LETTER THE EIGHTH.
EVILS OF THE ARTIFICIAL RIGHT OF PROPERTY.
Not intended to go deeply into this subject.—The sufferings and crimes of the oppressed labourer overlooked. The pains and penalties suffered, by the oppressors only adverted to—Mr. Combe's description of the present state of society.—Fraud, forgery, and overtrading, all result from an artificial right of property.—No legislative remedy suggested for these evils, because legislation has no influence over natural laws.—Society a natural phenomenon.—Conclusion.
TO H. BROUGHAM, ESQ. M. P. F.R.S. &c.
The purpose of my former communications has been to make you acquainted with my opinions as to the origin of a natural and an artificial right of property, to shew you that the latter is continually changed and subverted by the former, and that the real guarantee of all our rights is not, as commonly said, the law of the land, but the opinions and habits of mankind, which are continually corrected, if not formed, by external circumstances. Were I disposed to philosophise deeply on the subject, I might, perhaps, go on to demonstrate, that these circumstances are the immediate creation of the Deity, even if they may not be called, consistently with a sublime but not popular theory, emana tions from, or a revelation of the Deity himself; and thus also to demonstrate that the government of the whole moral world, even to its minutest part, is carefully regulated by Divine Providence. This, however, might lead me to subjects that lie more out of the common tract than the every-day evils of society, and therefore I shall confine myself to traceing the connection between some of them and the legislative attempt to maintain an artificial right of property.
Nature willing the happiness of our species, has given us a facility to accommodate ourselves to circumstances, so that the real social misery—the actual pain which exists, is perhaps not so great as the common lamentations of certain classes would lead us to believe. At least I am not disposed to exaggerate it, but enough of privation and pain may be perceived and traced to the legal right of property, to warrant us in ascribing to it most of the misery which exists in the world.
I put out of view the sufferings of the more than halfstarved, toil-worn, and degraded labourers, with all their families and persons dependant on them, though I believe they sometimes reach the extremity of human endurance, and are all plainly to be referred to that right of property which does not allow them to own the produce of their own labour. I put them out of view, because I address myself, through you, to a different class of persons, whom I wish to make sensible that their interest and happiness are not promoted by this right; and I have no wish, by expatiating on the privations and sufferings of the poor, to rouse in them the slumbering feelings of hatred and revenge. At the same time, the fact of the great mass of the labouring classes in this country being in a state of comparative pauperism and destitution, which is at the bottom of most of the apprehensions, and many of the sufferings of the rich, must on no account be forgotten or overlooked. As these people are very industrious and very skilful, very frugal and very economical—as their labour pays taxes, tithes, rent, and profit—it cannot be for one moment doubted, whatever the final cause may be, which induces them to submit to law; whether it be their prejudice in its favour, their ignorance, their bad passions, their fear of each other, or the undue proportion of their numbers to their capacity to obtain subsistence from nature,—it cannot be doubted, I say, that the immediate and proximate cause of their poverty and destitution, seeing how much they labour, and how many people their labour nourishes in opulence, is the law which appropriates their produce, in the shape of revenue, rent, tithes, and profit.
I also pass by the manner in which the legal right of property operates in checking all improvement, because to elucidate that fully, would take up too much time. It is, however, evident, that the labour which would be amply rewarded in cultivating all our waste lands, till every foot of the country became like the garden grounds about London, were all the produce of labour on those lands to be the reward of the labourer, cannot obtain from them a sufficiency to pay profit, tithes, rent, and taxes. Although the land itself should be exempt from those charges, they fall on every thing the labourer uses or consumes in bringing them under cultivation, and thus the artificial right of property, with the exactions of government, are the real causes why there is, in the nineteenth century, a single acre of uncultivated land in the country. There seems no reason why society should be clogged in its progress. It is not like a machine made by man, which friction speedily brings to a still stand. On the contrary, the longer it continues the more are the means multiplied for its rapid advancement. It is more easy to cultivate land in the neighbourhood of previous cultivation, where both skill and instruments are ready prepared, than in the wilds of America; and much of the land not yet cultivated in Europe, is as fit for cultivation as the forests of that country. It is generally said, that capital is the great means of promoting improvement, but with this theory I am unable to reconcile the fact, that in Europe capital has greatly accumulated, and here improvement is nearly at a stand, while in America there is comparatively little capital, and there improvement is most rapid. The fact is, that improvement is checked, in Europe, by the exactions of the capitalist, the landlord, the clergy, and the government; all of which must and do fall on industry, rendering it barren and unproductive to the labourer.
In the same manner as the cultivation of waste lands is checked, so are commercial enterprise and manufacturing industry arrested. Infinite are the undertakings which would amply reward the labour necessary for their success, but which will not pay the additional sums required for rent, profits, tithes, and taxes. These, and no want of soil, no want of adequate means for industry to employ itself, are the causes which impede the exertions of the labourer and clog the progress of society. But though I pass over this important branch of the subject, it is proper to make you aware, that the general want of profitable employment for industry, which produces all those miseries and crimes, always resulting as experience has demonstrated, from a stagnating condition of society, are primarily caused by the law supporting an unjust appropriation of wealth. Industry is without a motive, and enterprise without means, when neither can obtain its appropriate reward.
The way in which we learn that we have violated a command of nature, is through the suffering which ensues. Thus we say, that nature prohibits us to mutilate the body, because doing so inflicts pain. Are the opulent people then of this and other countries not continually warned, that they violate some of the laws of nature. Is the weariness, the loathing of life, the hurrying about from place to place, as if mere motion could carry them away from themselves, is that “leafless desart of the mind” for which they are generally distinguished, is that want of an aim and an object to steady their exertions, which makes life a burthensome blank to them, and all of which are obviously caused by their living on the produce of other men's labour—violating the natural right of property—are all these no evils? Is the perpetual hunt in which they are engaged after health, and the perpetual apprehension they are under of losing it, which never exists when men are engaged in providing the means of subsistence, not evils? Does it cause an exquisite feeling of delight in our opulent people, to see themselves surrounded by a mass of labourers, in the lowest state of destitution, and to be continually apprehensive of meeting in them thieves or foes? Is it gratifying to be conscious that you have no security for your highly-prized possessions, but the dread of the gaol and the gallows and to perceive that the gaol is even sought as a place of refuge, and that the gallows has lost all its terror? If the opulent suffer no evil from the destitution of the labourers, why are there so many fears, and why is such eagerness manifested to provide for the famishing and the dreaded multitude? Why are emigration and the poor laws, or military law and extermination, proposed for Ireland, as men are humane or sanguinary, if the poor excite no terror in the rich? The fact of the existence of a multitude of poor cannot be denied, and that multitude is a source of never-dying uneasiness to those who live by the produce of their labour. Men generally love mirth, and music, and dancing; as their taste gets refined, they love literature and science, and the arts; love to walk abroad amidst the beauties of creation, and to admire the mimic wonders of the artist's skill; some of them are then content “to minister to their wants by their own hands;” but whatever may be their taste and acquirements, no one can suppose that police officers and night watchmen, gaols and magistrates, complicated laws and procrastinating courts, which only serve to keep in order the oppressed labourers, promote happiness. None of these things seem to me suitable either to the dignity of the intellectual being, or adapted to ensure animal gratification, and as they all, at least impede positive enjoyment if they do not inflict positive evil, we must look on them as so many admonitions to the idle and opulent part of society, not to lend themselves to the violation of the natural right of property.
As you may doubt the picture I am disposed to draw of the state of society, here is a sketch by another hand. “This island exhibits the spectacle of millions of men toiled to the extremity of human endurance, for a pittance scarcely sufficient to sustain life; weavers labouring for fourteen or sixteen hours a-day for eightpence, frequently unable to procure work even on these terms: other artizans exhausted almost to death by laborious drudgery, who, if better recompensed, seek compensa tion and enjoyment in the grossest sensual debauchery, drunkenness and gluttony, master traders and manufacturers anxiously labouring for wealth, now gay in the fond hope that all their expectations will be realized, then sunk in deep despair by the breath of ruin having passed over them; landlords and tenants now reaping unmeasured returns from their properties, then pining in penury amidst an overflow of every species of produce; the government cramped by an overwhelming debt, and the prevalence of ignorance and selfishness on every side, so that it is impossible for it to follow with a bold step, the most obvious dictates of reason and justice, owing to the countless prejudices and imaginary interests which every where obstruct the path of improvement. This resembles much more punishment for transgression than reward for obedience to the divine institutions.”
The law of nature is, that industry shall be rewarded by wealth, and idleness be punished by destitution; the law of the land is to give wealth to idleness, and fleece industry till it be destitute. As far as the law can, therefore, it encourages idleness, and does what is in its power to destroy “the only spring which keeps human labour in motion.” The idle classes also occupy the highest stations of society, and are looked up to with respect and reverence. Whatever they do is necessarily imitated. As all their natural wants are supplied, they have nothing to do but fancy “low unreal” wants. Their imaginations are racked to hunt up new gratifications. They indulge in all sorts of expensive vanities; and setting the fashion, what they indulge in out of idleness and whim, is also sought after by all beneath them. Thus we may trace to our artificial right of property, by neither a long nor a circuitous route, that vanity,—that excessive love of expense, in all classes, which makes prostitutes of our women and fraudulent knaves of our men, and plunges all classes in vices and crimes. We may trace all the fraud and forgery in society, all the evils, in short, which call forth the exertions of vindictive law, and are embraced by the comprehensive term crime, up to the system of our artificial right of property, which severs the natural connection between labour and its rewards.
The wants of individuals which labour is intended to gratify, are the natural guide to their exertions. The instant they are compelled to labour for others, this guide forsakes them, and their exertions are dictated by the greed and avarice, and false hopes of their masters. The wants springing from our organization, and accompanying the power to labour, being created by the same hand which creates and fashions the whole universe, including the course of the seasons, and what the earth brings forth, it is fair to suppose that they would at all times guide the exertions of the labourer, so as fully to ensure a supply of necessaries and conveniences, and nothing more. They have, as it were, a prototype in nature, agreeing with other phenomena, but the avarice and greed of masters have no such prototype. They stand isolated and apart from all the great phenomena of the universe. They were originally crimes condemned by our moral sentiments, and still have their source in our crime-begotten political systems. Nature disowns them as a guide to action, and punishes us for following them. By this system the hand is dissevered from the mouth, and labour is put in motion to gratify vanity and ambition, not the natural wants of animal existence. When we look at the commercial history of our country, and see the false hopes of our merchants and manufacturers leading to periodical commercial convulsions, we are compelled to conclude, that they have not the same source as the regular and harmonious external world. Capitalists have no guide to their exertions, because nature rejects and opposes their dominion over labour. Starts of national prosperity, followed by bankruptcy and ruin, have the same source then as fraud and forgery. To our legal right of property we are indebted for those gleams of false wealth and real panic, which, within the last fifty years, have so frequently shook, to its centre, the whole trading world.
Founded, Sir, on our mutual respect for mutual rights, for the lawgiver has dexterously endeavoured to turn both our vices and our virtues to his own account, but quite distinct from that right of property which arises from the physical and moral laws of the universe, and is coextensive with our race, is the legal right of property, ordained and enforced, but neither secured, settled, nor protected by the laws of every political society. In almost all ages and nations—from the first dawn of history to the present moment, from the mountains of the East, the cradle of the human race, to the Savannahs of the West, where mankind seems destined to grow to maturity, in the Bible, and in the last Colonial Gazette, from Chaldea to Kentucky, ambition and greed, open force and covert plunder—both being condemned by our moral sentiments, have unjustly appropriated man as well as the soil he must till for his subsistence.
The preservation of the power of the unjust appropriators has been called social order, and mankind have believed the assertion. To maintain their dominion is the object and aim of all human legislation. The great mass of the two hundred and odd statutes, which, up to a recent period, inflicted death on our people, had no other object than to enforce obedience to an unjust scheme of appropriation. That government is a great evil,—that laws to model and uphold it, imposing restraints on thought and commerce, on the press and locomotion, that taxes to pay its expenses, kings and judges to administer it, and armies and hangmen to carry their blood-stained decrees into execution—that Aristocra cies dazzling us with the display of gaudy magnificence, and hierarchies imposing on our senses by more solemn delusions—both intended to cheat us into admiration of their tinsel shew to which substantial happiness is sacrificed; that gaols and gibbets, and tread-mills, the instruments of legislative wrath, and the signs of its dominion, that they all inflict sharp pain in their first operation, and spread misery through society, is universally admitted; that I have convinced you of the unholiness of their origin, or their inability to answer the end proposed, I cannot assert; but I must express my sincere conviction, that the apparent necessity for maintaining them is altogether a consequence of our artificial and unjust right of property. Whether or not there be a natural right of property which would be generally respected, though no law guaranteed it, may be doubted; but it is nevertheless proper to make men aware that the price they pay for attempting to uphold the artificial right of property, is nothing less than the enormous sum of misery inflicted in the name of law and government.
All the misery arising from brutal hangman laws, from judicial murders, which the wise and good have for a long time reprobated, has been, and this is a striking fact, gratuitously inflicted. It has not preserved the artificial right of property, it has not secured power to the landowner, it has not seated the legislator more firmly in our veneration, it has not saved his authority from being overthrown by the general reason, as expressed by the Press, and it has, therefore, as completely failed in attaining the great object proposed, as the laws against fraud and forgery have failed in putting a stop to these offences. The lawgiver, Sir, has been unable, notwithstanding the terror he has employed, to invest his artificial right of property with the sanctity of a moral obligation. He is as imbecile as he is wicked. Whatever he may decree, depredation, the violation of his right of property, from the highest to the lowest, from the king on the throne, who exacts the property of his subjects on numberless false pretences, through all classes of nobles, archbishops and bishops, placemen, jobbing members of parliament, professional men, traders, buyers and sellers, one demanding more than his due, and the other not paying his just debts; whatever may be the law, depredation, I assert, is the practice of the people. The lawgiver can no more excite, even among the most virtuous and well educated classes, a respect for his artificial right of property, than he can create for that right of property, which exists in the West Indies, a sanction in the bosom of the Negro. The laws, according not with our moral sentiments, are, in fact, inoperative. They inflict pain, but they produce no amendment, and impose no salutary controul. What is generally beneficial, what is commanded by Nature, needs not to be enforced by laws; what is intended for the benefit of a sect or a class and not agreeable to her commands, men seek to maintain by terror and pain. Behold, at once, the origin of all our brutal penal enactments for the protection of an artificial right of property, and of their complete inefficacy. Behold too the source of ignorance, poverty, and misery. By those very laws, by the pain we continually inflict on one another under the prostituted name of justice, by all the social evils arising from inequality of wealth, from boundless profusion encouraging every apeing extravagance, and from complete destitution, making men reckless and criminal, Nature, whatever kings and lawgivers may foolishly teach, continually vindicates her decrees, and continually informs us, by almost every variety of suffering, that we have violated them, and that they cannot be violated with impunity. I have shown you, Sir, that the artificial right of property is not and cannot be preserved. Nature marks the violation of the natural right, by pain, at every stage, but after that has been inflicted and suffered, she permits not that the unrighteous aim should be accomplished.
If this view be correct, no benefit can be anticipated from alterations in the laws, but such as tend gradually to remove them. A multitude of schemes are, I know, weekly promulgated out of parliament, and yearly discussed within its walls, to relieve our social difficulties. On the one hand we have deportation, and on the other confinement in gaols and workhouses. Extermination, and a liberal provision for the poor, have both been recommended. In none of these have I any faith. No legislative scheme whatever can be carried into execution without trespassing on the natural right of property. For human beings, for society at large, when it exercises its healthy common sense, for mankind universally, whatever may be their temporary distresses and privations, there is much, nay unbounded hope; but that any one of their distresses, even the most trivial, can be permanently relieved by any laws, recommended or dictated by those who have, and can have nothing else in view, even in those schemes which are decked out with the brightest attributes of benevolence, but to preserve their power and the artificial right of property, I do not believe. Those who propose these schemes, all imagine that law creates social order and preserves social happiness. With a view to their opinions, I have shown the insufficiency of law to create and preserve even the right of property it has sought to preserve, the most important and the most cher shed by the legislator of all rights, and the basis of all political power.
Without entering into a full description of the social order, which is established in spite of the law, gradually sweeping it out of existence, and extending to all the nations of the globe, I have contented myself with endeavouring to explain the manner in which the natural right of property, as it has gradually subverted the law-made right of property, has always supplied a guarantee for the new rights gradually called into existence. To meet their false hopes I add, that though our present system is wrong, I am not bound, in order to satisfy their unholy craving to regulate what no individual does or can comprehend, viz. society, for it is yet in progress, or is not yet fully created, all its phenomena not being yet unfolded to our understanding; I am not bound, though present legislation be bad, to suggest some legislation which would be better. Society is a natural phenomenon, and I inquire into the laws which regulate it, as I would inquire into the laws which regulate the course of the seasons. To suppose that the controul of them is given into our hands has been set down as madness by one of our greatest moralists. To those who having, century after century, tried in vain to regulate society and determine its course, who, foreseeing none of the great changes which have occurred in personal rights, and in the right of property, have been gradually compelled to make their legislation conform to the circumstances of society, I willingly leave the task, as they of course foresee its future condition, of projecting schemes and prescribing laws for its welfare. I only aim at ascertaining natural laws, and seeing that with them legislation is in conflict, I reject it, trusting the welfare of society, which I do not comprehend, to the same benevolent Power which overruling, in past times, the decrees of the lawmaker, has ever established and upheld order, and has conducted mankind so far on the glorious career, which, judging from past changes, we may hope they have yet to run.
Legislation, according to my view, was originally founded in conquest, and it has ever since been continued in utter ignorance of its results. As was the primitive act, so are all its consequences hostile to the course of nature. As long as mankind obey principles flowing from that primitive aggression, so long will they be tormented by open theft and secret fraud, which tending to destroy confidence, and making each man act as much as possible for himself, instead of all mutually exchanging their services, check division of labour far more even than restrictions on trade. As long as political society is based on mutual oppression and plunder, so long shall we all suffer from that profligate scorn of natural right, which, dictating the conduct of those in high places, corrupts others by its example; so long also shall we be tormented by courts of law, and customs, and excise duties, and visits from the taxgatherer; which prevent every man from knowing what accurately belongs to himself, and making him hold even food, drink, and clothing, by the insecure tenor of the tax-inflictor's conscience, and the lawyer's mystic interpretation of almost incomprehensible decrees, convert our naturally happy existence into a long scene of contention, uncertainty, and dread. As long as we cherish the mistrust of each other avowed by legislation, though contrary to the mutual reliance continually taught and continually extended by nature, as division of labour is extended, and all the families of mankind are knit by the common bond of commerce into one, so long shall we be the victims of those vices and crimes which pollute all our domestic relations, arming man against man, and nation against nation, till the face of the whole earth is stained with the blood of private assassinations and public murders. As long as we, thus mistrusting each other, are guilty of these atrocities, so long will the greed and the ambition of the priesthood be fattened by our apprehensions and remorse, and so long will they, for the sake of base lucre, invest our benevolent God with their own vile characteristics, filling, the mind with horrid phantoms by their furious denunciations, turning religion, from being a consolation, into a plague and a curse, and by corrupting thought at its source, make all mankind feel as if the barb of death were ever rankling in their hearts. We like to go far about to seek for the causes of our misery, but they may all be found in those unholy political institutions, which, originally founded by the sword, have ever since been maintained by the sword, breathing nothing but hatred, discord, and bloodshed. Duly to appreciate and remove, by casting aside our veneration for the human lawgiver, these obvious causes of social misery is a species of wisdom we shall be, I am afraid, slow to acquire; to assist in making this acquisition, though in ever so slight a degree, would be an unspeakable gratification to him, who now concludes, by signing himself,