What is Property?/Ninth Proposition

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Ninth Proposition: Property is impossible, because it is powerless against Property.[edit]

I. By the third corollary of our axiom, interest tells against the proprietor as well as the stranger. This economical principle is universally admitted. Nothing simpler at first blush; yet, nothing more absurd, more contradictory in terms, or more absolutely impossible.

The manufacturer, it is said, pays himself the rent on his house and capital. HE PAYS HIMSELF; that is, he gets paid by the public who buy his products. For, suppose the manufacturer, who seems to make this profit on his property, wishes also to make it on his merchandise, can he then pay himself one franc for that which cost him ninety centimes, and make money by the operation? No: such a transaction would transfer the merchant's money from his right hand to his left, but without any profit whatever.

Now, that which is true of a single individual trading with himself is true also of the whole business world. Form a chain of ten, fifteen, twenty producers; as many as you wish. If the producer A makes a profit out of the producer B. B's loss must, according to economical principles, be made up by C, C's by D; and so on through to Z.

But by whom will Z be paid for the loss caused him by the profit charged by A in the beginning? BY THE CONSUMER, replies Say. Contemptible equivocation! Is this consumer any other, then, than A, B. C, D, &c., or Z? By whom will Z be paid? If he is paid by A, no one makes a profit; consequently, there is no property. If, on the contrary, Z bears the burden himself, he ceases to be a member of society; since it refuses him the right of property and profit, which it grants to the other associates.

Since, then, a nation, like universal humanity, is a vast industrial association which cannot act outside of itself, it is clear that no man can enrich himself without impoverishing another. For, in order that the right of property, the right of increase, may be respected in the case of A, it must be denied to Z; thus we see how equality of rights, separated from equality of conditions, may be a truth. The iniquity of political economy in this respect is flagrant. "When I, a manufacturer, purchase the labor of a workingman, I do not include his wages in the net product of my business; on the contrary, I deduct them. But the workingman includes them in his net product. . . . "(Say: Political Economy.)

That means that all which the workingman gains is NET PRODUCT; but that only that part of the manufacturer's gains is NET PRODUCT, which remains after deducting his wages. But why is the right of profit confined to the manufacturer? Why is this right, which is at bottom the right of property itself, denied to the workingman? In the terms of economical science, the workingman is capital. Now, all capital, beyond the cost of its maintenance and repair, must bear interest. This the proprietor takes care to get, both for his capital and for himself. Why is the workingman prohibited from charging a like interest for his capital, which is himself?

Property, then, is inequality of rights; for, if it were not inequality of rights, it would be equality of goods,--in other words, it would not exist. Now, the charter guarantees to all equality of rights. Then, by the charter, property is impossible.

II. Is A, the proprietor of an estate, entitled by the fact of his proprietorship to take possession of the field belonging to B. his neighbor? "No," reply the proprietors; "but what has that to do with the right of property?" That I shall show you by a series of similar propositions.

Has C, a hatter, the right to force D, his neighbor and also a hatter, to close his shop, and cease his business? Not the least in the world.

But C wishes to make a profit of one franc on every hat, while D is content with fifty centimes. It is evident that D's moderation is injurious to C's extravagant claims. Has the latter a right to prevent D from selling? Certainly not.

Since D is at liberty to sell his hats fifty centimes cheaper than C if he chooses, C in his turn is free to reduce his price one franc. Now, D is poor, while C is rich; so that at the end of two or three years D is ruined by this intolerable competition, and C has complete control of the market. Can the proprietor D get any redress from the proprietor C? Can he bring a suit against him to recover his business and property? No; for D could have done the same thing, had he been the richer of the two.

On the same ground, the large proprietor A may say to the small proprietor B: "Sell me your field, otherwise you shall not sell your wheat,"--and that without doing him the least wrong, or giving him ground for complaint. So that A can devour B if he likes, for the very reason that A is stronger than B. Consequently, it is not the right of property which enables A and C to rob B and D, but the right of might. By the right of property, neither the two neighbors A and B, nor the two merchants C and D, could harm each other. They could neither dispossess nor destroy one another, nor gain at one another's expense. The power of invasion lies in superior strength.

But it is superior strength also which enables the manufacturer to reduce the wages of his employees, and the rich merchant and well-stocked proprietor to sell their products for what they please. The manufacturer says to the laborer, "You are as free to go elsewhere with your services as I am to receive them. I offer you so much." The merchant says to the customer, "Take it or leave it; you are master of your money, as I am of my goods. I want so much." Who will yield? The weaker.

Therefore, without force, property is powerless against property, since without force it has no power to increase; therefore, without force, property is null and void.

HISTORICAL COMMENT.--The struggle between colonial and native sugars furnishes us a striking example of this impossibility of property. Leave these two industries to themselves, and the native manufacturer will be ruined by the colonist. To maintain the beet-root, the cane must be taxed: to protect the property of the one, it is necessary to injure the property of the other. The most remarkable feature of this business is precisely that to which the least attention is paid; namely, that, in one way or another, property has to be violated. Impose on each industry a proportional tax, so as to preserve a balance in the market, and you create a MAXIMUM PRICE,--you attack property in two ways. On the one hand, your tax interferes with the liberty of trade; on the other, it does not recognize equality of proprietors. Indemnify the beet-root, you violate the property of the tax- payer. Cultivate the two varieties of sugar at the nation's expense, just as different varieties of tobacco are cultivated,-- you abolish one species of property. This last course would be the simpler and better one; but, to induce the nations to adopt it, requires such a co-operation of able minds and generous hearts as is at present out of the question.

Competition, sometimes called liberty of trade,--in a word, property in exchange,--will be for a long time the basis of our commercial legislation; which, from the economical point of view, embraces all civil laws and all government. Now, what is competition? A duel in a closed field, where arms are the test of right.

"Who is the liar,--the accused or the accuser?" said our barbarous ancestors. "Let them fight it out," replied the still more barbarous judge; "the stronger is right."

Which of us two shall sell spices to our neighbor? "Let each offer them for sale," cries the economist; "the sharper, or the more cunning, is the more honest man, and the better merchant."

Such is the exact spirit of the Code Napoleon.