Principles of the Civil Code

Jeremy Bentham

Part 1

Objects of the Civil Law.

Chapter 10

Analysis of the Evils Resulting from Attacks upon Property.

We have already seen, that subsistence depends upon the laws, which secure to the labourers the products of their labour; but it would be proper more exactly to analyze the evils which result from violations of property. They may be reduced to four heads:---

1. Evil of Non-possession.---If the acquisition of a portion of riches be a good, the non-possession of it must be an evil; though a negative evil, and nothing more. Hence, although men in the condition of primitive poverty may not have felt the special privation of wealth, which was unknown to them, it is clear that they at least had not all the happiness which results from it, and of which we are in the enjoyment.

The loss of a portion of good, should it even remain always unknown, would yet be a loss. If by calumny you prevent my friend from conferring a benefit upon me which I did not expect, do you not do me an injury? In what consists this injury? In the negative evil which results to me, of not possessing what I otherwise should have possessed but for your calumny.

2. Pain of Loss.---Every thing which I actually possess, or which I ought to possess, I consider in my imagination as about to belong to me for ever: I make it the foundation of my expectation---of the expectation of those who depend upon me, and the support of my plan of life. Each part of my property may possess, in my estimation, besides its intrinsic value, a value in affection---as the inheritance of my ancestors, the reward of my labours, or the future benefit of my heirs. Every thing may recall to me that portion of myself which I have spent there---my cares, my industry, my economy---which put aside present pleasures, in order to extend them over the future; so that our property may become, as it were, part of ourselves, and cannot be taken from us without wounding us to the quick.

3. Fear of Loss.---To regret for what is lost, uneasiness respecting what is possessed joins itself, and even for what it is possible to acquire; for most of the objects which are necessary for subsistence and abundance, being perishable matters, future acquisitions form a necessary supplement to present possessions.

When insecurity reaches a certain point, the fear of loss hinders the enjoyment of what is possessed. The care of preserving condemns us to a thousand sad and painful precautions, always liable to fail. Treasures fly away, or are buried: enjoyment becomes sombre, stealthy, and solitary: it fears, by the exhibition of itself, to direct cupidity to its prey.

4. Destruction of Industry.---If I despair of enjoying the fruits of my labour, I shall only think of living from day to day: I shall not undertake labours which will only benefit my enemies. But besides this, in order to the existence of labour, the will alone is not sufficient: instruments are wanting: whilst these are being provided, subsistence is necessary. A single loss may render me unable to act, without depriving me of the disposition to labour---without having paralyzed my will. Hence the three first of these evils affect the passive faculties of the individual, whilst the fourth extends to his active faculties, and strikes them with numbness.

It is perceived in this analysis, that the two first of these evils do not extend beyond the individual injured; but the two latter expand themselves, and occupy an indefinite space in society. An attack made upon the property of one individual spreads alarm among the other proprietors: this feeling is communicated from one to another, and the contagion may at last spread over the whole body of the state.

For the development of industry, the union of power and will is required. Will depends upon encouragement---power upon means.---These means are called, in the language of political economy, productive capital.---With regard to a single individual, his capital may be destroyed, without his industrious disposition being destroyed, or even weakened. With regard to a nation, the destruction of its productive capital is impossible: but long before this fatal term arrives, the mischief would have reached the will; and the spirit of industry would fall under a terrible marasmus, in the midst of the natural resources presented by a rich and fertile soil. The will, however, is excited by so many stimulants, that it resists a multitude of discouragements and losses: a passing calamity, how great soever it may be, does not destroy the spirit of industry. This has been seen springing up again after destructive wars, which have impoverished nations, like a robust oak, which in a few years repairs the injuries, inflicted by the tempest, and covers itself with new branches. Nothing less is requisite for freezing up industry, than the operation of a permanent domestic cause, such as a tyrannical government, a bad legislation, an intolerant religion which repels men from each other, or a minute superstition which terrifies them.

The first act of violence will produce a certain degree of apprehension---there are already some timid minds discouraged: a second outrage, quickly succeeding, will spread a more considerable alarm. The most prudent will begin to contract their enterprises, and by degrees to abandon an uncertain career. In proportion as these attacks are repeated, and the system of oppression assumes an habitual character, the dispersion augments: those who have fled are not replaced; those who remain fall into a state of langour. It is thus that, after a time, the field of industry being beaten down by storms, becomes at last a desert.

Asia Minor, Greece, Egypt, the coasts of Africa, so rich in agriculture, commerce, and population, whilst the Roman Empire flourished---what have they become under the absurd despotism of the Turk? The palaces are changed into cabins, and the cities into small towns: this government, hateful to all persons of reflection, has never understood that a state can never become rich but by an inviolable respect for property. It has possessed only two secrets for governing---to drain and to brutify its subjects. Hence the finest countries in the world, wasted, barren, or almost abandoned, can scarcely be recognised in the hands of their barbarous conquerors. For these evils need not be attributed to remote causes: civil wars, invasions, the scourges of nature---these might have dissipated the wealth, put the arts to flight, and swallowed up the cities; but the ports which have been filled up, would have been reopened, the communications re-established, the manufactures revived, the towns rebuilt, and all these ravages repaired in time, if the men had continued to be men. But they are not so, in these unhappy countries: despair, the slow but fatal effect of long-continued insecurity, has destroyed all the active powers of their souls.

If we trace the history of this contagion, we shall see that its first attacks fall upon the richest part of society. Wealth was the first object of depredation. Superfluity vanished by little and little: absolute necessity must still be provided for, notwithstanding obstacles---man must live; but when he limits his efforts to mere existence, the state languishes, and the torch of industry furnishes but a few dying sparks. Besides, abundance is never so distinct from subsistence, that the one can be injured without a dangerous attack upon the other: whilst some lose only what is superfluous, others lose what is necessary. From the infinitely complicated system of economical relations, the wealth of one part of the citizens is uniformly the source from which a more numerous party derives its subsistence.

But another, and more smiling picture, may be traced, and not less instructive, of the progress of security, and prosperity, its inseparable companion. North America presents the most striking contrast of these two states: savage nature is there placed by the side of civilization. The interior of this immense region presents only a frightful solitude: impenetrable forests or barren tracts, standing waters, noxious exhalations, venomous reptiles,---such is the land left to itself. The barbarous hordes who traverse these deserts, without fixed habitation, always occupied in the pursuit of their prey, and always filled with implacable rivalry, only meet to attack and to destroy each other; so that the wild beasts are not so dangerous to man, as man himself. But upon the borders of these solitudes, what a different prospect presents itself! One could almost believe that one saw, at one view, the two empires of good and evil. The forests have given place to cultivated fields; the morass is dried up; the land has become solid---is covered with meadows, pastures, domestic animals, smiling and healthy habitations; cities have risen upon regular plans; wide roads are traced between them: every thing shows that men are seeking the means of drawing near to one another; they no longer dread, or seek to murder each other. The seaports are filled with vessels receiving all the productions of the earth, and serving to exchange its riches. A countless multitude, living in peace and abundance upon the fruits of their labours, has succeeded to the nations of hunters who were always struggling between war and famine. What has produced these wonders? what has renovated the surface of the earth? what has given to man this dominion over embellished, fruitful, and perfectionated nature? The benevolent genius is Security. It is security which has wrought out this great metamorphosis. How rapid have been its operations! It is scarcely two centuries since William Penn reached these savage wilds with a colony of true conquerors; for they were men of peace, who sullied not their establishment by force, and who made themselves respected only by acts of benevolence and justice.

[Back to:] [Forward to:] [Up to:]