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Wolowski on property as a sacred right which is an emanation from man’s very being (1863)

The Polish-French political economist Louis Wolowski (1810-76) argues that matter is transformed by human action and willpower into “property” which is like a sacred extension of their person:

Everywhere a powerful hand is divined which has moulded matter, and an intelligent will which has adapted it, following a uniform plan, to the satisfaction of the wants of one same being. Nature has recognized her master, and man feels that he is at home in nature. Nature has been appropriated by him for his use; she has become his own; she is his property.

This property is legitimate; it constitutes a right as sacred for man as is the free exercise of his faculties. It is his because it has come entirely from himself and in no way anything but an emanation from his being. Before him, there was scarcely anything but matter; since him, and by him, there is interchangeable wealth, that is to say, articles having acquired a value by some industry, by manufacture, by handling, by extraction, or simply by transportation. … The producer has left a fragment of his own person in the thing which has thus become valuable, and may hence be regarded as a prolongation of the faculties of man acting upon external nature. As a free being be belongs to himself; now, the cause, that is to say, the productive force, is himself; the effect, that is to say, the wealth produced, is still himself.

When centuries have elapsed, and generations have accumulated their labors, where is there, in a civilized country, a clod of earth, a leaf, which does not bear this impress? In the town, we are surrounded by the works of man; we walk upon a level pavement or a beaten road; it is man who made healthy the formerly muddy soil, who took from the side of a far-away hill the flint or stone which covers it. We live in houses; it is man who has dug the stone from the quarry, who has hewn it, who has planed the wood; it is the thought of man which has arranged the materials properly and made a building of what was before rock and wood. And in the country, the action of man is still everywhere present; men have cultivated the soil, and generations of laborers have mellowed and enriched it; the works of man have dammed the rivers and created fertility where the waters had brought only desolation; to-day man goes as far as to people the rivers, to direct the growth of fish, and takes possession of the empire of the waters. We reap the wheat, our principal food. Where is it found in a wild state? Wheat is a domestic plant, a species transformed by man for the wants of man. Thus products, natives of countries most diverse have been brought together, grafted, modified by man for the adornment of the garden, the pleasures of the table, or the labors of the workshop. The very animals, from the dog, man’s companion; to the cattle raised for the shambles have been fashioned into new types which deviate sensibly from the primitive type given by nature. Everywhere a powerful hand is divined which has moulded matter, and an intelligent will which has adapted it, following a uniform plan, to the satisfaction of the wants of one same being. Nature has recognized her master, and man feels that he is at home in nature. Nature has been appropriated by him for his use; she has become his own; she is his property.

This property is legitimate; it constitutes a right as sacred for man as is the free exercise of his faculties. It is his because it has come entirely from himself and in no way anything but an emanation from his being. Before him, there was scarcely anything but matter; since him, and by him, there is interchangeable wealth, that is to say, articles having acquired a value by some industry, by manufacture, by handling, by extraction, or simply by transportation. From the picture of a great master, which is perhaps of all material productions that in which matter plays the smallest part, to the pail of water which the carrier draws from the river and takes to the consumer, wealth, whatever it may be, acquires its value only by communicated qualities, and these qualities are part of human activity, intelligence, strength. The producer has left a fragment of his own person in the thing which has thus become valuable, and may hence be regarded as a prolongation of the faculties of man acting upon external nature. As a free being be belongs to himself; now, the cause, that is to say, the productive force, is himself; the effect, that is to say, the wealth produced, is still himself. Who shall dare contest his title of ownership so clearly marked by the seal of his personality?

About this Quotation:

There is a thread within French classical liberal thought which regards property and as an extension of the self and hence considers the right to property to be a deeply personal kind of right. By this, thinkers like Victor Cousin, Louis Leclerc, and Louis Wolowski, think of property as an emanation or extension of the self and not something completely separate from the self. By acts of will, intelligence, and labour, an individual shapes inert matter into forms which can satisfy human needs. This transformed matter is termed “property” which can be kept, consumed, traded, and sold for other transformed matter by means of exchanges in the market place. This theory of the “self” (le moi) and property, which is regarded as embodying a small part of the self in its very creation, is the foundation for their theory of property rights and the free market system which is based upon it. According to this theory, the attacks on property rights by socialists like Proudhon and Louis Blanc, are also attacks upon the person who created that property and made it their own by taking something from themselves (“a fragment”) and leaving it in the thing they have created. Thus to attack one’s property is to attack part of one’s self.

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