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Title: Economy [abridged]
Original Title: Economie ou oeconomie [abridged]
Volume and Page: Vol. 5 (1755), pp. 337–349
Author: Jean-Jacques Rousseau → (biography)
Translator: Stephen J. Gendzier [Brandeis University]
Subject terms:
Political science
Original Version (ARTFL): Link
Source: Stephen J. Gendzier, ed., Denis Diderot’s The Encyclopedia: Selections (New York: Harper & Row, [1967]). Used with permission.

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Citation (MLA): Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "Economy [abridged]." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Stephen J. Gendzier. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2009. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Economie ou oeconomie [abridged]," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5. Paris, 1755.
Citation (Chicago): Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "Economy [abridged]." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Stephen J. Gendzier. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2009. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Economie ou oeconomie [abridged]," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 5:337–349 (Paris, 1755).
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Political Economy. [1] The word economy or oeconomy is derived from oikos, a house, and nomos, law, and generally means the wise and legitimate government of the house for the common good of the entire family. The meaning of this term was then extended to the government of the great family, the state. In order to distinguish between these two senses of the word, the latter is called general or political economy and the former domestic or particular economy. Only the first is considered in this article.


The body politic, therefore, is also a moral being possessing a will; and this general will, which always tends to the preservation and welfare of the whole and of every part, is the source of the laws, constitutes for all the members of the state in their relations to one another and to it the rule of what is right and wrong; a truth that shows, by the way, how much sense there was to the indictment of so many writers who treated as theft the subtle rule prescribed to children at Sparta for obtaining their frugal meals, is if everything ordained by the law were not lawful. See in the article Natural Rights the source of this great and luminous principle that we are now developing. [2]

It is important to observe that this rule of justice, though reliable with regard to all citizens, may be defective with regard to foreigners: and the reason for this is clear: in this case the will of the state, though general in relation to its own members, is no longer so in relation to other states and their members but becomes for them a particular and individual will, which has its rule of justice in the law of nature. This also complies with the principle we have established; for then the great city of the world becomes the body politic, whose general will is always the law of nature and of which the different states and peoples are only individual members.

From these distinctions, applied to each political society and its members, are derived the most reliable and universal rules by which we can judge whether a government is good or bad and in general the morality of all human actions.

Every political society is composed of other smaller societies of different kinds, each of which has its interests and its rules of conduct; but those societies which everybody perceives, because they have an external and authorized form, are not the only ones that actually exist in the state: all individuals who are united by a common interest compose as many others, either permanent or transitory, whose power is none the less real because it is less apparent, and the careful observation of whose various relations is the true knowledge of morals and customs. The influence of all these tacit or formal associations with their own will causes so many modifications of the public will. The will of these particular societies has always two relations: for the members of the association it is a general will; for the great society it is a particular will; and it is very often right in the first case and wrong in the second. An individual may be a devout priest, a brave soldier, or a dedicated practitioner and at the same time a bad citizen. A particular resolution may be advantageous to the smaller community but quite pernicious to the greater. It is true that particular societies being always subordinate to the general society of which they are a part, the duty of a citizen takes precedence over that of a senator, and a man's duty over that of a citizen: but unhappily personal interest is always found in reverse ratio to duty and increases in proportion as the association becomes narrower and the engagement less sacred; an indisputable proof that the most general will is always the most just also and that the voice of the people is in fact the voice of God.

I. The first and most important maxim of legitimate or popular government, that is to say, of government whose object is the good of the people, is, therefore, as I have said, to follow in everything the general will. But to follow this will it is necessary to know it and above all to distinguish it from the particular will, beginning with one's self; this distinction is always difficult to make, and only the most sublime virtue can provide us with sufficient enlightenment. As, in order to will, it is necessary to be free, another difficulty no less great than the former presents itself; namely, to secure at one and the same time the public liberty and the authority of the government. Look into the motives that have induced men, once united by their common needs in a general society, to unite themselves still more intimately through civil societies: you will find no other motive than that of securing the property, life, and liberty of each member by the protection of all. Now, how can men be forced to defend the liberty of any one among them without interfering with that of others? And how can they provide for the public needs without tampering with the individual property of those who are forced to contribute to them? With whatever sophistry all this may be covered over, it is certain that if my will can be constrained, I am no longer free, and that I am no longer master of my property if any one else can lay his hands on it. This difficulty, which must have seemed insurmountable, has been removed, with the first, by the most sublime of all institutions, or rather by a divine inspiration which teaches man to imitate here below the immutable decrees of the Deity. By what inconceivable art has a means been found of subjugating men in order to make them free; of using in the service of the state the properties, the persons, and even the lives of all its members without constraining and without consulting them; of confining their will by their own admission, of enforcing their consent over their own refusal and forcing them to punish themselves when they do something they have not willed? How is it possible that they all obey and yet nobody commands, that they all serve and yet have no masters but be even freer in fact than under apparent subjection, for each person loses no part of his liberty but what might be harmful to that of another? These wonders are the work of the law. It is to law alone that men owe justice and liberty. It is to this salutary organ of the will of all that re-establishes in civil right the natural equality between men. It is this celestial voice that dictates to each citizen the precepts of public reason and teaches him to act according to the maxims of his own judgment and not to be in a state of contradiction with himself. It is with this voice alone that heads of state should speak when they command; for as soon as a man casts aside the laws and claims to subject another to his private will, he immediately departs from the civil society and meets him face to face in the pure state of nature in which obedience is prescribed only by necessity.

II. The second essential rule of public economy is not less important than the first. If you wish to have the general will accomplish its purpose, make all the particular wills agree with it; and as virtue is nothing more than this conformity of the particular wills with the general will, we could say the same thing in a few words: establish the reign of virtue. If our politicians were less blinded by their ambition, they would see how impossible it is for any establishment whatever to function in the spirit of its institution unless it is guided in accordance with the law of duty; they would feel that the greatest support of public authority lies in the heart of the citizens and that nothing can take the place of morality in the maintenance of government. It is not only upright men who know how to administer the laws, but at bottom only good honest people know how to obey them. A man who has finally mastered his remorse will not be intimidated by punishments that are less severe and less lasting and from which there is at least the hope of escaping: whatever precautions are taken, those who only await impunity in order to do wrong will hardly fail to find means of eluding the law and avoiding its penalties. Then as all the particular interests unite against the general interest, which is no longer that of any individual, public vices have more power in enervating the laws than the laws have in repressing vice: so that the corruption of the people and their rules will finally spread to the government, however wise it may be The worst of all abuses is to give the appearance of obeying the laws only in order actually to break them with security. The best laws soon became the most pernicious; and it would be a hundred times better that they should not exist; for laws would then be a final expedient that people would still have available after they had tried everything else. In such a situation it is vain to add edicts to edicts and regulations to regulations. Everything serves only to introduce new abuses without correcting the old ones. The more laws are multiplied, the more they are scorned, and all the officials appointed to oversee them are only so many more people destined to break them either by sharing the plunder with their precursors or by pillaging new sources on their own. The reward of virtue soon becomes that of robbery: the most vile men have the greatest credit in society; the greater they are, the more despicable they become; their infamy shatters their high repute, and they are dishonored by their honors. If they buy the approval of the leaders or the protection of women, it is only so that they may sell justice, duty, and the state in their turn: in the meantime the people, who do not see that their vices are the primary causes of their misfortunes, moan and complain that "all our misfortunes come solely from those whom we pay to protect us from such things."

It is at this time that the voice of duty no longer speaks in men's hearts, and their rulers are obliged to substitute the cry of terror or the lure of an apparent interest with which they delude their creatures. Under these circumstances they are compelled to have recourse to all the petty and despicable maneuvers which they call maxims of state and mysteries of the cabinet. All the vigor that is left in government is used by its members in under-cutting and supplanting one another, while. public affairs are neglected or attended to only insofar as personal interest requires and thereby conducts them. Finally all the skill of those great politicians is directed at so mesmerizing those people they need that each believes he is working for his own interest in working for theirs; I say theirs entirely skeptical of the assumption that the real interest of rulers is to annihilate the people in order to bring them into subjection and to ruin their own property in order to secure their possession of it.

But when the citizens love their duty and the guardians of public authority sincerely apply themselves to the fostering of that love by their own example and concern, all the difficulties vanish, and administration becomes so easy that it no longer needs that dark and sinister art whose blackness is its only mystery. Those adventurous spirits, so dangerous and so much admired, all those great ministers, whose glory is inseparable from the miseries of the people, are no longer regretted: public morality supplies what is lacking in the genius of the rulers; and the more virtue reigns, the less need there is for talent. Even ambition is better served by duty than by usurpation; and when the people are convinced that their rulers are working only for the general welfare, they defer to them and consequently spare them the trouble of strengthening their power; history shows us in a thousand places that the authority granted by the people to those they love, who also return that love, is a hundred times more absolute than all the tyranny of usurpers.

[Further in the text Rousseau discusses the necessity of protecting the poor "against the tyranny of the rich."]

It is therefore one of the most important concerns of government to prevent the extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving men of all the means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by guaranteeing that the citizens will not become poor. The unequal distribution of inhabitants in our country, some crowded together in one place, while other areas are depopulated; the support given to the arts producing luxuries and to the purely industrial arts at the expense of the useful and laborious crafts; the sacrifice of agriculture [3] to commerce; the necessity of having tax farmers because of the bad administration of state funds; and finally venality pushed to such an extreme that public esteem is reckoned at a low cash value; and even virtue is sold at a market price: these are the most perceptible causes of opulence and poverty, of private interest substituted for public interest, of mutual hatred among citizens, of their indifference to the common cause, of the corruption of the people, and of the weakening of all the mainsprings of government. These are consequently the evils which are with difficulty cured when people become conscious of them but which a wise administration must prevent if it is to maintain, along with good morals, respect for the laws, patriotism, and the influence of the general will.

But all these precautions will be inadequate if rulers do not probe even more deeply into the question. I conclude this part of public economy where I should have begun. Patriotism cannot exist without liberty, nor liberty without virtue, and certainly not virtue without citizens; if you create citizens, you will have everything; without them you will have nothing but debased slaves, from the heads of state down. Now, to make citizens is not the work of a day; and in order to have men act as citizens it is necessary to educate them when they are children. Some people maintain that whoever has men to govern, must not seek beyond their nature a perfection of which they are incapable; that he ought not to try to destroy their passions, and that the execution of such a plan is no more desirable than it is possible. I shall argue further that a man without passions would certainly be a very bad citizen [4]; but it must be agreed also that if men are not taught not to love some things, it is impossible to teach them to love one object more than another and to appreciate what is truly beautiful rather than that which is deformed. If, for example, they are influenced rather early to regard their individuality only in its relation to the body of the state and to be aware, so to speak, of their own existence merely as a part of the entire state, they might finally come to identify themselves in some way with this greater whole, to feel themselves members of their country, to love it with that exquisite feeling which every isolated person only has for himself, to lift up their spirits perpetually to this great object and thereby transform into a sublime virtue that dangerous disposition that gives rise to all our vices. Not only does history demonstrate the possibility of these new directions [5], but history furnishes us with a thousand striking examples. If they are so rare in our time, it is because nobody cares if there are any citizens at all, and still less does anyone think of attending to the matter soon enough to make them, It is too late to change our natural inclinations when they have taken their course, and habit reinforces our egotism: it is too late to escape from ourselves when once the human ego , concentrated in our hearts, has acquired that contemptible activity that absorbs all virtue and constitutes the life of those petty souls. How can patriotism blossom in the midst of so many other passions that smother it? And what can remain, for fellow citizens, of a heart already divided among avarice, a mistress, and vanity?

From the first moment of life men must begin learning how to deserve to live; and as we partake of the rights of citizenship at birth, that moment ought to be the beginning of the exercise of our duties. If there are laws for the age of maturity, there ought to be laws for infancy and childhood, teaching obedience to others; and as the reason of each man is not left to be the sole arbiter of his duties, we should so much the less abandon the education of children to the understanding and prejudices of their fathers, as that education is of still greater importance to the state than to the fathers; for according to the course of nature the death of the father often deprives him of the final fruits of that education; but his country sooner or later feels its results; the state remains, and the family dissolves. For if the public authority, by taking the place of the father, were to charge itself with that important function, acquiring his rights by discharging his duties, he would have all the less cause to complain, because in this respect he would only be changing his role and would have in common, under the name of citizen, the same authority over his children as he was exercising separately under the name of father and would not be less obeyed when speaking in the name of the law than when he spoke in that of nature. Public education, under regulations prescribed by the government and under magistrates established by the sovereign is, therefore, one of the fundamental rules of popular or legitimate government. If children are brought up in common in the bosom of equality, if they are imbued with the laws of the state and the maxims of the general will, if they are taught to respect these above all things, if they are surrounded by examples and objects that constantly remind them of the tender mother who nourishes them, of the love she bears them, of the inestimable benefits they receive from her, and of the consideration they owe her, we cannot doubt that they will thereby learn to cherish one another mutually as brothers, to will nothing contrary to the will of society, to substitute the actions of men and citizens for the fruitless and vain babbling of sophists, and to become one day the defenders and fathers of the country of which they will have been so long the children.

III. It is not enough to have citizens and to protect them; we must also consider their subsistence. Providing for public needs is an obvious consequence of the general will and the third essential duty of government. This duty is not, we should feel, to fill the storehouses of individuals and grant them a dispensation from labor but to keep abundance so within their reach that labor is always necessary and never useless for its acquisition. It extends also to everything regarding the management of the treasury and the expenses of public administration. Therefore after having discussed the general economy in relation to the government of persons, we must now consider it in relation to the administration of property.

This part presents no fewer difficulties to solve and contradictions to remove than the preceding. It is certain that the right of property is the most sacred of all the rights of citizens and more important in some respects than liberty itself, either because it is more closely related to the preservation of life or because property being more easily usurped and more difficult to defend than life, we must have more regard for what can be more easily taken away or, finally, because property is the true foundation of civil society [6] and the true guarantee of the undertakings of citizens: for if property were not answerable for personal actions, nothing would be easier than to evade duties and mock the laws. On the other hand, it is no less certain that the maintenance of the state and the government entails some cost and expenditure; and as everyone who agrees to the end cannot reject the means, it follows that the members of society have to contribute from their property to its support. Besides, it is difficult to secure the property of individuals on one side without attacking it on another; and it is impossible that all the regulations that pertain to the order of succession, wills, and contracts should not place citizens under some constraint as to the disposition of their goods and should consequently restrict the right of property.

If the people governed themselves and there were no intermediary between the administration of the state and the citizens, they would only have to assess themselves occasionally in proportion to the public needs and the abilities-of individuals; and as they would all keep in sight the collection and employment of these funds, no fraud or abuse could slip into the management of them: the state would never be encumbered with debts. nor the people overburdened with taxes; or at least the knowledge that the money would be well used would be a consolation for the severity of the tax. But things cannot be carried out in this manner: for however small any state may be, civil societies are always too populous to be governed by all their members. It is necessary that the public funds should be handled by the rulers, all of whom have, besides the interests of the state, their own individual interests, which are not the last to be listened to. The people, on their side, perceiving the cupidity and extravagance of their rulers rather than the public needs, murmur at seeing themselves stripped of necessities to furnish others with superfluities; and when the manipulation of state funds has sufficiently embittered them, the most upright administration will find it impossible to restore confidence. Then if contributions are voluntary, they bring in nothing; if they are forced, they are illegitimate. This cruel alternative of letting the state perish or of violating the sacred right of property, which is its support, constitutes the difficulty of a just and prudent economy.

A third relation, which is never taken into account though it should be the primary consideration, is the advantage that every person derives from the social confederacy, which thoroughly protects the immense possessions of the rich and hardly leaves the poor man to enjoy the thatched cottage he built with his own hands. Are not all the advantages of society for the rich and powerful? Are not all the lucrative positions held by them alone? Are not all privileges and exemptions reserved for them? And is not the public authority completely on their side? If a man of eminence robs his creditors or commits some other dishonest act, is he not always assured of impunity? Are not the assaults, violent deeds, even the murders and assassinations perpetrated by the great, matters that are hushed up after a few months and closed forever? But if this great man is robbed, the whole police force is immediately in motion, and woe unto innocent persons who are merely under suspicion. If he has to pass through a dangerous road, the whole countryside is filled with escorts for him, If the axle of his coach should break, everybody flies to his assistance. If there is some noise at his door, he speaks one word and all is silent. If he is inconvenienced by the crowd, he waves his hand and everybody gets out of the way. If a cart accidentally blocks his passage, his servants are ready to bash the driver on the head, and fifty honest pedestrians going quietly about their business had better be trampled upon than an idle and insolent scoundrel be delayed in his carriage. Yet all this respect does not cost him a penny: it is the rich man's right and not what he purchases with his wealth. How different is the picture of the poor man! The more humanity owes him, the more society denies him: all doors are closed to him, even when he has a right to have them opened. And if he occasionally obtains justice, it is with more difficulty than others obtain favors. If there are public works to be done or the militia to be recruited, he is always given preference; he always bears his own burden and also that which his richer neighbor has influence enough to get exempted from. At the slightest accident that happens to him, everybody shuns him. If his wretched cart is overturned in the road, far from being helped by anyone, he is lucky not to be humiliated by the impudent lackeys of some young duke: in a word, all gratuitous assistance is denied to the poor when they need it, precisely because they cannot pay for it. I consider every poor man ruined if he has the misfortune to have an honest heart, a nice daughter, and a powerful neighbor.

We can summarize in a few words the terms of the social compact between these two estates of men. You need me because I am rich and you are poor. We can therefore reach an agreement: I will permit you to have the honor of serving me on condition that you give me the little you have left in return for the pains I shall take to command you. [7]

Heavy taxes should be imposed on liveried servants, on carriages, on mirrors, chandeliers, and expensive furniture, on fine and gilded fabrics, on spacious courts and gardens, on public entertainments of all kinds, on unnecessary professions such as clowns, singers, players, and, in a word, on all that multiplicity of objects of luxury, amusement, and idleness which strike all our eyes and can the less be hidden for their whole purpose is to be exhibited, and they would be useless if they were not seen. Let us not fear that the proceeds of these taxes are really arbitrary because they are levied on things not absolutely necessary. A person would have to be rather naive about mankind to believe that after they had once been seduced by luxury, they could ever renounce it; they would a hundred times sooner renounce the necessities of life and even prefer to die of hunger than of shame. The increase in their expense is only an additional reason for supporting it, because the vanity of appearing wealthy will make its profit from the price of the thing and the charge of the tax. As long as there are rich people, they will want to distinguish themselves from the poor, and the state cannot devise a revenue less burdensome or more certain than that which is based on this distinction.

1. For an almost complete translation of this article, see Jean-Jacques Rousseau → , The Social Contract and Discourses , tr. with an introduction by G.D. H. Cole (New York, 1950),pp. 285-330.

2. There is an unsettled controversy among scholars over whether this reference to Diderot's article is an admission by Rousseau that he found in his friend's discussion of "Natural Law or Rights" the idea of the general will.

3. Rousseau, like the Physiocrats, wanted to favor agriculture at the expense of industry.

4. On the debate that raged in the eighteenth century on the merits of the passions Rousseau did not have a clear and unambiguous position. For a thorough discussion of this question, see Lester G. Crocker, An Age of Crisis , (Baltimore, 1959), pp. 218-55

5. In the original draft Rousseau had written "transformations" in the place of "new directions," then "changes," and finally "metamorphoses," See Jean-Jacques Rousseau → , Oeuvres complètes , 111, 1400.

6. Rousseau seems to be contradicting other statements made in the Discours sur l'inégalité and the Contrat social : see Oeuvres complètes , 111, 1402-3, which is an extensive footnote for p. 263.

7. Karl Marx quoted this "agreement" in Capital , (New York, 1906), Part viii, ch. XXX, p. 818. But in Rousseau's original text in French, Marx inserted "says the capitalist" after the phrase "I will permit you."

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