Monthly Archives: October 2015

Unanimity.—Universal Consent (c. 1852)

[“Economie,” manuscripts at Gallica]

Unanimity.—Universal Consent

P.-J. Proudhon

There are things, in the moral order, about which the human race is unanimous; there are even many of them.

So isn’t it possible that all the questions of politics, economics and morals could be simplified or clarified in such a way that the response to them would be unanimous?

In this way, the direct government of the people would be possible.

It is according to that idea, confirmed by the testimony of the sciences, that [Pierre-Napoléon] Domenjarie [1852] has written his pamphlet, La loi morale, loi d’unanimité, which we have read in prison.

That philosophical thesis [reveals] the ignorance of the author, but it is nonetheless useful to clarify it.

The things about which there can be unanimity (it is not a question of facts/deeds) are all definite abstractions, whatever order of ideas they may belong to.

Thus, is it not permitted to kill a man: Non occides.

But the disagreements begin when it is a question of practical cases:

Is it permitted to kill in legitimate defense?

Is it permitted to kill in war?

Is it permitted to kill judicially?

Is it permitted to kill deserters?

Is it permitted to kill a man or woman caught in flagrante delicto in the act of adultery?

Is it permitted to kill a tyrant?

Is it permitted to kill the abductor of a minor child? etc.

Now, on the practical cases, there is necessary flexibility, and as the circumstances alone make the law or non-law, it follows that one cannot posit an absolute principle, and that unanimity is impossible.

Thus, on a principle of abstract mathematics, there will be unanimity.—But if it is a question of assessing the results of a business, of an enterprise, of an experiment, etc., opinions can vary infinitely.

Similarly, in the moral realm, there is unanimity on principles, because the principle expresses an ideality, an abstraction. Only do to others what you would like others to do to you: everyone is unanimous on this precept, which we find expressed spontaneously everywhere.

It is an abstract, ideal formula.

But what should I want for myself? What can I demand? What is my right? That is where unanimity ceases to exist, and it is necessarily replaced by free debate, which ends in the transaction or the Contract.

The value of a product is a common example: it summarizes all cases.


Now, Reason asks itself:

Is there a science for undefinable things, on which unanimity will never practically exist, as there is one for definite things?…

It is this question to which the economic science responds.


From this previous explanation, it is easy to deduce and a priori judgment that declares void the so-called science of Fourier, which aspires to [resolve] everything, mathematically, that is to say abstractly, and by means of definitions.

From this as well, the elimination of the Communist thought, which, supposing unanimity, suppresses debate, competition, contract; the very principle of conventional right!….

It is time to open the eyes of the public in that regard and especially to repress the [   ] presumption of these poor Devils who believe they have found the secret of the world when they have produced a [   ] gross naïveté.

What then is the science of indefinable things, of things on which there remains unnecessary doubt, and where unanimity is impossible?

It is the science that teaches us to know the [causes], the reason, the laws that rule this very variability: and how bye judicious and equitable convention, we arrest that variability, and convert into something definite a thing that is not of that nature.

Sic Notion of dead weight [poids mort];—variable.

     Notion of maximum load [poids utile];—variable.

     Relation between one and the other;—variable.

What are the causes of these variations?—How do they come about?—What is their mode, their character?—What utility [can we] draw from them for the conduct of life? etc., etc. How to behave with them? etc.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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Theory of Taxation, “General Summary” (1861)


Such is the ensemble of ideas resulting from my study of the question raised by the State Council of the canton of Vaud. To first free these ideas from the mass of facts, from the chaos of empiricism, and then explain them with advantage, demanded a profound critique of the fiscal institutions, a critique that I could have made much more voluminous, for no cost but the citations, but that, such as it is, appears to me sufficient for enlightened minds or administrators versed in practice.

A complete theory of taxation, of its principles, its rules, its nature, its object, its anomalies, and its function in the economic system of nations, has never, as far as I know, been given: thanks to the appeal of the honorable councilors of the State of Vaud, it will at least have been sketched, and for the first time.

What is that theory?

Here is no preconceived system, no utopian tendency, nothing that could appear foreign to even the most old-fashioned sorts, nothing that the most routine tax system could by right find paradoxical. We have taken hold of the facts and we have analyzed them; we have isolated their principle and put their spirit in relief. In a rapid review, we have outlined the history of taxation, in ancient as well as modern society; we have determined its aim and clarified its contradictions, which means its laws.

Then, with the aid of reductions, transformations, displacements, applying proportionality here and progression there; sometimes striking the question of consumption, sometimes production and circulation, and making the system pivot on land rent, we have ended—or at least such is my hope—with a rational, harmonious ensemble, all the parts of which suppose one another, like the members of an animal; we have produced an organic whole, a function of a still larger organism, which is society and the State.

Let the more experienced rework, now, the plan for reforms that we have just presented in rough form, taking the French budget for their topic; let others, applying it to the various States of Europe, subject it to all the modifications demanded by local customs and habits; let them change the proportions proposed in this report; it will matter little.

Whoever concerns themselves with taxation and seeks, for any country or society, its normal constitution, must take into account, above all, the facts and propositions that we have demonstrated, which can be considered as so many axioms. These facts and propositions are:

That taxation, according to ancient law, was first a tribute;

But that, according to modern law and economic science, it is nothing other than an exchange;

That this transformation of taxation, from ancient society to the new society, is the corollary of the transformation undergone by the State, once sovereign, but now balanced by a rival power, Liberty;

That from that fundamental notion, namely, that taxation is an exchange, its whole theory is deduced;

That thus, unlike other traders, the State owes its services at cost price;

That it does not impose them, but waits for the nation to demand them;

That as a consequence of that free demand of the citizens, the tax quota could not increase in an indefinite manner, but must on the contrary decrease endlessly, from which arises the necessity of assigning maximum to taxation;

That the centralization of government in a large country is incompatible with that unlimited reduction of the general costs of the State, and consequently with the regularity of the budget;

That, in a normal state of thing, the sum of the contributions would appear to have to be one twentieth of the total product of the country, and can be reduced to thirtieth;

That, in modern societies, all the citizens being equal before the law, the expenses of the State must be settled without distinction by all and in proportion to their abilities;

That all taxation, whatever its form and its base, is ultimately collected on the collective product;

That as a consequence all tax fees are reduced to a tax on consumption;

That, through the movement of values and the rule that presides over the formation of prices, that tax on consumption finds itself settled, in a very large part, not individually as it seems from the rates of contribution, but by the masses;

That as a result of this taxation, taken in its general case, is reduced, but for minor details, to a capitation;

That, with regard to the inequality of fortunes, that capitation constitutes a true progressive tax in inverse proportion to fortune and direct proportion to indigence;

That, under the influence of these two causes, the incessant movement of values and the inequality of fortunes, the problem of the balancing of taxation is insoluble, and that all that we can obtain in this regard is reduced to an approximation;

That in order to return to Justice in taxation, the true method, the single and unique means is thus to work toward the equalization of fortunes themselves, something that does not depend on the initiative of the State, but solely on the intelligence and will of the citizens who consent to the tax;

That every attempt made in another direction in order to arrive at the equalization of taxation, either by a progressive tax, or by a tax on capital, or by a tax on rent or income, leads to absurdity and brings about enormous perturbations for public economy;

That a single tax, invariably resulting in the concentration in one single instance of all the fiscal iniquities divided in a multitude de taxes, would be the most crushing of taxes and the worst of systems;

That the true march to follow being, in the final account, to submit to the law, or, to put it more correctly, to the egalitarian tendency, the whole difficulty consists in turning taxation in that direction and organizing it in that spirit;

That the first thing to do in order to arrive at that end is to constitute an allowance to the State;

That this allowance should be established on the rent of lands appropriated and in a good state for cultivation [exploitation];

That on top of that allowance, on which the whole system of taxation must pivot, the State should establish two categories of taxes, one on public services, directly reproductive, credit, means of transport, mines, docks, waters and forests, etc.; the other consisting of a series of facultative contributions, on all the objects of consumption and use, on transactions, etc.;

That for these various contributions, the State will apply, according to the circumstances, progression to some, proportionality to others, in such as way as to promote the egalitarian movement, the initiative, direction and acceleration of which will be up to the nation alone.

All of that, I dare say, is simple, clear, natural, logical, and, for whoever rallies to the new right, conclusive. The practice finds its explanation there, the historical movement its justification, the utopia itself its reason. The transitions can be handled as slowly as you wish.

Now, that legislation of taxation, where we see the ancient iniquity converted little by little into an instrument of Justice, is not our invention, and it is that which makes its triumph. We have deduced it from principles and facts above all arbitrariness; we have freed it, in short, from the movements of history and the contradiction of ideas; we have grasped its vestiges and indicated the organizing and liberal tendency even in the inventions of the most tyrannical tax system. So that if our democratic civilization, victorious over foolish resistances, ever manages to determine its aspirations and to constitute itself on a true basis, it would find its most decisive argument, and its consolidation, in the theory of taxation.

The progressive, indefinite reduction of the costs of the State;

Some taxes combined in such a way that they serve at once to pay for the public services, to moderate the economic movement, to discipline the market, and to promote the emancipation of the working classes;

The balance of properties;

The inviolability of inheritances;

Thee leveling of fortunes;

Society advancing with an even step in justice, liberty and wealth:

That is what we mean from now on by this word, odious and curse for so many centuries, Taxation.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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