Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

PROPERTY.

Liberty and property” is the great national cry of the English. It is certainly better than “St. George and my right,” or “St. Denis and Montjoie”; it is the cry of nature. From Switzerland to China the peasants are the real occupiers of the land. The right of conquest alone has, in some countries, deprived men of a right so natural.

The general advantage or good of a nation is that of the sovereign, of the magistrate, and of the people, both in peace and war. Is this possession of lands by the peasantry equally conducive to the prosperity of the throne and the people in all periods and circumstances? In order to its being the most beneficial system for the throne, it must be that which produces the most considerable revenue, and the most numerous and powerful army.

We must inquire, therefore, whether this principle or plan tends clearly to increase commerce and population. It is certain that the possessor of an estate will cultivate his own inheritance better than that of another. The spirit of property doubles a man’s strength. He labors for himself and his family both with more vigor and pleasure than he would for a master. The slave, who is in the power of another, has but little inclination for marriage; he often shudders even at the thought of producing slaves like himself. His industry is damped; his soul is brutalized; and his strength is never exercised in its full energy and elasticity. The possessor of property, on the contrary, desires a wife to share his happiness, and children to assist in his labors. His wife and children constitute his wealth. The estate of such a cultivator, under the hands of an active and willing family, may become ten times more productive than it was before. The general commerce will be increased. The treasure of the prince will accumulate. The country will supply more soldiers. It is clear, therefore, that the system is beneficial to the prince. Poland would be thrice as populous and wealthy as it is at present if the peasants were not slaves.

Nor is the system less beneficial to the great landlords. If we suppose one of these to possess ten thousand acres of land cultivated by serfs, these ten thousand acres will produce him but a very scanty revenue, which will be frequently absorbed in repairs, and reduced to nothing by the irregularity and severity of the seasons. What will he in fact be, although his estates may be vastly more extensive than we have mentioned, if at the same time they are unproductive? He will be merely the possessor of an immense solitude. He will never be really rich but in proportion as his vassals are so; his prosperity depends on theirs. If this prosperity advances so far as to render the land too populous; if land is wanting to employ the labor of so many industrious hands — as hands in the first instance were wanting to cultivate the land — then the superfluity of necessary laborers will flow off into cities and seaports, into manufactories and armies. Population will have produced this decided benefit, and the possession of the lands by the real cultivators, under payment of a rent which enriches the landlords, will have been the cause of this increase of population.

There is another species of property not less beneficial; it is that which is freed from payment of rent altogether, and which is liable only to those general imposts which are levied by the sovereign for the support and benefit of the state. It is this property which has contributed in a particular manner to the wealth of England, of France, and the free cities of Germany. The sovereigns who thus enfranchised the lands which constituted their domains, derived, in the first instance, vast advantage from so doing by the franchises which they disposed of being eagerly purchased at high prices; and they derive from it, even at the present day, a greater advantage still, especially in France and England, by the progress of industry and commerce.

England furnished a grand example to the sixteenth century by enfranchising the lands possessed by the church and the monks. Nothing could be more odious and nothing more pernicious than the before prevailing practice of men, who had voluntarily bound themselves, by the rules of their order, to a life of humility and poverty, becoming complete masters of the very finest estates in the kingdom, and treating their brethren of mankind as mere useful animals, as no better than beasts to bear their burdens. The state and opulence of this small number of priests degraded human nature; their appropriated and accumulated wealth impoverished the rest of the kingdom. The abuse was destroyed, and England became rich.

In all the rest of Europe commerce has never flourished; the arts have never attained estimation and honor, and cities have never advanced both in extent and embellishment, except when the serfs of the Crown and the Church held their lands in property. And it is deserving of attentive remark that if the Church thus lost rights, which in fact never truly belonged to it, the Crown gained an extension of its legitimate rights; for the Church, whose first obligation and professed principle it is to imitate its great legislator in humility and poverty, was not originally instituted to fatten and aggrandize itself upon the fruit of the labors of mankind; and the sovereign, who is the representative of the State, is bound to manage with economy, the produce of that same labor for the good of the State itself, and for the splendor of the throne. In every country where the people labor for the Church, the State is poor; but wherever they labor for themselves and the sovereign, the State is rich.

It is in these circumstances that commerce everywhere extends its branches. The mercantile navy becomes a school for the warlike navy. Great commercial companies are formed. The sovereign finds in periods of difficulty and danger resources before unknown. Accordingly, in the Austrian states, in England, and in France, we see the prince easily borrowing from his subjects a hundred times more than he could obtain by force while the people were bent down to the earth in slavery.

All the peasants will not be rich, nor is it necessary that they should be so. The State requires men who possess nothing but strength and good will. Even such, however, who appear to many as the very outcasts of fortune, will participate in the prosperity of the rest. They will be free to dispose of their labor at the best market, and this freedom will be an effective substitute for property. The assured hope of adequate wages will support their spirits, and they will bring up their families in their own laborious and serviceable occupations with success, and even with gayety. It is this class, so despised by the great and opulent, that constitutes, be it remembered, the nursery for soldiers. Thus, from kings to shepherds, from the sceptre to the scythe, all is animation and prosperity, and the principle in question gives new force to every exertion.

After having ascertained whether it is beneficial to a State that the cultivators should be proprietors, it remains to be shown how far this principle may be properly carried. It has happened, in more kingdoms than one, that the emancipated serf has attained such wealth by his skill and industry as has enabled him to occupy the station of his former masters, who have become reduced and impoverished by their luxury. He has purchased their lands and assumed their titles; the old noblesse have been degraded, and the new have been only envied and despised. Everything has been thrown into confusion. Those nations which have permitted such usurpations, have been the sport and scorn of such as have secured themselves against an evil so baneful. The errors of one government may become a lesson for others. They profit by its wise and salutary institutions; they may avoid the evil it has incurred through those of an opposite tendency.

It is so easy to oppose the restrictions of law to the cupidity and arrogance of upstart proprietors, to fix the extent of lands which wealthy plebeians may be allowed to purchase, to prevent their acquisition of large seigniorial property and privileges, that a firm and wise government can never have cause to repent of having enfranchised servitude and enriched indigence. A good is never productive of evil but when it is carried to a culpable excess, in which case it completely ceases to be a good. The examples of other nations supply a warning; and on this principle it is easy to explain why those communities, which have most recently attained civilization and regular government, frequently surpass the masters from whom they drew their lessons.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25