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Lieber's Political Ethics

The Boston Quarterly Review, January, 1839

Art. V.  Manual of Political Ethics, designed chiefly for the use of Colleges and Students at Law.   Part I. By Francis Lieeer. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown.    1838.    8vo.

The object of this work, as indicated by the title and introductory chapters, is to state the principles of morals as applied to Politics. This is the branch of Political Philosophy commonly called the Law of Nations. Dr. Lieber, however, expressly omits, for the present, any allusion to International Law ; so that it is not very easy to see what is to form the precise subject of the treatise. His remarks on this head are not very clear ; but so far as we understand him, his intention is to point out the moral rules by which the individual citizen, whether in or out of office, is to govern himself in his political conduct, so far as it relates to the internal affairs of his own country.

This subject is, however, hardly entered upon in the present volume, which consists of two books, occupied respectively by treatises on Morals and on Politics, intended as introductory to the treatise on Political Ethics, which is to form the main subject of the work. The introductory matter in this arrangement is obviously of a wider and more important character than the principal subject; and we think it would have been more natural to publish the treatises on Morals and Politics as independent works, than to bring them out as preliminaries to the essay on Political Ethics. But a really valuable treatise on either of the former topics would be so important and acceptable a present to the reading world, that we should not be disposed to find fault with it, under whatever form it might make its appearance.

The treatises on these subjects, that occupy the volume before us, are far from being entirely without value. They exhibit extensive reading and a generous tone of sentiment. These, we think, are the chief merits. The principles are of the liberal political school, and make but little pretensions to originality, excepting, perhaps, in forms of expression, where the innovations are not always of the happiest kind. There is a great want of the precision of thought, which is indispensable in an elementary work, and of correct taste in style. The language is throughout obscure, confused, and full of foreign idioms, besides unauthorized terms, in many cases avowedly coined by the author. In this particular he adopts the usage of his   German countrymen, who   coin  a  new  word without scruple, whenever they think they have a new idea. We find no fault with this practice ; but then we must remind our author, that such innovations can only be justified by complete success ;  that is, the new word must be coined with so much skill and felicity, as to recommend itself at once to the favor of the public. In such cases, which are, however, exceedingly rare, the public receive it gratefully, and adopt it without hesitation. Where a new word is coined without necessity, or in a clumsy and unskilful manner, the effect is anything but agreeable. Of this latter unhappy description is a large proportion of Mr. Bentham's coinage, and, we must add, of the new terms, which our author invents or adopts from others. As a single example we may mention the word Catallactics, which he adopts, without naming his authority, from Archbishop Whately, as a substitute for Political Economy. " Catallactics," he says, " is far the best name that has been proposed for Political Economy." This science, even in the most popular aspect in which it can be presented, is but too repulsive to most readers, and, if labelled with this formidable title, would, we fear, remain forever a sealed book to the million. We must say that we very much prefer the commonly received name. Hamarchy and hamacratic, which come from the author's own workshop, are to oiir ears not much better.

The leading defect of the work, from which the particular faults adverted to above appear to result, is the want of maturity. The materials collected are valuable; the author's reading is really extensive and varied ; but in his haste to make a new book out of the stock of information which he has collected, he has not given himself time to digest his facts, or to mature either his thoughts or his style. Hence the vagueness of his language in regard to the very object of his work, which, with a good deal of effort to explain it, he does not make quite clear to others, nor apparently to himself. Hence, too, the confused and outlandish aspect of the style, and the often loose and unsuccessful manner, in which he endeavors to state principles, in themselves correct and true, in scientific forms. Dr. Lieber, if we are rightly informed, lectures professionally in one of the southern colleges upon the subjects treated in the present work. He is, therefore, very favorably situated for gradually maturing his conclusions, and bringing them to the highest point of clearness and certainty, which he is able to give them, as well as for improving his taste and talent for mere literary composition. We should advise him, as friends, net to publish, at present, the other part of the work, to consider the publication of the first part as non avenu, and to go on quietly and steadily for some time to come, reading, talking, thinking, and lecturing, without any view to publication. Whether he would be able, under any circumstances, to give us an original, profound, and complete, in one word, a standard work on Morals or Politics, we are rather inclined to doubt. But we are satisfied, that, by following the course which we have pointed out, he would be able, some eight or ten years hence, to publish a work much more substantially valuable, and much better digested and written than the one before us is, or, when complete, is likely to be.

An immature work, which does not contain the best results which the author is capable of furnishing, is, of course, hardly a fit subject for elaborate and extended criticism. We will merely add a few remarks upon the leading principles laid down respectively in the two divisions of the volume before us.

The treatise on Morals, which occupies the first book, is less extensive and complete than that on Politics. Our author adopts the theory of a moral faculty, by which we recognise the distinction between right and wrong, but does not clearly indicate whether he considers it as belonging to the department of the understanding or the affections. The principle which he lays down as the basis of natural law or morals is as follows :  / am a man: therefore I have a right to be a man.  This principle, if it were true, would form a rather questionable foundation for the superstructure of moral science, since the precise question in morals is, what are the rules or laws to which I am subject as a man ? Independently of this, the principle is in itself very doubtful, or rather obviously untrue. It is a particular application of the general principle, which forms the groundwork of the philosophy of the Essay on Man, " whatever is, is right."  I am; therefore I am right. Is this correct and satisfactory reasoning 1 Is there no such thing as wrong or evil in the world 1 If there be, how can the mere fact, that a thing exists, prove it to be right 1 If there be not, why take the trouble to write a book upon the distinction between right and wrong ? Why could not the worst man in existence prove his rectitude in this way, just as well as the best? / am a thief; therefore I have a right to be a thief. This is just as strong an argument as the more general proposition, I am, a man ; therefore I have a right to be a man; or the still more universal axiom of Pope and Bo-lingbroke,  whatever is, is right.

Were the principle as true, as it is obviously false, it could not be used as the basis of moral philosophy. The law of nature is the system of relations established by the Creator among the individual members of the human race. The rights, belonging to individuals under this system, are the consequences and not the basis of it. I have a right as a father to respect from my children ; but the fact, that I am a father, is not the basis of this right. My right results from the general law of nature, that fathers are entitled to respect from their children, which had its foundation in the will of the Creator. The fact, that I am a father, does not establish the law, but merely brings me within its operation. So the President of the United States is entitled by law to receive twenty-five thousand dollars a year from the public treasury. The fact, that he is President, brings him within the operation of the law, but the foundation of his right is the law itself, and this has for its basis the will of the people.

The treatise on Politics, which forms the second part of the present volume, is more full, and on the whole more satisfactory, than the one on Morals, but is, after all, far from being a thorough and finished work. The author's theory on the origin of society is rather obscure. He very properly rejects the idea of a state of individual independence anterior to the existence of society ; but he seems, on the other hand, hardly willing to admit that society is the original condition. On this subject Cicero has expressed himself in the following terms. " Bees do not congregate for the purpose of constructing a honey-comb, but, being by nature gregarious animals, combine their labor in making a comb. And man, even still more, is formed by nature for society, and subsequently, as a member of society, promotes the common good in conjunction with his fellow creatures." This appears to us to be sound doctrine. Our author quotes the passage, and rather peremptorily adds, cr neither one or [nor] the other is the case." Now when Cicero says one thing and Dr. Lieber another, we are strongly tempted, not perhaps to apply the malo errare, but to suspect that the Doctor labors under a mistake, which seems to be in this case a mistake in regard to his own meaning. The reasons by which he sustains his contradiction of Cicero are curious. " It is true," he says, " that man is led to promote the final ends of society, to move towards them, long before he is fully aware of them, but he is not, as has been stated, instinctively gregarious, nor does he join society in consequence of reflection." If then neither instinct nor reflection lead him into society, what does 1 Our author replies in the next sentence :  " He is led to do it by his nature, physical and intellectual, which gradually unfolds itself with every step of progress he makes." Now we are at a loss to imagine what is meant by the physical and intellectual nature of man, as the terms are here used, unless it be  instinct and reflection. To us the two phrases appear to be identical in their signification. Our author, instead of being as he supposes at issue with Cicero, agrees with him exactly ; and if he had known his own meaning a little, better, might have spared himself the trouble of his somewhat unceremonious contradiction of the illustrious Roman.

Montesquieu treats this point more concisely than Cicero, and with more precision than Dr. Lieber. " I hear much said," he remarks, " about the origin of society. The whole matter lies in a nutshell. Men are born by the side of their parents, and there they stay.    This is society and the origin of society."

The origin and nature of Property are treated in the same vague way. Considerable pains are taken to prove that production gives to the producer a property in his product; but the author does not feel that the only delicate question in this matter is how much of this product represents the labor of the individual producer, and of course belongs to him. The individual is supported by society and his family, for ten, twenty, or, in some cases, thirty years, before he can bring out anything valuable. At this period he begins to produce. This product represents, first, his own labor upon this particular article, and, secondly, the labor of society and of his family, which has been employed upon him, and, as it were, accumulated in his person.

The society, therefore, and the family, of which the individual is a member, have the same right to their proportional share in his product that he has. It is the fruit of their labor, as well as of his. Who shall make the distribution 1 This is done and can only be done by the society. The society, acting through the government, agreeably to general laws, levies, in the first place, upon the individual product, the proportion wanted for social purposes. The amount to be taken in this way is at her discretion. If necessary she takes the whole, and even anticipates in the form of public loans, the whole labor of one or more future generations Society having taken her share, the rest remains for the use of individuals. But is this remainder distributed at the discretion of the individual producer 1 By no means. Society again steps in, and determines by law the principles on which the distribution shall be made. To a large numerical majority, the married women, and the children of both sexes, she says, " you have no property in the product of your labor; it belongs, after deduction of the amount wanted for the public, to the head of the family." To the heads of families and the men of mature age, she says, " The produce of your labor and of that of your family, if you have one, is placed in your hands, to be employed for your and their support, agreeably to fixed laws."

What then becomes of the supposed right of property in the individual to the fruit of his labor 1 It is apparent that the right of society is throughout 'paramount ; that society possesses and exercises, under all forms of government, a discretionary power over the whole produce of the labor of its members ; levying upon it at discretion, in the first place, the amount wanted for its own use, and then determining at discretion the principles on which the rest shall be held and distributed.

Society is, in short, a great joint-stock concern, possessing of right, and exercising in fact, under all forms of government, the power of disposing, at discretion, of the produce of the labor of all its members. Property is the power entrusted to individuals by the society, that is, by law, of disposing to a limited extent, in specified forms and for specified purposes, of a part of the produce of their own labor or that of others.
Of all this we find little or nothing in the work of Dr. Lieber. He confines himself, upon this topic, to a labored argument in support of the proposition, that individuals have an exclusive right to the produce of their own labor ; a proposition undisputed and indisputable in the popular sense, in which it is commonly used, but in any strict and scientific construction of it, about as plausible, as it would be to say that the individual operative who puts the last finish to a piece of broadcloth, which has been manufactured by the joint labor of perhaps a hundred workmen, out of materials and by the aid of machinery furnished by the labor of a hundred others, has a just right of property in the whole.

The nature and incidents of Sovereignty are discussed by Dr. Lieber at considerable length. He defines the term as follows : " Sovereignty is the necessary existence of the state, and that right and power, which necessarily or naturally flow from it." We are free to say, that this definition does not seem to us remarkably fortunate. Indeed we greatly doubt whether, if we had read the definition without seeing the word defined, we should readily conjecture what it was. By Sovereignty we understand the supreme, that is, the highest, or ultimate power* in the state, which controls all others, and from which all others are derived. Dr. Lieber is rather puzzled to assign the origin of this power.    He says,
" If a man were to ask, in earnest, whence does this power flow, he could only be answered by a counter-question, such as, whence do you derive the right of breathing ? He would answer, ' my existence is the self-evident proof of my right of existence, and in order to exist breathing is absolutely necessary.1 The same applies to sovereignty. Absolute necessity gives in all cases sovereign power, namely, that primitive power, which supersedes all other, as it is its source. The crew of a vessel are in a state of mutiny ; the captain has been killed ; an energetic man among the passengers unites the latter and part of the crew with himself; he seizes the mutinous sailors; there is no possibility of subduing or preventing them in any other way from piratical acts. He tries them with the assistance of his fellow-passengers, and hangs them. He is right; and provided he can prove everything as stated above, he will be justified by any court, which decides according to strict justice and this alone."

It may be  true  that  the passenger  is right, but the case supposed seems to  us to be a very strange illustration of the nature and origin of the supreme power in a state. It is evidently a case of exception, and would illustrate more correctly a usurpation of political power under justifiable circumstances. The nature and origin of the supreme power, regularly existing in a state, are better illustrated by the authority of the master of a vessel over his crew and passengers. He derives it from his owners who fitted out the vessel. Societies, in like manner, derive their sovereignty from the power which created them, and established as the law of their nature, that they should have supreme and ultimate power over their members.
The volume closes with remarks on the different forms of government according to the usual divisions. Our author proposes a new division. If we understand him rightly, all states where the principle of government, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, operates absolutely, are to be called autarchies, while those, in which the operation of the predominating principle is controlled by other forces, existing within the community, are to take the name of hamarchies. England and the United States are, it seems, hamarchies. Hamarchy, is, in fact, we suspect, little else than our old acquaintance mixed government under a new name. We are far from being certain, however, that we correctly apprehend the author's idea; for after laboring very hard through several paragraphs to tell what he means by autarchy and hamarchy, he leaves us almost as much in the dark as we were before. The nearest approach to a precise definition is the following. " Hamarchy is that polity, which has an organized, or organic life, if I may say so, in which a thousand distinct parts have their independent action, yet are by the general organism united into one whole, or into one living system." Again. " In the autarchy laws are made by the power ; in the hamarchy they are rather generated ; in the autarchy the law is absolute, after it has been made; in the hamarchy the law modifies itself in the application and   operation.     The   political   organism may prevent its action entirely, not by force, but simply because it cannot operate." As we are rather friendly to " the supremacy of the laws," we should, for ourselves, prefer the autarchy, in which, it seems, the laws, when fairly made, are absolute, to the hamarchy in which their action is prevented, for the very sufficient reason, that they cannot operate. Indeed if hamarchy be a form of government, in which the laws cannot operate, we should question the claim of the United States to the title, for it is an acknowledged fact, that the power of the law, as such, is greater in this country, than in any other. At all events, we must say that we prefer the name of Representative Democracy to that of Hamarchy, as decidedly as we do that of Political Economy to Catallactics.

We would remark, as a deficiency in the present work, the almost total omission of any notice of the principle of Representation, the great modern improvement that has opened a new era in political science. The little that our author says of it appears to us to be erroneous. But this notice has already exceeded the intended limits, and we must bring it at once to a close, reserving what farther we have to say upon the subject for the appearance of the second volume.