29 June 2011

"small land holders are the most precious"

One text always leads to another. As I continue my efforts to comprehend the incomprehensible, to probe into the foundations of the hyper-conservatism of the present American political landscape, I set out to peruse a classic text: Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (1962). The text was originally published as Liberalismus (1927) and initially the English translation was titled The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth, but Mises sought to "reclaim" the term liberal from those he regarded as socialists, and so the present title. I'm reading the etext edition from the Online Library of Liberty.

After the amusing Introduction, the meat of the argument begins with a chapter titled "Property". There Mises offers:
The program of liberalism, therefore, if condensed into a single word, would have to read: property, that is, private ownership of the means of production (for in regard to commodities ready for consumption, private ownership is a matter of course and is not disputed even by the socialists and communists). All the other demands of liberalism result from this fundamental demand.
Such a yoking of notions of freedom and liberty to notions of private property immediately brings to my recall Charles A Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). Simultaneously, I think of Thomas Jefferson and his celebration of the Yeoman farmer as the backbone of American self-government.

Consequently, I find myself reading a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison from Fontainebleau outside of Paris, France. Jefferson wrote a nine where he meant to write an eight, and so the letter appears in volume 8 rather than volume 4 of Paul Leicester Ford, The Works of Thomas Jefferson (1904-5). As with the works of Mises, the Online Library of Liberty has a digitized and searchable edition. Here is the complete letter, as published there.
Dear Sir,—

Seven o’clock, and retired to my fireside, I have determined to enter into conversation with you. This is a village of about 5000 inhabitants when the court is not here & 20,000 when they are, occupying a valley thro’ which runs a brook and on each side of it a ridge of small mountains most of which are naked rock. The King comes here, in the fall always, to hunt. His court attend him, as do also the foreign diplomatic corps. But as this is not indispensably required & my finances do not admit the expense of a continued residence here, I propose to come occasionally to attend the King’s levees, returning again to Paris, distant 40 miles. This being the first trip I set out yesterday morning to take a view of the place. For this purpose I shaped my course towards the highest of the mountains in sight, to the top of which was about a league. As soon as I had got clear of the town I fell in with a poor woman walking at the same rate with myself & going the same course. Wishing to know the condition of the laboring poor I entered into conversation with her, which I began by enquiries for the path which would lead me into the mountain: & thence proceeded to enquiries into her vocation, condition & circumstances. She told me she was a day labourer, at 8. sous or 4d sterling the day; that she had two children to maintain, & to pay a rent of 30 livres for her house, (which would consume the hire of 75 days) that often she could get no emploiment, and of course was without bread. As we had walked together near a mile & she had so far served me as a guide, I gave her, on parting, 24 sous. She burst into tears of a gratitude which I could perceive was unfeigned because she was unable to utter a word. She had probably never before received so great an aid. This little attendrissement, with the solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country & is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentrated in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downward. These employ the flower of the country as servants, some of them having as many as 200 domestics, not labouring. They employ also a great number of manufacturers, & tradesmen, & lastly the class of labouring husbandmen. But after all there comes the most numerous of all the classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are undisturbed only for the sake of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the encrease of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured. I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers & sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, & to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour & live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small land holders are the most precious part of a state.
Jefferson to Madison, 28 October 1785
My first question concerned the correspondence of Jefferson's views with those of Mises. Jefferson seeks the good of all. Mises asserts, "liberalism was the first political movement that aimed at promoting the welfare of all" (Liberalism, 22). Mises admits that liberalism and socialism share this goal, differing principally in their methods.

Both Mises and Jefferson emphasize the rights of property. But Jefferson's notion of the commons ("The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour & live on") is an idea that I have yet to encounter in my reading of Mises. Moreover, one gets the impression from Mises that Jefferson's scheme of progressive taxation might proceed from principles that he would call socialist, distinguishing them from liberal.

Reading this letter of Jefferson's creates doubts concerning some of Mises' historical claims with respect to eighteenth century classical liberalism, but it does offer evidence for some of his claims. Mises labors to see all economic theory as bipartite: liberalism vs. socialism. Jefferson draws from and engages with a somewhat more nuanced view.

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