Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION X.: THE TALKED-OF SPUNGE NO PROOF OF THE DESIGN. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3
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SECTION X.: THE TALKED-OF SPUNGE NO PROOF OF THE DESIGN. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 3.
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THE TALKED-OF SPUNGE NO PROOF OF THE DESIGN.
But by Radicalists (says somebody) a wish to see a national bankruptcy effected—or, as the phrase is, a spunge applied to the debt, has at radical reform meetings been openly and uncontradictedly spoken of in the character of a desirable result: and here would unquestionably be subversion of “rights of property.”
To this come the following short answers:
1. Spoken of in such meetings—yes. But how? Rather as an expected cause of reform than as an intended effect. No otherwise than in so far as it has been declared to be an intended effect, does it apply to the present purpose.
2. Even supposing it intended to be produced, and produced accordingly, it would not amount to the design insinuated in the speech. True it is, that to the amount of this debt, so much of the rights of property in that shape would be subverted: but property in all other shapes would, for anything that this would do, remain untouched. Note well, that subversion—not of “rights of property,” i. e. some rights of property—but of “the rights of property,” i. e. all the rights of property, is the object charged to be aimed at. Every time a handkerchief is picked out of a pocket, subversion of rights of property takes place. Note likewise, that from the aggregate mass of property in the country, though no addition would be made to it, no defalcation would be made. I do not say that no preponderant evil would be produced. But that is another consideration, which will meet us presently.
3. The very design, whether in itself it be useful or pernicious, proves even a respect for property in all other shapes. For what would be the effect, or supposed use of it? Only to take off so much burden—so much of deduction—from property in all other shapes: deduction, namely that made by taxes. Suppose property, in all other shapes, dealt by according to that design, the existence of which was in the speech declared to be believed, it has been seen what would have become of it, and whether, by the very partition, the impossibility of paying the debt, and thereby the virtual abolition of it, would not have been effected. But that no such design of universal partition can possibly have been entertained, has, it is believed, been sufficiently shown.
4. To no one of the supposed plotters in question would or could any immediate benefit be produced by this spunge. Ceasing to pay dividends to the present annuitants would not put money into the pocket of any reformist, or any one else. Suppose the dividend divided amongst the reformists instead of the present annuitants,—is that what is meant? But on this supposition the debt would not be abolished; it would be kept up.
5. It is not by all radicalists, nor by more than a very small part of the whole number of radicalists, that so much as a wish to see this state of things take effect has been expressed: take effect in any character—either as a fruit and consequence, or as a cause.
Thus much as to ineligible reform in that particular shape. But amongst the plans of reform, or expected fruits of reform held up to view, suppose in any number, schemes ever so extravagant. By any such extravagance could any just cause of objection be formed against any that were free from the extravagance? If yes, nothing could be more easy than for men in power to manufacture in this way a bar to all reform, and that an insuperable one. To employ a number of men to propose and advocate each of them “an absurd, visionary, and senseless” plan of reform (to use Earl Gray’s phrase,) or “a wild and visionary plan” (to use Lord John Russell’s phrase,) would be quite as easy as, and somewhat less odious and nefarious than, to give birth to crimes by employing instigators for the purpose of their becoming informers.
That, without any exception, all who call for radical reform should be uniformly well informed and wise, is an expectation which it will be time enough to regard as a reasonable one, when wisdom in that same degree has manifested itself on the part of their rulers.
The supposition on which acts of government and speeches made in houses, seem uniformly to be grounded, is that of consummate excellence on the part of those who have any share in the powers of government, coupled with consummate depravity on the part of those who have none: the supremely ruling one, sharing with the Almighty in his attributes, as Blackstone, who enumerates them expressly, assures us he does; those in authority under him a little lower than the angels; the subject-many devoid of reason, and in shape alone differing from beasts: hence it is that they are unfit to be, and incapable of being, reasoned with—fit only to be crushed and slaughtered.
That by the persons in question any such design should ever have been harboured as that of endeavouring at the subversion of the rights of property in other shapes, has, it is hoped, been sufficiently proved to be impossible. That by those same persons, in a number more or less considerable, the design may have been harboured of endeavouring at “the subversion of the rights of property” in this particular shape, seems neither impossible nor improbable. But, against a mere design, supposing it to have no chance of producing either the effect aimed at, or any bad effect in any other shape, not only would “subversion of the constitution,” but even reason and argument, be so much words and paper thrown away. He in whose eyes the catastrophe is not regarded as capable of being produced otherwise than by the political ascendency of those whom he regards as labouring to produce it, will see no cause for apprehending evil in that shape, unless in so far as the existence of such ascendency should in his eyes be more or less probable. Still, however, as from that endeavour preponderant evil could not fail to take place, might not such a demonstration be in their eyes at least productive of good effect? Evil in that particular shape has not any probability, yet from those same endeavours, evil in this or that other shape, may in those same eyes or in other eyes be more or less apprehended. On this supposition, if to their own satisfaction it were demonstrated, that by any endeavours made or declared to be made by them towards “the subversion or extinction of the rights of property” in this shape, no good—preponderant good to themselves—could take place, but that on the contrary much preponderant evil could not fail to take place, might not such a demonstration be, in their eyes, at least productive of good effect?
From any declared or known anti-radicalist, any such statement would have to encounter the force of adverse prepossession. From a known radicalist it many stand a better chance of being regarded with whatever attention may be due to it.
These things considered, it has been thought that the following suggestions in proof of the ineligibity of this supposed remedy, in respect of the interests of any persons who in the character of radicalist may have been occupied in the endeavour to apply it, might not be without their use.
If it should appear, that while the extinction of the debt without equivalent would be productive of preponderant evil to a very great amount, the abolition of it by means of an equivalent would still be productive of preponderant evil, though to a less amount, the result will be a practical conclusion, such as under existing circumstances may not be without its use.
Reasons against a national spunge,—i. e. complete insolvency on the part of government:—
1. Upon the face of it, it presents not any national advantage in any shape. Yes: if the creditors were all of them or the greater proportion of them foreigners; for here would be pecuniary advantage for a motive: counter-motive none, but the dishonesty, and the attendant consequences of it. Setting foreigners out of the question, on setting money against money, all that were in the character of debtors would gain: all that were in the character of creditors would lose. Taking into the account the whole of the community together, here, then, in money there would be no gain. But money is of no value, otherwise than as a means of happiness. Now in happiness there would be great loss: for, quantity and quality being equal, and all other circumstances the same, suffering from loss is always greater than enjoyment from gain; otherwise there would be no preponderant evil produced by depredation in any shape, nor reasonable cause for punishing it.
2. Among those who would suffer soonest and most, would be all those by whom a change of this sort has been considered or spoken of as desirable. Among them, in an indefinitely large proportion perhaps, the greatest portion are those by whose labour such goods are manufactured as have for their consumers and purchasers, persons whose property is in this shape. From this defalcation, though all labourers would suffer, labourers in manufactures would suffer in the greatest degree: for among their productions are those which can best be spared. Among the productions of husbandry alone are those which consistently with life cannot be spared.
3. It has never yet been shown, nor, it is believed, can it be shown, in what particular shape any preponderant good from any such forcible and unlooked-for transfer of property should come—should come at any time how widely soever distant. That in the first instance, and for an indefinite length of time, distress, to an incalculable but at the least a prodigiously vast amount, would be produced, cannot be matter of doubt to anybody. If at the end of the account, preponderant good in any shape were to be enjoyed, it would only be by such persons as, in respect of fixed property, or means of subsistence in other shapes, should have been enabled to weather the storm. And among these scarcely would any person of the class now in question be to be found.
In a word, the distress produced would be certain and immediate: the looked-for equivalent—the alleviation, would be uncertain and remote.
When the advantages from extinction in any way are brought to view, first comes the taking off of the taxes, then the lowering of prices to the pitch from which they were raised by the taxes. Unfortunately, the first result is not by a great deal so speedy as imagination is wont to paint it. When taxes are taken off, there remain the tax-gatherer and the clerks to be provided for; and thus it is that it is only as a tontine annuity increases, that that part of the burthen of taxation which is composed of the expense of collection can be diminished. The tax-gatherers and clerks may indeed be turned out to starve; and for a warrant for so dealing with them, some bad name or other may be attached to them. But by this bad name, neither will the sensibility of the individuals to suffering be diminished, nor the part which their happiness constitutes of the universal happiness, nor their right to have as much regard shown to their happiness as to that of an equal number of other persons.
Look the whole community over, scarcely will you find that description of persons for whom some bad name or other has not been found: none whatever, for which a name of that sort might not be found. But to make any such pretence for evil doing requires no more ingenuity than, nor so much time as, the tying a canister to the tail of a dog for the purpose of tormenting him.
Such is the sad effect of profusion—that evil, of which with so many others the essence of monarchy is composed. This expenditure with its burthen is the work of an instant: suppose relief to come, half a century may have elapsed, and still the exoneration is not complete.
Just so or worse it is with armies. Raise them you may in a few months: disband them you may in the compass of a day. But as to exoneration from the expense—Oh no: half a century may have elapsed, and still the relief remain incomplete. Here too comes in another feature: tax-gatherer and office-clerk should not be turned out to starve;—soldiers will not be.
4. The burthen in this shape being already in existence, and not to be got rid of but by preponderant burthen in other shapes, the continuance of it in this shape seems productive of a distinct and peculiar advantage;—namely, the opposing a proportionable difficulty to war. The power which has most effectually at command a greater body of the necessary and effectual means of war than any other has—not to say than all others put together have—such a power is surely in less danger than any other can be, of being forced by aggression into a war of mere defence: and as to offensive wars—wars for conquest, or for the pleasure of being insolent, whatsoever may be the real propensity, scarcely of any such propensity will the existence in their own instance be avowed, at least in direct terms, by any men in the situation of rulers.
Now, under a constitution or form of government such as ours, the profit, real or apparent, to the ruling few, and thence the propensity to engage in needless and useless and unjust wars, is so strong, and all other counteracting causes so completely wanting, that the difficulty opposed by the burthen in question to such wars seem to me a blessing beyond all price.
4 continued, or 5. If this country were more likely to be engaged in a war of necessity, and mere defence—in a necessary and defensive war, than in an unnecessary and offensive war,—on that supposition, the effect of the extinction or diminution of the debt might upon the whole be advantageous. But to advance any such position shall be left to those, if any such there be, who either believe the truth of it themselves, or can make sure of persuading others so to do.*
Now by war, whenever there is one, men of the class of the radicalists—in a word, of the unopulent many—will be greater sufferers than any that stand above them in the scale of opulence. For, in the case of war, let it come when it will, money must be found. It must be taken from all classes; and the less a man has of it, the less he can spare for this or any other purpose.
But (says somebody,) by the reformists, supposing them to have the ascendency, war, except in the case of its being necessary war, will not be engaged in. Easy enough this to say—not quite so easy to be assured of. Under democratic ascendency there would still remain—besides the people’s Commons—the monarch with his Lords, all of them with their inbred appetite hungering and thirsting after war, instead of righteousness. Power, money, plunder, honour and glory, additional distant dependencies—more and more offices and honours—depredation in all its shapes—in all of them applicable to the purposes of corruption: honour, and glory—pleasure of insulting and oppressing foreign nations. Upon the functionaries in office, high and low, all these incentives will be operating with unabated force; and for producing a correspondent inflammation in the breasts of the people in their character of electors, no power would be spared.
Not that, merely for this purpose, any one could seriously maintain that the accumulation of a national debt—especially a national debt heavy enough to prevent war, would be an eligible measure. All that is meant is—that when the community has been subjected to a public burthen in this shape, this is the shape in which for that purpose it were desirable that it should exist, so long and in so far as it exists in any shape; that in particular no such thing as a sinking fund should ever be established: and that accordingly, should any permanent surplus be found to have existence in the produce of the existing taxes, the result should be the abolition of a correspondent quantity of the produce of those, of which the continuance was found, in all respects taken together, the most pernicious.
DEFENCE FROM EXPERIENCE IN THE CASE OF THE UNITED STATES.
So much for the general nature of the case.
In experience, is there anything to give countenance to a supposition thus shown to be in theory so extravagant as well as completely groundless?
In experience? On the contrary, from experience all the evidence that the case furnishes is directly in the teeth of the supposition, and puts the most decided negative upon it.
Look first to the North-American United States. In that vast region—a region peopled with men of English race, bred up in English habits—with minds fraught with ideas, associated with all English ideas by English language,—in that vast region, what is the state of things? If not indeed exactly what in the British Isles it would be rendered by democratic ascendency as established by radical reform, it is at any rate a state of things which to the present purpose is not materially different from it: and in particular a state of things, which, if it had been in human nature to give birth to any such design as that of a general subversion of the rights of property, would have been full as likely to give birth to such a design as the condition of the radicalists in the British Isles can now be.
Well, then, in those United States such is the state of things in respect of the influence of the people at large in the business of government. What, then, is the consequence? Any such subversion of property as the form proposed is accused of being to a certainty productive of? No—nor any the least approach to it. Any inferiority in respect of general tranquillity and felicity in other shapes, as compared with the British Isles? On the contrary, a great and perfectly uncontrovertible superiority.
First, then, as to the parallelism—the virtual identity of the features or elements of radicalism, secrecy, universality, equality, annuality of suffrages. All this, literally or virtually, you have in Pennsylvania and in New York, and, deducting slaves, these are the two most populous of the twenty-two United States. Anno 1810, population of the two, little less than a third of the whole. Secrecy, annuality, you have literally: and of the four elements these are the only two of which, in the literal sense, the existence is possible.
Universality a trifle short of it you have virtually: qualification in New York, renting 40s. a-year: renting sufficient—possession in property not required.* In Pennsylvania, not so much as renting 40s. or renting anything, required: payment “to any state or county tax” sufficient—payment though it were but once made:† and any man that pleases may offer himself to make it.
As to equality of suffrage,—i. e. equality in effect and value as between right and right in suffrage,—the effectual point is not arithmetical equality, but absence of any such degree of inequality as would be the result and proof of partiality and injustice. All charge of injustice on this score being in these instances unknown, details of the partition would not pay for the trouble of the research.
Here, then, is not merely radicalism—not merely democratic ascendency—not merely representative democracy in conjunction with monarchy and aristocracy,—but pure democracy, without any such supposed security for property—for good order, as the phrase is, as independent power lodged in the hands of the one, combined with independent power lodged in the hands of the few, are supposed to give. Well; and what has been the result? subversion of the rights of property? No—nor at any time any the least tendency towards any such thing. From the foundation of the several colonies down to the present time, property existing in all degrees of inequality from 0 up to half-a-million or more, and in all those proportions alike secure.
Sedition, insurrection against the constituted authorities—popular discontent—any thing of that sort? Near forty years have already elapsed since the triple yoke of monarchy, aristocracy, and sham democracy, were cast off: and nowhere in the Union have any of those symptoms of misrule at any times shown themselves.
Is it that distress has been there unknown? Not it indeed. Distress there has been, but too much of it. But the distress itself has not there been better known, than has the cause, the only cause of it. This being known, as little have men thought of making it matter of charge against their government or their constitution, as if, instead of want of market for productions, it had had drought or inundation for its cause.
In our Islands, the distress has had two causes: the deficiency of demand as in the United States for produce, and that excess of taxation which has been produced by vicious constitution and misrule. The misrulers place it of course, the whole of it, to the commercial account; no part to the financial and constitutional: but the people, who not only feel but see what the taxes are, as well as in what state the constitution is, are not to be thus blinded. No indeed. By shutting their eyes against facts, it is not in man’s power to cause those facts not to have had existence; and thence it is, that notwithstanding all speeches and all invectives, and all penal laws and all prosecutions, and all hangings and all sabrings, it remains an undeniable truth, that if nothing will satisfy a man but the seeing the people quiet and content with their government while they are labouring in penury and distress, it is to pure democracy, or at least to democratic ascendency, that he must look for it.
Oh but (says somebody,) New York and Pennsylvania—these states are but two out of that number, which at first was thirteen, and now amounts to two-and-twenty. True: and for this very reason the experience is but so much the more instructive—the evidence afforded by it but so much the more conclusive. In several States of the Union, the qualification is not only real as well as nominal, but inordinately high: yet nowhere from the remoteness from universality has any advantageous effect, from the nearness to it any disadvantageous effect, been either experienced or surmised.*
DEFENCE FROM PARTICULAR EXPERIENCE IN THE CASE OF IRELAND: Years 1777 or 1778, to 1783.
[* ]In this country, under the existing state of the government, excitements to unjust and pernicious wars have place to a deplorable degree—to a degree greater than under any other form of government, either despotic or democratic.
[* ]Constitution, p. 113, Art. VII.
[† ]Constitution, p. 134, Art. III.
[* ]The above is followed by extracts from contemporary works, illustrative of the prosperity and felicity of the United States. The matter contained in them being now to a certain extent antiquated, it is considered that the space they would occupy in this collection may be more aptly reserved for the original speculations of the author.—Ed.