§1. Having spoken thus far of the effects produced by the excellences or defects of the general system of the law, I shall now touch upon those resulting from the special character of parts of it. As a selection must be made, I shall confine myself to a few leading topics. The portions of the civil law of a country which are of most importance economically (next to those which determine the status of the labourer, as slave, serf, or free), are those relating to the two subjects of Inheritance and Contract. Of the laws relating to contract, none are more important economically, than the laws of partnership, and those of insolvency. It happens that on all these three points, there is just ground for condemning some of the provisions of the English law.
With regard to Inheritance, I have, in an early chapter, considered the general principles of the subject, and suggested what appear to me to be, putting all prejudices apart, the best dispositions which the law could adopt. Freedom of bequest as the general rule, but limited by two things: first, that if there are descendants, who, being unable to provide for themselves, would become burthensome to the state, the equivalent of whatever the state would accord to them should be reserved from the property for their benefit: and secondly, that no one person should be permitted to acquire, by inheritance, more than the amount of a moderate independence. In case of intestacy, the whole property to escheat to the state: which should be bound to make a just and reasonable provision for descendants, that is, such a provision as the parent or ancestor ought to have made, their circumstances, capacities, and mode of bringing up being considered.
The laws of inheritance, however, have probably several phases of improvement to go through, before ideas so far removed from present modes of thinking will be taken into serious consideration: and as, among the recognized modes of determining the succession to property, some must be better and others worse, it is necessary to consider which of them deserves the preference. As an intermediate course, therefore, I would recommend the extension to all property, of the present English law of inheritance affecting personal property (freedom of bequest, and in case of intestacy, equal division): except that no rights should be acknowledged in collaterals, and that the property of those who have neither descendants nor ascendants, and make no will, should escheat to the state.
The laws of existing nations deviate from these maims in two opposite ways. In England, and in most of the countries where the influence of feudality is still felt in the laws, one of the objects aimed at in respect to land and other immoveable property, is to keep it together in large masses: accordingly, in cases of intestacy, it passes, generally speaking (for the local custom of a few places is different), exclusively to the eldest son. And though the rule of primogeniture is not binding on testators, who in England have nominally the power of bequeathing their property as they please, any proprietor may so exercise this power as to deprive his immediate successor of it, by entailing the property on one particular line of his descendants: which, besides preventing it from passing by inheritance in any other than the prescribed manner, is attended with the incidental consequence of precluding it from being sold; since each successive possessor, having only a life interest in the property, cannot alienate it for a longer period than his own life. In some other countries, such as France, the law, on the contrary, compels division of inheritances; not only, in case of intestacy, sharing the property, both real and personal, equally among all the children, or (if there are no children) among all relatives in the same degree of propinquity; but also not recognizing any power of bequest, or recognizing it over only a limited portion of the property, the remainder being subjected to compulsory equal division.
Neither of these systems, I apprehend, was introduced, or is perhaps maintained, in the countries where it exists, from any general considerations of justice, or any foresight of economical consequences, but chiefly from political motives; in the one case to keep up large hereditary fortunes, and a landed aristocracy; in the other, to break these down, and prevent their resurrection. The first object, as an aim of national policy, I conceive to be eminently undesirable: with regard to the second, I have pointed out what seems to me a better mode of attaining it. The merit, or demerit, however, of either purpose, belongs to the general science of politics, not to the limited department of that science which is here treated of. Each of the two systems is a real and efficient instrument for the purpose intended by it; but each, as it appears to me, achieves that purpose at the cost of much mischief.
§2. There are two arguments of an economical character, which are urged in favour of primogeniture. One is, the stimulus applied to the industry and ambition of younger children, by leaving them to be the architects of their own fortunes. This argument was put by Dr Johnson in a manner more forcible than complimentary to an hereditary aristocracy, when he said, by way of recommendation of primogeniture, that it ‘makes but one fool in a family’. It is curious that a defender of aristocratic institutions should be the person to assert that to inherit such a fortune as takes away any necessity for exertion, is generally fatal to activity and strength of mind: in the present state of education, however, the proposition, with some allowance for exaggeration, may be admitted to be true. But whatever force there is in the argument, counts in favour of limiting the eldest, as well as all the other children, to a mere provision, and dispensing with even the ‘one fool’ whom Dr Johnson was willing to tolerate. If unearned riches are so pernicious to the character, one does not see why, in order to withhold the poison from the junior members of a family, there should be no way but to unite all their separate potions, and administer them in the largest possible dose to one selected victim. It cannot be necessary to inflict this great evil on the eldest son, for want of knowing what else to do with a large fortune.
Some writers, however, look upon the effect of primogeniture in stimulating industry, as depending, not so much on the poverty of the younger children, as on the contrast between that poverty and the riches of the elder; thinking it indispensable to the activity and energy of the hive, that there should be a huge drone here and there, to impress the working bees with a due sense of the advantages of honey. ‘Their inferiority in point of wealth’, says Mr M’Culloch, speaking of the younger children, ‘and their desire to escape from this lower station, and to attain to the same level with their elder brothers, inspires them with an energy and vigour they could not otherwise feel. But the advantage of preserving large estates from being frittered down by a scheme of equal division, is not limited to its influence over the younger children of their owners. It raises universally the standard of competence, and gives new force to the springs which set industry in motion. The manner of living among the great landlords is that in which every one is ambitious of being able to indulge; and their habits of expense, though sometimes injurious to themselves, act as powerful incentives to the ingenuity and enterprise of the other classes, who never think their fortunes sufficiently ample, unless they will enable them to emulate the splendour of the richest landlords; so that the custom of primogeniture seems to render all classes more industrious, and to augment at the same time, the mass of wealth and the scale of enjoyment.1
The portion of truth, I can hardly say contained in these observations, but recalled by them, I apprehend to be, that a state of complete equality of fortunes would not be favourable to active exertion for the increase of wealth. Speaking of the mass, it is as true of wealth as of most other distinctions — of talent, knowledge, virtue — that those who already have, or think they have, as much of it as their neighbours, will seldom exert themselves to acquire more. But it is not therefore necessary that society should provide a set of persons with large fortunes, to fulfil the social duty of standing to be looked at, with envy and admiration, by the aspiring poor. The fortunes which people have acquired for themselves, answer the purpose quite as well, indeed much better; since a person is more powerfully stimulated by the example of somebody who has earned a fortune, than by the mere sight of somebody who possesses one; and the former is necessarily an example of prudence and frugality as well as industry, while the latter much oftener sets an example of profuse expense, which spreads, with pernicious effect, to the very class on whom the sight of riches is supposed to have so beneficial an influence, namely, those whose weakness of mind, and taste for ostentation, makes ‘the splendour of the richest landlords’ at. tract them with the most potent spell. In America there are few or no hereditary fortunes; yet industrial energy, and the ardour of accumulation, are not supposed to be particularly backward in that part of the world. When a country has once fairly entered into the industrial career, which is the principal occupation of the modern, as war was that of the ancient and medieval world, the desire of acquisition by industry needs no factitious stimulus: the advantages naturally inherent in riches, and the character they assume of a test by which talent and success in life are habitually measured, are an ample security for their being pursued with sufficient intensity and zeal. As to the deeper consideration, that the diffusion of wealth, and not its concentration, is desirable, and that the more wholesome state of society is not that in which immense fortunes are possessed by a few and coveted by all, but that in which the greatest possible numbers possess and are contented with a moderate competency, which all may hope to acquire; I refer to it in this place, only to show, how widely separated, on social questions, is the entire mode of thought of the defenders of primogeniture, from that which is partially promulgated in the present treatise.
The other economical argument in favour of primogeniture, has special reference to landed property. It is contended that the habit of dividing inheritances equally, or with an approach to equality, among children, promotes the subdivision of land into portions too small to admit of being cultivated in an advantageous manner. This argument, eternally reproduced, has again and again been refuted by English and Continental writers. It proceeds on a supposition entirely at variance with that on which all the theorems of political economy are grounded. It assumes that mankind in general will habitually act in a manner opposed to their immediate and obvious pecuniary interest. For the division of the inheritance does not necessarily imply division of the land; which may be held in common, as is not unfrequently the case in France and Belgium; or may become the property of one of the coheirs, being charged with the shares of the others by way of mortgage; or they may sell it outright, and divide the proceeds. When the division of the land would diminish its productive power, it is the direct interest of the heirs to adopt some one of these arrangements. Supposing, however, what the argument assumes, that either from legal difficulties or from their own stupidity and barbarism, they would not, if left to themselves, obey the dictates of this obvious interest, but would insist upon cutting up the land bodily into equal parcels, with the effect of impoverishing themselves; this would be an objection to a law such as exists in France, of compulsory division, but can be no reason why testators should be discouraged from exercising the right of bequest in general conformity to the rule of equality, since it would always be in their power to provide that the division of the inheritance should take place without dividing the land itself. That the attempts of the advocates of primogeniture to make out a case by facts against the custom of equal division, are equally abortive, has been shown in a former place. In all countries, or parts of countries, in which the division of inheritances is accompanied by small holdings, it is because small holdings are the general system of the country, even on the estates of the great proprietors.
Unless a strong case of social utility can be made out for primogeniture, it stands sufficiently condemned by the general principles of justice; being a broad distinction in the treatment of one person and of another, grounded solely on an accident. There is no need, therefore, to make out any case of economical evil against primogeniture. Such a case, however, and a very strong one, may be made. It is a natural effect of primogeniture to make the landlords a needy class. The object of the institution, or custom, is to keep the land together in large masses, and this it commonly accomplishes; but the legal proprietor of a large domain is not necessarily bona fide owner of the whole income which it yields. It is usually charged, in each generation, with provisions for the other children. It is often charged still more heavily by the imprudent expenditure of the proprietor. Great landowners are generally improvident in their expenses; they live up to their incomes when at the highest, and if any change of circumstances diminishes their resources, some time elapses before they make up their minds to retrench. Spendthrifts in other classes are ruined, and disappear from society; but the spendthrift landlord usually holds fast to his land, even when he has become a mere receiver of its rents for the benefit of creditors. The same desire to keep up the ‘splendour’ of the family, which gives rise to the custom of primogeniture, indisposes the owner to sell a part in order to set free the remainder; their apparent are therefore habitually greater than their real means, and they are under a perpetual temptation to proportion their expenditure to the former rather than to the latter. From such causes as these, in almost all countries of great landowners, the majority of landed estates are deeply mortgaged; and instead of having capital to spare for improvements, it requires all the increased value of land, caused by the rapid increase of the wealth and population of the country, to preserve the class from being impoverished.
§3. To avert this impoverishment, recourse was had to the contrivance of entails, whereby the order of succession was irrevocably fixed, and each holder, having only a life interest, was unable to burthen his successor. The land thus passing, free from debt, into the possession of the heir, the family could not be ruined by the improvidence of its existing representative. The economical evils arising from this disposition of property were partly of the same kind, partly different, but on the whole greater, than those arising from primogeniture alone. The possessor could not now ruin his successors, but he could still ruin himself: he was not at all more likely than in the former case to have the means necessary for improving the property: while, even if he had, he was still less likely to employ them for that purpose, when the benefit was to accrue to a person whom the entail made independent of him, while he had probably younger children to provide for, in whose favour he could not now charge the estate. While thus disabled from being himself an improver, neither could he sell the estate to somebody who would; since entail precludes alienation. In general he has even been unable to grant leases beyond the term of his own life; ‘for’, says Blackstone, ‘if such leases had been valid, then, under cover of long leases, the issue might have been virtually disinherited’; and it has been necessary in Great Britain to relax, by statute, the rigour of entails, in order to allow either of long leases, or of the execution of improvements at the expense of the estate. It may be added that the heir of entail, being assured of succeeding to the family property, however undeserving of it, and being aware of this from his earliest years, has much more than the ordinary chances of growing up idle, dissipated, and profligate.
In England, the power of entail is more limited by law, than in Scotland and in most other countries where it exists. A landowner can settle his property upon any number of persons successively who are living at the time, and upon one unborn person, on whose attaining the age of twenty-one, the entail expires, and the land becomes his absolute property. An estate may in this manner be transmitted through a son, or a son and grandson, living when the deed is executed, to an unborn child of that grandson. It has been maintained that this power of entail is not sufficiently extensive to do any mischief: in truth, however, it is much larger than it seems. Entails very rarely expire; the first heir of entail, when of age, joins with the existing possessor in resettling the estate, so as to prolong the entail for a further term. Large properties, therefore, are rarely free for any considerable period, From the restraints of a strict settlement; though the mischief is in one respect mitigated, since in the renewal of the settlement for one more generation, the estate is usually charged with a provision for younger children.
In an economical point of view, the best system of landed property is that in which land is most completely an object of commerce; passing readily from hand to hand when a buyer can be found to whom it is worth while to offer a greater sum for the land, than the value of the income drawn from it by its existing possessor. This of course is not meant of ornamental property, which is a source of expense, not profit; but only of land employed for industrial uses, and held for the sake of the income which it affords. Whatever facilitates the sale of land, tends to make it a more productive instrument of the community at large; whatever prevents or restricts its sale, subtracts from its usefulness. Now, not only has entail this effect, but primo. geniture also. The desire to keep land together in large masses, from other motives than that of promoting its productiveness, often prevents changes and alienations which would increase its efficiency as an instrument.
§4. On the other hand, a law which, like the French, restricts the power of bequest to a narrow compass, and compels the equal division of the whole or the greater part of the property among the children, seems to me, though on different grounds, also very seriously objectionable. The only reason for recognizing in the children any claim at all to more than a provision, sufficient to launch them in life, and enable them to find a livelihood, is grounded on the expressed or presumed wish of the parent; whose claim to dispose of what is actually his own, cannot be set aside by any pretensions of others to receive what is not theirs. To control the rightful owner’s liberty of gift, by creating in the children a legal right superior to it, is to postpone a real claim to an imaginary one. To this great and paramount objection to the law, numerous secondary ones may be added. Desirable as it is that the parent should treat the children with impartiality, and not make an eldest son or a favourite, impartial division is not alway synonymous with equal division. Some of the children may, without fault of their own, be less capable than others of providing for themselves: some may, by other means than their own exertions, be already provided for: and impartiality may therefore require that the rule observed should not be one of equality, but of compensation. Even when equality is the object, there are sometimes better means of attaining it, than the inflexible rules by which law must necessarily proceed. If one of the coheirs, being of a quarrelsome or litigious disposition, stands upon his utmost rights, the law cannot make equitable adjustments; it cannot apportion the property as seems best for the collect.ive interest of all concerned; if there are several parcels of land, and the heirs cannot agree about their value, the law cannot give a parcel to each, but every separate parcel must be either put up to sale or divided: if there is a residence, or a park or pleasure.ground, which would be destroyed, as such, by subdivision, it must be sold, perhaps at a great sacrifice both of money and of feeling. But what the law could not do, the parent could. By means of the liberty of be. quest, all these points might be determined according to reason and the general interest of the persons concerned; and the spirit of the principle of equal division might be the better observed, because the testator was emancipated from its letter. Finally, it would not then be necessary, as under the compulsory system it is, that the law should interfere authoritatively in the concerns of individuals, not only on the occurrence of a death, but throughout life, in order to guard against the attempts of parents to frustrate the legal claims of their heirs, under colour of gifts and other alienations inter vivos.
In conclusion; all owners of property should, I conceive, have power to dispose by will of every part of it, but not to determine the person who should succeed to it after the death of all who were living when the will was made. Under what restrictions it should be allowable to bequeath property to one person for life, with remainder to another person already in existence, is a question belonging to general legislation, not to political economy. Such settlements would be no greater hindrance to alienation than any case of joint ownership, since the consent of persons actually in existence is all that would be necessary for any new arrangement respecting the property.
§5. From the subject of Inheritance I now pass to that of Contracts, and among these, to the important subject of the Laws of Partnership. How much of good or evil depends upon these laws, and how important it is that they should be the best possible, is evident to all who recognize in the extension of the cooperative principle in the larger sense of the term, the great economical necessity of modern industry. The progress of the productive arts requiring that many sorts of industrial occupation should be carried on by larger and larger capitals, the productive power of industry must suffer by whatever impedes the formation of large capitals through the aggregation of smaller ones. Capitals of the requisite magnitude belonging to single owners, do not, in most countries, exist in the needful abundance, and would be still less numerous if the laws favoured the diffusion instead of the concentration of property: while it is most undesirable that all those improved processes, and those means of efficiency and economy in production, which depend on the possession of large funds, should be monopolies in the hands of a few rich individuals, through the difficulties experienced by persons of moderate or small means in associating their capital. Finally, I must repeat my conviction, that the industrial economy which divides society absolutely into two portions, the payers of wages and the receivers of them, the first counted by thousands and the last by millions, is neither fit for, nor capable of, indefinite duration: and the possibility of changing this system for one of combination without dependence, and unity of interest instead of organized hostility, depends altogether upon the future developments of the Partnership principle.
Yet there is scarcely any country whose laws do not throw great, and in most cases, intentional obstacles in the way of the formation of any numerous partnership. In England it is already a serious discouragement, that differences among partners are, practically speaking, only capable of adjudication by the Court of Chancery: which is often worse than placing such questions out of the pale of all law; since any one of the disputant parties, who is either dishonest or litigious, can involve the others at his pleasure in the expense, trouble, and anxiety, which are the unavoidable accompaniments of a Chancery suit, without their having the power of freeing themselves from the infliction even by breaking up the association.2 Besides this, it required, until lately, a separate Act of the legislature before any joint-stock association could legally constitute itself, and be empowered to act as one body. By a statute passed a few years ago, this necessity is done away; but the statute in question is described by competent authorities as a ‘mass of confusion,’ of which they say that there ‘never was such an infliction’ on persons entering into partnership.3 When a number of persons, whether few or many, freely desire to unite their funds for a common undertaking, not asking any peculiar privilege, nor the power to dispossess any one of property, the law can have no good reason for throwing difficulties in the way of the realization of the project. On compliance with a few simple conditions of publicity, any body of persons ought to have the power of constituting themselves into a joint-stock company, or societe en nom collectif, without asking leave either of any public officer or of parliament. As an association of many partners must practically be under the management of a few, every facility ought to be afforded to the body for exercising the necessary control and check over those few, whether they be themselves members of the association, or merely its hired servants: and in this point the English system is still at a lamentable distance from the standard of perfection.
§6. Whatever facilities, however, English law might give to associations formed on the principles of ordinary partnership, there is one sort of joint-stock association which until the year 1855 it absolutely disallowed, and which could only be called into existence by a special act either of the legislature or of the Crown. I mean, associations with limited liability.
Associations with limited liability are of two kinds: in one, the liability of all the partners is limited, in the other that of some of them only. The first is the societe anonyme of the French law, which in England had until lately no other name than that of ‘chartered company’: meaning thereby a joint-stock company whose shareholders, by a charter from the Crown or a special enactment of the legislature, stood exempted from any liability for the debts of the concern, beyond the amount of their subscriptions. The other species of limited partnership is that known to the French law under the name of commandite; of this, which in England is still unrecognized and illegal, I shall speak presently.
If a number of persons chose to associate for carrying on any operation of commerce or industry, agreeing among themselves and announcing to those with whom they deal that the members of the association do not undertake to be responsible beyond the amount of the subscribed capital; is there any reason that the law should raise objections to this proceeding, and should impose on them the unlimited responsibility which they disclaim? For whose sake? Not for that of the partners themselves; for it is they whom the limitation of responsibility benefits and protects. It must therefore be for the sake of third parties; namely, those who may have transactions with the association, and to whom it may run in debt beyond what the subscribed capital suffices to pay. But nobody is obliged to deal with the association: still less is any one obliged to give it unlimited credit. The class of persons with whom such associations have dealings are in general perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, and there seems no reason that the law should be more careful of their interests than they will themselves be; provided no false representation is held out, and they are aware from the first what they have to trust to. The law is warranted in requiring from all joint-stock associations with limited responsibility, not only that the amount of capital on which they profess to carry on business should either be actually paid up or security given for it (if, indeed, with complete publicity, such a requirement would be necessary), but also that such accounts should be kept, accessible to individuals, and if needful, published to the world, as shall render it possible to ascertain at any time the existing state of the company’s affairs, and to learn whether the capital which is the sole security for the engagements into which they enter, still subsists unimpaired: the fidelity of such accounts being guarded by sufficient penalties. When the law has thus afforded to individuals all practicable means of knowing the circumstances which ought to enter into their prudential calculations in dealing with the company, there seems no more need for interfering with individual judgment in this sort of transactions, than in any other part of the private business of life.
The reason usually urged for such interference is, that the managers of an association with limited responsibility, not risking their whole fortunes in the event of loss, while in case of gain they might profit largely, are not sufficiently interested in exercising due circumspection, and are under the temptation of exposing the funds of the association to improper hazards. It is, however, well ascertained that associations with unlimited responsibility, if they have rich shareholders, can obtain, even when known to be reckless in their transactions, improper credit to an extent far exceeding what would be given to companies equally ill-conducted whose creditors had only the subscribed capital to rely on.4 To whichever side the balance of evil inclines, it is a consideration of more importance to the shareholders themselves than to third parties; since, with proper securities for publicity, the capital of an association with limited liability could not be engaged in hazards beyond those ordinarily incident to the business it carries on, without the facts being known, and becoming the subject of comments by which the credit of the body would be likely to be affected in quite as great a degree as the circumstances would justify. If, under securities for publicity, it were found in practice that companies, formed on the principle of unlimited responsibility, were more skilfully and more cautiously managed, companies with limited liability would be unable to maintain an equal competition with them; and would therefore rarely be formed, unless when such limitation was the only condition on which the necessary amount of capital could be raised: and in that case it would be very unreasonable to say that their formation ought to be prevented. It may further be remarked, that although, with equality of capital, a company of limited liability offers a somewhat less security to those who deal with it, than one in which every shareholder is responsible with his whole fortune, yet even the weaker of these two securities is in some respects stronger than that which an individual capitalist can afford. In the case of an individual, there is such security as can be founded on his unlimited liability, but not that derived from publicity of transactions, or from a known and large amount of paid-up capital. This topic is well treated in an able paper by M. Coquelin, published in the Revue des Deux Mondes for July 1843.5
‘While third parties who trade with individuals,’ says this writer, ‘scarcely ever know, except by approximation, and even that most vague and uncertain, what is the amount of capital responsible for the performance of contracts made with them, those who trade with a societe anonyme can obtain full information if they seek it, and perform their operations with a feeling of confidence that cannot exist in the other case. Again, nothing is easier than for an individual trader to conceal the extent of his engagements, as no one can know it certainly but himself. Even his confidential clerk may be ignorant of it, as the loans he finds himself compelled to make may not all be of a character to require that they be entered in his day-book. It is a secret confined to himself; one which transpires rarely, and always slowly; one which is unveiled only when the catastrophe has occurred. On the contrary, the societe anonyme neither can nor ought to borrow, without the fact becoming known to all the world directors, clerks, shareholders, and the public. Its operations partake in some respects, of the nature of those of governments. The light of day penetrates in every direction, and there can be no secrets from those who seek for information. Thus all is fixed, recorded, known, of the capital and debts in the case of the societe anonyme, while all is uncertain and unknown in the case of the individual trader. Which of the two, we would ask the reader, presents the most favourable aspect, or the surest guarantee, to the view of those who trade with them?
‘Again, availing himself of the obscurity in which his affairs are shrouded, and which he desires to increase, the private trader is enabled, so long as his business appears prosperous, to produce impressions in regard to his means far exceeding the reality, and thus to establish a credit not justified by those means. When losses occur, and he sees himself threatened with bankruptcy, the world is still ignorant of his condition, and he finds himself enabled to contract debts far beyond the possibility of payment. The fatal day arrives, and the creditors find a debt much greater than had been anticipated, while the means of payment are as much less. Even this is not all. The same obscurity which has served him so well thus far, when desiring to magnify his capital and increase his credit, now affords him the opportunity of placing a part of that capital beyond the reach of his creditors. It becomes diminished, if not annihilated. It hides itself, and not even legal remedies, nor the activity of creditors, can bring it forth from the dark corners in which it is placed. . . . Our readers can readily determine for themselves if practices of this kind are equally easy in the case of the societe anonyme. We do not doubt that such things are possible, but we think that they will agree with us that from its nature, its organization, and the necessary publicity that attends all its actions, the liability to such occurrences is very greatly diminished.’
The laws of most countries, England included, have erred in a twofold manner with regard to joint-stock companies. While they have been most unreasonably jealous of allowing such associations to exist, especially with limited responsibility, they have generally neglected the enforcement of publicity; the best security to the public against any danger which might arise from this description of partnerships; and a security quite as much required in the case of those associations of the kind in question, which, by an exception from their general practice, they suffered to exist. Even in the instance of the Bank of England, which holds a monopoly from the legislature, and has had partial control over a matter of so much public interest as the state of the circulating medium, it is only within these few years that any publicity has been enforced; and the publicity was at first of an extremely incomplete character, though now, for most practical purposes, probably at length sufficient.
§7. The other kind of limited partnership which demands our attention, is that in which the managing partner or partners are responsible with their whole fortunes for the engagements of the concern, but have others associated with them who contribute only definite sums, and are not liable for anything beyond, though they participate in the profits according to any rule which may be agreed on. This is called partnership en commandite: and the partners with limited liability (to whom, by the French law, all interference in the management of the concern is interdicted) are known by the name commanditaires. Such partnerships are not allowed by English law: in all private partnerships, whoever shares in the profits is liable for the debts, to as plenary an extent as the managing partner.
For such prohibition no satisfactory defence has ever, so far as I am aware, been made. Even the insufficient reason given against limiting the responsibility of shareholders in a joint-stock company does not apply here; there being no diminution of the motives to circumspect management, since all who take any part in the direction of the concern are liable with their whole fortunes. To third parties again; the security is improved by the existence of a commanditei since the amount subscribed by commanditaires is all of it available to creditors, the commanditaires losing their whole investment before any creditor can lose anything; while, if instead of becoming partners to that amount, they had lent the sum at an interest equal to the profit they derived from it, they would have shared with the other creditors in the residue of the estate, diminishing pro rata the dividend obtained by all. While the practice of commandite thus conduces to the interest of creditors, it is often highly desirable for the contracting parties themselves. The managers are enabled to obtain the aid of a much greater amount of capital than they could borrow on their own security; and persons are induced to aid useful undertakings, by embarking limited portions of capital in them, when they would not, and often could not prudently, have risked their whole fortunes on the chances of the enterprise.
It may perhaps be thought that where due facilities are afforded to joint-stock companies, commandite partnerships are not required. But there are classes of cases to which the commandite principle must always be better adapted than the joint-stock principle. ‘Suppose,’ says M. Coquelin, ‘an inventor seeking for a capital to carry his invention into practice. To obtain the aid of capitalists, he must offer them a share of the anticipated benefit; they must associate themselves with him in the chances of its success. In such a case, which of the forms would he select? Not partnership, certainly’; for various reasons, and especially the extreme difficulty of finding a partner with capital, willing to risk his whole fortune on the success of the invention.6 ‘Neither would he select the societe anonyme,’ or any other form of joint-stock company, ‘in which he might be superseded as manager. He would stand, in such an association, on no better footing than any other shareholder, and he might be lost in the crowd; whereas, the association existing, as it were, by and for him, the management would appear to belong to him as a matter of right. Cases occur in which a merchant or a manufacturer, without being precisely an inventor, has undeniable claims to the management of an undertaking, from the possession of qualities peculiarly calculated to promote its success. So great, indeed,’ continues M. Coquelin, ‘is the necessity, in many cases, for the limited partnership, that it is difficult to conceive how we could dispense with or replace it’: and in reference to his own country he is probably in the right.
Where there is so great a readiness as in England, on the part of the public, to form joint-stock associations, even without the encouragement of a limitation of responsibility; commandite partnership, though its prohibition is in principle quite indefensible, cannot be deemed to be, in a merely economical point of view, of the imperative necessity which M. Coquelin ascribes to it. Yet the inconveniences are not small, which arise indirectly from provisions of law by which every one who shares in the profits of a concern is subject to the full liabilities of an unlimited partnership. It is impossible to say how many or what useful modes of combination are rendered impracticable by such a state of the law. It is sufficient for its condemnation that, unless in some way relaxed, it is inconsistent with the payment of wages in part by a percentage on profits; in other words, the association of the operatives as virtual partners with the capitalist.7
It is, above all, with reference to the improvement and elevation of the working classes that complete freedom in the conditions of partnership is indispensable. Combinations such as the associations of workpeople, described in a former chapter, are the most powerful means of effecting the social emancipation of the labourers through their own moral qualities. Nor is the liberty of association important solely for its examples of success, but fully as much so for the sake of attempts which would not succeed; but by their failure would give instruction more impressive than can be afforded by anything short of actual experience. Every theory of social improvement, the worth of which is capable of being brought to an experimental test, should be permitted, and even encouraged, to submit itself to that test. From such experiments the active portion of the working classes would derive lessons, which they would be slow to learn from the teaching of persons supposed to have interests and prejudices adverse to their good; would obtain the means of correcting, at no cost to society, whatever is now erroneous in their notions of the means of establishing their independence; and of discovering the conditions, moral, intellectual, and industrial, which are indispensably necessary for effecting without injustice, or for effecting at all, the social regeneration they aspire to.8
The French law of partnership is superior to the English in permitting commandite; and superior, in having no such unmanageable instrument as the Court of Chancery, all cases arising from commercial transactions being adjudicated in a comparatively cheap and expeditious manner by a tribunal of merchants. In other respects the French system was, and I believe, still is, far worse than the English. A joint-stock company with limited responsibility cannot be formed without the express authorization of the department of government called the Conseil d’Etat, a body of administrators, generally entire strangers to industrial transactions, who have no interest in promoting enterprises, and are apt to think that the purpose of their institution is to restrain them; whose consent cannot in any case be obtained without an amount of time and labour which is a very serious hindrance to the commencement of an enterprise, while the extreme uncertainty of obtaining that consent at all is a great discouragement to capitalists who would be willing to subscribe. In regard to joint-stock companies without limitation of responsibility, which in England exist in such numbers and are formed with such facility, these associations cannot, in France, exist at all; for, in cases of unlimited partnership, the French law does not permit the division of the capital into transferable shares.
The best existing laws of partnership appear to be those of the New England States. According to Mr Carey,9 ‘nowhere is association so little trammelled by regulations as in New England; the consequence of which is, that it is carried to a greater extent there, and particularly in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, than in any other part of the world. In these states, the soil is covered with compagnies anonymes — chartered companies — for almost every conceivable purpose. Every town is a corporation for the management of its roads, bridges, and schools: which are, therefore, under the direct control of those who pay for them, and are consequently well managed. Academies and churches, lyceums and libraries, saving-fund societies, and trust companies, exist in numbers proportioned to the wants of the people, and all are corporations. Every district has its local bank, of a size to suit its wants, the stock of which is owned by the small capitalists of the neighbourhood, and managed by themselves; the consequence of which is, that in no part of the world is the system of banking so perfect — so little liable to vibration in the amount of loans — the necessary effect of which is, that in none is the value of property so little affected by changes in the amount or value of the currency resulting from the movements of their own banking institutions. In the two states to which we have particularly referred, they are almost two hundred in number. Massachusetts, alone, offers to our view fifty-three insurance offices, of various forms, scattered through the state, and all incorporated. Factories are incorporated, and are owned in shares; and every one that has any part in the management of their concerns, from the purchase of the raw material to the sale of the manufactured article, is a part owner; while every one employed in them has a prospect of becoming one, by the use of prudence, exertion, and economy. Charitable associations exist in large numbers, and all are incorporated. Fishing vessels are owned in shares by those who navigate them; and the sailors of a whaling ship depend in a great degree, if not altogether, upon the success of the voyage for their compensation. Every master of a vessel trading in the Southern Ocean is a part owner, and the interest he possesses is a strong inducement to exertion and economy, by aid of which the people of New England are rapidly driving out the competition of other nations for the trade of that part of the world. Wherever settled, they exhibit the same tendency to combination of action. In New York they are the chief owners of the lines of packet ships, which are divided into shares, owned by the shipbuilders, the merchants, the master, and the mates; which last generally acquire the means of becoming themselves masters, and to this is due their great success. The system is the most perfectly democratic of any in the world. It affords to every labourer, every sailor, every operative, male or female, the prospect of advancement; and its results are precisely such as we should have reason to expect. In no part of the world are talent, industry, and prudence, so certain to be largely rewarded.’
The cases of insolvency and fraud on the part of chartered companies in America, which have caused so much loss and so much scandal in Europe, did not occur in the part of the Union to which this extract refers, but in other States, in which the right of association is much more fettered by legal restrictions, and in which, accordingly, joint-stock associations are not comparable in number or variety to those of New England. Mr Carey adds, ‘A careful examination of the systems of the several states, can scarcely, we think, fail to convince the reader of the advantage resulting from permitting men to determine among themselves the terms upon which they will associate, and allowing the associations that may be formed to contract with the public as to the terms upon which they will trade together, whether of the limited or unlimited liability of the partners.’ This principle has been adopted as the foundation of all recent English legislation on the subject
§8. I proceed to the subject of Insolvency Laws.
Good laws on this subject are important, first and principally, on the score of public morals; which are on no point more under the influence of the law, for good and evil, than in a matter belonging so preeminently to the province of law as the preservation of pecuniary integrity. But the subject is also, in a merely economical point of view, of great importance. First, because the economical well-being of a people, and of mankind, depends in an especial manner upon their being able to trust each other’s engagements. Secondly, because one of the risks, or expenses, of industrial operations is the risk or expense of what are commonly called bad debts, and every saving which can be effected in this liability is a diminution of cost of production; by dispensing with an item of outlay which in no way conduces to the desired end, and which must be paid for either by the consumer of the commodity, or from the general profits of capital, according as the burthen is peculiar or general.
The laws and practice of nations on this subject have almost always been in extremes. The ancient laws of most countries were all severity to the debtor. They invested the creditor with a power of coercion, more or less tyrannical, which he might use against his insolvent debtor, either to extort the surrender of hidden property, or to obtain satisfaction of a vindictive character, which might console him for the non.payment of the debt. This arbitrary power has extended, in some countries, to making the insolvent debtor serve the creditor as his slave: in which plan there were at least some grains of common sense, since it might possibly be regarded as a scheme for making him work out the debt by his labour. In England the coercion assumed the milder form of ordinary imprisonment. The one and the other were the barbarous expedients of a rude age, repugnant to justice, as well as to humanity. Unfortunately the reform of them, like that of the criminal law generally, has been taken in hand as an affair of humanity only, not of justice: and the modish humanity of the present time, which is essentially a thing of one idea, has in this as in other cases, gone into a violent reaction against the ancient severity, and might almost be supposed to see in the fact of having lost or squandered other people’s property, a peculiar title to indulgence. Everything in the law which attached disagreeable consequences to that fact, was gradually relaxed, or entirely got rid of: until the demoralizing effects of this laxity became so evident as to determine, by more recent legislation, a salutary though very insufficient movement in the reverse direction.
The indulgence of the laws to those who have made themselves unable to pay their just debts, is usually defended, on the plea that the sole object of the law should be, in case of insolvency, not to coerce the person of the debtor, but to get at his property, and distribute it fairly among the creditors. Assuming that this is and ought to be the sole object, the mitigation of the law was in the first instance carried so far as to sacrifice that object. Imprisonment at the discretion of a creditor was really a powerful engine for extracting from the debtor any property which he had concealed or otherwise made away with; and it remains to be shown by experience whether, in depriving creditors of this instrument, the law, even as last amended, has furnished them with a sufficient equivalent. But the doctrine, that the law has done all that ought to be expected from it, when it has put the creditors in possession of the property of an insolvent, is in itself a totally inadmissible piece of spurious humanity. It is the business of law to prevent wrong-doing, and not simply to patch up the consequences of it when it has been committed. The law is bound to take care that insolvency shall not be a good pecuniary speculation; that men shall not have the privilege of hazarding other people’s property without their knowledge or consent, taking the profits of the enterprise if it is successful, and if it fails throwing the loss upon the rightful owners; and that they shall not find it answer to make themselves unable to pay their just debts, by spending the money of their creditors in personal indulgence. It is admitted that what is technically called fraudulent bankruptcy, the false pretence of inability to pay, is, when detected, properly subject to punishment. But does it follow that insolvency is not the consequence of misconduct because the inability to pay may be real? If a man has been a spendthrift, or a gambler, with property on which his creditors had a prior claim, shall he pass scot-free because the mischief is consummated and the money gone? Is there any very material difference in point of morality between this conduct, and those other kinds of dishonesty which go by the names of fraud and embezzlement?
Such cases are not a minority, but a large majority among insolvencies. The statistics of bankruptcy prove the fact. ‘By far the greater part of all insolvencies arise from notorious misconduct; the proceedings of the Insolvent Debtors Court and of the Bankruptcy Court will prove it. Excessive and unjustifiable overtrading, or most absurd speculation in commodities, merely because the poor speculator “thought they would get up”, but why he thought so he cannot tell; speculation in hops, in tea, in silk, in corn — things with which he is altogether unacquainted; wild and absurd investments in foreign funds, or in joint stocks; these are among the most innocent causes of bankruptcy.’10 The experienced and intelligent writer from whom I quote, corroborates his assertion by the testimony of several of the official assignees of the Bankruptcy Court. One of them says, ‘As far as I can collect from the books and documents furnished by the bankrupts, it seems to me that’ in the whole number of cases which occurred during a given time in the court to which he was attached, ‘fourteen have been ruined by speculations in thing with which they were unacquainted; three by neglecting bookkeeping; ten by trading beyond their capital and means, and the consequent loss and expense of accommodation bills; forty-nine by expending more than they could reasonably hope their profits would be, though their business yielded a fair return; none by any general distress, or the falling off of any particular branch of trade.’ Another of these officers says that, during a period of eighteen months, ‘fifty-two cases of bankruptcy have come under my care. It is my opinion that thirty-two of these have arisen from an imprudent expenditure, and five partly from that cause, and partly from a pressure on the business in which the bankrupts were employed. Fifteen I attribute to improvident speculations, combined in many instances with an extravagant mode of life.’
To these citations the author adds the following statements from his personal means of knowledge. ‘Many insolvencies are produced by tradesmen’s indolence: they keep no books, or at least imperfect ones, which they never balance; they never take stock; they employ servants, if their trade be extensive, whom they are too indolent even to supervise, and then become insolvent. It is not too much to say, that one-half of all the persons engaged in trade, even in London, never take stock at all: they go on year after year without knowing how their affairs stand, and at last, like the child at school, they find to their surprise, but one halfpenny left in their pocket. I will venture to say that not one-fourth of all the persons in the provinces, either manufacturers, tradesmen, or farmers, ever take stock; nor in fact does one-half of them ever keep account-books, deserving any other name than memorandum books. I know sufficient of the concerns of five hundred small tradesmen in the provinces, to be enabled to say, that not one.fifth of them ever take stock, or keep even the most ordinary accounts. I am prepared to say of such tradesmen, from carefully prepared tables, giving every advantage where there has been any doubt as to the causes of their insolvency, that where nine happen from extravagance or dishonesty, one’ at most ‘may be referred to misfortune alone.’11
Is it rational to expect among the trading classes any high sense of justice, honour, or integrity, if the law enables men who act in this manner to shuffle off the consequences of their misconduct upon those who have been so unfortunate as to trust them; and practically proclaims that it looks upon insolvency thus produced, as a ‘misfortune’, not an offence?
It is, of course, not denied, that insolvencies do arise from causes beyond the control of the debtor, and that, in many more cases, his culpability is not of a high order; and the law ought to make a distinction in favour of such cases, but not without a searching investigation; nor should the case ever be let go without having ascertained, in the most complete manner practicable, not the fact of insolvency, but the cause of it. To have been trusted with money or money’s worth, and to have lost or spent it, is prima facie evidence of something wrong: and it is not for the creditor to prove, which he cannot do in one case out of ten, that there has been criminality, but for the debtor to rebut the presumption, by laying open the whole state of affairs, and showing either that there has been no misconduct, or that the misconduct has been of an excusable kind. If he fail in this, he ought never to be dismissed without a punishment proportioned to the degree of blame which seems justly imputable to him; which punishment, however, might be shortened or mitigated in proportion as he appeared likely to exert himself in repairing the injury done.
It is a common argument with those who approve a relaxed system of insolvency laws, that credit, except in the great operations of commerce, is an evil; and that to deprive creditors of legal redress is a judicious means of preventing credit from being given. That which is given by retail dealers to unproductive consumers is, no doubt, to the excess to which it is carried, a considerably evil. This, however, is only true of large, and especially of long, credits; for there is credit whenever goods are not paid for before they quit the shop, or, at least, the custody of the seller; and there would be much inconvenience in putting an end to this sort of credit. But a large proportion of the debts on which insolvency laws take effect, are those due by small tradesmen to the dealers who supply them: and on no class of debts does the demoralization occasioned by a bad state of the law, operate more perniciously. These are commercial Credits, which no one wishes to see curtailed; their existence is of great importance to the general industry of the country, and to numbers of honest, well.conducted persons of small means, to whom it would be a great injury that they should be prevented from obtaining the accommodation they need, and would not abuse, through the omission of the law to provide just remedies against dishonest or reckless borrowers.
But though it were granted that retail transactions, on any footing but that of ready money payment, are an evil, and their entire suppression a fit subject for legislation to aim at; a worse mode of compassing that object could scarcely be invented, than to permit those who have been trusted by others to cheat and rob them with impunity. The law does not generally select the vices of mankind as the appropriate instrument for inflicting chastisement on the comparatively innocent. When it seeks to discourage any course of action, it does so by applying inducements of its own, not by outlawing those who act in the manner it deems objectionable, and letting loose the predatory instincts of the worthless part of mankind to feed upon them. If a man has committed murder the law condemns him to death; but it does not promise impunity to anybody who may kill him for the sake of taking his purse. The offence of believing another’s word, even rashly, is not so heinous that for the sake of discouraging it the spectacle should be brought home to every door, of triumphant rascality, with the law on its side, mocking the victims it has made. This pestilent example has been very widely exhibited since the relaxation of the insolvency laws. It is idle to expect that, even by absolutely depriving creditors of all legal redress, the kind of credit which is considered objectionable would really be very much checked. Rogues and swindlers are still an exception among mankind, and people will go on trusting each other’s promises. Large dealers, in abundant business, would refuse credit, as many of them already do: but in the eager competition of a great town, or the dependent position of a village shopkeeper, what can be expected from the tradesman to whom a single customer is of importance, the beginner, perhaps, who is striving to get into business? He will take the risk, even if it were still greater; he is ruined if he cannot sell his goods, and he can be ruined if he is defrauded. Nor does it avail to say, that he ought to make proper inquiries, and ascertain the character of those to whom he supplies good on trust. In some of the most flagrant cases of profligate debtors which have come before the Bankruptcy Court, the swindler had been able to give, and had given, excellent references.
1 Principles of Political Economy, ed. 1843, p. 264. There is much more to the same effect in the more recent treatise by the same author, ‘On the Succession to Property vacant by Death’.
2 Mr Cecil Fane, the Commissioner of the Bankruptcy Court, in his evidence before the Committee on the Law of Partnership, says “I remember a short time ago reading a written statement by two eminent solicitors, who said that they had known many partnership accounts go into Chancery, but that they never knew one come out . . . Very few of the persons who would be disposed to engage in partnerships of this kind’ (co-operative associations of working men) ‘have any idea of the truth, namely that the decision of questions arising amongst partners is really impracticable.
‘Do they not know that one partner may rob the other without any possibility of his obtaining redress? — The fact is so; but whether they know it or not, I cannot undertake to say.’
This flagrant injustice is, in Mr Fane’s opinion, wholly attributable to the defects of the tribunal. ‘My opinion is, that if there is one thing more easy than another, it is the settlement of partnership questions, and for the simple reason, that everything which is done in a partnership is entered mode of in the books; the evidence therefore is at hand; if therefore a rational mode of proceeding were once adopted, the difficulty would altogether vanish.’ — Minutes of Evidence annexed to the Report of the Select Committee on the Law of Partnership (1851), pp. 85–7.
3 Report, ut supra, p. 167.
4 See the Report already referred to, pp. 145–158.
5 The quotation is from a translation published by Mr H.C. Carey, in an American periodical, Hunt’s Merchant’s Magazine, for May and June 1845.
6 ‘There has been a great deal of commiseration professed,’ says Mr Duncan, solicitor, ‘towards the poor inventor; he has been oppressed by the high cost of patents; but his chief oppression has been the partnership law, which prevents his getting any one to help him to develop his invention. He is a poor man, and therefore cannot give security to a creditor; no one will lend him money; the rate of interest offered, however high it may be, is not an attraction. But if by the alteration of the law he could allow capitalists to take an interest with him and share the profits, while the risk should be confined to the capital they embarked, there is very little doubt at all that he would frequently get assistance from capitalists; whereas at the present moment, with the law as it stands, he is completely destroyed, and his invention is useless to him; he struggles month after month; he applies again and again to the capitalist without avail. I know it practically in two or three cases oF patented inventions; especially one where parties with capital were desirous oF entering into an undertaking of great moment in Liverpool, but five or six different gentlemen were deterred from doing so, all feeling the strongest objection to what each one called the cursed partnership law.’ Report, p. 155.
Mr Fane says, ‘in the course of my professional life, as a Commissioner of the Court of Bankruptcy, I have learned that the most unfortunate man in the world is an inventor. The difficulty which an inventor finds in getting at capital involves him in all sorts of embarrassments, and he ultimately is for the most part a ruined man, and somebody else gets possession of his invention.’ ib. p. 82.
7 It has been found possible to effect this through the Limited Liability Act, by erecting the capitalist and his workpeople into a Limited Company; as proposed by Messrs Briggs.
8 By an Act of the year 1852, called the industrial and Provident Societies Act, for which the nation is indebted to the public-spirited exertions of Mr Slaney, industrial associations of working people are admitted to the statutory privileges of Friendly Societies. This not only exempts them from the formalities applicable to joint-stock companies, but provides for the settlement of disputes among the partners without recourse to the Court of Chancery. There are still some defects in the provisions of this Act, which hamper the proceedings of the Societies in several respects; as is pointed out in the Almanack of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers for 1861.
9 In a note appended to his translation of M. Coquelin’s paper.
10 From a volume published in 1845, entitled Credit the Life of Commerce, by Mr J. H. Elliot.
11 pp. 50–1.
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