William Petty Describing Real Capitalism

William Petty & the Birth of English State-Capitalism

by Gwydion M. Williams

Including selections from Petty’s writings. His anticipation of the growth of Britain, and his expectation of a future dominated by industry and city life rather than agriculture.

Also Petty’s views on Ireland, where he hoped to see the native inhabitants swamped by English settlers, much as happened in North America.

Adam Smith wrote an elegant book that explained why nothing could or should exist apart from capitalism as he knew it. What he knew was ‘Gentry Capitalism’, a society in which commercial life was subordinate to the values of the landed gentry. His book appeared in 1776, the very year when this system suffered a fatal blow with the Declaration of Independence in Britain’s rebellious North American colonies.

As I’ve detailed in Wealth Without Nations (Athol Books 2000), Adam Smith was very much on the side of the gentry, the people who saw North America as the last holdout of the anarchic democratic forces that had escaped during the civil wars of the mid-17th century. Britain’s rulers could almost certainly have kept the thirteen colonies by giving them two seats each in the corrupt oligarchical parliament of the day. But this would have been compromising with democratic forces, with the weight of non-gentry power in North America likely to grow as the population expanded and pushed west. Adam Smith did argue for giving the colonies a place in parliament in The Wealth of Nations, but gave no explanation as to why this had not been done when it might have saved British North America.

Because the attempt to crush democracy failed and because mainland Britain eventually succumbed to it, it is now convenient to pretend that perpetual rule by the gentry was never the intention. Which makes a nonsense of the behaviour of George III and his ministers, usually treated as if they were fools.

In my view, King George and Lord North were acting rationally for the preservation of their own system. The British parliament was elected by a minority of adult males until 1884, with many poorer Britons and all women excluded until 1918. The system that existed up until 1832 gave the vote to one adult male in seven – some say only one in ten. The real balance of power was much more oligarchic: most of the votes were piled up in a minority of constituencies with a wide franchise. Because of ‘pocket boroughs’, public voting and seats with a very small number of voters, a few hundred rich men controlled most of the seats in the House of Commons.

The system as it existed had been stabilised in 1688, though no one in 1688 would have been sure that the ‘British Wars’ had finally ended. Britain back then had had as many drastic ‘regime changes’ as Afghanistan has had recently (a process that’s probably not yet finished). Britain was at least left alone to resolve its internal tensions in its own time and in its own way. And from those British Wars emerged many clear and interesting voices, including one man who foresaw industrial capitalism long before it existed as a solid system.

Sir William Petty gets marginalised, in part because his interesting remarks are isolated paragraphs amidst a mass of out-of-date statistics. In part because his ‘wealth-creating’ activities in Cromwellian Ireland resist the best efforts of biographers to make it look respectable: would make the crooks at Enron look like innocent little lambs. Petty is also an embarrassment because he justified and exalts the role of taxation and the state, at a time when gentry power was not at all secure. Scholars generally recognise his importance, but the popularisers of New Right economics prefer to avoid him, there is too much about him that will not fit their categories.

So behold the man himself.

Self-made Petty

William Petty was born in 1623, the son of a clothier in Hampshire. He managed to get a good education, studying in Paris and the Netherlands. He worked for a time as an assistant to Thomas Hobbes. He managed to dodge the ‘English’ Civil War, but got himself attached to the Cromwellian cause once it was firmly in power. According to the Wikipedia:

“A precocious and intelligent youngster, he became a cabin boy in 1637, but was set ashore in Normandy after an injury on board. After this setback, he applied in Latin to study with the Jesuits in Caen, supporting himself by teaching English. After a year, he returned to England and had by now a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, mathematics and astronomy.

“After an uneventful period in the Navy, he left to study in Holland in 1643, an exile of the English Civil War, and developed an interest in anatomy. Through an English professor in Amsterdam, he became personal secretary to Hobbes and came into contact with Descartes, Gassendi and Mersenne also. In 1646, he returned to England and, after developing a double-writing instrument with little success in sales, he studied medicine in Oxford University. He befriended Hartlib and Boyle, and he became a member of the London Philosophical Society, and possibly met John Milton. By 1651, he had risen to Professor of Anatomy at Brasenose College, Oxford and was also Professor of Music in London.

“In 1652, he left on a leave of absence and travelled with Oliver Cromwell’s army in Ireland, as physician-general. His opposition to conventional universities, being committed to ‘new science’ as inspired by Francis Bacon and imparted by his afore-mentioned acquaintances, perhaps pushed him from Oxford. He was perhaps pulled to Ireland by sense of ambition and desire for wealth and power. His breadth of interests was such that he successfully secured the contract for charting Ireland in 1654, so that those who had lent funds to Cromwell’s army might be repaid in land – a means of ensuring the army was self-financing.” (Wikipedia, entry for Petty, as at June 2006).

Ireland had been infiltrated by adventurous Norman lords in Mediaeval times, much as Scotland had been. In Scotland, this ended up with a national monarchy under the Bruce dynasty, whose origins were Norman. Whereas Ireland had been awarded by the Pope to the English monarchy, which could never rule the island but also prevented it from forming its own government. The nearest Ireland came may have been when Robert the Bruce went there as part of his ongoing war with England, after which his brother Edward Bruce tried to set himself up as Ireland’s King. As it happened, Edward Bruce was killed and achieved nothing permanent, whereas Robert Bruce restored Scotland.

Bruce’s grandson was the first of the Stuart kings, uncertain rulers of Scotland but vastly more powerful once James the 6th and 1st inherited England from Queen Elizabeth Tudor. Ireland came with England, in the official governmental view, but from the Irish viewpoint the Stuarts had legitimacy due to a remote Irish origin. Ireland was settling down under the first two Stuarts, but got caught up in the ‘English’ Civil Wars – sensibly redefined as the British Wars by Simon Schama in his recent history. Ireland asserted itself but also rejected the right of the English parliament to overthrow their monarch. Ireland was virtually independent from 1641 to 1649, when Cromwell landed as part of the Second Civil War which followed the English execution of Charles the First.

Cromwell took a different attitude to previous English rulers. Monarchs had regarded the Irish as their people, however difficult it might be to convince the Irish of this. Cromwell and those who followed him viewed Ireland much more as a useful resource with the wrong sort of people living on it—much as the Puritan settlers of North America would view the Native Americans. There was a broad desire to sweep aside the ‘natives’ and settle English instead: Ireland would be fine if it was free of Irish. Petty summed up a widespread attitude when he said:

“Ireland is a place which must have so great an Army kept up in it, as may make the Irish desist from doing themselves or the English harm by their future Rebellions. And this great Army must occasion great and heavy Levies upon a poor people and wasted Country; it is therefore not amiss that Ireland should understand the nature and measure of Taxes and Contributions

“The Parishes of Ireland do much want Regulation, by uniting and dividing them; so as to make them fit Enclosures wherein to plant the Gospel: wherefore what I have said as to the danger of supernumerary Ministers, may also be seasonable there, when the new Geography we expect of that Island shall have afforded means for the Regulation abovementioned…

“Ireland is under-peopled in the whole, and since the Government there can never be safe without chargeable Armies, until the major part of the Inhabitants be English, whether by carrying over these, or withdrawing the other… (Petty, A Treatise of Taxes & Contributions)

Petty brilliantly organised a land-survey of Ireland, breaking down complex tasks into simple elements that old soldiers could do. He also managed to become extremely wealthy in the process.

“In 1652 Dr. Petty was sent to Ireland as physician to the army of the Commonwealth. While there his active mind observed that the Survey on which the Government had based its distribution of fortified lands to the soldiers had been ‘most inefficiently and absurdly managed.’ He obtained the commission to make a fresh Survey, which he completed accurately in thirteen months, and by which he obtained in payments from the Government and from other persons interested ten thousand pounds. By investing this in the purchase of soldiers’ claims, he secured for himself an Irish estate of fifty thousand acres in the county of Kerry, opened upon it mines and quarries, developed trade in timber, and set up a fishery. John Evelyn said of him ‘that he had never known such another genius, and that if Evelyn were a prince he would make Petty his second councillor at least.’ Henry Cromwell as Lord Deputy in Ireland made Petty his secretary.” (A Treatise of Taxes & Contributions: introduction by Henry Morley)

I can’t help wondering if the people whom Petty pushed aside had been deliberately obstructive. Did loyal Cromwellians balk at the possibility of an entire nation being dispossessed? It’s just as possibly that they were callous and ineffective, we may never know. What is clear is that Petty managed it and managed to grow rich from his achievements.

Petty was also one of many who managed to keep his position when England restored Charles 2nd. It must have helped that he had an old acquaintance with Hobbes, who had been the new King’s mathematics tutor. Besides, the King had been restored as a compromise and did not reverse most of the changes that had taken place during the Commonwealth. Petty flourished until his death in 1687, and his descendants did just as well under the monarchy of William & Mary, Anne and then the Hanoverians.

Petty worked in the areas that later separated as Statistics and ‘Political Economy’. Political Economy has in turn been reduced to ‘Economics’, with the political arrangement necessary for capitalism treated as if they were a law of nature. (Cats and hedgehogs probably treat highways and automobiles as inexplicable natural phenomena: humans ought to know better.)

Economics meant originally the running of a single household, and economic thinkers have mostly tried to generalise from this. Petty took a different view: he began by viewing society as a whole, a complex entity that could be called a ‘combine’. He then noticed what individual classes and categories of people were doing within the wider social structures. It was a much more sophisticated approach than that taken a century later by Adam Smith. Smith missed the fact that the Industrial Revolution had started within his lifetime. Petty recognised that England in his day was changing rapidly:

“London had become in the time of the Stuarts the most populous city in Europe, if not in the world. This Sir William Petty sought to prove against the doubts of foreign and other critics, and his “Political Arithmetic” was an endeavour to determine the relative strength in population of the chief cities of England, France, and Holland. His application of arithmetic in the first of these essays to a census of the population at the Day of Judgment he himself spoke of slightingly. It is a curious example of a bygone form of theological discussion. But his tables and his reasonings upon them grow in interest as he attempts his numbering of the people in the reign of James II. by collecting facts upon which his deductions might be founded. The references to the deaths by Plague in London before the cleansing of the town by the great fire of 1666 are very suggestive; and in one passage there is incidental note of delay in the coming of the Plague then due, without reckoning the change made in conditions of health by the rebuilding. Nobody knew, and no one even now can calculate, how many lives the Fire of London saved.

“There was in Petty’s time no direct numbering of the people. The first census in this country was not until more than a hundred years after Sir William Petty’s death, although he points out in these essays how easily it could be established, and what useful information it would give. There was a census taken at Rome 566 years before Christ. But the first census in Great Britain was taken in 1801, under provision of an Act passed on the last day of the year 1800, to secure a numbering of the population every ten years. Ireland was not included in the return; the first census in Ireland was not until the year 1813.” (A Treatise of Taxes & Contributions: introduction by Henry Morley)

The Division of Labour

Sir William Petty was the first modern writer to take note of Division of Labour, showing its existence and usefulness in Dutch shipyards. Classically the workers in a shipyard would build ships as units, finishing one before starting another. But the 17th century Dutch had it organised with several teams each doing the same tasks for successive ships.

The simple fact that ‘many hands make light work’ is known to ants and apes and wolves. As a point of economic theory, it had been noted by a whole series of writers going back at least as far as Classical Greece. It is mentioned by Petty as a minor matter, one aspect of a sophisticated economy:

“If a man can bring to London an ounce of Silver out of the Earth of Peru, in the same time that he can produce a bushel of Corn, then one is the natural price of the other; now if by reason of new and more easy Mines a man can get two ounces of Silver as easily as formerly he did one, then Corn will be as cheap at ten shillings the bushel, as it was before at five shillings.” (The Economic Writings Of Sir William Petty, page 50-1)

“For as Cloth must be cheaper made, when one Lards, another Spins, another Weaves, another Draws, another Dresses, another Presses and packs; than when all the Operations above mentioned, were clumsily performed by the same hand.” (Ibid, page 260)

Petty invented the term ‘Political Arithmetic’, and made it mean a great deal more than simply adding up official balance sheets. Living in the 17th century, he somehow realised that Britain was on the brink of a dramatic shift to a mainly industrial and urbanised society. In his essay on the growth of the city of London, he showed astonishing foresight in asserting that Britain could become a mainly commercial and industrial country, a city-state on a gigantically enlarged scale.

No one before Petty, and few afterwards, anticipated that agriculture could be reduced to a minority occupation—not before it happened in the real and visible economy. In his pamphlet on the growth of London, Petty was able to foresee that a nation as large as Britain could become predominantly urban and manufacturing.

The industrial society (as distinct from a city-state dependant on foreign trade) was the first substantial move beyond the Babylonian invention of the Advanced Agricultural Civilisation. Petty saw the possibilities long before the big changes actually happened, foresaw the possibility of an urban manufacturing society in a land still mostly rural. He also had no doubt that labour was the source of value, though he had a better understanding than Smith of the way in which the state could control the process. You find some people quoting the old myth that it came from Ricardo and Marx, ‘two Jews pulling on the same rotten rope’. But the idea was developed by Petty the Englishman, influenced by the equally English Hobbes and Bacon. And then acquired by Mandeville the Dutchman and by Adam Smith the Lowland Scott, before being blamed on Ricardo and Karl Marx.

Smith says nothing about Petty in The Wealth Of Nations—nor anywhere else, apart for an obsequious reference in a private letter to Lord Shelburne, one of Petty’s powerful aristocratic descendants (See Correspondence Of Adam Smith, Letter No. 30). You can find Adam Smith in dozens of convenient editions. Very little by the real founder of British economic theory, a man who was also a ruthless but efficient economic manager.

Of course Petty at a personal level was not a decent or an admirable character: ‘Pettyism’ is not a creed anyone would feel like propagating. He was closely and embarrassingly involved in the actual process of re-inventing Britishness. Having managed to sit out the English Civil War, and be educated by Jesuits while remaining officially Protestant, he went on with great equanimity to serve Cromwell, Charles 2nd, and James 2nd. Had he lived a little longer, he could have been expected to do just as well in the reign of William and Mary.

Petty’s biggest contribution to the 17th century ‘re-invention’ of Britishness was to do his best to ‘de-invent’ the Catholic Irish, aiding the land survey in the Cromwellian settlement and making a private fortune in the process. He greatly helped a dispossession that might otherwise not have happened, breaking up the work of surveying into many semi-skilled tasks that ex-soldiers could manage successfully.

This is all part of how the British Empire was actually build, involving gross violations of human rights, deeds seen as unworthy even by the harsh standards of the time.

Unmentionable Wealth

Britons in the 18th century were doing well in a material and an economic sense. But they could not reconcile this to official ideology, respect for tradition and Christianity.   The spirit of the age is well expressed in the pictures of William Hogarth, an intense observer of rampant corruption. Yet Hogarth could be seen as a critic protesting at the bad state of modern morals. Mandeville shocked everyone by celebrating private vices as public virtues.

Bernard Mandeville was a Dutch writer and philosopher, settled in England and with some powerful patrons. He caused a stir by stripping the sinful 18th century of its pretence of virtue. The infamous Fable Of The Bees mocks the idea of British society ever trying to live by its own official notion of virtue. The ‘grumbling hive’ in his poem is suddenly enabled to live according to its own official virtues, by an Act of Divine Grace, and with disastrous results.

Mandeville showed a better understanding of economics than Adam Smith, and was the originator of several examples of Division of Labour that Smith used without acknowledgement. The example of a specialist bow-maker in primitive society comes fairly directly from Mandeville (The Wealth Of Nations, Glasgow Edition, footnote to page 27, section I.ii.3).

Mandeville’s key argument is that the ‘wasteful’ expenditure of the rich was creating employment and keeping everyone prosperous. His thesis resembled Keynes’s later opinion that it would be worthwhile for the government to hire people just to dig pits and fill them in again.

Mandeville justified a British system that was working quite well from the point of view of the gentry. It’s a pity, though, that Mandeville used his clever insights to ridicule the existing order, rather than to seriously propose something better. People can live cynically for a lone time, a generation or three, but some form of moral order will always assert itself in the end. If not yours, then someone else’s. Then again, what could he offer? Apart from a vague reverence for Classical antiquity, the 18th century suffered from a general feeling that attempts at living virtuously had not worked and would not work.

“The 1714 edition of Mandeville’s most important work, The Fable of the Bees, was subtitled Private Vices, Publick Benefits and consisted of a preface, the text of The Grumbling Hive, an ‘Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue,’ and ‘Remarks’ on the poem. The 1723 edition included an examination of ‘The Nature of Society’ and provoked a long controversy. The 1729 edition remodelled the entire argument to suit Mandeville’s philosophical commitment but nevertheless retained something of the original purpose of diverting readers.

“Mandeville’s argument in The Fable, a paradoxical defence of the usefulness of ‘vices,’ is based on his definition of all actions as equally vicious in that they are all motivated by self-interest. Yet while the motives must be vicious, the results of action are often socially beneficial, since they produce the wealth and comforts of civilisation.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Standard CD 1999)

People could live with a successful system based on acknowledged vice, but would never be happy with such a contradiction. Existing practice had been explained well enough by Petty, Hobbes and Mandeville, the true founders of modern Political Economy. But all of them had the status of ‘economic pornography’: stuff you would read with great interest and yet not admit to reading, let alone quote in public. Without realising it, people needed a scholar who would re-work Mandeville etc. into a respectable form, so that a successful gentry and middle class could be proud of what they were doing.

Petty and Mandeville could be considered the pornography of economics, an open description of what polite society preferred to ignore. Whereas Smith was the ‘Miles & Boon’, reassuring an unrealistic romances.

Tax, Spend & Prosper

Petty saw a possible future in the 17th century, a future of expansion and industry. He correctly emphasised that this would need a state machine funded out of taxation. You could manage without such things if you were ready to live at a mediaeval level. That would have been the choice of the majority, if they had been allowed to make it. Britain’s Industrial Revolution would have been delayed, perhaps prevented, if Parliament in the 18th century had had even the narrow democracy that Britain had after the 1832 Electoral Reform. The real power up until the 1830s lay with a much narrower group, an elite that did well out of the system. But society as a whole was also growing wealthier, as Petty predicted in defiance of conventional opinion. Money given to the rich has never yet resulted in genuine ‘trickle-down’. But for money given to the state machine, ‘trickle-down’ is a very real phenomenon:

“No part of Europe hath paid so much by way of Tax, and public contribution, as Holland and Zealand for this last 100 Years; and yet no Country hath in the same time, increased their Wealth comparably to them.” (Political Arithmetic)

Britain in Petty’s day was being organised as a centralised state. The Netherlands began earlier but did not take the process as far. They had a well-funded state but also lots of local autonomy. Too much, if the priority was industrialisation and a world empire rather than a contented local existence. The Industrial Revolution happened in Britain, where cities had to obey the state and accept national standards. One of Holland’s disadvantages in the game of power was its admirable respect for local democratic rights, which the British Parliament could always override.

When Petty lived, the state was vastly smaller and weaker than it was in late-Georgian or Victorian times. Its dominance was not a foregone conclusion. Petty could not suppose that the changes he wanted would happen spontaneously. He knew perfectly well that they would not.

Adam Smith said that Britain prospered despite the expanded role of the state, which he saw as a burden. The New Right repeat this view, avoiding unsuitable facts and inconvenient histories—the Hanseatic League, for instance. Admirable systems of local self-government existed. But it was only those countries ‘burdened’ by a strong state that repeated Britain’s success.

The British state was strong and growing all through the 18th century. During the Industrial Revolution, it was also intensely protectionist. Internal barriers to trade were removed, but external controls were strong. The Georgian state was taking an ever-growing share of the growing national wealth.

“British limited monarchy had far more revenue to play with than the most despotic of Continental kings. It has been calculated that by the 1780s the people of Britain were paying taxes at the rate of thirty-five shillings per head, while the French paid twenty-one shillings, the Austrians twelve shillings, the Russians six shillings, the Prussians six shillings, and the Poles one shilling.” (The Ancien Regime in Europe, E. N. Williams, Pelican Books 1983)

The British economy was 50% bigger in 1740 compared to 1700, and 150% bigger in 1800. Industry and commerce were 79% bigger in 1760, nearly 300% bigger by 1800, whereas agriculture grew a mere 43% in the same period. But the real expansion was in government and defence, three times as large in 1760, twice that again by 1800, a 500% growth compared to 1700. (Figures cited in The Age of Manufactures by Maxine Berg, page 27. I have rounded the numbers given.)

When the state sector is the fastest growing thing in an economy, it is perverse to say that it is irrelevant to that economy. Or that Britons were ‘burdened’ by a wasteful state machine, when they were doing uniquely well, while the ‘unburdened’ languished in poverty. The state was a necessary element in Britain’s advance, given that the ruling class was broadly in favour of economic advance and did not try to hang on to formal social privileges:

“In England… even the commercialized ‘feudalism’ which existed in France had gone long before 1800, and noble status conferred no legal privilege beyond the rights to be summoned to a parliament (their other legal distinction was that like most of the other subjects of King George Ill, they could not vote in the election of a Member of Parliament). The English nobility was tiny… the House of Lords at the end of the eighteenth century had fewer than two hundred hereditary members, whose legal status could only be transmitted to a single successor. In Great Britain there was no large class of noble men and women, all enjoying extensive legal privileges separating them from the rest of the population, such as there was almost universally elsewhere in Europe. In France there were perhaps a quarter of a million nobles on the eve of the Revolution. All had important legal and formal rights; the corresponding legal order in England could comfortably have been assembled in the hall of an Oxford college and would have had rights correspondingly less impressive.” (Penguin History Of The World, page 542, emphasis added.)

“Once away from legal principle, the strengthening of the state showed itself in the growing ability of kings and princes to get their way. One indicator was the nearly universal decline in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the representative institutions which had appeared in many countries in the later Middle Ages. By 1789, most of western (if not central and eastern) Europe was ruled by monarchs little hindered by representative bodies; the main exception was in Great Britain. Kings began in the sixteenth century to enjoy powers which would have seemed remarkable to medieval barons and burghers. The phenomenon is sometimes described as the rise of absolute monarchy. If we do not exaggerate a monarch’s chances of actually carrying out his declared wishes (for many practical checks might exist to his power which were just as restricting as medieval immunities or a representative assembly), the term is acceptable. Everywhere, or almost everywhere, the relative strength of rulers vis-à-vis their rivals increased greatly from the sixteenth century onwards. New financial resources gave them standing armies and artillery to use against great nobles who could not afford them. Sometimes the monarchy was able to ally itself with the slow growth of a sense of nationhood in imposing order on the over-mighty. In many countries the late fifteenth century had brought a new readiness to accept royal government if it would guarantee order and peace. There were special reasons in almost every case, but nearly everywhere monarchs raised themselves further above the level of the greatest nobles and buttressed their new pretensions to respect and authority with cannons and taxation.” (Ibid., page 550, emphasis added)

Capitalism appeared after the state, is just one of several possibilities opened up by the existence of a basic state machine. Before that we have patterns of distribution for amber, sea shells etc. These are called ‘trade routes’, but are more likely to have been a of gift exchange, something that every culture has.

We find it first in Mesopotamian cities, small state machines that mostly had to coexist and exchange goods. But until modern science developed – a community of communicating minds achieving things no individual genius could match – society could not get much above the Mesopotamian level.

This scientific community emerged in the 16th century, secured its existence in the 17th. Something new was bound to follow, but perhaps something quite different from what actually emerged. But in the 18th century, there was a rapid growth by what was now a British state machine, basically the English system with an autonomous add-on in Scotland and drawing on the resources of Wales and Ireland.

Real economic growth has always had the state at the core of it, with various enterprises wrapped around this core.

There was also Europe’s global expansion. Colonisation of the New World failed to happen as a result of individual initiatives. The vigorous and independent-minded Vikings got at least as far as Newfoundland, but the Native Americans kicked them out again when they realised that these strangers were a danger. The creators of European power in the New World were Conquistadors in the service of the enormously strong and arbitrary Spanish state. They were followed in North America by the French and British, each of which expended much wealth and armed might on a ‘cultural crusade’, the attempt to extend its population, culture and way of life into a vast undeveloped continent.

England settled various territories, including Ireland. Except that the Irish way of life showed a remarkable ability to swallow alternatives and remain unchanged. An English-speaking but culturally independent Irishness has outlasted Anglo-Irishness.


The revival of capitalism since the 1980s has been helped by the Marxist notion of capitalism as a single thing, something you either have or have not. Which is not true at all: the system that existed before 1914 was very different from what existed in 1814 or 1776. The abstractions of Smith’s Wealth Of Nations never have existed: he looked at a social order hammered into Britons since Petty’s day and supposed that it was based on spontaneous human nature.

If capitalism is the system of 1832-1914, then it perished in the Great War fought by its leading advocates. It would be better to call this Bourgeois Capitalism, and to see it as something that emerged after the basic breakthrough into industrial society. Petty was thinking about something that could better be called Gentry Capitalism, in which the middle class were fairly free to create new businesses and turn strange inventions into new industries, but in which the state and society were dominated by the Landed Gentry.

Britain’s best period was 1950 to 1975; Britain had never grown so fast before and it has not done as well 1975-2000, with the Thatcher ‘medicine’ producing no real improvement except for the rich. If you called the 1950 to 1975 system ‘Mesocapitalism’, middle-capitalism, you would then have a definite system to defend against the shysters of the New Right, who use different definitions of capitalism for different parts of their arguments.

Petty’s ‘Gentry Capitalism’, 1950s Mesocapitalism and the alternative ‘Mesocapitalism’ that China developed after Mao all get lumped together as capitalist in order to prove capitalism’s superiority. But then the same word is used in a much narrower sense, maybe the abstractions of economic models, more often the current realities of late 20th century Anglo capitalism. If Mesocapitalism is considered an entity in its own right, then it comes out as an economic optimum.

What we have had from the 1980s should be called Counter-Culture Capitalism. The selfish side of 1960s culture got translated into commercial life and proceeded to trample down bourgeois values in the pursuit of profit. Yuppies and Hedge Funds were the most obvious examples of this trend. Microsoft and the various other new industries are a more substantial manifestation of the same thing. Hierarchies have been flattened, there are more opportunities but also more risks. Counter-Culture Capitalism is quite different from what was foreseen by either Petty or Adam Smith.

History gets re-written. Khrushchev’s bungled attempt to create yet another variant on ‘Mesocapitalism’ is pushed aside or lumped with anti-capitalism. The vast economic success of Stalin’ system is ignored; for an alien system they talk about the costs and not the achievements, whereas for their own system they talk about just the achievements and never the costs. The USA is not defined as a success for commercial slavery, though it is doubtful if the USA could have managed without it much before its forcible abolition in the 1860s. At no time could the USA have expanded without the part-privatised genocide of inconvenient native inhabitants, but this is marginalised in modern histories.

Smith gets defined as the father of capitalism, because his work is elegant and his private life bland and blameless. Petty and Mandeville are too close to the reality of historic capitalism to be desirable as ideological standard-bearers.

I speak of capitalism, but of course the word ‘capitalism’ did not acquire its modern meaning until the early 19th century. Before that it was only used in the narrow sense of ‘Venture Capitalist’, someone who provided money to someone else’s business. The realities that Petty discuss are a rather alien world, and one which modern economists would prefer not to talk about. But it was in Petty’s period that norms were established that formed the basis for the later growth of British industry and also the British Empire.

Petty’s greatest insight was that Britain had a growing economy and that this was a natural process. Francis Bacon had had a scheme for science, but was not expecting rapid change. Petty knew that it had started and said so, much more clearly that Adam Smith ever did, even though Adam Smith had much more data to work with.


Selections from Petty’s Writings

I have modernised most of the archaic spelling: everything that the Microsoft Spellchecker could recognise. Petty wrote before the standardisation of English by Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary. Though Johnson unfortunately chose to endorse most of the existing oddities that printers had evolved over the decades, it is at least familiar. Only when the word seems genuinely archaic have I left it alone. Petty uses the ‘Old Present’: “what he eateth, drinketh, weareth, or any other way really and actually enjoyeth”: this is the man’s own voice.

I have removed most of Petty’s paragraph numberings, which are confusing when I have quoted short passages.


Essays on Mankind and Political Arithmetic


The scope of this essay is concerning people and colonies, and to make way for “Another Essay” concerning the growth of the city of London. I desire in this first essay to give the world some light concerning the numbers of people in England, with Wales, and in Ireland; as also of the number of houses and families wherein they live, and of acres they occupy.

  1. How many live upon their lands, how many upon their personal estates and commerce, and how many upon art, and labour; how many upon alms, how many upon offices and public employments, and how many as cheats and thieves; how many are impotents, children, and decrepit old men.
  2. How many upon the poll-taxes in England, do pay extraordinary rates, and how many at the level.
  3. How many men and women are prolific, and how many of each are married or unmarried.
  4. What the value of people are in England, and what in Ireland at a medium, both as members of the Church or Commonwealth, or as slaves and servants to one another; with a method how to estimate the same, in any other country or colony.
  5. How to compute the value of land in colonies, in comparison to England and Ireland.
  6. How 10,000 people in a colony may be planted to the best advantage.
  7. A conjecture in what number of years England and Ireland may be fully peopled, as also all America, and lastly the whole habitable earth.
  8. What spot of the earth’s globe were fittest for a general and universal emporium, whereby all the people thereof may best enjoy one another’s labours and commodities.
  9. Whether the speedy peopling of the earth would make

(1) For the good of mankind.

(2) To fulfil the revealed will of God.

(3) To what prince or State the same would be most advantageous.

  1. An exhortation to all thinking men to solve the Scriptures and other good histories, concerning the number of people in all ages of the world, in the great cities thereof, and elsewhere.
  2. An appendix concerning the different number of sea-fish and wild-fowl at the end of every thousand years since Noah’s Flood.
  3. An hypothesis of the use of those spaces (of about 8,000 miles through) within the globe of our earth, supposing a shell of 150 miles thick.
  4. What may be the meaning of glorified bodies, in case the place of the blessed shall be without the convex of the orb of the fixed stars, if that the whole system of the world was made for the use of our earth’s men…

Note the mix of traditional religious ideas and new concepts. And the casual attitude towards slavery in point 5. Slavery of various sorts was part of the British heritage: the Anglo-Saxons had a chattel slaves at the bottom of the society, as did the Celts. The Norman conquest reduced most of the population to serfdom. By Petty’s time, both slavery and serfdom had ended in England itself. But a much nastier system of commercial slavery was expanding in the New World, producing sugar, cotton and other tropical crops. England had been involved since Elizabethan times. Slaves in Africa were the bottom rung of the social ladder: in the New World they lost human status and became raw material for a growing industrial machine that spanned continents and was raising England to new heights of wealth.

(I say England because Scotland was shut out of the process until the 1707 Act of Union, while Wales and Ireland were possessions of England. There was also serfdom for coal-miners and salt-workers in Scotland in Adam Smith’s day, a point which he mentioned in his early lectures but omitted when he expanded parts of those lectures as The Wealth Of Nations.)

Modern slavery included people of all colours, though black Africans were the most convenient source. White people reduced to slavery could hope to escape and become part of some free white community: this was not often possible for non-whites. Only among Native Americans had blacks in the New World any real chance of taking refuge. From the 1830s, the British Empire had ended slavery and Canada became a refuge—the US Constitution prohibiting states from giving refuge to runaway slaves from another part of the new nation.

Petty treats slavery as a normal matter: he was little concerned with human rights in the modern sense. He was brilliantly observant of the processes of growth going on all around him. He recognised the interesting possible outcomes of geometric growth, without reaching the dismal conclusions that Malthus later arrived at.

We have thus pretty well found out in what number of years (viz., in about 40) that the city of London hath doubled, and the present number of inhabitants to be about 670,000. We must now also endeavour the same for the whole territory of England and Wales. In order whereunto, we first say that the assessment of London is about an eleventh part of the whole territory, and, therefore, that the people of the whole may well be eleven times that of London, viz., about 7,369,000 souls; with which account that of the poll-money, hearth-money, and the bishop’s late numbering of the communicants, do pretty well agree; wherefore, although the said number of 7,369,000 be not (as it cannot be) a demonstrated truth, yet it will serve for a good supposition, which is as much as we want at present.

As for the time in which the people double, it is yet more hard to be found. For we have good experience (in the said page 94 of the aforementioned observations) that in the country but 1 of 50 die per annum; and by other late accounts, that there have been sometimes but 24 births for 23 burials. The which two points, if they were universally and constantly true, there would be colour enough to say that the people doubled but in about 1,200 years. As, for example, suppose there be 600 people, of which let a fiftieth part die per annum, then there shall die 12 per annum; and if the births be as 24 to 23, then the increase of the people shall be somewhat above half a man per annum, and consequently the supposed number of 600 cannot be doubled but in 1,126 years, which, to reckon in round numbers, and for that the aforementioned fractions were not exact, we had rather call 1,200…

Long before Malthus, Petty notices the destructive potential of an ever-growing population. Unlike Malthus, he recognised that existing poverty probably had other causes—that a thinly populated land could face starvation while a densely populated country might do nicely. Malthus wrote at the time of the French Revolution and at a time when there were protests at the way in which Britain’s growing wealth went mostly to the rich. Petty lived in a different era and knew that a growing population could be a source of wealth. But he did see that there would be a stopping-point eventually:

According to which account or measure of doubling, if there be now in England and Wales 7,400,000 people, there were about 5,526,000 in the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, A.D. 1560, and about 2,000,000 at the Norman Conquest, of which consult the Doomsday Book, and my Lord Hale’s “Origination of Mankind.”

Memorandum. – That if the people double in 360 years, that the present 320,000,000 computed by some learned men (from the measures of all the nations of the world, their degrees of being peopled, and good accounts of the people in several of them) to be now upon the face of the earth, will within the next 2,000 years so increase as to give one head for every two acres of land in the habitable part of the earth. And then, according to the prediction of the Scriptures, there must be wars, and great slaughter, &c.

Wherefore, as an expedient against the above-mentioned difference between 10 and 1,200 years, we do for the present, and in this country, admit of 360 years to be the time wherein the people of England do double, according to the present laws and practice of marriages.

Now, if the city double its people in 40 years, and the present number be 670,000, and if the whole territory be 7,400,000, and double in 360 years, as aforesaid, then by the underwritten table it appears that A.D. 1840 the people of the city will be 10,718,880, and those of the whole country but 10,917,389, which is but inconsiderably more. Wherefore it is certain and necessary that the growth of the city must stop before the said year 1840, and will be at its utmost height in the next preceding period, A.D. 1800, when the number of the city will be eight times its present number, 5,359,000…

Now, when the people of London shall come to be so near the people of all England, then it follows that the growth of London must stop before the said year 1842, as aforesaid, and must be at its greatest height A.D. 1800, when it will be eight times more than now, with above 4,000,000 for the service of the country and ports, as aforesaid…

What actually happened was that cities outside of London grew while London’s growth slowed a little. But looking at a map of Britain’s population , you could conclude that London has swallowed the rest of England, with a huge chunk of the country, become its dominant hub. London in the narrow sense, GLC-London, is maybe 8.5 million.

England as a whole is very heavily populated compared to other European countries. The rest of Britain is relatively underpopulated, with parts of Wales having suffered population loss since the 19th century. Ireland has lost half of the population it had before the famine of the 1840s.

Petty was way ahead of his time in imagining how society could become largely urban. He thought of it just in terms of London growing, and saw this as an excellent thing for the privileged ruling class and state-machine to which he belonged:

The first of the said two suppositions is, that the city of London is seven times bigger than now, and that the inhabitants of it are 4,690,000 people, and that in all the other cities, ports, towns, and villages, there are but 2,710,000 more.

The other supposition is, that the city of London is but a seventh part of its present bigness, and that the inhabitants of it are but 96,000, and that the rest of the inhabitants (being 7,304,000) do cohabit thus: 104,000 of them in small cities and towns, and that the rest, being 7,200,000, do inhabit in houses not contiguous to one another, viz., in 1,200,000 houses, having about twenty-four acres of ground belonging to each of them, accounting about 28,000,000 of acres to be in the whole territory of England, Wales, and the adjacent islands, which any man that pleases may examine upon a good map.

Now, the question is, in which of these two imaginary states would be the most convenient, commodious, and comfortable livings?

… If in this great city shall dwell the owners of all the lands, and other valuable things in England; if within it shall be all the traders, and all the courts, offices, records, juries, and witnesses; then it follows that justice may be done with speed and ease.

  1. As to the equality and easy levying of taxes. It is too certain that London hath at some time paid near half the excise of England, and that the people pay thrice as much for the hearths in London as those in the country, in proportion to the people of each, and that the charge of collecting these duties have been about a sixth part of the duty itself. Now in this great city the excise alone according to the present laws would not only be double to the whole kingdom, but also more equal. And the duty of hearths of the said city would exceed the present proceed of the whole kingdom. And as for the customs we mention them not at present.
  2. Whether more would be gained by foreign commerce? The gain which England makes by lead, coals, the freight of shipping, &c., may be the same, for aught I see, in both cases. But the gain which is made by manufactures will be greater as the manufacture itself is greater and better. For in so vast a city manufactures will beget one another, and each manufacture will be divided into as many parts as possible, whereby the work of each artisan will be simple and easy. As, for example, in the making of a watch, if one man shall make the wheels, another the spring, another shall engrave the dial-plate, and another shall make the cases, then the watch will be better and cheaper than if the whole work be put upon any one man. And we also see that in towns, and in the streets of a great town, where all the inhabitants are almost of one trade, the commodity peculiar to those places is made better and cheaper than elsewhere. Moreover, when all sorts of manufactures are made in one place, there every ship that goeth forth can suddenly have its loading of so many several particulars and species as the port whereunto she is bound can take off. Again, when the several manufactures are made in one place, and shipped off in another, the carriage, postage, and travelling charges, will enhance the price of such manufacture, and lessen the gain upon foreign commerce. And lastly, when the imported goods are spent in the port itself, where they are landed, the carriage of the same into other places will create no further charge upon such commodity; all which particulars tend to the greater gain by foreign commerce.
  3. As for arts of delight and ornament. They are best promoted by the greatest number of emulators. And it is more likely that one ingenious curious man may rather be found out amongst 4,000,000 than 400 persons. But as for husbandry, viz., tillage and pasturage, I see no reason, but the second state (when each family is charged with the culture of about twenty-four acres) will best promote the same.

Petty saw the possibilities of an urban and industrial society, way ahead of anyone else. He foresaw that the future would be very different from his own age. He also recognised that London in his day was already ahead of its potential rivals.

Though Petty does not mention it, it is worth noting that London became the strongest component of a much wider economic area embracing a huge chunk of North-Western Europe and with extensive overseas connections. A city on the Rhine would have been the natural focus for North-West Europe, but both politics and geography were unfavourable. The Rhine is the dominant river, but does not enter the sea in a single estuary, as most rivers do and as the Thames does. Instead the Rhine breaks up into smaller rivers, technically known as ‘distributaries’.

Charlemagne made his capital at Aachen, too far from the Rhine and too far inland to be an economic focus. Trade supremacy moved from one coastal city to another: from Bruges to Antwerp, then from Antwerp to Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Politically the region became the buffer-zone and battle-zone between France and the Hapsburg dynasties of Spain and of Austria. London was luckier, the natural core and capital of England. Paris, meantime, was a political capital but not really an economic hub. A centre of consumption rather than production, whereas both processes occurred in London.

England was also the most centralised state in Western Europe in Petty’s time, and had been since Saxon times. The ‘Danish’ invasions of England forced the Kingdom of Wessex to centralise itself and produce a formidable professional military. Wessex then swallowed the rest of England, where the older kingdoms had fragmented under the ‘Danish’ onslaught. William of Normandy inherited a unified state and he kept it that way. England never had the independent city-states that had a very cultured and impressive existence elsewhere, but which probably inhibited the emergence of a modern economy. Nor did it have the fragmentation of political authority that existing in France and most other places.

Two Essays in Political Arithmetic

I do presume, in a very small paper, to show your Majesty that your City of London seems more considerable than the two best cities of the French monarchy, and for aught I can find, greater than any other of the universe, which because I can say without flattery, and by such demonstration as your Majesty can examine, I humbly pray your Majesty to accept from…

As for the shipping and foreign commerce of London, the common sense of all men doth judge it to be far greater than that of Paris and Rouen put together.

  1. As to the wealth and gain accruing to the inhabitants of London and Paris by law-suits (or La chicane) I only say that the courts of London extend to all England and Wales, and affect seven millions of people, whereas those of Paris do not extend near so far. Moreover, there is no palpable conspicuous argument at Paris for the number and wealth of lawyers like the buildings and chambers in the two Temples, Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, Doctors’ Commons, and the seven other inns in which are chimneys, which are to be seen at London, besides many lodgings, halls, and offices, relating to the same…
  2. As for the other great cities of the world, if Paris were the greatest we need say no more in behalf of London. As for Pekin [Beijing] in China, we have no account fit to reason upon; nor is there anything in the description of the two late voyages of the Chinese emperor from that city into East and West Tartary, in the years 1682 and 1683, which can make us recant what we have said concerning London. As for Delhi and Agra, belonging to the Mogul, we find nothing against our position, but much to show the vast numbers which attend that emperor in his business and pleasures.
  3. We shall conclude with Constantinople and Grand Cairo; as for Constantinople it hath been said by one who endeavoured to show the greatness of that city, and the greatness of the plague which raged in it, that there died 1,500 per diem, without other circumstances; to which we answer, that in the year 1665 there died in London 1,200 per diem, and it hath been well proved that the Plague of London never carried away above one-fifth of the people, whereas it is commonly believed that in Constantinople, and other eastern cities, and even in Italy and Spain, that the plague takes away two-fifths, one half, or more; wherefore where 1,200 is but one-fifth of the people it is probable that the number was greater, than where 1,500 was two-fifths or one half, &c…

We therefore conclude, that London hath more people, housing, shipping, and wealth, than Paris and Rouen put together; and for aught yet appears, is more considerable than any other city in the universe, which was propounded to be proved.

Some modern estimates would make both Beijing and Constantinople bigger than London in Petty’s day, with Beijing bigger as late as 1800 [A]. Petty was pretty much right about London’s advantage within Europe, but had trouble proving it. He defended his estimates against various critics in a series of essays. Only the fifth of these includes anything I find worth reprinting:

Concerning Holland and the rest of the United Provinces.

Since the close of this paper, it hath been objected from Holland, that what hath been said of the number of houses and people in London is not like to be true; for that if it were, then London would be the two-thirds of the whole Province of Holland. To which is answered, that London is the two-thirds of all Holland, and more, that province having not 1,044,000 inhabitants (whereof 696,000 is the two-thirds), nor above 800,000, as we have credibly and often heard. For suppose Amsterdam hath – as we have elsewhere noted – 187,000, the seven next great cities at 30,000 each, one with another, 210,000, the ten next at 15,000 each 150,000, the ten smallest at 6,000 each 60,000 – in all, the twenty-eight walled cities and towns of Holland 607,000; in the dorps and villages 193,000, which is about one head for every four acres of land; whereas in England there is eight acres for every head, without the cities and market-towns…

I say that upon former searches into the peopling of the world, I never found that in any country – not in China itself – there was more than one man to every English acre of land: many territories passing for well-peopled where there is but one man for ten such acres. I found by measuring Holland and West Frisia (alias North Holland) upon the best maps, that it contained but as many such acres as London doth of people, viz., about 696,000 acres. I therefore venture to pronounce (till better informed) that the people of London are as many as those of Holland, or at least above two-thirds of the same…

As mentioned earlier, the Rhine-Netherlands economic zone was fragmented, with the ‘United Provinces’ the largest and richest unit. If you imagine that England had remained as a collection of separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and suppose that London were the centre of a Netherlands-sized chunk of Britain, you’d find that it would not have included the new cities that grew up with the Industrial Revolution. London was already ahead of Amsterdam in Petty’s day, but the key advantage was the vastly larger hinterland that London could draw on.

Of the People of England

The writer of these papers has seen the natural and political observations and conclusions upon the state and condition of England by Gregory King, Esq., Lancaster Herald, in manuscript. The calculations therein contained are very accurate, and more perhaps to be relied upon than anything that has been ever done of the like kind. This skilful and laborious gentleman has taken the right course to form his several schemes about the numbers of the people, for besides many different ways of working, he has very carefully inspected the poll-books, and the distinctions made by those acts, and the produce in many of the respective polls, going everywhere by reasonable and discreet mediums: besides which pains, he has made observations of the very facts in particular towns and places, from which he has been able to judge and conclude more safely of others, so that he seems to have looked further into this mystery than any other person.

With his permission, we shall offer to the public such of his computations as may be of use, and enlighten in the matter before us.

He lays down that if the first peopling of England was by a colony or colonies, consisting of a number between 100 and 1,000 people (which seems probable), such colony or colonies might be brought over between the year of the world 2400 and 2600, viz., about 800 or 900 years after the Flood, and 1,400 or 1,500 years before the birth of Christ, at which time the world might have about 1,000,000 families, and 4,000,000 or 5,000,000 people.

From which hypothesis it will follow by an orderly series of increase –

That when the Romans invaded England fifty-three years before Christ’s time, the kingdom might have about 360,000 people, and at Christ’s birth about 400,000.

That at the Norman Conquest, A.D. 1066, the kingdom might contain somewhat above 2,000,000.

That A.D. 1260, or about 200 years after the Norman Conquest, it might contain about 2,750,000 people, or half the present number: so that the people of England may have doubled in about 435 years last past.

That in all probability the next doubling will be in about 600 years to come, viz., by the year 2300, at which time it may have about 11,000,000 people, and the kingdom containing about 39,000,000 of acres, there will be then about three acres and a half per head…

Mr. King’s modesty has been so far overruled as to suffer us to communicate these his excellent computations, which we can the more safely commend, having examined them very carefully, tried them by some little operations of our own upon the same subject, and compared them with the schemes of other persons, who take pleasure in the like studies.

What he says concerning the number of the people to be 5,500,000 is no positive assertion, nor shall we pretend anywhere to determine in that matter; what he lays down is by way of hypothesis, that supposing the inhabitants of England to have been, A.D. 1300, 2,860,000 heads, by the orderly series of increase allowed of by all writers they may probably be about A.D. 1700, 5,500,000 heads; but if they were A.D. 1300 either less or more, the case must proportionably alter; for as to his allowances for plagues, great mortalities, civil wars, the sea, and the plantations, they seem very reasonable, and not well to be controverted.

Upon these schemes of Mr. King we shall make several remarks, though the text deserves much a better comment.

Mr King’s table is dedicated to proving that the wealth of the kingdom is increased by the rich and decreased by the poor. This extends as far as military officers, whose activities would be meaningless without men to command. They are never the less defined as wealth-creators, whereas the common soldiers are wealth-diminishers.

I’ll not attempt to give the full table, which is large, complex and confusing. Instead I’ll show my own extract of numbers, categories and incomes, with the old pound / shilling system converted to decimal pounds, so that £6 10 shillings becomes 6.5 pounds:


Ranks, Degrees and Qualifications Number of Families Yearly Income per. Family (pounds) Number Of Persons Yearly Income in general
Temporal Lords 160 3,200.0 6,400 512,000
Spiritual Lords 26 1,300.0 520 33,800
Baronets 800 880.0 12,800 704,000
Knights 600 650.0 7,800 390,000
Esquires 3,000 450.0 30,000 1,200,000
Gentlemen 12,000 280.0 96,000 2,880,000
Persons in greater offices and places 5,000 240.0 40,000 1,200,000
Persons in lesser offices and places 5,000 120.0 30,000 600,000
Eminent merchants and traders by sea 2,000 400.0 16,000 800,000
Lesser merchants and traders by sea 8,000 198.0 48,000 1,600,000
Persons in the law 10,000 154.0 70,000 1,540,000
Eminent clergymen 2,000 72.0 12,000 144,000
Lesser clergymen 8,000 50.0 40,000 400,000
Freeholders of the better sort 40,000 91.0 280,000 3,640,000
Freeholders of the lesser sort 120,000 55.0 660,000 6,600,000
Farmers 150,000 42.5 750,000 6,375,000
Persons in liberal arts and sciences 15,000 60.0 75,000 900,000
Shopkeepers and tradesmen 50,000 45.0 225,000 2,250,000
Artisans and handicrafts 60,000 38.0 240,000 2,280,000
Naval officers 5,000 80.0 20,000 400,000
Military officers 4,000 60.0 16,000 240,000
Common seamen 50,000 20.0 150,000 1,000,000
Labouring people and out-servants 364,000 15.0 1,275,000 5,460,000
Cottagers and paupers 400,000 6.5 1,300,000 2,000,000
Common soldiers 35,000 14.0 70,000 490,000
Vagrants, as gipsies, thieves, beggars, &c. n/a n/a 30,000 60,000


Petty readily accepts the idea that the rich are the creators of wealth, even though most of the listed upper-class categories were consumers of wealth. To the extent that they were needed, they could have done the same work for more normal wages. But they were Petty’s people: he had come from the middling ranks and ascended to the top and he naturally thought that the existing social order was a wonderful thing:

The people being the first matter of power and wealth, by whose labour and industry a nation must be gainers in the balance, their increase or decrease must be carefully observed by any government that designs to thrive; that is, their increase must be promoted by good conduct and wholesome laws, and if they have been decreased by war, or any other accident, the breach is to be made up as soon as possible, for it is a maim in the body politic affecting all its parts.

Almost all countries in the world have been more or less populous, as liberty and property have been there well or ill secured. The first constitution of Rome was no ill-founded government, a kingly power limited by laws; and the people increased so fast, that, from a small beginning, in the reign of their sixth king were they able to send out an army of 80,000 men. And in the time of the commonwealth, in that invasion which the Gauls made upon Italy, not long before Hannibal came thither, they were grown so numerous, as that their troops consisted of 700,000 foot and 70,000 horse; it is true their allies were comprehended in this number, but the ordinary people fit to bear arms being mustered in Rome and Campania, amounted to 250,000 foot and 23,000 horse.

Nothing, therefore, can more contribute to the rendering England populous and strong than to have liberty upon a right footing, and our legal constitution firmly preserved. A nation may be as well called free under a limited kingship as in a commonwealth, and it is to this good form of our government that we partly owe that doubling of the people which has probably happened here in the 435 years last past. And if the ambition of some, and the mercenary temper of others, should bring us at any time to alter our constitution, and to give up our ancient rights, we shall find our numbers diminish visibly and fast. For liberty encourages procreation, and not only keeps our own inhabitants among us, but invites strangers to come and live under the shelter of our laws.

Nothing, therefore, can more contribute to the rendering England populous and strong than to have liberty upon a right footing, and our legal constitution firmly preserved. A nation may be as well called free under a limited kingship as in a commonwealth, and it is to this good form of our government that we partly owe that doubling of the people which has probably happened here in the 435 years last past. And if the ambition of some, and the mercenary temper of others, should bring us at any time to alter our constitution, and to give up our ancient rights, we shall find our numbers diminish visibly and fast. For liberty encourages procreation, and not only keeps our own inhabitants among us, but invites strangers to come and live under the shelter of our laws.

The Romans, indeed, made use of an adventitious help to enlarge their city, which was by incorporating foreign cities and nations into their commonwealth; but this way is not without its mischiefs. For the strangers in Rome by degrees had grown so numerous, and to have so great a vote in the councils, that the whole Government began to totter, and decline from its old to its new inhabitants, which Fabius the censor observing, he applied a remedy in time by reducing all the new citizens into four tribes, that being contracted into so narrow a space, they might not have so malignant an influence upon the city.

An Act of general naturalisation would likewise probably increase our numbers very fast, and repair what loss we may have suffered in our people by the late war. It is a matter that has been very warmly contended for by many good patriots; but peradventure it carries also its danger with it, which perhaps would have the less influence by this expedient, namely, if an Act of Parliament were made, that no heads of families hereafter to be naturalised for the first generation, should have votes in any of our elections. But as the case stands, it seems against the nature of right government that strangers (who may be spies, and who may have an interest opposite to that of England, and who at best ever join in one link of obsequiousness to the Ministers) should be suffered to intermeddle in that important business of sending members to Parliament. From their sons indeed there is less to fear, who by birth and nature may come to have the same interest and inclinations as the natives.

And though the expedient of Fabius Maximus, to contract the strangers into four tribes, might be reasonable where the affairs of a whole empire were transacted by magistrates chosen in one city, yet the same policy may not hold good in England; foreigners cannot influence elections here by being dispersed about in the several counties of the kingdom, where they can never come to have any considerable strength. But some time or other they may endanger the government by being suffered to remain, such vast numbers of them here in London where they inhabit altogether, at least 30,000 persons in two quarters of the town, without intermarrying with the English, or learning our language, by which means for several years to come they are in a way still to continue foreigners, and perhaps may have a foreign interest and foreign inclinations; to permit this cannot be advisable or safe. It may therefore be proper to limit any new Acts of naturalisation with such restrictions as may make the accession of strangers not dangerous to the public.

An accession of strangers, well regulated, may add to our strength and numbers; but then it must be composed of labouring men, artificers, merchants, and other rich men, and not of foreign soldiers, since such fright and drive away from a nation more people than their troops can well consist of: for if it has been ever seen that men abound most where there is most freedom (China excepted, whose climate excels all others, and where the exercise of the tyranny is mild and easy) it must follow that people will in time desert those countries whose best flower is their liberties, if those liberties are thought precarious or in danger. That foreign soldiers are dangerous to liberty, we may produce examples from all countries and all ages…

A country that makes provision to increase in inhabitants, whose situation is good, and whose people have a genius adapted to trade, will never fail to be gainers in the balance, provided the labour and industry of their people be well managed and carefully directed.

The more any man contemplates these matters the more he will come to be of opinion, that England is capable of being rendered one of the strongest nations, and the richest spot of ground in Europe.

It is not extent of territory that makes a country powerful, but numbers of men well employed, convenient ports, a good navy, and a soil producing all sort of commodities. The materials for all this we have, and so improvable, that if we did but second the gifts of Nature with our own industry we should soon arrive to a pitch of greatness that would put us at least upon an equal footing with any of our neighbours.

If we had the complement of men our land can maintain and nourish; if we had as much trade as our stock and knowledge in sea affairs is capable of embracing; if we had such a naval strength as a trade so extended would easily produce; and, if we had those stores and that wealth which is the certain result of a large and well-governed traffic, what human strength could hurt or invade us? On the contrary, should we not be in a posture not only to resist but to give the law to others?

Our neighbouring commonwealth has not in territory above 8,000,000 acres, and perhaps not much above 2,200,000 people, and yet what a figure have they made in Europe for these last 100 years? What wars have they maintained? What forces have they resisted? and to what a height of power are they now come, and all by good order and wise government?

They are liable to frequent invasions; they labour under the inconvenience and danger of bad ports; they consume immense sums every year to defend their land against the sea; all which difficulties they have subdued by an unwearied industry.

We are fenced by nature against foreign enemies, our ports are safe, we fear no irruptions of the sea, our land territory at home is at least 39,000,000 acres. We have in all likelihood not less than 5,500,000 people. What a nation might we then become, if all these advantages were thoroughly improved, and if a right application were made of all this strength and of these numbers?

They who apprehend the immoderate growth of any prince or State may, perhaps, succeed by beginning first, and by attempting to pull down such a dangerous neighbour, but very often their good designs are disappointed. In all appearance they proceed more safely, who, under such a fear, make themselves strong and powerful at home. And this was the course which Philip, King of Macedon, the father of Perseus, took, when he thought to be invaded by the Romans.

The greatness of Rome gave Carthage very anxious thoughts, and it rather seems that they entered into the second Punic War more for fear the Romans should have the universal empire, than out of any ambition to lord it themselves over the whole world. Their design was virtuous, and peradventure wise to endeavour at some early interruption to a rival that grew so fast. However, we see they miscarried, though their armies were led by Hannibal. But fortune which had determined the dominion of the earth for Rome, did, perhaps, lead them into the fatal counsel of passing the Eber contrary to the articles of peace concluded with Asdrubal, and of attacking Saguntum before they had sufficiently recovered of the wounds they had suffered in the wars about Sicily, Sardinia, and with their own rebels. If the high courage of Hannibal had not driven the commonwealth into a new war while it was yet faint and weak, and if they had been suffered to pursue their victories in Spain, and to get firm footing in that rich, warlike, and then populous country, very probably in a few years they might have been a more equal match for the Roman people. It is true, if the Romans had endeavoured, at the conquest of Spain, and if they had disturbed the Carthaginians in that country, the war must have been unavoidable, because it was evident in that age, and will be apparent in the times we live in, that whatever foreign power, already grown great, can add to its dominion the possession of Spain, will stand fair for universal empire.

But unless some such cogent reason of state, as is here instanced, intervene, in all appearance the best way for a nation that apprehends the growing power of any neighbour is to fortify itself within; we do not mean by land armies, which rather debilitate than strengthen a country, but by potent navies, by thrift in the public treasure, care of the people’s trade, and all the other honest and useful arts of peace.

By such an improvement of our native strength, agreeable to the laws and to the temper of a free nation, England without doubt may be brought to so good a posture and condition of defending itself, as not to apprehend any neighbour jealous of its strength or envious of its greatness.

And to this end we open these schemes, that a wise Government under which we live, not having any designs to become arbitrary, may see what materials they have to work upon, and how far our native wealth is able to second their good intentions of preserving us a rich and a free people.

Having said something of the number of our inhabitants, we shall proceed to discourse of their different degrees and ranks, and to examine who are a burden and who are a profit to the public, for by how much every part and member of the commonwealth can be made useful to the whole, by so much a nation will be more and more a gainer in this balance of trade which we are to treat of.

Mr. King, from the assessments on births and marriages, and from the polls, has formed the scheme here inserted, of the ranks, degrees, titles and qualifications of the people. He has done it so judiciously, and upon such grounds, that is well worth the careful perusal of any curious person, from thence we shall make some observations in order to put our present matter in a clearer light.

First, this scheme detects their error, who in the calculation they frame contemplate nothing but the wealth and plenty they see in rich cities and great towns, and from thence make a judgment of the kingdom’s remaining part, and from this view conclude that taxes and payments to the public do mostly arise from the gentry and better sort, by which measures they neither contrive their imposition aright, nor are they able to give a true estimate what it shall produce; but when we have divided the inhabitants of England into their proper classes, it will appear that the nobility and gentry are but a small part of the whole body of the people.

Believing that taxes fell chiefly upon the better sort, they care not what they lay, as thinking they will not be felt; but when they come to be levied, they either fall short, and so run the public into an immense debt, or they light so heavily upon the poorer sort, as to occasion insufferable clamours; and they, whose proper business it was to contrive these matters better have been so unskilful, that the legislative power has been more than once compelled for the peoples’ ease to give new funds, instead of others that had been ill projected.

This may be generally said, that all duties whatsoever upon the consumption of a large produce, fall with the greatest weight upon the common sort, so that such as think in new duties that they chiefly tax the rich will find themselves quite mistaken; for either their fund must yield little, or it must arise from the whole body of the people, of which the richer sort are but a small proportion…

Mr. King divides the whole body of the people into two principal classes, viz.:-

Increasing the wealth of the kingdom 2,675,520 heads.

Decreasing the wealth of the kingdom 2,825,000 heads.

By which he means that the first class of the people from land, arts, and industry maintain themselves, and add every year something to the nation’s general stock, and besides this, out of their superfluity, contribute every year so much to the maintenance of others.

That of the second class some partly maintain themselves by labour (as the heads of the cottage families), but that the rest, as most of the wives and children of these, sick and impotent people, idle beggars and vagrants, are nourished at the cost of others, and are a yearly burden to the public, consuming annually so much as would be otherwise added to the nation’s general stock.

The bodies of men are, without doubt, the most valuable treasure of a country, and in their sphere the ordinary people are as serviceable to the commonwealth as the rich if they are employed in honest labour and useful arts, and such being more in number do more contribute to increase the nation’s wealth than the higher rank.

But a country may be populous and yet poor (as were the ancient Gauls and Scythians), so that numbers, unless they are well employed, make the body politic big but unwieldy, strong but unactive, as to any uses of good government.

Theirs is a wrong opinion who think all mouths profit a country that consume its produce, and it may be more truly affirmed, that he who does not some way serve the commonwealth, either by being employed or by employing others, is not only a useless, but a hurtful member to it.

As it is charity, and what we indeed owe to human kind, to make provision for the aged, the lame, the sick, blind, and impotent, so it is a justice we owe to the commonwealth not to suffer such as have health, and who might maintain themselves, to be drones and live upon the labour of others…

If this vast body of men, instead of being expensive, could be rendered beneficial to the commonwealth, it were a work, no doubt, highly to be promoted by all who love their country.

It seems evident, to such as have considered these matters, and who have observed how they are ordered in nations under a good polity, that the number of such who through age or impotence stand in real need of relief, is but small and might be maintained for very little, and that the poor rates are swelled to the extravagant degree we now see them at by two sorts of people, one of which, by reason of our slack administration, is suffered to remain in sloth, and the other, through a defect in our constitution, continue in wretched poverty for want of employment, though willing enough to undertake it.

All this seems capable of a remedy, the laws may be armed against voluntary idleness, so as to prevent it, and a way may probably be found out to set those to work who are desirous to support themselves by their own labour; and if this could be brought about, it would not only put a stop to the course of that vice which is the consequence of an idle life, but it would greatly tend to enrich the commonwealth, for if the industry of not half the people maintain in some degree the other part, and, besides, in times of peace did add every year near two million and a half to the general stock of England, to what pitch of wealth and greatness might we not be brought, if one limb were not suffered to draw away the nourishment of the other, and if all the members of the body politic were rendered useful to it?

Nature, in her contrivances, has made every part of a living creature either for ornament or use; the same should be in a politic institution rightly governed.

It may be laid down for an undeniable truth, that where all work nobody will want, and to promote this would be a greater charity and more meritorious than to build hospitals, which very often are but so many monuments of ill-gotten riches attended with late repentance.

To make as many as possible of these 1,330,000 persons (whereof not above 330,000 are children too young to work) who now live chiefly upon others get themselves a large share of their maintenance would be the opening a new vein of treasure of some millions sterling per annum; it would be a present ease to every particular man of substance, and a lasting benefit to the whole body of the kingdom, for it would not only nourish but increase the numbers of the people, of which many thousands perish every year by those diseases contracted under a slothful poverty…


A Treatise of Taxes & Contributions (1662)

Young and vain persons, though perhaps they marry not primarily and only on purpose to get Children, much less to get such as may be fit for some one particular vocation; yet having Children, they dispose of them as well as they can according to their respective inclinations: Even so, although I wrote these sheets but to rid my head of so many troublesome conceits, and not to apply them to the use of any one particular People or Concernment; yet now they are born, and that their Birth happened to be about the time of the Duke of Ormond’s going Lord Lieutenant into Ireland, I thought they might be as proper for the consideration of that place, as of any other, though perhaps of effect little enough in any

Ireland is a place which must have so great an Army kept up in it, as may make the Irish desist from doing themselves or the English harm by their future Rebellions. And this great Army must occasion great and heavy Levies upon a poor people and wasted Country; it is therefore not amiss that Ireland should understand the nature and measure of Taxes and Contributions

  1. The Parishes of Ireland do much want Regulation, by uniting and dividing them; so as to make them fit Enclosures wherein to plant the Gospel: wherefore what I have said as to the danger of supernumerary Ministers, may also be seasonable there, when the new Geography we expect of that Island shall have afforded means for the Regulation abovementioned
  2. The great plenty of Ireland will but undo it, unless a way be found for advantageous Exportations, the which will depend upon the due measure of Custom and Excise here treated on
  3. Since Ireland is under-peopled in the whole, and since the Government there can never be safe without chargeable Armies, until the major part of the Inhabitants be English, whether by carrying over these, or withdrawing the other; I think there can be no better encouragement to draw English, thither, then to let them know, that the Kings Revenue being above 1/10 part of the whole Wealth, Rent, and Proceed of the Nation; and the Public Charge in the next Age will be no more felt there than that of Tithes is here; and that as the Kings Revenue increases, so the causes of his Expense will decrease proportionably, which is a double advantage
  4. The employing the Beggars in England about mending the High-wayes, and making Rivers Navigable will make the Wool and Cattle of Ireland vend the better…
  5. Whereas some chief Governors who have gone into Ireland, chiefly to repair or raise fortunes, have withdrawn themselves again when their work hath been done, not abiding the clamours and complaints of the people afterwards: But his grace hath given Hostages to that Nation for his good Government, and yet hath taken away aforehand all fears of the contrary
  6. His Grace dares do whatever he understands to be fitting, even to the doing of a single Subject Justice against a Confederate multitude; being above the sinister interpretations of the jealous and querulous; for his known Liberality and Magnificence shall ever keep him free from the clamour of the people, and his through-tried fidelity shall frustrate the force of any subdolous whispering in the Ears of His Majesty
  7. His good acceptance of all ingenious endeavours, shall make the wise men of this Eastern England be led by his Star into Ireland, and there present him with their choicest advices, who can most judiciously select and apply them

Lastly, this great Person takes the great Settlement in hand, when Ireland is a white paper, when there sits a Parliament most affectionate to his person, and capable of his Counsel, under a King curious as well as careful of Reformation; and when there is opportunity, to pass into Positive Laws whatsoever is right reason and the Law of Nature…

An Offensive Foreign War is caused by many, and those very various, secret, personal distastes coloured — with public pretences; of which we can say nothing, but that the common encouragement unto them particularly here in England is a false opinion, that of Country is full peopled, or that if we wanted more Territory, we could take it with less charge from our neighbours, then purchase it from the Americans; and a mistake, that the greatness and glory of a Prince lieth rather in the extent of his Territory, then in the number, art, and industry of his people, well united and governed. And moreover, that it is more glorious to take from others by fraud or rapine, then to gain ones self out of the bowels of the Earth and Sea…

The causes of Civil Wars here in Europe proceed very much from Religion, viz. the punishing of Believers heterodox from the Authorized way, in public and open places, before great multitudes of ignorant people, with loss of life, liberty, and limbs, rather then by well proportioned tolerable pecuniary mulcts, such as every conscientious Non-Conformist would gladly pay, and Hypocrites by refusing, discover themselves to be such

  1. Civil Wars are likewise caused by peoples fancying, that their own uneasy condition may be best remedied by an universal confusion; although indeed upon the upshot of such disorders they shall probably be in a worse, even although they survive and succeed, but more probably perish in the contest
  2. Moreover, the peoples believing that Forms of Government shall in a few years produce any considerable alteration as to the wealth of the Subject; that the Form which is most ancient and present is not the best for the place; that any established family or person is not better then any new pretender, or even then the best Election that can be made; that Sovereignty is invisible, and that it is not certainly annexed unto some certain person or persons
  3. Causes of Civil War are also, that the Wealth of the Nation is in too few men’s hands, and that no certain means are provided to keep all men from a necessity either to beg, or steal, or be Soldiers

Moreover, the allowing Luxury in some, whilst others starve

We come next to take away some of the general Causes of the unquiet bearing of Taxes, and yielding to Contributions, viz

That the people think, the Sovereign asks more then he needs. To which we answer, That if the Sovereign were sure to have what he wanted in due time, it were his own great damage to draw away the money out of his Subjects hands, who by trade increase it, and to hoard it up in his own Coffers, where ’tis of no use even to himself, but liable to be begged or vainly expended

Let the Tax be never so great, if it be proportionable unto all, then no man suffers the loss of any Riches by it. For men (as we said but now) if the Estates of them all were either halved or doubled, would in both cases remain equally rich. For they would each man have his former state, dignity and degree; and moreover, the Money levied not going out of the Nation, the same also would remain as rich in comparison of any other Nation; only the Riches of the Prince and People would differ for a little while, namely, until the money levied from some, were again refunded upon the same, or other persons that paid it: In which case every man also should have his change and opportunity to be made the better or worse by the new distribution; or if he lost by one, yet to gain by another

Now that which angers men most, is to be taxed above their Neighbours. To which I answer, that many times these surmises are mistakes, many times they are chances, which in the next Tax may run more favourable; and if they be by design, yet it cannot be imagined, that it was by design of the Sovereign, but of some temporary Assessor, whose turn it may be to receive the Talio upon the next occasion from the very man he has wronged

Men repine much, if they think the money levied will be expended on Entertainments, magnificent Shows, triumphal Arches, etc. To which I answer, that the same is a refunding of said moneys to the Tradesmen who work upon those things; which Trades though they seem vain and only of ornament, yet they refund presently to the most useful; namely to Brewers, Bakers, Tailors, Shoemakers, etc. Moreover, the Prince hath no more pleasure in these Shows and Entertainments than 100000 others of his meanest Subjects have, whom, for all their grumbling, we see to travel many miles to be spectators of these mistaken and distasted vanities

The people often complain, that the King bestows the money he raises from the people upon his Favourites: To which we answer; that what is given to Favourites, may at the next step or transmigration, come into our own hands, or theirs unto whom we wish well, and think do deserve it

Secondly, as this man is a Favourite to day, so another, or our selves, may be hereafter; favour being of a very slippery and moveable nature, and not such a thing as we need much to envy; for the same way that —– leads up a hill, leads also down the same. Besides there is nothing in the Laws or Customs of England, which excludes any the meanest mans Childe, from arriving to the highest Offices in the this Kingdom, much less debars him from the Personal kindness of his Prince.

We might sometimes add hereunto, that housing is sometimes disproportionately taxed to discourage Building, especially upon new Foundations, thereby to prevent the growth of a City; suppose London, such excessive and overgrown Cities being dangerous to Monarchy, though the more secure when the supremacy is in Citizens of such places themselves, as in Venice

But we say, that such checking of new Buildings signifies nothing to this purpose; forasmuch as Buildings do not increase, until the People already have increased: but the remedy of the above mentioned dangers is to be sought in the causes of the increase of People, the which if they can be nipped, the other work will necessarily be done

But what then is the true effect of forbidding to build upon new foundations? I answer to keep and fasten the City to its old seat and ground-plot, the which encouragement for new Buildings will remove, as it comes to pas almost in all great Cities, though insensibly, and not under many years progression

The reason whereof is, because men are unwilling to build new houses at the charge of pulling down their old, where both the old house it self, and the ground it stands upon do make a much dearer ground-plot for a new house, and yet far less free and convenient; wherefore men build upon new free foundations, and cobble up old houses, until they become fundamentally irreparable, at which time they become either the dwelling of the Rascality, or in process of time return to waste and Gardens again, examples whereof are many even about London

Now if great Cities are naturally apt to remove their Seats, I ask which way? I say, in the case of London, it must be Westward, because the Winds blowing near 3/4 of the year from the West, the dwellings of the West end are so much the more free from the fumes, steams, and stinks of the whole Easterly Pyle; which where Seacoal is burnt is a great matter. Now if it follow from hence, that the Palaces of the greatest men will remove Westward, it will also naturally follow, that the dwellings of others who depend upon them will creep after them. This we see in London, where the Noblemen’s ancient houses are not become Halls for Companies, or turned into Tenements, and all the Palaces are gotten Westward; Insomuch, as I do not doubt but that five hundred years hence, the King’s Palace will be near Chelsea, and the old building of Whitehall converted to uses more answerable to their quality. For to build a new Royal Palace upon the same ground will be too great a confinement, in respect of Gardens and other magnificencies, and withal a disaccommodation in the time of the work; but it rather seems to me, that the next Palace will be built from the whole present contignation of houses at such a distance as the old Palace of Westminster was from the City of London, when the Archers began to bend their bows just without Ludgate, and when all the space between the Thames, Fleet-Street, and Holborn was as Finsbury-Fields are now

Only I think ’tis certain, that while ever there are people in England, the greatest cohabitation of them will be about the place which is now London, the Thames being the most commodious River of this Island, and the seat of London the most commodious part of the Thames; so much doth the means of facilitating Carriage greaten a City, which may put us in mind of employing our idle hands about mending the High-wayes, making Bridges, Causeways, and Rivers navigable: Which considerations brings me back round into my way of Taxes, from whence I digressed…

On the other hand, Lands are worth fewer years purchase (as in Ireland) for the following reasons, which I have here set down, as unto the like whereof the cause of the like cheapness in any other place may be imputed

First, In Ireland, by reason of the frequent Rebellions, (in which if you are conquered, all is lost; or if you conquer, yet you are subject to swarms of thieves and robbers) and the envy which precedent missions of English have against the subsequent, perpetuity it self is but forty years long, as within which time some ugly disturbance hath hitherto happened almost ever since the first coming of the English thither

The Claims upon Claims which each hath to the others Estates, and the facility of making good any pretence whatsoever by the favour of some one or other of the many Governors and Ministers which within forty years shall be in power there; as also by the frequency of false testimonies, and abuse of solemn Oaths

The paucity of Inhabitants, there being not above the 1/5th part so many as the Territory would maintain, and of those but a small part do work at all, and yet a smaller work so much as in other Countries

That a great part of the Estates, both real and personal in Ireland, are owned by Absentees, and such as draw over the profits raised out of Ireland refunding nothing; so as Ireland exporting more then it imports doth yet grow poorer to a paradox

The difficulty of executing justice, so many of those in power being themselves protected by Offices, and protecting others. Moreover, the number of criminous and indebted persons being great, they favour their like in Juries, Offices, and wheresoever they can: Besides, the Country is seldom enough to give due encouragement to profound Judges and Lawyers, which makes judgements very casual; ignorant men being more bold to be apt and arbitrary, then such as understand the dangers of it. But all this with a little care in due season might remedy, so as to bring Ireland in a few years to the same level of values with other places…

Chapter 6: Of Customs and Free Ports

Custom is a Contribution of Excisium out of Goods sent out or imported into the Princes Dominions: In these Countries of a twentieth part not according to the Prices currant among Merchants of each respective Commodity, but according to other standing Rates set by the State, though advised for the most part by concerned Persons

I cannot well imagine what should be the natural Reasons, why a Prince should be paid this duty inward and outward both; there seems indeed to be some, why he should be paid for indulging the Exportation of some such things as other Countries do really want

Wherefore I think, that Customs at the first were a premium allowed the Prince for protecting the Carriage of Goods both inward and outward from the Pirates; and this I should verily believe, if the Prince were bound to make good losses of that kind. And I thought that the proportion of five pound per cent was pitched upon computation, that the Merchants before the said undertaking and composition, had usually lost more by Piracy: And finally, that the Customs had been an ensurance upon losses by enemies, as the ensurance now usual, is of the causalities of sea, wind, weather, and Vessel, or altogether; or like the ensurance in some Countries of Houses from Fires for a certain small part of their yearly Rent. But be it what it will, it is anciently established by Law, and ought to be paid until it shall be abolished. Only I take leave as an idle Philosopher to discourse upon the Nature and Measures of it

The Measures of Customs outwards may be such, as after reasonable profit to the Exporter will leave such of our own Commodities as are necessary to Foreigners somewhat cheaper unto them then they can be had from elsewhere

As for example, Tin is a Native Commodity, which governs the Market, that is, there is none so good and so easy to be had and exported

Now suppose Tin might be made in Cornwall for four pence the pound, and that the same would yield twelve pence at the nearest part in France, I say, that this extraordinary profit ought to be esteemed as a Mine Royal, Tresor Trouve, and the Sovereign ought to have his share in it: Which he will have, by imposing so great a duty upon Tin Exported, as on one side may leave a subsistence to the Workmen, (and no more) with a competent profit to the owners of the ground; and on the other side, may leave the price abroad less then that for which Tin may be had from any other place

The same Imposition might also be made on the Tin spent at home, unless it be as impossible so to do, as for the King of France to impose the Gabel upon Salt in the very place where it is made

The Hollanders having gotten away our Manufacture of Cloth, by becoming able to work with more art, to labour and fare harder, to take less freight, Duties and Ensurance, hath so madded us here in England, that we have been apt to think of such exorbitantly fierce wayes of prohibiting Wool and Earth to be exported, as perhaps would do us twice as much harm as the loss of our said Trade. Wherefore to return to our Wits and Trade again, before we can tell what to do in this case, we must consider

That we are often forced to buy Corn from abroad, and as often complain that we are pestered with abundance of idle hands at home, and withal that we cannot vend the Woollen Manufactures even which our few working hands do produce. In this case were it not better to lessen our sheep trade, and convert our hands to more Tillage? Because 1. Flesh becoming dearer, there would be encouragement for Fish, which will never be till then. 2. Our Money would not run so fast away for Corn. 3. We should have no such Gluts of Wool upon our hands. 4. Our idle hands would be employed in Tillage and Fishing, one many by the way of grazing, tilling as it were many thousand Acres of Land by himself and his Dog

Suppose we wanted no Corn; nor had any idle hands, and yet that we abounded with more Wool then we can work up; in this certainly Wool might be exported, because ’tis supposed, that the hands which work, are already employed upon a better Trade

Suppose the Hollander outdo us by more art, were it not better to draw over a number of their choice Workmen, or send our most ingenious men thither to learn; which if they succeed; it is most manifest that this were the more natural way, then to keep that infinite clutter about resisting of Nature, stopping up the winds and seas, etc

If we can make Victual much cheaper here then in Holland, take away burthensome, frivolous, and antiquated Impositions and Offices

I conceive even this were better then to persuade Water to rise out of it self above its natural Spring

We must consider in general, that as wiser Physicians tamper not excessively with their Patients, rather observing and complying with the motions of nature, then contradicting it with vehement Administrations of their own; so in Politicks and Oconomicks [Economics] the same must be used…

Nevertheless, if the Hollanders advantages in making Cloth be but small and few in comparison of ours, that is, if they have but a little the better of us, then I conceive that Prohibitions to export Wool may sufficiently turn the scales. But whether this be use, I leave to others, being my self neither Merchant nor Statesman

As for Prohibition of Importations, I say that it needs not be, until they much exceed our Exportations. For if we should think it hard to give good necessary Cloth for debauching Wines, yet if we cannot dispose of our Cloth to others, ’twere better to give it for Wine or worse, then to cease making it; nay, better to burn a thousand men’s labours for a time, then to let those thousand men by non-employment lose their faculty of labouring

Chapter 7: Of Poll-money

Poll-money is a Tax upon the Persons of men, either upon all simply and indifferently, or else according to some known Title or mark of distinction upon each; and that either of bare honour, or else of some Office sought or imposed, or of some Faculty and Calling without respect to Riches or Poverty, Incomes or Expense, Gain or Loss accruing by the said Title, Office or Faculty

The Poll-moneys which have been levied of late have been wonderfully confused; as taxing some rich single persons at the lowest rate; some Knights, though wanting necessaries, at twenty pounds, encouraging some vain fellows to pay as Esquires, on purpose to have themselves written Esquires in the Receipts; making some pay ten pounds as Doctors of Physick or Law, who get nothing by the Faculty, nor mind the practice; making some poor Tradesmen forced to be of the Liveries of their Companies to pay beyond their strength; and lastly, some to pay according to their Estates, the same to be valued by those that know them not; thereby also giving opportunity to some Bankrupts to make the world credit them as men of such Estates, at which the Assessors did rate them by Collusion

So as by this Confusion, Arbitraries, Irregularities, and hotch-pot of Qualifications, no estimate could be made of the fitness of this Plaster to the Sore, nor no Cheque or way to examine whether the respective Receipts were duly accompted for, etc

Wherefore wholly rejecting the said complicated way of Tax, I shall speak of Poll-money more distinctly, and first of the simple Poll-money upon every head of all mankind alike; the Parish paying for those that receive alms, Parents for their Children under age, and Masters for their Apprentices, and others who receive no wages

The evil of this way is, that it is very unequal; men of unequal abilities, all paying alike, and those who have greatest charges of Children paying most; that is, that by how much the poorer they are, by so much the harder are they taxed

The Conveniences are; first, that it may be suddenly collected, and with small charge: Secondly, that the number of the people being always know, it may be sufficiently computed what the same will amount unto. Thirdly, It seems to be a spur unto all men, to set their Children to some profitable employment upon their very first capacity, out of the proceed whereof, to pay each childe his own Poll-money

Chapter 8: Of Lotteries

Now in the way of Lottery men do also tax themselves in the general, though out of hopes of Advantage in particular: A Lottery therefore is properly a Tax upon unfortunate self-conceited fools; men that have good opinion of their own luckiness, or that have believed some Fortune-teller or Astrologer, who had promised them great success about the time and place of the Lottery, lying Southwest perhaps from the place where the destiny was read

Now because the world abounds with this kind of fools, it is not fit that every man that will may cheat every man that would be cheated; but it is rather ordained, that the Sovereign should have the Guardianship of these fools, or that some Favourite should beg the Sovereigns right of taking advantage of such men’s folly, even as in the case of Lunatics and Idiots

Wherefore a Lottery is not tolerated without authority, assigning the proportion in which the people shall pay for their errors, and taking care that they be not so much and so often couzened, as they themselves would be

This way of Lottery is used but for small Levies, and rather upon privato-publick accompts [sic], (then for maintaining Armies or Equipping Fleets,) such as are Aqueducts, Bridges, and perhaps Highways, etc. Wherefore we shall say no more of it upon this occasion

Chapter 9: Of Benevolence

The raising of Money by Benevolence, seems to be no force upon any man, nor to take from any man but what himself knows he can spare, nevertheless there is more in it; for to be but brow-beaten by a Prince or Grandee, proves often as heavy as to be distained upon for an Assessment or Subsidy; and the danger of being misrepresented by linsy pick-thanks [sic] and Informers as disaffected to the Cause for which the Levy is made, is more frequent then the payment of any sum in a due proportion with all other men (which I have said is no impoverishment) can possibly be hurtful…

Chapter 10: Of Penalties

The usual Penalties are Death, Mutilations, Imprisonment, Public disgrace, Corporal transient pains, and great Tortures, besides the Pecuniary Mulcts. Of which last we shall most insist, speaking of the others but in order to examine whether they may not be commuted for these

There be some certain Crimes, for which the Law of God appoints death; and these must be punished with it, unless we say that those were but the Civil Laws of the Jewish Commonwealth, although given by God himself; of which opinion certainly most modern States are, in as much as they punish not Adulteries, etc. with death, as among the Jews, and yet punish small Thefts with Death instead of multiple reparation

Upon this supposition we shall venture to offer; whether the reason of simple Death be not to punish incorrigle Committers of great faults?     4. Of public Death with Torments, to affright men from Treasons, which cause the deaths and miseries of many thousand innocent and useful people?

Of Death secretly executed, to punish secret and unknown Crimes, such as Public Executions would teach to the World? Or else to suffocate betimes some dangerous Novelties in Religion which the patient suffering of the worst man would much spread and encourage

Mutilations suppose of Ears, Nose, etc. are used for perpetual disgrace, as standing in the Pillory is for temporary and transient; which and such other punishments have (by the way) made some corrigible offenders, to become desperate and incurable

Mutilations of parts of Fingers, are proper to disable such as have abused their dextrous use of them, by Pocket-picking, Counterfeiting of Seals and Writings, etc

Mutilations of other parts, may serve to punish and prevent Adulteries, Rapes, Incests, etc. And the smaller Corporal pains, serve to punish those, who can pay no pecuniary mulcts

Imprisonment seems rather to be the punishments of suspected then guilty persons, and such as by their carriage give the Magistrate occasion to think, either they have done some smaller particular Crime, as Thefts, etc. or that they would commit greater; as Treasons and Seditions. But where Imprisonment is not a securing men until their Trials, but a sentence after Trial, it seems to me proper only to seclude such men from conversation, whose Discourses are bewitching, and Practices infectious, and in whom nevertheless remains some hopes of their future Amendments, or usefulness for some service not yet appearing

As for perpetual Imprisonment by sentence, it seems but the same with death it self, to be executed by nature it self, quickened with such Diseases, as close living, sadness, solitude, and reflections upon a past and better condition, doth commonly beget: Nor do men sentenced hereunto live longer, though they be longer in dying…

Moreover, as there seems a reason for indulging some conscientious misbelievers, so there is as much for being severe towards Hypocrites, especially such as abuse holy Religion to cloak and vizzard worldly ends: Now what more easy and yet effectual way is there to discern between these two, then well proportioned pecuniary mulcts? for who desiring to serve God without fear, and labouring ten hours per diem at his Calling, would not labour one hour more for such a freedom? even as religious men spend an hour per diem more than the looser sort do at their Devotions; or who weaving Cloth of one and twenty shillings, for the same advantage of his liberty in Worship? Those that kick at this, being unwilling either to do or suffer for God, for whose sake they pretend so much

It may be her objected, that although some bad Religions might be tolerated, yet that all may not, viz. such as consist not with the Civil Peace. To which I answer

First, that there is not Schism or Separation, be it never so small, consistent with that unity and peace as could be wished; nor none so perfectly conscientious, but may also be civilly most pernicious: For that Venner and his Complices acted upon internal motives, the most free exposing of themselves to death may evince; and yet their holding the King to be an Usurper upon the Throne and Right of Jesus Christ was a Civil mischief neither to be pardoned or parallel’d

And yet on the other hand there is no Pseudodoxy so great, but may be muzzled from doing much harm in the State, without either Death, Imprisonment, or Mutilation: To make short, no opinion can be more dangerous, then to disbelieve the immortality of the Soul, as rendering men a beast, and without conscience, or fear of committing any evil, if he can but elude the penalty of humane Laws made against it, and letting men loose to all evil thoughts and designs whereof man can take no notice: Now I say that even this Misbeliever may be adequately punished if he be kept as a beast, be proprietor of nothing, as making no conscience how he gets; be never admitted in Evidence or Testimony, as under no obligation to speak truth; be excluded all Honours and Offices, as caring only for himself, not the protecting of others; and be withal kept to extreme bodily labour, the profit whereof to the State is the pecuniary Mulct we speak of, though the greatest

As for opinions less horrible then this, the Mulct may be fitted to each of them respectively, according to the measure of danger which the Magistrate apprehends from their allowance, and the charge necessary to prevent it.

An now we are speaking of the wayes how to prevent and correct Heterodoxies in Religion, which we have hitherto done by designing punishments for the erring sheep, I think it not amiss to add, That in all these cases the Shepherds themselves should not wholly scape free; For if in this Nation there be such abundance of Free-Schools, and of liberal Maintenance provided in our Universities and elsewhere for instructing more then enough in all such learning as is fit to defend the established Religion, together with superabundant Libraries for that purpose

Moreover, if the Church-preferments be so numerous and ample both for Wealth, Honour, and Power, as scarce any where more; it seems strange that when by the laziness, formality, ignorance, and loose lives of our Pastors, the sheep have gone astray, grown scabbed, or have been devoured by Wolves and Foxes, that the Remedy of all this should be only sought by frighting those that have strayed from ever returning again, and by tearing off as well the skins as the wool of those that are scabbed; whereas Almighty God will rather require the blood even of them that have been devoured, from the shepherds themselves

Wherefore if the Minister should lose part of the Tithes of those whom he suffers to dissent from the Church, (the defector not saving, but the State wholly gaining them) and the defector paying some pecuniary Mulct for his Schism, and withal himself defraying the charge of his new particular Church and Pastorage, me thinks the burthen would be thus more equally born

Chapter 11: Of Monopolies and Offices

The use or pretence of instituting a Monopoly is,     First, Right of Invention; forasmuch as the Laws do reward Inventions, by granting them a Monopoly of them for a certain; (as here in England for fourteen years) for thereby the Inventor is rewarded more or less according to the acceptance which his Inventory finds amongst men

Where note by the way, that few new Inventions were ever rewarded by a Monopoly; for although the Inventor oftentimes drunk with opinion of his own merit, thinks all the world will invade and encroach upon him, yet I have observed, that the generality of men will scarce be hired to make use of new practices, which themselves have not thoroughly tried, and which length of time hath not vindicated from latent inconveniences; so as when a new Invention is first propounded, in the beginning every man objects, and the poor Inventor runs the Gantloop [sic] of all petulant wits; every man finding his several flaw, no man approving it, unless mended according to his own advice: Now not one of an hundred out-lives this torture, and those that do, are at length so changed by the various contrivances of others, that not any one man can pretend to the Invention of the whole, nor well agree about their respective shares in the parts. And moreover, this commonly is so long a doing, that the poor Inventor is either dead, or disabled by the debts contracted to pursue his design; and withal railed upon as a Projector, or worse, by those who joined their money in partnership with his wit; so as the said Inventor and his pretences are wholly lost and vanished

Secondly, a Monopoly may be of real use for a time, viz. at the first introducing of a new Manufacture, wherein is much nicety to make it well, and which the generality of men cannot judge of as to the performance. As for example; suppose there were some most approved Medicament which one certain man could make most exactly well, although several others could also make the same less perfectly: in this case this same chief Artist may be allowed a Monopoly for a time, viz. until others have had experience enough under him, how to make the Medicament as well as himself. First, because the world may not have Medicament variously made, when as they can neither discern the difference by their senses, nor judge of the effects thereof a posteriori, by their reasons. Secondly, because others may be fully instructed by him that can best do it: and thirdly, because he may have a reward for such his communications: But forasmuch as by Monopolies of this kind, great Levies are seldom made, they are scarce pertinent to our design.

The patient system was indeed a useful device. The habit had been for new ideas to become ‘Trade Secrets’, not widely passed on and sometimes lost during a period of upheaval. A monopoly based on publication of the good idea balanced private interest and the wider social interest.

Offices instituted by the State of Fees of their own appointment, are of parallel nature to Monopolies; the one relating to actions and employments as the other to things, and have the same to be said for and against them as Monopolies have

As a Kingdom encreaseth and flourisheth, so doth variety of things, of actions, and even of words increase also; for we see that the language of the most flourishing Empires was ever the more copious and elegant, and that of mountainous Cantons the contrary: Now as the actions of this Kingdom increased, so did the Offices (that is, the power and faculty of solely executing and performing the said actions) increase likewise; and on the contrary, as the business of Offices increased, so did the difficulty and danger of discharging them amiss decrease proportionably: from whence ’tis come to pass, that the Offices which at their first erecting were not performed but by the ablest, most inventive, and versatile Instruments, (such as could wrestle with all emergent difficulties, and collect Rules and Axioms out of the Series of their own Observations, (with reference to the various casualties of their employments) whereby to direct Posterity) are now performed by the most ordinary, formal, pack-horse Deputies and Sub-Deputies

And whereas at first such large Fees were allowed as (considering even the paucity of them which might then be received) should compensate the Art, Trust, and Industry of the Administrator; yet the large said Fees are still continued, although the skill and trust be lessened, and the number of the said Fees so extremely multiplied: so as now the profits of such Officers (being become clear, and the work so easy as any man is capable of it, even those that never saw it,) are bought and sold for Years or Lives, as any other Annuity may be; and withal, the splendour arising from the easy gains of those places in Courts of Justice, is called the Flourishing of the Law, which certainly flourisheth best, when the Professors and Ministers of it have least to do. And moreover, when the burthen and uselessness of such an Office is taken notice of, ’tis nevertheless spared as a Subjects Freehold in favour of him that bought it

Of these Offices are many in this Nation, and such as might be a Revenue to the King, either by their Annual profits, or the Sale of them for many years together. And these are the Offices that are properly saleable, viz. where the Fees are large, as appointed when the number of them was few, and also numerous, as multiplying upon the increase of business, and where the business is only the labour of the meanest men: length of time having made all the work so easy, and found out security against all the frauds, breaches of trust, and male-administrations, whereunto the infancies of those place were obnoxious

The state machine in Petty’s day was much smaller and simpler than it was when Adam Smith was writing. But Petty grasped what Smith never understood: that the growth of this state machine was part of the overall process: “As a Kingdom encreaseth and flourisheth, so doth variety of things, of actions, and even of words increase also… Now as the actions of this Kingdom increased, so did the Offices.”

Chapter 13 Of Several smaller wayes [sic] of levying Money

When the people are weary of any one sort of Tax, presently some Projector propounds another, and gets himself audience, by affirming he can propound a way how all the public charge may be born without the way that is. As for example, if a Land-tax be the present distasted way, and the people weary of it, then he offers to do the business without such a Land-tax, and propound either a Poll-money, Excise, or the institution of some new Office or Monopoly; and hereby draws some or other to hearken to him; which is readily enough done by those who are not in the places of profit relating to the way of Levies in use, but hope to make themselves Offices in the new Institution

I shall enumerate a few of the smaller wayes which I have observed in several places of Europe, viz

First, in some places the State is common Cashier for all or most moneys, as where Banks are, thereby gaining the interest of as much money as is deposited in their hands

Secondly, Sometimes the State is the common Usurer; as where Loan Banks, and montes pietatis [pawn-shops] are in use, and might be more copiously and effectively where Registers of Lands are kept

Thirdly, Sometimes the State is or may be Common Insurer, either upon the danger only of Enemies at sea, according to the supposed primitive end of our Customs in England, or else of the casualties of the Enemy, Weather, Sea, and Vessel taken together

Fourthly, Sometimes the State hath the whole sale and benefit of certain Commodities, as of Amber in the Duke of Brandenburg’s Country, Tobacco formerly in Ireland, Salt in France, etc

Fifthly, Sometimes the State is common Beggar, as ’tis almost in Holland, where particular Charity seems only to serve for the relief of concealed wants, and to save these wanting from the shame of discovering their poverty, and not so much to relieve any wants that are declared, and already publicly known

Sixthly, In some places the State is the sole Guardian of Minors, Lunatics, and Idiots

Seventhly, In some other Countries the State sets up and maintains play-houses, and public Entertainments, giving Salaries to the Actors, but receiving the bulk of the profit to themselves

Eighthly, In some places Houses are ensured from fire by the State at a small Rent per annum upon each

Ninthly, In some places Tolls are taken upon passage over Bridges, Causeys, and Ferries built and maintained at the Public Charge

Tenthly, In some places men that dye are obliged leave a certain pittance to the public, the same is practised in other places upon Marriages, and may be in others upon Births

Eleventhly, In some places strangers especially Jews, are particularly taxed; which may be good in over-peopled Countries, though bad in the contrary case

As for Jews, they may well bear somewhat extraordinary, because they seldom eat and drink with Christians, hold it no disparagement to live frugally, and even sordidly among themselves, by which way alone they become able to under-sell any other Traders, to elude the Excise, which bears but according to men’s expenses; as also other Duties, by dealing so much in Bills of Exchange, Jewels, and Money, and by practising of several frauds with more impunity then others; for by their being at home every where, and yet no where they become responsible almost for nothing

Chapter 15: Of Excise

It is generally allowed by all, that men should contribute to the Public Charge but according to the share and interest they have in the Public Peace; that is, according to their Estates or Riches: now there are two sorts of Riches, one actual, and the other potential. A man is actually and truly rich according to what he eateth, drinketh, weareth, or any other way really and actually enjoyeth; others are but potentially or imaginatively rich, who though they have power overmuch, make little use of it; these being rather Stewards and Exchangers for the other sort, then owners for themselves

Concluding therefore that every man ought to contribute according to what he taketh to himself, and actually enjoyeth

The first thing to be done is, to compute what the Total of the Expense of this Nation is by particular men upon themselves and then what part thereof is necessary for the Public; both which (no not the former) are so difficult as most men imagine

In the next place we must conceive that the very perfect Idea of making a Levy upon Consumptions, is to rate every particular Necessary, just when it is ripe for Consumption; that is to say, not to rate Corn until it be Bread, nor Wool until it be cloth, or rather until it be a very Garment; so as the value of Wool, Clothing, and Tailoring, even to the Thread and Needles might be comprehended: But this being perhaps too laborious to be performed, we ought to enumerate a Catalogue of Commodities both native and artificial, such whereof accompts may be most easily taken, and can bear the Office marks either on themselves, or on what contains them; being withal such, as are to be as near Consumption as possible: And then we are to compute what further labour or charge is to be bestowed on each of them, before consumption, that so an allowance be given accordingly. As, for example, suppose there be an hundred pounds worth of Stript Stuff for Hangings, and an hundred pounds worth of Cloth or Stuff for the best meens Clothes; I conceive, that the Cloth should bear a greater Excise then the said stript stuff, the one wanting nothing but tacking up, to be at its wayes end; and the other Tailoring, Thread, Silk, Needles, Thimbles, Buttons, and several other particulars: The Excise of all which must be accumulated upon the Excise of the Cloth, unless they be so great (as perhaps Buttons, Lace, or Ribbons may be) to be taxed apart, and inserted into the Catalogue abovementioned


[A] [http://geography.about.com/library/weekly/aa011201a.htm] – the comparative sizes of cities


The full text of Essays on Mankind and Political Arithmetic can be found at [http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/]. It is also on sale as a paperback.

The full text of A Treatise of Taxes & Contributions can be found at [http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/petty/taxes.txt]


First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism, No. 83-84, Autumn 2006