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Lysander Spooner – Poverty: Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure

The Anarchist Library

Author: Lysander Spooner
Title: Poverty: Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure
Subtitle: Part First
Date: 1846
Notes: Originally published by Bela Marsh in 1846 as Poverty: Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure. Part I. Intended as the first of a four part series.
Source: Retrieved 07/02/2022 from dwardmac.pitzer.edu and books.google.com


The existing poverty would be rapidly removed, and future poverty almost entirely prevented, a more equal distribution of property than now exists accomplished, and the aggregate wealth of society greatly increased, if the principles of natural law, and of our national and state constitutions generally, were adhered to by the judiciary in their decisions in regard to contracts.

These principles are violated by the judiciary in various ways, to wit:

1. In a manner to uphold arbitrary and unconstitutional statutes against freedom in banking, and freedom in the rate of interest; thus denying the natural and constitutional right of the people to make two classes of contracts, which will hereafter be shown to be of vital importance, both to the general increase and to the more equal distribution of wealth.

2. In a manner to extend the obligation of certain contracts beyond their natural and legal limit, and hold men liable to pay debts no longer due; thereby condemning large numbers of men to perpetual poverty and destitution, by making their expired debts a burden upon their future acquisitions, and an obstruction to their obtaining credit for the capital necessary to the successful employment of their industry.

3. In a manner to reduce the obligation of the contracts of corporate bodies below their natural and legal limit, and thus enable the privileged debtors, who have the means of payment, to withhold payment of debts actually due, and make themselves rich by making others poor.

4. In a manner to deny the legal rights of creditors, relatively to each other, in the property of their debtors; enabling and, in cases of insolvency, compelling debtors to swindle one portion of their creditors for the benefit of another; making it impossible for capitalists to determine, with any reasonable accuracy, the value of personal security for loans; rendering it unsafe for them to loan capital at all to mere laborers; and thus preventing the natural and more equal diffusion of credit among all those poor men, who are in want of capital upon which to bestow their labor, and who, for the want of such capital, are compelled to sell their labor to others for a price much below the amount of its actual products.

These erroneous decisions of the judiciary are made, in some of the cases, in obedience to arbitrary and unconstitutional legislation; in others, through ignorance of the natural law applicable to contracts, where no special legislation has been had.

It will be the object of the following essays to establish the illegality of these various decisions, and to explain their effects in obstructing the increase and more equal distribution of wealth.

But before proceeding to any legal discussions, let us, state certain economical propositions, that are obviously conducive, if not indispensably necessary, to the greatest aggregate increase, and most equal distribution of wealth, that can be accomplished consistently with the natural right of each man to the control of his own property. Having stated these propositions, we will then see whether those principles of natural and constitutional law, which our judiciary are bound to adhere to, would secure the establishment or realization of the propositions themselves.

Proposition 1.

Every man—so far as, consistently with the principles of natural law, he can accomplish it—should be allowed to have the fruits, and all the fruits of his own labor.

That the principle of allowing each man to have, (so far as it is consistent with the principles of natural law that he can have,) all the fruits of his own labor, would conduce to a more just and equal distribution of wealth than now exists, is a proposition too self-evident almost to need illustration. It is an obvious principle of natural justice, that each man should have the fruits of his own labor; and all arbitrary enactments by governments, interfering with this result, are nothing better than robbery. It is also an obvious fact, that the property produced by society, is now distributed in very unequal proportions among those whose labor produced it, and with very little regard to the actual value of each one’s labor in producing it. And this fact is not the result except in a partial degree—of the superior mental capacities, which enable some men, consistently with honesty and fair competition, to compass more of the means of acquiring wealth than others; but it is the result, in a very important measure, of arbitrary and unjust legislative enactments, and false judicial decisions, which actually deprive a large portion of mankind of their right to the fair and honest exercise of their natural powers, in competition with their fellowmen. That such is the truth will be seen hereafter.

That the principle of allowing each man to have the fruits of his own labor, would also conduce to the aggregate increase of wealth, is obvious, for the reason that each man being, as he then would be, dependent upon his own labor, instead of the labor of others, for his subsistence and wealth, would be under the necessity to labor, and consequently would labor. The aggregate wealth of society would therefore be increased by just so much as the labor of all the members of society should be more productive than the labor of a part. It would also be increased by the operation of another principle, to wit: When a man knows that he is to have all the fruits of his labor, he labors with more zeal, skill, and physical energy, than when he knows—as in the case of one laboring for wages—that a portion of the fruits of his labor are going to another. Under the influence, then, of this principle, that each man should have all the fruits of his own labor, the aggregate wealth of society would be increased in two ways, to wit, first, all men would labor, instead of a part only; and, secondly, each man would labor with more skill, energy, and effect, than hired laborers do now.