Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter eight: An Incontestable Axiom - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter eight: An Incontestable Axiom - Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments 
Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
An Incontestable Axiom
In indicating, as we have done in this section, necessarily in a very abbreviated way, some of the rules regarding taxation, our intention was to suggest to the reader ideas he could enlarge on, rather than develop any of them. This task would have taken us well beyond the confines we have set ourselves. One incontestable axiom no sophism can obfuscate is that any tax, of any sort, always has a more or less unfortunate influence.18 If the use of the tax sometimes produces a benefit, its levying always produces an ill.19 The ill may be necessary. Like all such ills, however, it must be rendered as small as possible. The more resources are left at the disposal of individual activity, the more a State prospers. A tax, just because it takes some portion or other of these resources away from those efforts, is inevitably harmful. The more money is taken away from the various nations, says M. de Vauban in The Royal Tithe,20 the more it is taken away from commerce. The best-employed money in the realm is that which stays in the hands of individuals, where it is never pointless nor idle.
 Rousseau, who was uninformed in things financial, followed many others in saying that in monarchies the excessive surplus of the subjects must be consumed in the opulence of the prince, because it was better that this surplus be absorbed by government than dissipated by individuals.21 This doctrine reveals an absurd mix of monarchical prejudices and republican opinions. The prince’s opulence, far from discouraging that of individuals, gives it encouragement and example. It must not be thought that in despoiling them he is reforming them. He can plunge them into poverty; but he cannot bring them back to innocence. All that happens is that the poverty of some occurs in combination with the opulence of others, the most deplorable of all combinations.
Equally inconsequent arguments have concluded that because the most heavily taxed countries, such as England and Holland, are also the richest, they are richest because most heavily taxed. They take the effect for the cause. “People are not rich because they contribute. They contribute because they are rich.”22
“Everything which goes beyond real needs,” says a writer of incontestable authority on this subject,23 “loses its legitimacy. The only difference between personal violations and those of the sovereign, is that the injustice of the former results from straightforward ideas which everybody can easily distinguish, while the latter are linked to mixed causes as vast as they are complicated, such that no one can judge them other than conjecturally.”
[20. ]Hofmann was unable to locate the passage indicated by Constant. On the other hand, in Ch. 11 of La dîme royale (the royal tithe), Vauban does express himself analogously. “I even dare say that of all the temptations against which princes must most guard themselves, those are they which drive them to extract everything they can from their subjects, since being able to do anything to the peoples entirely subject to them, they are quite likely to ruin them without noticing.” Sébastian Le Prestre de Vauban, Ladîme royale, ed. Georges Michel, Paris, Guillaumin, s.d. , p. 192.
Adam Smith, op. cit., t. IV, pp. 257–554.
Jean-Baptiste Say, op. cit., t. II, pp. 408–448.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ed. cit., p. 416.
Jean-Baptiste Say, op. cit., t. II, pp. 465–466, Ch. 11.
Jacques Necker, op. cit., t. I, p. 43. Constant has changed the text slightly. The original says simply: “That which exceeds this measure.”