Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XV.: 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 XV.: 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.
November 18. 1796.
Having shown the evils inseparable from great inequality of property to be no less destructive of private happiness than of public prosperity, I might perhaps be justified in concluding, that the State has a right to interfere, and, by taxation, or other regulations, to endeavour to check so dangerous an abuse. It is, however, unnecessary for me to rest on the principle of expediency, for it will be easy to prove, that, unless the proportion, which the taxes bear to the property of each contributor, increases progressively, according to the amount of his property, our system of taxation is essentially unjust.
“Entails are founded upon the most absurd of all suppositions, the supposition, that every successive generation of men have not an equal right to the earth, and to all that it possesses; but that the property of the present generation should be restrained and regulated according to the fancy of those who died perhaps five hundred years ago. Entails, however, are still respected through the greater part of Europe, in those countries particularly in which noble birth is a necessary qualification for the enjoyment either of civil or military honours. Entails are thought necessary for maintaining this exclusive privilege of the nobility to the great offices and honours of their country; and that Order having usurped one unjust advantage over the rest of their fellow-citizens, lest their poverty should render it ridiculous, it is thought reasonable, that they should have another.”
Wealth of Nations, Book III. Chap. II.
The taxes which each inhabitant pays to the state, consist of the quantity of enjoyment, of which he deprives himself, for the good of the community. The exertions of government secure to him all his enjoyments, and enable him to follow out in quiet such measures as he thinks may increase his comforts. In return for these advantages, it is requisite that he should yield part of his enjoyments to the public exigencies; and it seems reasonable, that the part so yielded by individuals, should correspond to the advantages they respectively enjoy. Society may be viewed as a great commercial concern, in which the input stock ought to be proportioned to the share of profits to be afterwards drawn by each individual. The gold or silver paid into the treasury, is merely a way of estimating the quantity of enjoyments yielded to the state by each individual; and if, in the different conditions of life, the same quantity of the precious metals represents very different quantities of enjoyment, this ought to be attended to in apportioning the public burdens. If we disregard so material a consideration, our taxes may be nominally equal, but they will be in reality unjust: One man will receive the greatest benefits from society, without being subjected to any real burden, while another, in attaining advantages comparatively trifling, will be obliged to submit to very considerable privations. Thus, if a man of 100l. a-year pays 10l. to the state, he deprives himself of a much greater part of his comforts, than a man possessed of 1000l. a-year, who pays 100l., and still more than the possessor of 20,000l. of revenue, who contributes 2000l. The first will perceive a very effential diminution of the enjoyments he can command; the second will experience some inconveniency from the tax; to the third, the difference will be altogether imperceptible. While the one has been subjected to considerable hardships, in order to secure his 100l. from the injustice of mankind; the other is protected in the enjoyment of a revenue of twenty times the amount, without being forced to abandon even his most capricious indulgences. Even on a cursory view, the injustice of such a partition of the public burdens is indisputable; but it will appear still more clearly, if we consider the causes of that inequality which so evidently results from applying the same rule of contribution to the rich and to the poor.
All our enjoyments may be divided into necessaries, comforts, and superfluities. These classes, undoubtedly, melt into each other, like different shades of colours; but, though it is often difficult to ascertain the exact line of demarcation, there are certain fixed and specific differences, by which, in general, they may be distinguished.
Under necessaries, may be included, whatever is requisite to the existence and full developement of the powers of man; whatever conduces to the growth and proper nourishment of the body; whatever is necessary to the due expansion of the powers of the mind; whatever, if withheld, would prevent the animal from reaching his full maturity, and continuing his species. Every tax, which diminishes the funds allotted to this class of expences, must occasion real misery; it may often put a period to existence, and it will always cramp the powers and energies of man.
The second class, comprehends all conveniences, comforts, and real luxuries; whatever is requisite or useful, not to the being, but to the well-being of man; whatever is fitted, by its own qualities, to give pleasure to his senses, or to bring delight to his mind. This is a most extensive class of enjoyments, reaching from the simplest pleasures, to the most refined delicacies contrived by human ingenuity, or collected, from the most distant countries, by the indefatigable labours of man. To be deprived of any of these is an evil, for they all contribute, in some degree, to happiness; but they are not all of equal importance. The privation of any of our indulgences will be more or less severely felt, according as it approaches to, or recedes from, the class of necessaries, according as it contributes to our real well-being, or merely administers to a capricious desire.
Under the head of superfluities, may be ranked, whatever is valued merely as a proof of riches; such things as are of themselves fitted to produce neither pleasure nor happiness; such as delight none of the senses, as neither improve, adorn, nor even occupy the mind; such as are often, in their own nature, troublesome or disgusting; but, being unattainable by men of moderate fortune, serve to distinguish the opulent, and to draw towards us the stupid stare of both the great and little vulgar. To be deprived of these superfluities, is merely to lose the admiration which they procured, and that high rank in life of which they are the most ready testimonies. But all ranks are relative to those on the same level with ourselves, or at least to those nearly on that level. Although we ourselves remain stationary, we feel degraded if those formerly our equals become our superiors, and elevated if they become our inferiors. Were we to retain the same rank relatively to all around us, we should neither be affected by the increase nor by the diminution of our superfluities. To part with superfluities, is, therefore, very different from the loss of comforts or of luxuries, however trifling these last may be; it is a relative, not an absolute privation. If those of our own rank, and our immediate superiors and inferiors, are equally reduced, we find ourselves exactly in our former situation, and can scarcely feel the slightest uneasiness.
The whole, or nearly the whole, of the incomes of workmen and of small tradesmen and farmers, is expended on what are strictly the necessaries of life. They find it sufficiently difficult to maintain their families, to provide that sustenance without which their children would perish; they have little or no surplus for the gratification of less urgent demands; and if they are taxed, they are made to pay an enormous price for the very small degree of protection they require from society. The sum, however, requisite to procure the absolute necessaries of life, is not very large; and, when a man’s revenue exceeds this amount, he expends what remains in procuring its conveniences and comforts; but having little to spare from his necessaries, he endeavours to procure, with that little, all the gratification it can afford. He is therefore careful to spend no part of it, except on such articles of food, habitation, and clothing, as will contribute much to his well-being* . As his income increases, he indulges himself in other enjoyments, which contribute in some degree, though not so materially, to his ease or pleasure. As he advances, all real enjoyments are at last exhausted, and he betakes himself to capricious desires, to refined, and often imaginary gratifications. In this progress, the advantages he derives from government are always increasing, and the price he pays for these advantages is always diminishing. When he is forced to abandon real and essential enjoyments, he is subjected to a serious hardship; but when he merely relinquishes pleasures which are the vain progeny of caprice, he is protected in the enjoyment of all the necessaries, and even most of the comforts and luxuries of life, in return for the sacrifice of trifles which could add little to his happiness. But there is a point at which the most refined indulgences must end; and those superfluities, which serve merely for show, dignity, and rank, must absorb the rest of every splendid revenue. It may be difficult to point out the boundary, for many of our real enjoyments are enhanced by a similar pride and vanity; but the distinction is not, on that account, less real. A few servants may be kept, partly for conveniency, partly for show; but a large establishment brings nothing but vexation, and can be endured only as the means of attracting the regards and admiration of the world. When a man is forced merely to part with such superfluities, he procures the security of all the necessaries, all the comforts, all the luxuries of life, in return for the relinquishment of follies which vex him, and which, as all his acquaintances are equally brought down, are no longer necessary to his rank and dignity. While the man of moderate fortune, who enjoys comparatively little from the protection of society, is fensibly affected by the weight of taxes, he, contrary to every principle of justice, derives every possible advantage from the social combination, without being subjected to any, even the most trifling privation.
Although then, Sir, I should admit, what I hope in my next letter to prove totally unfounded, that the public expences are, in no degree, increased in consequence of inequality of property, still I might justly contend, that the proportion of taxes, to the fortune of each individual, ought to advance in a quick progression, according to his wealth.—I am, Sir,
[* ]What I am tracing is the natural progress of expenditure; the observations, unfortunately for mankind, will not apply to those whose morals are corrupted by inequality of property.