Recovered Economic History

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Tue Apr 24 20:09:37 BST 2012

Recovered Economic History: “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower 
classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious”
By Yasha Levine

Full article with extensive comments -

“…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, 
or they will never be industrious.”

—Arthur Young; 1771

Our popular economic wisdom says that capitalism equals freedom and free 
societies, right? Well, if you ever suspected that the logic is full of 
shit, then I’d recommend checking a book called The Invention of 
Capitalism, written by an economic historian named Michael Perelmen, 
who’s been exiled to Chico State, a redneck college in rural California, 
for his lack of freemarket friendliness. And Perelman has been putting 
his time in exile to damn good use, digging deep into the works and 
correspondence of Adam Smith and his contemporaries to write a history 
of the creation of capitalism that goes beyond superficial The Wealth of 
Nations fairy tale and straight to the source, allowing you to read the 
early capitalists, economists, philosophers, clergymen and statesmen in 
their own words. And it ain’t pretty.


One thing that the historical record makes obviously clear is that Adam 
Smith and his laissez-faire buddies were a bunch of closet-case 
statists, who needed brutal government policies to whip the English 
peasantry into a good capitalistic workforce willing to accept wage slavery.

Francis Hutcheson, from whom Adam Smith learned all about the virtue of 
natural liberty, wrote: ”it is the one great design of civil laws to 
strengthen by political sanctions the several laws of nature. … The 
populace needs to be taught, and engaged by laws, into the best methods 
of managing their own affairs and exercising mechanic art.”

Yep, despite what you might have learned, the transition to a 
capitalistic society did not happen naturally or smoothly. See, English 
peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave 
their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous 
factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists. 
And for good reason, too. Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory 
wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have 
to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced 
shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own 
leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting 
wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?

But in order for capitalism to work, capitalists needed a pool of cheap, 
surplus labor. So what to do? Call in the National Guard!

Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, 
philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business 
figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted 
a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old 
and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support.

“The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority 
of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far 
removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political 
economy,” writes Perelman. “In reality, the dispossession of the 
majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire 
are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his 
translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as ‘‘primitive 

Perelman outlines the many different policies through which peasants 
were forced off the land—from the enactment of so-called Game Laws that 
prohibited peasants from hunting, to the destruction of the peasant 
productivity by fencing the commons into smaller lots—but by far the 
most interesting parts of the book are where you get to read Adam 
Smith’s proto-capitalist colleagues complaining and whining about how 
peasants are too independent and comfortable to be properly exploited, 
and trying to figure out how to force them to accept a life of wage slavery.

This pamphlet from the time captures the general attitude towards 
successful, self-sufficient peasant farmers:

The possession of a cow or two, with a hog, and a few geese, naturally 
exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering after his cattle, he acquires a 
habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and occasionally whole days, are 
imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes disgusting; the aversion in- 
creases by indulgence. And at length the sale of a half-fed calf, or 
hog, furnishes the means of adding intemperance to idleness.

While another pamphleteer wrote:

Nor can I conceive a greater curse upon a body of people, than to be 
thrown upon a spot of land, where the productions for subsistence and 
food were, in great measure, spontaneous, and the climate required or 
admitted little care for raiment or covering.

John Bellers, a Quaker “philanthropist” and economic thinker saw 
independent peasants as a hindrance to his plan of forcing poor people 
into prison-factories, where they would live, work and produce a profit 
of 45% for aristocratic owners:

“Our Forests and great Commons (make the Poor that are upon them too 
much like the Indians) being a hindrance to Industry, and are Nurseries 
of Idleness and Insolence.”

Daniel Defoe, the novelist and trader, noted that in the Scottish 
Highlands “people were extremely well furnished with provisions. … 
venison exceedingly plentiful, and at all seasons, young or old, which 
they kill with their guns whenever they find it.’’

To Thomas Pennant, a botanist, this self-sufficiency was ruining a 
perfectly good peasant population:

“The manners of the native Highlanders may be expressed in these words: 
indolent to a high degree, unless roused to war, or any animating 

If having a full belly and productive land was the problem, then the 
solution to whipping these lazy bums into shape was obvious: kick ‘em 
off the land and let em starve.

Arthur Young, a popular writer and economic thinker respected by John 
Stuart Mill, wrote in 1771: “everyone but an idiot knows that the lower 
classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” Sir 
William Temple, a politician and Jonathan Swift’s boss, agreed, and 
suggested that food be taxed as much as possible to prevent the working 
class from a life of “sloth and debauchery.”

Temple also advocated putting four-year-old kids to work in the 
factories, writing ‘‘for by these means, we hope that the rising 
generation will be so habituated to constant employment that it would at 
length prove agreeable and entertaining to them.’’ Some thought that 
four was already too old. According to Perelmen, “John Locke, often seen 
as a philosopher of liberty, called for the commencement of work at the 
ripe age of three.” Child labor also excited Defoe, who was joyed at the 
prospect that “children after four or five years of age…could every one 
earn their own bread.’’ But that’s getting off topic…

Happy Faces of Productivity…

Even David Hume, that great humanist, hailed poverty and hunger as 
positive experiences for the lower classes, and even blamed the 
“poverty” of France on its good weather and fertile soil:

“‘Tis always observed, in years of scarcity, if it be not extreme, that 
the poor labour more, and really live better.”

Reverend Joseph Townsend believed that restricting food was the way to go:

“[Direct] legal constraint [to labor] . . . is attended with too much 
trouble, violence, and noise, . . . whereas hunger is not only a 
peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure, but as the most natural motive 
to industry, it calls forth the most powerful exertions. . . . Hunger 
will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, 
obedience and subjugation to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and 
the most perverse.”

Patrick Colquhoun, a merchant who set up England’s first private 
“preventative police“ force to prevent dock workers from supplementing 
their meager wages with stolen goods, provided what may be the most 
lucid explanation of how hunger and poverty correlate to productivity 
and wealth creation:

Poverty is that state and condition in society where the individual has 
no surplus labour in store, or, in other words, no property or means of 
subsistence but what is derived from the constant exercise of industry 
in the various occupations of life. Poverty is therefore a most 
necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations 
and communities could not exist in a state of civilization. It is the 
lot of man. It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there 
could be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, 
and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.

Colquhoun’s summary is so on the money, it has to be repeated. Because 
what was true for English peasants is still just as true for us:

“Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in 
society…It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could 
be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and 
no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.”


Yasha Levine is a founding editor of The eXiled. You can reach him at 
levine [at]

Want to know more recovered history? Read Yasha Levine’s investigation 
into the life of Harry Koch, the man who spawned Charles and David Koch, 
the two most powerful oligarchs of our time: The Birth of the Koch Clan: 
It All Started In a Little Texas Town Called Quanah

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