The State and the Ruling Class: An Anthology of Key Works of Libertarian/Classical Liberal Class Analysis

Compiled by David M. Hart
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[Created: 16 August, 2016]
[Updated: 7 January, 2017 ]


Charles Renouard, "Parasites" (1852)

Editing History

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1st published in DEP (1852): John Joseph Lalor, Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and of the Political History of the United States by the best American and European Authors, ed. John J. Lalor (New York: Maynard, Merrill, & Co., 1899). Vol 3 Oath - Zollverein <>.

Editor's Intro




PARASITES, Social. The parasite is one who lives at the expense of other men. The number of parasites is so great, and their place in this world so considerable, that we can not speak of the general economy of societies without concerning ourselves with them. No human being can live unless he has become exclusive master, that is to say, proprietor, of some portion of matter, be it but the piece of bread or of fruit which he is on the point of eating, or of the clothing which covers him. Some men live by the honest acquisition and accumulation of property, or by the just conservation of property previously acquired; these constitute the useful and active part of the human race. Others live on the resources of their neighbors; but it is none the less necessary that they should obtain the proprietorship of the things indispensable to their subsistence. A man may live by the use and consumption of the things or the product of the things which he has previously obtained by occupation, or which have been acquired, preserved or accumulated by virtue of the right of inheritance. We call individuals thus provided, proprietors, capitalists. The usage of speech reserves these names to persons who possess more material objects than are needed to satisfy the immediate wants of life. It is not customary, though he really is one, to call a proprietor the unfortunate man who possesses merely his clothing or his food for the day. A man may own nothing, either in capital producing an income or in stocks of provisions or other property, or he may possess only an insufficient quantity of these, and yet live upon his own resources. Within each one of us there is a powerful instrument of acquisition capable of furnishing material objects for our enjoyment. This inner most personal force, superior if not to all, at least to the usual and probable, risks of chance, is labor; in other words, the development of our powers of activity. Through this force we are enabled to render useful service to ourselves and others; and we acquire with certainty our share of property by the exchange of services, and accidentally by occupation. When a man lives neither by his own labor nor capital, a term in which, for greater convenience, we include all property previously acquired actually laid by, he must live by the labor or capital of others. Every man belongs then, necessarily, to one of these classes: capitalists, workmen, parasites. We are wrong in speaking of three classes: in truth, what are called classes here are only three attributes, three aspects of humanity. Two of these qualities, or all three of them, are often united in the same person. When we range men in these three classes, we take principally into consideration which of the three qualities is predominant in each of them.

—Mirabeau, in the discussion on the tithes in France, uttered the following words, which provoked the murmurs of the assembly. "It is time to renounce the prejudices of a proud ignorance which disdains the words wages and wage-workers. I know of but three ways of existing in society: a man must be a beggar, a thief or a wage-receiver Proprietors themselves are merely the first among wage-receivers; what we commonly call his property is nothing but the price which society pays him for the distribution which he is intrusted with making to other individuals, in return for his consumption and his expenses. Proprietors are the agents and stewards of the social body." The following day the abbé Duplaquet, on resigning from a priory, said: "I commit myself to the justice of the nation, considering, whatever M. de Mirabeau may have said on the subject, that I am too old to earn my wages, too honest to steal, and that the services which I have rendered should excuse me from begging." This witty repartee of the abbé was misleading; the right to the continuation of his wages was already earned, for the reward for past services is one of the elements of honest wages. The assembly, therefore, did wrong to receive it with murmurs, and to take offense at the term wage-receivers, which its great orator, obeying the luminous boldness of his good sense, tried to free from an unmerited reproach. Mirabeau's classification approached the truth, but did not reach it; proprietors are not wage workers; beggars and thieves constitute the principal branches of parasites, but do not include them all. Mirabeau was right in saying, with the physiocrates, that, being the agents and stewards of the social body, proprietors distributed wages for their consumption and their expenses: the inaccuracy consisted in pretending that they received social wages for that distribution. This was to confound the origin of its acquisition with the use of the thing, and to take account only of the service rendered by property, and not of its right over the thing. Owners of property gain the right to wages only in so far as to the character of proprietor is joined the character of workman, which, it is true, is usually added and in varying proportions, but which corresponds to a different order of relations. Owners, masters of their property, use it to suit themselves, in their own interest, at their own risk; the utility accruing indirectly to society from this use is the only service inherent in their quality as owners, and calls for no reward. It is in this use itself that they find the pay for this service. When society guarantees them the peaceable, permanent possession and the free enjoyment of their property, it does not pay them wages; it fulfills its own duty by causing the rights of owners to be respected; they it is who, by paying their taxes and bearing other public burdens, pay society for the service it renders them by guarding and guaranteeing their property. They distribute wages only because these wages bring them a profit by means of the values in things or services, of which wages are the representation, and the thing given in exchange for. The social utility of property is the consequence of its right, but neither its basis nor its measure. To lift the respect due to property to its true height, it is necessary to go to the length of saying that even if property remained idle, unproductive or badly used, it would still be sacred for the same reason and in the same degree as if employed in useful consumption and productive expenditure. Very distinct in theory, the quality of the proprietor and that of the wage-earner are linked together in the concrete realities of life by numerous points of contact, and are frequently found united in the same individual. Every workman possesses in his own person an immaterial capital, which consists in his capacity for labor. It is composed of his natural activity, his theoretical instruction, his practical skill; the direction which his moral development imparts to his powers must also be included as of great importance. Even if we confine ourselves to the consideration of material objects which may become property, it is not necessary, in order to find workmen capitalists, to consider only great manufacturers, etc., operating on a large stock previously accumulated. The artisan who has become owner of his tools and furniture is a capitalist, though on a modest scale; for he possesses articles which enable him to live, and things which he can use without destroying, and which will continue to be ulterior instruments of gain to him. In proportion as his property increases, as his tools become more numerous or better, as his stock of provisions accumulates for future consumption, his character as capitalist becomes more evident.

—There are capitalists who live only on their capital or on their income; but they are in the minority. The majority employ a certain amount of paid labor in giving life to, fructifying and increasing their property. Of all the sophisms used to pervert the understanding of the public sentiment, one of the falsest and most productive of danger is that which, exalting labor at the expense of property, endeavors to range capitalists among parasites so far as that part of their fortune not produced by actual labor is concerned. The full and peaceful enjoyment of property, accompanied by its essential character of indefinite transmissibility, would be the wisest of calculations and the most useful of combinations, even if it were only the result of human convention. But property is more than this it is a right, and, to consider it only in its relations with labor, it is the right of labor itself. Take away the certainty of being recognized as the master of goods legitimately acquired, and you break the spring of the activity which acquires them; deprive the father of a family of the assurance of transmitting the property acquired or preserved for his children, and you have destroyed the family spirit, and with it saving, temperance, providence, resignation, and plans for the future. Man is born for labor; but he craves repose, leisure, and the serene and disinterested culture of the mind. To stigmatize in theory, or disturb in practice, the past of which capitalists are the depositaries, would be the death of the present and the future. Labor, which is future property, has confidence in its forces only through the stability of property, which is, mainly, past labor.

—The parasite uses his neighbor's goods, that is, his property or his labor, without giving in return anything or any service. But it does not follow because an object was acquired parasitically, that it was illegitimately obtained. Ownership of things originates in several legitimate ways. Its first source is in the right of occupation; by virtue of which a vacant thing is appropriated by the person who first takes it. This origin excludes all idea of a parasitic acquisition, since it relates only to things to which no other person had acquired a right. Things already occupied can only be acquired by transmission. Transmission is legitimately effected in three different ways. One is inheritance, which, considering as a unit the natural association of relationship or affection, transfers the property of a deceased person to his heirs, by title of the civil continuation of his person. The heir is not a parasite, since he acquires in virtue of his own right, which is the complement and consequence of the full and entire right of his parent. Another way is exchange, through which property is acquired for an equivalent furnished in things or in services. Thanks to exchange, each man need owe to himself alone the means of living and owning property, and thus obtain independence and dignity from his own free acts. The third legitimate way of transmission is the way of gift. This is the only source of existence regularly open to parasite life. Outside of these four modes of acquisition, morality and law recognize no other. Robbery, rapine, cheating, extortion, confiscation, war, every act which takes another's goods by fraud or violence, should be ranked as a crime or misdemeanor. There are some distinctions to be made on the subject of confiscation and war, which may be legitimate by way of exception, but which are then resolved into forms of exchange, and as a reparation for damage caused.

—Parasites live irregularly, by misdemeanors, or regularly by gift. With regard to parasites of the first order, Mirabeau was right when he called them robbers; it is for the penal laws to settle with them. These parasites are found in every station of life, in all degrees of the social scale, and even among the wealthy. To live by confiscation, to grow rich by unjust privileges, to receive pay for work which is never done, for a place which is never filled, to break a contract or one's word, to appropriate by violence, by cunning, by credit or by power, the goods, the work, the liberty, the rights of others, is to take the place of the lowest of parasites without any exhibition of shame.

—Society, in its relations with this corrupt and corrupting class of men, has duties of various kinds to fulfill. The first is to punish them; the second is to see that the punishments inflicted furnish security and serve as an example to the rest of the people; the third is to turn the penalties into an effort to reform the guilty, and above all to prevent their becoming, through the fault of institutions, a new cause of individual corruption and social danger. With these public duties is connected everything which relates to penal legislation, to the administration of repressive justice, to the management of prisons, to banishment, and to the penitentiary system. Too mild punishment disarms and discourages society. Excessive severity destroys the sentiment of justice, and causes it to degenerate by putting vengeance in its place. It invites impunity. The cause of the greatest moral disturbance is to be found in a cowardly complaisance toward wealthy parasites, whom their social position raises up to serve as an example, which position they have not been able to protect from the baseness of living at the expense of others. To surround illy acquired wealth with honor, to lavish unmerited bounties, to urge to cupidity, to arouse vicious inclinations, as happens, for instance, when the official character is soiled by connecting it with lotteries and gaming establishments, is to widen the breach for the invasion of parasites. The want of enlightenment and mistakes of calculation lead society to such a result, when, even without immoral intent, it combines or manages its institutions in such a manner as to take from the common fund, made up of the contributions of all, the means to support monopolies, privileges or franchises, which return nothing to compensate therefor, monopolies created in certain kinds of labor, services, commerce, industry. If we examine the protective system closely, it will not be difficult to perceive that its principal wrong is that it establishes and develops artificially parasitic privileges, covering them, often in good faith, and without understanding their real effect, with the cloak of general utility. It is not given to human laws to remedy everything; and, whatever be their wisdom, a part of the race will always live on the spoils taken from the other part. But we are justified in wishing that laws and governments should have a sound understanding of what is just, and should unite to the sagacity which points out evil, the probity to hunt it down, and the constancy to stop its progress as far as lies in the power of man.

—The parasites who live on gifts, and whose existence thus depends on a regular title, even in the case when irregular causes have given birth to this title, are a curious and difficult subject of study. All the questions of pauperism belong to this subject, but they are not the only ones that belong to it. Gift, a legitimate source of acquisition, is an indispensable element in the harmony of society. It is a result of the completeness of the power of the proprietor, who is free to deprive himself of his property gratuitously, without receiving anything in return. To receive gratuitously the services or the property of another is a parasitic act, the character of which is determined by the circumstances which accompany it, and which is, in itself, neither good nor bad. The name parasite is given to persons who, by habit and these parasitic acts, live altogether or principally by donation. The moral disfavor which custom attaches to the acceptance of the services or property of others without giving an equivalent therefor, arises from an honorable susceptibility, and answers to a respectable instinct of dignity, but is not always just. This acceptance, if confined strictly to its economic meaning, should be morally neutral, in spite of the idea of inferiority and dependence which it implies; it is right in some cases, but wrong in others, to make such gratuitous acceptance an expression of contempt. What is beyond all controversy, is, that we must not apply the harsh term beggar to all those who live by gift. The idea of mendicancy is connected with the idea of a permanent condition of solicitation based on the allegation of entire helplessness to procure the necessaries of life in any other way. The man is not a mendicant who receives the donation without asking for it, especially he is not one who receives it as a consequence of affection existing between him and the donor, or as the satisfaction of an obligation connecting the donor with him. Beggary is confounded with rapine and robbery when it exacts assistance instead of requesting it.

—Among those who receive without giving, and who live on the substance of others without furnishing anything of their own in return, must be reckoned nearly all the human race during the period of childhood. Our first years are passed in absolute impotence as far as productive labor is concerned. This time is devoted to physical, intellectual and moral development, destined, no doubt, to create in those who reach the age of maturity an immaterial capital of force and activity, but which may never have this result. The age of productive labor is reached at different periods by different persons. Ordinarily it commences too early in the poor families of artisans and agricultural laborers, who hasten to employ their children in a lucrative occupation, while the more provident or well-to-do families are not so hasty to consume the present at the expense of the future. The quality of capitalist belongs to children only in exceptional cases. The number of those who are born with a fortune of their own and who can be supported and reared by means of their own property, is extremely small, even in the wealthy class. If we consider children in individual isolation only, they must be called parasites, for they live solely on the resources of others given to them; but they figure in society as members of the collective being called the family, of which they form an integral part by right; and the family itself would become a parasite, if by impotence or bad will, it should allow the cost of their subsistence to fall on others. The child lives at the expense of the family without giving any actual return, unless in affection, in happiness, in morality, in hopes, precious values indeed, but which can not be measured. Later, the child should make a return for the assistance and services rendered it in advance. Its right to existence rests on a two-fold foundation: on the duties which the instincts of our nature engrave on our hearts and dictate to the positive law; and on the continued mutuality of obligations, which, contracted to some, are paid to others, converting our debts to our fathers and mothers into credits to our children. The civil law obliges parents, fathers and children, the ascending and descending lines, to support each other reciprocally. The natural law extends beyond this circle of family duties.

—The family is not the only collective being on which the responsibility rests of supporting its members. The same duty is imposed, in different measures and proportions, on numberless associations into which men are collected. There is a class of associations, such as the societies of mutual aid, whose capital, formed by means of individual contributions, is intended for those of its members who are in distress or who reach a certain age, or a certain time of service. The assistance demanded in this case is not a donation, it is a credit, a regular and foreseen employment of a common saving collected for this purpose. The party who receives aid here is in no way a parasite, not even with regard to those particular bodies, so long as he receives his share only after having fulfilled the conditions of his contract. He becomes a parasite with reference to the association, if, without having furnished his due, he receives from its bounty, instead of from his own contribution, the assistance which is given him. But the individual thus assisted is not a parasite on the rest of society, since he lives on resources which the rest of society did not contribute to provide for him. A county undertakes the support of its poor. These are parasites with reference to it, but not to the rest of the country, which is not called on to do anything for them. The same must be said of individuals assisted by private charity; which, by taking them in charge, relieves society in general to that extent. It is to be remarked, however, that, as the resources of private charity are limited, the parasites who exhaust it prevent it from being extended to others who need it as much or more than they; and in this manner they contribute to increase the number of the needy. It is a fundamental truth, too little recognized, that, different from other duties, which have corresponding rights, there is no right which corresponds to the duty of charity. The rich man must relieve the poor without the poor having any right as against the rich. Religion has admirable doctrines on this subject which public law might profit by: while it teaches charity to some, it commands gratitude and resignation to others. Private charity is a debt of conscience and love, and not a debt by right; it does not obey precise rules, and is not governed by the calculations of human prudence; it feels that its most urgent cares, its most bountiful assistance, its most affectionate consolations, should be given to unmerited suffering, but it desires to assist even those who have deserved their misfortune by their faults. Thus, to extend its benevolent duties, it is enough for charity to say that each man ought to feel his weakness to be such, that he should not arm himself arrogantly against indulgence. Charity has its eyes fixed, not on what it gives, but on what it has itself received. All men would be charitable if they would remember the large number of services which each one receives from his neighbors, no matter how brilliant his actual situation may be. There is not an individual who does not draw abundantly from this large capital of the universal domain transmitted and increased from generation to generation, and who does not take much more from it than he can ever return to it. We owe too much to others to be authorized to bargain our assistance to those whom it is possible for us to aid.

—Public charity is governed by narrower and more worldly rules than private charity. Consequently, men correctly cease to call it charity, and give it the more modern name of public assistance. Charity, which is love, strips itself to give to others. When the state gives and assists, it strips itself of nothing; its action is limited to distributing in a certain fashion the contributions which it levies on its citizens. Not every gift is charity; the assistance distributed by the state is only a branch of the public administration. The only parasites at the expense of the state should be the poor who can not be properly cared for by their families, associations or private charity. To live in a purely gratuitous manner at the expense of the state when not compelled to accept the gifts by which it supports the needy and unfortunate, is to belong to the worst class of parasites, to that class of people who are able not to be parasites, a perverse class, a public pest, whose close relationship with robbers we have previously pointed out, and to which we need not return. It only remains for us to speak of parasites who are really poor people. State donations, like private gifts, are essentially one-sided, in this sense, that the moral duty imposed on the donor does not suppose any right in the recipient. Where credit begins, donation ceases. It is the desire of humanity that human beings should not be left to perish of distress; it is the dictate of prudence that a mass of men excited to disorder and crime by the spur of want should not be left to increase in the bosom of society; but the duty of the state to be humane and prudent creates no right to demand its assistance. The destructive sophism which converts want into credit has been revived in our time under the names of the right to existence, the right to labor, the right to assistance. It has been frequently refuted in this cyclopædia. (See ATELIERS; CHARITY; COMMUNISM; LABOR, RIGHT TO.) The falsest sophisms are generally the exaggerations of a correct idea, or the improper generalization of a particular truth. The numerous varieties of the anti-social sophisms which parade the name of socialism, place their point of support on the undeniable theory of reparation of wrongs, but they draw strange conclusions from this. By attacking not only society, but also the law of sociality, the sacred foundation of society, they affect to see in the conditions of every-day life, such as it has been organized by the universal consent of nations, the abasement and ruin of individuals, instead of finding in it a fruitful and efficient cause of their prosperity and development. A proposition which remains true in spite of the crookedness imparted to it by these sophisms is this, that when suffering is born of the sins of society or governments and the vice of institutions and of laws, it is no longer a question of humanity, decency and wisdom, but of a strict obligation of the state to alleviate it. It is no longer a case of donation, but of credit. Society, being held to repair its own wrongs, is not obliged to correct those which individuals inflict on themselves, any more than those which they suffer from others or from undeserved misfortune. It would be to destroy the dignity, the liberty, the responsibility of individuals, to transfer to the social body the task belonging to each one of guarding, preserving and developing himself. What society owes its members, is, to protect and guarantee the free exercise of their rights with all its strength; its office is not to think, to will or to act for them. The more liberty a state insures to its citizens, the less attention it owes their interests, since it leaves these interests more completely to the management and responsibility of the citizens themselves; if it interferes in private life and exerts an influence in managing the property of individuals, its responsibility to individuals increases with every extension which it gives to its guardianship. For societies, as well as individuals, to do good, is a secondary duty; not to do wrong is the first. The wants of a wise administration counsel the state to assist the parasitic mass, but the obligations not to create parasites itself, an obligation a hundred times more serious and binding, is antecedent to this. It should not act like a surgeon who would first would the passers by, and then offer them his services. Society creates paupers, and consequently parasites, when it turns from the straight road of justice, and, changing the noble office of guaranteeing and protecting property into a tyranny, takes possession of property and labor, or injures them by its exactions: it creates paupers when it arrests or hampers the free exercise of moral, intellectual or physical activity, the natural expansion of labor, the legitimate acquisition or transmission of property; it also creates paupers when it offers a premium on vice, idleness and lack of courage, by too great a readiness to grant relief. Society, through the enormous power which it wields, feeds and increases the evil when it distributes imprudently what it believes to be its benefits. The moderation in public assistance commanded by prudence, rests also on another basis. The state, which can levy only on the services and the property of workmen and capitalists, should never forget that whatever it gives is necessarily taken from the goods of its citizens; generosity at the expense of others easily degenerates into spoliation.

—The assistance given to parasites is an expedient rather than a remedy. Social progress consists, not in maintaining and supporting a greater number of parasites, but in decreasing and eliminating the parasites in existence. The perversion of manners, the extinction or abasement of the moral sense, makes most parasites. A had book, a vicious sophism, an evil example, creates more misery than hail, fire or famine. If it is necessary, because they are men, to assist human beings who consume without producing and receive without giving, it is imperative to attempt their reformation and endeavor to make them acquire property through morality and labor. Next to the task of improving its institutions and its laws in order to free itself from participation in evil, society has no more important mission than to obtain good results from good laws by improving the morals of men. The amount of misery is enormous, and alarms the most civilized societies. The true problem would be to dry up or lessen the thousand impure channels through which it is formed and increased. Society should by law leave religion free to propagate its principles; it should open schools, make education and enlightenment general, honor letters, sciences and arts, elevate the moral sense, exalt disinterestedness, remunerate services rendered, give life to indolence, smooth obstacles, remove all obstructions of the market. Its firm and vigorous humanity should avoid, as far as possible, the degrading form of alms; it should without asperity, uniting prudence to kindness, never forget that severity is generally more merciful than weakness. The danger is great, when the instinct of natural dignity which finds unearned bread bitter, grows weak and loses its honorable sensitiveness. The loss of the feeling of responsibility in individuals toward themselves, in families and other collective bodies toward their members, throws into the ranks of parasites persons of equivocal morality who find it more convenient to receive aid than to work. In the train of idleness follows covetousness; then corruption, which, increasing more and more, impels all to live at the expense of all.

—The only efficacious and honorable means of combating the parasitic spirit, the last extremity of human abasement, and assisting pauperism, is a gradual increase of the freedom of labor and property. All other methods serve simply to conjure the necessities and dangers of to-day, without promising, but often preparing, a worse to-morrow. When workmen can display their activity in peace, when capitalists can with confidence accumulate and lay up their property, the products of which will enrich all, the class of parasites decreases and is quieted through the development of the other two classes. Just as workmen and capitalists prosper and suffer together, and as it would be to impel them to suicide and to mutual oppression, to arouse rivalry and envy between them, parasites should respect capitalists and laborers, not only on account of moral obligation and the command of positive law, but also from calculation of what is useful for themselves. Parasites in fact or in intention, the unfortunates who are, and the cowards who wish to be, parasites, would be, like the rest of society, ruined by the despoiling of those who labor and those who own property. Swarms of rivals, left behind, would be excited by the contagion of victory, and would rise up as enemies and destroyers of the success of the violence of a day. Ill gotten gains are not easily kept. A few days of dissipation would quickly throw back into misery those who had escaped from it by detestable means. Their momentary triumph, by removing further from them the capacity of suffering with dignity, would only redouble their incapacity for labor and their helplessness to acquire property honestly. The man accustomed to live only on others, destroys his most lasting resources, if he ruins those who alone are able to acquire and preserve. (See PAUPERISM.)