In order to make life easier for us (at least today), we’re having a short break in our series on “Raw Judicial Power” and posting the second of three parts of our foreword to William Thomas Thornton’s A Plea for Peasant Proprietors. Our new annotated edition is starting to generate a little interest in some quarters. Take advantage of the free download on the “Plea” website and (if the spirit moves you) you can get a 20% discount on purchases in bulk (10 or more copies) . . . plus shipping. Or you can just go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and get an individual copy.
So why all the fuss? Especially at this time of year when “everybody” is focused on the March for Life or the Republican shenanigans in trying to pick someone who can defeat President Obama when they’d be better off trying to find somebody who can do the job better instead of no worse.
Thornton's proposal was a logical development of an analysis he had published two years before. In his first major work in 1846, Over-Population and Its Remedy, (William Thomas Thornton, London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1846.) Thornton refuted Thomas Malthus's scarcity-based theories. Thornton's analysis in A Plea for Peasant Proprietors countered an idea implicit in Malthus's Essay: that ownership of capital must be concentrated if the rich are to accumulate sufficient savings to finance new capital and provide jobs for workers who own nothing except consumer goods and their own labor. Like other philosophers and political scientists through the ages, (A brief list includes Aristotle, the Gracchi (noted by Thornton), Plutarch, the 6th century Byzantine "Farmers' Law," John Locke, George Mason, William Cobbett, Benjamin Watkins Leigh, and Daniel Webster.) Thornton made clear that a program of widespread capital ownership has the potential to make people politically as well as economically free.
Nor did Thornton ignore the rights or concerns of propertyless non-agricultural workers. In fact, Thornton's proposal bears a striking resemblance to that of Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (See Louis O. Kelso and Mortimer Adler, The Capitalist Manifesto. New York: Random House, 1958; The New Capitalists. New York: Random House, 1961) In 1869, Thornton published A Treatise On Labour: Its Wrongful Claims and Rightful Dues, Its Actual Present and Possible Future, (London: Macmillan and Company, 1869) revising it in 1870. This work strengthened his point that the only solution to the conflict between "labor" and "capital" is for workers and owners to form an alliance, with workers becoming owners with defined rights to profits and control. As he summarized the benefits of such an alliance,
"For mistrust and dislike or indifference on the one side, and for envy and jealousy on the other, would be substituted something of that fellow-feeling which can scarcely help growing up between those who, in serving themselves, are helping each other. With those laborers who had taken shares, some sympathy with capital would tincture the old headlong passion in favor of labor. With those who had not yet become shareholders the possibility of their becoming so subsequently would have a like effect." (William Thomas Thornton, On Labour: Its Wrongful Claims and Rightful Dues, Its Actual Present and Possible Future, Second Edition. London: Macmillan and Company, 1870, 394.)
Not surprisingly, this had also been the contention of Charles Morrison in his pivotal An Essay on the Relations Between Labour and Capital (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1854. Morrison's book was influential in the reform of the Law of Partnerships and adoption of the Limited Liability Act of 1855 (18 & 19 Vict c 133), his goal being to lift one of the chief barriers preventing or inhibiting worker ownership.) published in 1854 — and would be repeated by Pope Leo XIII in the epochal Rerum Novarum in 1891, usually regarded as the first social encyclical, "On Capital and Labor": (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum ("On Capital and Labor"), 1891. N.B.: "On Capital and Labor" is the current official title in English. Many other titles have been used.)
"We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners." (Rerum Novarum, § 46.)