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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Nature of the objection. -- Natural and moral independence distinguished -- The first beneficial -- The second injurious. -- Tendency of restriction properly so called. -- The genuine system of property not a system of restrictions -- Does not require common labour, meals or magazines. -- Such restrictions absurd -- And unnecessary. -- Evils of cooperation. -- Its province may perpetually be diminished. -- Manual labour may be extinguished. -- Consequent activity of intellect. -- Ideas of the future state of cooperation. -- Its limits. -- Its illegitimate province. -- Evils of cohabitation -- And marriage. -- They oppose the development of our faculties -- Are inimical to our happiness -- And deprave our understandings. -- Marriage a branch of the prevailing system of property -- Consequences of its abolition. -- Education need not in that state of society be a subject of positive institution. -- These {840} principles do not lead to a sullen individuality. -- Partial attachments considered. -- Benefits accruing from a just affection -- Materially promoted by these principles. -- The genuine system of property does not prohibit accumulation -- Implies a certain degree of appropriation -- And division of labour.
An objection that has often been urged against a system of equal property, is, 'that it is inconsistent with personal independence. Every man according to this scheme is a passive instrument in the hands of the community. He must eat and drink, and play and sleep at the bidding of others. He has no habitation, no period at which he can retreat into himself, and not ask another's leave. He has nothing that he can call his own, not even his time or his person. Under the appearance of a perfect freedom from oppression and tyranny, he is in reality subjected to the most unlimited slavery.'

To understand the force of this objection it is necessary that we should distinguish two sorts of independence, one of which may be denominated natural, and the other moral. Natural independence, a freedom from all constraint except that of reason and argument presented to the understanding, is of the utmost importance to the welfare and improvement of mind. Moral independence on the contrary is always injurious. The dependence which {841} is essential in this respect to the wholsome temperament of society, includes in it articles that are no doubt unpalatable to the multitude of the present race of mankind, but that owe their unpopularity only to weakness and vice. It includes a censure to be exercised by every individual over the actions of another, a promptness to enquire into them, and to judge them. Why should I shrink from this? What could be more beneficial than for each man to derive every possible assistance for correcting and moulding his conduct from the perspicacity of his neighbours? The reason why this species of censure is at present exercised with illiberality, is because it is exercised clandestinely and we submit to its operation with impatience and aversion. Moral independence is always injurious: for, as has abundantly appeared in the course of the present enquiry, there is no situation in which I can be placed, where it is not incumbent upon me to adopt a certain species of conduct in preference to all others, and of consequence where I shall not prove an ill member of society, if I act in any other than a particular manner. The attachment that is felt by the present race of mankind to independence in this respect, the desire to act as they please without being accountable to the principles of reason, is highly detrimental to the general welfare.

But, if we ought never to act independently of the principles of reason, and in no instance to shrink from the candid examination of another, it is nevertheless essential that we should at all times be free to cultivate the individuality and follow the dictates {842} of our own judgment. If there be any thing in the scheme of equal property that infringes this principle, the objection is conclusive. If the scheme be, as it has often been represented, a scheme of government, constraint and regulation, it is no doubt in direct hostility with the principles of this work.

But the truth is, that a system of equal property requires no restrictions or superintendence whatever. There is no need of common labour, common meals or common magazines. These are feeble and mistaken instruments for restraining the conduct without making conquest of the judgment. If you cannot bring over the hearts of the community to your party, expect no success from brute regulations. If you can, regulation is unnecessary. Such a system was well enough adapted to the military constitution of Sparta; but it is wholly unworthy of men who are enlisted in no cause but that of reason and justice. Beware of reducing men to the state of machines. Govern them through no medium but that of inclination and conviction.

Why should we have common meals? Am I obliged to be hungry at the same time that you are? Ought I to come at a certain hour, from the museum where I am working, the recess where I meditate, or the observatory where I remark the phenomena of nature, to a certain hall appropriated to the office of eating instead of eating, as reason bids me, at the time and place most suited to my avocations? Why have common magazines? {843} For the purpose of carrying our provisions a certain distance, that we may afterwards bring them back again? Or is this precaution really necessary, after all that has been said in praise of equal society and the omnipotence of reason, to guard us against the knavery and covetousness of our associates? If it be, for God's sake let us discard the parade of political justice, and go over to the standard of those reasoners who say, that man and the practice of justice are incompatible with each other.

Once more let us be on our guard against reducing men to the condition of brute machines. The objectors of the last chapter were partly in the right when they spoke of the endless variety of mind. It would be absurd to say that we are no capable of truth, of evidence and agreement. In these respects, so far as mind is in a state of progressive improvement, we are perpetually coming nearer to each other. But there are subjects about which we shall continually differ, and ought to differ. The ideas, the associations and the circumstances of each man are properly his own; and it is a pernicious system that would lead us to require all men, however different their circumstances, to act in many of the common affairs of life by a precise general rule. Add to this, that, by the doctrine of progressive improvement, we shall always be erroneous, though we shall every day become less erroneous. The proper method for hastening the decay of error, is not, by brute force, or by regulation which is one of the classes of force, {844} to endeavour to reduce men to intellectual uniformity; but on the contrary by teaching every man to think for himself.

From these principles it appears that every thing that is usually understood by the term cooperation, is in some degree an evil. A man in his solitude, is obliged to sacrifice or postpone the execution of his best thoughts to his own convenience. How many admirable designs have perished in the conception by means of this circumstance? The true remedy is for men to reduce their wants to the fewest possible, and as much as possible to simplify the mode of supplying them. It is still worse when a man is also obliged to consult the convenience of others. If I be expected to eat or work in conjunction with my neighbour, it must either be at a time most convenient to me, or to him, or to neither of us. We cannot be reduced to a clock-work uniformity.

Hence it follows that all supererogatory cooperation is carefully to be avoided, common labour and common meals. 'But what shall we say to cooperation that seems to be dictated by the work to be performed?' It ought to be diminished. At present it is unreasonable to doubt, that the consideration of the evil of cooperation is in certain urgent cases to be postponed to that urgency. Whether by the nature of things cooperation of some sort will always be necessary, is a question that we are scarcely competent to decide. At present, to pull down a tree, to {845} cut a canal, to navigate a vessel, requires the labour of many. Will it always require the labour of many? When we look at the complicated machines of human contrivance, various sorts of mills, of weaving engines, of steam engines, are we not astonished at the compendium of labour they produce? Who shall say where this species of improvement must stop? At present such inventions alarm the labouring part of the community; and they may be productive of temporary distress, though they conduce in the sequel to the most important interests of the multitude. But in a state of equal labour their utility will be liable to no dispute. Hereafter it is by no means clear that the most extensive operations will not be brought within the reach of one man; or, to make use of a familiar instance, that a plough may not be turned into a field, and perform its office without superintendence. It was in this sense that the celebrated Franklin conjectured, that 'mind would one day become omnipotent over matter.'

The conclusion of the progress which has here been sketched, is something like a final close to the necessity of manual labour. It is highly instructive in such cases to observe how the sublime geniuses of former times anticipated what seems likely to be the future improvement of mankind. It was one of the laws of Lycurgus, that no Spartan should be employed in manual labour. For this purpose under his system it was necessary that they should be plentifully supplied with slaves devoted to drudgery. Matter, or, {846} to speak more accurately, the certain and unintermitting laws of the universe, will be the Helots of the period we are contemplating. We shall end in this respect, oh immortal legislator! at the point from which you began.

To these prospects perhaps the objection will once again be repeated, 'that men, delivered from the necessity of manual labour, will sink into stupidness.' What narrow views of the nature and capacities of mind do such objections imply? The only thing necessary to put intellect into action is motive. Are there no motives equally cogent with the prospect of hunger? Whose thoughts are most active, most rapid and unwearied, those of Newton or the ploughman? When the mind is stored with prospects of intellectual greatness and utility, can it sink into torpor?

To return to the subject of cooperation. It may be a curious speculation to attend to the progressive steps by which this feature of human society may be expected to decline. For example: shall we have concerts of music? The miserable state of mechanism of the majority of the performers is so conspicuous, as to be even at this day a topic of mortification and ridicule. Will it not be practicable hereafter for one man to perform the whole? Shall we have theatrical exhibitions? This seems to include an absurd and vicious cooperation. It may be doubted whether men will hereafter come forward in any mode gravely to repeat words and ideas not their own? It may be doubted whether any musical {847} performer will habitually exercise the compositions of others. We yield supinely to the superior merit of our predecessors, because we are accustomed to indulge the inactivity of our own faculties. All formal repetition of other men's ideas seems to be a scheme for imprisoning for so long a time the operations of our own mind. It borders perhaps in this respect upon a breach of sincerity, which requires that we should give immediate utterance to every useful and valuable idea that occurs to our thoughts.

Having ventured to state these hints and conjectures, let us endeavour to mark the limits of individuality. Every man that receives an impression from any external object, has the current of his own thoughts modified by force; and yet without external impressions we should be nothing. We ought not, except under certain limitations, to endeavour to free ourselves from their approach. Every man that reads the composition of another, suffers the succession of his ideas to be in a considerable degree under the direction of his author. But it does not seem as if this would ever form a sufficient objection against reading. One man will always have stored up reflections and facts that another wants; and mature and digested discourse will perhaps always, in equal circumstances, be superior to that which is extempore. Conversation is a species of cooperation, one or the other party always yielding to have his ideas guided by the other: and yet conversation and the intercourse of mind with mind seem to be the most fertile sources of improvement. It is here as it is with punishment. He that {848} in the gentlest manner undertakes to reason another out of his vices, will probably occasion pain; but this species of punishment ought upon no account to be superseded.

Another article which belongs to the subject of cooperation is cohabitation. A very simple process will lead us to a right decision in this instance. Science is most effectually cultivated, when the greatest number of minds are employed in the pursuit of it. If an hundred men spontaneously engage the whole energy of their faculties upon the solution of a given question, the chance of success will be greater, than if only ten men were so employed. By the same reason the chance will be also increased, in proportion as the intellectual operations of these men are individual, in proportion as their conclusions are directed by the reason of the thing, uninfluenced by the force either of compulsion or sympathy. All attachments to individuals, except in proportion to their merits, are plainly unjust. It is therefore desirable, that we should be the friends of man rather than of particular men, and that we should pursue the chain of our own reflexions, with no other interruption than information or philanthropy requires.

This subject of cohabitation is particularly interesting, as it includes in it the subject of marriage. It will therefore be proper to extend our enquiries somewhat further upon this head. Cohabitation is not only an evil as it checks the independent progress of mind; it is also inconsistent with the imperfections and propensities {849} of man. It is absurd to expect that the inclinations of two human beings should coincide through any long period of time. To oblige them to act and live together, is to subject them to some inevitable portion of thwarting, bickering and unhappiness. This cannot be otherwise, so long as man has failed to reach the standard of absolute perfection. The supposition that I must have a companion for life, is the result of a complication of vices. It is the dictate of cowardice, and not of fortitude. It flows from the desire of being loved and esteemed for something that is not desert.

But the evil of marriage as it is practised in European countries lies deeper than this. The habit is, for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex to come together, to see each other for a few times and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow to each other eternal attachment. What is the consequence of this? In almost every instance they find themselves deceived. They are reduced to make the best of an irretrievable mistake. They are presented with the strongest imaginable temptation to become the dupes of falshood. They are led to conceive it their wisest policy to shut their eyes upon realities, happy if by any perversion of intellect they can persuade themselves that they were right in their first crude opinion of their companion. The institution of marriage is a system of fraud; and men who carefully mislead their judgments in the daily affair of their life, must always have a crippled judgment in every other {850} concern. We ought to dismiss our mistake as soon as it is detected; but we are taught to cherish it. We ought to be incessant in our search after virtue and worth; but we are taught to check our enquiry, and shut our eyes upon the most attractive and admirable objects. Marriage is law, and the worst of all laws. Whatever our understandings may tell us of the person from whose connexion we should derive the greatest improvement, of the worth of one woman and the demerits of another, we are obliged to consider what is law, and not what is justice.

Add to this, that marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties. So long as two human beings are forbidden by positive institution to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice is alive and vigorous. So long as I seek to engross one woman to myself, and to prohibit my neighbour from proving his superior desert and reaping the fruits of it, I am guilty of the most odious of all monopolies. Over this imaginary prize men watch with perpetual jealousy, and one man will find his desires and his capacity to circumvent as much excited, as the other is excited to traverse his projects and frustrate his hopes. As long as this state of society continues, philanthropy will be crossed and checked in a thousand ways, and the still augmenting stream of abuse will continue to flow.

The abolition of marriage will be attended with no evils. We are apt to represent it to ourselves as the harbinger of brutal {851} lust and depravity. But it really happens in this as in other cases, that the positive laws which are made to restrain our vices, irritate and multiply them. Not to say, that the same sentiments of justice and happiness which in a state of equal property would destroy the relish for luxury, would decrease our inordinate appetites of every kind, and lead us universally to prefer the pleasures of intellect to the pleasures of sense.

The intercourse of the sexes will in such a state fail under the same system as any other species of friendship. Exclusively of all groundless and obstinate attachments, it will be impossible for me to live in the world without finding one man of a worth superior to that of any other whom I have an opportunity of observing. To this man I shall feel a kindness in exact proportion to my apprehension of his worth. The case will be precisely the same with respect to the female sex. I shall assiduously cultivate the intercourse of that woman whose accomplishments shall strike me in the most powerful manner. 'But it may happen that other men will feel for her the same preference that I do.' This will create no difficulty. We may all enjoy her conversation; and we shall all be wise enough to consider the sensual intercourse as a very trivial object. This, like every other affair in which two persons are concerned, must be regulated in each successive instance by the unforced consent of either party. It is a mark of the extreme depravity of our present habits, that we are inclined to suppose the sensual intercourse any wise material to the advantages arising from the purest affection. Reasonable men now {852} eat and drink, not from the love of pleasure, but because eating and drinking are essential to our healthful existence. Reasonable men then will propagate their species, not because a certain sensible pleasure is annexed to this action, but because it is right the species should be propagated; and the manner in which they exercise this function will be regulated by the dictates of reason and duty.

Such are some of the considerations that will probably regulate the commerce of the sexes. It cannot be definitively affirmed whether it be known in such a state of society who is the father of each individual child. But it may be affirmed that such knowledge will be of no importance. It is aristocracy, self love and family pride that teach us to set a value upon it at present. I ought to prefer no human being to another, because that being is my father, my wife or my son, but because, for reasons which equally appeal to all understandings that being is entitled to preference. One among the measures which will successively be dictated by the spirit of democracy, and that probably at no great distance, is the abolition of surnames.

Let us consider the way in which this state of society will modify education. It may be imagined that the abolition of marriage would make it in a certain sense the affair of the public; though, if there be any truth in the reasonings of this work, to provide for it by the positive institutions of a community, would be extremely inconsistent with the true principles of the {853} intellectual system1. Education may be regarded as consisting of various branches. First, the personal cares which the helpless state of an infant requires. These will probably devolve upon the mother; unless, by frequent parturition or by the very nature of these cares, that were found to render her share of the burthen unequal; and then it would he amicably and willingly participated by others. Secondly, food and other necessary supplies. These, as we have already seen, would easily find their true level, and spontaneously flow from the quarter in which they abounded to the quarter that was deficient2. Lastly, the term education may be used to signify instruction. The task of instruction, under such a form of society as that we are contemplating, will be greatly simplified and altered from what it is at present. It will then be thought no more legitimate to make boys slaves, than to make men so. The business will not then be to bring forward so many adepts in the egg-shell, that the vanity of parents may be flattered by hearing their praises. No man will then think of vexing with premature learning the feeble and inexperienced, for fear that, when they came to years of discretion, they should refuse to be learned. Mind will be suffered to expand itself in proportion as occasion and impression shall excite it, and not tortured and enervated by being cast in a particular mould. No creature in human form will be expected to learn any thing, but because he desires it and has some conception of {854} its utility and value; and every man, in proportion to his capacity, will be ready to furnish such general hints and comprehensive views, as will suffice for the guidance and encouragement of him who studies from a principle of desire.

Before we quit this part of the subject it will be necessary to obviate an objection that will suggest itself to some readers. They will say 'that man was formed for society and reciprocal kindness; and therefore is by his nature little adapted to the system of individuality which is here delineated. The true perfection of man is to blend and unite his own existence with that of another, and therefore a system which forbids him all partialities and attachments, tends to degeneracy and not to improvement.'

No doubt man is formed for society. But there is a way in which for a man to lose his own existence in that of others, that is eminently vicious and detrimental. Every man ought to rest upon his own centre, and consult his own understanding. Every man ought to feel his independence, that he can assert the principles of justice and truth, without being obliged treacherously to adapt them to the peculiarities of his situation, and the errors of others.

No doubt man is formed for society. But he is formed for, or in other words his faculties enable him to serve, the whole {855} and not a part. Justice obliges us to sympathise with a man of merit more fully than with an insignificant and corrupt member of society. But all partialities strictly so called, tend to the injury of him who feels them, of mankind in general, and even of him who is their object. The spirit of partiality is well expressed in the memorable saying of Themistocles, 'God forbid that I should sit upon a bench of justice, where my friends found no more favour than strangers!' In fact, as has been repeatedly seen in the course of this work, we sit in every action of our lives upon a bench of justice; and play in humble imitation the part of the unjust judge, whenever we indulge the smallest atom of partiality.

Such are the limitations of the social principle. These limitations in reality tend to improve it and render its operations beneficial. It would be a miserable mistake to suppose that the principle is not of the utmost importance to mankind. All that in which the human mind differs from the intellectual principle in animals is the growth of society. All that is excellent in man is the fruit of progressive improvement, of the circumstance of one age taking advantage of the discoveries of a preceding age, and setting out from a point at which they had arrived.

Without society we should be wretchedly deficient in motives to improvement. But what is most of all, without society our improvements would be nearly useless. Mind without benevolence {856} is a barren and cold existence. It is in seeking the good of others, in embracing a great and expansive sphere of action, in forgetting our own individual interests, that we find our true element. The tendency of the whole system delineated in this Book is to lead us to that element. The individuality it recommends tends to the good of the whole, and is valuable only as a means to that end. Can that be termed a selfish system, where no man desires luxury, no man dares be guilty of injustice, and every one devotes himself to supply the wants, animal or intellectual, of others? To proceed.

As a genuine state of society is incompatible with all laws and restrictions, so it cannot have even this restriction, that no man shall amass property. The security against accumulation, as has already been said, lies in the perceived absurdity and inutility of accumulation. The practice, if it can be conceived in a state of society where the principles of justice were adequately understood would not even be dangerous. The idea would not create alarm, as it is apt to do in prospect among the present advocates of political justice. Men would feel nothing but their laughter or their pity excited at so strange a perversity of human intellect.

What would denominate any thing my property? The fact, that it was necessary to my welfare. My right would be coeval with the existence of that necessity. The word property would {857} probably remain; its signification only would be modified. The mistake does not so properly lie in the idea itself, as in the source from which it is traced. What I have, if it be necessary for my use, is truly mine; what I have, though the fruit of my own industry, if unnecessary, it is an usurpation for me to retain.

Force in such a state of society would be unknown; I should part with nothing without a full consent. Caprice would he unknown; no man would covet that which I used, unless he distinctly apprehended that it would be more beneficial in his possession than in mine. My apartment would be as sacred to a certain extent, as it is at present. No man would obtrude himself upon me to interrupt the course of my studies and meditations. No man would feel the whim of occupying my apartment, while he could provide himself another as good of his own. That which was my apartment yesterday would probably be my apartment to-day. We have few pursuits that do not require a certain degree of apparatus; and it would be for the general good that I should find in ordinary cases the apparatus ready for my use to-day that I left yesterday. But though the idea of property thus modified would remain, the jealousy and selfishness of property would be gone. Bolts and locks would be unknown. Every man would be welcome to make every use of my accommodations, that did not interfere with my own use of them. Novices as we are, we may figure {858} to ourselves a thousand disputes, where property is held by so slight a tenure. But disputes would in reality be impossible. They are the offspring of a mishapen and disproportioned love of ourselves. Do you want my table? Make one for yourself; or, if I be more skilful in that respect than you, I will make one for you. Do you want it immediately? Let us compare the urgency of your wants and mine, and let justice decide.

These observations lead us to the consideration of one additional difficulty which relates to the division of labour. Shall each man make all his tools, his furniture and accommodations? This would perhaps be a tedious operation. Every man performs the task to which he is accustomed more skilfully and in a shorter time than another. It is reasonable that you should make for me, that which perhaps I should be three or four times as long making, and should make imperfectly at last. Shall we then introduce barter and exchange? By no means. The abstract spirit of exchange will perhaps govern; every man will employ an equal portion of his time in manual labour. But the individual application of exchange is of all practices the most pernicious. The moment I require any other reason for supplying you than the cogency of your claim, the moment, in addition to the dictates of benevolence, I demand a prospect of advantage to myself, there is an end of that political justice and pure society of which we treat. No man will have a trade. It cannot be supposed that a man will construct any species of commodity, but in {859} proportion as it is wanted. The possession paramount to all others and in which every man will bear his part, will be that of man, and in addition perhaps that of cultivator.

The division of labour, as it has been treated by commercial writers, is for the most part the offspring of avarice. It has been found that ten persons can make two hundred and forty times as many pins in a day as one person3. This refinement is the growth of luxury. The object is to see into how vast a surface the industry of the lower classes may be beaten, the more completely to gild over the indolent and the proud. The ingenuity of the merchant is whetted, by new improvements of this sort to transport more of the wealth of the powerful into his own coffers. The possibility of effecting a compendium of labour by this means will be greatly diminished, when men shall learn to deny themselves superfluities. The utility of such a saving of labour, where labour is so little, will scarcely balance against the evils of so extensive a cooperation. From what has been said under this head it appears, that there will be a division of labour, if we compare the society in question with the state of the solitaire and the savage. But it will produce an extensive composition of labour, if we compare it with that to which we are at present accustomed in civilised Europe.


1. Book VI, Chap. VIII.

2. Chap. V, p. 837.

3. Smith's Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chap. I.