An Ethical Code

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Political economy — we’d say economics — is objectionable, Fitzhugh says, when viewed as a source of morality:

Its authors never seem to be aware that they are writing an ethical as well as an economical code; yet it is probable that no writings, since the promulgation of the Christian dispensation, have exercised so controlling an influence on human conduct as the writings of these authors. The morality which they teach is one of simple and unadulterated selfishness. The public good, the welfare of society, the prosperity of one’s neighbors, is, according to them, best promoted by each man’s looking solely to the advancement of his own pecuniary interests. They maintain that national wealth, happiness and prosperity being but the aggregate of individual wealth, happiness and prosperity, if each man pursues exclusively his own selfish good, he is doing the most he can to promote the general good. They seem to forget that men eager in the pursuit of wealth are never satisfied with the fair earnings of their own bodily labor, but find their wits and cunning employed in overreaching others much more profitable than their hands. Laissez-faire, free competition begets a war of the wits, which these economists encourage, quite as destructive to the weak, simple and guileless, as the war of the sword.

The Science of Free Society

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Political economy is the science of free society, Fitzhugh says — disapprovingly:

Its theory and its history alike establish this position. Its fundamental maxim Laissez-faire and “Pas trop gouverner,” are at war with all kinds of slavery, for they in fact assert that individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least. It is not, therefore, wonderful that such a science should not have been believed or inculcated whilst slavery was universal. Roman and Greek masters, feudal lords and Catholic priests, if conscientious, must have deemed such maxims false and heretical, or if unconscientious, would find in their self-interest sufficient reasons to prevent their propagation. Accordingly we find no such maxims current, no such science existing, until slavery and serfdom were extinct and Catholicism maimed and crippled, in the countries that gave them birth. Men belonging to the higher classes of society, and who neither feel nor apprehend the ills of penury or privation, are very apt to think little of those ills, and less of the class who suffer them. Especially is this the ease with unobservant, abstract thinkers and closet scholars, who deal with little of the world and see less of it. Such men judge of mankind, their progress and their happiness, by the few specimens subjected to the narrow range of their experience and observation. After the abolition of feudalism and Catholicism, an immense amount of unfettered talent, genius, industry and capital, was brought into the field of free competition. The immediate result was, that all those who possessed either of those advantages prospered as they had never prospered before, and rose in social position and intelligence. At the same time, and from the same causes, the aggregate wealth of society, and probably its aggregate intelligence, were rapidly increased. Such was no doubt part of the effects of unfettering the limbs, the minds and consciences of men. It was the only part of those effects that scholars and philosophers saw or heeded. Here was something new under the sun, which refuted and rebuked the wisdom of Solomon. Up to this time, one-half of mankind had been little better than chattels belonging to the other half. A central power, with branches radiating throughout the civilized world, had trammeled men’s consciences, dictated their religious faith, and prescribed the forms and modes of worship. All this was done away with, and the new world just started into existence was certainly making rapid progress, and seemed to the ordinary observer to be very happy. About such a world, nothing was to be found in books. Its social, its industrial and its moral phenomena, seemed to be as beautiful as they were novel. They needed, however, description, classification and arrangement. Men’s social relations and moral duties were quite different under a system of universal liberty and equality of rights, from what they had been in a state of subordination and dependence on the one side, and of power, authority and protection on the other. The reciprocal duties and obligations of master and slave, of lord and vassal, of priest and layman, to each other, were altogether unlike those that should be practiced between the free and equal citizens of regenerated society. Men needed a moral guide, a new philosophy of ethics; for neither the sages of the Gentiles, nor the Apostles of Christianity, had foreseen or provided for the great light which was now to burst upon the world. Moses, and Solomon, and Paul, were silent as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as to this social Millenium, and the moral duties and obligations it would bring in its train.

Until now, industry had been controlled and directed by a few minds. Monopoly in its every form had been rife. Men were suddenly called on to walk alone, to act and work for themselves without guide, advice or control from superior authority. In the past, nothing like it had occurred; hence no assistance could be derived from books. The prophets themselves had overlooked or omitted to tell of the advent of this golden era, and were no better guides than the historians and philosophers. Philosophy that should guide and direct industry was equally needed with a philosophy of morals. The occasion found and made the man. For writing a one-sided philosophy, no man was better fitted than Adam Smith. He possessed extraordinary powers of abstraction, analysis and generalization. He was absent, secluded and unobservant. He saw only that prosperous and progressive portion of society whom liberty or free competition benefitted, and mistook its effects on them for its effects on the world. He had probably never heard the old English adage, “Every man for himself, and Devil take the hindmost.” This saying comprehends the whole philosophy, moral and economical, of the “Wealth of Nations.” But he and the political economists who have succeeded him, seem never to have dreamed that there would have been any “hindmost.” There can never be a wise moral philosopher, or a sound philosophy, till some one arises who sees and comprehends all the “things in heaven and earth.” Philosophers are the most abstracted, secluded, and least observant of men. Their premises are always false, because they seebut few facts; and hence their conclusions must also be false. Plato and Aristotle have to-day as many believers as Smith, Paley or Locke, and between their times a hundred systems have arisen, flourished for a time, and been rejected. There is not a true moral philosophy, and from the nature of things there never can be. Such a philosophy has to discover first causes and ultimate effects, to grasp infinitude, to deal with eternity at both ends. Human presumption will often attempt this, but human intellect can never achieve it. We shall build up no system, attempt to account for nothing, but simply point out what is natural and universal, and humbly try to justify the ways of God to man.

Adam Smith’s philosophy is simple and comprehensive, (teres et rotundus.) Its leading and almost its only doctrine is, that individual well-being and social and national wealth and prosperity will be best promoted by each man’s eagerly pursuing his own selfish welfare unfettered and unrestricted by legal regulations, or governmental prohibitions, farther than such regulations may be necessary to prevent positive crime. That some qualifications of this doctrine will not be found in his book, we shall not deny; but this is his system. It is obvious enough that such a governmental policy as this doctrine would result in, would stimulate energy, excite invention and industry, and bring into livelier action, genius, skill and talent. It had done so before Smith wrote, and it was no doubt the observation of those effects that suggested the theory. His friends and acquaintances were of that class, who, in the war of the wits to which free competition invited, were sure to come off victors. His country, too, England and Scotland, in the arts of trade and in manufacturing skill, was an over-match for the rest of the world. International free trade would benefit his country as much as social free trade would benefit his friends. This was his world, and had it been the only world his philosophy would have been true. But there was another and much larger world, whose misfortunes, under his system, were to make the fortunes of his friends and his country. A part of that world, far more numerous than his friends and acquaintance was at his door, they were the unemployed poor, the weak in mind or body, the simple and unsuspicious, the prodigal, the dissipated, the improvident and the vicious. Laissez-faire and pas trop gouverner suited not them; one portion of them needed support and protection; the other, much and rigorous government. Still they were fine subjects out of which the astute and designing, the provident and avaricious, the cunning, the prudent and the industrious might make fortunes in the field of free competition. Another portion of the world which Smith overlooked, were the countries with which England traded, covering a space many hundred times larger than England herself. She was daily growing richer, more powerful and intellectual, by her trade, and the countries with which she traded poorer, weaker, and more ignorant. Since the vast extension of trade, consequent on the discoveries of Columbus and Vasco de Gama, the civilized countries of Europe which carried on this trade had greatly prospered, but the savages and barbarians with whom they traded had become more savage and barbarous or been exterminated. Trade is a war of the wits, in which the stronger witted are as sure to succeed as the stronger armed in a war with swords. Strength of wit has this great advantage over strength of arm, that it never tires, for it gathers new strength by appropriating to itself the spoils of the vanquished. And thus, whether between nations or individuals, the war of free trade is constantly widening the relative abilities of the weak and the strong. It has been justly observed that under this system the rich are continually growing richer and the poor poorer. The remark is true as well between nations as between individuals. Free trade, when the American gives a bottle of whiskey to the Indian for valuable furs, or the Englishman exchanges with the African blue-beads for diamonds, gold and slaves, is a fair specimen of all free trade when unequals meet. Free trade between England and Ireland furnishes the latter an excellent market for her beef and potatoes, in exchange for English manufactures. The labor employed in manufacturing pays much better than that engaged in rearing beeves and potatoes. On the average, one hour of English labor pays for two of Irish. Again, manufacturing requires and encourages skill and intelligence; grazing and farming require none. But far the worst evils of this free trade remain to be told. Irish pursuits depressing education and refinement, England becomes a market for the wealth, the intellect, the talent, energy and enterprise of Ireland. All men possessing any of these advantages or qualities retreat to England to spend their incomes, to enter the church, the navy, or the army, to distinguish themselves as authors, to engage in mechanic or manufacturing pursuits. Thus is Ireland robbed of her very life’s blood, and thus do our Northern States rob the Southern.

Under the system of free trade a fertile soil, with good rivers and roads as outlets, becomes the greatest evil with which a country can be afflicted. The richness of soil invites to agriculture, and the roads and rivers carry off the crops, to be exchanged for the manufactures of poorer regions, where are situated the centres of trade, of capital and manufactures. In a few centuries or less time the consumption abroad of the crops impoverishes the soil where they are made. No cities or manufactories arise in the country with this fertile soil, because there is no occasion. No pursuits are carried on requiring intelligence or skill; the population is of necessity sparse, ignorant and illiterate; universal absenteeism prevails; the rich go off for pleasure and education, the enterprising poor for employment. An intelligent friend suggests that, left to nature, the evil will cure itself. So it may when the country is ruined, if the people, like those of Georgia, are of high character, and betake themselves to other pursuits than mere agriculture, and totally repudiate free trade doctrines. Our friends’ objection only proves the truth of our theory. We are very sure that the wit of man can devise no means so effectual to impoverish a country as exclusive agriculture. The ravages of war, pestilence and famine are soon effaced; centuries are required to restore an exhausted soil. The more rapidly money is made in such a country, enjoying free trade, the faster it is impoverished, for the draft on the soil is greater, and those who make good crops spend them abroad; those who make small ones, at home. In the absence of free trade, this rich region must manufacture for itself, build cities, erect schools and colleges, and carry on all the pursuits and provide for all the common wants of civilized man. Thus the money made at home would be spent and invested at home; the crops would be consumed at home, and each town and village would furnish manure to fertilize the soil around it. We believe it is a common theory that, without this domestic consumption, no soil can be kept permanently rich. A dense population would arise, because it would be required; the rich would have no further occasion to leave home for pleasure, nor the poor for employment.


The centralizing effects of free trade alone would be sufficient to condemn it. The decline of civilization under the Roman Empire was owing solely to centralization. If political science has at all advanced since the earliest annals of history, that advance is the discovery that each small section knows best its own interests, and should be endowed with the most of the functions of government. The ancients, in the days of Herodotus, when the country around the Levant and the Islands in the Mediterranean were cut up into hundreds of little highly enlightened independent States, seem to have understood the evils of centralization quite as well a the moderns. At least their practice was wiser than ours, whatever may have been their theory. Political independence is not worth a fig without commercial independence. The tribute which the centres of trade, of capital, and of mechanical and artistic skill, such as England and the North exact from the nations they trade with, is more onerous and more destructive of civilization than that exacted from conquered provinces. Its effects everywhere are too obvious to need the citation of proofs and instances. Social centralization arises from the laissez-faire system just as national centralization. A few individuals possessed of capital and cunning acquire a power to employ the laboring class on such terms as they please, and they seldom fail to use that power. Hence, the numbers and destitution of the poor in free society are daily increasing, the numbers of the middle or independent class diminishing, and the few rich men growing hourly richer.

A Beautiful Example of Communism

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

Fitzhugh provides a beautiful example of communism, writing in 1854:

We find in the days of Sir Matthew Hale, a very singular pamphlet attributed to him. It was an attempt to prove that two healthy laborers, marrying and having in the usual time four children, could not at ordinary labor, and with ordinary wages, support their family. The nursing, washing, cooking and making clothes, would fully occupy the wife. The husband, with the chances of sickness and uncertainty of employment, would have to support four. Such is the usual and normal condition of free laborers. With six children, the oldest say twelve years of age, their condition would be worse. Or should the husband die, the family that remained would be still worse off. There are large numbers of aged and infirm male and female laborers; so that as a class, it is obvious, we think, that under ordinary circumstances, in old countries, they are incapable of procuring a decent and comfortable support. The wages of the poor diminish as their wants and families increase, for the care and labor of attending to the family leaves them fewer hours for profitable work. With negro slaves, their wages invariably increase with their wants. The master increases the provision for the family as the family increases in number and helplessness. It is a beautiful example of communism, where each one receives not according to his labor, but according to his wants.

Again, the past is a foreign country.  Modern notions of Left and Right don’t quite apply:

A maxim well calculated not only to retard the progress of civilization, but to occasion its retrogression, has grown out of the science of political economy. “The world is too much governed,” has become quite an axiom with many politicians. Now the need of law and government is just in proportion to man’s wealth and enlightenment. Barbarians and savages need and will submit to but few and simple laws, and little of government. The love of personal liberty and freedom from all restraint, are distinguishing traits of wild men and wild beasts. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors loved personal liberty because they were barbarians, but they did not love it half so much as North American Indians or Bengal tigers, because they were not half so savage. As civilization advances, liberty recedes: and it is fortunate for man that he loses his love of liberty just as fast as he becomes more moral and intellectual. The wealthy, virtuous and religious citizens of large towns enjoy less of liberty than any other persons whatever, and yet they are the most useful and rationally happy of all mankind. The best governed countries, and those which have prospered most, have always been distinguished for the number and stringency of their laws. Good men obey superior authority, the laws of God, of morality, and of their country; bad men love liberty and violate them. It would be difficult very often for the most ingenious casuist to distinguish between sin and liberty; for virtue consists in the performance of duty, and the obedience to that law or power that imposes duty, whilst sin is but the violation of duty and disobedience to such law and power. It is remarkable, in this connection, that sin began by the desire for liberty and the attempt to attain it in the person of Satan and his fallen angels. The world wants good government and a plenty of it — not liberty. It is deceptive in us to boast of our Democracy, to assert the capacity of the people for self-government, and then refuse to them its exercise. In New England, and in all our large cities, where the people govern most, they are governed best. If government be not too much centralized, there is little danger of too much government. The danger and evil with us is of too little. Carlyle says of our institutions, that they are “anarchy plus a street constable.” We ought not to be bandaged up too closely in our infancy, it might prevent growth and development; but the time is coming when we shall need more of government, if we would secure the permanency of our institutions.

All men concur in the opinion that some government is necessary. Even the political economist would punish murder, theft, robbery, gross swindling, &c. but they encourage men to compete with and slowly undermine and destroy one another by means quite as effective as those they forbid. We have heard a distinguished member of this school object to negro slavery, because the protection it afforded to an inferior race would perpetuate that race, which, if left free to compete with the whites, must be starved out in a few generations. Members of Congress, of the Young American party, boast that the Anglo-Saxon race is manifestly destined to eat out all other races, as the wire-grass destroys and takes the place of other grasses. Nay, they allege this competitive process is going on throughout all nature; the weak are everywhere devouring the strong; the hardier plants and animals destroying the weaker, and the superior races of man exterminating the inferior. They would challenge our admiration for this war of nature, by which they say Providence is perfecting its own work — getting rid of what is weak and indifferent, and preserving only what is strong and hardy. We see the war, but not the improvement. This competitive, destructive system has been going on from the earliest records of history; and yet the plants, the animals, and the men of to-day are not superior to those of four thousand years ago. To restrict this destructive, competitive propensity, man was endowed with reason, and enabled to pass laws to protect the weak against the strong. To encourage it, is to encourage the strong to oppress the weak, and to violate the primary object of an government. It is strange it should have entered the head of any philosopher to set the weak, who are the majority of mankind, to competing, contending and fighting with the strong, in order to improve their condition.

Hobbes maintains that “a state of nature is a state of war.” This is untrue of a state of nature, because men are naturally associative; but it is true of a civilized state of universal liberty, and free competition, such as Hobbes saw around him, and which no doubt suggested his theory. The wants of man and his history alike prove that slavery has always been part of his social organization. A less degree of subjection is inadequate for the government and protection of great numbers of human beings.

An intelligent English writer, describing society as he saw it, uses this language:

“There is no disguising from the cool eye of philosophy, that all living creatures exist in a state of natural warfare; and that man (in hostility with all) is at enmity also with his own species; man is the natural enemy of man; and society, unable to change his nature, succeeds but in establishing a hollow truce by which fraud is substituted for violence.”

Such is free society, fairly portrayed; such are the infidel doctrines of political economy, when candidly avowed. Slavery and Christianity bring about a lasting peace, not “a hollow truce.” But we mount a step higher. We deny that there is a society in free countries. They who act each for himself, who are hostile, antagonistic and competitive, are not social and do not constitute a society. We use the term free society, for want of a better; but, like the term free government, it is an absurdity: those who are governed are not free — those who are free are not social.

I find it interesting how he casually dismisses the notion that Providence is perfecting its own work a few decades before the publication of Darwin’s theory.

Slavery is the very best form of socialism

Friday, April 12th, 2013

The past is a foreign country, L. P. Hartley noted: they do things differently there.

This is especially true of, say, the antebellum South, which found itself on the wrong side of history.  Virginia lawyer George Fitzhugh’s Sociology for the South, or The Failure of Free Society (1854) certainly comes from a foreign land.  In it, he argues that slavery is the very best form of socialism:

The phenomena presented by the vassals and villiens of Europe after their liberation, were the opposite of those exhibited by the wealthy and powerful classes. Pauperism and beggary, we are informed by English historians, were unknown till the villiens began to escape from their masters, and attempted to practice a predatory and nomadic liberty. A liberty, we should infer from the descriptions we can get of it, very much like that of domestic animals that have gone wild — the difference in favor of the animals being that nature had made provision for them, but had made none for the villiens. The new freemen were bands of thieves and beggars, infesting the country and disturbing its peace. Their physical condition was worse than when under the rule of the Barons, their masters, and their moral condition worse also, for liberty had made them from necessity thieves and murderers. It was necessary to retain them in slavery, not only to support and sustain them and to prevent general mendicity, but equally necessary in order to govern them and prevent crime.

The advocates of universal liberty concede that the laboring class enjoy more material comfort, are better fed, clothed and housed, as slaves, than as freemen. The statistics of crime demonstrate that the moral superiority of the slave over the free laborer is still greater than his superiority in animal well-being. There never can be among slaves a class so degraded as is found about the wharves and suburbs of cities. The master requires and enforces ordinary morality and industry. We very much fear, if it were possible to indite a faithful comparison of the conduct and comfort of our free negroes with that of the runaway Anglo-Saxon serfs, that it would be found that the negroes have fared better and committed much less crime than the whites. But those days, the 14th and 15th centuries, were the halcyon days of vagabond liberty. The few that had escaped from bondage found a wide field and plenty of subjects for the practice of theft and mendicity. There was no law and no police adequate to restrain them, for until then their masters had kept them in order better than laws ever can.

But those glorious old times have long since passed. A bloody code, a standing army and efficient police keep them quiet enough now. Their numbers have multiplied a hundred fold, but their poverty has increased faster than their numbers. Instead of stealing and begging, and living idly in the open air, they work fourteen hours a day, cooped up in close rooms, with foul air, foul water, and insufficient and filthy food, and often sleep at night crowded in cellars or in garrets, without regard to sex.