Leete systematically and rationally answers Julian’s questions and responds to his concerns. In turn, West serves a spokesman for Bellamy’s 19th century audience. It is through West’s eyes that the reader views the contrasts between the old order and the new utopia.

          Leete explains that the year 2000’s collaborative utopian society is a logical outcome of the 19th century’s rapid industrialization. The new society is a natural evolution of the economy that resulted from the advances of large-scale production. In the year 2000, there is a system of publicly-owned capital with the government controlling the nation’s total production and distributing the national output equally among all citizens. The 19th century’s system of monopolistic capitalism had somehow evolved and merged into government. Large companies had formed monopolies that eventually became nationalized.

          Bellamy’s book is glaringly short on details as to how all this took place. Businesses had merged into huge combinations and these, in turn, evolved into the placement of all capital in the hands of the government. Leete explains that, during the early years of the 20th century, monopolies grew ever larger until the state took over the monopolies, including the means of production, to become one gargantuan state trust. He states that the existence of capitalistic monopolies was a necessary transitional stage that preceded a society of a totally nationalized economy. Bellamy thus viewed industrialization and giant conglomerates as potential benefactors, rather than as enemies, of mankind.

          Leete tells Julian that market consolidation of industry was due to economies of scale and technological and industrial progression. Together, these produced material abundance that met society’s needs. He notes that the scarcity problem had been solved by means of the rational organization of production. Bellamy’s message is that society could be changed peacefully through evolution, education, and persuasion. It would thus be by the will of the people that all the means of production and distribution could gradually be consolidated under government control.

          At first, West defends the 19th century but eventually becomes persuaded that 20th-century utopia is superior. He concludes that the changes in society are not due to changes in human nature but, rather, from the economic equalization of all members of society. The equal distribution of property leads to what Bellamy sees as a vastly morally improved society without money and without private enterprises. In this society, people work for pride rather than for money. In addition, the patriotic desire to serve the government and the common good has replaced the profit motive. Whereas the 19th century emphasized individualism and private business, the 20th century now emphasizes cooperation and the contribution by all to the common good and the general improvement of society. Bellamy based his good society on a system of cooperative equality. Assuming the natural goodness of man, he contends that, given the right system, rational people would respond with cooperation.

          During the late 19th century, intellectuals began to contend that society, rather than the individual, is the fundamental fact of human existence. Bellamy, as one of these intellectuals, created his “perfect” society by removing social status and making everyone economically equal. These thinkers unfortunately ignore the fact that people, by nature, are individuals. Each person exists, perceives, experiences, thinks, and acts in and through his own body, and therefore from unique points in time and space. Each person is born an individual with respect to his mind and body. Each one has inborn differences based on his brain structure and physical endowments. Each person has peculiar aptitudes, which can be recognized, developed, and used. Each person has his own mental faculty, distinctive set of drives, ways of thinking, and the like. Because each person is distinctive, people differ in their preferred ways of pursuing their happiness. Although the individual is metaphysically primary (and communities are secondary and derivative), communities are important because an individual needs to belong to these in order to reach his potential for happiness. A person’s moral maturation requires a life with others, and each individual is responsible for voluntarily choosing, creating, and entering relationships that enable him to flourish. A community or a society is simply the association of persons for cooperative action—it is not some concrete thing distinct from its members.

          Looking Backward condemns 19th-century industrial society as brutal and primitive compared to the egalitarian and peaceful society of the year 2000. Bellamy damns a competitive economic system as unjust, degrading, wasteful, and vicious. His novel is intended to illustrate that, without private property, there would no longer be social issues such as shortages, social class divisions, joblessness, poor working conditions and long hours, child labor, strikes, poverty, hunger, crime, and war. In his ideal society there is no competition, no duplication of producers and distributors, no waste due to overproduction, no idle capital or labor, no political parties, and no cyclical crises. In his vision of the United States in the year 2000, there exists total equality of income, universal public education, social welfare and healthcare systems from cradle to grave, and universal employment in an industrial army. Bellamy envisioned his society in 2000 as perfect, and thus no additional social engineering was needed.

          Over the 113-year period that Julian slept, the workforce transformed into an industrial army of patriotic citizens. Every able-bodied person owed his country a term of service to make certain that there was a general abundance of life’s necessities. Although considered to be equal to men, women served in a separate auxiliary force in the industrial army where they performed tasks best suited for their physical capabilities. Everyone is paid the same amount and people are persuaded to serve in whatever capacity their talents and skills are best suited. Because everyone is expected to work to his fullest potential (even without monetary incentives) every person receives an equal share of the wealth. Everyone gets the same compensation because everyone tries their hardest at their respective jobs.

          People are encouraged to stay in school until, at age 21, they became enlistees in the industrial army. Everyone has the opportunity to receive a college-level education and is free to choose a career after serving as a common laborer for three years. At age 24, people are given tests and asked questions to determine their abilities and job preferences. Although most people select their occupations after three years of common service, others attend professional schools to become physicians, teachers, etc. A final career choice must be made during the person’s 30th year. In Looking Backward, work is seen as a disagreeable, painful, and necessary duty to be performed until retirement at age 45 when one begins to really enjoy life. October 15 is Muster Day when the 24-year-olds enter the industrial army and the 45-year-olds depart from it.

          Leete explains that, because incomes are equal, incentives take the form of adjustments to hours of labor and working conditions and in the form of public recognition. These adjustments serve to make a job more or less attractive. One idea is to make the hours of labor vary in different trades according to their difficulty. This, of course, results in differential hourly wage rates.

          Dr. Leete tells Julian that workers are motivated by honor, distinction, national pride, devotion to the common good, and pride in the job itself. A worker can receive advancement as a reward based on his efforts to achieve the common good. There is a complex system of workers’ rankings and rewards in the form of medals of distinction, ribbons, and badges. Every industry has emblems, badges, and ribbons. There exist numerous gradations and minor promotions meant to convey gratitude and esteem to the workers according to the service rendered to the community. There are also punishments for those who do not want to work. Those refusing to work find themselves in solitary confinement in prison with only a bread and water diet. Handicapped individuals are assigned tasks that they are capable of performing. Those too handicapped or too ill to work make up an invalid corps and receive the same amount of credit as everyone else. Because “salaries” are equal, people vie for honor and status rather than for wealth.

"Looking Backward is the story of an overweening state that supplies too much. However, ironically, we never see anyone actually working, striving, pursuing, or producing anything."

          One’s rank in the industrial army is the only path to honor and prestige except for those in the arts and the professions who are eligible for a few perquisites and minor privileges. Red ribbons make up the highest honors for those employed as artists, authors, engineers, inventors, physicians, teachers, and so on. The reward systems in the arts and professions are more complex than the system for other jobs. For example, an author is permitted to reduce his regular work hours by any earned royalties. All books and newspapers are published by the government. There is no censorship and the state is obligated to publish any work as long as the author pays for the first printing.

          According to Dr. Leete, credit cards are given to all citizens enabling them to acquire goods and services necessary for a comfortable life. Each citizen is provided with an annual allotment of goods and services. Each time that a purchase is made a cardboard credit card is punched according to the “prices” assigned by government bureaucrats. Money is used only as a unit of account. These credit cards function in manner very similar to today’s debit cards. Identical amounts are deposited by the U.S. Treasury into every cardholder’s account. Different people consume different combinations of goods and services. Government administrators set “prices,” and individuals make these purchases using their cards. When excess demand or supply occurs, prices or production levels are adjusted. When funds are needed for investment purposes, government officials remove the required amount from the pool to be distributed among the citizens.

          Each credit card includes an amount sufficient to live comfortably in society. Any unused credit is returned to the government. In addition, individuals could will personal possessions freely to their descendents, but because most needs are met by the government the majority of these possessions revert to the state. The government uses such excesses to make improvements that are shared by all.

          The credit cards can only be used at government-owned distribution centers with each center carrying the same products. Edith Leete takes Julian to see one of these centers where sample rooms display the various commodities. She explains that orders can be sent by a small pneumatic tube to a central warehouse with goods being shipped to people’s houses across town via a system of larger pneumatic tubes. The “prices” are symbols that expedite government accounting. The nonexistence of competition permits government bureaucrats to set “prices” any way they want to.

          All the world’s great nations have copied the American system of nationalism (actually command socialism) with universally honored credit cards. There are no wars or other international conflicts. International trade is accomplished by accounting procedures with balances being settled every few years by an international trade council. There is free trade and free emigration as people have the freedom to select and change their nationality. In addition, each person speaks a native language and a universal language.

          Leete explains that crime is nearly nonexistent because everyone receives the same credit and, therefore, there is no need to steal and there is virtually no need for prisons. There are no crimes involving monetary gains because there is no money. No people are involved in financial operations. Crime faded away among the educated except for the mentally ill who were treated in hospitals. There exists no military, few police, few prisons, no Internal Revenue Service, no charity, no government debt, no political parties, no banks, no strikes, no jury system, no attorneys (legal decisions are made by judges appointed by the President), and no churches, denominations, sects, or clergy. However, individuals are permitted to broadcast their religious views in sermons delivered over a type of radio or telephone system.

          Without greed there is no government corruption. A small group of bureaucrats run the entire economy. The sole function of the government administration is to direct the nation’s industries. Higher bureaucratic positions are filled by, and elected by, individuals who have retired from the industrial army and are past 45 years of age. The job of the government is to provide economic abundance and a social welfare system. Democracy exists with voting at various levels. A President serves for a term of five years.

          The government provides public kitchens with central public and private dining rooms. This system does not allow for the individuality of food, but does permit social interaction and eliminates the need for the individual to prepare meals. Housework is mechanical and washing is done in public laundries. Electric power has replaced fossil fuels, thus eliminating the pollution of coal furnaces. Healthcare is socialized. Medical care is provided by the state with doctors selected individually but paid by the government. Music is piped into rooms via a type of cable radio system in which a person can select programs “on-demand” and can control the volume.

          The message of Looking Backward is that everyone shares equally because all people alive at a particular time have received the aggregated technological accomplishments of preceding generations of men, and every person alive at a certain time has a right to an equal share of what has been accumulated. It is argued that a program of equalization would eliminate social ills, bring about a feeling of solidarity, and transform the nation into a brotherhood of man. Income equality is based on common humanity because civilization is people’s common inheritance and, therefore, all individuals are entitled to an equal share of the country’s income.

          The above idea reminds me of, and is analogous to, Harvard philosopher John Rawls’s idea that there is no good reason to allow the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the possession of natural endowments or by social and historical factors. Rawls contends that individuals do not deserve the genetic or other assets they are born with. He explains that, from a moral perspective, the level of effort people are willing to put forth is, to a great extent, influenced by their natural endowments. Consequently, those who are more productive due to their greater natural abilities have no moral right to greater rewards, because the abilities and motivations that make up their work cannot be morally considered to be their own. He considers the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and argues that people should share in the fruits of this distribution. Rawls also maintains that individuals who are not fortunate enough to have wealthy parents do not merit worse starting points and, consequently, worse life prospects than those who were so fortunate. He contends that society should equalize the prospects of the least well off by taxing the undeserved inherited gains of children of rich persons, and using the tax proceeds to aid the least well off.

          Julian falls in love with Edith Leete and discovers that she is the great granddaughter of his former fiancée, Edith Bartlett. Julian hears a sermon by Mr. Barton on the evils of the 19th century and the immeasurable advances that have been made since then. He becomes depressed because he realizes that he was once part of that inhumane and barbaric system. He has changed and now realizes how bad the 19th century was.

          Toward the end of the novel, Julian has a nightmare in which he is back in 1887 Boston. As he wanders around town, he sees misery, waste, filth, and the gap between the many struggling poor and the privileged few. In his dream, he tries to explain to his friends (including Edith Bartlett) the horrendous nature of the 19th century and the joys of 20th-century society. They become furious with him and will not listen. When he awakens, he finds that he is still in the year 2000.

          Bellamy claimed that all people voluntarily conformed to the new society of equality based on solidarity and camaraderie. He maintained that everyone is perfectly satisfied with an arrangement of the equal distribution of property. Based on an understanding of human nature, it is improbable, unrealistic, and absurd that people living in a capitalist system would surrender to this new arrangement that eliminates money, the profit motive, social status, individualism, and materialism. No details are provided regarding how this change occurred. What made people no longer care about money, wealth, and property? Bellamy simply said that it was the equal distribution of property that led to tremendous moral improvement and to the elimination of crime and wickedness. He optimistically had faith in the power of reason to control men’s actions. He presented this situation as an accomplished fact that occurred early during the 20th century. This certainly goes against what we know about human nature. Crimes are committed no matter what system is in effect.

          What about the problem of incentives and motivation in a socialist economy? This is a great difficulty for Looking Backward and for Bellamy. How and why will people do things without incentives? Bellamy has a hard time explaining why people work hard when their material circumstances will not be affected. His system of prizes, deprivations, and love of country is certainly not adequate or persuasive. People are motivated differently and some are not motivated at all. Bellamy puts a great deal of faith in centralized government and very little in individual initiative. He ignores man’s nature to work for the betterment of himself and his family. Markets create incentives to search for opportunities that a person’s singular knowledge provides to him. Knowledge and opportunities are constantly changing, highly local, and individuated. A person’s actions are motivated from within. Individuals may seek to attain their goals and values, to better the conditions of their lives, to accomplish something outstanding, and so on. Capitalism offers freedom and a variety of goods and services. Socialism, on the other hand, stifles incentives, discourages originality, fosters political corruption, eliminates the diversification and differentiation of goods and services and encourages people to act in the same ways.

          There are also problems in Looking Backward with respect to deciding what to produce and how to allocate what is produced. Bellamy emphasizes the distinction between production and distribution. However, he has bureaucrats make both production and allocation decisions rather than relying on market responses as would be done under a capitalist system. There are just too many details in complexities to be grasped by Utopian planners who are much more concerned with wholes than with particulars.

          According to Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, it is impossible to have rational central planning under socialism. Without market-based prices, decision-making by central planners would be irrational and arbitrary. Because of the elimination of market-based prices, a centralized planned economy would be unable to allocate resources rationally. Socialism is inherently unworkable, destroys individual motivation, and suppresses the means of economic calculation. Monetary calculation is a tool of action. It is prices, articulated through the common denominator of money, that make economic calculation possible.

          Socialism destroys the incentives of profits and losses, private ownership of property, and the benefits of competition. Without market prices to convey information to decision-makers, there would be no competition and no profit-or-loss system. Competitively determined market prices permit individuals to assess the relative values of scarce means in competing applications. Market prices are used to discover relative values of alternative uses of goods and services. The social function of the price system is to promote the use of knowledge in society by making calculations possible. Calculation is necessary for a person to determine the best allocation of his scarce resources. Rational economic calculation depends on the shorthand signals of market prices to make decisions regarding the alternative uses of scarce resources.

          Looking Backward is the story of an overweening state that supplies too much. However, ironically, we never see anyone actually working, striving, pursuing, or producing anything. The novel portrays a world in which it is permissible to obtain things from a government agency but not from an individual producer or seller. Such buying and selling is thought to be antisocial. Bellamy likes the notion of conscious design, appreciates the need to organize and administer production, and calls for public ownership and management of the means of production, an industrial army, equal income, and a welfare system. He apparently condemns the market system because it does not result from deliberate design. He does not understand that something can be useful, and even be superior, even if it is not the result of the articulated rationality of central planners. If Bellamy were alive today and could see our socioeconomic conditions, he would still think he was correct and would argue that his utopia has been postponed but that it will still one day be a reality.