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Victor Böhmert's Critique of the Traditional and Restrictive Nature of Guilds (1858)

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he earns, the further away he moves from poverty, and the happier he can become. Every state that wants to promote its citizens’ happiness and counteract poverty should therefore acknowledge it as the highest of all its obligations to provide every citizen with protection of the right and freedom to work, to develop himself, to use his energies, and to enjoy the fruits of his labor. This right and freedom is older than the state, it is innate in every human being, it is the most primordial and holiest of all human rights; for man was born with needs whose satisfaction is essential for life, and with organs and talents for satisfying his needs. But applying these talents to work is evidently of no avail to man, and he can neither live nor work if he is not sure that he can use the fruits of his labor for his own needs as well. This certainty and the security of the goods he manufactures, of property, is therefore also one of the initial aims of a young state. Even among savages, nobody doubted that whoever had built a hut or hunted an animal was also entitled to the possession and ownership of that hut or animal. Therefore, initially, the state is usually founded to protect individual ownership from the superiority of the stronger via the united power of the many.

It is usually also readily acknowledged, for the aforementioned reasons, that the state is held together by the principle of property, that it should give property respect. But what is our contemporary state now doing with its occupational laws? It is dangerously attacking the right of man to dispose over the work of his own hands and to enjoy the fruits of his labor; it is attempting to restrict, to reshape, to organize work. Someone from a previous century with fantastic ideas about how to improve the state asserted what other people already knew, that there are rich people and poor people and a middle class in this world; at the same time, he advised those governing the state to rely above all on the middle class. Now, this may have been completely expedient from a political point of view, but the state went even further and also started heaping its abundant goodwill on this vague concept of the “middle class” from an economic point of view. A genuinely artificial system was created in which single individuals were assigned their specific place, their field of employment, and the number of workers and the like was regulated in advance, and continuous care and supervision was dedicated to the class of tradesmen. This was even more wrongheaded considering how special care intended for a class that had already achieved a certain level of well-being was just being wasted at the expense of those who had nothing. The poor, who as victims of lowly circumstances were in no position to learn a guilded craft, were in a certain sense condemned to remain proletarians. The methods that master tradesmen use to prosecute the so-called “Bönhasen”* to this day, the unkindness with which they confiscate their manufactured goods and often drive them from the city, together with wife and child, truly exceeds the outermost limits of what one should deem possible in a Christian state. And these people had violated no other law than — to have worked! The state eagerly lent the master craftsmen a hand, but it abandoned the poor to misery, to begging, etc. Why? In order to promote a middle class, i.e., a class of citizens that happened to be better off than the lowest class. Even today the slogan resounds: Protect the middle class! As if not every class, and especially even the poorest, may not claim the same legal protection from the state and equality before the law! Even today, according to some people’s notions, statecraft in its entirety should be limited to caring for this class.

* Craftsmen without guild membership, also north German dialect for “bunglers” – trans.

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