This contribution examines Gabriel Alvarez de Velasco’s De privilegiis pauperum et miserabilium personarum (Madrid: 1630-1636), particularly in light of the attention it pays to the rights of poor debtors. While little is known about its author, De privilegiis pauperum epitomizes the early modern literature on the privileges granted to poor and miserable persons. Although presenting itself as a commentary on the locus classicus for princes’ duty to protect needy and miserable persons in the third book of Emperor Justinian’s Code (C. 3.14), it offers a vast and autonomous treatment of the special legal regime applicable to the poor and miserable, including poor debtors. As such, it provides a fascinating window into early modern legal debates on rights at the margins of society, even if, as will be shown below, Alvarez de Velasco’s definition of poverty was flexible enough also to include members of high society.
Based on a theory of value which included subjective elements, the last Spanish scholastics equated just price with market prices devoid of fraud, force or monopoly. They recognized the right of the authorities to fix prices, but they questioned the convenience. There was latitude in the price that sellers could charge without making a moral violation. There was even more latitude when determining whether a price was unjust from a legal point of view. A key principle influencing scholastic normative analysis of prices was volenti non fit injuria (“to a willing person, injury is not done”), though a certaim degree of ignorance could make a price unjust.
The Spanish scholastics analyzed the role of supply and demand as well as other factors influencing prices. Most of these factors were described by Conrad Summenhart more than half a century before Vitoria, and had a great influence on scholastic thought. Profits, wages and rents were analyzed in a similar manner, and were never discussed as belonging to distributive justice.
Tracing scholastic thought on these matters, the chapter focuses on the contributions of Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, Tomás de Mercado, Martín de Azpilcueta, Luis de Molina, Juan de Mariana, and Francisco Suárez. The chapter also explores how some authors, many belonging to the so-called “Austrian school” (Joseph Schumpeter, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard) evaluated the subsequent impact and relevance of Spanish Scholastic theory of just price.