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Title: The Economic Functions of Vice

Author: John McElroy

Release date: March 25, 2010 [eBook #31768]
Most recently updated: January 26, 2021

Language: English

Credits: Produced by David Widger (Images obtained from the Google Books Project)



By John McElroy


Published by The National Tnbune

Copyright, 1906

     “Are God and Nature then at strife,
     That Nature lends such evil dreams?
     So careful of the type she seems,

     So careless of the single life.”


     “And the individual withers,
     and the world is more and more.”



FOR some inscrutable reason which she has as yet given no hint of revealing, Nature is wondrously wasteful in the matter of generation. She creates a thousand where she intends to make use of one.

Imbued with the maternal instinct, the female cod casts millions of eggs upon the waters, expecting them to return after many days as troops of interesting {7} offspring. Instead, half die embryotic gadi are almost immediately devoured by spawn-eaters, hundreds of thousands perish in incubation, hundreds of thousands more succumb to the perils attending ichthyic infancy, leaving but a few score to attain to adult usefulness and pass an honored old age with the fragrance of a well-spent life in the country grocery.

The oak showers down 10,000 acorns, each capable of producing a tree. Three-fourths of them are straightway diverted from their arboreal intent through conversion into food by the provident squirrel and improvident hog. Great numbers rot uselessly upon the {8} ground, and the few hundred that finally succeed in germinating grow up into dense thickets, where at last die strongest smothers out all the rest like an oaken Othello in a harem of quercine Desdemonas.

THIS is the law of all life, animal as well as vegetable. From the humble hyssop on the wall to the towering cedar of Lebanon, from the meek and lowly amoeba—which has no more character or individuality than any other pin-point of jelly—to the lordly tyrant {9} man, the rule is inevitable and invariable.

Life is sown broadcast only to be followed almost immediately by a destruction nearly as swift. Nature creates by the million apparently that she may destroy by the myriads. She gives life one instant only that she may snatch it away the next. The main difference is that the higher we ascend the less lavish is the creation and the less sweeping the destruction.

Thus, while probably but one fish out of a thousand reaches maturity, of 1,000 children born 604 attain adult age; that is, Nature flings aside 999 out of every 1,000 fish as useless for {10} her purposes, and two out of every five human beings.

MANY see in this relentless weeding out and destruction of her inferior products a remarkable illustration of the wisdom of Nature’s methods. What would they think of a workman so bungling that two-fifths of the products of his handicraft were only fit for destruction?

The “struggle for existence” is a murderous scramble to get rid of this vast surplusage. The “survival of the fittest” is the success of the minority in {11} demonstrating that the majority are superfluous. It is the Kilkenny-cat episode multiplied by infinity. It will be remembered that the whole trouble arose from the common belief that two cats were a surplus of one for the Kilkenny environment.

Darwin’s theory recognizes in this super-fecundity of nature a most potent adjunct for improvement He says, in fact, that the impossibility of providing subsistence for more than a fraction of the multitudinous creation causes a mortal struggle in which the weaker and inferior are exterminated and only the stronger and superior survive. These in turn, have offspring like the leaves {12} of the forest, which in like turn are winnowed out by alien enemies and reciprocal extermination, and thus the process goes on with the sanguinary regularity of the King of Dahomey’s administration of the internal economy of his realm. The benignity of this method of arranging the order of things is not so apparent as a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals might desire.

BUT our opinion of this law is not cared for. It is academic and superfluous. The main importance {13} attaches to the recognition of the fact that it is a law.

Its application to society is obvious: Since the propagation of human beings goes on with entire recklessness as to the quality of the product and the means of subsistence, some strong corrective is absolutely necessary to establish limits to populations and to secure the continued development of the race.

If every begotten child lived to the average age of 40, in a very few years there would not be standing room on the earth for its people.

Even with such limited propagators as the elephant, each female of which produces but six offspring in her bearing {14} period of 90 years, we are told that if the species had no parasitic or other enemy it would only be 740 years until elephants would overrun the earth.

Where then should we assign limits to the productiveness of the 750,000,000 human females on the globe, each of whom is capable of producing 20 children in her 30 years of bearing?

If, too, every child had the same chance of life without reference to its mental and physical fitness to live, humanity would soon become a stagnant slough of vicious vitality. There are only food and room for the best, and as the development of the race demands {15} it, only the best survive and continue the work of propagation. The rest are destroyed.

BY the “best” is understood those having that harmony of mental and physical development which brings them most nearly into accord with Nature’s laws.

BELOW the human stratum superabundant generation is neutralized by the simple device of having {16} every organism prey upon some other one. In her 10 years of fruitful life the female cod lays 50,000,000 eggs. If nothing thwarted the amiable efforts of herself and offspring to multiply and replenish, they would shortly pack the ocean as full as a box of sardines.

While, however, giving one female the desire and capacity to produce 50,000,000 lives, nature has given other animals the desire and capacity to annihilate most of those 50,000,000 lives.

So all through the animal kingdom it is nearly a neck-to-neck race between production and extermination.

Life is a universal and unceasing {17} struggle, between the eaters and the eaten.

MAN alone is practically exempt from what is apparently an invariable

condition of all other forms of animal life. While he preys upon a myriad of created things, there is no created thing that preys on him and assists in keeping his excessive produc tiveness within the limits of subsistence. Most significant of all, not even a parasite wages destructive warfare against him. That is, if we except from the classification the doctors’ latest explanation {18} of the cause of everything, from pneumonia to laziness—the modest but effective bacillus. The bacillus, however, is much more a condition than a parasite.

This absence of destructive enemies must be compensated for in some way, and it is accomplished by making vicious inclinations the agents to weed out the redundant growths and to select for extermination those which are inferior, depraved, weak, and unfit for preservation or reproduction.

If five human beings are procreated where there is present room and provision but for three, how are the surplus {19} two to be picked out and exterminated?

Of course each one of us feels entirely competent to pick out in his own community the persons who could be best spared, but public opinion is at present hostile both to any practical plan of making the necessary thinning out, and also to lodging the power of selection in the hands of those of us best calculated for the duty.

APPARENTLY the surplus ones relieve us from embarrassment on this score by selecting to exterminate {20} themselves. Their methods of suicide cover a wide range of expedients but all are very effective.

And most beneficent of any of the facts connected with this subject is that each of those chosen for extermination embraces his fate with positive eagerness, under the delusion that he is about to enhance his own happiness.

Immoderate use of stimulants and the varied excesses and vital errors which are grouped under the general head of “dissipation,” a “love of pleasure,” or the still {21} more expressive phrase “a short life and a merry one,” etc., are favorite ways of self-annihilation and leave little to be desired in the completeness with which they do their work.

English statisticians formerly estimated that if a man drank beer in large quantities it took him 21.7 years to kill himself, which period the whisky-drinker shortened to 16.1 years.

Closer study and wider knowledge have materially changed these conclusions, to the great detriment of beer. For once, and upon one point, the physicians of the world have agreed. American, English, and German doctors say with one voice that the most {22} hopeless patient who comes into their hands is the soaked, crapulous, beer-drinker. “Point out a gray-haired beer-drinker,” they challenge, and challenge in vain. Gray-haired whisky-drinkers may be found, but not the others.

Starch in every stage of decay, carried by the all-penetrating alcohol, surcharges the tissues with putrefaction, and makes the tumid veins a forcing-ground for bacteria. Thus the beer-drinker’s slight cold becomes at once pneumonia, or inflammatory rheumatism, or Bright’s disease, and his life flickers out like a candle in a gusty passage.

Intemperance being among the milder vices kills slowly. Sexual sins slay {23} more rapidly, and the criminal grades of vice do their work with a swiftness in proportion to their flagrancy. The Psalmist says, “bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days,” but police records will show that David materially overrates the average. “One quarter their days” would approach much nearer exactness.

RETURNING to the major premise that the “survival of the fittest” means the selection and preservation of those individuals who are most nearly in harmony with the conditions {24} of their environment, and that the progress of the race or species involves the destruction of the weaker or the inferior who are not in such harmony, the conclusion follows that any aberration toward vice shows such discordance in the individual with the laws of his environment as marks him as inferior, weak, and obstructive of the race’s development

Vice is not so much a cause as an effect—precisely as disease is a symptom. Vice does not make a nature weak or defective: a weak and defective nature expresses its weaknesses and defects in vice, and that expression brings about in one way and another {25} the sovereign remedy of extermination.

MUCH is said of the devastation of our fairest and brightest by the Drink Demon. This is mainly nonsense. It was more nearly true in former generations, when intemperance was an almost universal vice. As

Hamlet says:

     “it is a custom
     More honor’d in the breach than the observance.
     This heavy-headed revel east and west
     Makes us traduced and tax’d of other nations:
     They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
     Soil our addition.”

{26} Morals has made wonderful progress since then, in all directions, and heavy drinking has been more and more restricted to those who are

“Marked cross from the womb and perverse.”

With few exceptions every one who goes to perdition by the alcohol route would reach that destination by some other highway if the alcohol line were not running.

Every man whose sloth or improvidence has brought himself and his family to beggary, every thieving tramp upon the highways, every rascal in the penitentiary, every murderer upon the gallows, hastens to plead “whisky brought {27} me to this!” because he knows that such a plea will bring him a gush of sloppy sympathy unobtainable by other means.

Whisky makes no man lazy, shiftless, dishonest, false, cowardly or brutal. These must be original qualities with him. If he has them he will probably take to whisky—though not inevitably—which then does the community the splendid service of hurrying him along to destruction, and of abridging his infliction upon the public. {28}

PEOPLE who have done much in the way of reforming drunkards have been astonished to find how little real manhood remained after eliminating whisky from the equation. They had supposed the manhood to be only obscured, and were disheartened to find how frequently it happened to be demonstrated that there never was enough of it to pay for the trouble of “saving the victim of intemperance.” Like the cherubim before the throne of God, the Temperance orators “con- tinually do cry,” the burden of their song being that hundreds of thousands are annually slain by the monster Intemperance. {29} Quite singularly these figures are probably not exaggerated. Myriads of times kindly-hearted physicians write in the death certificate “pneumonia,” “heart-failure,” “diabetes,” etc., when truth demands “beer” or “whisky.”

BUT what of this?

Is it not merely Nature sweeping out her overcrowded workshop? Ridding her laboratory of misfits, defectives, and rejects? Into her junk pile alcohol whisks away daily thousands of thieves, gamblers, prostitutes, loafers, “sports,” spongers, swindlers, {30} and others of the criminal and quasi-criminal classes. Over their moldering clay the daisies bloom in sweet oblivion of

     “The sins and crimes
     Done in their days of nature.”

Upon these alcoholism accommodatingly performs the office of judge and executioner, cutting their careers off at an average of five years, which, without this interposition, would possibly be extended to 20 or 30. The certainty and celerity with which it ferrets out and destroys these classes gives it strong advantages over the ordinary processes of destruction.

It was exceedingly unfortunate for {31} the community that the leaders of the James and Younger gangs were temperate men. Had it not been so, their careers, instead of extending over 20 harassing years, would have been cut short inside of five. Uncontrollable predilection for whisky, and the society of strange women brought about the destruction of nearly all of the band who from time to time were slain by each other’s hands or those of justice. Temperance and chastity in a rascal of any kind mean an immense amount of mischief to the community. Fortunately they are quite rare. {32} THE rapid spread of Prohibition is full of suggestion. The grain fields of Kansas and Texas are periodically devastated by the green bug. When the green bugs are at their worst a parasite appears which sweeps them off, and the wheat growers have a respite. Then, having destroyed their provender, the parasites starve, and the green bugs have a chance to grow again until the parasites overtake them in the hour of their triumph and power.

Will the suppression of the alcoholic scavenger allow the criminals and quasi-criminals to multiply like the green bugs? {33}

DURING the ages of terrible oppression of the European peoples which culminated in the French Revolution, the main amelioration of the hardships endured was found in the vices of the oppressors. The sword of the duelist, quarreling over women, the picturesque horrors of delirium tremens, and the loathsome mal de Naples continually swept away hecatombs of tyrant lordlings and frequently obliterated whole families. In fact no aristocratic family ever withstood these adverse influences very long. Extinction came as promptly and as certainly as the curculio to the ripening plum. The student of French and English {34} history is continually astonished at the brief time in which noble names remain in view. They rise to dizzy eminence on one page, and on the next go down to oblivion. One rarely finds the name of a century or two ago mentioned in any of the European news of to-day. Mr. Freeman, the eminent English historian, says, conclusively, that in spite of the perennial vaunt of ancestors who “came over with the Conqueror,” and of Tennyson’s musical mendacity about the “daughter of an hundred Earls,” the families who can trace back to even so recent a date as the reign of the Stuarts are very rare. {35} Frequently hundreds of years elapsed before the historic titles were “revived” to gild some parvenu. Since then these families have been kept up only by intermarriages with later parvenus.

The royal family itself has been repeatedly on the point of extinction, and the continuity of the line only maintained by extraordinary efforts.

IDLENESS, luxury, and more or less flagrant debauchery have done their appointed work in removing the deteriorated forms of human life {36} from the world, that their room might be had for more acceptable growths.

SOCIETY has been most aptly likened to a vat of good wine, which is scum and froth at the top, dregs and sediment at the bottom, and good, pure, clear liquor in the middle. Vice does admirable work in skimming away the supernatant scum and in drawing off the dregs and settlings.

Unceasing fermentation seems to be a condition necessary to the health of society. The humblest work incessantly to lift themselves into the ranks of {37} the middle-classes, the middle-classes strive as earnestly to make themselves plutocrats, aristocrats, and lordlings. This ambition for worldly advancement is one of society’s most powerful adjuncts for good. When a man at last reaches the social summit he desists from further efforts at improvement. He becomes like a man who after struggling forward to reach the head of the procession refuses to march another step. Some vice, mayhap merely over-eating, is likely to remove him and secure the ground for another man to come to the front, who is also removed summarily when he becomes obstructive. If the fortune-builder is {38} not thus removed, his children are subject to attack.

Were it not for this, the upper stratum of society would speedily become so crowded that ascent to it would be impossible, all healthful, ambitious motive be taken away from the middle and lower classes, stagnation follow, and society perish from congestion.

HISTORY is full of illustrations of the benefits of vice in assisting to shape the destinies of Nations and peoples. Take, for example, the {39} Bourbons whose stupidity and tyranny have passed into a proverb. In the last century their worse than worthless personalities filled nearly every throne in southern Europe. They seemed to breed like wolves in a famine-stricken land, and their fangs were at every people’s throat Fortunately they had vices. Wine and lechery did what human enemies could not and the pack of wolves rotted away like a flock of diseased sheep. The mortality was so regular that for a long time French kings were succeeded by their grand-sons and great-grandsons, their sons all burning themselves out before the time came for ascending the throne. {40} The unutterably vile life of Louis XV. was terminated by the smallpox communicated to him in the course of a most disgraceful amour. His grandson, who succeeded him, had no destructive vices, and so the people were compelled at last to resort to the guillotine to rid themselves of him. The vast problem for the French in 1790 would have been greatly simplified if Louis XVI. had been a shortlived debauchee like his father and two brothers. The healthy German blood of his Saxon mother corrected some-what the virus in the Bourbon veins, and he lived to become an intolerable cumberer and obstructive.

{41} The only Bourbon still remaining on a throne is the King of Spain, and his teeth are on edge from the sour grapes of unchastity which his fathers and mothers ate.

Like his grandmother, the notorious Isabella II, his father, aunts, and cousins, and indeed every one of the Bourbons, he is a sad physical weakling.

The physicians politely term “scrofulous diathesis” the syphilitic taint of the Bourbon blood. In his grandmother it showed itself in a repulsive cutaneous disease which she tried to ameliorate or cure in a truly Bourbon-ish way, by having her underclothing {42} previously worn by a nun of high repute for piety.

Alfonso’s XIII.‘s father burned himself out at the age of 28. His aunts and kinsmen all had some one or more of scrofula’s varied physical degradations and deformities, and went out from time to time like ill-made candles.

Though the hopes of his race and the peace of his country depend upon Alfonso’s life, all the care given him in his boyhood could do no more than slightly mitigate the ancestral blight.

{43} A FEW years ago the people of Holland were threatened with a most serious calamity. Depraved heredity, unwise sexual selection, or some other primal cause had resulted in the production, as the Prince of Orange—the Crown Prince—of an individual of a weak, inferior, and depraved nature. His was such a nature as on a throne becomes a fountain of numberless oppressions and evils, and rarely fails to goad the unhappy subjects into rebellion, attended with the usual frightful loss of life and property and vast sorrows. Fortunately he had destructive vices. The appetite for these led him to Paris. A few years of riot and {44} debauchery sapped away the dangerous life of “Lemons,” as his worthless boon-companions named him, and he died as the fool dieth. The only harm he was able to do was the indirect damage of a bad example, and the good people of the Netherlands were rid of a possible Louis XV. at no greater cost than that of some years of extravagant life in the French capital. His father’s evil excesses and penchant for pretty ballet-girls left as his only successor a young not over-strong girl, who thus far has failed to produce an heir to the throne, to the deep disappointment of such of her people as love royalty. Holland will, therefore, {45} in all probability, glide into a republic without the usual sanguinary convulsions attending such transitions.

IT is the story of the Ages—old when the Pyramids were yet young; new to every generation. Hannibal’s victorious army found the “soft delights of Capua” far more deadly than Roman swords. That famous “Winter in Capua” wrecked the invaders, saved Rome, and ruined Carthage.

{46} IN conspicuous contrast to the royal and aristocratic families just alluded to are the houses of Hohenzollern and Savoy.

A thrifty burgher of Nuremberg, eager to get into the landed aristocracy on any terms, foreclosed a mortgage on a stretch of most unpromising sand and swamp around Brandenberg. It was of so little worth as to be frequently spoken of as “the sandbox of the Holy Roman Empire,” The Hohenzollerns

attacked this uninviting problem with real German thrift and tenacity. They resolved to make their swamps and sand barrens productive like the rich lands of their neighbors. {47} Flinching from no drudgery themselves, they would allow none of their people to do so. Every Hohenzollern son and daughter was brought up to unsparing hard work, severe economy, plain food and coarse clothing, with a rigid code of morals.

At the time when the example of Louis XIV. was debauching every German princeling into having a showy court with a pretentious palace and a tinseled retinue, all wrung from the poor peasantry, the King of Prussia was running his court after the manner of a close-fisted, land-gaining German farmer.

Cabbages that could not be sold {48} were served on the royal tables in order to save a few thalers for the support of the army, and add to the war chest.

The shabby appointments of the palace were the derision of Europe. The common people of Prussia had, however, a much larger share of what their labor produced than those of any other part of Europe. The King not only set a good example in making the most out of everything, but he personally caned lessons of industry and frugality into his people, high and low.

There were occasionally black sheep in even such a sternly regulated family, but as a general rule the sons and daughters married strong, clean mates, {49} and strictly maintained the family traditions. A provision against the way ward princelings was made by which their possessions passed into the main house if they fell below the standard. So the Hohenzollerns grew, and Prussia grew from a despised sandbarren to be one of the Six Great Powers of Europe, and is now the head of the mighty German Empire. We do not have as full history of the House of Savoy, but we have enough to know that in much the same way, at the same time, and by much the same moral discipline, it arose from the lordship of a little stretch of mountain {50} land in the Alps to rule over United Italy.

THE most attractive feature of this self-pruning of the objectionable growths in society, as said before, is that the victims destroy themselves under the hallucination that they are drinking the richest wine of earthly pleasure. When execution can be made a matter of keen relish to the condemned, certainly nothing is wanting on the score of humanity.

{51} I ANTICIPATE the objection that slaying bad men by means of their own vicious propensities brings much misery to those connected with them.

But then all innocent persons connected with bad men are fated to suffer in exact proportion to the closeness of the connection, whether the bad men are destroyed or not. Weak, selfish, perverted, and criminal men always inflict misery upon their relatives and associates. This is not usually intensified by their being drunkards or debauchees.

It is also true that no one of Nature’s methods of extinction is pleasant {52} to those connected with the victim. The thief or thug, prematurely dying with delirium tremens, is certainly quite as bearable a sight to those before whose eyes it may come as the spectacle of a virtuous man, the sole support of his family, slowly wasting away with consumption in spite of all that loving service and agonizing sympathy can do to retain for him a life that is of so much value.

TO the next objection that the practice of vice is not invariably suicidal, since many rascals live to attain as {53} green an old age as the most righteous, it is sufficient to say that plentiful as these exceptions may occasionally seem, their proportion to the whole number is at least as small as that of the exceptions to any other general law of biology.

The policeman on the next corner will bear decided testimony that the number of scoundrels who survive their 30th year is astonishingly small, and he can point out any number of erstwhile troublesome members of the community who are ending their lives in penitentiary, poorhouse, or hospital at an age when well-behaved men are {54} just entering upon the serious business of life.

It is also demonstrable that the proportion of vicious men to the whole population is much less to-day than at any previous period in the history of the race. This shows conclusively the improvement of society by the self-destructiveness of vice. The proportion of bad men is rapidly diminishing, because bad men die sooner and propagate fewer than good ones. {55}

SCIENCE is incredulous of any relation between religion and natural laws. Yet it is true now as said thirty centuries ago that—

     “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
     A good understanding have they who keep his commandments.”

From the Ten Commandments on, all religions have been the best efforts of their founders and supporters to put man in accord with his environment. This is their essence, though too frequently obscured by the political, theological, and social aspects given them.

While some religions are much better than others, every man gets as {56} good a religion and as much of it as he has capacity for. Nothing has been more clearly demonstrated by thousands of years of strenuous missionary effort than this fact.

Furthermore, any religion is better than none.

     “For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight,
     His can’t be wrong, whose life is in the right”

RELIGION, in its primary sense of something to bind back, to bind fast, is a force which restrains a {57} man from acts temporarily attractive but eventually hurtful to himself and others.

Some religions, like the Hebrew, promise in addition to spiritual benefits, long life, worldly success, peace, happiness, and blessings to the children, even to the third and fourth generations.

The Brahmin and Buddhist promise a Nirvana—a dreamless rest from the troubles of life.

The Christian and Mahometan promise an eternity of ineffable bliss.

All of these are based upon the elements of moral science and, at least, {58} give a man a fairly reliable sailing chart for the voyage of life.

Defective as many of them may be, they are the best that human intelligence has so far produced.

Next in order but far inferior in saving power are statute laws and social ethics.

All these influences are potent in that broad, middle ground which separates the best from the worst. They “pluck brands from the burning.”

By their means the less aberrant are brought into nearer conformity with Nature’s stern requirements.

But for the hopeless defectives,—the misfits in her tireless productiveness {59} —religion, laws, and society are alike weaker than woman’s tears.

They themselves sharpen the scythe of the Grim Reaper who brings the only remedy. {60}