BOOK REVIEW: The True and Only Wealth of Nations
This book gives a series of essays of Louis de Bonald, illustrious member of the landed nobility of central France, both writer and statesman. He forcefully defended the Christian social order during the post-revolutionary years and the Bourbon Restoration.
His essays are broad in spectrum. They deal with the family and divorce, money (usury) and pauperism, but also with political economy and the wealth of nations (rightly put forward as the book title). Although this selection does not offer the reader the complete panorama of social doctrine, it certainly gives us the main guiding principles of what the City had been and should still be. Placed as he was between the fall of the Old Regime and the upheavals of an absurd revolution, he could propose sane and wise principles to the recent monarchy to set things back on track. As a thinker, he is not afraid of finding food for good thought in such doubtful authors as Montesquieu and Malthus.
Do not omit reading the detailed introduction by Sorbonne professor of politics Claude Polin, whose gifted pen enlarges the frame of de Bonald’s essays. His synthesis reveals why man needs to be a social animal and tame his selfish instincts, which leads him to the need to be educated, which means that he needs a specific type of educator as he goes through life. This finally makes of him an adult man which de Bonald certainly defines as free and, because free, therefore responsible and dutiful. Polin does not omit the negative principle, often alluded to in the essays, of the “economic spirit” as being diametrically opposed to the spirit of the community.
All this wealth of social thought is embossed in a style at first sight reactionary, but filled with fresh and vital vistas, if exotic, which opens our mental world. Should we not add that the common sense of this nobleman of peasant stock pervading much of his thoughts is a balloon of oxygen to our much contaminated mental categories. By way of illustration of the insight and prophetic view of our modern times, here are some aphorisms and paradoxes which could equate him to a 19th-century French Chesterton: The individual is not only a destructor of society, he is also a sort of fake substance. The more machines there are to replace men, the more men there will be in society who are nothing but machines. A people that reads much requires few books. The guilds had, among other advantages, that of containing by the stern power of the masters the rudeness of a youth that had been sent abroad from the paternal power at a young age.
The toleration of usury is comparable to the toleration of divorce. If the profits of commerce rise above the revenue of the land, the land will be abandoned for the cash register, and money will no longer give life to agriculture. When money is a value and a good itself, we must beware lest the goods themselves become nothing other than a sign of the value of money. Morals and laws are the true and even the only wealth of societies, families, and nations. War, disease, and famine cannot destroy it, yet a book suffices to cause a revolution. Man should find his subsistence in the family that gives birth to him, and when he seeks it from the State—which neither labors nor spins—the government can only give him one by taking away from others.