10thly. It robs society by a considerable of which will return to productive industry when commerce plays its proper subordinate part, and is only an agency carrying on transactions between the producers (more or less distant) and the great centres of consumption—the communistic societies. Thus the capital engaged in the speculations of commerce (which, small as it is, compared to the immense wealth which passes through its hands, consists nevertheless of sums enormous in themselves), would return to stimulate production if commerce was deprived of the intermediate property in goods, and their distribution became a matter of administrative organization. Stock-jobbing is the most odious form of this vice of commerce.
The producer furnishes the goods, the consumer the money. Trade furnishes credit, founded on little or no actual capital, and the different members of the commercial body are in no way responsible for one another. This, in a few words, is the whole theory of the thing.
But what if a settler were to forbid a stranger to occupy land within a mile of that which the former was cultivating, saying that he wished to keep this for galloping and hunting ground, or that he expected it would be useful to his children twenty years hence? This surely would be greedy usurpation, not to be defended by the plea that he had set up marks, or run a light trench, to denote the extent of his intended park, or of his children’s future estate. Where land is so abundant and so equally convenient, that each may exercise his caprice without inconvenience to others, even caprices might be respected; but none would be justified in thus excluding their neighbours from valuable sites. If any one who pleases is allowed to carve out a park in the wilderness, yet he cannot be allowed to take the river-side for it, so as to shut others out from its conveniences. Over land that has never been subdued and improved by labour, no individual has any moral claim. Being wild, it is public.
Let me suppose that the English Crown, while it was the legal owner of vast tracts in interior America, gave away an estate ten miles square to some British subject, who succeeded in planting colonists on it, from whom he received some trifling rent. This rent they are willing to pay, in order to get security from molestation. Time goes on, and a political revolution overthrows all power of England in those districts. The increase of population and the industry of the farmers has gradually improved the farms; a new generation has succeeded; and now the representative of the first grantee, calling himself the owner of the soil by gift of the King of England, claims to raise the rents of the farmers, because of the increased value of the farms. Is this conceivable? In England, undoubtedly such things are done: but if not enacted by a most peculiar state of law, it certainly would never suggest itself as right. In America such a claim would be a signal to the farmers to pay no more rent. They would say, this man, who calls himself landowner, has done nothing for the soil. By favour of an old king, his predecessor was once invested with a nominal right over it; that right was worth something at the time, and it was paid for: it is worth nothing now, and we will pay no longer.
Imagine a continent like America to be gradually covered by tenant freeholders, each of whom is recognized, for the present, as absolute owner of the soil which he cultivates. You will yet see that an increase of human population might hereafter take place, so great that the law must refuse any longer to admit the right of the freeholders to be absolute. For to allow anything to become a complete private property it must either be needless to human life, as jewels; or practically unlimited in quantity, as water; or brought into existence by human labour, as the most important kinds of food; and it is rather as a result of experience and wisdom than by direct moral perception that we forbid all invasion of private property in food, even to alleviate public famine. Now, as water, which is ordinarily allowed to be private, becomes public property in time of siege, so soon as its quantity is painfully limited; and as the possessors of wells would then be indemnified for the expense of their well only and not for water, so if at any time land becomes needed the right of private possessors to withhold it comes to an end, and the State has merely to secure that they be liberally indemnified for their actual expenses, and for any fixed capital which they are made to yield up.
Even putting compulsion out of the question, such fixity of relations as Mr. Newman aims at, is inconsistent with a rapidly progressive state of society and life. By his theory on this subject, he is an apostle of Conservatism. His ideal could only be realised in an age of standing still. The spirit of progress, the best and only hope of the world, is incompatible with shutting the door, first here, then there, against change for the better. Even physical progress, improvement in the material arts of life, is not consistent with his system. If customers were always to adhere to the same dealer as long as they found him honest, it would doubtless be an encouragement to honesty, but a great discouragement to improvement. To whom could the producer or dealer who supplied better goods at lower prices, look for his remuneration? Fixed personal relations, as a general rule, can only belong to a fixed state of society. Until Mr. Newman or somebody else can point out any existing state of society which it is desirable to have stereotyped for perpetual use, we must regard as an evil, all restraint put upon the spirit which never yet since society existed has been in excess—that which bids us “try all things” as the only means by which with knowledge and assurance we can “hold fast to that which is good.”
Some of the measures of political improvement which Mr. Newman advocates, we recognize as useful, though not always for the reasons he assigns. He insists much on the value of provincial legislatures, to transact the local business now performed by private Acts of Parliament, together with much other business not now performed at all. We are of the same opinion; not however for the sake of remedying what he deplores, “the loss of local patriotism;” [p. 293] for the provincial spirit, in every country where it exists, is a mere hindrance to improvement. In the United States, which Mr. Newman justly holds up as a model of local self-government, the local institutions do not engender local, but general patriotism; or (to call it by a better name, because unconnected with ideas of narrowness,) public spirit, and intelligent interest in public affairs.
I do not see any weight in the reasons which have been given for confining the principle to certain kinds of business, or for making certain employments an exception from it. The prohibition of is, I conceive, only tenable on the principles of the usury laws, and may reasonably be abandoned since those principles have been given up. partnership is merely one of the modes of lending money, viz., at an interest dependent on, and varying with, the profits of the concern; and subject to the condition, in case of failure, of receiving nothing until other creditors have been paid in full. This mode of lending capital is evidently more advantageous than any other mode to all persons with whom the concern may have dealings; and to retain restrictions on this mode after having abandoned them on all others, appear to me inconsistent and inexpedient.
This particular phasis of social progress attained its greatest development in the middle ages, which according to Mr. Newman’s theory, should be the type of perfection in social life; since there was no one, the king excepted, who was not bound by an indissoluble relation to some superior, and no one save the lowest of serfs who was not tied by some reciprocal obligation to a host of inferiors. When this social organization had reached its height, all subsequent improvements assisted in the gradual decomposition of it. As society emerged from a state of mere compromise with lawlessness, and came to some extent under the authority of impartial laws, each step in advance has set free a less or greater part of the community from enforced ties. The workman no longer needing the protection of his guild, is no longer tied to it; the labourer has ceased to be the serf of any seigneur; the nation is no longer entailed by hereditary right on a particular line of rulers. These “permanent moral unions” have been dissolved, because in themselves they were an evil, when the exigencies which alone rendered them useful had ceased to exist. And since such exigencies are not likely to return, it may safely be predicted, that whatever permanence is to be looked for as the consequence of future improvement, will be the effect of reason and free choice, not of irrevocable engagements;—will be voluntary, and not in any shape compulsory.
The only regulations on the subject of limited partnerships which seem to me desirable, are such as may secure the public from falling into error, by being led to believe that partners who have only a limited responsibility, are liable to the whole extent of their property. For this purpose, it would probably be expedient, that the names of the limited partners, with the amount for which each was responsible, should be recorded in a register, accessible to all persons; and it might also be recorded, whether the whole, or if not, what portion of the amount, had been paid up.
If these particulars were made generally accessible, concerns in which there were limited partners would present in some respects a greater security to the public than private firms now afford; since there are at present no means of ascertaining what portion of the funds with which a firm carries on business may consist of borrowed capital.