Charles Fourier (1772-1837)

“On Economic Liberalism”

Source: The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier. Selected Texts on Work, Love, and Passionate Attraction. Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu. Published by Jonathan Cape, 1972;
First Published: 1808 in Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées génerales.
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

The fundamental principle of the commercial systems is: “Let the merchants have complete freedom.” This principle concedes to them absolute ownership of the commodities in which they deal. They have the right to take their goods out of circulation, to hide them, and even to burn them as was done more than once by the Dutch East India Company which publicly burned supplies of cinnamon in order to raise its price. What it did with cinnamon it would have done with wheat, had it not feared the anger of the common people. it would have burned a part of its wheat, or allowed it to rot, in order to sell the rest at four times its value. Well! Every day on the docks can you not see people throwing into the sea supplies of grain that a merchant has allowed to rot while waiting for a rise in prices. I have myself presided as a clerk over these foul operations, and one day I jettisoned twenty thousand quintals of rice which could have been sold before it rotted for a fair profit, had the owner been less greedy for gain. It is society as a whole which suffers by such waste, which you can see taking place every day under the cover of the philosophical principle: Laissez faire les marchands.[19]

Let us suppose that in a famine year like 1709 a rich company of merchants observes this principle by cornering all the grain in a small state such as Ireland. Let us further suppose that the general scarcity and the restrictions on exports in neighbouring states have made it impossible to find grain abroad. Having cornered all the available grain, the company refuses to sell it until the price has tripled or quadrupled, saying: “This grain is our property; it pleases us to sell it at four times its cost. If these terms don’t suit you, find your grain somewhere else. While we are waiting for the price to rise a quarter of the population may die of starvation, but that doesn’t bother us. We are sticking to our speculation, in keeping with the principles of commercial liberty, as consecrated by modern philosophy.”

I ask in what respect the actions of this company differ from those of a band of thieves, for its monopoly compels the whole nation to pay a ransom equal to three times the value of the grain — or else die of starvation.

According to the rules of commercial liberty the company has the right to refuse to sell at any price, to allow the wheat to rot in its granaries while the people are starving. Can you believe that the starving nation is in conscience bound to die of hunger for the honour of the fine philosophical principle: Laissez faire les marchands? Of course not. Then admit that the right of commercial liberty should be subject to restrictions consistent with the needs of society as a whole. Admit that a person who possesses a superabundance of a commodity which he has not produced and which he will not consume, ought to be regarded as a conditional trustee of that commodity and not as its absolute owner. Admit that the dealings of merchants and middlemen should be subordinated to the welfare of the mass of society, and that these individuals should not be free to impede economic relations by all those disastrous manoeuvres which your economists admire.

Are merchants alone exempt from the social obligations imposed on all the other classes of society? When a general, a judge or a doctor is given a free hand, he is not authorised to betray the army, despoil the innocent or assassinate his patient. Such people are punished when they betray their trust; the perfidious general is beheaded; the judge must answer to the Minister of justice. The merchants alone are inviolable and sure of impunity! Political economy wishes no one to have the right of controlling their machinations. If they starve a whole region, if they disturb its industry with their speculation, hoarding and bankruptcies, everything is justified by the simple title of merchant. This is like the quack doctor in the play who, having killed everyone with his pills, is justified because he can say in Latin: medicus sum. In our century of regeneration people are trying to convince us that the plots hatched by one of the least enlightened classes of society can never do harm to the welfare of the state. Once upon a time people talked about the infallibility of the pope; today it is that of the merchant which they wish to establish.