In our current culture of information saturation it often helps to turn off the news feeds and political gamesmanship and review the current issues
more broadly. Of course no circumstances are completely unique and we can gain a great deal of clarity through the writings of those who have lived
through common times.
The Acquisitive Society
is a work written by
R. H. Tawney
in 1920 discussing the issues of income inequality and tendency for exclusively
profit driven work to lack social purpose. It seems to be a relatively obscure book but definitely something that deserves another look.
He begins with this criticism of the value of productivity,
It is a commonplace that the characteristic virtue of Englishmen is their power of sustained practical activity, and their characteristic vice a
reluctance to test the quality of that activity by reference to principles.
Speaking of the current social and political organizations of his time he echoes what many would happily apply to the banks and financial institutions
the indispensable thing is to break the dead organization up and to clear the ground. In the course of doing so, the individual is emancipated and
his rights are enlarged; but the idea of social purpose is discredited by the discredit justly attaching to the obsolete order in which it is
As regards to the lessening of Church power, growth of individualism, and the birth of the industrial age,
What remained when the keystone of the arch was removed, was private rights and private interests, the materials of a society rather than a
for the most obvious and fundamental of all rights was property—property absolute and unconditioned—and those who possessed it were regarded
as the natural governors of those who did not.
One thing I would like to add here is that the philosophical basis for the concept of property rights is, perhaps, not as we commonly accept it. As
John Locke himself states in chapter 5 of his Second Treatise of Government
when addressing whether property rights are unconditional,
... that if gathering the acorns, or other fruits of the earth, makes a right to them, then any one may ingross as much as he will. To which I
answer, Not so. The same law of nature, that does by this means give us property, does also bound that property too. ... As much as any one can make
use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his Tabour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and
belongs to others.
Tawney states that in their single minded attempt to address the political and legal abuses of the time, they overlooked social abuses that were just
as detrimental when seen through the eyes of utility.
They thought it a monstrous injustice that the citizen should pay one-tenth of his income in taxation to an idle Government, but quite reasonable
that he should pay one-fifth of it in rent to an idle landlord
In discussing the liberalism movement of 19th century Britain Tawney says,
it carried without criticism into the new world of capitalist industry categories of private property and freedom of contract which had been
forged in the simpler economic environment of the pre-industrial era.
Referring to America,
The magnificent formulæ in which a society of farmers and master craftsmen enshrined its philosophy of freedom are in danger of becoming fetters
used by an Anglo-Saxon business aristocracy to bind insurgent movements on the part of an immigrant and semi-servile proletariat.
I believe this is in reference to the property rights, contract law, and freedoms that governed simpler, agrarian societies being extended to a
broader non-labor based society and used to take advantage of the less informed and more desperate. When in need people have little choice but to
take what work they can get, even if undervalued. Through contract law those who had leverage could take advantage of those in need with full legal
And in what I believe sums up the feeling of many, if not most, a century later when referring to the absolutism of property rights and self-interest
in pursuing unlimited wealth,
... it immensely simplifies the problems of social life in complex communities. For it relieves them of the necessity of discriminating between
different types of economic activity and different sources of wealth, between enterprise and avarice, energy and unscrupulous greed, property which is
legitimate and property which is theft, the just enjoyment of the fruits of labor and the idle parasitism of birth or fortune.
You can find the full book here
or a quick summary
edit on 30-11-2012 by hezro because: Changed quotes to external references