Jean-Baptiste Say, on the 250th Anniversary of His Birth
Americans live in a world where regulation and taxation at multiple levels of government erode their ability to make choices for themselves. That is, we face constant government assaults on our property rights, as they increasingly limit owners’ power over their property. As James Fenimore Cooper could already write in 1838, “There is getting to be so much public right, that private right is overshadowed and lost. A danger exists that the ends of liberty will be forgotten.”
Given how much private property rights are being pared away, it is worth returning to first principles about the essential underpinnings of voluntary relationships. And one of the very best people to turn to is Jean Baptiste Say. That is particularly true this January 5, which is the 250th anniversary of Say’s birth.
J.B. Say was the foremost French political economist in the early 1800s. An elaborator on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and a vigorous defender of laissez-faire principles, which are the outgrowth of private property rights, he was the first person to offer a public course in political economy in France, and the English translation of his Treatise on Political Economy was used as a textbook in England and the United States.
Say’s Treatise, particularly his chapter, “Of the right of property,” though written over two centuries ago, remains among the wisest, though most commonly ignored, insights into property rights. Among Say's many penetrating observations are these:
"The right of property…[is] the most powerful of all encouragements to the multiplication of wealth."
"The legal inviolability of property is obviously a mere mockery, where the sovereign power…practices robbery itself…or where possession is rendered perpetually insecure, by the intricacy of legislative enactments, and the subtleties of technical nicety. Nor can property be said to exist, where it is not matter of reality as well as of right. Then, and then only, can the sources of production… attain their utmost degree of fecundity."
"Who will attempt to deny, that the certainty of enjoying the fruits of one’s land, capital and labor, is the most powerful inducement to render them productive? Or who is dull enough to doubt, that no one knows so well as the proprietor how to make the best use of his property? Yet how often in practice is that inviolability of property disregarded…How often is it broken in upon for the most insignificant purposes; and its violation, that should naturally excite indignation, justified upon the most flimsy pretexts?"
"There is no security of property, where a despotic authority can possess itself of the property of the subject against his consent. Neither is there such security, where the consent is merely nominal and delusive."
"The right of property is equally invaded, by obstructing the free employment of the means of production, as by violently depriving the proprietor of the product of his land, capital, or industry: for the right of property…is the right of use or even abuse. Thus, landed property is violated by arbitrarily prescribing tillage or plantation; or by interdicting particular modes of cultivation; the property of the capitalist is violated, by prohibiting particular ways of employing it…forbidding the proprietor to build on his own soil, or prescribing the form and requisites of the building. It is a further violation of the capitalist’s property to prohibit any kind of industry, or to load it with duties amounting to prohibition, after he has once embarked his capital in that way."
"Yet, sacred as the property in the faculties of industry is, it is constantly infringed upon…A government is guilty of an invasion upon it, when…depriving the individual of the fair and reasonable certainty of having his time and facilities at his own disposal…What robber or despoiler could commit a more atrocious act of invasion upon the public security?"
"Public safety sometimes imperiously requires the sacrifice of private property; but that sacrifice is a violation…For the right of property implies the free disposition of one’s own; and its sacrifice, however fully indemnified, is a forced disposition."
"When public authority is not itself a spoliator, it procures to the nation the greatest of all blessings, protection from spoliation by others. Without this protection of each individual by the united force of the whole community, it is impossible to conceive any considerable development of the productive powers of man, of land, and of capital; or even to conceive the existence of capital at all; for it is nothing more than accumulated value, operating under the safeguard of authority."
"The poor man…is equally interested with the rich in upholding the inviolability of property. His personal services would not be available, without the aid of accumulations previously made and protected. Every obstruction to, or dissipation of these accumulations, is a material injury to his means of gaining a livelihood; and the ruin and spoliation of the higher is as certainly followed by the misery and degradation of the lower classes."
J.B. Say, because he saw theory as a guide to practice (versus something ignored when inconvenient for those in power), was concerned with applying his understanding of property rights. That is clear from other sections of his Treatise, such as those dealing with taxation and regulation. In Larry Sechrest’s words, “he correctly identifies both government regulation and taxation…as threats to civil society itself.” Unfortunately, Say’s insights are seldom practiced, because, “agents of public authority…can enforce error and absurdity at the point of the bayonet or mouth of the cannon.” Say continues:
"Something cannot be produced out of nothing by a mere touch of the wand…there are but two ways of obtaining…creating oneself or taking from others. The best scheme of finance is, to spend as little as possible; and the best tax is always the lightest."
"The value paid to government by the tax-payer is given without equivalent or return."
"Excessive taxation is a kind of suicide…it extinguishes both production and consumption, and the tax-payer in the bargain."
"The nature of the products is always regulated by the wants of society… [therefore] legislative interference is superfluous altogether."
"Violations of property with all their usual accompaniments of inquisitorial search, personal violence, and injustice, have never afforded any considerable resource to the government employing them. In polity as well as morality, the grand secret is, not to constrain the actions, but to awaken the inclinations of mankind. Markets are not to be supplied by the terror of the bayonet or the saber."
"Of all the means by which a government can stimulate production, there is none so powerful as the perfect security of person and property, especially from the aggressions of arbitrary power. This security is itself a source of public prosperity."
As Larry Sechrest summarized, J.B. Say was “precise and yet as simple as possible, so that any literate, reasonably intelligent person can comprehend his meaning.” However, modern Americans are currently governed by those who choose to violate those principles. And the results are far from those that arise from the defense of private property rights, as well.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.