The Ethics of Property
THE ETHICS OF PROPERTY.
Between justice, and the natural laws of acquisition, self-executive by the ascendant of certain kinds of force; there may be casual coincidences; such are not even impossible between justice and laws of human ordinance, although their results seldom justify their intention. The three titles of property, natural, legal, and ethical, are essentially distinct.
Natural property comes under the formula: Might x Desire=Right of possession. Legal right is an arbitrary effect of legislation, either accepted or imposed, varying from State to State, and from one administration to another. It can only be defined then by its use, and the only use clearly demonstrable of it, which is to support the judiciary and legal profession. To this purpose, its involved and technical language, its voluminous complications of cross jurisprudence, and of influential precedents, all concur. It is then the intellectual and social property of a special class, with whom we leave it. Ethical right is a fundamental and distinctive human sense or conscience, developed with the progress of societies,and colored by temperament in each; therefore modified by education, yet possessing the rudiment of a true science. It is now just emerging from the chaos into which the school called political economists have plunged the common sense of relations between labor and capital. Without confounding all its teachers and writers under an anathema maranatha, it is notorious that the general aim of this school has been to justify facts or to idealise the actual. These facts being what we know them; political economy so self-styled, could be no other than a jargon invented to frustrate the ethical sense, to bamboozle the immature minds of collegians, and to interpose a sophisticated and a half-privileged middle class, between the greater oppressions of privilege, and the resentment of labor.
An honorable departure from this school was that of John Stuart Mill, in his study of co-operative labor. Proudhon powerfully reacted against its sophistries in the interests of labor, yet did not plunge into its jargon with impunity. Hence the twist of mind that bestraddled his favorite paradox, "Property is Robbery"—wit, but not science; and its wit deriving point from the discrepancy, so general, though but the accident of times and circumstances, between actual property and ethical property. The same vice infects the technology of the opposite socialist school of Karl Marx. As soon as I begin to read his disciples, at least, in our own language, I find a tight rope stretched, on which I am expected to cut certain capers. It comports with the dignity of science to stop this trifling with the common sense of words. When our impartial aim is truth or justice, which is truth in action, we do not make words squint, or polarise them by some peculiar and technical meaning. Refusing to meet the economic spider in the labyrinth of phrases it has spun, I sweep away this cobweb with the axiom that labor produces, perfects, and preserves all that sustains life and renders it desirable. Past labor, vested in capital, is naturally adjuvant and subordinate to that present labor, which by the artifice of government, it subordinates and oppresses. Ethics assigns to each capacity according to its works.
Natural property results from the fruitful coaction of an individual or a band, with natural forces and matters, especially the terra-solar.
Nature, under her four aspects, inorganic, vegetal, animal, and human, either physically or spiritually, reflects as property, the benefit to the me, of his impression on the not me.
Property is the area of radiation and reflection, unequal and irregular in its outlines, for each individuate personality, during its transit through its local sphere in time and phases of career. Property is the extension of a given personal character, through the influence of its correlative faculties; viz., the divers styles of beauty, graces, voices, fine arts, are the faculties by which our affections acquire property in those of other beings constituted analogically with us. In this spiritual realm of property, remark that while affection, by default of faculty, may not be reciprocated; yet reciprocity is its sole title, and a mutual spontaneity precludes oppression. In the conception of Jesus, material possessions should conform to the same law as the passions of which they are consequences. Sympathies modify the exclusive limitation of property, and render its advantages for each, correlative with similar advantages for others. Thus the more perfect the adjustment of social relations, the more congenial will personal property be to the collective interest.
The psychic relations of property transcend the simple motive of cupidity and its corresponding faculties. Certain . social modes of being, call them passions if you please, give and receive, create and distribute each in its own way. Friendship, either inciting to co-operation, or developed in it, becomes a mainspring of associative economics.
Ambition, stimulating enterprise, resisting hardships, surmounting obstacles, readily identifies its individual interests with the success of a combined order, in which it combines social ties in view of ulterior purposes, and directs them in the most productive lines of force.
Love, before engendering the family makes gifts of the most personal property, preluding to that of the person. As soon as it fires the imagination, the beloved appears as an epitome of all that is most precious in nature; this idea is expressed in gathering or producing the most desirable objects, as presents and testimonials of love.
Parental love shares, distributes, and bequeaths. Physiologically and socially, it is the fountain of heredity; goods themselves descending along with the faculties which obtained them. These affections and their numerous composite or correlative motives are reduced to a minimum influence by incoherence of interests. Natura naturam, without social science, shows just enough of them to suggest their importance both to more general production and a wiser distribution of property, in a well ordered system of human relations.
Labor is the effort of faculty. Capital, the surplus result of labor after deduction of costs is like the yolk of the egg,or parenchyma of the seed germ, the condition of development for present and future labor. Natural property or capital may be acquired by the exercise either of attractive or compulsory forces, in conformity with the natural laws to which each sphere is subject, but ethical property, implying the consent of wills within the sphere of sentient intelligence, requires for security against reactions, that the impression of the proprietary will, be attractive to others, and congenial with the interests of the mass. Such congeniality is the natural counterpoise to inequality of faculty or of luck. All accumulations are subject to social criticism. Within a State levying taxes, they may be limited by a graduated income tax. Where no organised State government exists, recognition and security of property depends on the use that is made of it, for it is not to be supposed that. the many, when their hands are no longer tied by authority, entrenched behind organisations of armies, navies, and police corps, will passively submit to exploitation by the few. Well-conBtituted societies will not be obliged to employ repressive measures against accumulation. Reduced to a minimum by the simple withdrawal of governmental favoritism; this minimum will undergo the solvent play of social sympathies. Ties of co-operative friendship, fostered by industrial education, as well as ties of character or of family, suffice to guarantee the participation of many in the advantages of any one or few<ref>For special illustration see L'Unite Universelle, T. iv. Ch. Fourier</ref> Socialists are prone to react against the excesses and abuses of privilege under our arbitrary governments, into communistic insurrections against natural privilege. -Opposing rent and interest on principle; they seek to justify this protest against custom, by denying to capital the faculty of self-preservation, unless by continual assistance from present labor. This dependency is, however, only partial, and subject to the progress of science, mechanical and chemical; so that less and less actual labor is required for conservative purposes. Not to speak of hoarding and hiding away the produce of labor and its representative, money, the arts of canning, of antiseptic infiltration or coating, the construction of close grain bins, into which the sulphuret of carbon is admitted, and many other economic processes, may withdraw the greater part of otherwise perishable goods practically, from that category. Such preservation needs less the intervention of labor, than its passive permission, for without its consent, such stores of goods would be plundered or destroyed. The most important restriction on interests and rents is the discontent of the people, it is ethical. At a certain pressure of iniquity, the sense of right and justice explodes in the underlying strata of society.
But if the indignation of justice is explosive, it does not follow that justice results from such explosions. Much property is destroyed, some changes hands, but on the whole, labor suffers, as in strikes, more than capital. To the Anarchist, echoing Proudhon, let me remark the danger of being misunderstood, and having irony taken in earnest by a class of laborers, and also of labor shirkers, who may man barricades and serve as cannon fodder, but are quite unreliable for all consistent progress towards emancipation. If you absolutely forbid capital to receive interest, what becomes of your "individual so vereignty " doctrine? Supposing violence out of the question; labor needing capital in order to produce, and consequently to subsist; can but speculate on^such superabundant goods as must be promptly consumed, because the cost of preserving them would exceed their value. Now, a few boatloads of peaches or potatoes won't go far towards feeding the army of labor. Time of market glut there are, but labor cannot forecast their when, where, and how much. In its appeal to capital, it has but to choose between interest and fear. Benevolence may act here and there, but cannot be relied on.
To the Karl Marx Socialists, I object his arbitrary definition of capital as confined to "economic goods in the hands of employers," (Ely) or as William Harrison Riley puts it:
Capital rightly means implements or property applied in assisting labor." (Truth, June, 1884.) Such arbitrary and exclusive definitions can but confuse thought. No money, not even specie, is accounted capital and all interest or rent is denounced as theft.
Amid this fanaticism, the grain of social truth to be picked out, is that interest will fall to its natural minimum, whenever all property is freely and truly represented by notes of exchange and when there are effective checks to great accumulations in the hands of either individuals or close corporations. Sanguine hopes are entertained of the peoples exchange banks as conceived by Proudhon and modified by Wm. B. Greene. (See his Mutual Banking.) Without dissent as to principle, I only remark that in so enterprising, ingenious,and corrupt a society asours; fraudulent management and forgeries may vitiate all or any. paper money system on a large scale and may restrict it to special associations.
By denying absolutely the just basis of rent or of interest, the feud between laborers and capitalists is envenomed: whereas justice would conciliate them.
Governments and legislative privileges of land grants, banking, exemption of United States bonds and church property from taxation, loans from the treasury for relief of stock gamblers, etc., create and maintain those excesses and abuses which disparage the titles of rent and interest.
Suppose, then, no existing government: I settle on unoccupied soil; I clear, improve, build, fence, and cultivate. During the first year, I sink or invest thus the results of three years' previous labor elsewhere; the second year, I make ends meet; the third leaves me a margin of profit, which increases during several more; after which I am disabled. May, or may not my infirmity claim in rent, an award for the use of my past labor represented in my improvements? These improvements are inseparable from the soil on which they stand. My neighbor who may choose between the virgin forest and my field, prefers to share with me the crops he makes upon my field. Do I rob him in receiving such share? This is rent. But suppose I have saved in goods or money the results of a year's labor, and I lend this, with which you rent or buy some one else's field. . Is it not equally fair that I receive an award for my past labor, under this form of interest? Injustice begins, where capitalists conspire to withhold from use the soil and other materials needful to labor, with a view to extort exorbitant awards. Such conspiracies are possible only under government protection. Otherwise, actual labor would find room enough in all countries, and as I daily witness, where the soil is free to his occupation, the sorriest laborer can make an independent living. He will not then pay for the results of past labor, more than the accommodation is worth to him. In a free field of individual action, such bargains are easily adjusted to mutual satisfaction. Justice is not outraged by moderate premiums on providential economy, allied with steadfast purpose in productive labor, which constitute the ethical basis of interest or rent, but by the unsoundness of the titles to actual property on which rent and interest are levied in the first place, and in the second by their usually exorbitant rates. It is of the highest importance to the world, to civilisation, and to the United States, which on this occasion, by reason of the greater mobility and audacity of its workingmen, is the standard-bearer of civilisation, to distinguish the adventitious from the substantial elements in this question. Were the workingmen of the United States united in principle, they could have justice to-morrow, by a mere show of hands.
But most of our workingmen are capitalists at heart and at the polls, not merely by the influence of their employers or by subordination to capitalists, through the delusions of the press and stump, but because hope conspiring with self-reliant energy, they are bent on conquering fortune. Such men are jealous for the rights of past labor, in behalf of their future. Not old age and casualties merely, but their children are to be provided for, and their pride scorns to beg this question of State charity.
This must be, unless from his years of sturdy effort, he can husband enough in the form of an income on capital, to foot the bills which oftentimes grow longer, while his capacity for actual exertion declines. This man, realising life in its present, past, and future, as one, and one link in his solidarity with his parents and children, turns a deaf ear to schools that fail in justice towards past labor. To the spoiled child of privilege we leave necessity to preach.
Necessity for justice in awards presses in a degree, direct in ratio to the intelligence and audacity of labor, and inverse to the security of cumulative monopolies.
In societies where just awards to all capacities shall have obviated class enmities, the awards in form of rent or of interest to past labor will rise or fall, if left to individual arrangement, with the fluctuations of collective values, being larger in seasons of good crops and safe voyages, and smaller under stroke of disasters. Then, instead of as at present, threatening the integrity of nations, private fortunes will become a faithful index of their solidarity. Enormous, they cannot become under a graduated income tax if loyally apportioned and levied; but numerous, they will become in rates with the general prosperity.
Concerning rents and titles to land: I thank Uncle Sam for his consideration in not fleecing a poor man like me out of more than $20 for the luxury of settling on a quarter section of wild woodland, clearing, fencing, and stocking a farm. Ought I to object to his republican caprices in making millionaires presents of acres by the million? "To him that hath, it shall be given," says the gospel, so that shows Uncle Sam is a good Christian, and shall not a man do as he likes with his own? But please to excuse my stupidity, Mr. George, if I should not find in such munificence, or elsewhere, a motive for surrendering my fee simple, in exchange for a deed of lease, or for believing
Uncle Sam a better owner than myself. You see the inalienable homestead idea has a tap-root in my heredity, as long as from Alabama to Canaan, and tough by several thousand years of growth. The Supreme Court has ruled, to be sure, that after allowing the millionaire forfeiters of grants plenty of time to sell them off, Congress may legislate to reclaim any refuse for actual settlers. But why can't you reclaim and extinguish the big titles, and stop speculation, without interfering with our little entries? The forms of leasing out all the land of the United States will employ a formidable army of Government Land Agents. Who will pay their salaries? Those who are dispossessed, after having already paid for titles good hitherto. Moreover, besides ten years labor, I have paid out several hundred dollars for an orchard, a vineyard and stables. I fear my fine fruits and fat meats may tempt the taste of some land agent or favorite of his, who, my actual title once voided, might offer me a second choice of wildwoods leases in exchange for my improved farm. That is not in Henry George's or Ben Butler's programme. No. But when customs are revolutionised, a good many more things happen than were bargained for. Our government has already powers that presuppose, rather gratuitously, infallible wisdom, stern integrity, and universal Providence. It makes money at discretion, which is pretty close akin to omnipotence. Now make it universal landlord, universal road-runner and message carrier. Give it censorship of the press (a la Comstock), and let it relay the poor temperance movement, which is tired of barking at liquor-dealers. Its leisure moments may be charitably occupied in monogamising the Mormons. By that time it is to be hoped we shall all get to be officeholders, for the function of private citizen threatens to become a sinecure. Oh, no; I forget. He is graciously enjoined to pay the taxes.
M. E. Lazarus, M. D.