on the Rue Saint-Lazare:
Conversations on Economic Laws
and Defense of Property (1849)

by Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912)

Translation by Roderick T. Long

Click here for the French version
Cliquez ici pour la version française


A conservative. – A socialist. – An economist.

First Evening

SUMMARY: The social problem stated. – That society is governed by natural, absolute, and immutable laws. – That property is the foundation of the natural organisation of society. – Definition of property. – List of current assaults on the principle of property.


Let us discuss together, without passion, the frightening problems which have broken upon us in recent times. You who wage a bitter war against existing institutions, and you who defend them subject to reservations, what is it you want?

We want to build society anew.

We want to reform it.

Dreamers, my dear friends! I would like nothing better, if it were possible. But you are chasing after chimeras.

Well! So wanting to see the reign of force and fraud give way at last to that of justice; wanting to see the poor no longer exploited by the rich; wanting to see each person rewarded according to his work – this, then, is to chase after a chimera?

This Ideal that all the utopians have proposed since the beginning of the world will, unfortunately, never be realised on earth. It is not given to men to attain it.

I believe just the opposite. Thus far we have lived in the heart of an imperfect and wicked social organisation. Why should we not be allowed to change it? If society is badly made, as M. Louis Blanc said, why can we not remake it? The laws on which this society rests, a society gangrenous to the marrow of its bones – are they eternal, immutable? We who have been subject to them until now – are we condemned to be subject to them forever?

God has so willed it.

Take care not to invoke the name of God in vain. Are you quite certain that the ills of society truly arise from the laws on which society rests?

From where else would they come?

Might these ills not have their origin in the assaults that have been made upon the fundamental laws of society?

As if these wonderful laws of yours existed!

There are economic laws that govern society, just as there are physical laws that govern the material world.
RSL-I.14 These laws have for their essence Utility and Justice. That is to say, when one observes them with absolute strictness, one’s actions are certain to be advantageous and equitable both for oneself and for others.

Aren’t you exaggerating a bit? Do the economic and moral sciences truly contain any principles that are absolutely applicable at all times and in all places? I confess I have never believed in absolute principles.

What sort of principles do you believe in, then?

Good Lord! I believe, like all men who have closely observed the affairs of this world, that the laws of justice and the rules of utility are essentially mutable, variable. Hence I believe that no universal and absolute system can be absed on these rules. As M. Joseph de Maistre used to say: I have seen men everywhere, but nowhere have I seen Man. [Editor’s note: authoritarian conservative writer Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre (1753-1821), whose Soirées in Saint-Petersburg: Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence seems to have inspired the title, though not the content of the present work. – RTL] ] Well, one may likewise say, I believe, that there are societies, having their particular laws appropriate to their nature, but that there is no such thing as Society in the singular, governed by general laws.

No doubt – because this unity and universal Society is the one that we seek to establish.

I still believe, with M. de Maistre, that laws are born out of circumstances, and that there is nothing fixed about them. Aren’t you aware that a given law regarded as just in one nation is often regarded as iniquitous in another? Theft was permitted, under certain conditions, in Sparta; polygamy is authorised in the Orient, castration is tolerated there. Will you therefore say that the Spartans were shameless robbers or that the Asiatics are disgraceful debauchees? No! if you take a sound view of these matters, you will say that the Spartans, in permitting theft, were obeying the particular exigencies of their situation, and that the Asiatics, in authorising polygamy as in tolerating castration, are subject to the influence of their climate. Reread Montesqieu! He will help you realise that the moral law does not manifest itself in the same way in all places and at all times. he will help you realise that there is nothing absolute about justice. Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other, as Pascal said. Reread Pascal!
RSL-I.20 What is true of justice is no less so of utility. You speak of laws of utility as though they were universal and permanent. What a profound error on your part! Are you unaware that economic laws have varied, and still vary, ad infinitum, just like moral laws? – You may object that nations mistake their true interests when they enact diverse and mutable economic legislation. But you will have centuries of experience against you. Hasn’t it been established that England owed her fortune to her policy of prohibitory tariffs? Wasn’t Cromwell’s famous Navigation Act the basis of her maritime and colonial greatness? However, she has just given up this protectionist policy. Why? Because it has ceased to be advantageous, because it would have made her ruin after having made her fortune. A century ago, free trade would have been fatal to England; today it gives a fresh stimulus to British industry and commerce. That is how far circumstances have changed.
RSL-I.21 In the domain of Justice and Utility, only mutability and diversity are to be found. One goes lamentably astray, one ignores the very conditions of the existence of societies, when one believes, as you seem to, in the existence of absolute principles.

So you think that there are no absolute principles either in morals or in economics; you think that in the field of what is just, as well as in the field of what is advantageous, everything is mutable, variable, diverse; you think Justice and Utility depend on places, times, and circumstances. Well, the socialists are of the same opinion as yourself. What do they say? That new times call for new laws; that the hour has come to change the old moral and economic laws that govern human societies.

Crime and madness!

How so? You’ve governed the world up till now; why shouldn’t we take our turn at governing it? Are you essentially superior to ourselves? On what basis can you claim that you alone are qualified to govern mankind? We appeal from you to the voice of all humanity! Consult the poor wretches rotting away in the lowest ranks of your societies, and ask them if they are satisfied with the portion your legislators have assigned them. Ask them if they believe they have obtained an equitable share of the earth’s goods. Your laws – well, if they hadn’t been made in the egoistic interest of a single class, why would that class be the only one to prosper? How then would it be criminal for us to establish laws that benefit everybody equally?
RSL-I.25 You accuse us of attacking the eternal and immutable principles on which society rests: religion, family, property. But by your own admission there are no eternal and immutable principles.
RSL-I.26 Property! But in the eyes of your jurists, what after all is property? A merely human institution, an institution which men have founded and decreed, and which they consequently have the authority to abolish. Besides, have they ever ceased to revise it? Does present-day property resemble Egyptian or Roman property, or even the property of the Middle Ages? Formerly the appropriation and exploitation of man by man was permitted; nowadays you no longer permit it, legally at least. In the majority of ancient societies, property in land was reserved to the State; you have made territorial property accessible to everybody. You have on the other hand refused full recognition to certain forms of property; you have denied to the inventor absolute property in his work, and to the man of letters absolute property in his book. You have also understood that society must be protected against the excesses of individual property, and you have enacted the law of expropriation for the sake of public utility.
RSL-I.27 Well, what are we doing? We limit property a little more; we subject it to more numerous restrictions and heavier burdens, in the public interest. Are we then so blameworthy? The trail we are following – was it not you who blazed it?
RSL-I.28 The family! But you admit that at other times and in other lands it could legitimately be given a different organisation from the one which prevails nowadays among us. Why then should we be forbidden to modify it yet again? What man has made, cannot man unmake?
RSL-I.29 Religion! But haven’t your legislators already dealt with it as they pleased? Didn’t they begin by authorising the Catholic religion to the exclusion of others? Didn’t they end by authorising all sects and subsidising some of them? If they could regulate the manifestations of religious feeling, why should we be forbidden to regulate them in our turn?
RSL-I.30 Property, family, religion – lumps of soft wax that so many legislators have marked with their successive imprints – why shouldn’t we likewise mark you with ours? why should we abstain from touching things which others have so often touched? Why should we respect relics which their own guardians did not scruple to profane?

A salutary lesson! You conservatives who acknowledge no absolute, preexisting, and eternal principle either in morals or in political economy – no principle equally applicable at all times and in all places – see where your teachings finally lead. They have been turned back against you. After having heard your moralists and jurists deny the eternal laws of justice and utility in order to put in their place who knows what momentary expedients, adventurous and impassioned minds, substituting their designs for yours, wish to govern the world after you and otherwise than you. And if you conservatives are right when you maintain that no fixed and absolute rule presides over the moral and material arrangement of human affairs, can one condemn these reorganisers of society? The human mind is not infallible. Your legislators may have erred. Why shouldn’t it be open to other legislators to do better?
RSL-I.32 When Fourier, drunk with pride, cried: All legislators were mistaken until myself, and their books are good only to be burned, might he not, on your view, be right? If the laws of Justice and Utility arise from men, and it is up to men to modify them according to time and place and circumstance, wasn’t Fourier justified in saying – upon consulting history, that long martyrology of peoples – that the old systems of social legislation had been conceived according to a false theory, and that a new social state must be organised? In insisting that no absolute and superhuman principle governs societies, haven’t you opened the floodgates to the vast waters of utopia? Haven’t you authorised the first comer to rebuild these societies that you claim to have built? Isn’t socialism the outflow of your own teachings?

What can we do about it? Believe me, we are well aware of the flaw in our armour. Moreover, we have never denied socialism absolutely. In what terms, for the most part, do we address socialists? We tell them: between you and us there is only a question of time. You are wrong today, but perhaps you will be right in three hundred years. Wait!

And if we are unwilling to wait?

Then so much the worse for you! Without prejudging anything as to the future of your theories, we regard them as immoral and subversive at present, and we will hunt them down without restraint. We will eradicate them as the scythe eradicates the tares. Feel free to rail on, in our prisons and our workhouses, against the present-day institutions of religion, family, and property.

So much the better. We rely greatly on persecution to advance our teachings. The most beautiful pedestal one can give an idea is a scaffold or a stake. Fine us, imprison us, deport us – we ask nothing better. If you could reestablish the Inquisition against the socialists, the triumph of our cause would be assured.

We can still do without this extreme remedy. We have on our side the Majority, and Force.

Until the Majority, and Force, turn to our side.

Oh, I’m well aware that the danger is immense; but in any case we will resist you to the end.

And you will lose the contest. Conservatives, you are powerless to conserve society.

That’s a pretty severe verdict.

We shall see whether it is ill-founded. If you do not believe in absolute principles, must you not regard nations as artificial aggregations, successively constructed and perfected by the hand of man? These aggregations may have similar principles and interests, but they may equally well have mutually opposing principles and interests. What is just for one may not be just for another. What is advantageous for this one may be harmful for that. But what is the necessary result of this antagonism of principles and interests? War. If it is true that the world is in no way governed by universal and permanent laws, if it is true that each nation has its own separate principles and interests, interests and principles essentially variable according to circumstance and time, isn’t war in the nature of things?

Certainly we have never dreamed of perpetual peace like that worthy Abbé de Saint-Pierre. [Editor’s note: Antiwar activist Charles-Irénée Castel, Abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743); Molinari would publish a biography of Saint-Pierre in 1857. – RTL] Besides, M. Joseph de Maistre has shown quite completely that war is indestructible and necessary.

So you admit – and in effect you cannot but admit – that the world is destined for eternal warfare?

War existed in the past; it exists in the present; why should it cease to exist in the future?

Yes, but in the past the immense majority of the population was composed of slaves and serfs. And those slaves and serfs did not read newspapers, did not attend clubs, had never heard of socialism. Look at the serfs of Russia! Are they not dough which despotism molds as it pleases? Doesn’t it make them into conscripts or canon fodder, just as it wills?

Obviously serfdom had its good aspects.

Unfortunately, there is no way to reestablish it among us. So you no longer have either slaves or serfs. You have needy multitudes, to whom you cannot forbid free communication of thought – to whom, on the contrary, you are continually induced to make the field of general knowledge more accessible. Will you prevent these now sovereign multitudes from drinking at the poisoned spring of socialist writings? Will you prevent them from listening to the dreamers who tell them that a society where the masses work much to gain little, while on the other hand there live men who gain much while working little, is a wicked society which must be changed? No! You will proscribe the socialistic systems in vain; you will not prevent their production and propagation. The press will defy your defenses.

Ah, the press, that great purveyor of poison!

You will muzzle or proscribe it in vain, you will never succeed in killing it. It is a hydra whose million heads would defy the arm of Hercules.

If we just had a good absolute monarchy –

The press would kill your absolute monarchy just as it killed the constitutional monarchy; and in its absence books, pamphlets, and conversation would suffice.
RSL-I.53 Well then, nowadays, to speak only of the press, that mighty siege engine is no longer directed solely against government; it is directed against society.

Yes, for some years now the press has done its job, thank God!

Formerly it incited revolutions to change the form of government; today it incites revolutions to change the form of society. Why shouldn’t it succeed in this project just as it succeeded in the other? Ah, if nations were fully secure against conflicts from without, perhaps they could always succeed in holding down the violent and anarchistic factions within. But as you yourselves admit, external war is inevitable, since principles and interests are mutable and variable, and no one can assure us that war, harmful to a certain country today, may not be advantageous to it tomorrow. Now if you trust in nothing but Force to subdue socialism, how will you succeed in containing it when you are obliged to turn against the external enemy this Force which is your final argument? If war is inevitable, isn’t the advent of revolutionary socialism inevitable as well?

Alas! That’s just what I’m afraid of. And I’ve long believed that society was marching with great strides toward its ruin. We are the Greeks of the Late Empire, and the barbarians are at our gates.

Do you see, then, where you have arrived? You despair of the fate of civilisation, and you watch the rising tide of barbarism as you await the final hour when it will have overflowed your last ramparts. You are the Greeks of the Late Empire – well, if that’s how it is, then let the barbarians enter. Better yet, go out before them and humbly deliver to them the keys of the sacred citadel. Perhaps you will succeed in appeasing their wrath. But fear to redouble it by uselessly prolonging your resistance. Does not history report that Constantinople was put to the sack, and the Bosphorus was choked for four days with blood and corpses? You Greeks of the new Late Empire, fear the fate of your elders, and for pity’s sake spare us the agony of a vain resistance and the horrors of a sack. Make haste to surrender Byzantium, if Byzantium cannot be saved.

So you acknowledge that the future lies with us?

God forbid! But I think your adversaries are wrong to resist you if they despair of defeating you, and I believe that in renouncing all attachment to fixed and immutable principles they lost any assurance of victory. The conservatives are powerless to conserve society – that is all that I have sought to prove. Now to you and the rest of the organisers I will say that you will be powerless to organise it. You can take Byzantium and put it to the sack; you would not be able to govern it.

That’s how much you know! Don’t we have organisations by the dozens?

You have just put your finger on the sore. Would you be so good as to tell me to which socialist sect you belong? Are you a Saint-Simonian?

No, Saint-Simonianism is outdated. It was from the start more an aspiration than a formula – and its disciples have spoiled the aspiration without finding the formula.


It’s tempting, but the morals of Fourierism are rather scandalous.


Cabet has a clever mind, but not a well-rounded one. He understands nothing about matters of art, for example. If you can believe it, in his “Icaria” they paint their statues. The waxworks of Curtius – that’s the Ideal of Icarian art. [Online editor’s note: Philippe Curtius (1737-1794), a sculptor of waxworks and forerunner of Madame Tussaud. – RTL] What a barbarian!


Proudhon – ah, what a marvelous destroyer! How well he demolishes! But so far all he’s managed to establish is his bank of exchange. And that is not enough.

Not a Saint-Simonian, not a Fourierist, not a Cabetist, not a Proudhonian. Well, what are you then?

I am a socialist.

But once again, to what variety of socialism do you subscribe?

To my own. I am convinced that the great problem of the organisation of labour has not yet been resolved. Ground has been cleared, foundations have been laid, but the structure has not yet been raised. Why shouldn’t I seek to build it as much as any other? Am I not animated by a pure love of Humanity? Haven’t I studied Science and meditated at length upon the problem? And I believe I can assert that ... no, not yet! There are certain points which are not yet completely cleared up (tapping his forehead), but the idea is there – and you will see later on.

In other words, you too are seeking your own organisation of labour. You are an independent socialist. You have your own particular Bible. And after all, why not? Why shouldn’t you receive the spirit of the Lord as well as anybody else? Then again, why shouldn’t others receive it as well as you? How the organisations of labour do multiply!

So much the better: the people will have an opportunity to choose.

Right, by majority vote. But what will the minority do?

They will submit.

And if they resist? But I acknowledge that they will submit, voluntarily or otherwise. I acknowledge that the organisation adopted by majority vote will be put in force. But what will happen if somebody – you, I, someone else – discovers a superior organisation?

That is not likely.

On the contrary, it’s extremely likely. Don’t you believe in the dogma of indefinite perfectibility?

Certainly. I believe that Humanity will cease progressing only when it ceases existing.

Now on what does the progress of humanity depend? If your savants are to be believed, it is society that makes man. Under a bad social organisation, man remains stationary or retrogresses; under a good social organisation, man develops and progresses –

What could be truer?

Well then, is there anything in the world more desirable than to cause the social organisation to progress? But if so, what must be the constant preoccupation of the friends of humanity? Will it not be the invention and construction of more and more perfect organisations?

Yes, no doubt. What evil do you see in that?

What I see in that is permanent anarchy. An organisation has just been put in force, and it functions – more or less, since it is not perfect –

Why not?

Doesn’t the doctrine of indefinite perfectibility rule out perfection? Moreover, I’ve just cited half a dozen organisations and you weren’t satisfied with any of them.

That proves nothing against those which will arise later on. Thus, for example, I have the firm conviction that my own system –

Fourier found his own mechanism perfect, yet you do not want the mechanism of Fourier. In the same way, there will be found people who won’t want yours. So an organisation, good or bad, is in force. The majority are satisfied with it, but the minority are not. Hence a conflict, a struggle. And be sure to notice that the future organisation possesses an enormous advantage over the present one: its defects have not yet been experienced. In all likelihood it will end up carrying the day – until it is replaced in its turn by a third. But do you think a society can change its organisation from day to day without peril? See into what a terrible crisis we were thrown by a simple change of government. What would it have been like if it had been a matter of changing society?

One shudders at the very thought. What a frightful mess! Ah, the spirit of innovation, the spirit of innovation?

Try as you may, you will never eradicate it. The spirit of innovation exists –

For the misfortune of the world.

Not at all. Without the spirit of innovation, men would still be feeding on acorns or munching on grass. Without the spirit of innovation, you would be a coarse savage living in the bushes, instead of being a respectable property owner with a house in the city and a house in the country, comfortably fed, clothed, and lodged.

Why can’t the spirit of innovation be confined within proper limits?


The spirit of innovation has no limits. The spirit of innovation that lies within man will perish only when man perishes. The spirit of innovation will perpetually modify whatever men have established; and if, as you claim, the laws which regulate societies are of human origin, the spirit of innovation will not stop before them. It will modify them, change them, overturn them so long as humanity resides on earth. The world is destined for ceaseless revolution and eternal disruption, unless –


Ah well, unless there should exist some absolute principles, unless the laws which govern the moral realm and the economic realm should be preestablished laws like those which govern the physical realm. If that were so, if societies had been organised by the hand of Providence, wouldn’t we have to pity the pride-swollen pygmy who would try to substitute his work for that of the Creator? Wouldn’t it be as childish to want to change the foundations on which society rests as to undertake to displace the orbit of the earth?

Undoubtedly. But do they exist, these providential laws? And even supposing that they exist, do they really have Justice and Utility among their essential characteristics?

What gross impiety! If God himself has organised societies, if he has made the laws which regulate them, then obviously those laws will be essentially just and advantageous, and the sufferings of men will arise from failing to observe them.

Bravo! But you too then must admit that these laws are universal and immutable?

Well, why don’t you answer? Aren’t you aware that nature proceeds only by universal and immutable laws? And I ask you, could it proceed otherwise? If the laws of nature were partial, wouldn’t they constantly conflict? If they were variable, wouldn’t the world be given over to perpetual disturbances? I can no more conceive how a law of nature could fail to be universal and immutable than you can conceive how a law emanating from the Divinity could fail to include Justice and Utility in its essence. Only I doubt that God has busied himself with he organisation of human societies. And do you know why I doubt it? Because your societies are organised despicably; because the history of humanity up till now has been nothing but a lamentable and hideous record of crime and misery. To attribute to God himself the organisation of these wretched and disgraceful societies – wouldn’t that be to make him responsible for evil? Wouldn’t this be to justify the reproaches of those who accuse him of being unjust and inhumane?

Pardon me! From the fact that these providential laws exist, it does not necessarily follow that humanity must prosper. Men are not bodies devoid of will and life, like those spheres that you see being driven in an eternal order under the impulse of physical laws. Men are active and free beings; they can either observe or not observe the laws which God has given them. Only, when they do not observe them, they are criminal and wretched.

If that were true, they would always observe them.

Yes, if they knew them; and if they knew them, they would understand that failing to observe these laws must inevitably bring them injury; but that is precisely what they do not recognise.

So you maintain that all the evils of humanity have their source in the failure to observe the moral and economic laws that govern societies?

I maintain that if humanity had from time immemorial observed these laws, the total sum of its evil would also have been, from time immemorial, as low as possible. Is that enough for you?

Certainly. But as a matter of fact, I would be quite curious to know these miraculous laws of yours.

The fundamental law upon which all social organisation rests, and from which all other economic laws arise, is PROPERTY.

Property! Very well; but it is precisely from property that all the evils of humanity arise.

I maintain the opposite. I maintain that the misery and injustice from which humanity has never ceased to suffer do not arise from property at all; I maintain that they arise from infractions – particular or general, temporary or permanent, legal or illegal – that have been committed against the principle of property. I maintain that if from the beginning of the world property had been religiously respected, humanity would have continuously enjoyed the maximum of well-being consistent, in each era, with the state of advancement of the arts and sciences – and likewise, complete justice.

That’s quite a few assertions. And you are obviously prepared to prove what you affirm?


Well then, prove it!

I ask nothing better.

Above all, if you please, I request that you define property.

I will do better; I will start by defining man, at least from the economic point of view.

RSL-I.118 Man is a combination of physical, moral, and intellectual forces. These various forces need to be constantly maintained and restored by the assimilation of forces like themselves. When they are not restored, they perish. This is as true for the intellectual and moral forces as for the physical ones.
RSL-I.119 Accordingly, man is obliged to assimilate new forces perpetually. How is he informed of this necessity? By pain. Any depletion of forces is accompanied by a pain. Any assimilation of forces, any consumption, is accompanied, on the contrary, by enjoyment. Stimulated by this double goad, man constantly endeavours to maintain or increase the total sum of physical, moral, and intellectual forces that comprise his being. That is the reason for his activity.
RSL-I.120 When this activity is exerted, when man acts with a view to restoring or increasing his forces, we say that he labours. If the elements from which man draws the powers he assimilates were always within easy reach and already prepared for consumption, his labour would be reduced to very little. But it is not so. Nature has not done everything for man; she has left him with much to do. If she liberally provides him with the raw material of all the things necessary for his consumption, she obliges him to fashion this raw material in various ways in order to make it consumable.
RSL-I.121 The preparation of things necessary for consumption is called production.
RSL-I.122 How is production accomplished? By the action of man’s forces or faculties upon the elements provided by nature.
RSL-I.123 Before consuming, man is thus obliged to produce. Any production involving an expenditure of forces gives rise to pain, to sorrow. We submit to this pain, we endure this sorrow, with a view to obtaining enjoyment, or, what amounts to the same thing, to spare oneself greater suffering. One obtains this enjoyment, one avoids this suffering, through consumption. Production and consumption, enjoyment and suffering – that is the totality of human life.

What are you daring to say? In your eyes, is enjoyment the sole end that man may set for himself on earth?

Do not forget that we are here dealing with moral and intellectual enjoyment as well as physical enjoyment. Do not forget that man is a physical, moral, and intellectual being. Will he develop from this triple point of view or will he deteriorate? – that is the whole question. If he neglects his moral and intellectual needs in order to satisfy his physical appetites alone, he will deteriorate morally and intellectually. If he neglects his physical needs in order to increase his moral and intellectual satisfactions, he will deteriorate physically. In either case he will suffer on the one hand while enjoying to excess on the other. Wisdom consists in maintaining the balance of faculties with which we are provided, or in producing this balance when it does not exist. But political economy need not concern itself, directly at least, with this interior ordering of human faculties. Political economy merely examines the general laws of the production and consumption of wealth. The manner in which it is appropriate for each individual to distribute the restorative forces if his being is a question of morals.
RSL-I.126 To suffer as little as possible, physically, morally, and intellectually – to have as much enjoyment as possible, from this triple point of view – such, I short, is the great motive force of human life, the pivot around which all our existences turn. This motive force, this pivot, is called Interest.

You regard interest as the sole motive force of human action, and you say that interest consists in avoiding pain and obtaining pleasure. But is there, in man, no nobler motive force to which one can appeal? Rather than being succumbing to the inferior enticement of personal satisfaction, can one not be moved by the higher stimulus of love for humanity? Instead of yielding to interest, can’t one obey devotion?

Devotion is just one of the constituent parts of interest.

What do you mean by that? Aren’t you forgetting that devotion involves sacrifice and that sacrifice involves suffering?

Yes, sacrifice and suffering in one respect, but satisfaction and enjoyment in another. When one devotes himself to his neighbour, one condemns oneself, usually at least, to a material deprivation, but one experiences in exchange a moral satisfaction. If the pain outweighs the satisfaction, one does not devote oneself.

And the martyrs?

The martyrs themselves would bear witness on behalf of my claims. The moral feeling of religion exceeded in their case the physical instinct of self-preservation. In exchange for their physical sufferings, they experienced a more intense moral enjoyment. Those who lack a high degree of religious feeling do not expose themselves, willingly at least, to martyrdom. Why not? Because when the moral satisfaction is weak, one finds physical suffering too high a price to pay for it.

But if that’s how things are, then men in whom the physical appetites are dominant would always sacrifice the satisfaction of their higher needs to that of their lower ones. Such men’s interest will be to wallow in the mud –

That would be so, if human existence were limited to this earth. Those individuals in whom the physical appetites are dominant would not, in that case, have any interest in repressing them. But man is not, or does not believe himself to be, a creature of a day. He has faith in a future existence, and he strives to perfect himself in order to ascend to a better world rather than descending to a worse one. If he deprives himself of certain satisfactions here below, it is with a view to acquiring superior satisfactions in another life.
RSL-I.135 If he has no faith in these future satisfactions, or if he thinks them inferior to those present satisfactions that religion and morality command him to sacrifice in order to obtain them, he will not consent to this sacrifice.
RSL-I.136 But be the satisfaction present or future, in this world or another, it is always the end that man sets for himself, the constant, immutable motive force of his actions.

In this broader sense, one can, I think, accept interest as the sole motive force of human action.

Under the impulse of his interest, wherever he places it, man acts, he labours. It’s up to religion and morality to teach him where to place it –
RSL-I.139 Man constantly strives, then, to reduce the sum of his pains and increase that of his enjoyments. How can he achieve this dual result? By obtaining more things suitable for consumption by means of less work, or, what amounts to the same thing, by improving his work.
RSL-I.140 How can man improve his work? How can he obtain maximum enjoyment by means of minimum effort?
RSL-I.141 By directing properly the forces at his command. By carrying out that labour to which his faculties are most suited, and by accomplishing his task in the best possible manner.
RSL-I.142 Now experience show that this result can be obtained only with the assistance of the most complete DIVISION OF LABOUR.
RSL-I.143 Men have, then, a natural interest in dividing their labour. But division of labour involves bringing individuals together; it involves society and exchange.
RSL-I.144 Let men live in isolation, let them satisfy their needs individually, and they will expend maximum effort to obtain minimum satisfaction.
RSL-I.145 This interest that men have in uniting with a view to decreasing their labour and increasing their enjoyment might not, however, have been enough to bring them together, if they had not been drawn to one another initially by the natural impulse of certain needs that cannot be satisfied in isolation, and later on by the necessity of defending – what? Their property.

How so? Can property exist in a state of isolation? According to the jurisconsults, it is society that institutes it.

If society institutes it, society can also abolish it, and the socialists who demand its abolition are not such great culprits after all. But society did not institute property; it is rather property that has instituted society.
RSL-I.148 What is property?
RSL-I.149 Property arises from a natural instinct with which the entire human race is provided. That instinct reveals to man, prior to any reasoning, that he is the master of his person and that he can dispose as he pleases of all the powers which comprise his being, whether they adhere to him or have been separated from him.

Separated! What do you mean?

Man is obliged to produce if he wishes to consume. In producing, he expends, and separates from himself, a certain part of his physical, moral, and intellectual forces. The products contain the forces expended by those who have created them. But these forces which man separates from himself, under the dictate of necessity – he does not cease to possess them. The human conscience is not mistaken in this regard, and it instinctively condemns assaults on interior property and exterior property alike.1
RSL-I.152 When one denies man the right to possess that portion of his forces which he separates from himself by labouring, when one assigns to others the right to dispose of it, what is the result? Since this separation or expenditure of forces involves sorrow, man ceases to labour unless he somebody compels him.
RSL-I.153 To remove man’s right of property in the products of his labour is to prevent the creation of these products.
RSL-I.154 To seize a portion of these products is likewise to discourage their formation; it is to slow down man’s activity by wakening the motive force which impels him to act.
RSL-I.155 Likewise, to make an assault on interior property – to oblige an active and free being to undertake labour which he would not undertake of himself, or to forbid him certain branches of labour, and thus to divert his faculties away from their natural destination, is to decrease the productive power of man.
RSL-I.156 Every assualt on property – interior or exterior, separated or unseparated – is contrary to Utility as well as to Justice.
RSL-I.157 How is it, then, that from time immemorial assaults have been made against property?
RSL-I.158 Since all labour involves an expenditure of forces, and every expenditure of forces a pain, some men have sought to spare themselves this pain while at the same time laying claim to the satisfaction it yields. Consequently, they have made a profession of stealing the fruits of other men’s labour, either by stripping them of their exterior goods or else by reducing them to slavery. They then formed standing associations for protecting themselves and the fruits of their plunders against their slaves or against other plunderers. Such is the origin of most societies.
RSL-I.159 But this abusive usurpation by the strong of the property of the weak has been gradually nibbled away. From society’s earliest beginnings, a constant struggle has been established between the oppressors and the oppressed, the spoliators and the despoiled; from society’s earliest beginnings, humanity has tended constantly toward the emancipation of property. History is full of this great struggle! On one side, you see the oppressors defending the privileges which they claim over the property of others; on the other side, you see the oppressed demanding the eradication of these unjust and odious privileges.
RSL-I.160 The struggle still continues, and it will not cease until property shall have been completely emancipated.

But there are no more privileges!

But property is only too emancipated!

Property is barely more emancipated today than it was before 1789. Perhaps it is even less so. Only there is one difference: before 1789, the restrictions placed on the right of property were to the benefit of some; nowadays, for the most part, they do not benefit anybody, while nonetheless being no less harmful to everybody.

But where, then, do you see these maleficent restrictions?

I shall list the main ones –

One further observation: I readily admit that property is supremely equitable and advantageous in a state of isolation. A man lives, and labours, alone. It is perfectly just that this man alone should enjoy the fruits of his labour. It is no less advantageous that this man should be assured the preservation of his property. But can this system of private property be maintained equitably and advantageously in a state of society?
RSL-I.167 Moroever, I would be happy to grant that Justice and Utility, in this state as in the other, demand the recognition of each person’s entire property in his person and in that portion of his forces that he separates from himself by labouring. But could individuals actually enjoy this dual property unless society were organised in such a manner as to guarantee it to them? If this indispensable organisation did not exist; if, by some mechanism or other, society did not distribute to each person the equivalent of his labour, wouldn’t the weak be at the mercy of the stronger? Wouldn’t their property be perpetually encroached upon by the property of others? And if we were so imprudent as to emancipate property fully, before society had been equipped with this distributive mechanism, wouldn’t we see the incursions of the strong upon the property of the weak multiply? Wouldn’t the complete emancipation of property aggravate the evil instead of correcting it?

If this objection were well-founded, if it were necessary to construct a mechanism to distribute to each person the equivalent of his labour, then socialism would be fully justified, and I would be a socialist like you. But this mechanism which you wish to establish artificially already exists naturally; and it works. Society is organised. The evil which you attribute to a lack of organisation comes rather from the obstacles which have been placed in the path of the free operation of its organsiation.

You dare to assert that if all men were permitted to dispose freely of their property, in our present social context, things would arrange themselves, by themselves, in such a manner as to render each person’s labour as productive as possible, and the distribution of the fruits of labour fully equitable?

I dare to assert it.

You dare to assert that it would become superfluous to organise, if not production, then at least distribution and exchange, to remove obstacles to free circulation –

I’m convinced of it. Let proprietors act freely, let property move freely, and everything will arrange itself for the best.
RSL-I.173 But proprietors have never been allowed to act freely, and property has never been allowed to move freely.
RSL-I.174 Consider:
RSL-I.175 Is it a question of man’s right of property in himself, the right he has to make free use of his faculties so long as he causes no damage to the property of others? In present-day society the highest jobs and the most lucrative professions are not free; one cannot freely exercise the jobs of notary, priest, judge, bailiff, stockbroker, physician, lawyer, professor; one cannot freely be a printer, butcher, baker, mortician; one cannot freely found any commercial partnership, bank, insurance company, large-scale transport company – freely build any road – freely establish any charitable institution – freely sell tobacco, gunpowder, saltpetre – carry mail – mint money; one cannot freely act in concert with other labourers to fix the price of labour. The property of man in himself, interior property, is shackled everywhere.
RSL-I.176 Property in the fruits of his labour, exterior property, is no less so. Literary or artistic property and property in inventions are not recognised and guaranteed except for a short period. Material property is generally recognised in perpetuity, but it is subject to a multitude of restrictions and burdens. Gifts, inheritances, and loans are not free. Trade is heavily burdened by exchange, registration, and stamp taxes; by urban import taxes and customs duties; and by the privileges accorded to agents serving as intermediaries in various markets; and in some cases trade is completely prohibited beyond certain limits. Finally, the law of expropriation for public use stands as a constant threat to that feeble portion of Property that the other restrictions have spared.

All the restrictions that you have just listed were established in the interest of society.

Possibly; but those who established them had unlucky hands, for all these restrictions act, to different degrees, and some with considerable force, as causes of injustice and injury for society.

So by destroying them, we would enjoy a veritable paradise on earth.

I don’t claim that. All I claim is that society would find itself in the best situation possible, given the current degree of advancement of the arts and sciences.

And you are committed to proving this?


Behold the utopian!

RSL-I.n1.1 1 One of our most distinguished economists, M. L. Leclerc, has recently expounded a theory of the origin of exterior property which has a strong analogy with this one. The differences are more in the form than in the foundations. Instead of a separation of interior forces, M. Leclerc sees exterior property as a consumption of one’s life and organs. I quote:
RSL-I.n1.2 “The phenomenon of the gradual consumption and final extinction, not of one’s ego, for that is immortal, but of one’s life; that unnoticeable weakening of one’s faculties and organs, when accomplished as a result of that useful effort called labour, seems to me most worthy of attention; for if this result is indispensable, either for maintaining the force that still acts or else for supplementing that which can no longer act, it is certain that this result is achieved at a price: its true cost is the portion of time and, so to speak, the portion of faculties and organs irrevocably consumed in order to obtain it. This share of my life and power is lost for good; I will never get it back; behold! there it lies, deposited in the result of my efforts; that alone represents what I legitimately possessed and no longer have. In bringing about this substitution I did not merely employ my natural right, I obeyed the instinct of self-preservation, I subjected myself to the most urgent necessity: there lies my right of ownership! Labour, then, is the unquestionable foundation, the pure fountainhead, the sacred origin of the right of property; or if not, then either my ego is not my primordial and original property, or else my faculties, the extension of my ego, and the organs placed in its service do not belong to it – which is untenable.
RSL-I.n1.3 To employ one’s time, to lose it, to use it well or badly; to wear oneself out in order to live; to give up a day, an hour; these are familiar words, uttered across the centuries, integral parts of every human language, which itself is thought made visible. The ego, then, is perfectly aware of its own power to consume foolishly or wisely, advantageously or unproductively; and since it also knows that this power belongs to it, it has no difficulty in inferring an exclusive and effectual right to the advantageous results of this inevitable extinction which has been so laboriously and fruitfully accomplished. The popular mind goes directly and of itself to these weighty principles, to these truths of dazzling obviousness, without, it seems, giving themselves over to those long discourses which we intellectuals take ourselves to require.
RSL-I.n1.4 Yes, my life belongs to me, along with the right freely to make of it a generous sacrifice to humanity, to my country, to my fellow-man, to my friend, to my wife, to my child! My life belongs to me; I devote a portion of it to obtain what is needed to prolong it; what I have obtained, then, belongs to me, and I am equally able to give it up for the cherished objects of my affection. If the effort is fortunate, which religion explains in terms of divine favour; if the effort is skillful, which the economist may attribute to a more perfect disposition of faculties; if it so happens that the result exceeds the need, clearly this excess still belongs to me. I thus have the right to make use of it to add further satisfactions beyond those of daily living; I have the right to place it in reserve for the child who may be born to me, and for the fearful time of impotent old age. Whether I transform the excess or whether I exchange it, utility for utility, value for value, it remains mine the entire time, because, as cannot be emphasised too much, it is always the manifest representation of a portion of my existence, my faculties, my organs, used up in labour, that produces the excess. To possess a just and legitimate title to that which on my deathbed I bequeath to those I love – clothing, furniture, goods, house, land, contracts, money, or anything else – have I not expended a portion of the time I had for living on earth? Is this not in fact to bequeath my life and faculties to those I love? I could spare myself some effort or render it less taxing, or indeed increase my satisfactions; ah! how much sweeter it is to me to reserve my rightful property for my loved ones. A generous and consoling thought, which sustains courage, charms the heart, inspires and safeguards virtue, inclines to noble devotion, unites the generations, and leads to the improvement of humanity’s lot through the gradual accumulation of capital.[”]

(L. LECLERC. – Simple Observation on the Right of Property. – Journal des Économistes, 15 October 1848.)

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