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

This excerpt from Victor Böhmert’s (1829-1918) book on freedom of occupation criticizes the traditional, restrictive guild system. While Bremen's guilds aimed to reinforce the middle classes and to prevent craftsmen and proletarians from falling into poverty and moral decay, Böhmert argued that they accomplished precisely the opposite, as did other guilds throughout Germany.

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I. The opponents of freedom of occupation and their arguments

Reforming the occupational laws is currently on the public agenda almost everywhere in Germany. In Bremen, as well, there has been no shortage of serious demands for a detailed discussion of this important question, whose solution had been postponed for a short time by a negative resolution of Bremen’s city council on September 30, 1857. In addressing these requests and taking up the gauntlet that defenders of the guild system have thrown down before the friends of a free economic movement, let us begin by listing some of the major arguments offered by the friends of the guilds – arguments that already numbered among the mainsprings of the Bremen occupational law proposal of 1850. As it says there: “The advantages of the guild system, should it be in proper order, are as plain as the eye can see. They relate to how, from an ethical point of view, nothing is better at counteracting demoralization than that spirit that develops, of its own accord, in a tightly integrated class of working people secure in their employment; to how, from a political point of view, the state can rely on these people as strong and independent citizens; and finally to how, from a commercial point of view, the necessary independence is preserved for a craftsman’s business, the training of craftsmen is more generally encouraged in the cooperative, and an appropriate representation for the occupational trades as a class and their business interests can be accomplished without difficulty, just as the educational and relief institutions required for the trades can thereupon be more easily constituted. — If, by contrast, occupational freedom for the trades prevails, then everyone is left on his own, the moral posture that the corporate spirit provides goes lacking, the state is abandoned to the greatest danger that our era knows: seeing the proletariat grow incessantly. It is not easy to imagine a joint representation of occupational interests, or joint educational and relief institutions that, supported by the fraternal and unanimous efforts of the trades as a whole, act in a lively and beneficial way with the appropriate state assistance. The entire system is based on individual endeavors; and while things can emerge on an individual basis here and there, on the whole, given these important considerations, so much falls by the wayside or fails to materialize that one may say: “That is not worth the price for which it was gained.”

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