Principles of the Civil Code

Jeremy Bentham

Part 1

Objects of the Civil Law.

Chapter 15

Examples of Attacks upon Security.

It will not be useless to give Some examples of what I call attacks upon security. It will be a means of more clearly exhibiting the principle, and of showing that what is called unjust in morals, cannot be innocent in politics. Nothing has been more common than to authorize under one name that which would be odious under the other.

I cannot refrain from noticing here the ill effects of one branch of classical education, Youth are accustomed from their earliest days to see, in the history of the Roman people, public acts of injustice, atrocious in themselves, always coloured under specious names, always accompanied by a pompous eulogium respecting Roman virtues. The abolition of debts occupies a conspicuous place in the early transactions of the Republic. A return of the people to mount Aventine obliged the Senate to pass the sponge over all the rights of creditors. The historian excites all our interest in favour of the fraudulent debtors who discharged their debts by a bankruptcy, and does not fail to render those odious who were thus despoiled by an act of violence. What end was answered by this iniquity? The usury, which had served as a pretext for this theft, was only augmented on the morrow by this catastrophe; for the exorbitant rate of interest was only the price paid for the risks attached to the uncertainty of engagements. The foundation of their colonies has been boasted of as the work of a profound policy: it consisted always in stripping the legitimate proprietors, in a conquered country, in order to create establishments of favour or reward. This exercise of power, so cruel in its immediate effects, was disastrous also in its consequences. The Romans, accustomed to violate all the rights of property, knew not where to stop in this course. From hence arose that perpetual demand for a new division of the lands, which was the perpetual firebrand of the seditious, which contributed, under the Triumvirs, to a dreadful system of general confiscations.

The history of the Grecian Republics is full of facts of the same kind, always presented in a plausible manner, and calculated to mislead superficial minds. How has reasoning been abused, respecting the division of the lands carried into effect by Lycurgus, to serve as a foundation of his warrior institution, in which, through the most striking inequality, all the rights were on one side and all the servitude on the other.

The attacks upon security, which have found so many officious defenders when made by the Greeks and Romans, have not experienced the same indulgence when they have been made by the monarchs of the East. The despotism of a single person has nothing seducing, because it too evidently refers to himself alone, and because there are a million chances of suffering to one of enjoying. But the despotism exercised by the multitude deceives feeble minds by a false image of public good: they place themselves, in imagination, among the great number who command, instead of supposing themselves among the small number who give up and who suffer. Leaving, therefore, the sultans and viziers in peace, we may reckon that their injustices will not be coloured by the flatteries of historians: their reputation serves as an antidote to their example.

For the same reason, we need not insist upon such attacks as national bankruptcies; but we may remark, in passing, a singular effect of fidelity to engagements, with respect to the authority even of the sovereign. In England, since the revolution, the engagements of the state have always been sacred. Hence the individuals who have treated with the government have never required any other pledge than their mortgage upon the revenue, and the collection of the revenue has remained in the hands of the king. In France, under the monarchy, the violations of the public faith were so frequent, that those who made advances to the government were for a long time in the habit of themselves collecting the taxes, and paying themselves with their own hands. But their intervention was costly to the people, whom they had no interest in sparing, and still more to the king, whom they robbed of the affection of his people. When the announcement of a deficiency alarmed all the creditors of the state, this class, so interested in England in the maintenance of the government, in France, showed itself desirous of a revolution. Each one believed he saw his security in taking from the sovereign the administration of the finances, and placing it in the hands of a national council. In what manner the event corresponded with their hopes, is well known. But it is not the less interesting to observe, that the downfall of this monarchy, which appeared immoveable, was owing, in the first instance, to mistrust, founded upon many violations of public faith.

But amid so many attacks upon security, made through ignorance, from inadvertency, or from false reasons, we shall content ourselves with pointing out a few:---

1. We may consider under this point of view, all mis-seated taxes; for example, disproportioned taxes, which spare the rich to the prejudice of the poor. The weight of this evil is further aggravated by a feeling of injustice, when one is obliged to pay more than would be required, if all others interested paid in the same proportion.

Statute labour is the height of inequality, when it falls upon those who have only their hands for their patrimony.

Taxes levied upon uncertain funds, upon persons who may not have wherewith to pay. The evil then takes another direction: the individual being unable to pay the tax on account of his indigence, finds himself subject to graver evils, Instead of the inconveniences of the tax, the sufferings of privation are experienced: for this reason, a capitation tax is bad; because a man has a head, it does not follow that he has any thing else.

Taxes which restrain trade; monopolies; close corporations. The true method of estimating these taxes is not by considering what they yield, but what they prevent the acquisition of.

Taxes upon the necessaries of life, which may be followed by physical privations, diseases, and even death itself; and no one perceive the cause. These sufferings, caused by an error in government, become confounded with natural evils which cannot be prevented.

Taxes upon the sale of lands alienated during life. It is want, in general, which leads to these sales; and the exchequer, by intervening at this period of distress, levies an extraordinary fine upon an unfortunate individual.

Taxes upon public sales; upon goods sold by auction. Here the distress is clearly proved: it is extreme, and the fiscal injustice is manifest.

Taxes upon law proceedings. These include all kinds of attacks upon security, since they amount to a refusal of the protection of the law, to all those who cannot pay for them. They consequently offer a hope of impunity to crime: the criminal has only to choose, for the object of his injustice, individuals who cannot afford to furnish the advances for a judicial suit, or to run its risks.

2. The forced raising of the value of money, another attack upon security. This is a bankruptcy, since it is not paying all that is due; a fraudulent bankruptcy, since there is a semblance of payment; and an unskillful fraud, since it deceives no one. It is also proportionably an abolition of debts; for the theft that the prince practises upon his creditors, he authorizes every debtor to practise upon his own, without producing any advantage to the public treasury. Is this course of injustice accomplished? The operation, after having weakened confidence, ruined the honest citizens, enriched the rogues, deranged commerce, disturbed the system of taxes, and caused a thousand evils to individuals, does not leave the least advantage to the government which is dishonoured by it. Expense and receipt are all altered in the same proportions.

3. Forced reduction of the rate of interest. Viewed as a question of political economy, the reduction of the rate of interest by a law is an injury to the public wealth, because it acts as a prohibition of particular premiums for the importation of foreign capital: it acts as a prohibition, in many cases, of new branches of commerce, and even of old ones, if the legal rate of interest be not sufficient to balance the risks of the capitalists.

But viewed in relation to the more immediate question of security, it is to take from the lenders, to give to the borrowers. When the rate of interest is reduced a fifth, the effect as to the lenders is the same as if they were every year stripped by robbers of the fifth part of their fortune.

If the legislator find it good to take from a particular class of citizens a fifth of their revenue, why should he stop there?---why not take another fifth---and yet another? If this first reduction answer its end, the last reduction will answer it in the same proportion; and if the measure be good in the one case, why should it be bad in the other? When he stops, he ought to have a reason for stopping; but the reason which would binder him from taking the second step, ought to be sufficient to prevent his taking the first.

This operation resembles an act by which the rent of land should be diminished, under pretence that the proprietors are useless consumers, and the farmers productive labourers.

If you shake the principle of security as to one class of citizens, you shake it as to all: the bundle of concord is its emblem.

4. General confiscations. I refer to this head those vexations exercised upon a sect, upon a party, upon a class of men, under the vague pretence of some political offence, in such manner that the imposition of the confiscation is pretended to be employed as a punishment, when in truth the crime is only a pretence for the imposition of the confiscation. History presents many examples of such robberies. The Jews have often been the object of them: they were too rich not to be always culpable. The financiers, the farmers of the revenue, for the same reason, were subjected to what were called burning chambers. When the succession to the throne was unsettled, every body, at the death of the sovereign, might become culpable, and the spoils of the vanquished formed a treasury of reward in the hands of the successor. In a republic torn by factions, one half of the nation became rebels in the eyes of the other half. When the system of confiscations was admitted, the parties, as was the case at Rome, alternately devoured each other.

The crimes of the powerful, and especially the crimes of the popular party in democracies, have always found apologists. ``The greater part of these large fortunes'', it has been said, ``have been founded in injustice and that was only restored to the public which had been stolen from the public.'' To reason in this manner, is to open an unlimited career to tyranny: it is to allow it to presume the crime, instead of proving it, By means of this logic, it is impossible to be rich and to be innocent. Ought so grave a punishment as confiscation to be inflicted by wholesale, without examination, without detail, without proof? A procedure which would be deemed atrocious if it were employed against a single person---does it become lawful when employed against an entire class of citizens? Can the evil which is done be disregarded, because there is a multitude of sufferers, whose cries are confounded together in their common shipwreck? To despoil the great proprietors, upon pretence that some one of their ancestors acquired their wealth by unjust methods, is to bombard a city because it is suspected that it encloses some thieves.

5. Dissolution of monastic orders and convents. The decree for their abolition was signed by reason itself; but its execution ought not to have been abandoned to prejudice and avarice. It would have been enough to prohibit these societies from receiving new members. They would thus have been gradually abolished: individuals would not have suffered any privation. The successive savings might have been applied to useful objects; and philosophy would have applauded an operation excellent in principle. and gentle in execution. But this slow proceeding is not that followed by avarice. It seems that the sovereigns, in dissolving these societies, have sought to punish the individuals for wrongs which they had received from the societies. Instead of considering them as orphans and invalids, who deserved all the compassion of the legislator, they looked upon them as enemies who were treated with favour, when, though reduced from opulence, they were allowed simple necessaries.

6. Suppression of places and pensions, without indemnifying the individuals who had possessed them. This kind of attack upon security deserves more particular mention, because, instead of being blamed as an injustice, it is often approved as an act of good government and economy. Envy is never more at ease than when it is able to conceal itself under the mask of the public good: but the public good only demands the reform of useless places---it does not demand the misery of the individuals holding the place reformed.

The principle of security requires, that in all reforms the indemnity should be complete. The only benefit that can be legitimately derived from them is limited to the conversion of perpetual into transitory charges.

Is it said, that the immediate suppression of these places is a gain to the public? it would be a sophism. The sum in question would without doubt, considered in itself, be a gain if it came from abroad, if it were gained by commerce, &c; but it is not a gain when drawn from the hands of certain individuals who form a part of the public. Would a family be enriched because the father had taken every thing from one of his children, the better to endow the others? But, even in this case, the stripping of one son would increase the inheritance of his brothers: the evil would not be pure loss; it would produce some portion of good. But when it refers to the public, the profit of a suppressed place is divided among all, whilst the loss presses altogether upon a single person. The profit spread among the multitude divides itself into impalpable parts; the whole loss is felt by him who supports it alone. The result of the operation is in no respect to enrich the the party who gains, but to impoverish him who loses. Instead of one place suppressed, suppose a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand: the total disadvantage remains the same. The spoil taken from thousands of individuals must be divided among millions: your public places would every where present you with unfortunate citizens, whom you would have plunged into indigence; whilst you would scarcely see a single individual sensibly enriched by these cruel operations. The groans of sorrow and the cries of despair would resound on all sides: the shouts of joy, if there were any such, would not be the expression of happiness, but of the antipathy which rejoices in the misery of its victims. Ministers of kings and of the people, it is not by the misery of individuals that you can procure the happiness of nations: the altar of the public good does not demand more barbarous sacrifices than that of the Divinity.

I cannot yet quit this subject; it appears so essential, for the establishment of the principle of security, to trace the error into all its retreats.

How do individuals deceive themselves or others with regard to such great injustice? They have recourse to certain pompous maxims, in which there is a mixture of truth and falsehood, and which give to a question, in itself simple, an air of profundity and political mystery. ``The interest of individuals'', it is said, ``ought to give way to the public interest.'' But what does this mean? Is not one individual as much a part of the public as another? This public interest which you personify, is only an abstract term, it represents only the mass of the interests of individuals. They ought all to be taken account of, instead of considering some as every thing, and the rest as nothing. If it be proper to sacrifice the fortune of one individual, in order to augment the fortune of others, it would be still better to sacrifice a second, a third, even a hundred, even a thousand, with, out it being possible to assign any limits; for whatever may be the number of those you have sacrificed, you always have the same reason for adding one more. In a word, the interest of the first is sacred, or the interest of no one can be so.

Individual interests are the only real interests. Take care of individuals; never injure them, or suffer them to be injured, and you will have done enough for the public. Can it be conceived that there are men so absurd as to love posterity better than the present generation; to prefer the man who is not, to him who is; to torment the living, under pretence of promoting the happiness of those who are not born, and who may never be born?

In a multitude of occasions, the men who suffer by the operation of any law have not dared to make themselves heard, or have not been listened to, on account of this obscure and false notion, that private interest ought to give way to the public interest. But if this were a question of generosity, who ought the rather to exercise it? All towards one, or one towards all? Who, then, is the greatest egotist---he who desires to preserve what he has? or he who wishes to take, and even to seize by force, that which belongs to another? An injury felt, and a benefit not felt, such is the result of these fine operations in which the interest of individuals is sacrificed to that of the public.

I conclude by a grand general consideration. The more the principle of property is respected, the more is it strengthened in the minds of the people. Small attacks upon this principle prepare for greater. It has required a long period to attain to the point at which we have arrived in civilized society; but fatal experience has shown with what facility security may be overturned, and how the savage instinct of robbery may assume an ascendancy over the laws. The people and governments are in this respect only like tame lions: if they taste blood, their natural ferocity is rekindled;---

``Si torrida parvus Venit in ora cruor, redeunt rabiesque furorque:
Admonitaeque tument gustato sanguine fauces.
Fervet, et a trepido vix abstinet ira magistro.''
Lucan, iv.

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