A Treatise on Political Economy

Jean-Baptiste Say
Say, Jean-Baptiste
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C. R. Prinsep, trans. and Clement C. Biddle., ed.
First Pub. Date
Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co.,
Pub. Date
6th edition. Based on the 4th-5th editions.
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A portion of the objects of public consumption have, in some very rare instances, been provided by a private individual. We see occasional acts of private munificence, in the erection of a hospital, the laying out of a road, or of public gardens upon the land, and at the cost, of an individual. In ancient times, examples of this kind were more frequent, though much less meritorious. The private opulence of the ancients was commonly the fruit of domestic, or provincial, plunder and peculation, or perhaps the spoil of a hostile nation, purchased with the blood of fellow-citizens. Among the moderns, though such excesses do sometimes occur, individual wealth is, in the great majority of cases, the fruit of personal industry and economy. In England, where there are so many institutions founded and supported by private funds, most of the fortunes of the founders and supporters have been acquired in industrious occupations. It requires a greater exertion of generosity to sacrifice wealth, acquired by a long course of toil and self-denial, than to give away what has been obtained by a stroke of good fortune, or even by an act of lucky temerity.


Among the Romans, a further portion of the public consumption was supplied directly by the vanquished nations who were subjected to a tribute which the victors consumed.


In most modern states, there is some territorial property vested, either in the nation at large, or in the subordinate communities, cities, towns, and villages, which is leased out, or occupied directly by the public. In France, most of the public lands of tillage and pasturage, with their appurtenances, are let out on lease; the government reserving only the national forests under the direct administration of its agents. The produce of the whole forms a considerable item in the catalogue of public resources.


But these resources consist, for the most part, of the produce of taxes levied upon the subjects or citizens. These taxes are sometimes national, that is, levied upon the whole nation, and paid into the general treasury of the state, whence the public national expenditure is defrayed; and sometimes local, or provincial, that is, levied upon the inhabitants of a certain canton or province only, and paid into the local treasury, whence are defrayed the local expenses.


It is a principle of equity, that consumption should be charged to those who derive gratification from it; consequently, those countries must be pronounced to be the best governed, in respect of taxation, where each class of inhabitants contributes in taxation proportionately to the benefit derived by it from the expenditure.


Every individual and class in the community is benefitted by the central administration, or, in other words, the general government so likewise of the security afforded by the national military establishment; for the provinces can hardly be secure from external attack, if the enemy have possession of the metropolis, and can thence overawe and control them; imposing laws upon districts where his force has not penetrated, and disposing of the lives and property even of such as have not seen the face of an enemy. For the same reason the charge of fortresses, arsenals, and diplomatic agents is properly thrown upon the whole community.


It would seem, that the administration of justice should be classed among the general charges, although the security and advantage it affords have more of a local character. When the magistracy of Bordeaux arrests and tries an offender, the public internal security of France is unquestionably promoted. The charge of gaols and courthouses necessarily follows that of the magistracy. Smith has expressed an opinion, that civil justice should be defrayed by the litigating parties; which would be more practicable than at present, were the judges in the appointment of the parties in each particular case, and no otherwise in the nomination of the public authority, than inasmuch as the choice might be limited to specified persons of approved knowledge and integrity. They would then be arbitrators, and a sort of equitable jurors, and might be paid proportionately to the matter in dispute without regard to the length of the suit; and would thus have an obvious interest in simplifying the process, and sparing their own time and trouble, as well as in attracting business by the general equity of their decisions.*66


But local administration and local institutions of utility, pleasure, instruction, or beneficence, appear to yield a benefit exclusively to the place or district where they are situated. Wherefore, it should seem, that their expenses ought to fall, as in most countries they do, upon the local population. Not but that the nation at large derives some benefit from good provincial administration, or institutions. A stranger has access to the public places, libraries, schools, walks, and hospitals of the district; but the principal benefit unquestionably results to the immediate neighbourhood.


It is good economy to leave the administration of the local receipts and disbursements to the local authorities; particularly where they are appointed by those, whose funds they administer. There is much less waste, when the money is spent under the eye of those who contribute it, and who are to reap the benefit; besides, the expense is better proportioned to the advantage expected. When one passes through a city or town badly paved and ill-conditioned, or sees a canal or harbour in a state of dilapidation, one may conclude, in nine cases out of ten, that the authorities, who are to administer the funds appropriated to those objects, do not reside on the spot.


In this particular, small states have an advantage over more extensive ones. They have more enjoyment from a less expenditure upon objects of public utility or amusement; because they are at hand to see that the funds, destined to the object, are faithfully applied.

Notes for this chapter

Our author seems in this passage to have become a convert to the opinion of Smith, in respect to the civil tribunals of a nation, from which he had expressed his dissent, in former editions. Though arbitration may be a very good mode of settling civil suits, where the parties are both anxious to come to a settlement, and indeed is frequently resorted to, and should always be encouraged; yet it is manifest, that there must be a compulsory tribunal for the obstinate, or refractory. And, since security of person and property is the main object of social institutions, it is but just, that invasion in a particular instance should be repelled and deterred at the public charge. In strict justice, the invader should be held to make good the whole damage; and so he is or ought to be, in the shape of costs, fine, damages, or otherwise. But it is not consistent with equity that the sufferer should be deterred from pursuing his claim, by superadding a proportion of the outlay upon the judicial establishments to the charge of witnesses and agents, which he must necessarily advance, and to the risk of inability in the delinquent, even in the event of ultimate success. Translator.

Book III, Chapter VIII

End of Notes

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