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Bonald’s Economic Thought

[1]

Jean-François Millet, "Spring," 1868–1873

2,224 words

The French Age of Enlightenment witnessed and celebrated an economic revolution: the rapid growth of speculation and a money economy, and a corresponding diminution in the importance of landed wealth. Bonald believed that the change had been brought about by the practice of usury. He did not condemn all lending at interest as usury, but distinguished between the cases of lending for the acquisition of productive goods (such as land or capital) and lending for unproductive goods meant for consumption.

For example, if I lend a man money to buy a farm, I may legitimately charge him interest out of the goods produced by the farm. In the France of Bonald’s day, this would usually have yielded an interest rate of around four or five percent per annum. On the other hand, if I lend a man money to by bread, his purchase, far from being productive of further value, loses what value it has if not quickly consumed. In contrast to the earth itself, “the products of the earth, are dead values which diminish in quantity or quality.” To earn money by lending for consumption is, in Bonald’s view, essentially unjust and a violation of Christian charity even if freely agreed to between borrower and lender.

It might appear that such a doctrine would forbid an ordinary greengrocer from operating his store at a profit. Bonald holds that the grocer’s ‘profit’ really amounts to a wage for the work he does:

The labor of men who purchase, transport, store, preserve and improve goods merits a salary. The natural decrease, the accidental and eventual loss of goods and the inevitable waste they suffer from their transformation into industrial values all require compensation.

This contradicts the teaching of Adam Smith:

The profits of stock, it may perhaps be thought, are only a different name for the wages of a particular sort of labour, the labour of inspection and direction. They are, however, altogether different, are regulated by quite different principles, and bear no proportion to the quantity, the hardship, or the ingenuity of this supposed labour of inspection and direction. They are regulated altogether by the value of the stock employed, and are greater or smaller in proportion to the extent of this stock. . . . In many great works, almost the whole labour of this kind is committed to some principal clerk. His wages properly express the value of this labour of inspection and direction. Though in settling them some regard is had commonly, not only to his labour and skill, but to the trust which is reposed in him, yet they never bear any regular proportion to the capital of which he oversees the management; and the owner of this capital, though he is thus discharged of almost all labour, still expects that his profit should bear a regular proportion to his capital. In the price of commodities, therefore, the profits of stock constitute a component part altogether different from the wages of labour, and regulated by quite different principles. (The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 6)

I will not venture to decide the question in Bonald’s favor, but I am inclined to wonder how many modern economists could give a coherent explanation of why his unfashionable view is mistaken.

Money, in Bonald’s view, is properly a sign of value and medium of exchange rather than a commodity like any other. It should not, therefore, command a ‘price’ in the form of interest (except as noted). Where usury is permitted,

interest, or rather the price of money, is infinitely greater than the produce of the earth, [so] everyone wishes to sell his land in order to procure money to lend. But when everyone wants to sell, no one wants to buy. The produce of the land tends to rise to the highest prices, and the lands themselves fall to the lowest, or they are unable to be sold at any price, and one buys only what misery leaves behind or revolutions make available. One notes a general tendency to leave one’s home and the home of one’s fathers, to leave one’s family and country. A vague restlessness and desire for change torments landowners. They complain of being attached to an estate burdened with so many cares, and with too little income left to pay for their luxuries and pleasures. We see an immoderate desire to become rich extending even to the lowest orders of society, causing horrible disorders and unheard of crimes; while in others giving rise to a cold, hard egoism, a total extinction of every generous sentiment, and an insensible transformation of the most disinterested and friendly nation into a people of stock-jobbers who see in the events of society only chances for gain or loss.

To this unstable, calculating and hectic system Bonald opposes the traditional landed or agrarian system of economy which flourishes when interest rates are not allowed to exceed the production of the earth:

Those who can live within the revenue of their capital seek to acquire productive land, because the revenue of land is approximately the same as the interest paid for money, and it is more secure because the capital itself is more sheltered from events. Yet were everyone wants to buy, no one wants to sell. Lands are therefore at a high price relative to goods. All the citizens aspire to move from being possessors of money to being possessors of land, i.e., from a mobile and dependent political condition to a fixed and independent position. This is the most happy and most moral cast of the public mind, the one most opposed to the spirit of greed and to revolution.

The reader will learn more about agrarianism from a few pages of Bonald than from all the literary exercises in I’ll Take My Stand.

Bonald saw no reason why the legislator should remain neutral regarding developments so harmful to the moral habits of society:

A wise policy, one more attentive to general interests than to private ones, would seek to render the circulation of money less rapid: in Sparta, by using iron money, in modern states, by the prohibition of lending at usury. . . . If the profits of commerce regularly rise far above the revenue of the land, it would be a wise measure to bring them back to equality, either by favoring the cultivation of the earth in every possible way, or by containing the speculations of commerce within the limits of general utility.

To restore the agrarian order, Bonald also advocated the restoration of primogeniture and entail: “a law not made for the benefit of the eldest, but for the preservation and permanence of the landowning family.” Revolutionary legislation had mandated the equal division and inheritance of landed estates. This was not unlike Solomon’s judgment of carving the child in two: a half or a quarter or an eighth of an estate is often not worth the corresponding fraction of the original. It may be unfortunate that all men cannot live off their own lands, but parceling out estates into a welter of vegetable gardens does not improve matters; it only forces the ‘heirs’ to sell out for any price they can get. As a leading citizen of his district, Bonald got to know the evils of the new system at first hand.

A rich cultivator whom the author congratulated for the good state of his properties responded in a dolorous tone: “It is true, my property is beautiful and well cultivated. My fathers for several centuries and I for fifty years have worked to extend, improve and embellish it. But you see my large family, and with their laws on inheritance, my children will one day be servants here where they were the masters.”

Bonald even defended the guild system, which Smith had criticized for restricting competition and inefficiently requiring seven year apprenticeships for trades which took six months to learn.

For the inferior classes, the corporations of arts and trades were a sort of hereditary municipal nobility that gave importance and dignity to the most obscure individuals and the least exalted professions. These corporations were at the same time confraternities, and this is what excited the hatred of the philosophes who hunted down religion even in its most modest manifestations. This monarchical institution brought great benefits to administration. The power of the masters restrained youths who lacked education, who had been taken away from paternal authority at an early age by the necessity to learn a trade and win their bread, and whose obscurity hid from the public power. Finally, the inheritance of the mechanical professions also served public morals by posing a check to ruinous and ridiculous changes of fashion.

The author’s first point is especially worth pondering: a man can be happy in a low station, so long as it is a recognized station within his society. The ‘equality bug’ infects men who are deracinated, i.e., who do not belong anywhere. Those with the dignity of even a modest ‘place’ are seldom disturbed by the greater fortunes of others.

Bonald criticized Smith directly:

Wealth, taken in a general and philosophical sense, is the means of existence and conservation; opes, in the Latin tongue, signifies both wealth and strength. For the individual—a physical being—these means are material wealth, the produce of the soil and of industry. For society—a moral being—the means of existence and duration are moral riches, and the forces of conservation are, for the domestic society, morals, and for the public society, laws. Morals and laws are, therefore, the true and even the only wealth of societies, families and nations.

Here again we see Bonald’s sharp distinction between universal or public interests and particular or private ones: economic goods are always private, even if they happen to be enjoyed by all the individuals in a given society. This is why Liberalism (which, according to no less an authority than Ludwig von Mises, is “merely applied economics”) cannot give any account of why citizens should have to sacrifice their lives for their country:

A public spirit cannot be maintained in a commercial and manufacturing nation devoted to calculations of personal interest, and still less today when the laws of war protect the personal property of the vanquished and in our humanitarian sentiments we call it a crime for a citizen not to be paid to defend his land. In every era, poor nations have conquered rich ones, even though they held in their wealth the most powerful motives for self-defense.

Similarly, in his earlier treatise On Divorce [2] (see my review here [3] and here [4]), Bonald pointed out that commercial peoples tend to think even of marriage on the model of a business contract. He writes of “the degradation of a neighboring people [the English] which evaluates the weakness of a woman, the crime of a seducer, and the shame of a husband in pounds, shillings, and pence, and sues for the total on expert estimates.”

Bonald rejects the “privatize everything!” impulse which sees socialism lurking in every town square:

The use of common things, temples, waters, woods, and pastures constitutes the property of the community. Indeed, there is no more community where there is no longer a community of use. It may be true that the commons were poorly administered. I would even believe that their division, in some places, has produced a little more wheat. Yet in some lands this division restricts flocks to spaces too small for them and thus ruins and important branch of agriculture. More importantly, there is no more common property among the inhabitants of the same place and, consequently, no more community of interests, no more occasions for deliberation and agreement. For example, if there were only one public fountain in a village from which water was distributed to all the households, to take away the fountain would be to deny the inhabitants a continual occasion to see, speak to, and hear one another.

Bonald, like Marx after him, saw that industrial poverty was different in kind from the poverty in agricultural states, and a greater threat to traditional social order. Indeed, he comes close to calling the industrial proletariat the vanguard of the Revolution.

The true politician is concerned about the disorders that arise from the alternation of ease and misery to which the industrial population is exposed, which, making the objects of industry without being able to consume them, is no less obliged to consume the fruits of the soil without the ability to produce or even purchase them—and which, finding itself without work and without bread, is a ready-made instrument for revolution. . . . Let it not be doubted that it is in hopes of one day taking this superabundant population into its pay that one party in Europe promotes the exaggerated growth of industry, certain that it can give work to these idle arms in the immense workshop of the revolutionary industry.

Recommended reading:

Louis de Bonald
The True and Only Wealth of Nations: Essays on Family, Economy, and Society [5]
Ttranslated by Christopher Olaf Blum
Naples, Fla.: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2006

Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition [6]
Edited and translated by Christopher Olaf Blum
Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2004

Louis de Bonald
On Divorce [2]
Translated and edited by Nicholas Davidson
New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1992

TOQ Online, Dec. 5, 2009