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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Nature of the objection. -- Luxury not necessary -- Either to population -- Or to the improvement of the mind. -- Its true character.
{814} These ideas of justice and improvement are as old as literature and reflexion themselves. They have suggested themselves in detached parts to the inquisitive in all ages, though they have perhaps never been brought together so as sufficiently to strike the mind with their consistency and beauty. But, after having furnished an agreeable dream, they have perpetually been laid aside as impracticable. We will proceed to examine the objections upon which this supposed impracticability has been founded; and the answer to these objections will gradually lead us to such a development of the proposed system, as by its completeness and the regular adjustment of its parts will be calculated to carry conviction to the most prejudiced minds.

There is one objection that has chiefly been cultivated on English ground, and to which we will give the priority of examination. {815} It has been affirmed 'that private vices are public benefits.' But this principle, thus coarsely stated by one of its original advocates1, was remodelled by his more elegant successors2. They observed, 'that the true measure of virtue and vice was utility, and consequently that it was an unreasonable calumny to state luxury as a vice. Luxury,' they said, 'whatever might be the prejudices that cynics and ascetics had excited against it, was the rich and generous soil that brought to perfection the true prosperity of mankind. Without luxury men must always have remained solitary savages. It is luxury by which palaces are built and cities peopled. How could there have been high population in any country, without the various arts in which the swarms of its inhabitants are busied? The true benefactor of mankind is not the scrupulous devotee who by his charities encourages insensibility and sloth; is not the surly philosopher who reads them lectures of barren morality; but the elegant voluptuary who employs thousands in sober and healthful industry to procure dainties for his table, who unites distant nations in commerce to supply him with furniture, and who encourages the fine arts and all the sublimities of invention to furnish decorations for his residence.'

I have brought forward this objection, rather that nothing material {816} might appear to be omitted, than because it requires a separate answer. The true answer has been anticipated. It has been seen that the population of any country is measured by its cultivation. If therefore sufficient motives can be furnished to excite men to agriculture, there is no doubt, that population may be carried on to any extent that the land can be made to maintain. But agriculture, when once begun, is never found to stop in its career, but from positive discountenance. It is territorial monopoly that obliges men unwillingly to see vast tracts of land lying waste, or negligently and imperfectly cultivated, while they are subjected to the miseries of want. If land were perpetually open to him who was willing to cultivate it, it is not to be believed but that it would be cultivated in proportion to the wants of the community, nor by the same reason would there be any effectual check to the increase of population.

Undoubtedly the quantity of manual labour would be greatly inferior to that which is now performed by the inhabitants of any civilised country, since at present perhaps one twentieth part of the inhabitants performs the agriculture which supports the whole. But it is by no means to be admitted that this leisure would be found a real calamity.

As to what sort of a benefactor the voluptuary is to mankind, this was sufficiently seen when we treated of the effects of dependence and injustice. To this species of benefit all the crimes {817} and moral evils of mankind are indebted for their perpetuity. If mind be preferred to mere animal existence, if it ought to be the wish of every reasonable enquirer, not merely that man, but that happiness should be propagated, then is the voluptuary the bane of the human species.


1. Mandeville; Fable of the Bees.

2. Coventry, in a treatise entitled, Philemon to Hydaspes: Hume; Essays, Part II, Essay II.