What is Property?/First Proposition

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First Proposition: Property is impossible, because it demands Something for Nothing.[edit]

The discussion of this proposition covers the same ground as that of the origin of farm-rent, which is so much debated by the economists. When I read the writings of the greater part of these men, I cannot avoid a feeling of contempt mingled with anger, in view of this mass of nonsense, in which the detestable vies with the absurd. It would be a repetition of the story of the elephant in the moon, were it not for the atrocity of the consequences. To seek a rational and legitimate origin of that which is, and ever must be, only robbery, extortion, and plunder--that must be the height of the proprietor's folly; the last degree of bedevilment into which minds, otherwise judicious, can be thrown by the perversity of selfishness.


"A farmer," says Say, "is a wheat manufacturer who, among other tools which serve him in modifying the material from which he makes the wheat, employs one large tool, which we call a field. If he is not the proprietor of the field, if he is only a tenant, he pays the proprietor for the productive service of this tool. The tenant is reimbursed by the purchaser, the latter by another, until the product reaches the consumer; who redeems the first payment, PLUS all the others, by means of which the product has at last come into his hands."


Let us lay aside the subsequent payments by which the product reaches the consumer, and, for the present, pay attention only to the first one of all,--the rent paid to the proprietor by the tenant. On what ground, we ask, is the proprietor entitled to this rent?

According to Ricardo, MacCulloch, and Mill, farm-rent, properly speaking, is simply the EXCESS OF THE PRODUCT OF THE MOST FERTILE LAND OVER THAT OF LANDS OF AN INFERIOR QUALITY; so that farm-rent is not demanded for the former until the increase of population renders necessary the cultivation of the latter.

It is difficult to see any sense in this. How can a right to the land be based upon a difference in the quality of the land? How can varieties of soil engender a principle of legislation and politics? This reasoning is either so subtle, or so stupid, that the more I think of it, the more bewildered I become. Suppose two pieces of land of equal area; the one, A, capable of supporting ten thousand inhabitants; the other, B, capable of supporting nine thousand only: when, owing to an increase in their number, the inhabitants of A shall be forced to cultivate B, the landed proprietors of A will exact from their tenants in A a rent proportional to the difference between ten and nine. So say, I think, Ricardo, MacCulloch, and Mill. But if A supports as many inhabitants as it can contain,--that is, if the inhabitants of A, by our hypothesis, have only just enough land to keep them alive,--how can they pay farm-rent?

If they had gone no farther than to say that the difference in land has OCCASIONED farm-rent, instead of CAUSED it, this observation would have taught us a valuable lesson; namely, that farm-rent grew out of a desire for equality. Indeed, if all men have an equal right to the possession of good land, no one can be forced to cultivate bad land without indemnification. Farm- rent--according to Ricardo, MacCulloch, and Mill--would then have been a compensation for loss and hardship. This system of practical equality is a bad one, no doubt; but it sprang from good intentions. What argument can Ricardo, MacCulloch, and Mill develop therefrom in favor of property? Their theory turns against themselves, and strangles them.

Malthus thinks that farm-rent has its source in the power possessed by land of producing more than is necessary to supply the wants of the men who cultivate it. I would ask Malthus why successful labor should entitle the idle to a portion of the products?

But the worthy Malthus is mistaken in regard to the fact. Yes; land has the power of producing more than is needed by those who cultivate it, if by CULTIVATORS is meant tenants only. The tailor also makes more clothes than he wears, and the cabinet- maker more furniture than he uses. But, since the various professions imply and sustain one another, not only the farmer, but the followers of all arts and trades--even to the doctor and the school-teacher--are, and ought to be, regarded as CULTIVATORS OF THE LAND. Malthus bases farm-rent upon the principle of commerce. Now, the fundamental law of commerce being equivalence of the products exchanged, any thing which destroys this equivalence violates the law. There is an error in the estimate which needs to be corrected.

Buchanan--a commentator on Smith--regarded farm-rent as the result of a monopoly, and maintained that labor alone is productive. Consequently, he thought that, without this monopoly, products would rise in price; and he found no basis for farm-rent save in the civil law. This opinion is a corollary of that which makes the civil law the basis of property. But why has the civil law--which ought to be the written expression of justice--authorized this monopoly? Whoever says monopoly, necessarily excludes justice. Now, to say that farm-rent is a monopoly sanctioned by the law, is to say that injustice is based on justice,--a contradiction in terms.

Say answers Buchanan, that the proprietor is not a monopolist, because a monopolist "is one who does not increase the utility of the merchandise which passes through his hands."

How much does the proprietor increase the utility of his tenant's products? Has he ploughed, sowed, reaped, mowed, winnowed, weeded? These are the processes by which the tenant and his employees increase the utility of the material which they consume for the purpose of reproduction.


"The landed proprietor increases the utility of products by means of his implement, the land. This implement receives in one state, and returns in another the materials of which wheat is composed. The action of the land is a chemical process, which so modifies the material that it multiplies it by destroying it. The soil is then a producer of utility; and when it [the soil?] asks its pay in the form of profit, or farm rent, for its proprietor, it at the same time gives something to the consumer in exchange for the amount which the consumer pays it. It gives him a produced utility; and it is the production of this utility which warrants us in calling land productive, as well as labor."


Let us clear up this matter.

The blacksmith who manufactures for the farmer implements of husbandry, the wheelwright who makes him a cart, the mason who builds his barn, the carpenter, the basket-maker, &c.,--all of whom contribute to agricultural production by the tools which they provide,--are producers of utility; consequently, they are entitled to a part of the products.


"Undoubtedly," says Say; "but the land also is an implement whose service must be paid for, then. . . ."


I admit that the land is an implement; but who made it? Did the proprietor? Did he--by the efficacious virtue of the right of property, by this MORAL QUALITY infused into the soil--endow it with vigor and fertility? Exactly there lies the monopoly of the proprietor; in the fact that, though he did not make the implement, he asks pay for its use. When the Creator shall present himself and claim farm-rent, we will consider the matter with him; or even when the proprietor--his pretended representative--shall exhibit his power-of-attorney.


"The proprietor's service," adds Say, "is easy, I admit."


It is a frank confession.


"But we cannot disregard it. Without property, one farmer would contend with another for the possession of a field without a proprietor, and the field would remain uncultivated. . . ."


Then the proprietor's business is to reconcile farmers by robbing them. O logic! O justice! O the marvellous wisdom of economists! The proprietor, if they are right, is like Perrin- Dandin who, when summoned by two travellers to settle a dispute about an oyster, opened it, gobbled it, and said to them:--


"The Court awards you each a shell."


Could any thing worse be said of property?

Will Say tell us why the same farmers, who, if there were no proprietors, would contend with each other for possession of the soil, do not contend to-day with the proprietors for this possession? Obviously, because they think them legitimate possessors, and because their respect for even an imaginary right exceeds their avarice. I proved, in Chapter II., that possession is sufficient, without property, to maintain social order. Would it be more difficult, then, to reconcile possessors without masters than tenants controlled by proprietors? Would laboring men, who respect--much to their own detriment--the pretended rights of the idler, violate the natural rights of the producer and the manufacturer? What! if the husbandman forfeited his right to the land as soon as he ceased to occupy it, would he become more covetous? And would the impossibility of demanding increase, of taxing another's labor, be a source of quarrels and law-suits? The economists use singular logic. But we are not yet through. Admit that the proprietor is the legitimate master of the land.

"The land is an instrument of production," they say. That is true. But when, changing the noun into an adjective, they alter the phrase, thus, "The land is a productive instrument," they make a wicked blunder.

According to Quesnay and the early economists, all production comes from the land. Smith, Ricardo, and de Tracy, on the contrary, say that labor is the sole agent of production. Say, and most of his successors, teach that BOTH land AND labor AND capital are productive. The latter constitute the eclectic school of political economy. The truth is, that NEITHER land NOR labor NOR capital is productive. Production results from the co-operation of these three equally necessary elements, which, taken separately, are equally sterile.

Political economy, indeed, treats of the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth or values. But of what values? Of the values produced by human industry; that is, of the changes made in matter by man, that he may appropriate it to his own use, and not at all of Nature's spontaneous productions. Man's labor consists in a simple laying on of hands. When he has taken that trouble, he has produced a value. Until then, the salt of the sea, the water of the springs, the grass of the fields, and the trees of the forests are to him as if they were not. The sea, without the fisherman and his line, supplies no fish. The forest, without the wood-cutter and his axe, furnishes neither fuel nor timber. The meadow, without the mower, yields neither hay nor aftermath. Nature is a vast mass of material to be cultivated and converted into products; but Nature produces nothing for herself: in the economical sense, her products, in their relation to man, are not yet products.

Capital, tools, and machinery are likewise unproductive. The hammer and the anvil, without the blacksmith and the iron, do not forge. The mill, without the miller and the grain, does not grind, &c. Bring tools and raw material together; place a plough and some seed on fertile soil; enter a smithy, light the fire, and shut up the shop,--you will produce nothing. The following remark was made by an economist who possessed more good sense than most of his fellows: "Say credits capital with an active part unwarranted by its nature; left to itself, it is an idle tool." (J. Droz: Political Economy.)

Finally, labor and capital together, when unfortunately combined, produce nothing. Plough a sandy desert, beat the water of the rivers, pass type through a sieve,--you will get neither wheat, nor fish, nor books. Your trouble will be as fruitless as was the immense labor of the army of Xerxes; who, as Herodotus says, with his three million soldiers, scourged the Hellespont for twenty-four hours, as a punishment for having broken and scattered the pontoon bridge which the great king had thrown across it.

Tools and capital, land and labor, considered individually and abstractly, are not, literally speaking, productive. The proprietor who asks to be rewarded for the use of a tool, or the productive power of his land, takes for granted, then, that which is radically false; namely, that capital produces by its own effort,--and, in taking pay for this imaginary product, he literally receives something for nothing.

OBJECTION.--But if the blacksmith, the wheelwright, all manufacturers in short, have a right to the products in return for the implements which they furnish; and if land is an implement of production,--why does not this implement entitle its proprietor, be his claim real or imaginary, to a portion of the products; as in the case of the manufacturers of ploughs and wagons?

REPLY.--Here we touch the heart of the question, the mystery of property; which we must clear up, if we would understand any thing of the strange effects of the right of increase.

He who manufactures or repairs the farmer's tools receives the price ONCE, either at the time of delivery, or in several payments; and when this price is once paid to the manufacturer, the tools which he has delivered belong to him no more. Never does he claim double payment for the same tool, or the same job of repairs. If he annually shares in the products of the farmer, it is owing to the fact that he annually makes something for the farmer.

The proprietor, on the contrary, does not yield his implement; eternally he is paid for it, eternally he keeps it.

In fact, the rent received by the proprietor is not intended to defray the expense of maintaining and repairing the implement; this expense is charged to the borrower, and does not concern the proprietor except as he is interested in the preservation of the article. If he takes it upon himself to attend to the repairs, he takes care that the money which he expends for this purpose is repaid.

This rent does not represent the product of the implement, since of itself the implement produces nothing; we have just proved this, and we shall prove it more clearly still by its consequences.

Finally, this rent does not represent the participation of the proprietor in the production; since this participation could consist, like that of the blacksmith and the wheelwright, only in the surrender of the whole or a part of his implement, in which case he would cease to be its proprietor, which would involve a contradiction of the idea of property.

Then, between the proprietor and his tenant there is no exchange either of values or services; then, as our axiom says, farm-rent is real increase,--an extortion based solely upon fraud and violence on the one hand, and weakness and ignorance upon the other. PRODUCTS say the economists, ARE BOUGHT ONLY BY PRODUCTS. This maxim is property's condemnation. The proprietor, producing neither by his own labor nor by his implement, and receiving products in exchange for nothing, is either a parasite or a thief. Then, if property can exist only as a right, property is impossible.

COROLLARIES.--1. The republican constitution of 1793, which defined property as "the right to enjoy the fruit of one's labor," was grossly mistaken. It should have said, "Property is the right to enjoy and dispose at will of another's goods,--the fruit of another's industry and labor."

2. Every possessor of lands, houses, furniture, machinery, tools, money, &c., who lends a thing for a price exceeding the cost of repairs (the repairs being charged to the lender, and representing products which he exchanges for other products), is guilty of swindling and extortion. In short, all rent received (nominally as damages, but really as payment for a loan) is an act of property,--a robbery.

HISTORICAL COMMENT.--The tax which a victorious nation levies upon a conquered nation is genuine farm-rent. The seigniorial rights abolished by the Revolution of 1789,--tithes, mortmain, statute-labor, &c.,--were different forms of the rights of property; and they who under the titles of nobles, seigneurs, prebendaries, &c. enjoyed these rights, were neither more nor less than proprietors. To defend property to- day is to condemn the Revolution.