Previous Contents Index Next

An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



The objection stated. -- Such a state of society must have been preceded by great intellectual improvement. -- The manual labor required in this state will be extremely small. -- Universality of the love of distinction. -- Operation of this motive under the system in question -- Will finally be superseded by a better motive.
{818} Another objection which has been urged against the system which counteracts the accumulation of property, is, 'that it would put an end to industry. We behold in commercial countries the miracles that are operated by the love of gain. Their inhabitants cover the seas with their fleets, astonish mankind by the refinement of their ingenuity, hold vast continents in subjection in distant parts of the world by their arms, are able to defy the most powerful confederacies, and, oppressed with taxes and debts, seem to acquire fresh prosperity under their accumulated burthens. Shall we lightly part with a system that seems pregnant with such inexhaustible motives? Shall we believe that men will cultivate assiduously what they have no assurance {819} they shall be permitted to apply to their personal emolument? It will perhaps be found with agriculture as it is with commerce, which then flourishes best when subjected to no control but, when placed under rigid restraints, languishes and expires. Once establish it as a principle in society that no man is to apply to his personal use more than his necessities require, and you will find every man become indifferent to those exertions which now call forth the energy of his faculties. Man is the creature of sensations; and, when we endeavour to restrain his intellect, and govern him by reason alone, we do but show our ignorance of his nature. Self love is the genuine source of our actions1, and, if this should be found to bring vice and partiality along with it, yet the system that should endeavour to supersede it, would be at best no more than a beautiful romance. If each man found that, without being compelled to exert his own industry, he might lay claim to the superfluity of his neighbour, indolence would perpetually usurp his faculties, and such a society must either starve, or be obliged in its own defence to return to that system of injustice and sordid interest, which theoretical reasoners will for ever arraign to no purpose.'

This is the principle objection that prevents men from yielding without resistance to the accumulated evidence that has already been adduced. In reply, it may be observed in the first place, that the equality for which we are pleading is an equality {820} that would succeed to a state of great intellectual improvement. So bold a revolution cannot take place in human affairs, till the general mind has been highly cultivated. The present age of mankind is greatly enlightened; but it is to be feared is not yet enlightened enough. Hasty and undigested tumults may take place under the idea of an equalisation of property; but it is only a calm and clear conviction of justice, of justice mutually to be rendered and received, of happiness to be produced by the desertion of our most rooted habits, that can introduce an invariable system of this sort. Attempts without this preparation will be productive only of confusion. Their effect will be momentary, and a new and more barbarous inequality will succeed. Each man with an unaltered appetite will watch his opportunity to gratify his love of power or his love of distinction, by usurping on his inattentive neighbours.

Is it to be believed then that a state of so great intellectual improvement can be the forerunner of barbarism? Savages, it is true, are subject to the weakness of indolence. But civilised and refined states are the scene of peculiar activity. It is thought, acuteness of disquisition, and ardour of pursuit, that set the corporeal faculties at work. Thought begets thought. Nothing can put a stop to the progressive advances of mind, but oppression. But here, so far from being oppressed, every man is equal, every man independent and at his ease. It has been observed that the establishment of a republic is always attended with public enthusiasm and irresistible enterprise. Is it to be believed that equality, {821} the true republicanism, will be less effectual? It is true that in republics this spirit sooner or later is found to languish. Republicanism is not a remedy that strikes at the root of the evil. Injustice, oppression and misery can find an abode in those seeming happy seats. But what shall stop the progress of ardour and improvement, where the monopoly of property is unknown?

This argument will be strengthened, if we reflect on the amount of labour that a state of equal property will require. What is this quantity of exertion from which we are supposing many members of the community to shrink? It is so light a burthen as rather to assume the appearance of agreeable relaxation and gentle exercise, than of labour. In this community scarcely any can be expected in consequence of their situation or avocations to consider themselves as exempted from manual industry. There will be no rich men to recline in indolence and fatten upon the labour of their fellows. The mathematician, the poet and the philosopher will derive a new stock of chearfulness and energy from the recurring labour that makes them feel they are men. There will be no persons employed in the manufacture of trinkets and luxuries; and none in directing the wheels of the complicated machine of government, tax-gatherers, beadles, excisemen, tide-waiters, clerks and secretaries. There will be neither fleets nor armies, neither courtiers nor footmen. It is the unnecessary employments that at present occupy the great mass of the inhabitants of every civilised nation, while the peasant labours {822} incessantly to maintain them in a state more pernicious than idleness.

It has been computed that not more than one twentieth of the inhabitants of England are employed seriously and substantially in the labours of agriculture. Add to this, that the nature of agriculture is such, as necessarily to give full occupation in some parts of the year, and to leave others comparatively unemployed. We may consider these latter periods as equivalent to a labour which, under the direction of sufficient skill, might suffice in a simple state of society for the fabrication of tools, for weaving and the occupation of taylors, hakers and butchers. The object in the present state of society is to multiply labour, in another state it will be to simplify it. A vast disproportion of the wealth of the community has been thrown into the hands of a few, and ingenuity has been continually upon the stretch to find out ways in which it may be expended. In the feudal times the great lord invited the poor to come and eat of the produce of his estate upon condition of their wearing his livery, and forming themselves in rank and file to do honour to his well born guests. Now that exchanges are more facilitated, we have quitted this inartificial mode, and oblige the men we maintain out of our incomes to exert their ingenuity and industry in return. Thus in the instance just mentioned, we pay the taylor to cut our clothes to pieces, that he may sew them together again, and to decorate them with stitching and various ornaments, without which experience {823} would speedily show that they were in no respect less useful. We are imagining in the present case a state of the most rigid simplicity.

From the sketch which has been here given it seems by no means impossible, that the labour of every twentieth man in the community would be sufficient to maintain the rest in all the absolute necessaries of human life. If then this labour, instead of being performed by so small a number, were amicably divided among them all, it would occupy the twentieth part of every man's time. Let us compute that the industry of a labouring man engrosses ten hours in every day, which, when we have deduced his hours of rest, recreation and meals, seems an ample allowance. It follows that half an hour a day, seriously employed in manual labour by every member of the community, would sufficiently supply the whole with necessaries. Who is he that would shrink from this degree of industry? Who is there that sees the incessant industry exerted in this city and this island, and would believe that, with half an hour's industry per diem, we should be every way happier and better than we are at present? Is it possible to contemplate this fair and generous picture of independence and virtue, where every man would have ample leisure for the noble energies of mind, without feeling our very souls refreshed with admiration and hope?

When we talk of men's sinking into idleness if they be not {824} excited by the stimulus of gain, we have certainly very little considered the motives that at present govern the human mind. We are deceived by the apparent mercenariness of mankind, and imagine that the accumulation of wealth is their great object. But the case is for otherwise. The present ruling passion of the human mind is the love of distinction. There is no doubt a class in society that are perpetually urged by hunger and need, and have no leisure for motives less gross and material. But is the class next above them less industrious than they? I exert a certain species of industry to supply my immediate wants; but these wants are soon supplied. The rest is exerted that I may wear a better coat, that I may clothe my wife with gay attire, that I may not merely have a shelter but a handsome habitation, not merely bread or flesh to eat, but that I may set it out with a suitable decorum. How many of these things would engage my attention, if I lived in a desert island, and had no spectators of my economy? If I survey the appendages of my person, is there one article that is not an appeal to the respect of my neighbours, or a refuge against their contempt? It is for this that the merchant braves the dangers of the ocean, and the mechanical inventor brings forth the treasures of his meditation. The soldier advances even to the cannon's mouth, the statesman exposes himself to the rage of the indignant people, because they cannot bear to pass through life without distinction and esteem. Exclusively of certain higher motives that will presently be mentioned, this is the purpose of all the great exertions of mankind. The man who {825} has nothing to provide for but his animal wants, scarcely ever shakes off the lethargy of his mind; but the love of praise hurries us on to the most incredible achievements. Nothing is more common than to find persons who surpass the rest of their species in activity, inexcusably remiss in the melioration of their pecuniary affairs.

In reality those whom by this reasoning has been urged, have mistaken the nature of their own objection. They did not sincerely believe that men could be roused into action only by the love of gain; but they imagined that in a state of equal property men would have nothing to occupy their attention. What degree of truth there is in this idea we shall presently have occasion to estimate.

Meanwhile it is sufficiently obvious, that the motives which arise from the love of distinction are by no means cut off, by a state of society incompatible with the accumulation of property. Men, no longer able to acquire the esteem or avoid the contempt of their neighbours by circumstances of dress and furniture, will divert the passion for distinction into another channel. They will avoid the reproach of indolence, as carefully as they now avoid the reproach of poverty. The only persons who at present neglect the effect which their appearance and manners may produce, are those whose faces are ground with famine and distress. But in a state of equal society no man will be oppressed, {826} and of consequence the more delicate affections of the soul will have time to expand themselves. The general mind having, as we have already shown, arrived at a high pitch of improvement, the impulse that carries it into action will be stronger than ever. The fervour of public spirit will be great. Leisure will be multiplied, and the leisure of a cultivated understanding is the precise period in which great designs, designs the tendency of which is to secure applause and esteem, are conceived. In tranquil leisure it is impossible for any but the sublimest mind to exist without the passion for distinction. This passion, no longer permitted to lose itself in indirect channels and useless wanderings, will seek the noblest course, and perpetually fructify the seeds of public good. Mind, though it will perhaps at no time arrive at the termination of its possible discoveries and improvements, will nevertheless advance with a rapidity and firmness of progression of which we are at present unable to conceive the idea.

The love of fame is no doubt a delusion. This like every other delusion will take its turn to be detected and abjured. It is an airy phantom, which will indeed afford us an imperfect pleasure so long as we worship it, but will always in a considerable degree disappoint us, and will not stand the test of examination. We ought to love nothing but good, a pure and immutable felicity, the good of the majority, the good of the general. If there be any thing more substantial than all the rest, it is {827} justice, a principle that rests upon this single postulatum, that man and man are beings of the same nature, and susceptible, under certain limitations, of the same advantages. Whether the benefit proceed from you or me, so it be but conferred, is a pitiful distinction. Justice has the farther advantage, which serves us as a countercheck to prove the goodness of this species of arithmetic, of producing the only solid happiness to the man by whom it is practised, as well as the good of all. But fame cannot benefit me, any more than serve the best purposes to others. The man who acts from the love of it, may produce public good; but, if he do, it is from indirect and spurious views. Fame is an unsubstantial and delusive pursuit. If it signify an opinion entertained of me greater than I deserve, to purstle it is vicious. If it be the precise mirror of my character, it is desirable only as a means, in as much as I may perhaps be able to do most good to the persons who best know the extent of my capacity and the rectitude of my intentions.

The love of fame, when it perishes in minds formed under the present system, often gives place to a greater degeneracy. Selfishness is the habit that grows out of monopoly. When therefore this selfishness ceases to seek its gratification in public exertion, it too often narrows itself into some frigid conception of personal pleasure, perhaps sensual, perhaps intellectual. But this cannot be the process where monopoly is banished. Selfishness has there no kindly circumstances to foster it. Truth, the overpowering {828} truth of general good, then seizes us irresistibly. It is impossible we should want motives, so long as we see clearly how multitudes and ages may be benefited by our exertions, how causes and effects are connected in an endless chain, so that no honest effort can be lost, but will operate to good, centuries after its author is consigned to the grave. This will be the general passion, and all will be animated by the example of it.


1. For an examination of this principle for Book IV, Chap. VIII.