Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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AGRICULTURE. The connection between agriculture and politics is not very apparent, but it is vital. Let us first show the influence of a nation's politics on its agriculture, and then discuss the influence of agriculture on the political life of a nation.


—The following words of a clever minister of finance have been frequently quoted: Give me good politics, and I will give you good finances. It might be said with equal truth: Give me good politics, and I will give you good agriculture. Agriculture can really flourish only in a country where person and property are respected, where taxes are apportioned equitably and spent with economy, where the good condition of the means of communication increases the extent of the market; in a word, where liberty, justice and peace prevail. Let us take as an example, two nations at the opposite extremities of Europe: England and Turkey. The former has a foggy climate and a wet soil; the latter the finest of climates and the richest of soils. In spite of this, we find that for the same extent of surface, agriculture is a hundred times more productive in England than in Turkey. Why is this? Because England has a good political constitution, while Turkey groans under a wretched government.


—Insecurity is the greatest scourge of agriculture, as well as of every other industry. No one tills and no one sows unless he is sure of the harvest. The first duty of a government is to guarantee the security of person and property. When this condition is wanting, everything is wanting. Insecurity arises from two causes, either from an excess of weakness or an excess of power, in the government. Anarchic governments are powerless to defend private interests; despotic governments disregard these interests themselves. Both vices are found too frequently united, and governments which respect the rights of their own subjects the least are, at the same time, very little concerned with making them respected by others.


—The second duty of a government toward agriculture is this: to tax it as little as possible for the security guaranteed it. Taxes and soldiers are necessary to make law respected, but neither should be in excess. Burdensome taxes and enormous armies exhaust agriculture, by imposing on it exorbitant sacrifices, either in men or money.


—The taxes which affect agriculture most directly are those levied on land. These taxes may be doubly harmful, by their amount and apportionment. An unequal or too arbitrary assessment may have as fatal effects as an excessive tax. Under the ancient régime in France the sum total of taxation was in no way excessive, but it was collected with such violence, so unequally and with such attendant abuses, that it ruined the rural districts. It often happened that tillers of the soil preferred to abandon their land rather than pay the tax. By the side of these overburdened lands were others enjoying almost complete exemption from taxation. Even now complaints are made in France of inequalities in the collection of the land tax, but these differences bear no relation to those of the olden time.


—Agriculturists imagine that indirect taxes do not concern them; they are mistaken. Indirect taxation, by affecting everything consumed, weighs upon agriculture in two ways: it raises the price of the commodities which agriculturists consume, and lowers the price of those which they sell.*4 It is a bad calculation on the part of the tillers of the soil, therefore, to allow indirect taxation to increase indefinitely, while land taxes do not increase. The sum total of public receipts press on all industries. Agriculturists pay their part of indirect taxation, just as other taxpayers pay their part of the land tax, through the rise in the price of agricultural products. There is a complete solidarity in a nation. Under whatever form it be collected, a tax is legitimate only when it is necessary; it should be strictly reduced to the exigencies of the public service.


—According to the happy expression of Montesquieu, agriculture has all the more interest that the State should not derive from the real wants of the people the wherewithal to satisfy imaginary wants, since extravagant outlay is always made far from the agricultural districts and in opposition to their interests. It is in great cities and especially in capitals, that the imaginary wants, spoken of by Montesquieu, are developed, that sumptuous entertainments are frequent and the prodigality that ruins and demoralizes is found. The more parasites of every kind swarm in them, the more is the capital which might support useful labor lost in unproductive employments. Agriculture loses in these places both the money which it gives and that which it fails to receive.


—Among the unproductive expenses of a country, one of the most fatal is that of great armies. Every nation contains an enormous number of women, children, old people and infirm, who furnish but a small contingent to the labor of the nation. The number of strong and vigorous workmen does not exceed a sixth of the whole population; that is, in France, for example, it is 6,000,000 out of 36,000,000. An army of 600,000 men takes away, therefore, one-tenth of the labor power of the country, and it is the agricultural interest which almost entirely incurs this loss. If the same security could be obtained with half the army, 300,000 additional men would be annually employed in the labor of agriculture, and would increase its production in that proportion.


—On the other hand, the first rank among productive expenses is occupied by public works, not by the building of palaces and theatres, but by such as facilitate the movement of men and products over the whole face of the country. Harbors, canals, rivers, bridges, roads of every description, from country roads to railroads, everything capable of quickening commerce has the greatest effect on agriculture. Every industry prospers through the extent of the market, and an abundance of the means of communication extends the market. In France a thousand examples prove this; either in proportion as carriage roads are extended, or new railroads are opened, whole districts take on a new face at once.


—When a government has guaranteed to agriculture security, moderation in public expenses, the reduction of the army to what is strictly necessary, and a good system of roads, etc., it has fulfilled all its duties toward it. To go further, would be useless and might become dangerous.


—We find the minds of statesmen divided between two systems of farming. One party extols the advantages of large farming; the other, small proprietorship and small farming. The discussion of the relative merits of these systems is proper and useful enough when confined to theory, but harmful and bad when it is sought to impose one or the other of the two systems by force or by law on a country.


—English legislation here favors concentration of property through primogeniture and entailment. French legislation, on the contrary, favors division of land. At first sight the English system seems to be superior to the French, from the point of view of agricultural interest, since agriculture is twice as rich in England as in France; but on closer examination it is seen that the real effect of their legislation is not so great. First of all, the land is more divided in England and less divided in France than is generally supposed, because the force of things in both countries corrects the extreme provisions of the law; and secondly, the size of landed estates has not in both countries the same effect on the development of agriculture.


—In general the soil and climate of England is better adapted to large farming, the soil and climate of France to small farming. The two nations will, therefore, to all appearances, preserve their present land legislation, but will modify whatever is excessive in it. Entail is now very frequently attacked in England, on account of its driving capital away from agriculture. It has already received many severe blows and will probably receive still more. The right of primogeniture itself begins to be called in question, at least in its most absolute formulation. In France, on the other hand, the legislation which now favors excessive division of land into small parcels will have to be modified, sooner or later.


—Public authority has frequently interfered by other measures in agricultural matters, with good intentions, no doubt, but with the most disastrous results. Governments naturally anxious that the people should have the means of subsistence, believed they were providing them, by prescribing or prohibiting certain kinds of farming, by regulating the distribution of crops, by fixing the price of wheat, etc. Such regulations as these were in special favor under the ancient régime in France. Royal edicts prohibited the setting out of grape vines, without permission; decisions of parliament prohibited potato planting under heavy penalties. In one place artificial prairies were forbidden; in another, men were punished even for cutting wheat with the scythe. It took a long time for people to understand that agriculture was hindered by this action and that it was vastly better to leave it to regulate itself. It is best that agriculturists should ask for the intervention of government in their affairs as seldom as possible. The best political institutions are those which leave them the broadest liberty. The least centralized governments are the best, even in cases which absolutely demand the interference of public authority. If the nations of Europe be examined, it will be seen that agriculture prospers most under the governments which are least centralized. Political liberty is good for every class: it is a safeguard for the interests of agriculture, as well as every other occupation. It not only prevents arbitrary and ill-judged measures, but it develops self-reliant habits; it stimulates the spirit of enterprise and manly resolution. Governments sometimes imagine that they help agriculture by what they call prizes, etc. It would be unjust to deny altogether the utility of public competition, by prizes, marks of distinction, etc., but too much importance should not be attached to these things. As a general rule, the agriculture which needs encouragement is not in an enviable condition. Its real encouragement should be in the sale its products meet with. All great industries have grown up of themselves without artificial stimulation, by the sole influence of the market.


—Agricultural societies, and, still better, agricultural journals, are among the best agents for disseminating information useful to agriculture. Free discussion, no matter what the question be, is the best servant of truth. Interference by authority does more harm than good, at least in the great majority of cases. It is all important to accustom agriculturists as far as possible to attend to everything themselves, and to assume the initiative in everything that may be useful to them. The author of this article, in a book on the rural economy of England, has endeavored to point out the influence of free institutions on the development of agriculture. He has endeavored to show why country life is more sought after in England than in France: "The richest landholder of a county in England is generally the lord lieutenant, more an honorary than a profitable title, but one which reflects on its possessor the eclat of English royalty. The richest men after the lord lieutenants are the justices of the peace, that is the first and almost the only administrative and judicial magistrates. In France officials are almost all strangers in the departments which they administer, connected with local interests by no tie. In England the proprietors themselves are officials in their districts, and though the crown formally appoints them, they are officials by the sole fact of their being landed proprietors. There is perhaps not an example of a commission of justice of the peace having been refused to a rich and respected landholder. In France when a landholder wishes to play an important part he must leave his land; in England, he must remain there."


—Every nation has a character of its own. It would be folly to dream of having the same institutions and the same manners in France, for instance, as in England, but without changing in anything the basis of French national organization, such as it has been formed by all French history, the French may seek to resemble their neighbors in those points which have contributed most to their prosperity. If political institutions and habits have an influence on agricultural wealth, agricultural wealth in its turn has an influence on political life. Wherever agriculture prospers, a general feeling of peace and stability reigns in the social body; ambition is less violent, passion less inflammable, revolution less frequent. Here again we may cite the example of England. If England is the nation of Europe which for two centuries has had the fewest revolutions, much here must be ascribed to the influence of the agricultural class. Commerce and industry, whose prodigious development forms the chief wealth of that country, occupy but a secondary place in public esteem. Every one there understands that when agriculture suffers, all things suffer. Agriculture, in turn, recognizes that the progress of trade and manufactures is necessary to its own prosperity.


—What nations seek above all is power, and population makes power. Two hundred years ago the population of England was about one-fourth the population of France; a century ago it was one-half; to-day it is almost as great. For some years past it has become so dense that the soil does not suffice to support the inhabitants; but up to the middle of this century English agriculture was able to satisfy the increasing demands of consumption. And even to-day the population of England increases so rapidly that the importation of provisions does not keep pace with it.


—Let us see what took place simultaneously in France, toward the end of the reign of Louis XIV. Instead of increasing, the population had diminished by one-fourth, and the provinces supported the survivors with difficulty. One of the most terrible proofs of this general abandonment of farming in France is the royal edict of Oct. 13, 1693, worded as follows: "The king having been informed that many persons and laboring men, little knowing that the high price of grain arises solely from the tricks of merchants and others engaged in commerce, who have hoarded these products in order to increase their price, through fear of a want of food for their families during the year, intend to leave their lands untilled, his majesty enjoins upon all laborers, farmers and other persons obtaining profit from their lands through the labor of their hands, to cultivate those lands which according to the custom of the country ought to be cultivated and to do it at the proper time, according to the nature of the grain and the custom of the place; if they fail to do this, his majesty permits all persons to seed these places, by the doing of which they shall be entitled to all the fruits thereof, and not be held to give any part to the proprietors or the tenants or pay any rent." What a fearful light is thrown on the general situation of the country by a document like this! We can readily understand how France, reduced to this point of depopulation and lifelessness, fell into the state of stagnation in which she languished for three-fourths of the 18th century, and how she was able neither to defend her colonies nor continue the unfortunate seven years war. If France were as thickly settled as Belgium, she would have 75,000,000 inhabitants. We can easily see that with such a population she would have more weight in European affairs. What is true of men is none the less true of capital. Whatever be the productiveness of trade and industry, agriculture is more productive still, in this sense, that it furnishes the raw materials for all the other branches of national labor. A nation merely commercial and industrial would have no foundation; its wealth would be precarious and uncertain. On the contrary, a people with a great agricultural development furnishes immense support to commerce and industry, and by the combination of the three sources of production, may reach the highest point of wealth and power.*5 Capital invested in the soil is the solid basis of all other capital. This is abundantly shown, even in France, by the richest departments, such as the department of the Nord or lower Seine. The most successful war consequently does not increase a nation's power as much as a few years of peace and agricultural labor.


Notes for this chapter

If taxation increases the price of the goods taxed, how can it at the same time lower it?
It is certain that a country purely industrial or commercial lacks a foundation, and that agriculture is indispensable to give firmness and stability to a state, but agriculture alone does not make a country rich. What is the income from agricultural capital, and what from industrial capital? Besides, if there were no industry in a country who would buy the surplus products of agriculture? Is not the market the best stimulant to production? The most prosperous country is one in which agriculture, industry and commerce form together a harmonious whole. M. B.

Footnotes for ALGERIA

End of Notes

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