Front Page Titles (by Subject) 26: Of the Employment of Men in a Society Which Has Simple Tastes - Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship
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26: Of the Employment of Men in a Society Which Has Simple Tastes - 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 Employment of Men in a Society Which Has Simple Tastes
In America, on the lands abandoned to their natural fertility and covered with forests, each savage needs the product of eighty or a hundred arpents for his subsistence; since the animals off which he chiefly feeds cannot increase their number much in the woods where they find little pasturage; and because, besides, the savages destroy more than they can consume.
With these huge, almost desert lands we can contrast those of our tribe, when the number of men was equal to the number of arpents. There you have the two extremes of population.
This tribe has the advantage over a horde of savages of finding abundance in the places where it is settled: but it needs many arts to leave the coarse condition in which it finds itself initially.
I shall not undertake to explain how it makes this discovery: that research is not my subject. I move to the time when it will know those arts which go back to remotest antiquity: the art of grinding wheat and making bread from it; the art of raising herds; the art of making cloth with the wool of animals, with their hair, with cotton, linen, etc., and finally, a beginning of architecture.
Then it finds in bread a more re fined food than the corn which it previously ate in its harvested state. It has, in the milk of its herds and in their flesh, an additional food which lets it subsist with greater ease. The stuffs or materials with which it clothes itself protect it better from the elements than skins coarsely sewn together, and they are all the more suitable as they have a suppleness which gives the body freedom in all its movements. Finally, buildings, which are more solid and larger, are a better shelter for things the tribe wants to keep and it finds more commodities there.
When materials are suitable and long-lasting, it is of little importance that they should be worked with more refinement: if food is plentiful and healthy, it would perhaps be dangerous for it to become more delicate: and when solid buildings are large enough to lodge a family and enclose all the things it needs, is it really essential to find in them all the commodities to which a less hardy people has become accustomed?
Between a coarse and an indulgent existence, I should like to mark out a simple life, and if possible, to fix the notion of it with some precision.
I picture to myself a coarse life in the original state our tribe was in: I picture to myself a soft life in those times when every kind of excess had corrupted behaviour. These extremes are easy to grasp. It is between the one and the other that we should find the simple life. But where does it begin and where does it end? There you have what one can only show roughly.
We pass from the coarse life to the simple life, and from the simple life to the soft life, by a succession of those things which custom makes essential to us and which for this reason I have called of secondary need. So the arts must make some progress to draw us from a coarse life; and they must halt after some progress, to prevent our falling into a soft existence. The movement from one to the other is imperceptible, and it is only ever more or less that the simple life distances itself from one of the extremes, as it is only ever more or less that it approaches the other. It is therefore not possible to speak of it with exact precision.
It is easy to picture to oneself what the simple life was, when men, before gathering together in towns, lived in the fields they cultivated. Then, whatever progress the arts had made, all concerned agriculture which was the prime art, the art prized above all.
Now, so long as agriculture was regarded as the first art, as that to which all others must refer back, far from being able to become soft, men were necessarily sober and hard-working. The government, which was simple then, required few laws, and did not involve itself in long discussions. Cases between individuals that were put to arbitration had as judges neighbours whose fairness was known. Matters of general import were dealt with in the assembly of heads of household or of the chiefs who represented them; and order, in some sense, maintained itself among a people who had few needs.
There you have the simple life: it is marked out in the work men do in an agricultural society which supports itself with few laws. This simplicity will last, so long as the citizens are only cultivators; and it will retain some vestiges in every period when agriculture is of some esteem among them.
After the founding of towns, government could no longer be as simple, and disturbances began. The landowners, being the richest, found themselves possessed of the chief authority: they seemed to have more right to it, as, being masters of the land, they had a greater interest in the general welfare.
Everyone wanted to have the same share of power, and yet all could not. Wealth gave the advantage to some; greater shrewdness or more ability gave it to others; and, in this conflict, authority was bound to shift until the head of a party became possessed of it, or the assembled nation had given a form to government. So it was then that a senate was formed to look after the interests of all; and it was given a head with the name of king,* a name which became what we call a title, when the kingship had drawn to itself the supreme power. But in the early days the kings only had a very restricted authority.
Under this new form of government there were still only a small number of laws, and this small number is a proof of the simplicity of manners. It is in corrupt times that laws multiply. People keep making more because the need for them is constantly felt, and it seems that they are always made to no purpose, as they soon fall into disuse, and people are forever forced to enact them again.
It is with reason that one judges that when a nation is not refined, in its food, or its dress, or its lodging, it is enough for it to live in plenty and comfort, if a quarter of its citizens are employed in the daily tasks of cultivation and the unrefined arts.
Another quarter, or thereabouts, are too young or too old to contribute by their work to the advantage of society. So that would leave half without a job. It is this half which withdraws to the towns. It includes the landowners who find themselves naturally entrusted with the main cares of government; the merchants who enable the greatest possible sale of all the necessities of life; and the artisans who work with greater skill on raw materials.
If the arts remain in this state, where the work of a quarter of the citizens is enough for everyone’s subsistence, most of those who have no land in their ownership will be unable to subsist, since they will be without jobs, and that will be the majority.
One cannot fail to recognise that therein lay a source of disturbances. Now if it is important on the one hand that each citizen can live off his work, it is certain on the other that one will not be able to give everyone work, except when the arts have made fresh progress. It is therefore in society’s interest that this progress should be made.
The artisans who succeed in these perfected arts make finer linen, finer cloth, vessels of a handier shape, tools which are more solid or more useful, utensils of every kind adapted to new uses, or better-suited for old uses than those which one used to employ. All these arts, so long as too much refinement is not put into them, will be consistent with simplicity.
What I call refinement can be found in the raw material and in the work. In the raw material, when people prefer those which are drawn from abroad, simply because they are rarer and without finding any other advantage from them; in the work, when people prefer a more finished article even though it is neither more solid nor more useful.
Now, as soon as there is less refinement in prime materials and work the artefacts will be less costly. Once the artefacts are less costly they will be better adjusted to the citizens’ means. Their use will therefore not be forbidden to any of them: all will enjoy them, or at least will believe they can enjoy them. It is above all exclusive pleasures which cause simplicity to disappear. Once a person starts to believe that he is of more consequence, because he enjoys things which others do not, he will only ever seek to be appreciated by these types of things: people believe they are marking themselves out by pretending to enjoy them, even when they no longer feel the enjoyment; and people cease to be simple, not only because they are not like others, but also because they want to seem to be what they are not.
Such then is the employment of men in our tribe. It has magistrates whom it has charged with the cares of government, ploughmen who till the land, artisans for the coarser arts, other artisans for the perfected arts, and merchants who place all the citizens within reach of goods for their own use.
Everyone works in competition in this society; and because each one has the choice of his occupation, and enjoys complete freedom, one person’s work does not harm another’s work. Competition, which distributes the jobs, puts each person in his place: all subsist, and the state is rich from the labours of all. There you have the point to which the arts should lead, and at which they should remain.
Indeed, if, to make further progress, they put too much refinement into customary goods; if they create in us the need for a multitude of things which are only for ostentation; if they give us another need for a mass of frivolities: it is then that the citizens, far from helping to raise and consolidate the structure of society by their work, seem on the contrary to sap its foundations. Luxury, which we shall discuss, will take artisans away from the most useful arts; it will take the ploughman from the plough; it will raise the price of the most basic necessities; and, for the small number of citizens who will live in affluence, the mass will fall into wretchedness.
A people will not leave simplicity at all when, instead of walking barefoot, it has comfortable footwear; when it prefers sturdier vessels, made with common metals, to vessels of wood, stone, earthenware; when it uses linen; when its clothes are of a shape better-fitted to the uses to which it intends them; when it has tools of every sort, but at a price related to everyone’s means: in a word, it will never leave it when it only seeks goods of common use in the arts it creates or perfects.
Let us conclude that, since all citizens should be occupied in a society, it is beneficial or even necessary for the arts to make enough progress to provide work for all. It is the goods of which custom makes the need felt which should be the rule of men’s employment, and procure for some the means of subsistence by working, without exposing others to a descent into softness.
The subject of this chapter will become clearer in the next, where we shall deal with luxury, that is to say with a type of life which is most removed from simplicity.
[* ] In the early days king only signified what we now understand by chief: 1798 footnote.