It Didn’t Begin With George Reisman

James Mill and Charles Knight were both, broadly speaking, free-market libertarians, and much that they wrote on economic and political matters is quite valuable. But the hysteria with which they attack Thomas Hodgskin is instructive:

Charles Knight and James Mill

Nothing can be conceived more mischievous than the doctrines which have been preached to the common people, at Birmingham and elsewhere. … The nonsense to which your Lordship alludes about the rights of the labourer to the whole produce of the country, wages, profits, and rent, all included, is the mad nonsense of our friend Hodgkin [sic], which he has published as a system and propagates with the zeal of perfect fanaticism. … These opinions, if they were to spread, would be the subversion of civilised society; worse than the overwhelming deluge of Huns and Tartars.
(James Mill, Letter to Henry Brougham 3 September 1832; quoted in Alexander Bain’s James Mill: A Biography.)

A writer [= Hodgskin] who has delivered lectures on Political Economy complains, in those lectures, that “the labourer is not allowed to work, unless, in addition to replacing whatever he uses or consumes, and comfortably subsisting himself, his labour also gives a profit to the capitalist on all the capital which he uses or consumes, while engaged in producing;” – and this principle the same writer calls a principle of slavery. The mischievous ignorance of such doctrines may be very easily shown. If some capitalist did not receive a profit upon the employment of the capital, it would remain unemployed – it would be useless. … Sometimes these doctrines meet you in the violent addresses that wrong-headed men deliver in popular assemblies. Sometimes they force themselves upon your notice in the shape of miserable writings, which profess to advocate your interests against those who are called your oppressors, – by which name all those are meant who have anything to lose, and anything to defend. … And, lastly, they insinuate themselves to your view, scattered amongst sound principles, intended to explain to you the laws which govern the production of wealth, in lectures on “Popular Political Economy.” [= Hodgskin’s 1827 work, which Knight admits in a footnote “with the exception of this doctrine … may be considered useful and instructive.”] One and all of these counsellors, we say, are your bitterest enemies. They would lead you away from the pursuit of those means which can alone better your condition, to the cherishing of vain delusions, which will make you first unhappy, then idle, then starving, and then utterly depraved and worthless. Such doctrines may begin in the lecture-room, and there look harmless as abstract propositions; but they end in the maddening passion, the drunken frenzy, the unappeasable tumult, – the plunder, the fire, the blood ….

To you who have patiently borne with us in our examination of the great questions upon which this little book so imperfectly treats, it is, we should think, unnecessary to urge the paramount duty of exhibiting, during a time of strong political excitement, a respect for the laws, and a determination to maintain the private rights of all men inviolate. The rights which are most open to attack, as we have shown you, from designing and ignorant persons, are the rights of property. Upon the upholding of those rights depends your own security, your own freedom, your own certainty of going steadily forward in the improvement of your condition. Those of you who possess knowledge, and who desire knowledge, must have some influence over those who, unhappily, still remain without that best possession. It is for you to convey to them the truths which we have endeavoured to establish. It is for you to show them that the participators in, or the encouragers of tumult are the greatest enemies of freedom. It is for you to show them that freedom can only be the inheritance of the peaceable, the industrious, and the virtuous. It is for you to show them that no people can make any steady improvement in their institutions, that do not march forward in the career of improvement with an even and dispassionate temper – with a tolerant regard for all honest opinions – and, above all, with a determination that, come what storms there may, the vessel of the state shall not sink while the crew are quarrelling. Nothing can destroy our ultimate peace and prosperity but a violation of the great principles of natural justice, by which property is upheld for the benefit of all. …

Unless you, each in your own circle, put down that ignorant spirit that would make this temple of our once industrious and peaceful island “a den of thieves,” our liberties are at an end, because our security is at an end. There can be no liberty without security. Unless you, each in your own circle, endeavour to instruct the less informed in the knowledge of their rights in connexion with their duties, we shall all go backward in freedom, and therefore in national prosperity. When the ignorance of great masses of people is manifested by the light of a burning city, the records of that ignorance remain, in ruins which attest the hideous force of lawless violence. If the restraints of order are again set up, the ruins are cleared away; and, slowly perhaps, but certainly, capital again ventures forth to repair the destruction which a contempt of its rights had produced. But let the spirit of violence long continue to exist in sullen contests with the laws, or in causeless jealousy of the possessors of property, and the spirit of decay is established. Then begins a silent but certain career of destruction, more sweeping and wide-spreading than all the havoc that civil war upon the most fearful scale has ever produced. Houses are no longer burnt, but they become untenanted; manufactories are no longer pulled down, but the sound of labour is heard no more within their walls; barns are no longer plundered to distribute their stores, but the fields are not sown which were wont to produce those stores; roads are no longer rendered impassable by hostile bands, but the traffic which once supported them has ceased; canals and rivers are not dry, but their waters are mantled over with weeds, for the work of communication is ended; harbours and docks are not washed away by the sea, but the ships that once spread their sails for every corner of the earth lie idly within their bosoms, rotting “sheer hulks,” abandoned to the destruction of the wind and the wave. In the mean time, while all this silent decay goes forward, and many a mouldering pile proclaims that the reign of justice is at an end, the people are continuing to perish from the face of the land. Famine and pestilence sweep away their prey by thousands; and the robber who walks abroad at noon-day selects his victims from the few who still struggle to hide a miserable remnant of former abundance. At length tranquillity is established – but it is the tranquillity of death. The destroyers have done their work ….

These, assuredly, would be the consequences of following the blind guides that would break down the empire of property. These advocates of your “rights” would give you weeds instead of corn, skins instead of cloth, hollow trees instead of houses; and when you had gone back to the “freedom” of savage life, and each of the scattered tenants of a country covered with the ruins of former wealth could exclaim, “I am lord of the fowl and the brute,” these ministers of desolation would be able to sing their triumphal song of “Labour defended against the claims of Capital,” [= Hodgskin’s 1825 work] amid the shriek of the jackal, and the howl of the wolf.
(Charles Knight, The Rights of Industry, 1831.)

Bear in mind that Hodsgkin, the author against whom these scaremongering jeremiads are directed, was a defender of private property on Lockean lines, and had simply pointed out that the capitalist class’s monopoly of the means of production was the product of state privilege rather than of Lockean homesteading and free exchange. So deeply enmired were Mill and Knight in a right-conflationist vision of the economy that they were apparently unable to see Hodgskin’s attack on state interference with private property as anything but an attack on private property itself.

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3 Responses to It Didn’t Begin With George Reisman

  1. Joseph R. Stromberg September 18, 2014 at 3:29 pm #

    I especially like the ‘Huns and Tartars.’ I always think first of them when someone attacks the actually-existing economy.


  2. kuro September 19, 2014 at 7:10 pm #

    This sorta reminds me of Paul Marks losing his shit over Kevin Carson on contract feudalism; shit was hilarious. Carson gave the guy enough rope to hang himself defending existing “civilization” against Carson’s justice in property titles. Good Times

  3. Sheldon Richman September 23, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    Did Hodgskin made clear enough the distinction you attribute to him?

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