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§ 1. HAVING spoken thus far of the effects produced by the excellences or defects of the general system of the law, I shall now touch upon those resulting from the special character of particular parts of it. As a selection must be made, I shall confine myself to a few leading topics. The portions of the civil law of a country which are of most importance economically (next to those which determine the status of the labourer, as slave, serf, or free), are those relating to the two subjects of Inheritance and Contract. Of the laws relating to contract, none are more important economically, than the laws of partnership, and those of insolvency. It happens that on all these three points, there is just ground for condemning some of the provisions of the English law.
With regard to Inheritance, I have, in an early chapter, considered the general principles of the subject, and suggested what appear to me to be, putting all prejudices apart, the best dispositions which the law could adopt. Freedom of bequest as the general rule, but limited by two things: first, that if they are descendants, who, being unable to provide for themselves, would become burthensome to the state, the equivalent of whatever the state would accord to them should be reserved from the property for their benefit: and secondly, that no one person should be permitted to acquire by inheritance, more than the amount of a moderate independence. In case of intestacy, the whole property to escheat to the state: which should be bound to make a just and reasonable provision for descendants, that is, such a provision as the parent or ancestor ought to have made, their circumstances, capacities, and mode of bringing up being considered. The laws of inheritance, however, have probably several phases of improvement to go through, before ideas so far removed from present modes of thinking will be taken into serious consideration: and as, among the recognised modes of determining the succession to property, some must be better and others worse, it is necessary to consider which of them deserves the preference. As an intermediate course, therefore, I would recommend the extension to all property, of the present English law of inheritance affecting personal property (freedom of bequest, and, in case of intestacy, equal division): except that no rights should be acknowljo. and that the property of those who have neither descendants nor ascendants, and make no will, should escheat to the state.) \– The laws of existing nations deviate from these maxims in two opposite ways. In England, and in most of the countries where the influence of feudality is still felt in the laws, one of the objects aimed at in respect to land and other immoveable property, is to keep it together in large masses: accordingly, in cases of intestacy, it passes, generally speaking (for the local custom of a few places is different), exclusively to the eldest son. And though the rule of primogeniture is not binding on testators, who in England have nominally the power of bequeathing their property as they please, any proprietor may so exercise this power as to deprive his successors of it, by entailing the property on one particular line of his descendants: which, besides preventing it from passing by inheritance in any other than the prescribed manner, is attended with the incidental consequence of precluding it from being sold ; since each successive possessor, having only a life interest in the property, cannot alienate it for a longer period than his own life. In some other countries, such as France, the law, on the contrary,
compels division of inheritances; not only, in case of intestacy, sharing the property, both real and personal, equally, among all the children, or (if there are no children) among all relatives in the same degree of propinquity; but also not recognising any power of bequest, or recognising it over only a limited portion of the property, the remainder being subjected to compulsory equal division. Neither of these systems, I apprehend, was introduced, or is perhaps maintained, in the countries where it exists, from any general considerations of justice, or any foresight of economical consequences, but chiefly from political motives; in the one case to keep up large hereditary fortunes and a landed aristocracy; in the other, to break these down, and prevent their resurrection. The first object, as an aim of national policy, I conceive to be eminently undesirable : with regard to the second, I have pointed out what seems to me a better mode of attaining it. The merit, or demerit, however, of either purpose, belongs to the general science of politics, not to the limited department of that science which is here treated of. Each of the two systems is a real and efficient instrument for the purpose intended by it; but each, as it appears to me, achieves that purpose at the cost of much mischief.
§ 2. There are two arguments of an economical character, which are urged in favour of primogeniture. One is, the stimulus applied to the industry and ambition of younger children, by leaving them to be the architects of their own fortunes. This argument was put by Dr. Johnson in a manner more forcible than complimentary to an hereditary aristocracy, when he said, by way of recommendation of primogeniture, that it “makes but one fool in a family.” It is curious that a defender of aristocratic institutions should be the person to assert that to inherit such a fortune as takes away any necessity for exertion, is generally fatal to activity and strength of mind: in the present state of education, however, the proposition, with some allowance for exaggeration, may be admitted to be true. But whatever force there is in the argument, counts in favour of limiting the eldest, as well as all the other children, to a mere provision, and dispensing with even the “one fool” whom Dr Johnson was willing to tolerate. If unearned riches are so pernicious to the character, one does not see why, in order to withhold the poison from the junior members of a family, there should be no way but to unite all their separate portions, and administer them in the largest possible dose to one selected victim. It cannot be necessary to inflict this great evil on the eldest son, for want of knowing what else to do with a large fortune. - : * Some writers, however, look upon the effect of primogeniture in stimulating industry, as depending, not so much on the poverty of the younger children, as on the contrast between that poverty and the riches of the elder; thinking it indispensable to the activity and energy of the hive, that there should be a huge drone here and there, to impress the
working bees with a due sense of the advantages of honey.
“Their inferiority in point of wealth,” says Mr. M'Culloch, speaking of the younger children, “and their desire to escape from this lower station, and to attain to the same level with their elder brothers, inspires them with an energy and vigour they could not otherwise feel. But the advantage of preserving large estates from being frittered down by a scheme of equal division, is not limited to its influence over the younger children of their owners. It raises universally the standard of competence, and gives new force to the springs which set industry in motion. The manner of living among the great landlords is that in which every one is ambitious of being able to indulge; and their habits of expense, though sometimes injurious to themselves, act as powerful incentives to the ingenuity and enterprise of the other classes, who never think their fortunes sufficiently ample, unless they will enable them to emulate the splendour of the richest landlords; so that the custom of primogeniture seems to render all classes more industrious, and to augment
at the same time, the mass of wealth and the scale of enjoyment.” ” The portion of truth, I can hardly say contained in these observations, but recalled by them, I apprehend to be, that a state of complete equality of fortunes would not be favourable to active exertion for the increase of wealth. Speaking of the mass, it is as true of wealth as of most other distinctions—of talent, knowledge, virtue, that those who already have, or think they have, as much of it as their neighbours, will seldom exert themselves to acquire more. But it is not therefore necessary that society should provide a set of persons with large fortunes, to fulfil the social duty of standing to be looked at, with envy and admiration, by the aspiring poor. The fortunes which people have acquired for themselves, answer the purpose quite as well, indeed much better; since a person is more powerfully stimulated by the example of somebody who has earned a fortune, than by the mere sight of somebody who possesses one; and the former is necessarily an example of prudence and frugality as well as industry, while the latter much oftener sets an example of profuse expense, which spreads, with pernicious effect, to the very class on whom the sight of riches is supposed to have so beneficial an influence, namely, those whose weakness of mind, and taste for ostentation, makes “the splendour of the richest landlords” attract them with the most potent spell. In America there are few or no hereditary fortunes; yet industrial energy, and the ardour of accumulation, are not supposed to be particularly backward in that part of the world. When a country has once fairly entered into the industrial career, which is the principal occupation of the modern, as war was that of the ancient and mediaeval world, the desire of acquisition by industry needs no factitious stimulus: the advantages naturally inherent in riches, and the character they assume of a test by which talent and
* Principles of Political Economy, ed. 1843, p. 264. There is much more to the same effect in the more recent treatise by the same author, “On the Suc. cession to Property vacant by Death.”