Monday, September 19, 2011

More on William Thornton's "Plea"

For some reason last week's series on William Thornton's 1848 A Plea for Peasant Proprietors seems to have fired the imagination of a number of people. Maybe we'll have to come out with a "Just Third Way edition" or something. In the meantime, we thought we'd post an extract from the Appendix that Thornton added to his 1874 revision.

This appendix consists of some remarks made by Émile Louis Victor de Laveleye (1822-1892), a Belgian economist in favor of "primitive property." (It's not entirely clear, but "primitive property" might mean capital that the owner uses him- or herself in production, without being an "absentee owner.")

Anyway, here are the remarks by M. de Laveleye on "the Anti-Revolutionary Influence of Peasant Proprietorship" that appeared in the 1874 revision of A Plea for Peasant Proprietors:

It may be thought a matter for surprise that, in Flanders, feelings hostile to social order nevertheless do not manifest themselves, and that agrarian outrages are never perpetrated as in Ireland, although I think it certain that, in consequence of excessive competition, the Flemish farmer is much more ground down by his landlord than the Irish tenant. The fact that in Flanders, as in all countries in which landed property is distributed among a large number of owners, the ideas called socialist in the bad sense of the word do not obtain, is to be accounted for as follows:

"The Flemish tenant, although ground down by the constant rise of rents, lives among his equals, peasants like himself, who have tenants whom they use just as the large landowner does his. His father, his brother, perhaps the man himself, possesses something like an acre of land, which he lets at as high a rent as he can get. In the public house, peasant proprietors will boast of the high rents they get for their lands, just as they might boast of having sold their pigs or potatoes very dear. Letting at as high a rent as possible comes thus to seem to him to be quite a matter of course, and he never dreams of finding fault with either the landowners as a class, or with property in land. His mind is not likely to dwell on the notion of a caste of domineering landlords, of "bloodthirsty tyrants," fattening on the sweat of impoverished tenants, and doing no work themselves; for those who drive the hardest bargains are not the great landowners, but his own fellows. Thus the distribution of a number of small properties among the peasantry forms a kind of rampart and safeguard for the holders of large estates; and peasant property may, without exaggeration, be called the lightning conductor that averts from society dangers which might otherwise lead to violent catastrophes.

"The concentration of land in large estates among a small number of families is a sort of provocation of leveling legislative measures. The position of England, so enviable in many respects, seems to me to be in this respect full of danger for the future." (Cobden Club Essays, First Series, pp. 273 and 274.)

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