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The Anti-Exchange Coalition: Godwin Remakes the World: David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart
28 paragraphs found.

Though we find this longstanding recognition of the anti-market coalition, little attention has been paid to how the coalition of right and left actually functioned in the past. In this column we examine an early criticism of property and exchange by William Godwin, and we begin to ask what, historically, united these seemingly opposite intellectual traditions. What has persuaded writers of the left to find more in common with fascist regimes than with markets and the economists who favor them?


The signature of a "left" criticism of markets is the call for resources to be made freely available to all. In this intellectual tradition, positive prices are seen as unnatural and unjust. In a just world, we are told, there is enough to go around. This is precisely the case that Godwin made in his Political Justice.


Godwin's Political Justice is available online at the Online Library of Liberty.


The signature of the "right" criticism of markets we have considered in these columns is the doctrine of human hierarchy. In an ordered world, we are informed, superior types naturally make decisions for lower types (see The Secret History of the Dismal Science: Paternalism, Hierarchy, and Markets). What is perhaps most interesting about Godwin's Political Justice is that it makes this argument, as well. But before we can appreciate this, or how Godwin's hierarchicalism manifested itself in response to the reaction of T. R. Malthus, we should consider Godwin's "system of equality" with all due seriousness. This is our main concern here.


For various quotes from Malthus on Godwin and his "system of equality," see the Essay on the Principle of Population, especially Chapters X-XIV from the 1st edition and Book III, Chapter II from the 6th edition.


In this column, we begin to examine the left-right opposition to exchange by considering the details of the first great "left" attack on markets. In 1793, William Godwin proposed to deal with scarcity by abolishing property and establishing in its stead a "system of equality".

3. Godwin's "System of Equality"

In his 1793 Political Justice, Godwin proposed to replace the existing system of private property with a system of equality, where everyone gets an equal share of the communal income. Property, Godwin stresses as he begins the last book of Political Justice, serves as culmination of the entire work:

The subject of property is the key-stone that completes the fabric of political justice. According as our ideas respecting it are crude or correct, they will enlighten us as to the consequences of a simple form of society without government, and remove the prejudices that attach us to complexity.5

Figure 1. Title Page from Godwin's Political Justice, 3rd edition.

In earlier parts of the volume, Godwin developed a utilitarianism which he now applies to the idea of property:

There is not an article of the kinds above specified, which will not ultimately be the instrument of more benefit and happiness, in one individual mode of application, than in any other than that can be devised. This is the application it ought to receive. (Book VIII, Ch I § 5)


One aspect of Godwin's utilitarian criticism of private property is that property discourages population. In a system of equality, he argued, this discouragement would end and people would not be so friendless. So, Godwin offers a pro-natalist criticism of capitalism in which he also suggested that the poor suffer the consequences more than the rich. Long before Karl Marx used the word "vampire" to describe the position of the capitalist vis-à-vis the worker, Godwin charged the system of private property with ghoulism:

It has been calculated that the average cultivation of Europe might be improved, so as to maintain five times her present number of inhabitants.... Thus the established system of property may be considered as strangling a considerable portion of our children in their cradle. Whatever may be the value of the life of man, or rather whatever would be his capability of happiness in a free and equal state of society, the system we are here opposing may be considered as arresting upon the threshold of existence four fifths of that value and that happiness.6


"The English translation of Das Kapital was first published in 1887. Karl Marx's "Wallachian Boyard" was thus the first reference to Dracula (for symbolic purposes) in the English language." (See: Christopher Frayling, The Vampyre. London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1978, p. 82.)

"...Goule, a sort of wandering demon, which is known to infest ruinous buildings, and from time to time suddenly rushes out, seizes children and other defenceless people, strangles, and devours them." (William Godwin, Lives of the Necromancers. London, 1834, p. 202.)


In terms of the utilitarianism based on counting harms and hurts which we discussed in our column on the happiness of nations (link to Column 7), the existing few are said to benefit at the expense of the strangled many. Godwin gives us his conclusion:

Hence it follows, upon the principles of equal and impartial justice, that the good things of the world are a common stock, upon which one man has as valid a title as another to draw for what he wants.7


The question Godwin now raises is how to get from here to there. He points to a class of consumption goods which seem to be the central problem:

... such gratifications, as are by no means essential to healthful and vigorous existence, and cannot be purchased but with considerable labour and industry. It is the last class principally that interposes an obstruction in the way of equal distribution. ... And in what manner are these seeming superfluities usually procured? By abridging multitudes of men, to a deplorable degree, in point of essential moment, that one man may be accommodated, with sumptuous yet, strictly considered, insignificant luxuries. (Book VIII, Ch 1 § 8)


Godwin thinks that he can separate these costly luxuries into two parts: the simple or "direct" pleasures of our nature and the more complex pleasures which are instruments to achieving social distinction:

To the forming of a just estimate of costly gratifications, it is necessary, that we should abstract the direct pleasure, on the one hand, from the pleasure they afford us, only as instruments for satisfying our love of distinction. ... we ought not to refuse any pleasure, except as it tends to the exclusion of some greater pleasure. But it has already been shown, that the difference in the pleasures of the palate, between a simple and wholesome diet on the one hand, and all the complexities of the most splendid table on the other, is so small, that few men would even think it worth the tedium that attends upon a change of services, if the pleasure of the palate were the only thing in question, and they had no spectator to admire their magnificence. (Book VIII, Ch 1 § 9)


For Godwin, the problem is non-simple pleasures, those which are enjoyed as instruments to achieving social recognition and distinction. Thus, for Godwin, scarcity arises because people who have means, consume "too much" of such instrumental goods, "too much" of the wrong sorts of goods, goods which serve little real purpose and which only enable people to achieve distinction.

Figure 2. William Godwin
William Godwin [Source: The Monthly Mirror, Volume 29 (1805)]

Godwin has thus turned Hume's thinking—scarcity causes property—around. For Godwin, scarcity results from the institution of private property, the desire to achieve social distinction and the ability to exclude people from consumption. And, were "simple" pleasures the only pleasures sought by humans, scarcity would be abolished.


Godwin has taken the position of Smith's "man of system" who places his own conclusions about the valuation of pleasures above that of his subject: goods associated with "complex" pleasures, in the theorist's mind, are less deserving of consumption that goods associated with "simple" pleasures. The theorist has been elevated to a position above the theorized.


To bring the world into accord with the demands of the theory, Godwin urged that society rid itself of social distinctions. The radicalism of Godwin's attempt to rid the world of social distinctions, and thus to reduce consumption to goods associated only with "simple" pleasure, can be best appreciated in the first version of his proposal to abolish marriage as a legal institution. In addition to many evils associated with the near impossibility of ending a failed marriage, Godwin says, in all editions:

marriage, as now understood, is a monopoly, and the worst of monopolies. So long as two human beings are forbidden, by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness. Over this imaginary prize, men watch with perpetual jealousy; and one man finds his desire, and his capacity to circumvent, as much excited as the other is excited to traverse his projects, and frustrate his hopes. As long as this state of society continues, philanthropy will be crossed and checked in a thousand ways, and the still augmenting stream of abuse will continue to flow.8


In the first edition, Godwin was explicit about the difficulty created by the fact that people care more about "their" children than other children. To eliminate this problem, he looked forward to the abolition of surnames so that a man could not tell the difference between "his" child and other children.9 So who will support a child if the father is not known? No coherent system of equality could require that the mother care for her children if she is not so inclined. Does this raise a problem? Not to Godwin's way of thinking because there will now be abundance and benevolence, and resources will consequently flow from where they are in surplus to where they are needed:

Let us consider the way in which this state of society will modify education. It may be imagined that the abolition of the present state of marriage would make education, in a certain sense, the affair of the public; though if there be any truth in the reasonings of this work, to provide for it by the positive institutions of a community would be extremely inconsistent with the true principles of an intellectual nature. Education may be regarded as consisting of various branches. First, the personal cares which the helpless state of an infant requires. These will probably devolve upon the mother; unless, by frequent parturition, or by the nature of these cares, that be found to render her share of the burthen unequal; and then it will be amicably and willingly participated by others. Second, food and other necessary supplies. These will easily find their true level and spontaneously flow, from the quarter in which they abound, to the quarter than is deficient.10

5. Godwin on the Division of Labor

Abundance is a complicated issue for Godwin. That abundance differs from satiation is clear from Godwin's discussion of the division of labor. This discussion is remarkable for several reasons. First, it contains the only reference to Adam Smith in the work, a fact of dire consequence for the fate of his argument. Second, Godwin develops a very early criticism of what we now think of as globalization. He suggests that the process of voluntary trade creates mutual obligations that are akin to family obligations and which conflict with the philosopher's vision of the good life. If you and I trade, our obligations may outweigh our obligations to others:

These observations lead us to the consideration of one additional difficulty, which relates to the division of labour. Shall each man manufacture his tools, furniture and accommodations? This would perhaps be a tedious operation. Every man performs the task to which he is accustomed, more skilfully, and in a shorter time than another. It is reasonable that you should make for me that which perhaps I should be three or four times as long in making, and should make imperfectly at last. Shall we then introduce barter and exchange? By no means. The moment I require any further reason for supplying you than the cogency of your claim, the moment, in addition to the dictates of benevolence, I demand a prospect of reciprocal advantage to myself, there is an end of that political justice and pure society of which we treat.11


For Godwin, the answer is not to encourage a universal system of exchange in which everyone is linked by reciprocal obligation to everyone, but for people instead to reduce their desires to some approved level:

The division of labour, as it has been developed my commercial writers, is the offspring of avarice. It has been found than ten persons can make two hundred and forty times as many pins in a day as one person. [Smith's Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chap. I] This refinement is the growth of monopoly. The object is to see into how vast a surface the industry of the lower classes maybe beaten, the more completely to gild over the indolent and the proud. The ingenuity of the merchant is whetted by new improvements of this sort to transport more of the wealth of the powerful into his coffers. The practicability of effecting a compendium of labour by his means will be greatly diminished when men shall learn to deny themselves partial superfluities. .. From what has been said it appears that there will be a division of labour if we compare the society in question with the state of the solitaire and the savage. But it will produce an extensive simplification of labour if we compare it with that to which we are at present accustomed in civilized Europe.12


For Godwin, a "simple" order therefore means one without the complications associated with family or trading partners, because those involve distinctions among people. Godwin's vision of the good society is thus at direct odds with the political economist's defense of trade and the reciprocal relationships that trade establishes. It contrasts sharply with F. A. Hayek's defense of a non-hierarchical social order akin to the one which the engineer-economist, Fleeming Jenkin, whom have encountered in a previous column, drew.

6. Conclusion

Godwin's elegant argument against private property marks a beginning for attacks on markets and trade. His central point, that market activity serving the desire for status is wasteful, was taken up most famously in Thorstein Veblen's 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen developed Godwin's thought that we want wealth to obtain status. The result is waste:

With the exception of the instinct of self-preservation, the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper. IN an industrial community this propensity for emulation expresses itself in pecuniary emulation; and this, so far as regards the Western civilised communities of the present, is virtually equivalent to saying that it expresses itself in some form of conspicuous waste. (Theory of the Leisure Class, p. 148).


We know that a hierarchical order may be a simple order. For Godwin's vision of the world, the question is whether there exists any simple order that is not hierarchical? Is there any simple order which can take people as they are, which does not involve remaking them into 'better' people?13


Debate over the hierarchy of "pleasures" continued long after the Godwin-Malthus discussion we consider here. For a review of the debate between J. S. Mill and W. S. Jevons on the matter, see Sandra J. Peart, "W. S. Jevons's Application of Utilitarian Theory to Economic Policy" (1990), Utilitas: A Journal of Utilitarian Studies 2: 2, pp. 281-306.


William Godwin, Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, edited by F.E.L. Priestley, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press: 1946), volume 2, p. 420. (Book VIII, Chapter 1, § 1). Priestly's edition is the only one which collates the changes over the three editions. Because it is hard to find, we provide section numbers to link with less expensive editions.


Malthus responded to Godwin by appealing to the most simple of human desires, for companionship and for a family. This challenges Godwin at the center of his thinking, as Godwin had written a magical novel, St. Leon, in which he asked what would be the fate of a man who was granted the power of infinite wealth and infinite youth. Godwin's profound answer is "infinitely lonely."

St. Leon marks Godwin's change of mind about marriage. His tragically brief marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft (author of Vindication of Rights of Women) was enormously happy. Their daughter, the future Mary Shelley, would become the author of Frankenstein.