Front Page Titles (by Subject) 25: Of the Use of Land - Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship
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25: Of the Use of Land - Étienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship 
Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship, translated by Shelagh Eltis, with an Introduction to His Life and Contribution to Economics by Shelagh Eltis and Walter Eltis (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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This book was originally published by Edward Elgar Publishing in 1997, copyright 1997 by Shelagh Eltis and Walter Eltis. Reprinted by permission of Edward Elgar Publishing.
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Of the Use of Land
One can only multiply products in proportion to the amount of land, its extent and the care one takes over its cultivation.
If we assume that all the lands are developed and that they each produce as much as they are able to produce, the products will be at the ultimate point of abundance and it will no longer be possible to increase them.
Then, if we want to have a greater quantity of one kind of foodstuff, we shall necessarily have to accept that we shall have less of another kind. For instance, to have more forage we should have to put down to meadowland fields which used to be sown; and so one would have a smaller crop of corn.
The same products are not equally fitted to the subsistence of animals of every kind. Consequently, if the lands are used to nourish a large number of horses they will not be able to feed the same number of men.
According to the use of the lands, the population will thus be larger or smaller.
But men consume more or less in proportion as they have more or fewer needs. The population must thus diminish in proportion as needs multiply all the more; or, if the population does not diminish, people must have found the means of increasing products in proportion to consumption.
In a word, a country never has just the number of inhabitants that it can feed. There will be fewer, all other things being equal, if each of them consumes more; there will be even fewer if a part of the land is given over to produce on which they do not feed themselves.
Let us observe our tribe now. Let us assume that in the country where it lives it has ten million arpents equally fitted for cultivation; and so that they cannot extend their possessions, let us place them on an island, in the bosom of the ocean; or, to take away from them even the resources which the sea could provide, let us transport these lands to the middle of a vast desert, sandy and arid in every direction.
At first, as we have noted, the tribe has few needs. Dressed in bark or in coarsely sewn skins, without comforts, not even aware of what it lacks, it sleeps on straw; it does not know the use of wine; it only has berries, vegetables, the milk and flesh of its herds for food. Yet it is not exposed to suffering from hunger nor from the abuses of the atmosphere, and that is enough for it.
In the early years, as it is small in number in relation to the country it lives in, it is easy for it to proportion its production to its consumption. Because, through the foodstuffs which are exchanged at the market, it will judge the type and amount of what is consumed and will use its lands accordingly.
Once it has grasped this proportion, the tribe will live in abundance, because it will have everything to meet its needs; and as long as this abundance can be reconciled with a greater number of inhabitants, the population will grow. It is a matter of fact that men multiply every time that fathers are assured of subsistence for their children.
I assume that in the country which our tribe inhabits each working man can live on the produce of an arpent and cannot subsist on less. Now the tribe has ten million arpents fit for cultivation. The population will therefore be able to grow to ten million inhabitants; and having reached that number it will no longer grow.
It has only increased to this point because men have carried on living in their original coarse fashion, and have not created new needs for themselves.
But when, by the means we have indicated, some landowners have increased their possessions, and, gathered in a town, seek more commodities, in food, clothing, lodging; then they will consume more, and the product of an arpent will no longer be enough for the subsistence of each of them.
If they make a greater consumption of meat, more herds will have to be fed; and in consequence corn fields will have to be turned to pastureland.
If they drink wine, some of the fields which used to be sown will have to be used as vineyards; and some of the fields will have to be used for plantations, if they burn more wood.
So it is that consumption, which multiplies like needs, changes land use; and one can see that products necessary for man’s subsistence diminish in proportion as other needs increase.
The more that new forms of consumption multiply, the more movement there will be in trade, which will every day embrace new goods. This will produce the need to maintain a large number of horses to transport the merchandise from the country to the towns, and from province to province: a fresh reason for multiplying pastureland at the expense of cornland. What will happen if the owners who live in the towns want to have horses for their convenience, and pride themselves on having a large number? What will happen if they convert once cultivated fields into gardens or parks? One can imagine that in this state of affairs a single man could consume for his subsistence the product of ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty arpents, or more. So then the population will have to fall.
But it is natural for the merchants and artisans who have become rich to imitate the proprietors, and raise their consumption too. Each of them, according to his faculties, would wish to enjoy the commodities which custom brings in.
The men who change their way of living least markedly are those who, subsisting from day to day, earn too little to improve their condition. Such are the small traders, the small artisans and the ploughmen. However, each of them will endeavour to enjoy, in his station, the same commodities that others enjoy; and they will succeed bit by bit, because they will obtain higher wages by degrees. So in emulation all will consume more. The ploughmen, for instance, will take as models the large farmers, who consume more because they see the landowners, their masters, consuming more, and they have the ability to do so.
So, step by step, following each other’s example, all will consume more and more. It is true that in general each person will order his expenses by what he sees men of his own estate doing: but in all conditions, expenditure is bound to be greater. The humblest ploughman will thus no longer be able to subsist on one arpent alone, he will swallow up two, three or four.
If we only consider the needs of the ploughman, the population might then be reduced to a half, a third, a quarter; and it could be reduced to a twentieth part, if we only consider the landowners who consume the product of twenty arpents. So, out of twenty ploughmen, new consumption will cut back fifteen; and, out of twenty landowners, it will cut back nineteen. There is no need to try to make the calculation more precise. I just want to make you understand how the population, which we have assumed to be ten million, might be no more than five or six million, or even less.
Since changes in the mode of existence are not sudden, the population will decrease so imperceptibly that our tribe will not notice. It will believe in the later stages that its country is as populous as it has ever been; and it will be amazed if one asserts the opposite. It will not conceive that population can decrease in a century, or that each citizen enjoys greater plenty and more comforts; and that it is none the less for that reason that the population is decreasing.
This revolution happens between generations and imperceptibly. Since with each generation consumption increases as do needs, there can no longer be so many families, and they will not be able to be so large.
Indeed, each man wants to be able to keep his family in that comfort which custom has made a requirement for all those of his estate. If a ploughman estimates that for that upkeep he needs the product of two or three arpents, he will only think of marrying when he can command that product. So he will be forced to wait. If the moment does not come, he will give up the plan to marry, and will have no children. If that moment comes late, he will only marry when he is advanced in age, and he will no longer be able to have a large family. There will doubtless be some people who will marry without thinking of the future. But the wretched state into which they will fall will be a lesson for the others; and their children will die for lack of subsistence, or will leave no posterity. One can make the same calculation with regard to merchants, artisans and proprietors.
We may conclude that the use of land is different, when needs, being multiplied, increase consumption and that then population necessarily shrinks.
It is true that if we had put our tribe in a totally different position, it would find resources in the lands with which it was surrounded. It could put out colonies; and, in that case, it is possible that the population would not decrease; it could even grow further. But if these lands were occupied by other peoples, it would need to arm; and war would kill the inhabitants whom the land could not feed.
I agree too that, when herds consume the produce of a large number of arpents, the lands reserved for human subsistence become more fertile, because manure is more plentifully spread there. But you will also agree with me that this fertility will not be enough to compensate. Even if, as is not possible, these lands taken on their own were to produce as much as all lands put together, how could they be enough for the same population, at a time when men are always consuming more at will?
People often say that one can judge the prosperity of a state from its population. But that is not quite right. Because one would certainly not call the time when I depicted our tribe, when I carried its population to ten million souls, one of prosperity. However, the increase of men can never be so great as when they are content to live, like that tribe, on the product of an arpent each.
So it is not the largest population taken by itself which makes one judge a state prosperous: it is the largest population which, examined with regard to the needs of every class of citizen, is reconciled with the abundance they all have the right to claim. Two kingdoms could be unequally populated although the government was equally good or bad in each.
China, for instance, embraces a huge population. That is because the sole food of the masses is rice, which produces three abundant harvests each year in several provinces: because the land does not rest at all, and often yields a hundred for one. This multitude, which has few needs, is almost naked, or is dressed in cotton, that is to say, in a crop that is so plentiful that an arpent can provide enough to dress three or four hundred people. This great population proves nothing therefore in favour of the government: it simply proves that the lands are very fertile, and that they are cultivated by hard-working men who have few needs.
Lands will have value wherever agriculture enjoys complete freedom; and then the population, in proportion with consumption, will be as large as it can be. There lies the prosperity of the state.
One might ask whether it is better for a kingdom to have a million inhabitants who subsist, one supporting the other, on the product of ten arpents a head: or ten million who subsist each on the product of a single arpent. It is clear that that question comes down to this, Is it better for a kingdom that its inhabitants have the fewest possible needs, or that they have many?, or again, Is it better for a kingdom that its inhabitants remain in the first condition, in which we have conceived our tribe; or is it desirable that they leave it? I reply that they must leave it. But at what stage should we be able to check them? That is what we shall examine in the next chapter.