Tuesday, February 03, 2004

On The Need To Respect Private Property

Property (1864?)

by Louis-François-Michel-Raymond Wolowski (1810-1876)


Pierre Émile Levasseur (1828-1911)


Property and the family are two ideas, for the attack and defense of which legions of writers have taken up arms during the last half century. Recent systems, founded upon old errors, but revived by the popular emotions which they aroused, have in vain disturbed, misrepresented, sometimes even denied, them. These ideas express necessary facts, which, under diverse forms, have been and will always be coming forth; they may thus be justly regarded as the fundamental principles of all political society, because from them originate, to a great extent, the two principal objects which concern social laws, namely, the rights of man over things, and his duties toward his fellow-men.

The Right of Property


If man acquires rights over things, it is because he is at once active, intelligent and free; by his activity he spreads over external nature; by his intelligence he governs it, and bends it to his use; by his liberty, he establishes between himself and it the relation of cause and effect and makes it his own.


Nature has not for man the provident tenderness imagined by the philosophers of the eighteenth century, and dreamed of before them by the poets of antiquity when they described the golden age. She does not lavish her treasures in order to make life flow smoothly along in abundance and idleness for mortals; on the contrary, she is severe, and yields her treasures only at the price of constant labor; she maltreats those who have not sufficient strength or intelligence to subdue her, and when we consider the primitive races whom the arts of civilization had not yet raised above her, we may ask ourselves, with Pliny, if she did not show herself a step-mother rather than a mother. Left to itself, the earth presents here deserts, there marshes or inextricable forests; the most fertile portions are ordinarily the most inaccessible, because, situated in the valleys, they are encroached upon by stagnant waters, and infected by the miasms which exhale from them, or haunted by noxious animals that seek their food there; poisonous plants grow among the nutritious ones, without any outward sign by which to distinguish them, while yet we have not the warning of instinct which the animals have. The best fruits themselves have as yet, for the most part, only a coarse savor before cultivation has corrected their bitterness. Doubtless man can live, as he has, amidst this indifferent or hostile nature; but he would live there, timid and fearful as the roe of the forests, isolated, or collected in small groups, and lost in the immense spaces, in which his frail existence would be but an accident in the luxuriant life of organized beings; he would not feel himself at home, and would in very fact be like a stranger on an earth which he would not have fashioned according to his will, and where he would be neither the swiftest in the chase, the best protected against cold, nor the best armed for strife.


What even now distinguished him from other creatures, in this state of profound barbarism, were the divine powers of soul with which he was gifted. However torpid they might as yet have been, they would have taught him, without any doubt, to emerge from his nakedness and his feebleness: from the earliest times, they would have suggested the means of arming his hand with an axe of stone, like whose which, buried in the calcareous deposits of another age, tell us to-day of the miserable beginning of our race upon the globe; they would have taught him to protect his body against the cold with the skin of the bear, and to shield his home and family from the attacks of ferocious beasts by arranging a cave for his use or building a hut in the midst of water, not far from the shore of a lake. But already man would have left upon matter some impress of his personality, and the reign of property would have begun.


When centuries have elapsed, and generations have accumulated their labors, where is there, in a civilized country, a clod of earth, a leaf, which does not bear this impress? In the town, we are surrounded by the works of man; we walk upon a level pavement or a beaten road; it is man who made healthy the formerly muddy soil, who took from the side of a far-away hill the flint or stone which covers it. We live in houses; it is man who has dug the stone from the quarry, who has hewn it, who has planed the woods; it is the thought of man which has arranged the materials properly and made a building of what was before rock and wood. And in the country, the action of man is still everywhere present; men have cultivated the soil, and generations of laborers have mellowed and enriched it; the works of man have dammed the rivers and created fertility where the waters had brought only desolation; to-day man goes as far as to people the rivers, to direct the growth of fish, and takes possession of the empire of the waters. We reap the wheat, our principal food. Where is it found in a wild state? Wheat is a domestic plant, a species transformed by man for the wants of man. Thus products, natives of countries most diverse have been brought together, grafted, modified by man for the adornment of the garden, the pleasures of the table, or the labors of the workshop. The very animals, from the dog, man’s companion, to the cattle raised for the shambles have been fashioned into new types which deviate sensibly from the primitive type given by nature. Everywhere a powerful hand is divined which has moulded matter, and an intelligent will which has adapted it, following a uniform plan, to the satisfaction of the wants of one same being. Nature has recognized her master, and man feels that he is at home in nature. Nature has been appropriated by him for his use; she has become his own; she is his property.

Read More Wolowski & Levasseur On Property

Note on the Authors:

“Another prominent economist was the Pole Louis Wolowski (1810-76), a brother-in-law of Michel Chevalier. Born in Warsaw, Wolowski emigrated to France in 1834, founding and editing for many years the Revue de législation et jurisprudence. Possessor of a doctorate of law and another in political economy, Wolowski was to become a banker, statesman and professor as well as being associated for many years with the Journal des Économistes. Wolowski’s nephew, Émile Levasseur (1828-1911) became a prominent economic historian and successor to Baudrillart at the Collège de France. Levasseur published a well-known work on the Histoire des classes ouvrières en France (History of the Working Classes in France) (1859) and, in 1867, published a Précis d’Économie Politique, which went into many editions. Wolowski and Levasseur, it should be noted, wrote a scintillating joint article in defence of property rights, on ‘Property’, for Lalor’s three-volume Cyclopedia of Political Science, published in the United States in 1884.”

– Murray N. Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 2, p. 443.

Note on the Text:

This article on property, drawn from John J. Lalor, ed., Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and of the Political History of the United States; By the Best American and European Writers, Vol. III (New York: Charles E. Merrill & Co., 1888) [reprinted from: Chicago: M. B. Cary & Co., 1884], pp. 391-95, turns out, after some detective work, not to have been “written for” Lalor’s Cyclopædia, but rather to be a condensation, by an unknown translator, of a still longer article by Wolowki and Levasseur, likewise on property, in Maurice Block, ed., Dictionnaire général de la politique, 2nd ed. (Paris: E. Perrin, 1884) [original edition: Paris: O. Lorenz, 1863-4], tome II, pp. 710-21. In a note to the French original, Wolowski informs us that Levasseur took over the writing of the article during Wolowski’s illness, so that while the article expresses the opinions of both authors, its final manner of expression is primarily Levasseur’s. We plan in due course to translate and post both the French original and a complete English translation (including Wolowski’s critique of intellectual property); in the meantime we provide the truncated Lalor version both for its intrinsic interest and for its possible influence on Rothbard, who cites it favorably in several of his works. – Roderick T. Long

My great thanks to Prof. Long and the Molinari Institute.

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