An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue, Fourth Edition : Book 8, Chapter 03 : Benefits Attendant on a System of Equality
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(1756 - 1836) ~ Respected Anarchist Philosopher and Sociologist of the Enlightenment Era : His most famous work, An Inquiry concerning Political Justice, appeared in 1793, inspired to some extent by the political turbulence and fundamental restructuring of governmental institutions underway in France. Godwin's belief is that governments are fundamentally inimical to the integrity of the human beings living under their strictures... (From : University of Pennsylvania Bio.)
• "Courts are so encumbered and hedged in with ceremony, that the members of them are always prone to imagine that the form is more essential and indispensable, than the substance." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
• "Anarchy and darkness will be the original appearance. But light shall spring out of the noon of night; harmony and order shall succeed the chaos." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
• "Fickleness and instability, your lordship will please to observe, are of the very essence of a real statesman." (From : "Instructions to a Statesman," by William Godwin.)
Book 8, Chapter 03
Contrasted with the mischiefs of the present system - 1. a sense of dependence. 2. the perpetual spectacle of injustice, leading men astray in their desires - and perverting the integrity of their judgments. - The rich are the true pensioners. - 3. the discouragement of intellectual attainments. - 4. the multiplication of vise - generating the crimes of the poor - the passions of the rich - and the misfortunes of war. - 5. depopulation.
HAVING seen the justice of an equal distribution of the good things of life, let us next proceed to consider, in detail, the benefits with which it would be attended. And here with grief it must be confessed that, however great and extensive are the evils that are produced by monarchies and courts,1 by the imposture of priests2 and the iniquity of criminal laws,3 all these are imbecile and impotent compared with the evils that arise out of the established administration of property.
Its first effect is that we have already mentioned,4 a sense of dependence. It is true that courts are meanspirited, intriguing and servile, and that this disposition is transferred by contagion from them to all ranks of society. But accumulation brings home a servile and truckling spirit, by no circuitous method, to every house in the nation. Observe the pauper fawning with abject vileness upon his rich benefactor, speechless with sensations of gratitude, for having received that which he ought to have claimed, not indeed with arrogance, or a dictatorial and overbearing temper, but with the spirit of a man discussing with a man, and resting his cause only on the justice of his claim. Observe the servants that follow in a rich man's train, watchful of his looks, anticipating his commands, not daring to reply to his insolence, all their time and their efforts under the direction of his caprice. Observe the tradesman, how he studies the passions of his customers, not to correct, but to pamper them, the vileness of his flattery and the systematical constancy with which he exaggerates the merit of his commodities. Observe the practices of a popular election, where the great mass are purchased byobsequiousness, by intemperance and bribery, or driven by unmanly threats of povertv and persecution. Indeed 'the age of chivalry is' not 'gone'!5 The feudal spirit still survives that reduced the great mass of mankind to the rank of slaves and cattle for the service of a few.
We have heard much of visionary and theoretical improvements. It would indeed be visionary to expect integrity from mankind while they are thus subjected to hourly corruption, and bred, from father to son, to sell their independence and their conscience for the vile rewards that oppression has to bestow. No man can be either useful to others, or happy in himself, who is a stranger to the grace of firmness, or who is not habituated to prefer the dictates of his own understanding to the tyranny of command, and the allurements of temptation. Here again, as upon a former occasion,6 religion comes in to illustrate our thesis. Religion was the generous ebullition of men who let their imagination loose on the grandest subjects, and wandered without restraint in the unbounded field of inquiry. It is not to be wondered at therefore if they brought home imperfect ideas of the sublimest views that intellect can furnish. In this instance, religion teaches that the pure perfection of man is to arm himself against the power of sublunary enticements and sublitnary terrors; that he must suffer no artificial wants, sensuality, or fear, to come in competition with the dictates of rectitude and reflection. But to expect a constancy of this sort from the human species, under the present system, is an extravagant speculation. The enquirer after truth, and the benefactor of mankind, will be desirous of removing from them those external impressions by which their evil propensities are cherished. The true object that should be kept in view is to extirpate all ideas of condescension and superiority, to oblige every man to feel that the kindness he exerts is what he is bound to perform, and to examine whether the assistance he asks be what he has a right to claim.
A second evil that arises out of the established administration of property is the continual spectacle of injustice it exhibits. The effect of this consists partly in the creation of wrong propensities, and partly in a hostility to right ones. There is nothing more pernicious to the human mind than the love of opulence. Essentially active when the original cravings of appetite have been satisfied, we necessarily fix on some object of pursuit, benevolent orpersonal, and, in the latter case, on the attainment of some excellence, or something which shall command the esteem and deference of others. Few propensities, absolutely considered, can be more valuable than this. But the established administration of property directs it into the channel of the acquisition of wealth. The ostentation of the rich perpetually goads the spectator to the desire of opulence . Wealth, by the sentiments of servility and dependence it produces, makes the rich man stand forward as the principal object of general esteem and deference. In vain are sobriety, integrity and industry, in vain the sublimest powers of mind, and the most ardent benevolence, if their possessor be narrow in his circumstances. To acquire wealth and to display it is therefore the universal passion. The whole structure of human society is made a system of the narrowest selfishness. If the state of society were such that self-love and benevolence were apparently reconciled as to their object, a man might then set out with the desire of eminence, and yet become every day more generous and philanthropical in his views. But the passion we are here describing is accustomed to be gratified at every step by inhumanly trampling upon the interest of others. Wealth is acquired by overreaching our neighbor, and is spent in insulting him.
The spectacle of injustice which the established administration of property exhibits operates also in the way of hostility to right propensities. If you would cherish in any man the love of rectitude, you must see that its principles be impressed on him, not only by words, but actions. It happens perhaps, during the period of education, that maxims of integrity and consistency are repeatedly enforced, and the preceptor gives no quarter to the base suggestions of selfishness and cunning. But how is the lesson that has been read to the pupil confounded and reversed when he enters upon the scene of the world? If he ask, 'Why is this man honored?' the ready answer is, 'Because he is rich.' If he inquire further, 'Why is he rich?' the answer, in most cases, is, 'From the accident of birth, or from a minute and sordid attention to the cares of gain.' Humanity weeps over the distresses of the peasantry in all civilized nations; and, when she turns from this spectacle, to behold the luxury of their lords, gross, imperious and prodigal, her sensations certainly are not less acute. This spectacle is the school in which mankind have been educated. They have been accustomed to the sight of injustice, oppression and iniquity, till their feelings are made callous, and their understandings incapable of apprehending the principles of virtue.
In beginning to point out the evils of accumulated property, we compared the extent of those evils with the correspondent evils of monarchies and courts.7 No circumstances, under the latter, have excited a more pointed disapprobation than pensions and pecuniary corruption, by means of which hundreds of individuals are rewarded, not for serving, but betraying the public, and the hard earnings of industry are employed to fatten the servile but they are paid for being dissipated and indolent. The most powerful means that malignity could have invented are employed to prevent them from improving their talents, and becoming useful to the public.
This leads us to observe, thirdly, that the established administration of property is the true leveling system with respect to the human species, by as much as the cultivation of intellect is more valuable, and more chatactcristic of man, than the gratifications of vanity or appetite. Accumulated property treads the powers of thought in the dust, extinguishes the sparks of genius, and reduces the great mass of mankind to be immersed in sordid cares; beside depriving the rich, as we have already said, of the most salubrious and effectual motives to activity. If superfluity were banished, the necessity for the greater part of the manual industry of mankind would be superseded; and the rest, being amicably shared among the active and vigorous members of the community, would be burthensome to none. Every man would have a frugal, yet wholesome diet; every man would go forth to that moderate exercise of his corporal functions that would give hilarity to the spirits; none would be made torpid with fatigue, but all would have leisure to cultivate the kindly and philanthropical affections, and to let loose his faculties in the search of intellectual improvement. What a contrast does this scene present to the present state of society, where the peasant and the laborer work till their understandings are benumbed with toil, their sinews contracted and made callous by being for ever on the stretch, and their bodies invaded with infirmities, and surrendered to an untimely grave? What is the fruit they obtain from this disproportioned and unceasing toil? In the evening they return to a family, famished with hunger, exposed half naked to the inclemencies of the sky, hardly sheltered, and denied the slenderest instruction, unless in a few instances, where it is dispensed by the hands of ostentatious charity, and the first lesson communicated is unprincipled servility. All this while their rich neighbor - but we visited him before.8
How rapid would be the advances of intellect if all men were admitted into the field of knowledge? At present ninety-nine persons in a hundred are no more excited to any regular exertions of general and curious thought than the brutes themselves. What would be the state of public mind in a nation where all were wise, all had laid aside the shackles of prejudice and implicit faith, all adopted, with fearless confidence, the suggestions of reason, and the lethargy of the soul was dismissed for ever? It is to be presumed that the inequality of mind would, in a certain degree, be permanent; but it is reasonable to believe that the geniuses of such an age would greatly surpass the utmost exertions of intellect hitherto known. Genius would not be depressed with false wants and niggardly patronage. It would not exert itself with a sense of neglect and oppression rankling in its bosom. It would be delivered from those apprehensions that perpetually recall us to the thought of personal emolument; and, of consequence, would expatiate freely among sentiments of generosity and public good.
From ideas of intellectual, let us turn to moral, improvement. And here it is obvious that the great occasions of crime would be cut off for ever.9
The fruitful source of crimes consists in this circumstance, one man's possessing in abundance that of which another man is destitute. We must change the nature of mind before we can prevent it from being powerfully influenced by this circumstance, when brought strongly home to its perceptions by the nature of its situation. Man must cease to have senses, the pleasures of appetite and vanity must cease to gratify, before he can look on tamely at the monopoly of these pleasures. He must cease to have a sense of justice, before he can clearly and fully approve this mixed scene of superfluity and want. It is true that the proper method of curing this inequality is by reason and not by violence. But the immediate tendency of the established administration is to persuade men that reason is impotent. The injustice of which they complain is upheld by force; and they are too easily induced by force to attempt its correction. All they endeavor is the partial correction of an injustice which education tells them is necessary, but more powerful reason affirms to be tyrannical.
Force grew out of monopoly. It might accidentally have occurred among savages, whose appetites exceeded their supply, or whose passions were inflamed by the presence of the object of their desire; but it would gradually have died away, as reason and civilization advanced. Accumulated property has fixed its empire; and henceforth all is an open contention of the strength and cunning of one party against the strength and cunning of the other. In this case, the violent and premature struggles of the necessitous are undoubtedly an evil. They tend to defeat the very cause in the success of which they are most deeply interested; they tend to procrastinate the triumph of justice. But the true crime, in every instance, is in the selfish and partial propensities of men, thinking only of themselves, and despising the emolument of others; and, of these, the rich have their share.
The spirit of oppression, the spirit of servility, and the spirit of fraud, these are the immediate growth of the established administration of property. They are alike hostile to intellectual and moral improvement. The other vises of envy, malice and revenge are their inseparable companions. In a state of society where men lived in the midst of plenty, and where all shared alike the bounties of nature, these sentiments would inevitably expire. The narrow principle of selfishness would vanish. No man being obliged to guard his little store, or provide, with anxiety and pain, for his restless wants, each would lose his individual existences in the thought of the general good. No man would be an enemy to his neighbor, for they would have no subject of contention and of consequence, philanthropy would resume the empire which reason assigns her. Mind would be delivered from her perpetual anxiety about corporal support, and free to expatiate in the field of thought which is congenial to her. Each would assist the inquiries of all.
Let us fix our attention, for a moment, upon the alteration of principles and habits that immediately grows out of an unequal distribution of property. Till it was thus distributed, men felt what their wants required, and sought the supply of those wants. All that was more than this was regarded as indifferent. But no sooner is accumulation introduced than they begin to study a variety of methods, for disposing of their superfluity with least emolument to their neighbor, or, in other words by which it shall appear to be most their own. They do not long continue to buy commodities before they begin to buy men. He that possesses, or is the spectator of, superfluity, soon discovers the hold which it affords him on the minds of others. Hence the passions of vanity and ostentation. Hence the despotic manners of such, as recollect with complacence the rank they occupy; and the restless ambition of those, whose attention is engrossed by the possible future.
Ambition is, of all the passions of the human mind, the most, extensive in its ravages. It adds district to district, and kingdom to kingdom. It spreads bloodshed and calamity and conquest over the face of the earth. But the passion itself, as well as the means of gratifying it, is the produce of the prevailing administration of property.10 It is only by means of accumulation that one man obtains art unresisted sway over multitudes of others. It is by means of a certain distribution of income that the present governments of the world are retained in existence. Nothing more easy than to plunge nations, so organized, into war. But, if Europe were at present covered with inhabitants all of them possessing competence, and none of them superfluity, what could induce its different countries to engage in hostility? If you would lead men to war, you must exhibit certain allurements. If you be not enabled, by a system already prevailing, and which derives force from prescription, to hire them to your purposes, you must bring over each individual by dint of persuasion. How hopeless a task by such means to excite mankind to murder each other? It is clear then that war, in all its aggravations, is the growth of unequal property. As long as this source of jealousy and corruption shall remain, it is visionary to talk of universal peace. As soon as the source shall be dried up, it will be impossible to exclude the consequence. It is accumulation that forms men into one common mass, and makes them fit to be played upon like a brute machine. Were this stumbling-block removed, each man would be united to his neighbor, in love and mutual kindness, a thousand times more than now: but each man would think and judge for himself. Let then the advocates for the prevailing administration at least consider what it is for which they plead, and be well assured that they have arguments in its favor which will weigh against these disadvantages.
There is one other circumstance which, though inferior to those above enumerated, deserves to be mentioned. This is population. It has been calculated that the average cultivation of Europe might be so improved as to maintain five times her present number of inhabitants.11 There is a principle in human society by which population is perpetually kept down to the level of the means of subsistence. Thus, among the wandering tribes of America and Asia, we never find, through the lapse of ages, that population has so increased as to render necessary the cultivation of the earth, Thus, among the civilized nations of Europe, by means of territorial monopoly, the sources of subsistence are kept within a certain limit, and, if the population became overstocked, the lower ranks of the inhabitants would be still more incapable of procuring for themselves the necessaries of life. There are, no doubt extraordinary concurrences of circumstances by means of which changes are occasionally introduced in this respect; but, in ordinary cases, the standard of population is held, in a manner, stationary for centuries. Thus the established administration of property may be considered as strangling a considerable portion of our children in their cradle. Whatever may be the value of the life of man, or rather whatever would be his capability of happiness in a free and equal state of society, the system we are here opposing may be considered as arresting, upon the threshold of existence, four fifths of that value and that happiness.
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