Scott Walker and the return of the physiocrats

“The descendants of the first slaves, attached at first to the cultivation of the ground, change their condition. The interior peace among nations, not leaving wherewithal to supply the consumption of slaves, the masters are obliged to take greater care of them. Those who were born in the house, accustomed from their infancy to their situation, revolt the less at it, and their masters have less need to employ rigour to restrain them. By degrees the land they cultivate becomes their country, they become a part of the nation, and in the end, they experience confidence and humanity on the part of their masters.”

This rosy vision of the evolution of slave-based societies comes to us not from an antebellum American propagandist, but from the French controller-general of finances, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (born 1727, died 1781). It is one of many “reflections” he wrote on the origin and development of civilization, in a book that became a touchstone for classical liberal economics in the 19th century. During Turgot’s lifetime, however, there was really no such thing as a science of economics. Those who wrote about financial administration, money and land management described themselves as “physiocrats.”

The physiocrats insisted that all wealth came from the land in the form of agricultural produce that supported everyone. Those who did not actually work the land — artisans, for the most part — were dependent on the land’s agricultural surplus, and therefore were not a “productive” class. As Turgot wrote, “The husbandman [farmer] can, generally speaking, subsist without the labour of other workmen; but no other workmen can labour, if the husbandman does not provide him wherewith to exist.” In this physiocratic conception, cities were something like cancerous growths upon the healthy body of a nation. Unsurprisingly, then, the physiocrats hated craft guilds, as they enabled urban workers to charge “unnaturally” high prices for their labor. And, since the land was the sole source of real wealth, there was no good reason to set aside pieces of it to remain unexploited.

(Turgot had a rather starry-eyed notion of global ecology. He saw no limits to the cultivator’s ability to draw from the earth “riches continually renewing.” He also seems to have never given any thought to the economic questions involved in raising children.)

One would think that we would have moved past Turgot’s aristocratic agrarianism a long time ago. In fact, it took an ignorance of history for Turgot to come up with his ideas in the first place: Archeological finds are painting a very different picture from the one of total “savagery” before agriculture that Turgot describes. In any case, the physiocratic ethic remains pervasive in American discourse and public policy. And if the physiocrats had a standard bearer in the 21st Century, his name would be Scott Walker.

The current governor of Wisconsin has refused federal funding for high-speed rail to link the two largest cities in his state; has consistently attacked labor unions in both the public and private sector; and has begun eviscerating Wisconsin’s tradition of land conservation and natural resource stewardship. All of these things get in the way of exploiting precious metals and natural gas. This prioritization of land exploitation at the expense of everything else — especially urban communities — places Walker’s governing philosophy closer to Turgot’s than anyone else’s.

Sadly for urban workers, or indeed anyone who does not own substantial amounts of land, Walker is just one of a growing number of politicians (mostly Republican) who champion Turgot-like solutions to the United States’ economic woes. These men — and they are mostly men — invoke “the free market” or some other vague abstraction to cloak their policies of environmental devastation and immiseration of the working class.

To see what these ideologues are aiming at, we can return to Turgot’s book. Aware (although perhaps lamenting) that “unproductive” craft workers were not going away anytime soon, he proposed to bring them under the firm, benevolent hand of a capitalist over-class:

Thus the whole class employed in supplying the different wants of society, with an immense variety of works of industry, is, if I may speak thus, subdivided into two classes. The one, of the undertakers, manufacturers and masters, all proprietors of large capitals, which they avail themselves of, by furnishing work to the other class, composed of artificers, destitute of any property but their hands, who advance only their daily labour, and receive no profits but their salaries.

Turgot’s argument is as blunt as it is disastrous for the working class. Non-agricultural workers should be completely dependent on “the proprietors of large capitals” to dole out work to them at a level of bare subsistence. Presumably, this proprietor class would be composed of men already rich from land income, who had become bored with plantation life and purchased luxury condos in the cities. After all, slave labor on the estates was quite happy with its lot, and would keep the rural economy humming along as the grain, wine and cotton they produced trickled down into broader circulation.

Sound familiar?

Oddly enough, this brand of economic paternalism was grounded in a skewed conception of what the French thought Chinese society had previously adopted. Turgot and Quesnay, the leading 18th-century physiocrats, were great admirers of “oriental despotism,” which was essentially a buzzword generated by Jesuits who were awestruck upon encountering the longstanding imperial bureaucracy of China in the 17th century. Of course, neither had ever been within a thousand miles of China’s borders, so they were free to meld their aristocratic conceptions of appropriate social orders with whatever they imagined the best elements of Chinese culture to be.

Scott Walker and his Republican allies in Wisconsin are pursuing a dream as ruthlessly reactionary as “oriental despotism.”  They pay no attention to criticisms from urban liberals; indeed a large part of their campaign rhetoric is propelled by hatred of Milwaukee and Madison, the two largest cities in the state.  This hatred is embodied in policies that attempt to marginalize urban citizens’ economic and political rights. Not only has Walker passed some of the most reactionary attacks on collective bargaining rights in recent memory, Wisconsin looks to be ready to pass one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country in advance of the 2016 elections.

In the 21st Century, we really ought to know better than to make policy based on stuffy, tired junk philosophy from the past. A far better alternative to physiocracy is “technocracy” — not the rule of Mark Zuckerberg, but the recognition that all wealth comes from human skills (technocracy is derived from the Greek root techne, or craftsmanship), not nature directly. Wheat may be the product you put in the marketplace, but someone had to teach the first wheat farmer when to plant, how much water her crops needed and at what time it was best to harvest them.

It’s time for political leaders who care about education and prosperity for all to get wise to this re-animated physiocracy and call its absurdity out for what it is.  Walker’s plans, and similar ones in other Midwestern states, are well on their way to being woven into the fabric of society as deeply as Jim Crow codes once were in the South.  Half-baked ideas do not die out with the passage of time:  they find younger and more charismatic spokespeople to propagate them, and they will eat us alive if we don’t fight back.

 

Skye Winspur
Skye Winspur is a 33 year old Wisconsinite who spends his days working with his hands and volunteering for causes he believe in. He writes on civil rights issues; gay history and culture; political campaigns of all kinds; Christian theology; and movies.

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