Principles of the Civil Code

Jeremy Bentham


Of the Levelling System.

``All human creatures are born and remain'', says the Declaration of Rights, ``equal in rights.'' It has hence been argued, that they ought to be equal in property; and that all the distinctions which have grown up in society in this respect, should be swept away, and every individual placed on the same level in point of actual possessions.

Such a system would, however, be destructive both of security and wealth. It would be destructive of security. What a man has inherited from his ancestors---what he has himself earned, he hopes to keep; and this hope cannot be interrupted without producing a pain of disappointment. But if, of two persons, the one is to take from the other a portion of the property he possesses to-day, because he is the poorer; for the same reason, a third should take a portion of such property from both to-morrow, as being poorer than either; and so on, till all security in the possession, of property---all hope of retaining it, were altogether abolished.

As no man could, at this rate, be secure of enjoying any thing for two moments together, no man would give himself the trouble to improve anything by his labour: all men would live from hand to mouth.

While the levelling process is going on, it is destructive to security; when completed, it is destructive, and that for ever, of national opulence. The wealth of a nation is the sum of the fortunes of individuals; but the sum of the fortunes of individuals is reduced by the leveling system in an infinity of ways. Whatever be the quantum of wealth allowed of, to reduce fortunes to this standard the community must be emptied of all articles of wealth,---which cannot exist but in a quantum superior to that standard.

The English nation is, for a nation of any considerable size, generally acknowledged to be the richest, in proportion to the number of the people, of any nation under the sun. But in this richest nation, those who have reckoned its wealth at the highest, have not set down the annual expenditure of its inhabitants, taking even the very richest into the account, at more than £20 a-year each.

If, then, the whole wealth of the nation were divided with the most perfect equality among its inhabitants; and were all of it capable of being thus divided, it would scarcely be more than sufficient to enable every one of them, so long as the stock of it was kept up at the same level, to spend more than £20 a-year. But were such a distribution to be made, an immense multitude of articles---wealth to an immense amount---must necessarily be struck out, as being incapable of division, and thence incapable of entering into the distribution. At 30 years purchase, a perpetual income of £20 a-year corresponds to a capital or principal sum of £600. All -articles, therefore, of a value superior to £600, must either be destroyed at once, or left to perish, sooner or later, for want of being kept up, that is, kept in repair, and properly taken care of.

The following, then, are the articles to the existence of which the system in question would be fatal; and that not only in the first Instance, but for ever after during its continuance; and of which the aggregate value must therefore be struck out of the aggregate amount of the national wealth.

1. All buildings above the mark; that is, all that would now be thought to come under the name of considerable buildings---all considerable dwelling-houses, warehouses, manufactories.

2. All furniture, except what is now of the meanest kind---all furniture suitable to the circumstances of a family having more than £20 a-year a-head to live on.

3. All horses, except a few of those at present kept for husbandry. No one nor two in a family could afford to keep a horse, since the expense of that article alone would exceed the family income. All horses fit for military service; consequently, a great part of the manure which is supplied by that valuable species of cattle would be lost. In the earliest, and what are vulgarly called the purest times of the Roman Commonwealth, those whose wealth enabled them to serve on horseback formed an order of men, distinct from and superior to those who served on foot. A commonwealth that admitted of such distinctions, could never be tolerated under this system of equalisation.

4. All considerable libraries. All libraries the value of which depended upon their completeness in regard to any particular branch of literature, and of which the characteristic value would be destroyed by the degree of a dispersion which the execution of the equalisation plan would necessitate.

5. All considerable collections of natural history; and hence all means of prosecuting that branch of study to advantage would a cease.

6. All considerable laboratories and establishments for the prosecution of experimental inquiries with a view to the advancement of agriculture, manufactures, or arts. Hence all means of promoting the advancement, or even preventing the decay of experimental science, would cease.

7. All fortunes capable of affording funds sufficient for the purchase of the constant supply of publications relative to any branch of knowledge at the rate of abundance at which the literary market is supplied with these productions in the present state of things.

8. All fortunes capable of affording funds applicable to the improvement of land, mines, or fisheries, upon an extensive and advantageous scale.

9. All fortunes capable or affording, at an early period of life, a fund in store sufficient for the maintenance of the numbers of children of which the marriage union may in every instance, and in many instances will eventually, be productive.

10. The whole value of the labours of those whose industry is at present employed in supplying the productions adapted to the demands of persons in easy circumstances---of all those at present employed as workmen in the different branches of the arts, and of the finer manufactures---all musicians, architects painters, sculptors engravers, carvers, gilders, embroiderers, weavers of fine stuffs, florists, and the like. All these, finding nobody rich enough to deal with them, must immediately betake themselves to husbandry or other coarse labour, which their habits of life have disqualified them from exercising to any advantage.

11. The whole of that property which consists in annuities payable by government out of the produce of taxes imposed on the fruits of industry. As those taxes are imposed almost exclusively on superfluities, and all superfluities will be expunged from the book of national wealth, national bankruptcy will be among the necessary and immediate consequences of such a change.

12. Whether it be of advantage or of detriment to the state, or a matter of indifference, that small farms should be laid into large ones, is a controverted point, upon which it is not necessary here to touch. But what can not admit of controversy is, that in a multitude of instances, farms, large or small, would suffer much in value by being broken down into smaller ones. A spring or pond, convenient communication with the highway or bridge, serves at present for the whole of a farm: divide this farm among a number of proprietors, and only a small part of the original farm, or perhaps no part at all, will now derive any benefit from that conveniency, which before the division was enjoyed by the whole. A certain portion of land fit for one sort of culture, requires certain other portions of land fit for other sorts of culture, to be employed with most advantage;---to so much arable land, so much wood, so much meadow land. Under the division, one man has wherewithal to buy the meadow and only, another the wood-land only, and the arable must be divided into several little plots, to come within the quantum of purchase money which the equalisation plan allows. There are fields, each of them too large for any one purchaser, and which, without new inclosures correspondent to the number of the purchasers, must lose the benefit of inclosure. But the purchaser's capital is all of it expended in the purchase: he has nothing, no fund left for the expenses of inclosure. One house, one set of outhouses, serves for the whole of the farm in its undivided state. Divide it into the £20 a-year portions, he who gets the dwelling-house is perhaps unable to get the outhouses; if he get the house and outhouses, he perhaps is unable to get any of the land; if he get a small scrap of the land, and it can be but a small one, none of the other fragments of farms carved out of the entire farm has any building belonging to it. But without buildings, they will be worth little or nothing; and as to erecting the buildings, it is impossible: what capital each man had, is expended in the purchase of the naked land. But as every man must have a house to live in, and every man who cultivates a farm must have outhouses of some kind or other to lodge the stock and produce of it, a fund for these articles of indispensable necessity must be provided in the first instance, and the fragments of farms must consequently be reduced to the miserable and unproductive pittance, the annual value of which corresponds to the small remnant of capital that remains to buy them. Thus great is the part of the existing mass of wealth which would therefore be destroyed by the division, as being in its own nature incapable of division. But of that which remained, as not being in its own nature incapable of division, a great part again would be consumed in the process. The whole mass of national property would have to come under the hammer; and every time either the sale of an estate or a division of the produce of the sale came to be made, every sale and every distribution would afford a fresh source of disputes between the plundered and the plundered, between plunderers and plunderers, and between plunderers and plundered, and a fresh demand for the labours, and a fresh harvest for the men of law. Auctioneers with their retainers are already, in the present system of things, in no small number; men of law in greater number than most people would wish to see. On the system in question, the populousness of these predatory professions would be multiplied beyond all measure. An effective tithe of the national property, not to speak of a nominal tithe like the present ecclesiastical one, would scarcely be sufficient for the payment of this enormous mass of unproductive and disastrous services.

Present time, it may be said, is but a point: it is as nothing in comparison with futurity. Admitting that the existing generation might, upon the whole, be losers by such a change, those whose ardent zeal would prompt them to attempt it, may still think, or affect to think, the change an advantageous one for the human species upon the whole. But futurity would have as little reason to rejoice in it as present time.

Opulence is valuable, not merely on its own account, but as a security for subsistence. The rich, were they to deserve proscription because of their riches, deserve to be saved from proscription in quality of bankers to the poor. Estates broken down to the scantling in question, or to any thing like that scantling, would afford no resource against scarcity, or any other calamity, such as fire, famine, or pestilence, that required a considerable treasure in store to be employed to alleviate the load of it. They would afford no fund for the expenses of a war, even of a defensive one.

Along with the whole stock of opulence, would go that branch of security which depends upon the means of national defence. In war, the measure of raising within the year supplies for the service of the year---desirable as such a measure would in the opinion of every one be, if it were practicable, has always been given up as attended with too much difficulty and even danger, to be attempted; and this even in the present state of opulence, when the number of those capable of contributing, and contributing largely, is so great. How would it be when those who were best able to contribute had but £20 a-year to live on? It is now looked upon as impracticable: then it would be beyond measure more so, even though every man had his £20 a-year; much more when that pittance is reduced to perhaps two thirds, perhaps half, by the various causes of reduction which would be in operation. At the same time, to raise the supplies otherwise than within the year, would be still more palpably impracticable; it would be physically impossible. At present, if so many millions are raised with so much ease within the year by way of loan, it is because there are so many thousands of persons who have each so many thousands of pounds to lend, so many thousands more than they have need to employ otherwise. Upon the equalisation scheme, all these monied men would be no more: nobody would have any thing he could spare for any length of time, much less for ever; no man would have any thing but from hand to mouth.

As to the gainers---(I speak always of the immediate and momentary gainers, for ultimately, as we shall see, there would scarcely be a real gainer left in the nation)---as to the real gainers, if they were to be looked for any where, it would be in the class of the present day-labourers in husbandry. Their employment need not be changed: they would continue labourers in husbandry, with this comfortable difference, as it would be thought, of labouring upon, and for the benefit of their own property, instead of other people's. But even these would for the most part gain nothing but ruin by the change. Their fragments of farms having no buildings on them, would be useless to them till buildings could be erected. A man might farm profitably, and live comfortably a year or two hence, if he were then alive: but in the meantime he would not be able to farm or live at all. The immense multitude of new created farms, all of them without buildings, would require an immense and instant multiplication of the number of workmen concerned in building. But this number, instead of being multiplied, or so much as increased, would be as immediately and permanently reduced: for they too would have their portions, as well as the labourers in husbandry: if they laboured any longer, it would be upon their own property, not upon other people's. If they laboured at all, what inducement would they have to labour upon other people's property, or indeed for other people? What would they get by it? an addition to their respective portions? But that, by the supposition is not to be suffered. No sooner was it become property, than it would come to be divided: no sooner had they got it, than it would be taken from them.

This supposes every body day-labourers and mechanics devoted to industry, disposed to frugality, proof against all temptation to excess, even in the midst of a sudden and unexpected influx of the momentary means of excess and dissipation. But even in the present system of things, this extraordinary degree of moderation is, under such circumstances, hardly to be expected from one in ten among those classes; and under the proposed new system, industry and frugality would be but folly, as we shall presently have occasion to observe.

Who would be the losers---I mean the immediate losers---by such a change? Those, and at first sight it might seem those only, whose present fortunes are above the mark. But these would be but a small part of the real and effective losers. To the list of present proprietors must be added that of all those sons of industry whose present annual earnings are to a certain amount superior in value to the intended common portion;---all professional men in any tolerable practice---physicians, surgeons, lawyers, artists, factors, and the like;---many handicrafts of the superior kind, such as mathematical,instrument makers, millwrights, shipwrights, musical instrument makers, &c.; and even mere labourers, where the labour is severe, as coal-heavers, &c. earn from £50 to £200 a-year, which the greater part of them are in the habit of spending as it comes, What would be either their present feelings, or even their future advantage, on changing their £50 or £200 a-year for life into a perpetuity even of £20 a-year, supposing the common portion could amount to so much, instead of falling Widely short of that mark, as it will soon be seen to do?

Equalisation laws, made at the expense of existing rights and expectations, are alike destructive to present security in respect to property, and to permanent security in respect of subsistence. The desire to establish such laws, or to cause them to be established---the love, the passion for equality, has its root, not in virtue, but in vice; not in benevolence, but in malevolence.

A law of this complexion is a mere act of robbery---but of robbery upon a large scale. In the nature and quality of its effects, it is undistinguishable from the crime that goes by that name; but in point of extent, the mischief of it is as much greater as the power of the government is greater than that of the private robber. The power of the ordinary robber goes not beyond a few moveables; and such moveables as may easily and speedily be conveyed away: the power of the legislating robber extends to immoveables---to every thing---to the future as well as to the present. The power of the ordinary robber extends not beyond the few whom chance may throw in his way: the power of the authorised robber extends over the whole territory of the state.

The passion for equality has no root in the benevolent affections: its root is either simply in the selfish affections, or in the selfish, combined with the malevolent. You being superior to me in wealth or power; my wish is that we may be equal. What is the object of that wish? in what possible way can it have its gratification? In one or other and only in one or other of two ways: either by raising myself to your level, or by pulling you down to mine. If it be the first only that is in my thoughts, self-interest, and that only, is my ruling motive: if the first and the second, envy conjoined with selfishness are the passions that govern me. The man of benevolence is the man to whom the spectacle of another's happiness is delightful. The lover of equality, in its most refined form, is the man to whose eyes the spectacle of another's prosperity is intolerable. What is the envious man but the same? What, then, is this so much boasted passion for equality? it is a propensity which begins in vice and leads to ruin. In the scale of merit, it is as much below selfishness as selfishness is below the virtue of benevolence.

Equality, were it brought to the highest pitch of perfection to which the hearts of the most sanguine votaries of the equalisation plan could wish to carry it, would still be but the semblance of equality in effect. If equality in point of wealth be desirable, it can only be so in the quality of an efficient cause of equality in point of happiness: at least in as far as the quantum of happiness depends on that of wealth. But of equality in point of wealth, nothing like equality in point of happiness can be the result: not even in so far as happiness depends on wealth. Equality in point of wealth, is equality in point of means of happiness: but what does equality of means, in favour of happiness, where equality in point of wants is wanting? The allotments in point of wealth, to be productive of equality in point of happiness, must be not equal, but proportional; not equal to one another, but all of them proportioned to men's respective wants. It is only from proportionality, not from equality in point of wealth, that equality in point of happiness can arise. Where is the equality between me and my robust and healthy neighbour, if I am dying for want of that relief in the way of medicine, sea-bathing, or change of air, which a portion of his allotment out of the estate that was all of it mine, but is now shared with him and others, would have enabled me to procure?

Inequality is the natural condition of mankind. Subjection is the natural state of man. It is the state into which he is born: it is the state in which be always has been born, and always will be, so long as man is man: it is the state in which he must continue for some of the first years of his life, on pain of perishing. Absolute equality is absolutely impossible. Absolute liberty is directly repugnant to the existence of every kind of government.

All human creatures are born and remain, says the declaration of rights, equal in rights. The child of two years old has as much right to govern the father, then, as the father has to govern the child.

Without the subjection of either the wife to her husband, or the husband to the wife, no domestic society as between man and wife could subsist. Without the subjection of the children to the parent, no domestic society, as between parent and child, could subsist: all children under a certain age must soon perish, and the species become extinct. But the persons thus placed under subjection by non-age, are at least half of the species, and those placed in a similar state by marriage not less than a third of the remaining half. Subjection, then, is the natural and unavoidable state of at least two-thirds of the species; and if it were possible that any thing like independence could subsist among any part of it, it could only be among the remaining third.

As the doctrine of universal independence is repugnant to possibility and the nature of things, so is the doctrine of universal equality absolutely repugnant to the existence of general independence, in as far as independence is possible. Those who are exempt from domestic subjection, can in no intelligible sense be said to be equal in point of rights to those who are under it. If universal equality, then, were the object that ought to be in view, universal subjection, as strict as domestic subjection, would be the only means of obtaining it. Universal equality by independence you cannot possibly have: equality as universal as you please, by subjection as universal as you please, you may have, if you desire to have it, with one exception only, that of the monarch.

The great point is to get any government at all: it is the most useful point, and the most difficult. When once you have got your government, and got it tolerably settled, then is the time to temper it.

But why combat shadows, it may be said, and expatiate upon a scheme of equalisation which you are representing as impracticable? It is only for equality, so far, and so far only as it is practicable, and practicable to advantage, that we contend: for the lopping off the superfluities of overgrown and excessive opulence, for alleviating the sufferings of excessive misery: for planting and maintaining the virtuous race of industrious proprietors, for planting and maintaining plenty without luxury, and independence without insolence. To push any system to an absurd excess, and then give the abuse of the system as the system itself---what can be more uncandid or more inconclusive? Your objections would be just enough if applied to the abuse of the system proposed, but have no force against a moderate and prudent application of it.

My answer is, that it admits not of any moderate or prudent application: that the principle admits not of your stopping anywhere in the application of it: that on pain of abandoning and passing condemnation. on the principle, when once the process of forced equalisation is began, it must go on and be pursued all lengths, even to the lengths that have been described: that the principles publicly avowed by the professed partisans of equality, go all these lengths in the very words, as well as according to the spirit of their most public and most boasted productions: that the doctrine of equal rights is laid down without reserve: that no line is drawn, or attempted to be drawn; that the words employed exclude the drawing of any such line; and that if any line had been drawn or were to be attempted to be drawn, the attempt would not so much as palliate, much less remedy the evil: and that to the imputation of error it would only add the reproach of inconsistency and dereliction of principle.

To stop at any one point in the career of forced equalisation, would neither afford security to such of the rich as it left unplundered, nor satisfaction to the poor whom it left unenriched. An object being avowed, which can never be attained so long as I have a penny more than the beggar that plies before my door, what assurance can I give myself any day (says the rich man, who hath as yet been spared), that it may not be my turn the next? Will the vagabonds that have as yet got no share, be satisfied with the plunder that has fallen to the lot of their brother vagabonds that are consuming theirs? Where is the justice, where the equality of this pretended equalisation plan? cries the expectant beggar, whom the division has not yet reached. Why have my wants been so long neglected, while those of my neighbour have been so long satisfied? Am I less a citizen than he? is my happiness less a part of the happiness of the community than his? So far from gaining by the change, I am as yet a loser by it. Till now, only the few, now the many, are above me. Till now, my superiors were out of my sight; now they are incessantly at my elbow. Till now, my superiors were all strangers to me; now my equals, my familiars, swell the list. Not a step can I stir without falling in with an acquaintance, revelling in enjoyments, of which, it seems, I am destined never to partake.

As these discontents will arise at every step made in the progress, so will they at every other that can be made, and always with equal reason---or rather with superior and accumulating reason. Every preceding step will, have afforded a precedent, and the commencement of a justification of the succeeding ones: what at first was theory, will have been settled into practice: what at first was innovation, will have become establishment: till at length the original race of proprietors having been reduced to nothing, and all hope or possibility of repairing an injustice done to them being annihilated, the opposition made by justice will have ceased: justice Will have become indifferent. and as it were neutral: the injustice of going on will not be exceeded by the injustice of stopping. Name who can the point at which the line of stoppage can be drawn. No such line hath as yet can drawn by any man; no such line attempted to be drawn by any man. Let arbitrary power have decreed (and what but power the most arbitrary could decree) that a line of this sort shall be drawn; that bounds of this sort shall be set to the process of equalisation,---what but caprice can draw it? what but corruption will be said or will be thought to have set them?

The argument that turns on the difficulty of stopping is a common one: it is become commonplace: it is open to abuse, and few have been more abused: it has been employed against salutary measures. and the more frequently and the more eagerly employed, as it is one of those general arguments which may be produced against measures which admit of no particular objections. It is more to the taste of the ignorant fool, and of the cowardly, than of the knowing or the brave: it is more apt to be employed in the defence of old abuses, than in the combating of novelties really pernicious.

It is one of those objections that is much better calculated to confirm partisans already gained, than to gain new ones; still more than to make proselytes from partisans engaged on the other side. To say to me (after admitting that as yet I am in a right track), to say to me, you will find it impossible or difficult to stop, is to say to me, either prudence or fortune will be wanting to you: it is to say to me, that will happen which you are persuaded will not happen. It is to gall, in a multitude of tender points at once, the irritable frame of human vanity. It is to turn a disbelieving ear to my pretensions of present judgment and present forecast; it is to prophesy to me and my friends, a future deficiency in point of prudence and good fortune.

In the present instance, the argument wears a very different complexion, and strikes with a very different degree of force. It is not that you will find it difficult to stop at a proper place, but that you ought not to stop anywhere: it is not that you may be drawn on into the road to ruin, but that you can not, in the nature of things, so long as you pursue your intent, stop anywhere short of ruin: it is not that you may be led on by heat of temper or untoward accidents beyond the bounds which the principle you set out upon has prescribed to you, but that you can not stop anywhere short of ruin without the dereliction of your principle; without a confession by action, more humiliating than any confession by words, that your whole system was from the first, on the whole, and in every part of it, a pernicious one, and the most pernicious of all political systems that ever were or can be devised. Not only the good expected from such a change would be too expensive, but were it ever so desirable, it would be altogether unattainable---at least unmaintainable for two instants together. Past equality does not answer the intention---present equality is the object; and whatever reason there may be for aiming at it at any one period of time, the same reason will there be for maintaining it at every other period of time. A fresh division must therefore be made upon every division that happened in the number of the sharers: a fresh division upon every birth, and upon every death a fresh division; or the inutility and folly of the original division must stand confessed.

Of this perpetual necessity of fresh divisions, what would be the result? Nobody would have any thing he could call his own: all property would in effect be destroyed---all present, property, and all prospect of security in respect of property in future: all idea of subsistence except from hand to mouth: all incentive to labour beyond the satisfaction of the necessities of the day; for why should I bestow my labour to-day in the improvement of that property, which may be torn from me to-morrow?

A fresh division would again require to take place every time a person became helpless to such a degree as to be unable to make his own little property (his £15, his £10 a-year, or whatever the original portion of £20 was reduced to) suffice for his own maintenance---a fresh division, or some other arrangement capable of answering the same purpose. Every birth adds, during the age of helplessness, to the sum of burthens; every death, by taking from the sum of burthens, adds relatively to the sum of benefits. But the addition made to the sum of burthens by infirmity happening to a grown person, is much greater than that made by the birth of an infant: the adult requires many times as much as the infant for his sustenance. The portion of the adult, now become helpless, was too small to afford him subsistence without the benefit of his labour to improve it. Being now incapable of all labour, he must either perish, or, to keep him alive, the portion of other people must be laid under contribution to make up the difference. Here, then, comes the necessity of a system to answer the purpose of the present poor-laws, with this difference---that for maintaining the growing increase of the poor, there remain none but what are poor already. The dispensations of equality have brought back the age of virtue---be it so: but virtue, however it may diminish disease, will not destroy it; virtue will not extirpate the smallpox nor the contagious fever; virtue will not prevent legs nor arms from breaking; virtue will not give robustness nor agility to the extremity of old age.

Equality amongst the members of a community---equality, whatever be the standard portion---includes two points: that no member shall have more than that portion; and that no one shall have less. The first of these points is attainable by the equalisation system to great perfection: the latter not. To the latter, this pure and exalted system is not more competent then the present abusive and corrupt one: it is even much less so. To industry it affords no new encouragement; on the contrary, it takes from it whatever encouragement it has at present. To what purpose should I earn more than the poorest of my fellow-citizens, when so much as I earn more than them, so much will be taken from me. Neither to idleness or to dissipation does it administer any new discouragement; on the contrary, it gives to both of these dispositions encouragement, and that the greatest they can receive. Putting idleness upon a footing of equality in point of future advantage with industry, and dissipation with frugality, it gives to each the portion of present pleasure with which it is attended, clear. Why, so long as I have a penny left, should I refuse the most expensive desire its gratification---when, whatever I dissipate of my own present stock, must be made up to me from that of other people? To what purpose, while I have a penny left should I plague myself with working- when: so long as I have any thing to pay, others will work for me with pay, and when I have no longer pay to give them, they must work for me without it?

Here, then, is a perpetual race between dissipation and idleness on the one hand, and that plan of division, whatever it be, by which the law of equalisation is carried into execution, on the other: dissipation and idleness continually widening the gap; division of property using its best endeavours to fill it up. But the pace of dissipation is the pace of the racer; the pace of legal division that of the tortoise.

All this while, the members of the community are divided into two classes: the industrious and frugal, slaves toiling for others: the idle and prodigal, lords and masters, enjoying for themselves. Such would be the fruit of the equalisation system, while the execution of it was going on, until a certain portion of the national wealth having been destroyed in a variety of ways, and a certain portion of the national population destroyed by a mixture of famine and excess, the miserable would awaken from their delirium, curse the system and its inventors, and join their endeavours to bring back the former state of things.

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