The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law (1758)
Emmerich de Vattel
Of the Cultivation of the Soil
§ 77. The utility of tillage.
OF all the arts, tillage, or agriculture, is doubtless the most useful and necessary, as being the source whence the nation derives its subsistence. The cultivation of the soil causes it to produce an infinite increase; it forms the surest resource and the most solid fund of riches and commerce, for a nation that enjoys a happy climate.1
§ 78. Regulations necessary in this respect
This object then deserves the utmost attention of the government. The sovereign ought to neglect no means of rendering the land under his jurisdiction as well cultivated as possible. He ought not to allow either communities or private persons to acquire large tracts of land and leave them uncultivated. Those rights of common, which deprive the proprietor of the free liberty of disposing of his land — which will not allow him to enclose and cultivate it in the most advantageous manner; those rights, I say, are inimical to the welfare of the state and ought to be suppressed, or reduced to just bounds. Notwithstanding the introduction of private property among the citizens, the nation has still a right to take the most effectual measures to cause the aggregate soil of the country to produce the greatest and most advantageous revenue possible.2
§ 79. For the protection of husbandmen.
The government ought carefully to avoid every thing capable of discouraging the husbandman, or of diverting him from the labors of agriculture. Those taxes — those excessive and ill-proportioned impositions, the burden of which falls almost entirely on the cultivators — and the oppressions they suffer from the officers who levy them — deprive the unhappy peasant of the means of cultivating the earth, and depopulate the country. Spain is the most fertile and the worst cultivated country in Europe. The church there possesses too much land; and the contractors for the royal magazines, being authorized to purchase, at a low price, all the corn they find in the possession of a peasant, above what is necessary for the subsistence of himself and his family, so greatly discourage the husbandman, that he sows no more corn than is barely necessary for the support of his own household. Hence the frequent scarcity in a country capable of feeding its neighbors.
§ 80. Husbandry ought to be placed in an honorable light
Another abuse injurious to agriculture is the contempt cast upon the husbandman. The tradesmen in cities — even the most servile mechanics — the idle citizens — consider him that cultivates the earth with a disdainful eye; they humble and discourage him; they dare to despise a profession that feeds the human race — the natural employment of man. A little insignificant haberdasher, a tailor, places far beneath him the beloved employment of the first consuls and dictators of Rome! China has wisely prevented this abuse: agriculture is there held in honor; and to preserve this happy mode of thinking, the emperor himself, followed by his whole court, annually, on a solemn day, sets his hand to the plough, and sows a small piece of land. Hence China is the best cultivated country in the world; it feeds an immense multitude of inhabitants who at first sight appear to the traveler too numerous for the space they occupy.
§ 81. The cultivation of the soil a natural obligation
The cultivation of the soil deserves the attention of the government, not only on account of the invaluable advantages that flow from it, but from its being an obligation imposed by nature on mankind. The whole earth is destined to feed its inhabitants; but this it would be incapable of doing if it were uncultivated. Every nation is then obliged by the law of nature to cultivate the land that has fallen to its share; and it has no right to enlarge its boundaries, or have recourse to the assistance of other nations, but in proportion as the land in its possession is incapable of furnishing it with necessaries. Those nations (such as the ancient Germans, and some modern Tartars) who inhabit fertile countries, but disdain to cultivate their lands and choose rather to live by plunder, are wanting to themselves, are injurious to all their neighbors, and deserve to be extirpated as savage and pernicious beasts. There are others, who, to avoid labor, choose to live only by hunting, and their flocks. This might, doubtless, be allowed in the first ages of the world, when the earth, without cultivation, produced more than was sufficient to feed its small number of inhabitants. But at present, when the human race is so greatly multiplied, it could not subsist if all nations were disposed to live in that manner. Those who still pursue this idle mode of life, usurp more extensive territories than, with a reasonable share of labor, they would have occasion for, and have, therefore, no reason to complain, if other nations, more industrious and too closely confined, come to take possession of a part of those lands. Thus, though the conquest of the civilized empires of Peru and Mexico was a notorious usurpation, the establishment of many colonies on the continent of North America might, on their confining themselves within just bounds, be extremely lawful. The people of those extensive tracts rather ranged through than inhabited them.
§ 82. Of public granaries.
The establishment of public granaries is an excellent regulation for preventing scarcity. But great care should be taken to prevent their being managed with a mercantile spirit, and with views of profit. This would be establishing a monopoly, which would not be the less unlawful for its being carried on by the magistrate. These granaries should be filled in times of the greatest plenty, and take off the corn that would lie on the husbandman’s hands, or be carried in too great quantities to foreign countries: they should be opened when corn is dear, and keep it at a reasonable price. If in a time of plenty they prevent that necessary commodity from easily falling to a very low price, this inconvenience is more than compensated by the relief they afford in times of dearth: or rather, it is no inconvenience at all; for, when corn is sold extremely cheap, the manufacturer, in order to obtain a preference, is tempted to undersell his neighbors, by offering his goods at a price which he is afterwards obliged to raise (and this produces great disorders in commerce, by putting it out of its course); or he accustoms himself to an easy life, which he cannot support in harder times. It would be of advantage to manufactures and to commerce to have the subsistence of workmen regularly kept at a moderate and nearly equal price. In short, public granaries keep in the state quantities of corn that would be sent abroad at too cheap a rate, and must be purchased again, and brought back at a very great expense after a bad harvest, which is a real loss to the nation. These establishments, however, do not hinder the corn trade. If the country, one year with another, produces more than is sufficient for the support of her inhabitants, the superfluity will still be sent abroad: but it will be sent at a higher and fairer price.
1. As to the subject of this chapter, see further authorities, Chitty’s Commercial Law, vol. i. chap. 1. — C.
2. In England there are few legislative enactments respecting the cultivation of the soil or employment of its produce, each individual being left to his own discretion; but to prevent the injurious sale of farming produce, thereby impoverishing the land, there is an express enactment enforcing public policy in that respect. See 56 Geo. III. c. 50, and its recitals. In France there are express provisions punishing individuals who suffer injurious weeds to seed on land to the injury of their neighbors, a regulation which would be exceedingly salutary if introduced into this country. — C.