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Today’s diary continues the discussion on the interrelation between moral theory and economics specifically examining the natural right of subsistence and its perceived implication for the role of the state in civil society.

Thanks to Frank Palmer, a correction as to Aquinas's location actually in Paris, not in Spain.


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

Specifically, we are going to discuss an idea found initially in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas discussed the right of subsistence deriving from the natural right of the preservation of mankind and discusses its implications as to the rights of the poor. Aquinas recognises that a right which existed in the state of nature is not overturned by civil society; however, the civil society of his time is that of a closely interlinked church and state. This idea is maintained and developed by the Scholastics.  We are then going to examine the development of this notion in the work of John Locke and then look at the discussion of François Quesnay, the founder of the Physiocratic school in France tracing the argument through various stages of human society and its implications for the role of the state in civil society.

It is important to note that Quesnay accepts Locke’s argument rather than Grotius in that he accepts that right which exist in the state of nature are maintained in civil society; that is we do not lose these rights, but we may lose the ability to pursue them as individuals. Grotius argued that although we had rights in the state of nature, these rights could be lost when we enter into civil society as the state’s choices and need to ensure our protection could overturn our natural rights. In Quesnay, the rights we have must be guaranteed and pursued by our representatives, the state. What is interesting about Quesnay’s argument is that it is written in the context the development of capitalism in France in the 18th century (just 10 years prior to Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776).

An application of this idea of a guaranteed right of subsistence can probably be found in the assize on bread found throughout most of medieval Europe guaranteeing the quality of the bread and ensuring a specific relation between the price and its amount to ensure that it was accessible to all. Bread was essentially a subsidised and protected commodity throughout medieval and renaissance Europe (just as it was in parts of Ancient Greece and in Ancient Roman Empire). This is not to say that the “natural right of subsistence” underlay ancient Greek and Roman policy, but certainly the right to bread was guaranteed ... the developments in ethical philosophy maintained this right and codified it through use of Scripture and in reason; reason was finally accepted as being able to apprehend ethics ... its beginnings are in Hobbes, Pufendorf, Grotius, and Locke, it became the foundation of moral and ethical philosophy in the enlightenment.

The Right of Subsistence in Thomasian Natural Rights Theories and Locke

1. Aquinas:

Aquinas defined three Natural Rights: 1) the preservation of mankind; 2) the preservation of society; and 3) the worship of god. Since god created the world and all things on it, the world essentially is solely the property of god.  Arising from mankind's intellectual capacities, he is able to assert his dominion over the world. This dominion is limited, as 'ultimately', individual claims of property cannot overturn natural rights (See, Tully (1980) pp. 64-66).

 Deriving from this is the idea that the world is the common property of mankind. As such, man is "allowed" to use the world he does not have the "right" to do so (Tully, 1980, p. 72).  An application of this idea is that individual claims of property cannot be justified in the face of starvation on the part of another individual, i.e., Aquinas justifies theft of portions of individual property to ensure the existence of individuals, as god commands the right of existence.

Aquinas discussed the right of subsistence deriving from the natural right of the preservation of mankind and discusses its implications as to the rights of the poor, the fact is that the argument never had a role in the determination of the law in Spanish society. Although, Aquinas recognises the legitimacy of theft to ensure life (thereby fulfilling the natural right of preservation of mankind), this idea was never adopted into Spanish law.

This argument is further developed in the writings of Suarez and then much later in Locke, specifically in relation to the distribution of property and on the right of subsistence and the obligations of the state.

2. John Locke:

Locke has a limited notion of private property similar to that of Aquinas. That is, although your right to property is granted by your labour, once your subsistence is obtained, your property right does not give you the right to exclude other people from subsistence.

This derives from two notions:
a) the right of existence granted by god; b) Locke's argument that the earth is given in common to all men.

As such, your appropriation of the land for production to ensure your subsistence, gives you property in use of that land, not exclusive property rights on that land, as the land only belongs to god and man may only use it (Tully, p. 131-5). This argument should be compared to Grotius, who argues for an unlimited notion of property in that the earth was initially given to no one, the use of their labour has made the land their property (Tully, p.126).

The most specious thing to be said, is, that he that is proprietor of the whole World, may deny all the rest of Mankind Food, and so at his pleasure starve them, if they not acknowledge his Sovereignty, and Obey his Will. If this were true, it would be a good Argument to prove, that there was never any such Property, that God who bid Mankind increase and multiply, should rather himself give them all a Right, to make use of the Food and Rayment, and other Conveniences of Life, the Materials whereof he had so plentifully provided for them; than to make them depend upon the Will of a Man for their Subsistence, who should have the Power to destroy them all when he pleased, and who being no better than other Men, was in Succession likelier by want and the dependence if a scanty Fortune, to tye them to hard Service, than by liberal Allowance of the Conveniences of Life, to promote the great Design of God, Increase and Multiply: He that doubts this, let him look into the Absolute Monarchies of the World, and see what becomes of the Conveniences of Life, and the Multitudes of People (Locke, I, 41).
Locke's position on the right of charity argues that it is a natural right. That is, people are entitled to charity in order to secure their natural right to exist by obtaining their subsistence.
But we know God hath not left one Man so to the mercy of another, that he might starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one such a Property, in his peculiar Portion of the things of this World, but that he has given his needy Brother a Right to the Surplusage of his Goods; so that it cannot justly be denyed him, when his pressing Wants call for it. And therefore no Man could ever have a just Power over the Life of another, by Right of Property in Land or Possessions; since 'twould always be a Sin in any Man of Estate to let his Brother perish for want of affording him Relief out of his Plenty. As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Industry, and the fair Acquisitions of his Ancestors descended to him; so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another's Plenty, as will keep him from extream want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise; and  Man can no more justly make use of another's necessity, to force him to become his Vassal, by with-holding that Relief, God requires him to afford to the wants of his Brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his Obedience, and with a Dagger at his Throat offer him slavery or death (Locke, I,42).
This is an interesting argument. First, it presupposes that charity is granted to those who have no other means to subsist. As such, those who are voluntarily unemployed are not deserving of charity.

On the surface, Locke's argument appears to be similar to the perspective we will see later in Bentham when we examine Utilitarian arguments. However, these arguments differ and it comes down to the burden of proof. Locke and the natural rights theorists assume that people are entitled to subsistence/charity, unless proven otherwise. Bentham and the utilitarians assume that you are not eligible for charity until proven otherwise.  

Second, it ensures an individual obligation on the part of those who do have more than they need for subsistence to share their surpluses with their less fortunate fellow men. Third, it raises the question of economic necessity forcing people into servitude and rejects it as immoral.

It is important to note that charity is considered individual in nature. However, since civil society is entered into by individuals in the form of a social contract, then although man gives up the individual power to claim his right, he still maintains the right itself. Moreover, according to Locke, positive laws (laws of civil society) must be defined in relation to natural law (Locke, 2,12) . In this context, taken to its logical conclusions, the right of charity should be extended to the State and moreover, that the State is beholden to ensure the subsistence of its citizens (Tully, pp. 166-7). The latter is the conclusion drawn by François Quesnay, the founder of the Physiocratic school in France.

3:  Physiocracy, Natural Rights, Subsistence and Civil Society:

In Quesnay's article Natural Right we find several interesting things.

State of Pure Nature:

In his discussion of the state of pure nature, he states that those "things suitable for man's use are reduced to those which nature produces spontaneously and over which each man can exercise his indeterminate natural right only by procuring for himself a certain share through his labour, i.e., through his endeavour (Meek, 1962, p. 46)."

According to Quesnay this implies that "the share of things which he enjoys in the state of pure nature is obtained through labour," and that property is acquired through labour as long as that does not encroach upon other people's possessions (Meek, p. 46).  Thus, in the discussion of the state of pure nature, property rights are achieved and guaranteed on the basis of human labour in the acquisition of things.  Quesnay argues that even in the state of pure nature, the right to obtain things for use is obtained through the intercession of human labour.  The natural rights of people to things that they need are limited to what they can procure themselves through fishing, hunting and agriculture (Meek, p. 47). Thus, the enjoyment of the natural right to things is limited in the pure state of nature by what people can themselves obtain.  Thus, Quesnay, like Locke begins with human labour as a basis for production of wealth and the creation of property.

Humans in groups and the beginnings of society:

When humans enter society (but in which there is not yet government) and thereby cooperate in endeavour, then their enjoyment of their natural rights increase and they can obtain more things.  According to Quesnay, in his discussion of the relation of the individual to the group, every man is charged with self-preservation under penalty of suffering and that this obliges him to fulfil this duty towards the rest of the society and that the rest of society is obligated to that individual and to each other (Meek, p. 50). In this manner, each individual contributes to the welfare of the society.  

It is here that the idea of a division of labour crops up. Quesnay argues that the services of one lessen the extent of the services performed by another, and through this "distribution of services" each person supplements the other and contributes almost equally to the welfare of the society (Meek, p. 51). Since there are not positive laws at this stage as they derive from a sovereign and government (and this is a state like those of savage tribes) there is no guarantee of property rights. Moreover, according to Quesnay, wealth developed through agricultural production and pasturage.  Interestingly, in the pure state of nature, individuals will develop agriculture, but it will not survive the transition to a society where there is no guarantee of property rights.

Civil Society:

When men further develop their society and they develop a government, he argues that the foundation of society is the subsistence of men and the wealth necessary to provide the authority required to defend them.  He then argues that it is only ignorance which would enact positive laws (the laws of government, not natural laws) which would interfere with the reproduction and annual circulation of the wealth of the society (Meek, p. 55). Again, the question of subsistence of the individuals composing the society is raised by Quesnay and that forms the basis of the responsibilities of the government in charge of the society.

Next week, we will move onto Bentham's and the rights of the poor and his discussion of lesser eligibility as the criterion for determining access to relief. From there we can move onto discussions of poverty, its causes and solutions in the writings of economists and then we will move onto a discussion of the old and new (1834) Poor Law and the role of economists in the passage of the latter.


Locke, John (1689) Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Meek, Ronald (1962) The Economics of Physiocracy: Essays and Translations, Fairfield, NJ: A.M. Kelley Publishers, 1993.
Quesnay, François (1764) "Rural Philosophy," in Meek (1962), pp.  138-150.
Quesnay, François (1765) "Natural Right," in Meek (1962), pp. 43-56.
Quesnay, François (1757-8?) "Corn," in Meek (1962), pp. 72-87.
Tuck, Richard (1979) Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Tully, James (1980) A Discourse on Property: John Locke and his Adversaries, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Originally posted to NY brit expat on Thu Jul 30, 2009 at 08:53 AM PDT.

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