From The Irish Tribune, July 1, 1848. Often attributed to James Fintan Lalor, although exact authorship is unknown.
Man was created free, and is at the same time a social being; that is, in order to enjoy the advantages which society can give, each individual tacitly agrees to relinquish as much of his freedom as may be found incompatible with the existence of society. All men are abstractedly equal, and should be so in law, but are not so in fact, for we find a wide difference between men, as well physically as morally and intellectually. Our actual happiness depends entirely upon the results of labour; and as this labour is affected by our physical, moral, and intellectual powers its amount must vary with the individual, and consequently the happiness which he can enjoy will depend on himself if the basis of society is just.
Every man is entitled to an equal share of the land, and of all other things which are the free gifts of Nature. These are the raw materials from which, by his labour, he is to obtain necessaries of life; but this right he possesses only during his life-time – he cannot will them to another, nor exert any influence on their disposal after his death. Every member of the community is entitled to an equal share of the property of those who die; but as such a division could with difficulty be made, society allows each individual to inherit the property of his father or other kinsman in lieu of the share to which he would be entitled of the general property.
The labour of man produces, in most instances, more than he actually requires to support life; this surplus, which he possesses in the form of tools, buildings, etc., is called capital, or wealth, and in a flourishing state of society continually increases; it is its possession which constitutes the real difference between the savage and civilised man. As one individual may be morally, physically, or intellectually superior to another, he will naturally, by the use of his labour, obtain more products – that is, more capital, or wealth – than the other; and as the arrangements of society allow the children to inherit the capital of the father, it must necessarily happen that great inequalities must exist in every society in relation to wealth; that, in fact, there must be rich and poor. This arrangement of society is just, and could not be otherwise. Although some may be born poor, and therefore inheriting no accumulated labour or capital, they cannot, therefore, justly demand that a new distribution of wealth should take place – that the property of the rich should be given to them. But, on the other hand, society cannot demand from them to become machines, to work to an extent unheard of among savages, and yet deny them that comfort, and that share in progress which ought to be the sole end of civilisation. The poor man is entitled to live; in the fullest sense of the word he is entitled to share in all the accumulated advantages of civilisation, not only as regards his physical happiness, but also his moral and intellectual cultivation. Why should he alone have no future, except that of suffering? Why should anyone dare to debar him of the enjoyment of domestic ties, those greatest incentives to virtue?
The ancient civilisation of Greece permitted the same inequalities of rich and poor as our modern civilisation does; but with the Greeks the intellectual and moral man was the highest object of study. They laboured and accumulated capital; but the rich among them, instead of employing the whole of that accumulated capital in debasing the men who made it, by subjecting them more and more, or in ministering to their own animal senses, sacrificed their merely personal comfort to the public enjoyment of the nation. Hence were produced those masterpieces of art which we can only admire, but not imitate. The poor Athenian citizen was not taught that his sole business on earth was to labour incessantly, and that enjoyment was only for the rich; no, he felt that it was his right, his business to discuss in the public places the affairs of his country, to enjoy the pleasure of the theatre, to hear the great truths enunciated by the philosophers, to attend the games, and that it was his duty, as it is in all free States, to defend his country as a soldier.
During the Middle Ages the peasants were the serfs of the nobility; but although the conditions of their tenure were hard, although frequently robbed of all the fruits of their labours, they had a real interest in the land – an interest which in some countries they were able to transmit to their children. They were poor, but not destitute, no pauper class. Those who did not possess land were the servants of the lords, and, as such, were always certain of obtaining the first necessaries of life. The burgher class of the towns was a manly race, which pursued its peaceful occupations within the walled towns, and, when necessary, defended their rights and properties by the sword against the nobility which surrounded them, whose trade then, as now, was plundering the industrious classes. Each trade formed a guild, itself under the protection of a patron saint. The guild regulated the conditions of apprenticeship, and prevented the trade from being overstocked by taking too many apprentices. This apprenticeship was a useful custom; it required a considerable sacrifice of time, and consequently of money, and, therefore, prevented too great competition; it kept up a sympathy between the employer and the employed, as the apprentice, in most cases, resided with the master. The apprentice’s hours of labour were also limited, and he thus had ample means to amuse and improve himself. When the apprentice became a journeyman, and received wages, he did not immediately marry, but went to other towns, and worked there for some time, and thus increased his knowledge and experience; and when he accumulated sufficient capital, he became a master, settled in the place best suited to his business, took apprentices and employed journeymen, and then only did he marry. The masters in those days were only small capitalists, as each man endeavoured to be one; but they were sure of independence, for they did not believe that the market for their goods depended on unlimited production, and hence ruinous competition, but on the income of the country – on the fact of the people, the masses, possessing wealth. It is not the few rich in a country which consumes the products of labour – they only consume luxuries, and these luxuries must always give but a precarious employment – it is the diffusion of wealth among the population generally which regulates the demand, and ensures the labourer from sudden and ruinous fluctuations, and this system of numerous small manufacturers produced that result. And yet these masters must have been wealthy, numerous as they were, else they could not have raised those mighty symbols of religion which excite our admiration, or those beautiful, though quaint, town-halls which grace even the smallest continental town. Look at the cities of palaces, with their gorgeous frescoes, of republican Venice, Genoa the superb, and Florence. Have our great capitalists anything similar to point to? Alas, no! Our characteristics are prisons and workhouses.
What a contrast does not the position of the poor in our days present to that which we have just noticed! A few individuals have gotten possession of the whole of the land, which they look upon as theirs absolutely, to do with it whatever it may please them. This, as it suits them, is allotted to cattle or to men, the latter being the worse treated, for although they consider them both as having been created by the Almighty for their sole use and benefit, yet as the value of the cattle is in the beasts themselves, they take care that they were well fed and housed; but as the value of the men consists in the result of their labour, and as they are worth nothing when worked out, they can readily be replaced by new ones; the landlord Thugs would therefore consider it a waste of capital to either feed, clothe, or house them. And when they grow dissatisfied with the amount of plunder which they can obtain, they cleanse the land of such offal, and renew the stock. These pariahs, or, as they are denominated, ‘surplus population,’ have no refuge in Ireland, save a shallow grave, uncoffined and unnamed, or the charnel-houses denominated ‘workhouses.’ In England, however, they sometimes pass through another stage before they find this, their last resting-place; they became labourers in manufactories, and add to the number of those truly miserable and undenominated wretches who form a large proportion of the population of all manufacturing towns. Here a new system commences, exactly similar in its effect to that of the landlord Thugs; a few men possessing not real capital but money, or rather a still more fictitious one called credit, having taken advantage of the discoveries of science, establish large factories, and employ labourers, not men only, but women, and children of the tenderest age; these they enclose in large, low, ill-ventilated rooms from the earliest dawn until night; nay, often robbing their weary bodies of their natural slumber. To them Nature displays her charms in vain; no eloquence, no music, no poetry, as with the Greeks, the Venetians, and the Florentines, is afforded them as a relaxation from their toil – nay, their masters
‘Grudge them e’en the breeze that once a week
Might make them feel less weary and deject.’
They become weak in body, depraved in morals, and the monotony of their employment dulls their intellect, and what is their reward? To be badly fed, badly clothed, and worse housed, and liable at any moment, from circumstances over which they have no control, to be deprived of all employment. This class, resembling the Proletarii of the Roman Empire, is increasing with fearful rapidity, and will one day revenge all their wrongs on their oppressors, but will also, it is to be feared, destroy society itself. This class may be called the destitute, to distinguish them from the general poor.
With the breaking down of the old society and the commencement of the present state of things, a new science was created, which had for its object the study of the social condition of man; and to this science the name of political economy has been given. This science has attracted great attention in England, because the evils of the present social system have been more developed there than in any other country. It is only there, or in countries blasted by her rule, that true pauperism exists in all its unmitigated horrors. The desire to accumulate wealth and the state of things produced by this desire, naturally led everybody to study a science which he was given to understand would help him to attain his end, and hence whole libraries have been written on the subject; but what is termed the science of political economy in England bears the same relation to that science as the quackery of Parr or Holloway does to the science of medicine.
We do not, however, mean to say that the English political economists have never enunciated any truths; on the contrary, a good many valuable laws have been deduced by Adam Smith and others; but the errors which they have promulgated far outnumber the truths, and have done incalculable mischief. They have materialized everything; with them the sole object of existence is the production of wealth, not the advantages which its equitable distribution would have on the community. They only look to the actual sum total of the wealth of a country, even when that wealth is in the hands of a few millionaires, while the masses are debased paupers – with them England is the most flourishing country in the world, because from acting on their principles it possesses in the aggregate more wealth than most other nations; but they forget that one half of the population is reduced to a state of degradation unparalleled in Europe. They make that the end for which we live, which most other nations consider the means by which we may enjoy life. Under their influence the arts, abstract science, or a healthy literature can with difficulty flourish.
Sismondi’s answer to Ricardo, one of the most eminent of them, gives in one sentence their whole character: –
‘What, is wealth then everything! are men absolutely nothing?’’
In Ireland what is bad in their principles has been acted upon, but the good has been totally neglected. We hear constantly our flippant ameliorators, and turnip-headed candidates for prominent places, whose knowledge of legislation has been gleaned from the leaders of a superficial Press, or the stupid speeches of a class of ‘gentlemen’ little better informed than themselves, talk about capital and a few other words which are only sounds devoid of meaning to them. We would be fortunate if all our economists were of the same value; what injury, for instance, could we suffer from such trash as the ‘Clarendonian talk about Repeal,’ etc? But there are others whose poison is more insidious, and who have taken the best means of diffusing it through our veins – such as one Whately, a goodly specimen of the foreign vermin we have allowed to crawl over us – of such we must beware; already they have received a few lessons from another quarter, and the Irish Tribune will continue the tuition from time to time.
 Richard Whately, Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, whose economical heresies were thrust upon Irish children in the National School books.