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Adam Smith claims that exorbitant taxes imposed without consent of the governed constitute legitimate grounds for the people to resist their rulers (1763)

In his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1763) Adam Smith discusses the "very figurative metaphoricall consent" that people are supposed to grant the ruler to tax them. When taxes become "very exorbitant" he believes the people have the right to resist as the Americans did in 1775:

It is in Britain alone that any consent of the people is required, and God knows it is but a very figurative metaphoricall consent which is given here. And in Scotland still more than in England, as but very few have a vote for a Member of Parliament | who give this metaphoricall consent; and yet this is not any where reckoned a sufficient cause of rebellion. No doubt the raising of a very exorbitant tax, as the raising as much in peace as in war, or the half or even the fifth of the wealth of the nation, would, as well as any other gross abuse of power, justify resistance in the people.

The foundation of the allegiance of the people being a tacit contract is not at all just, and we see accordingly that few of those limitations laid down by writers who follow that scheme are to be found in fact in any country.—It is a rule laid down by Mr. Locke as a principle that the people have a right to resist whenever the sovereign takes their money from them without their consent by levying taxes to which they have not agreeed. Now we see that in France, Spain, etc. the consent of the people is not in the least thought of; the king imposes what taxes he pleases. It is in Britain alone that any consent of the people is required, and God knows it is but a very figurative metaphoricall consent which is given here. And in Scotland still more than in England, as but very few have a vote for a Member of Parliament | who give this metaphoricall consent; and yet this is not any where reckoned a sufficient cause of rebellion. No doubt the raising of a very exorbitant tax, as the raising as much in peace as in war, or the half or even the fifth of the wealth of the nation, would, as well as any other gross abuse of power, justify resistance in the people. But where this power is exerted with moderation, tho perhaps it is not done with the greatest propriety as it is in no country whatever, and tho not even a figurative consent is requir’d, yet they never think that they ought to resist tho they may claim the liberty of remonstrating against it.—Government was established to defend the property of the subjects, but if it come to be of a conterary tendency, yet they must agree to give up a little of their right. You must agree to repose a certain trust in them, tho if they absolutely break thro it, resistance is to be made if the consequences of it be not worse than the thing itself.

About this Quotation:

In these lectures on jurisprudence, given in 1763, Adam Smith makes a number of claims which have great significance for the coming American Revolution and for political theory in general. In a discussion of “exorbitant taxation” (which Smith seems to believe is somewhere between 1/5 and ½ of a nation’s wealth) he mentions the consent theory of John Locke, in particular the idea of “implied consent”. This is the notion that by not revolting the government can “imply” that “consent” to its legislation has been granted by the citizenry. In the case of taxation in Britain, Smith mocks this idea by calling it sarcastically “very figurative metaphoricall consent”, i.e. no consent at all. When taxes do rise to these shockingly high levels (1/5!) the people have the right to resist their government, as the Americans were shortly to do.

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