Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER IX.: TO THE EDITOR OF THE SCOTS CHRONICLE. - Letters of Sidney, on Inequality of Property. To which is added, a Treatise of the Effects of War on Commercial Prosperity
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LETTER IX.: TO THE EDITOR OF THE SCOTS CHRONICLE. - John Millar, Letters of Sidney, on Inequality of Property. To which is added, a Treatise of the Effects of War on Commercial Prosperity 
Letters of Sidney, on Inequality of Property. To which is added, a Treatise of the Effects of War on Commercial Prsoperity (Edinburgh: the Office of the Scots Chronicle, 1796).
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TO THE EDITOR OF THE SCOTS CHRONICLE.
September 30. 1796.
When we perceive all nations, under whatever form of government, and in whatever circumstances they may be placed, even in the midst of revolutions which unhinge the opinions of men, and eradicate long-established prejudices; when we perceive the people, both of ancient and modern times, uniformly respecting property, and rejecting every idea of levelling, we may be assured that their conduct is influenced by principles that are sufficiently obvious, without any difficult investigation, by feelings that are natural and universal. General reasonings, respecting expediency, may, undoubtedly, direct the opinions of those who have leisure and ability to trace the operation of causes in their most remote effects, and obvious utility will, in some degree, influence the decisions of all; but a consent of mankind so universal, as we find taking place on this subject, must be produced by a sentiment inseparable from human nature, which can neither be silenced by partial views of self-interest, nor misled by sophistry. It is the more necessary, Sir, to investigate these principles, as the First Minister of State has thought proper lately to declare* , that the right of property is altogether the creature of civil society† ; from which opinion, it would incontestibly follow, that a vote is the only criterion of justice, and that the majority, whenever they are so disposed, have a full right to equalise property, or to institute a community of goods. I hope, on the contrary, to be able to show, that a majority possesses no such rights; that property is defended by the natural feelings of mankind; and that all levelling, whether supported by many or by few, must occasion the greatest injustice.
The simplest view we can take of this subject, is to consider the feelings which would naturally arise in the breast of a spectator, while one man endeavoured to dispossess another of any external object already under his natural power. To him, the interests of the two individuals would be equally important; and, as he could have no sympathy with the preference which the aggressor evidently gave to his own happiness over that of the other, he would disapprove of it as improper. By being in possession of the subject in dispute, one of the parties had formed a natural and reasonable expectation of enjoying it; and the attempt of the other threatened to disappoint this just expectation; to render his situation in some respects worse than it was before; to diminish his enjoyment, and to do him a positive injury. The spectator would readily sympathise with the resentment which such conduct was fitted to excite, and would readily assist him in recovering that subject, of which he had been unjustly bereaved. The other person, besides being actuated by a self-preference, which none could approve, could suffer no real loss by the refusal of the object he desired; his situation would be exactly the same as before he made the demand; he would neither be deprived of any enjoyment, nor of any reasonable expectation of enjoyment; and any resentment, which, in such circumstances, he might express, would appear to others highly absurd. Where the difference of sympathetic feelings was so strong, the spectators would never hesitate with respect to the propriety of their interference; and, thus, an idea of property would arise from the mere circumstance of actual possession. Accordingly, occupancy, the mere laying hold of a subject, has, by all writers on natural law, been accounted the chief mode of beginning a right of property; and, in many rude nations, this right is conceived to subsist no longer than the actual possession continues.
Various circumstances concur in strengthening and confirming this right. Few acquisitions are made without the employment of some labour or ingenuity, and no association can be stronger than between a man and the produce of his own labour. His exertion is altogether voluntary; and, while it marks, in the strongest manner, his desire of possessing the subject, it often adds greatly to its value, and sometimes is the sole cause of its being in a situation capable of being used. A man, by building a house, evinces his intention of possessing it; and by his labour puts materials, formerly of little value, into such a form as may afford him conveniency and comfort; should another person, who had given no assistance to the work, endeavour to dispossess him, the difference between their rights would be obvious to the most careless observer* . Even when this, the strongest of all claims, does not exist, even when the property has descended from ancestors or other relations, still there are various associations, which I shall, in a future letter, have occasion to point out, that add weight to the other moral feelings, and confirm the right arising from possession.
These sentiments are prior to civil society, and would be experienced whenever one man attempted, in the presence of spectators, to seize the property of another. But, as much injustice might be committed unseen, the occasional interference of accidental spectators would soon be felt to be a very insufficient security; and those, living in the neighbourhood of each other, would be naturally led to associate for their mutual protection. So far, then, from the Right of Property being the creature of civil society, we may truly assert that the defence of this right was one of the original ends of the social combination; and the ingenious writer, who has said that the whole apparatus of our Government is merely intended to support the twelve judges, has only erred by going a little too far* .
When society has improved, general rules in favour of property are established by habit and experience. Each individual, having decided a great number of separate cases from his natural feelings, forms general rules, which he afterwards applies in similar circumstances, without recurring to the sentiments by which his early judgment had been guided. These rules are strengthened by a longer experience, and at last become so powerful as to regulate his opinions, even when his pity, his friendships, or his aversions, would seduce his sympathies, and lead him to commit injustice. At the same time, he becomes sensible that a rigid adherence to rules can alone give that certainty of possession which prompts to activity, to ingenuity, to economy; he perceives that the whole fabric of civil society depends on the strict observance of the rules of justice, and thus he is actuated by those general rules of utility, which many authors have erroneously conceived to be the sole foundation of morals, and the only principles of decision* .
All schemes of levelling are evidently destructive of the Right of Property: they disappoint the reasonable expectations of the present proprietors; they reduce men educated in affluence to a comparative indigence; they deprive many of the fruits of their own labour, ingenuity, and economy; they are in direct opposition to those rules and principles of morality which have been confirmed by the unanimous assent of mankind, and which are absolutely necessary to the enjoyment of security, order, and happiness. Such an equalization differs, in no respect, from robbery, except in being the act of a greater number of criminals, in causing greater immediate misery, and in producing more destructive effects. Nor can any Government, or any majority of a nation, have any right to produce such equality, to attack that property and those rights which society was instituted to defend. If such an attempt should be made, it would amount to a dissolution of the social combination; the Government would no longer possess any claim to obedience; and the Minority would be justified in defending, by force, those rights which the Majority had attacked. But all dangers of this sort, I trust, are entirely chimerical; a system of levelling being as repugnant to the feelings of the human breast, and to all the rules of morality and justice which regulate the conduct of mankind, as it is contrary to the experience of all ages and nations. I am, Sir,
[* ]In the debate on the Succession Tax.
[† ]Mr. Pitt has borrowed this opinion, without acknowledgement, from Rousseau—Du Contrat Social, Liv. I. Chap. IX.
[* ]See Locke on Civil Government, Book II. Chap. V.
[* ]Hume’s Essays, Part I. Essay V.
[* ]These observations on the Right of Property are merely a very slight sketch of the admirable discussion, respecting the origin and history of Property, introduced by Professor Millar, of Glasgow, in his Lectures on Civil Law. It is almost unnecessary to add, that the opinions are founded on Dr. Smith’s just and elegant Theory of Moral Sentiments.