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If one were to study the roles of the lower classes in a society during the 18th and 19th centuries, one would notice that the concept of utility increases in importance over time. With the economic systems of the world being driven by what a country could produce and subsequently offer for trade, those who were directly responsible for the production of these goods, mainly the peasants, became essential assets of the state. As a result, many rulers began to become more aware of the importance of appealing to the masses, and therefore increased their response to the demands of their subjects.
One such ruler who placed a great deal of importance on the utility of man was Joseph II, Emperor of Austria. Although his mother maintained the position of Empresses until the time of her death in 1780, Joseph was a primary influence in regards to how she ran the state. In addition, by 1765 Joseph was named co-regent of the empire, thus solidifying his magisterial influences. From this point onward, Joseph supported policies of Marie Theresa and initiated several of his own movements indicating that he had achieved this increased awareness of the masses. By examining the bureaucratic policies implemented in the fields of economics, law and justice, and religion, and by observing this legislation with respect to the status of peasants, one can understand the methods by which Joseph incorporated a concept of utility into Austrian affairs during the latter half of the 18th century.
To begin, it is thought that the basic economic principals of 18th century Austria were established as early as 1741. Unable to properly motivate the economy, Joseph II modified the mercantilist policies in 1774 by incorporating a strict regulation whereby the import of most nonessential goods was prohibited. In addition to this, his list of changes also included the removal of internal tolls or taxes to allow the establishment of free trade, and the implementation of programs designed to improve the roads and the navigation waterways to increase the ease of transportation.
However, these changes are often seen as routine matters of state when compared to the sociological changes Joseph initiated to boost a wilting economy. It had been observed that the peasant population to Austria was operating at low levels of efficiency because of the robot, a system where serfs were bonded to work for a lord.1 This system denied Austria’s workforce the time or resources to diversify into various aspects of production, so, in 1781 Joseph issued the Peasant Patent which abolished formal serfdom, in hopes of giving new life to the economy.
Peasants were now equal under the law and were granted the same civil liberties as other subjects. However, despite the fact that they were no longer bonded to their land and were now free to move, the peasants could not relocate because they were held with tenant contracts to their lords. Joseph knew that to abolish the robot entirely would lead to the ruin of the aristocracy who were the main supporter of the government.2 Taking this into account, the reforms of 1783 were developed. Those reforms converted the robot into cash payments, supposedly equivalent to the work the serf owed their lord. In time, this fixed payment turned into a ratio of the peasant’s earnings, and by 1789 a formal system of taxation was developed for all subjects of the crown.
By examining this evidence in regards to the concepts of utility, one can interpret that Joseph realized there would most likely be more benefit in allowing serfs to manage their own agricultural business or possibly even set out to either develop or work for other industries.3 Just the concept that the serf were now free to pursuit whatever line of work they choose would imply that motivation to work and thus efficiency would also improve. The destruction of serfdom serves a second purpose as well in that it takes power away from the feudal lords, leaving them with only basic administrative roles. While the rich of the 18th century did provide support to the government, their primary interests concerned only themselves and the maintenance of their house. The majority of the aristocracy were idle and did not push for the development of the economy. This statement can be made based of the fact that the rich sunk their money into acquiring property, and not into industry.4 Since Joseph could not persuade them to do otherwise, they lost their utility in the evolving world and the state removed their power.
In addition to the economical changes in Joseph’s Austria, sweeping changes in the legal and judicial affairs of state were set into motion during his reign. As previously mentioned, Joseph set into motion a decree that would provide equality under the law to the serfs, however, due to the extended privileges of the aristocracy there still remained some ways of exploiting the serfs. This led to Joseph’s decree in September of 1781 that stated manorial courts had to hire a trained and capable judge, school in the art of law, as well as commanding that a limit be placed on the severity of the punishments these courts could give as punishment. This decree did not, however, change any laws, but it did provide a temporary patch that would give Joseph the time to review the laws of the state in their entirety and revise them where necessary.
It was not until 1787 that the revised system of laws was produced. In the decree of August 1787 Joseph decisively set forth a new series of laws. Under these laws, the state was the only organization capable of affecting the liberty of its subjects, and no subject would be immune to the courts. This meant that even the nobles or the church had a responsibility to uphold the rules of the state, and could be persecuted for failing in these duties. Above all else, Joseph felt that by making these changes a stagnant system of law could be made to work toward the benefit of the state and its citizens.5
In these revisions to the legal systems of Austria, Joseph’s utilitarian methods are once again highlighted. He sought to protect the workforce of his country and provided them with additional securities, while removing power from the less productive nobles. This power is once again directed towards a centralized government system where it can be utilized by those who have the highest capability of dealing with it.
Finally, the topic of religion can be brought into the light of utilitarian thinking. It is known that Marie Theresa was reluctant to pass any decree that would have the potential of diluting the potency of the Catholic faith in Austria. While she did make nominal concessions to accept other faiths being practiced, she did not allow the state to condone these practices. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that upon her death, Joseph, who had himself been pushing towards religious tolerance, issued the Toleration Patent in October of 1781.6
The Toleration Patent allows seven basic tolerances to be made. The most prominent of these decrees are that other faiths may build places of worship and conduct their own ceremonies and sacraments as they see fit, and these faiths may conduct their own schooling and hire their own teachers. With this patent minorities are free from persecution under the law so long as their practice does not interfere with the day to day operations of the state of other religious groups.
The underlying utility in this rises from the concept that Joseph believed that no matter what religion a person may choose the basic fact remains that more people will be educated and be able to serve the state.7 Also, beyond the appeasement of the populace and the education of the youth, this patent effectively removes power from the Catholic church, an organization that was still rivaling the authority of the state. The dispersion, removal and centralization of power into capable hands is stressed.
In conclusion, by reforming Austria’s economic, judicial and religious policies Joseph was able to create a realm where productivity was valued. Essentially, in his reign Joseph set out to distribute the power and resources of the state in the most efficient means possible. His style of leadership involved making compromises between humanity and bureaucracy and producing a balance between the two in the end. In sum, this pattern of declaring a standard for all citizens, removing the power of non-state establishments and forcing a lesser or administrative role onto them, and finally centralizing the state’s power over its citizens embodies the pattern of utility Joseph II strived for.
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