Treatise of Taxes and Contributions (1899)/II

A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions by William Petty, edited by Charles Henry Hull
Chapter II - Of the Causes which encrease and aggravate the several sorts of Publick Charges.

A Treatis of Taxes and Contributions was first pubished in 1662 anonimously. It was reprinted several times during Petty's life. This edition, which is the one most often cited, is from the The Economic Writings of Sir William Petty, edited by Charles Henry Hull, and published in 1899.


Of the Causes which encrease and aggravate the several sorts of Publick Charges.

HAving thus spoken of the several sorts of Publick Charges, we shall next consider the Causes which encrease them both in general and in particular.

Among the general Causes is, First, the unwillingness of the people to pay them; arising from an opinion, that by delay and reluctancy they may wholly avoid them, with a suspition that what is imposed is too much, or that what is collected is embezelled or ill expended, or that it is unequally leavied and assessed. All these resolving into an unnecessary Charge to collect them, and of forcing their Prince to hardships towards the people.

2. Another Cause which aggravates Taxes is, the force of paying them in money at a certain time, and not in commodities, at the most convenient seasons.

3. Thirdly, Obscurities and doubts concerning the right of imposing.

4. Fourthly, Scarcity of Money, and Confusion of Coins.

5. Fifthly, Fewness of people, especially of Labourers and Artificers.

6. Sixthly, Ignorance of the numbers, Wealth and Trade of the people, causing a needless repetition of the charge and trouble of new additional Levies, in order to amend mistakes.

7. As to particulars. The Causes of encreasing the Military Charge are the same with those that encrease Wars, or fear of Wars, which are Forreign or Civil.

8. An Offensive Forreign War is caused by many, and those very various, secret, personal distastes coloured—with publick pretences; of which we can say nothing, but that the common encouragement unto them particularly here in Eng-|5|land is a false opinion, that our Countrey 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 lyeth 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.

9. Now those States are free from Forreign Offensive Wars (arising as abovesaid out of Personal and Private Causes) where the chief Governours Revenue is but small, and not sufficient to carry on such Wars, the which if they happen to be begun, and so far carryed on, as to want [er 1] more Contributions, then those who have the power to impose them, do commonly enquire what private persons and Ends occasioned the War, and so fall upon the Authors, rather then contribute to the Effect; otherwise then to quench it.

10. Defensive Wars are caused from unpreparedness of the offended State for War, as when defective Stores are served into the Magazines by corrupt Officers at the rate of good; when Armies are falsly Mustered; when Souldiers are either Tenants or Servants to their Commanders, or else persons, who for their Crimes or Debts, want protection from Justice; when the Officers are ignorant of their business, and absent from their Commands; and withal afraid to punish, because unwilling to pay. Wherefore, to be alwayes in a posture of War at home, is the cheapest way to keep off War from abroad.

11. The causes of Civil Wars here in Europe proceed very much from Religion, viz. the punishing of Believers heterodox from the Authorized way, in publike 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.|6|

12. Civil Wars are likewise caused by peoples fansying, that their own uneasie 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.

13. 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[1].

14. Causes of Civil War are also, that the Wealth of the Nation is in too few mens hands, and that no certain means are provided to keep all men from a necessity either to beg, or steal, or be Souldiers.

Moreover, the allowing Luxury in some, whilst others [er 2] starve.

The dispensing of benefits upon casual and uncertain Motives; the giving vaste Emoluments to persons and parties of no certain visible merit. These are the things which cause animosities among the totter-headed multitude, who are the tinder that the sparks of a few Designers may easily inflame.

15. The [er 3]Cause of Publick Charge in matters of Religion, are[er 4] the not having changed the limits of Parishes and Cures with the Change of Religion from Popery, and with the Changes in Plantation and Trade. For now when the Ministers of the Gospel preach unto multitudes assembled in one place, may not Parishes be bigger? that is, may not Flocks be more numerous, then when every particular sheep was, as heretofore, drest and shorn three or four times per annum by Shrift. If there be in England and Wales but about five millions of people, what needs more than 5000. Parishes? that is 1000. Sheep under every Shepheard. Whereas in the middling Parishes of London there are about 5000. souls in each. Upon which account there needs be in England and Wales |7| but a 1000. Parishes, whereas there are near 10000.

16. Now the saving of half the Parishes, would (reckoning the Benefices one with another, but at 100 l. per Annum a piece) save 500000 l. Besides, when the number of Parochial Parsons were halved, then there would need but half the present number of Byshops, Deans and Chapters, Colledges and Cathedralls, which perhaps would amount to two or three hundred thousand pounds more: And yet the Church of God would be more regularly served then now, and that without prejudice to that sacred, ancient Order of Episcopacy, and the way of their Maintenance by Tythes; and all this in a method of greater Reformation and suitableness thereunto.

18[2]. But suppose it be said, that in some wild Countreys, a thousand people do not live in a less scope of ground then of eight miles square. To which I answer, that there are few or no such places, the largest Parishes I know, being not more capacious then of three or four miles square, in which is no difficulty, for the people to meet once a week at some central place within that scope.

19. Moreover I say, that a Curate of small Learning, if of good life, and duly Ordained, may officiate in four Chappels of Ease every Sunday; and the Preacher, who indeed should be a person of Learning and Eloquence, may preach every other Sunday in every of the said Chappels, by preaching in two of them one day, and in the other two, the other day: And this with Catechizing, and Extra-Lectures upon the Week-dayes, would perform as much as now is performed, and as much as by the blessing of God is necessary to salvation; for the yoak of Christ is easie, and his burthen light.

20. But to put an end to this doubt; I affirm, that if England and Wales were cut out in parcels of three miles square, there would be found few above four thousand such, of which to make Parishes.

21. Now if it be said, that the Alienation of these Tythes is Sacriledge; I answer, that if the same be employed to defend the Church of God against the Turke and Pope, and the Nations who adhere to them, it is not at all; or less, then to |8| give ¾: of the same to the Wives and Children of the Priests which were not in being when those allowances were set forth?

21. If I had not an abhorrence from propounding the lessening of the Church Means, I could say, that the retrenching part of each remaining Parsons Tythes and Emoluments, and leaving him [er 5] for part, to the free Contributions of his [er 6] Flocks, were a way to promote the Gospel, and to give less offence to such as think that their whole maintenance should be made in that manner.

22. I might also say, that forasmuch as there be more Males then Females in England[3], (the said disproportion pro tanto hindering procreation) that it were good for the Ministers to return to their Cælibat; or that none should be Ministers, whilst they were married, it being easie among five millions of people to finde out 5000. that could and would live single, that is one in a thousand: And then our unmarried Parson might live as well with half, as now with the whole of his Benefice.

23. Alwayes provided, that though the number of Parishes, and the measure of Benefices were lessened, yet that the same ought to be done without dammage to the present Incumbents.

24. As for lessening the Charge of Offices relating to the Government and the Law, the same will consist in abolishing the superfluous, supernumerary, and antiquated; and withall, in retrenching the Fees of others, to what the labour, art, and trust of their respective employments do require. For there be many Offices wholly executed by Deputies for small wages, whereas the Masters of them have ten times as much, although they know nothing either of what is done, or ought to be done in the business.

25. Now such Surplusages as these should be either restored unto the people who gave them unto the King, at a time when those Fees made up but a just reward for the Officer; or else the King keeping them still might take them for so much toward the Publick Charge, but not give them away to stop |9| the importunate suits of any particular person, in whom and in all his dependants, such benefits do but cause a laziness as to the true original gain of the Nation, and themselves in particular, together with a total negligence and ignorance of the publick good.

26. Many are the particulars that might be instanced of this kinde; but my aim not being to prejudice any man in particular, I descend no lower, wishing onely that there might be an universal Reformation of what length of time hath warped awry, in which case no particular men are to be troubled; for if all suffer, none suffers, and all men would be no poorer then now they are if they should lose half their Estates; nor would they be a whit the richer if the same were doubled, the Ratio formalis of Riches lying rather in proportion then quantity.

27. To lessen the charge of Universities, unto which I adde the Inns of Court, which is not much, were to lessen the number of the Students in Divinity, Law and Medicine, by lessening the use of those Professions. Now having spoken already of Divinity, I come next to the Law, and say; that if Registers were kept of all mens Estates in Lands, and of all the Conveyances of, and Engagements upon them; and withal if publick Loan-Banks, Lombards, or Banks of Credit upon deposited money, Plate, Jewels, Cloth, Wooll, Silke, Leather, Linnen, Mettals, and other durable Commodities, were erected[4], I cannot apprehend how there could be above one tenth part of the Law-suits and Writings, as now there are.

28. And moreover, if by accompt of the people, of their Land and other wealth, the number of Lawyers and Scriveners were adjusted, I cannot conceive how their should remain above one hundredth part of what now are; forasmuch as I have heard some affirm, that there be now ten times as many as are even now necessary; and that there are now ten times as many Law-suits, as upon the abovementioned Reformation, there would be. It follows therefore, that upon the whole there would not need one in a hundred of the present |10| number of Retainers to the Law, and Offices of Justice; the occasions as well of crimes as injuries being so much retrenched.

29. As for Physicians, it is not hard by the help of the observations which have been lately made upon the Bills of Mortality, to know how many are sick in London by the number of them that dye, and by the proportions of the City to finde out the same of the Countrey; and by both, by the advice of the learned Colledge of that Faculty to calculate how many Physicians were requisite for the whole Nation[5]; and consequently, how many Students in that art to permit and encourage; and lastly, having calculated these numbers, to adoptate a proportion of Chyrurgeons, Apothecaries, and Nurses to them, and so by the whole to cut off and extinguish that infinite swarm of vain pretenders unto, and abusers of that God-like Faculty, which of all Secular Employments our Saviour himself after he began to preach engaged himself upon.

30. Moreover, if it were agreed, what number of Divines, Physicians and Civilians (that is, of men bred in Universities) were requisite to the publick service? As suppose 13000. in the present way, and perhaps not above 6000. in that way of Retrenchment which we propound; then supposing that but one in forty dyes per annum, it follows that less than 350. might suffice to be sent yearly out of the Universities: Where supposing they stay five years one with another, it followeth also that about 1800. is the number of Students fit to be allowed in the Universities at a time; I mean, of such as intend to make Learning their Trade and way of Livelihood.

31. I might intimate, that if 1800. Students were enough, and that if there were 40000. Parish Children and Foundlings in England, it were probable that one in twenty of them might be of excellent wit and towardness.

Now since the Publick may dispose of these Children as they please, and since there is Maintenance in both Universities for above 1800. what if our Professors of Art were in this manner selected and educated? But of this but in transitu. |11|

32. Hereunto may be added, that by reason of Loan Banks aforementioned, whereby the Credits and Estates of all Dealers may be known, and all the mysterious dangers of money prevented, and that by good Accompts of our growth, Manufacture, Consumption, and Importation, it might be known how many Merchants were able to mannage the Exchange of our superfluous Commodities with the same of other Countreys: And also how many Retailers are needful to make the subdistributions into every Village of this Nation, and to receive back their superfluities. Upon these grounds I presume a large proportion of these also might be retrenched, who properly and originally earn nothing from the Publick, being onely a kinde of Gamesters, that play with one another for the labours of the poor; yielding of themselves no fruit at all, otherwise then as veins and arteries, to distribute forth and back the blood and nutritive juyces of the Body Politick, namely, the product of Husbandry and Manufacture.

33. Now if the numerous Offices and Fees relating to the Government, Law, and Church; and if the number of Divines, Lawyers, Physicians, Merchants, and Retailers were also lessened, all which do receive great wages for little work done to the Publick, with how much greater ease would common expences be defrayed? and with how much more equality would the same be assessed?

34. We enumerated six Branches of the Publick Charge, and have slightly spoken how four of them might be lessened; we come next to the other two Branches, whereof we shall rather recommend the augmentation.

The first of these two Branches I call, generally speaking. Care of the Poor, consisting of Receptacles for the aged, blinde, lame, &c. in health; Hospitals for noysome, chronical, curable and uncurable, inward and outward Diseases. With others for acute and contagious. Others for Orphans, found and exposed Children; of which latter sort none should be refused, let the number be never so great, provided their names, families, and relations were well concealed: The choice of which Children being made at their being about eight |12| or ten years old, might afford the King the fittest Instruments for all kinde of his Affairs, and be as firmly obliged to be his faithful servants as his own natural Children.

35. This is no new nor rare thing, onely the neglect of it in these Countreys, is rather to be esteemed a rare and new project: Nor is it unknown what excellent fruits there have been of this Institution, of which we shall say much more, upon another occasion hereafter.

36. When all helpless and impotent Persons were thus provided for, and the lazy and thievish restrained and punished by the Minister of Justice, it follows now, that we finde out certain constant Employments for all other indigent people, who labouring according to the Rules upon them, may require a sufficiency of food and raiment. Their Children also (if small and impotent) as aforesaid, being provided for elsewhere.

37. But what shall these Employments be? I answer, such as were reckoned as the sixth Branch of the Publick Expence, viz, making all High-wayes so broad, firm, and eaven, as whereby the charge and tedium of travelling and Carriages may be greatly lessened. The cutting and scowring of Rivers into Navigable; the planting of usefull Trees for timber, delight, and fruit in convenient places.

The making of Bridges and Cawseys.

The working in Mines, Quarries, and Colleries.

The Manufactures of Iron, &c.

38. I pitch upon all these particulars, first, as works wanting in this Nation; secondly, as works of much labour, and little art; and thirdly, as introductive of new Trades into England, to supply that of Cloth, which we have almost totally lost[6].

In the next place it will be asked, who shall pay these men? I answer, every body; for if there be 1000. men in a Territory, and if 100. of these can raise necessary food and raiment for the whole 1000. If 200. more make as much commodities, as other Nations will give either their commodities or money for, and if 400. more be employed in the ornaments, pleasure, and magnificence of the whole; if there |13| be 200. Governours, Divines, Lawyers, Physicians, Merchants, and Retailers, making in all 900. the question is, since there is food enough for this supernumerary 100. also, how they should come by it? whether by begging, or by stealing; or whether they shall suffer themselves to starve, finding no fruit of their begging, or being taken in their stealing be put to death another way? Or whether they shall be given away to another Nation that will take them? I think 'tis plain, they ought neither to be starved, nor hanged, nor given away; now if they beg, they may pine for hunger to day, and be gorged and glutted to morrow, which will occasion Diseases and evil habits, the same may be said of stealing; moreover, perhaps they may get either by begging or stealing more then will suffice them, which will for ever after indispose them to labour, even upon the greatest occasion which may suddenly and unexpectedly happen.

39. For all these Reasons, it will be certainly the safer way to afford them the superfluity which would otherwise be lost and wasted, or wantonly spent: Or in case there be no overplus, then 'tis fit to retrench a little from the delicacy of others feeding in quantity or quality; few men spending less then double of what might suffice them as to the bare necessities of nature.

40. Now as to the work of these supernumeraries, let it be without expence of Foreign Commodities, and then 'tis no matter if it be employed to build a useless Pyramid upon Salisbury Plain, bring the Stones at Stonehenge to Tower-Hill, or the like; for at worst this would keep their mindes to discipline and obedience, and their bodies to a patience of more profitable labours when need shall require it.

41. In the next place, as an instance of the usefulness of what hath been propounded, I ask what benefit will the mending of High-wayes, the building of Bridges and Cawseys, with making of Rivers navigable produce, besides the pleasure and beauty of them? To which I also answer, as an instance of the premises, that the same, together with the numerous missions of Cattle and Sheep out of Ireland, shall pro-|14|duce a vaste superfluity of English Horses, the which because they have the many excellent qualities of beauty, strength, courage, swiftness, and patience concentrated in them, beyond the Horses of other places, would be a very vendible Commodity all over Europe; and such as depending upon the intrinsick nature of the English Soyle could not be counterfeited, nor taken away by others. Moreover, an Horse is such a Commodity as will carry both himself and his Merchant to the Market, be the same never so distant.

  1. Probably an allusion to the discussions in Harrington's Rota Club, and to his theories of election and of sovereignty. "Dr William Petty was a Rota man," says Wood, "and would sometimes trouble Harrington in his club"—whether on account of real divergence of opinion or purely from love of an argument may be questioned.
  2. In the 1662 edition paragraphs 17 to 20 are erroneously numbered 18 to 21.
  3. See Graunt, ch. viii.
  4. The demand for the introduction into England of the Dutch registers and of Lombards is common to all the "imitators of Holland." Roscher, Gesch. der engl. Volkswirthschaftslehre, 63; also Child, Brief Observations (1668), repr. in New Discourse, 5, 7; Temple, Observations upon the United Provinces (1673), 83—85, 200.
  5. Petty had been admitted a candidate of the College of Physicians 25 June, 1650. The 14th of July, 1655, he was elected fellow of the College, but, being then in Ireland, he was not admitted to his new rank until 25 June, 1658. Munk, Roll, 2nd ed., I. 271. He was also one of the forty fellows named in the charter granted 26 March, 1664. Goodall, The Royal College of Physicians (1684), p. 70. His suggestion is not wholly out of keeping with the purpose of a corporation established "with a view to the improvement and more orderly practice of the art of physic, and the repression of irregular, unlearned, and incompetent practicioners of that faculty."
  6. The opinion was common about 1662 that England's trade in cloth had declined. The golden Fleece, by W. S. (1656), p. 11; Answer of the Hamburg Company to the Exeter "Interlopers" (1662), quoted in Smith's Memoirs of Wool, I. 206—207; Fortrey, England's Interest (1663), 16; Mun, England's Treasure (written ca. 1630, publ. 1664), p. 11 of Ashley's ed. Cf. the well-known statutes for the encouragement of the clothing trade, 12 Charles II., c. 32; 14 Charles II., c. 18; 18 & 19 Charles II., c. 4.


  1. after [want] read [general] instead of [more]
  2. before [starve] interline [needlesly]
  3. before [cause] read [one] instead of [the]
  4. read [is] instead of [are]
  5. read [them] for [him]
  6. read [their] for [his]