Story type: Essay
What a fortunate thing it is that men want to work and like to live! Suppose for a moment that the out-of-work, hungry, unlucky creatures, numbering one hundred thousand in New York City, should suddenly change their character.
It is a harmless supposition, as it implies that a great body of good, though unlucky, men should be suddenly metamorphosed. But suppose, for instance, that one hundred thousand men should have a meeting and say:
“The State provides food, lodging and good care for every thief. It does not provide anything for us. Let us therefore accept the situation like philosophers and become thieves.”
Suppose the hundred thousand men thereupon, very quietly, without any show of violence, should each proceed to steal something and then announce the intention to accept the consequence by pleading guilty. It would embarrass the State and the reigning powers, would it not?
What could society do with a hundred thousand self-confessed thieves to take care of? It could not lock them up. It could not let them go. It could not nominally sentence them and have the Governor pardon them, because the hundred thousand would then proceed to steal something else.
What could be done? Nothing. There is no punishment save imprisonment for theft, and the wholesale thieves would ask for and demand imprisonment with the usual rations.
We think society is well balanced and that everything is ingeniously provided for.
So it is; but everything hinges on the extraordinary fact that the hungry, thin, common, shiftless, luckless man at the very bottom is still a MAN. He will not be a thief, and he will die of hunger and cold, as poor fellows do almost every winter day, rather than take the food that society guarantees to the thief.
We attribute much to our own wisdom and the wisdom of our laws. But we owe almost everything to the instinct of self-preservation and to that second, very peculiar, instinct called pride.
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