Front Page Titles (by Subject) CONVERSATION IV.: ON PROPERTY— continued. - Conversations on Political Economy; in which the elements of that science are familiarly explained
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CONVERSATION IV.: ON PROPERTY— continued. - Jane Haldimand Marcet, Conversations on Political Economy; in which the elements of that science are familiarly explained 
Conversations on Political Economy; in which the elements of that science are familiarly explained, 6th edition revised and enlarged (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1827).
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effects of insecurity of property. — examples from volney’s travels. — objections raised against civilisation. — state of bœtica, from telemachus. — objections to community of goods. — establishment of jesuits in paraguay.—moravians.—state of switzerland. — advantages resulting from the establishment and security of property.
Now that we have traced the rise and progress of civilisation to the security of property, let us see whether the reverse, that is to say, insecurity of property in a civilised country, will not degrade the state of man, and make him retrace his steps till he again degenerates into barbarism.
Are there any examples of a civilised people returning to a savage state? I do not recollect ever to have heard of such a change.
No, because when property has once been instituted, the advantages it produces are such, that it can never be totally abolished; but in countries where the tyranny of government renders it very insecure, the people invariably degenerate, the country falls back into poverty, and a comparative state of barbarism. We have already noticed the miserable change in the once wealthy city of Tyre. Egypt, which was the original seat of the arts and sciences, is now sunk into the most abject degradation; and if you will read the passages I have marked for you in Volney’s travels, you will find the truth of this observation very forcibly delineated.
“When the tyranny of a government drives the inhabitants of a village to extremity, the peasants desert their houses, and withdraw with their families into the mountains, or wander in the plains. It often happens that even individuals turn robbers in order to withdraw themselves from the tyranny of the laws, and unite into little camps, which maintain themselves by force of arms; these, increasing, become new hordes and new tribes. We may say, therefore, that in cultivated countries the wandering life originates in the injustice or want of policy of the government.”
This, you see, is very much to the point: but here is another passage equally applicable.
“The silks of Tripoly are every day losing their quality from the decay of the mulberry-trees, of which scarcely any thing now remains but some hollow trunks. Why not plant new ones? That is an European observation. Here they never plant; because were they either to build or plant, the Pacha would say this man has money, and it would be extorted from him.”
Besides, where there is so little actual security, what reliance can be placed on futurity? What reason would the proprietors have to hope that the mulberry-trees would ever repay them for the trouble and expense of planting them? Yet I wonder that the government of the country should not, for its own sake, encourage the industry of its subjects.
In the wretched government of the Turks, everything is so insecure, from the life and property of the sovereign, to that of the lowest of his subjects, that no one looks to futurity, but every man endeavours to grasp at, and enjoy what is immediately within his reach. The following passage will show you what sufferers they all are by such a mistaken system of policy.
“In consequence of the wretchedness of the government, the greater part of the pachalics are impoverished and laid waste. In the ancient registers of imports, upwards of 3200 villages were reckoned in that of Aleppo, but at present the collector can scarcely find 400. Such of our merchants as have resided there 20 years, have themselves seen the greater part of the environs of Aleppo become depopulated. The traveller meets with nothing but houses in ruins, cisterns rendered useless, and fields abandoned. Those who cultivated them are fled into the towns, where the population is absorbed, but where at least the individual conceals himself among the crowd from the rapacious hands of despotism. In other countries the cities are in some measure the overflow of the population of the country; in Syria, they are the effect of its desertion. The roads in the mountains are extremely bad, as the inhabitants are so far from levelling them, that they endeavour to render them more rugged, in order, as they say, to cure the Turks of their desire to introduce their cavalry.
“The Pacha may applaud himself for penetrating into the most secret sources of private property, but what are the consequences? The people, denied the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour, restrain their industry to the supply of their necessary wants; the husbandman sows only to prevent himself from starving, the artificer labours only to maintain his family; if he makes any savings, he strives to conceal them. The people live therefore in poverty and distress, but at least they do not enrich their tyrants, and the rapacity of despotism is its own punishment.”
The degeneracy of the mighty Persian and Indian monarchies, since the conquest of those countries by the Mahometans, is also clearly deducible from the insecurity of property, and affords the most tremendous examples of national decline. Trott, in his History of Hindostan, informs us that during the disastrous times of the latter monarchs of India, the cruelties and oppressions of the agents of government were such, that the farmers burnt their houses, utensils, and crops, and took refuge in the woods and mountains, where those who could neither excite charity nor maintain themselves by the sword, perished through want.
What a melancholy picture this is, my dear Mrs. B.! it is, I think, even more painful to contemplate than the wretchedness of savages; for to their actual misery these people must add the regret of having known better times.
Dr. Clarke’s Travels abound with similar instances of insecurity of property, and legal oppression, which subvert society, and degrade the human species. “In Circassia,” he observes, that “the sower scattering seed, or the reaper who gathers the sheaves, are constantly liable to an assault; and the implements of husbandry are not more essential to the harvest than the carbine, the pistol, and the sabre.”
Speaking of the Isle of Cyprus, he says: “The soil every where exhibited a white marly clay, said to be exceedingly rich in its nature, although neglected. The Greeks are so oppressed by their Turkish masters, that they dare not cultivate the land; the harvest would instantly be taken from them if they did. Their whole aim seems to be, to scrape together barely sufficient, in the course of the whole year, to pay their tax to the governor. The omission of this is punished by torture or by death: and in case of their inability to supply the impost, the inhabitants fly from the island. So many emigrations of this sort happen during the year, that the population of Cyprus rarely exceeds 60,000 persons, a number formerly insufficient to have peopled one of its towns.”
You have made me sensible of the advantages of civilisation; but yet I confess that my mind is not fully satisfied. Is there no medium between a savage life and the extreme inequality of condition which we see in the present state of society? Can we not have conveniences without luxuries; plenty without superfluity? I think I have met with an example of such a people, Mrs. B.; but I dare not venture to mention my authority, as you have once before rejected it.
If you allude to Telemachus, there are many sound doctrines of political economy in that work; though it must be acknowledged that it is not free from error. But let me hear the sentiments of Fenelon on this subject.
Do you remember that delightful picture which he draws of the inhabitants of Bœtica? There is an irresistible charm in the description of their happiness; and, if fabulous, it is certainly meant at least to delineate what ought to constitute the happiness of nations; equality, community of goods, but few arts and few wants; an ignorance or contempt of luxury, and manners perfectly conformed to the simplicity of nature. I must read you the passage, and you will tell me whether it is not a satire on political economy: —
“They live in common, without any partition of lands: the head of every family is its king. They have no need of judges, for every man submits to the jurisdiction of conscience. They possess all things in common; for the cattle produce milk, and the fields and orchards fruit and grain of every kind in such abundance, that a people so frugal and temperate have no need of property. They have no fixed place of abode: but when they have consumed the fruits, and exhausted the pasturage, of one part of the paradise which they inhabit, they remove their tents to another: they have, therefore, no opposition of interest, but are connected by a fraternal affection which there is nothing to interrupt. This peace, this union, this liberty, they preserve by rejecting superfluous wealth and deceitful pleasure: they are all free, they are all equal.
“Superior wisdom, the result either of long experience or uncommon abilities, is the only mark of distinction among them; the sophistry of fraud, the cry of violence, the contention of the bar, and the tumult of battle, are never heard in this sacred region, which the gods have taken under their immediate protection: this soil has never been distained with human blood, and even that of a lamb has rarely been shed upon it. When we first traded with these people, we found gold and silver used for ploughshares, and, in general, employed promiscuously with iron. As they carried on no foreign trade, they had no need of money; they were, almost all, either shepherds or husbandmen; for as they suffered no arts to be exercised among them, but such as tended immediately to answer the necessities of life, the number of artificers was consequently small: besides, a greater part, even of those that live by husbandry, or keeping of sheep, are skilful in the exercise of such arts as are necessary to manners so simple and frugal.”
This, my dear Caroline, is a representation of what the poets call the Golden Age, and requires only truth to make it perfect. If it were an historical account, all the conclusions you deduce from it would be just; but it is fiction, which you must allow makes an essential difference.
Supposing that the earth yielded spontaneously all that is now produced by cultivation; still, without the institution of property, it could not be enjoyed; the fruit would be gathered before it was ripe, animals killed before they came to maturity; for who would protect what was not his own; or who would economise when all the stores of nature were open to him? There would be a strange mixture of plenty, waste, and famine.
In this country, for instance, where the only common property consists in hedge-nuts and black-berries, how seldom are they allowed to ripen! In some parts of Spain, where the beauty of the climate produces a considerable quantity of good wild fruit, it is customary for the priest to bestow a blessing upon it before any is allowed to be gathered, and this ceremony is not performed till the fruit is considered to be generally ripe; by which means it is prevented from being prematurely gathered. It is with the same view that our game-laws prohibit shooting, till the season when the birds have attained their full growth.
But though the Bœticans had all their goods in common, they were not without laws for protecting them.
If the earth were possessed in common, who would set about cultivating this or that spot of ground? Government must allot to every man his daily task, and say to the one, You must work in this spot; to another, You must work in that. Would these men labour with the same activity and zeal as if they tilled their own ground, or received wages equivalent to their exertions? Certainly not. Such a system would transform independent men into slaves, into mere mechanical engines. There would be no inequality of condition, it is true; but the earth would not yield one tenth part of its actual produce, the population would necessarily be diminished in the same proportion, and if all escaped the distresses of poverty, none would enjoy the acquisition of riches; an enjoyment, which, when derived from the exercise of our talents and our industry, is a just and virtuous feeling; it raises men not only in the scale of wealth, but in that of the power of doing good, of enlarging the sphere of human knowledge, with all the inestimable benefits which result from it.
There have, however, really existed establishments founded on a community of goods. That of the Jesuits in Paraguay was of this description. The influence of religion enabled these priests to exercise a despotic sway over the poor Indians whom they had converted to Christianity; it must be allowed that they tempered their power by a patriarchal care of their docile subjects. Such a species of government might perhaps be well adapted to a tribe of ignorant uncivilised Indians, but it would never make a free, a happy, an independent, and a wealthy people. There is, indeed, still existing a sect of the same description, called Moravians; but it is their religious tenets alone which enable them to keep up such an artificial system of community, and it should be compared rather to a convent of monks and nuns, than to a great nation.
I must again repeat it, the industry of man requires the stimulus of exclusive possession and enjoyment; and will always be proportioned to the personal advantage which he derives from it.
I find I must give up the point of community of goods; but still I cannot help thinking that the great inequality of conditions which exist in the present state of society is a serious evil.
In Switzerland, where there is much less inequality of fortune than in this country, I have often admired and almost envied the innocent and simple manners of the people. They seem not to know half our wants, nor to suffer half our cares.
The Swiss are generally governed by mild and equitable laws, which render them a virtuous and a happy people; and if they are not a rich and populous nation, it proceeds not from any want of industry, but from the obstacles opposed both to agriculture and trade by the nature of their country; for they are, on the contrary, uncommonly active and enterprising. I have often seen men carry on their shoulders baskets of manure up steep ascents inaccessible to beasts of burden, and this for the purpose of cultivating some little insulated spot of ground, which did not appear worth any such labour. The country-women wear their knitting fastened round their waists, in order to have it at hand to fill up every little interval that occurs in their domestic employments. If a Swiss woman goes to fetch water from the fountain, or faggots from the wood, her burden is skilfully poised on her head, whilst her fingers busily ply the needles. But, industrious as they are, the resources of the country are too limited to enable a father of a family to provide for all his children; some of them are therefore obliged to emigrate, and seek their fortune in a foreign land, which offers greater resources to their industry. Hence the number of Swiss merchants, governesses, shopkeepers, and servants, that are to be met with in almost all countries. Would not these people be happier if they found means of exercising their industry and their talents in a country to which they are all so much attached, and which they have so much reason to love? In the energy of youthful vigour, men may often quit their own country, and live happily in a foreign land; but enquire of the parents who are on the point of separating from their children as soon as they have attained the hopeful age of manhood, whether their country would be less happy for offering them the means of employment and maintenance at home.
The Swiss cannot afford to support a standing army for the defence of their territory; they are therefore under the necessity of engaging their troops in the service of foreign potentates, in order to provide for a part of their population, and to have a resource by calling them home in times of danger. Would not these soldiers be happier in defending their own country, than in shedding their blood as mercenaries in the cause of foreigners? We have a remarkable proof of it in the effect which their patriotic songs are said to produce on them. When these simple airs recall to their minds their beloved and regretted country, it either drives them to desertion, or renders their lives miserable; and, so deep is the impression made by these national airs, that it was found necessary to forbid their being sung by the troops in foreign service.
There is no withstanding your attacks, Mrs. B. You drive me from all my strong holds. I expected to have found a safe asylum in the mountains of Switzerland; but I see that I must once more take refuge in London, where I am sure you will admit that the contrast between the luxuries of the rich and the wretchedness of the poor is shocking to every person of common feeling.
If the wretchedness of the poor were the effect of the luxuries of the rich, I should certainly agree with you on that point; but I believe it to be otherwise. However, as the people, whose progress towards wealth and civilisation we have been tracing in our two last conversations, are yet far from being sufficiently advanced in their career to be guilty of any great excess in luxury, we must patiently follow them in their advancement in knowledge and the acquisition of wealth before we treat of the subject of luxury.