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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FORTUNES, Private. The private fortune of every person consists of the possessions whose management and enjoyment are attributed to him by the laws. At all periods the formation, growth and destruction of private fortunes have been intimately connected with the economic and political prosperity or decline of empires.


—Among the peoples of antiquity of whom we have record, private fortunes, consisted, especially at the beginning, of flocks and herds, and of land. The inequality of fortunes is noted in the book of Job. The partial inventory of Job's estate declares that he had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 she-asses, and numerous slaves. At that remote period great fortunes were acquired by usurpation. Job speaks of people "who remove landmarks," rob the flocks of others, "take away the ass of the fatherless and the ox of the widow": and says that such people will reap the field of another and gather the vintage of those whom they oppress; and will take away the garments of the poor man and leave him naked and exposed to the rigorous cold and the mountain rains. Hence, some great fortunes were acquired by economy and labor, others by robbery and violence.


—The evil consequences of extreme inequality of fortunes had already become very great among the Jews, when they were remedied by the institution of the Sabbatical year and the jubilee. (See Leviticus, chap. xxv) Every seven years, debts were remitted; every fifty years, lands, whatever may have been the previous stipulations, reverted to their former owners. Houses in walled towns were the only exceptions to this law.


—All the legislators of antiquity prescribed regulations intended to prevent inequality of fortunes or to diminish it. According to the Mosaic law (so called), the lands divided among the tribes and families became inalienable. Minos in Crete, and Lycurgus in Sparta, had established similar laws. "In the time of Lycurgus," says Plutarch, "there existed so great an inequality between citizens, that most of them, being debarred from any settled occupation, and reduced to poverty, were a burden to the city; while all the wealth was in the hands of the smaller number * *. Lycurgus divided the lands of Laconia into 30,000 parts, which he distributed among the inhabitants of the rural districts; and he made 9,000 parts of the territory of Sparta, for as many citizens." At Athens Solon proceeded by the abolition of debts: he did not touch the lands, because among a commercial people landed property is only an accessory.


—At Rome we find that there was originally a partition of land which assigned to each citizen about one and one-fourth acres. Later, as conquest extended the national territory, the portion allotted was increased to three and a half times this amount. Confiscation of the lands followed closely every division. Then came laws fixing the rate of interest on debts, and agrarian laws limiting the quantity of land a citizen could possess. The laws of Licinius Stolo, which were operative at Rome for from two to three centuries, provided that no citizen, under any pretext whatever, should in future possess more than about 315 acres, and that the surplus should be gratuitously distributed or secured for a low price to the poor citizens; that in this division at least four acres apiece should be assigned to the citizens; that only a designated number of slaves should be allowed on these lands, to cultivate them; that the number of flocks and herds should be also limited and proportioned to the quantity of land a person occupied; that the richest persons should not send to the commons or public pastures more than 100 cattle and 500 sheep. At the same time that these laws were rigorously enforced, every agriculturist was placed under the direct surveillance of the censors, who took note of any one whose lands were neglected or badly cultivated. Under this strict regimen the Roman republic attained the highest degree of prosperity, and found itself able to maintain wars against the Latins, the Gauls, and Carthage. At that time, as Horace says, private fortunes were moderate, and the republic was opulent.


—The aim of the agrarian laws and of all the laws designed to restrict the inequality of fortunes, is evident. In all the states of antiquity the very defective organization of the judiciary made it unable to prevent confiscations, especially when war and pillage were the means most employed for the acquisition of property. Now, the inevitable and immediate effect of the concentration of property was to destroy the greater part of the free population, to dry up the sources from which the armies were recruited, and thus to prepare the way for the downfall of the state. In the interior the multiplication of indigent citizens, a result of the concentration of fortunes, was a perpetual danger to the constitution; these men, who considered all industrial labor as servile, had no other means of existence than the gratuities of the public treasury, and they incessantly conspired to elevate a tyrant over the heads of the rich. These motives acted with greater force among exclusively military people, such as the Spartans and Romans. Elsewhere, at Athens, for example, commerce, manufactures and free colonization diminished the extreme inequality of fortunes and its disadvantages.


—Whatever may have been the reason, the laws designed to maintain equality were everywhere powerless. Among the Hebrews, in the times of the kings, the difference in fortunes was notable. The prophets could not utter maledictions enough against the confiscations of the rich and against the luxurious habits introduced by foreigners, after the conquests of David and Solomon. At Sparta the treasures imported after the taking of Athens, and the right to make a will, which was introduced in spite of the laws of Lycurgus, led to the concentration of fortunes. In the time of Agis III. "there were," says Plutarch, "not more than 700 native Spartans, of whom scarcely 100 had preserved their inheritance; all the rest were only an indigent multitude, who, languishing at Sparta in opprobrium, and weakly defending themselves against enemies from without, were constantly spying for an opportunity for a change which should relieve them from a condition so despicable." Agis, when he attempted the restoration of the old laws, had immense patrimonial estates, to which he joined a sum of money estimated at about $600,000. The failure of his enterprise is well known.


—At Rome the Licinian laws also became obsolete, under the influence of the same causes that had overthrown the agrarian laws ascribed to Moses and to Lycurgus. "Macedonia having been subjugated," says Polybins. "people thought they should be able to live in entire security and enjoy tranquilly universal empire. The greater part lived at Rome in a strange bewilderment." The pillage of Africa and Greece profited only a small number; they employed the wealth acquired by war in destroying the constitution of their country. The tragic end of the Gracchi, who attempted to restore the Licinian laws, as Agis had attempted to restore the laws of Lycurgus, is well known. After their death the usurpations of the great had no longer any restraint. "The rich," says Appian, "caused the greater part of the undistributed lands to adjudged to be themselves, flattering themselves that long possession would prove an unassailable property right; they purchased or took by force the small inheritances of their poor neighbors, and thus made their fields vast domains. Military service drawing the free men away from agriculture, they employed slaves to take care of the flocks. These very slaves were most profitable property to them, because of their rapid multiplication, favored by exemption from military service. What happened in consequence? Powerful men enriched themselves beyond measure, and the fields were filled with slaves; the Italian race, worn out and impoverished, perished under the weight of poverty, imposts and war. If, perchance, the free man escaped these evils, he became ruined by idleness, because he possessed nothing of his own in a territory wholly invaded by the rich; and because there was no work for him on the land of another, in the midst of so great a number of slaves."


—Then arose at Rome the colossal fortunes of such men as Lucullus and Crassus, and in their train followed the civil wars and the establishment of the despotism. At the time when Cæsar took possession of the dictatorship, 2,000 rich men alone possessed almost everything, and 320,000 indigent heads of families participated in the gratuitous distributions made by the public treasury. The maintenance of such a condition of things was impossible. The imperial régime lived by the confiscation of these great fortunes, and it created others, those of the freedmen, the publicans and the courtesans. It encouraged, besides, manual labor, and enrolled everybody into a sort of administrative community: this régime, completed by the confiscations, was the agrarian law of the time, when the imperial domain absorbed most private fortunes.


—The middle ages had their great feudal fortunes founded on conquest and pillage, and their great ecclesiastical fortunes obtained by donations and testaments. In the twelfth century, in France and in England, the nobility and the clergy shared the soil in nearly equal portions. They likewise shared, in nearly equal portions, the serfs of the ancient imperial domain, which constituted the total laboring population.


—Italy and Germany had states where great fortunes arose from commerce and manufactures. Everywhere wealth consisting of personal property tended to break up the territorial monopolies: the conquest of America, by establishing in the new world landed estates like those of ancient Rome, reduced the influence of the ancient territorial fortunes. Later, the invention of machines and commerce created new fortunes, while the financial and political revolutions tended to level the old ones. If it be true that, since the time of Cæsar, there have been no more agrarian laws in the west, it is certain that the revolutions and confiscations, and the civil and foreign wars, have taken the place of them.


—To-day, in France, there are not many fortunes which much exceed the average, though there are many of moderate size. In England, Spain, Italy and Russia exceptional fortunes are more numerous, and the middling class less important. In England, in spite of the maintenance of feudal laws, and despite the concentration of landed estates brought about by Pitt, the middle class of society has acquired immense influence. It is this class, which, in our time, has created and possesses the largest fortunes, and these fortunes are enormous. In the United States there is a marked difference in the condition of society in the northern, the western and the southern states. In the northern and western states large fortunes have been created by trade and by mining industries; but there is in them nothing exclusive or oppressive; they are only the last step of a ladder of which all the intermediate rungs are filled.


—The most superficial examination suffices to make one perceive the fundamental difference between the private fortunes of ancient times and those of to-day. In the former times the wealth produced by manufacturing and trading people was a prey for warlike nations, and the latter, exposed to the brutalities of the military spirit, saw the confiscations of the great prepare the way, by the spoliation and corruption of the weak, for revolutions and civil wars. All the efforts of legislators proved powerless against that fatal consequence of the ideas which controlled ancient communities, ideas which were immoral, and radically contrary to the very foundation of property, labor.


—Among moderns, on the contrary, the theory of private property is founded on labor, and the security of property is an uncontested fundamental principle. Ownership being made more secure, colossal and rapid fortunes have become more rare: it has been easier for the poor person to defend his property against fraudulent and violent confiscations. Finally, France has in the civil code an agrarian law of sure effect in the institution of equal inheritance. In England and the United States the greater security of property, and a more complete freedom of capital and labor, have produced more advantageous economic results with a very different proportion in the distribution of fortunes. Among the ancients small farming, insecurity, and the imperfection of industrial processes rendered accumulations slow and difficult. Among moderns, on the contrary, the invention of machines and the improvements in industrial processes, a social organization less infected with a military spirit, a more secure condition of property, and especially better moral aims, have rendered legitimate accumulations more easy and more rapid. For the rest, political economy has singularly simplified the problems relative to the proportions of private fortunes. It is little concerned to know whether it is advantageous for fortunes to be equal or unequal, large or small: it is sufficient for it that they be created, as far as possible, by the labor of the one who possesses them. The greatest fortune that can be imagined, if it is the product of labor, without fraud or violence, is an increase of wealth and a benefit to society. Far from being injurious to the poor man, it furnishes him implements of labor, the means of building up, in his turn, a private fortune. The smallest fortune which is the result of fraud or violence, is a public scandal.


—One single point is important. It is, that laws, customs and tribunals should resist the establishment of private fortunes by other means than by labor. All the efforts of civilization should tend to this end: this would be real progress. As to the fortunes acquired and held, they are few in comparison with those which the movement of affairs constantly raises up, and they can henceforth never constitute a monopoly.


—Let capital and labor be free and secure: then there will arise few sudden fortunes, but there will arise a great number of fortunes. The number of great fortunes will increase, but the number of small and middling fortunes will increase still more rapidly. This rising movement of wealth will be slow and general; but its very slowness will prevent it from corrupting morals, and its generality will preserve the poor from oppression by the rich.


—Economic freedom is the only agrarian law adapted to modern society. It favors at the same time the increase of wealth, and a real equality, viz., that which makes fortunes proportional to industrial aptitudes. It will also do away with the attraction which great capital, and fortunes too large for the person who possesses them to administer well, now exercise. Let us never fear that human works will last too long, especially when the matter concerned is private fortunes.

E. J. L., Tr.

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