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First Letter - Frédéric Bastiat, Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850 
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850, Jacques de Guenin, General Editor. Translated from the French by Jane Willems and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Pascal Salin. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation Editor Dennis O’Keeffe. Academic Editor, David M. Hart (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012).
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The National Assembly has been set an immense question, the answer to which is of the greatest interest to the prosperity and peace of France.2 A new right is knocking on the door of the Constitution: the right to work. Not only is it demanding a place for itself, but also it claims to take, in all or in part, the place of the right to property.
M. Louis Blanc has already provisionally proclaimed this new right with the success we have seen.3
M. Proudhon claims the right to work in order to put paid to property.
M. Considérant claims it in order to strengthen it by making it legitimate.
Thus, according to these political writers, property carries within it something that is unjust and wrong, a germ of death. I pretend to demonstrate that it is truth and justice itself and that what it carries within itself is the very basis of progress and life.
They appear to believe that, in the combat about to take place, the poor have an interest in the triumph of the right to work and the rich in the defense of the right to property. I believe I can prove that property rights are essentially democratic and that everything that denies or violates them is fundamentally aristocratic and anarchical.
I hesitated to ask for space in a journal for a dissertation on social economy. The following may perhaps justify this attempt:
First of all, there is the seriousness and topicality of the subject.
Second, MM Louis Blanc, Considérant, and Proudhon are not merely political writers. They are also the heads of schools with a number of enthusiastic disciples, as is shown by their presence in the National Assembly. Their doctrines today exercise considerable influence, which I think disastrous, on the world of business; and, what is no less serious, they may be strengthened by concessions at odds with the orthodoxy of the masters of political economy.
Last, and why should I not admit it, something in the depths of my conscience tells me that at the heart of this burning controversy it might be given to me to cast an unexpected ray of light to illuminate the terrain on which the schools most in opposition may sometimes be reconciled.
This is enough, I hope, for these letters to be accepted by their readers.
First of all, I have to set out the criticism made of property.
In short, this is how M. Considérant explains it. I do not think I am distorting his theory by summarizing it.4
All men legitimately possess the thing that their activity has created.
They may consume it, give it, exchange it, and transmit it without any person, even the whole of society, having any concern with it.
Landowners therefore legitimately possess not only the products they have created on the land but also the added value they have given to the land itself through farming.
However, there is one thing that they have not created, which is the fruit of no work, and that is the ground in its natural state, the original capital and the productive power of the agents of nature. However, landowners have taken over this capital. In this lie usurpation, confiscation, injustice, and constant illegitimacy.
The human race has been put on this globe in order to live and develop itself. The species is therefore the usufructuary of the surface of the globe. However, this surface has now been confiscated by the minority at the expense of the majority.
It is true that this confiscation was inevitable, for how can it be cultivated if each person can exercise, as he sees fit and in total freedom, his natural rights, that is to say, the rights of savagery?
We should therefore not destroy property but legitimize it. How? We should do it by recognizing the right to work.
In fact, savages exercise their four rights (to hunt, fish, grow crops, and graze animals) only provided they work. It is therefore under the same proviso that society owes the proletariat the equivalent of the usufruct of which it has robbed them.
To sum up, society owes all the members of humanity, on condition that they work, a wage that puts them in a situation that can be reckoned equally favorable to that of savages.
Property will then be legitimate from all points of view, and the poor and the rich will be reconciled.
This is M. Considérant’s entire theory.5 He asserts that this question of property is very simple, since it can be solved with just a little common sense, but nevertheless no one before him had understood it at all.
This is not much of a compliment to the human race, but in compensation I can only admire the extreme modesty expressed in the author’s conclusions.
What in effect is he asking of society?
That it acknowledge the right to work as equivalent for humanity’s well-being to a usufruct of the land in its natural state.
And what value does he place on this equivalent?
He reckons it equivalent to the level at which the land in its natural state can keep savages alive.
Since there is approximately one inhabitant per square league, the owners of land in France can certainly legitimize their usurpation at very little cost. All they have to do is to undertake that thirty to forty thousand nonowners will continue to live side by side with them at the full level of the Eskimos.
But what am I saying? Why are we talking about France? In this system there is no longer any France and no longer any national property, since the life tenancy of the land belongs as of right to the whole human race.
Besides, I have no intention of examining M. Considérant’s theory in detail, since that would take me too far. I wish only to attack what is weighty and consequential at the core of this theory, that is to say, the question of rent.
M. Considérant’s system can be summarized thus:
An agricultural product exists through the combination of two actions:
The action by a man, or work, which creates the right to property,
And the action of nature, which ought to be free and which landowners can arrange to be turned unjustly to their advantage.
This is what constitutes the usurpation of the rights of humanity.
If, therefore, I were to prove that men, in the course of their transactions, are mutually paid only for their work and that they do not contrive to have the action of nature included in the price of the items being exchanged, M. Considérant should consider himself to be totally satisfied.
M. Proudhon’s complaints against property are absolutely identical.6 “Property,” he says, “will cease to be abusive through the mutual sharing of services.” Therefore, if I demonstrate that men exchange only services with each other, never charging each other a sou for the use of the forces of nature that God has given to everyone free of charge, M. Proudhon, for his part, should agree that his utopia has been achieved.
These two political writers are not entitled to claim the right to work. It does not matter that they consider this famous right in such a diametrically opposed light that, in M. Considérant’s view, it ought to legitimize property while according to M. Proudhon it ought to put paid to it. It is still true that there will no longer be any question of this right, provided that it is clearly proved that, under the regime of property, men will exchange hardship for hardship, effort for effort, work for work, and service for service, with the contribution made by nature always provided in addition to the bargain struck, so that the forces of nature, intended to be free of charge, continue to be free of charge through all human transactions.
We can see that what is being contested is the legitimacy of rent, since it is supposed that this is, in whole or in part, an unjust payment that the consumer makes to the landowner, not for a personal service but for the advantages supplied by nature free of charge.
I have said that modern reformers can base themselves on the opinion of the leading economists.7
In fact, Adam Smith says that rent is oft en a reasonable interest payment for the capital spent on improving the land, and also that this interest is oft en just a part of the rent.
To which McCulloch makes this positive declaration:
That which is properly called rent is the sum paid for the use of the forces of nature and the inherent power of the land. It is totally distinct from the sum paid for the buildings, fences, roads, and other improvements made to the land. Rent is therefore always a monopoly.
Buchanan goes so far as to say that “rent is a part of the revenue from consumers that goes into the pockets of landowners.”
A part of the rent is paid for the use of the capital that has been used to improve the quality of the land, constructing buildings, etc.; the rest is paid for the use of the latent and indestructible powers of the land.
The value of the land and the ability to draw a rent from it are the result of two circumstances: 1. the appropriation of its natural powers, and 2. the work devoted to improving it.
With regard to the first circumstance, rent is a monopoly. It is a restriction to the usufructor of the gift s that the Creator has made to men to satisfy their needs. This restriction is just only to the extent that it is necessary for the common good.
The instruments of production are labor and the agents of nature. Once the agents of nature are appropriated, landowners have themselves paid for their use in the form of rent, which is compensation for no sacrifice whatever and is received by those who have neither worked nor made any advance payments, but who limit themselves to holding out their hands to receive the offerings of the community.
After having said that part of rent is the interest on capital, Senior adds:
The rest is taken by the owner of the agents of nature and consists of his reward, not for having worked or saved but simply for not having kept to himself what he could have kept to himself and for having allowed the gift s of nature to be used by others.
Certainly, when entering into an argument with men who proclaim a doctrine that is specious in itself, which is likely to give rise to hopes and favorable reactions from the suffering classes and which is based on authorities like these, it is not enough to close your eyes to the seriousness of the situation. It is not enough to cry disdainfully that you are facing dreamers, utopians, people that are crazy, or even members of factions. You have to study the question and settle it once and for all. It is worth a moment of dull work.
I believe that it will be settled satisfactorily for all if I prove that property not only leaves those that are labeled the proletariat the free usufruct of the agents of nature but even increases it by ten or a hundredfold. I dare to hope that the result of this demonstration will be a clear view of a few harmonies likely to satisfy intelligent minds and calm the pretensions of all the schools of economists, socialists, or even communists.8
[2. ]On 17 May 1848 the Constituent Assembly elected an eighteen-member commission to prepare a draft constitution (Considérant was among the members, but so was Tocqueville). It started by elaborating a preamble, the “declaration of rights and duties,” in which the right to work was prominent. The final preamble, though, referred only to the duty of the republic to protect the citizens’ work and to provide work, within the limits of state resources, for the needy.
[3. ]Written at Blanc’s initiative, the decree of 25 February 1848 stated: “The provisional government guarantees the existence of the worker through work.”
[4. ](Bastiat’s note) See the small volume published by M. Considérant titled Théorie du droit de propriété et du droit au travail [Theory of the Right to Property and the Right to Work].
[5. ](Bastiat’s note) M. Considérant is not the only one to hold it, as is shown by the following passage taken from The Wandering Jew, by M. Eugène Sue:Mortification would express better the complete lack of the essentially vital things that an equitably balanced society ought to owe, yes, ought to owe all active and upright workers, since civilization has dispossessed them of any right to the land and they are born with only their arms as sole heritage.Savages do not enjoy the advantages of civilization, but at least they have as food the animals of the forest, the birds of the air, fish from the rivers, the fruits of the earth, and the trees of the wide forests to give them shelter.Civilized people, who are despoiled of these gift s of God and who regard property as holy and sacred, may therefore, in return for their hard daily labor that enriches the country, claim a wage that is enough to live healthily, neither more nor less.
[6. ]Proudhon is best known for his work Qu’estce que la propriété? (1841).
[7. ](Paillottet’s note) This proposition is developed in more detail in chapters 5 and 9 of the Economic Harmonies. (OC, vol. 6, p. 140, “De la valeur,” and p. 297, “Propriété foncière.”)
[8. ](Paillottet’s note) See the claim from M. Considérant that provoked this first letter at the end of this pamphlet together with F. Bastiat’s reply.