Inequality of Property.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  THAT many and great evils result from that inequality of property which exists in civilized countries is indicated by the many propositions which have been made to diminish or destroy it. We want not indeed such evidence; for it is sufficiently manifest to every man who will look round upon his neighbours. We join not with those who declaim against all inequality of property: the real evil is not that it is unequal, but that it is greatly unequal; not that one man is richer than another, but that one man is 80 rich u to be luxurious, or imperious, or profligate, and that another is so poor as to be abject and depraved, as well as to be destitute of the proper comforts of life.

  There are two means by which the pernicious inequality of property may be diminished; by political institutions, and by the exertions of private men. Our present business is with the latter.

  To a person who possesses and expends more than he needs, there are two reasonable inducements to diminish its amount,—first, to benefit others; and next, to benefit his family and himself. The claims of benevolence towards others are often and earnestly urged upon the public, and for that reason they will not be repeated here. Not that there is no occasion to repeat the lesson, for it is very inadequately learned; but that it is of more consequence to exhibit obligations which are less frequently enforced. To insist upon diminishing the amount of a man’s property for the sake of his family and himself, may present to some men new ideas, and, to some men the doctrine may be paradoxical.

  Large possessions are in a great majority of instances injurious to the possessor,—that is to say, those who hold them are generally less excellent both as citizens and as men than those who do not. The truth appears to be established by the concurrent judgment of mankind. Lord Bacon says, “Certainly great riches have sold more men than they have bought out. As baggage is to an army, so are riches to virtue.—It hindereth the march, yea, and the care of it sometimes loseth or disturbeth the victory.”—“It is to be feared that the general tendency of rank, and especially of riches, is to withdraw the heart from spiritual exercises.”1—“A much looser system of morals commonly prevails in the higher than in the middling and lower orders of society.”2 “The middle rank contains most virtue and abilities.”3

“Wealth heaped on wealth nor truth nor safety buys,
The dangers gather as the treasures rise.”4

“There is no greater calamity than that of leaving children an affluent independence.—The worst examples in the society of Friends are generally among the children of the rich.”5

  It was an observation of Voltaire’s, that the English people were, like their butts of beer, froth at top, dregs at bottom,—in the middle, excellent. The most rational, the wisest, the best portion of mankind belong to that class who possess “neither poverty nor riches.” Let the reader look around him. Let him observe who are the persons that contribute moat to the moral and physical amelioration of mankind; who they are that practically and personally support our unnumbered institutions of benevolence; who they are that exhibit the worthiest examples of intellectual exertion; who they are to whom he would himself apply if he needed to avail himself of a manly and discriminating judgment. That they are the poor is not to be expected: we appeal to himself whether they are the rich. Who then would make his son a rich man? Who would remove his child out of that station in society which is thus peculiarly favourable to intellectual and moral excellence?

  If a man knows that wealth will in all probability be injurious to himself and to his children, injurious too in the most important points, the religious and moral character, it is manifestly a point of the soundest wisdom and the truest kindness to decline to accumulate it. Upon this subject, it is admirable to observe with what exactness the precepts of Christianity are adapted to that conduct which the experience of life recommends. “The care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word:”—“choked with cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection:”—“How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!”—“they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.” Not that riches necessarily lead to these consequences, but that such is their tendency; a tendency so uniform and powerful that it is to be feared these are their very frequent results. Now this language of the Christian Scriptures does not contain merely statements of fact,—it imposes duties; and whatever may be the precise mode of regarding those duties, one point is perfectly clear;—that he who sets no other limit to his possessions or accumulations than inability or indisposition to obtain more does not conform to the will of God. Assuredly, if any specified thing is declared by Christianity to be highly likely to obstruct our advancement in goodness, and to endanger our final felicity, against that thing, whatever it be, it is imperative upon us to guard with wakeful solicitude.

  And therefore, without affirming that no circumstance can justify a great accumulation of property, it may safely be concluded, that far the greater number of those who do accumulate it do wrong: nor do I see any reason to be deterred from ranking the distribution of a portion of great wealth, or a refusal to accumulate it, among the imperative duties which are imposed by the moral law. In truth, a man may almost discover whether such conduct is obligatory, by referring to the motives which induce him to acquire great property or to retain it. The motives are generally impure; the desire of splendour, or the ambition of eminence, or the love of personal indulgence. Are these motives fit to be brought into competition with the probable welfare, the virtue, the usefulness, and the happiness of his family and himself? Yet such is the competition, and to such unworthy objects, duty, and reason, and affection are sacrificed.

  It will be said, a man should provide for his family, and make them, if he can, independent. That be should provide for his family is true; that he should make them independent, at any rate that he should give them an affluent independence, forms no part of his duty, and is frequently a violation of it. As it respects almost all men, M will beat approve himself a wise and a kind parent who leaves to his sons so much only as may enable them, by moderate engagements, to enjoy the conveniences and comforts of life; and to his daughters a sufficiency to possess similar comforts, but not a sufficiency to shine among the great, or to mingle with the votaries—of expensive dissipation. If any father prefers other objects to the welfare and happiness of his children,—if wisdom and kindness towards them are with him subordinate considerations, it is not probable that he will listen to reasonings like these. But where is the parent who dares to acknowledge this preference to his own mind t

  It were idle to affect to specify any amount of property which a person ought not to exceed. The circumstances of one man may make it reasonable that he should acquire or retain much more than another who has fewer claims. Yet somewhat of a general rule may be suggested. He who is accumulating should consider why he desires more. If it really is, that he believes an addition will increase the welfare and usefulness and virtue of his family, it is probable that further accumulation may be right. If no such belief is sincerely entertained, it is more than probable that it is wrong. He who already possesses affluence should consider its actual existing effects.—If he employs a competent portion of it in increasing the happiness of others, if it does not produce any injurious effect upon his’ own mind, if it does not diminish or impair the virtues of his children, if they are grateful for their privileges rather than vain of their superiority, if they second his own endeavours to diffuse happiness around them, he may remain as ho is. If such effects are not produced, but instead of them others of an opposite tendency, he certainly has too much.—Upon this serious subject let the Christian parent be serious. If, as is proved by the experience of every day, great property usually inflicts great injuries upon those who possess it, what motive can induce a good man to lay it up for his children? What motive will be his justification, if it tempts them from virtue?

  When children are similarly situated with respect to their probable wants, there seems no reason for preferring the elder to the younger, or sons to daughters. Since the proper object of—a parent in making a division of his property is the comfort and welfare of his children,—if this likely to be better secured by an equal than by any other division, an equal division ought to be made. It is a common though not a very reasonable opinion, that a son needs a larger portion than a daughter. To be sure, if he is to live in greater affluence than she, he does. But why should he? There appears no motive in reason, and certainly there is none in affection, for diminishing one child’s comforts to increase another’s. A son too has greater opportunities of gain. A woman almost never grows rich except by legacies or marriage; so that, if her father do not provide for her, it is probable that she will not be provided for at all. As to marriage, the opportunity is frequently not offered to a woman; and a father, if he can, should so provide for his daughter as to enable her, in single life, to live in a state of comfort not greatly inferior to her brother’s. The remark that the custom of preferring sons is general, and therefore that when a couple marry the inequality is adjusted, applies only to the case of those who do marry. The number of women who do not is great; and a parent cannot foresee his daughter’s lot. Besides, since marriage is (and is reasonably) a great object to a woman, and is desirable both for women and for men, there appears a propriety in increasing the probability of marriage by giving to women such property as shall constitute an additional inducement to marriage in the men. I shall hardly be suspected of recommending persons to “marry for money.” My meaning is this:—A young man possesses five hundred a year, and lives on a corresponding scale. He is attached to a woman who has but one hundred a year. This young man sees that if he marries, he must reduce his scale of living; and the consideration operates (I do not say that it ought to operate) to deter him from marriage. But if the young man possessed three hundred a year, and lived accordingly, and if the object of his attachment possessed three hundred a year also, he would not be prevented from marrying her by the fear of being obliged to diminish his system of expenditure. Just complaints are made of those half-concealed blandishments by which some women who need “a settlement” endeavour to procure it by marriage. Those blandishments would become more tempered with propriety, if one great motive was taken away by the possession of a competence of their own.

  An equal division of a father’s property will be said to be incompatible with the system of primogeniture, and almost incompatible with hereditary rank. These are not subjects for the present Essay. Whatever the reader may think of the practical value of these institutions, it is manifest that far the greater number of those who have property to bequeath need not concern themselves with either: they may, in their own practice, contribute to diminish the general and the particular evils of unequal property. With respect to their own families, the result can hardly fail to be good. It is probable that as men advance in intellectual, and especially in moral excellence, the desire of “keeping up the family” will become less and less an object of solicitude. That desire is not, in its ordinary character, recommended by any considerations which are obviously deducible from virtue or from reason. It is an affair of vanity; and vanity, like other weaknesses and evils, may be expected to diminish as sound habits of judgment prevail in the world.

  Perhaps it is remarkable, that the obligation not to accumulate great property for ourselves or our children is so little enforced by the writers on morality. None will dispute that such accumulation is both unwise and unkind. Every one acknowledges too that the general evils of the existing inequality of property are enormously great: yet how few insist upon those means by which, more than by any other private means, these evil, may be diminished! If all men declined to retain, or refrained from acquiring, more than is likely to be beneficial to their families and themselves, the pernicious inequality of property would quickly be diminished or destroyed. There is a motive upon the individual to do this which some public reformations do not offer. He who contributes almost nothing to diminish the general mischiefs of extreme poverty and extreme wealth, may yet do so much benefit to his own connexions as shall greatly overpay him for the sacrifice of vanity or inclination. Perhaps it may be said that there is a claim too of justice. The wealth of a nation is a sort of common stock, of which the accumulations of one man are usually made at the expense of others. A man who has acquired a reasonable sufficiency, and who nevertheless retains his business to acquire more than a sufficiency, practises a sort of injustice towards another who needs his means of gain. There are always many who cannot enjoy the comforts of life, because others are improperly occupying the means by which those comforts are to be obtained is it the part of a Christian to do this?—even abating the consideration that he is injuring himself by withholding comforts from another.

1 More’s Moral Sketches, 3d Edit. P. 446.
2 Wilberforce: Pract. View.
3 Johnson: Vanity of Human Wishes.
4 Wollstonecraft: Rights of Women, c. 4.
5 Clarkson: Portraiture.

All Sub-Works of Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).:
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.