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Conservative Denunciation of Occupational Freedom as the Result of an Interfering State Bureaucracy (1851)

In this passage from his influential book Civil Society (1851), the conservative folklorist Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl (1823-1897) describes occupational freedom as an instrument of government bureaucracy that harms independent tradesmen and lowers product quality. At the same time, he advocates a modernized guild system and renewed pride in the apprenticeship system.

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It is a very noteworthy phenomenon that the pre-March* police state, which allowed no freedom at all, least of all any absolute liberty, protected absolute freedom of occupation. It must certainly be a dubious kind of freedom that enjoys this sort of patronage. The police and civil service state feared an independent and robust class of tradesmen, and it was certainly aware that absolute occupational freedom is the surest rein on civic [bourgeois] trade, namely one of the reins with a sharp bit that cuts into the flesh, thereby turning the fieriest steed into the lamest nag. The dilettantish economy of the so-called “patent masters” was introduced there, whereby anyone, even the untrained, can carry on any kind of trade if he obtains a patent [trade license] for just a few guilders and keeps a journeyman; and if he has a speculative mind, he can try doing this with a half dozen different trades at the same time. That meant putting a state premium on “bungling”** and swindling. The state auctioned off its buildings and public enterprises to the lowest bidders. That was yet another premium on swindling. It allowed – and allows – prisoners to engage in ordinary civic handicrafts, and through this kind of competition, which hardly costs [the state] anything in the way of workers’ wages, forces down the citizen’s income. By punishing the criminal, it simultaneously punishes the honest craftsman. One needs to have lived in countries where this kind of unrestrained occupational freedom was in effect in order to be thoroughly convinced of its perniciousness. It was in these countries that master craftsmen, at the first flickering of the ’48 movement, knew no question more urgent than salvation from this kind of murderous freedom.

There are old cities replete with trades in which the old guild system has not declined but has instead continued developing as a blessing to the crafts. But there are also dilapidated old imperial cities where one still clings to all the customs of the antiquated guild system and holds onto it in all its petrified forms. There, in general, owing to a guild spirit that’s become a mere facade, the craftsman has become just as lethargic, incompetent, ossified, and grumpy as he has become lethargic, incompetent, ossified, and grumpy in countries with absolute freedom of occupation. Both extremes demoralize the class of tradesmen.

* "Vormärzlich": referring to the period between the Final Act of the Vienna Congress in 1815 and the outbreak of the March Revolution in 1848 – trans.
** Meaning not belonging to a guild – trans.

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