Persian Letter Series: Letter 115 – Usbek to Rhedi, at Venice

This is the twentieth post in a series of posts examining excerpts from Charles Montesquieu’s book Persian Letters. Each post in this series examines a selected excerpt for study and discussion. The following is an excerpt from Letter 115:

It was not the same with the Romans.  The republic used its slave population to incalculable advantage.  Each slave was given an allowance, which he had on the conditions imposed by his master:  he used it to work with, taking up whatever his own abilities suggested.  One would go in for banking, another for shipping, one became a retailer, another applied himself to a technical trade, or farmed out lands and improved them; but there was no one who failed to do everything he could to make a profit from his allowance, which both made him comfortable while he remained a slave, and assured him of freedom in the future: this made for a hard-working population and stimulated industrial and technical skills.

These slaves, who had become rich by hard work and application, were made freemen and became citizens.  The republic constantly renewed itself, allowing new families in as the old ones were destroyed.

In the following letters I shall perhaps take the opportunity to prove to you that the more men there are in a state, the more trade flourishes; the two things are interdependent and provide mutual stimulus.

If this is so, how great an increase there was bound to be in this huge number of slaves, always working hard!  Industriousness and affluence produced them, and they in turn produced affluence and industriousness.

Comments on the excerpt above:

British East India Company FlagSlavery comes in many forms and invokes an array of thoughts amongst different people.  If you asked 100 people in America about their thoughts on slavery, you’d probably get 100 different accounts of what it means to them.  Many people in America might tell you about the British East India Company or the Dutch West India Company that were responsible for most of the slaves brought to North America, Central America, the Caribbean Islands, and South America because that’s what Americans relate to with regard to our geographic location and our short 235 year history as a nation.

Slavery, however, has been around since before recorded history began, is alive today, and probably will continue to exist into the future as we can see it.  Worldwide, there are more slaves today in 2011 than there have ever been in recorded history.  By percentage of people, slavery has diminished, but by sheer numbers, there are more slaves in the world today.  This post is not written to argue which slaves from what time period had it worse, its purpose is to talk about the economics of slavery and the morality of man.   In the passage above, Montesquieu is setting up for an entire discourse on the ills of slavery and this passage sets up his argument that men should be free from slavery for a healthier economy by way of a healthy society.

This particular Montesquieu excerpt brings to mind a movie called The Matrix which was written by Larry and Andy Wachowski.  Authors like the Wachowski brothers and Philip K. Dick are extraordinary presenters on the dynamics of human societies.  They are right brain artist/creative types and even though many people would not think of them as economists, their interpretations of socio-economic dynamics are absolutely fascinating regarding the interconnectivity between society and economy and the whole spectrum of variables between the two that affect one another.  The reason the machines in the movie created the Matrix was to give the people a purpose and a fabricated sense of freedom to choose their own destiny, which in turn kept the entire population working and prospering.  Whether you’d say these slaves had it bad off is a moral judgement that is moot to the machines, because to them, their system worked.  The working class of people, if happy and free, turned their labor into more prosperity for the society which is exactly what the machines wanted.  The people were only slaves depending on your frame of reference; in their own minds they were free.  Win win?

In The Matrix, there’s a scene where the protagonist is told that unbeknownst to him (at the 2:37 mark in the clip above) he’d been born into indentured servitude.   He had thought he was a free man through his entire life, but in reality he was nothing of the sort.  Not to go into too much detail about the movie here, but the point is that even though the protagonist was living what he thought was a normal life, he was slave.  He felt free: he had a name, he had a job, he earned money, and he lived his life to the best of his ability.  The society he lived in was functioning but there was a general malaise on the society and his psyche and he just couldn’t articulate what it was.

In this excerpt from letter #115, the slave wage Montesquieu’s referring to was called: peculium.  In Roman law, peculium was the master’s property, but used by the slave for his own enterprises; which were sometimes on a large scale.  So even though the slave operated in the society with capitalistic intentions, he was not even close to being part of the ruling class; and in fact never could be.  This interesting paradox can be confounding to tea-partiers, anti-capitalists, and conspiracy theorists alike; because, it is pretty easy to draw a parallel between the Roman slave class and the American middle class in that you’re free to make your own decisions on how to use your peculium as long as you bust your ass servicing your debt and the nation’s debt.  And, by the time you’re done paying off your debts, you’ll be free too.  But, you’re also a lot older and the most vibrant years of your life have passed you by.  It’s confounding to some when they come to realize they’ve been born into a caste that doesn’t have it as easy as another.  And, the only way to advance their caste is through the value creation that labor and ingenuity, the mother and father of wealth, can produce.

That this example of what Montesquieu is talking about predates the term Capitalism might make you wonder whether all the anti-capitalists can really hang their hat on their argument that Capitalism is at the heart of all our societal ills.   Capitale is a Latin word that was used more than 2,000 years before this letter was written 300 years ago.  Yet, the term capitalism, as we know it today, is thought to come from Adam Smith’s teachings (a term he never once used btw!) and later used by Karl Marx to define his anti-capitalistic views   But, it’s important to be thoughtful when you boil down your solutions to a new word with ‘ism’ as its suffix.  It’s never that easy to know what’s going on just because someone says socialism or capitalism or feudalism; the truth will elude you if you think in terms of this ‘ism’ or that ‘ism’.

The truth is that a capitalistic mindset has been with man since before recorded history.  Once again, it’s greed at the heart of any evil attributed to any ‘ism’ used to label a society.  A basic degradation of the moral tenets of men is usually at the heart of any failing society regardless of how the society is labeled.  We can study an example of Roman society, as we have with this excerpt, that could be labeled today as a capitalistic society.  We could study and label Da Vinci’s Florence, Italy during the Renaissance as a capitalistic society before the term capitalism, as we know it, was used.  People have always coveted power in order to acquire the most stuff and the coolest stuff.   In moralistic terms, you always come back to the age old question:  when is enough stuff, enough stuff?  When does the avarice of those in power encroach upon the livlihood of good men?

Montesquieu’s point is to show that freedom of enterprise is the best medicine for an economy and the wealth of a nation; even if, paradoxically, the members of the society are slaves.  Montesquieu so brilliantly drilled home these paradoxical points and really turned the conventional logic of the time on its head.  By giving freedom, you promote industriousness, even if that freedom is disingenuine.  As the life cycle of the republic matures, and society begins to stratify into castes, it is necessary, for prosperity to continue, that the power and wealth that accumulates in the upper castes does not become paralyzed by greed.  Like Montesquieu says, the new generation of workers must enjoy the same freedoms in order to let the next families in so the republic could continually renew its labor force to stay prosperous.

The society is always, however, at odds with the tendency of men to form a sub-society of misers at the top levels of the ruling caste that will not be able to recognize that power is slowly corrupting their decisions.  The misers will want to hold and paralyze the very capital that makes the republic great and gives vitality to the labor force that helped build the misers’ fortune;  in essence the misers are blinded by their own greed and act against their best interest and the best interest of the sovereign.  If the power of the ruling caste becomes strong enough to pervert the law to favor the monopolies that naturally form amongst the nation’s industries, the labor that created the wealth will begin to decay in proportion to the wealth paralyzed by the greed of this ruling class.  If the trend of corruption continues for too long, too much wealth will be paralyzed by the few and the many will rise up for their deserved justice and a revolution will press the reset button on a failed republic; the pyramid collapses.  The worst travesty resulting from this natural cycle is that men of wealth never feel any pain as their short-sighted decisions slowly destroy families in lesser castes.  Remember that providence is bestowed upon men irrespective of their wealth, as discussed in letter#98.  Therefore, some of those families who are immoral in the wealthiest caste are destroying  some of those with providential morals in the lesser castes.  This is, unfortunately, a sad twist of fate that has been the natural order of men since the beginning of time.

These thoughts had been around since the dawn of man but were starting to percolate as a scientific field of study in the 18th century thanks to Montesquieu.  Adam Smith would take these nuggets of brilliance from Montesquieu and run with them as he would soon write the Wealth of Nations.  This is great foundational stuff for any aspiring economists to remember.  The moralistic problems associated with slavery are deep and complicated and can fill books.  This post, however, is only aimed at understanding the power of liberty on industriousness.

The monkey wrench for mankind always seems to come in when you remember that humans cannot obey the Ten Commandments and are powerless against the seven deadly sins.  Societies are constantly rising and falling just like Karl Marx told us they would and for the exact reasons he told us they would.  It’s not because of Capitalism being right or Communism being wrong or any other ‘ism’ you can think of, it’s because man has not yet been able to write and enforce laws that can separate power from those who would abuse it.  In fact, no human being has the ability to wield power without being corrupted by it.  Montesquieu and Smith gave us some great instructions to work with, but mankind’s desire to build totem poles runs deep in our DNA as part of our survival mechanism.  I consider Montesquieu a kindred spirit and believe he arrived at many of the same conclusions I have, the most important of which being that the separation of power is tantamount for our species’ laws.

When I read Alan McFarlane’s works and see his videos on youtube, I believe Montesquieu had a profound effect on him.  Alan seems to focus his most esteemed praise on de Tocqueville and Weber, but he does give Montesquieu some very high compliments.  I’m very thankful someone put Alan’s lectures out on youtube so a guy from Detroit who could never afford to attend Cambridge can learn from the best about people like Montesquieu.

When Montesquieu said “il faut pleurer les hommes à leur naissance, et non pas à leur mort”, I don’t think he was being negative, I think he was being a comic genius no different than Larry David.  Montesquieu’s vision into the truth about what makes a society tick is perhaps unparalleled and is why I continue to refer to him as the father of sociology throughout this post series.

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