Front Page Titles (by Subject) 16: Blows Directed Against Commerce: The Luxury of a Great Capital City - Commerce and Government Considered in their Mutual Relationship
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16: Blows Directed Against Commerce: The Luxury of a Great Capital City - 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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Blows Directed Against Commerce: The Luxury of a Great Capital City
Of the four monarchies I have postulated, I no longer make more than one, and I build a great capital city in that place where people come from all the provinces. Those who are rich enough to enjoy all the comforts found there gradually settle there. Others come there for business, others out of curiosity, many because they do not have the means of living elsewhere. Because, with nothing, one can often make great outlays in that place, as it offers resources of every kind. It even offers some which ought to be inadmissible, and yet which people do not hide.
Wealth brings forth the arts. There will thus be a large number of craftsmen. They will occasion great consumption. They will make foodstuffs rise in price, and they will attract money from the provinces, where people will be rich enough to seek out the goods in demand in the capital. Their handiwork will be at a higher price than it would have been had they chosen another place for their establishment: because their subsistence and their raw materials will have to be brought there at great expense.
If they had been spread throughout the provinces they would make the capital’s money flow back. They would bring plenty because, wherever they established themselves, they would increase the number of consumers, and they would help to spread wealth with less inequality. These considerations brought about the wish that manufactures should be established in the provinces; but this project remained a pipe dream.
Craftsmen do not mind that their products are costly, provided they are assured a sale. Now, where could they sell better than in a town of luxury, where without ever appreciating goods, people only value them in so far as they are highly priced? Where will they be in closer reach of realising their talents, whether they deal with the individuals to whom they sell their work themselves, or whether they deal with traders who vie to offer them the highest wages? Would it be possible for them to take advantage of the public’s whims from the depths of the provinces, to make and give it a product based on transitory fashions? Finally, I imagine that when they enjoy complete freedom they can spread into many different places; but when they are only free to work in the shelter of a privilege, do they not have to settle in the place where they are at hand to beg for this privilege, to have it renewed, and to prevent its being given to others? So then manufactures could only set up in the capital and, after the capital, in the large towns.
Once everything becomes more expensive in a great capital, goods that were made to be common there become scarce; and it is there that artisans direct all their energy to obtain for wealthy people the enjoyment of luxury articles, that is to say those pleasures sought through vanity, which boredom requires in one’s idle existence.
The complicated levying of a mass of taxes, manoeuvres of exclusive companies, public paper issues, banks, speculation, and the grain monopoly were the paths open to fortune along which people hurried en masse. From there new men emerged, one after another, who, made wealthy on the spoils of the people, made a striking contrast with the beggars who multiplied from one day to the next.
The Great had set the example of luxury: but at least their luxury was limited by their means. There was no limit to that of the upstarts, because they could spend all the more lavishly, as they became wealthy all the more easily. Because at one and the same time they were made to be imitated and imitation was out of reach, they seemed to prepare the ruin of every rank of citizen.
Indeed, as one could only make oneself noticed through expenditure, disorder found its way in turn into all fortunes; and every rank became confused by degrees by the very efforts that it made to single itself out. From the trends people followed it seemed they had immense desires; and from the frivolities they were happy with, it seemed they had no wants. Whim set the price of the smallest things. If people did not enjoy them, they wished to appear to enjoy them, because they supposed others did; lacking enthusiasm they took its language and made fools of themselves enthusing about everything. However one was struck by it, one had to obey the whims of fashion. It was the sole arbiter of taste and feeling and set down for everyone what he was to want, say, do and think: because thinking was the latest fashion.
In this disorder people spoke out against finance since financiers had more ways of becoming rich. But did not citizens of every degree have cause to reproach themselves in the same way? If they obtained less wealth was it because they were less greedy or because they could not? It is the general morality one should condemn; but in a century of corruption every order inveighs against the others.
I wish a monarchy could never be too rich. Indeed, the vice that destroys it is not in excessive wealth: it is in the inequality of its division, an inequality that becomes monstrous in a century of finance.
But what! you will say, must one make a new division of land, and limit each citizen to the same number of arpents? No, indubitably; that project would be chimerical. Perfect equality can only be maintained in a republic such as Sparta; and I agree that in a monarchy men are not Spartans. What must be done, you will ask? Every citizen must be able to live from his work; and I say that wherever there are beggars the government is vicious.
I am very well aware that it is supposed that everyone can live from his work: because the rich man, who does nothing, says to the unhappy person without bread, “Go and work.” Thus luxury which multiplies beggars hardens hearts, and there are no more resources for the needy. But let us see if every citizen can find work.
It is observed with reason that the luxury of the large towns gives a livelihood to many artisans, and consequently people say that luxury is a good thing. But how many men who would have been useful in the countryside flock to the capital to beg there, seduced by the profits that some make in a capital? Even some men of parts are reduced to wretchedness, because it is impossible for them to work in competition with those who set up before them, and who are in fashion. Is it not known that rich people, without knowing why, follow each other to the same shops, and that a skilful or lucky craftsman practises his own trade almost exclusively? Are you unaware that in matters of luxury the name of the workman is not unimportant?
Luxury creeps up imperceptibly on all conditions; and if a person is not rich he wants to appear so. Then he economises on necessities to be able to buy luxuries. So one takes away the work of the most useful artisans, and in consequence one takes away their bread. Besides, if in a time when wealth is spread too unequally, a small number of wealthy men cause costly manufactures to flourish, how few citizens are then rich enough to join in sustaining the commoner manufactures? If luxury gives some artisans a livelihood, it correspondingly reduces a greater number of them to beggary. There you have the results it produces in towns, especially in the capital. Let us move to the countryside.
The provinces have to pay at the capital the revenues of the landowners who live there and the Prince’s revenues; a huge debt which grows every day with taxation. It is true that, through the vast consumption made there, the capital gives back to the provinces the money it has received from them; and it makes agriculture flourish there, in proportion as it draws products from them in ever greater amounts. But it cannot draw equally from each, and so agriculture cannot flourish equally in all.
Abundance is found in the countryside surrounding the capital, and there the most recalcitrant soil is made fertile. Abundance is also found in the most remote provinces when they have easy communications with the capital. But when they lack outlets, you can judge the poverty by the wan complexion of the inhabitants, by the villages falling into ruin, and by the fallow fields. They produce little, because the wealthiest consumers, to whom the lands belong, live in the capital where they consume the products of other provinces. They produce little, because these consumers prefer to the genuine wealth of a cultivated soil intrigue which opens the path to fortune for some, paper documents with which they have more income and greater ease in wasting it, in short luxury which ruins all. Not only do they fail to make the necessary advances to obtain more abundant crops for themselves, they also place the farmers in a situation where they cannot make them. They cause them expense: they take some of their animals away from them; in a word they seem to take from them every means of cultivation. However, the farmers, more numerous than the farms, are reduced by competition to inadequate rewards. As they are reduced to hand-to-mouth subsistence, they deny themselves what is necessary in order to pay a master who, in the bosom of softness, has as his maxim that peasants must not be in easy circumstances, and who does not perceive that the wealth of the ploughman would enrich himself. So it is only too true that the luxury of a great capital is a source of wretchedness and devastation.