Edward Bellamy Utopian Economic System

Edward Bellamy's Utopian Economic System

The novel Looking Backward caused tremendous popular excitement in the years immediately following its publication in 1888. The plot is simple enough. Julian West, a young Bostonian, falls into a deep sleep in an under­ground chamber in 1887. He is discovered by Doctor Leete and his beautiful daughter Edith in the year 2000. The remainder of the book, with the exception of some romantic thoughts and heavy breathing by the young couple, consists of an attempt to explain to Julian the economic and po­litical system that had peacefully evolved during the intervening century. Looking Backward stands out among the visionary novels of its period in its attention to the traditional areas of economics—consumption, pro­duction, market exchange, and income distribution—and as an attempt to integrate the economic and political institutions of contemporary so­ciety. Dr. Leete explains that each citizen is given a bank balance equal to his per capita share of national product and a credit card to use for all purchases. This sum proves more than adequate to meet typical consump­tion needs. Military, police, advertising, merchandising, and financial ex­penses are eliminated. The consumer chooses products from sample stores resembling modern discount warehouses, and the goods are dispatched via pneumatic tubes (the technology of the future in 1888) to his home. Mean­while, information of the sale is relayed back to the factory (the equivalent of a computer inventory system) to alert production managers of changes in customer tastes.

Bellamy projected the movement toward formation of large-scale industrial trusts occurring in the late nineteenth century to what he re­garded as its logical conclusion—the One Great Trust in which the gov­ernment acquired ownership and control of all the nation's industrial ca­pacity. This action, he claimed, came about peacefully sometime in the twentieth century. Citizens recognized that economies of scale were in­herent in ever-larger units of production.

Problems of labor supply were also solved in a creative way: the principle of universal military training, or the draft, was "expanded" to cover the 20-45 age bracket for all men and women. People were free at age 24 to choose an occupation. Since all citizens received an identical income credit, supply and demand forces in each area of employment were aligned by making hours shorter in types of work attracting too few volunteers—a two-hour shift for garbage collectors, for example. The first three years of national service were reserved for tasks that older workers still could not be persuaded to take up; interestingly, Bellamy thought that necessary personal service jobs such as that of waiter in a community din­ing hall would be considered demeaning. These jobs would be assigned to new entrants to the labor force. Any citizen could spend a trial year in a professional school such as a lay or medical school until age 30. An artist, author, composer, or inventor could devote full time to his or her craft as long as there existed sufficient popular demand for that unique creative

Finally, the functions of_ government were performed by those who retired at age 45. Representation was based on occupation, with each oc­cupational guild administered by workers who had performed best while they were economically active. The national government was conducted by those who excelled at guild administration.

Bellamy displays admirable awareness of the complex interrelationships between the component parts of an economic system. Consumer prefer­ences are matched with the assortment of goods produced, and occupa­tional preferences are matched with employment opportunities. All eco­nomic activity occurs within a framework of minimal governmental coercion and without differences in personal income serving as a motivating factor. The problems associated with the transitional period from the old to the new system are slighted, however, as are the problems of dealing with "deviant" behavior in the form of resistance to the labor draft. Bellamy relies heavily on the fashionable idea of evolutionary change to bring forth a new era of enlightenment and cooperation in economic relationships. All in all, the creation of a relatively complete and innovative economic system in the mind of a single individual is a remarkable accomplishment. Looking Backward deserves a place with Skinner's Walden Two and Von-negut's Player Piano as entertaining presentations of economic systems in fictional form.