Percy Shelley – Left-Libertarian?

percy-bysshe-shelleyMost of you are probably familiar with Shelley for his Romantic poetry. But did you know that he dabbled in political philosophy too? Perhaps even … libertarian political philosophy? Check out the following excerpt from his 1820 essay, A Philosophical View of Reformespecially the third paragraph, and look for the striking similarity with contemporary left-libertarian thought. [HT to David Hart of Liberty Fund for the pointer]

Labour and skill and the immediate wages of labour and skill is a property of the most sacred and indisputable right, and the foundation of all other property. And the right of a man to property in the exertion of his own bodily and mental faculties, or on the produce and free reward from and for that exertion is the most inalienable of rights. If however he takes by violence and appropriates to himself through fraudulent cunning, or receives from another property so acquired, his claim to that property is of a far inferior force. We may acquiesce, if we evidently perceive an overbalance of public advantage in submission under this claim; but if any public emergency should arise, at which it might be necessary to satisfy, by a tax on capital, the claims of a part of the nation by a contribution from such national resources as may with the least injustice be appropriated to that purpose, assuredly it would not be on labour and skill, the foundation of all property, nor on the profits and savings of labour and skill, which are property itself, but on such possessions which can only be called property in a modified sense, as have from their magnitude and their nature an evident origin in violence or imposture.

Thus there are two descriptions of property which, without entering into the subtleties of a more refined moral theory as applicable to the existing forms of society, are entitled to two very different measures of forbearance and regard. And this forbearance and regard have by political institutions usually been accorded by an inverse reason from what is just and natural. Labour, industry, economy, skill, genius, or any similar powers honourably and innocently exerted are the foundations of one description of property, and all true political institutions ought to defend every man in the exercise of his discretion with respect to property so acquired. Of this kind is the principal part of the property enjoyed by those who are but one degree removed from the class which subsists by daily labour. [Yet there are instances of persons in this class who have procured their property by fraudulent and violent means, as there are instances in the other of persons who have acquired their property by innocent or honourable exertion. All political science abounds with limitations and exceptions.]—Property thus acquired men leave to their children. Absolute right becomes weakened by descent, just because it is only to avoid the greater evil of arbitrarily interfering with the discretion of every man in matters of property that the great evil of acknowledging any person to have an exclusive right to property who has not created it by his skill or labour is admitted, and secondly because the mode of its having been originally acquired is forgotten, and it is confounded with property acquired in a very different manner; and the principle upon which all property justly exists, after the great principle of the general advantage, becomes thus disregarded and misunderstood. Yet the privilege of disposing of property by will is one necessarily connected with the existing forms of domestic life; and exerted merely by those who having acquired property by industry or who preserve it by economy, would never produce any great and invidious inequality of fortune. A thousand accidents would perpetually tend to level the accidental elevation, and the signs of property would perpetually recur to those whose deserving skill might attract or whose labour might create it.

But there is another species of property which has its foundation in usurpation, or imposture, or violence, without which, by the nature of things, immense possessions of gold or land could never have been accumulated. Of this nature is the principal part of the property enjoyed by the aristocracy and by the great fundholders, the majority of whose ancestors never either deserved it by their skill and talents or acquired and created it by their personal labour. It could not be that they deserved it, for if the honourable exertion of the most glorious and imperial faculties of our nature had been the criterion of the possession of property the posterity of Shakespeare, of Milton, of Hampden, would be the wealthiest proprietors in England. It could not be that they acquired it by legitimate industry, for, besides that the real mode of acquisition is matter of history, no honourable profession or honest trade, nor the hereditary exercise of it, ever in such numerous instances accumulated so much as the masses of property enjoyed by the ruling orders in England. They were either grants from the feudal sovereigns whose right to what they granted was founded upon conquest or oppression, both a denial of all right; or they were lands of the antient Catholic clergy which according to the most acknowledged principles of public justice reverted to the nation at their suppression, or they were the products of patents and monopolies, an exercise of sovereignty which it is astonishing that political theorists have not branded as the most pernicious and odious to the interests of a commercial nation; or in later times such property has been accumulated by dishonourable cunning and the taking advantage of a fictitious paper currency to obtain an unfair power over labour and the fruits of labour.

  • martinbrock

    Seems libertarian from every direction to me.

  • Rick

    Shelley went into much greater detail, and said it much better than Locke and his “labor mixing” idea, but basically they’re both saying the same thing. Remarkable description.

    Shelley talks about two “description[s] of property,” one that “all true political institutions ought to defend,” and the second, which “has its foundations in usurpation, or imposture, or violence” (which includes “taking advantage of a fictitious paper currency to obtain unfair power over labour and the fruits of labour”).

    Not sure if Shelley was familiar with the U.S. Constitution, but his first description of property is protected by the Direct Tax Clauses, and his second description is subject to regulation under the Indirect Tax Clause, to which both categories of income tax were added after the Civil War.

  • Sounding more like Hodgskin than like his father-in-law Godwin.

    • Sean II

      There it goes again. In any thread of sufficient length, someone always ends up being compared to Thomas Hodgskin.

  • And yet, even property once acquired in the second manner may be then exchanged or transfered in accordance with the first. Does that property then become justly owned by the second party? If so, who then becomes responsible for compensating the party initially defrauded or otherwise wronged?

    • Rick

      Those questions were central in legal history leading up to ratification of the 16th Amendment, which although now obscured, originally targeted property acquired by the controllers and dominators among us (landlords, lenders, employers and speculators). Common labor was never meant to be the target of the 16th Amendment.

      But to use Shelley’s words, the focus of the income tax shifted on to labor in 1937 (with an income tax on currency substitutes) “by dishonourable cunning and the taking advantage of a fictitious paper currency to obtain an unfair power over labour and the fruits of labour.”

  • TracyW

    Hmm, I wonder what Shelley would have thought of the fortunes accumulated by Bill Gates and other IT billionaires. (I am no defender of all of modern IP laws, but copyright in software is rather less unjust than Queen Elizabeth I giving a grant of monopoly rights in providing some good to her favourites).