THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Monday, August 3, 2009

William Cobbett, "The Poor Man's (and Woman's) Friend," Part I

As faithful readers of this blog have seen, the working assumption of most economic theories is that the chief means to acquire and possess capital — credit — is available only to those who have already accumulated sufficient savings to invest, or who can persuade those who have saved to lend them the money. This, the basic assumption of Keynesian economics, seems to invalidate Say's Law of Markets. How can people purchase "capital and land" when they lack the means to do so, and jobs do not exist that enable them to sell their labor? Worse, what if the available jobs pay below the amount necessary either for the worker and his or her dependents to live in a manner befitting the demands of human dignity, or fail to clear all the goods and services that have been produced at market prices?

In the early 19th century, however, there was one answer: the United States of America. Until relatively late in the century, it was possible for almost anyone to come to the United States and, if willing to take the risks, gain a property stake ranging from the moderate to the gargantuan. In America of the early 1800s, the theories of Malthus were a dead letter. In 1829, one commentator referred to the United States as, "that anti-malthusian country where Malthus would certainly be burned alive." (William Cobbet, The Emigrant's Guide. Arlington, Virginia: Economic Justice Media, 2008, 189-190.)

William Cobbett was a champion of the poor and downtrodden in the late 18th and early 19th century in Great Britain. Unlike most such self-appointed authorities, however, he certainly chronicled the crimes of the wealthy and the government, but most of his efforts were directed to what was necessary to lift people out of poverty and empower them to resist the political and religious oppression of the English establishment.

In contrast to today's "conspiracy theorists" — whatever they might call themselves — Cobbett's goal was not to seek out and punish the presumably guilty. This program seems to be advocated in the hope that an ideal world will somehow spring up spontaneously like a phoenix out of the ashes of the old order once the criminals have been executed as painfully as possible. No, Cobbett's goal was to identify and promote what would make life better for the poor, not what would make life miserable for the rich.

That being the case, Cobbett's writings may seem at first simply a long catalogue of crimes and criminals. Nowhere, however (at least that I recall), is there any of the prevalent demands for punishment and vengeance that masquerade as a well-formed "social conscience" today. As G. K. Chesterton characterized Cobbett,
The chief mark of the modern man has been that he has gone through a landscape with his eyes glued to a guidebook, and could actually deny in the one, anything that he could not find in the other. One man, however, happened to look up from the book and see things for himself; he was a man of too impatient a temper, and later he showed too hasty a disposition to tear the book up or toss the book away. But there had been granted to him a strange and high and heroic sort of faith. He could believe his eyes. (William Cobbett, 1926)
Thus, seeing reality, Cobbett tried to focus on what would make things better, not what would make them worse. What we therefore see in any of his writings following the (extremely) long list of what is wrong in society, is something that many people today regard as a virtual obsession on Cobbett's part: widespread individual and joint ownership of the means of production. There were other things as well, but nothing seemed more calculated to inspire Cobbett's ire than denial of the natural right to be an owner of the means of production, for nothing else has the same capacity as property to empower people with control over their own lives.