Front Page Titles (by Subject) INTRODUCTION - Selected Economic Writings
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INTRODUCTION - James Mill, Selected Economic Writings 
Selected Economic Writings, ed. Donald Winch (Edinburgh: Oliver Boyd for the Scottish Economic Society, 1966).
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Corn, being the only necessary article, is affected by certain circumstances which render the trade in Corn somewhat more complicated and mysterious than the ordinary cases of trade. This obscurity however might be easily removed, if the real difficulties of the subject were all that we had to contend with. But a number of theories have been formed with regard to it; these have taken possession of people's minds, and to remove these is the first, and probably the greatest task which we have to perform, to diffuse a general knowledge of the principles which ought to regulate this important branch of the national affairs.
The great object is to procure a proper supply of the necessaries of life. During the scarcity which we endured in this country a few years ago, the minds of men were more turned to the subject than they had been before. By the inquiries then made it appeared that during the last forty years this country had not raised all the Corn necessary for its own subsistence; and it was known that during all periods the country had been occasionally subject to the disadvantages and miseries of scarcity. There were two evils therefore existing in this department of the national interests; that of being, in some measure, dependent upon our neighbours for the necessaries of life; and that of being liable to the hardships of scarcity. It was the policy of the State to contrive means for removing both of those disadvantages. They were acknowledged to be disadvantages of the greatest magnitude.
It was properly, and naturally, the chief object of concern, during the pressure of that scarcity, to find the means of redressing the evils immediately felt. The first of these was the importation of the article wanted. But various other measures were talked of. One became so much applauded that Mr Burke, a very short time before his death, thought it necessary, in a memorial presented to Mr Pitt, to prove the utter impolicy of it, under immediate fear that it was about to be adopted by the legislature.1 This was to fix by authority the rate of labourers’ wages, according to the price of corn; it being understood that at the rate of wages, and the price of corn then existing, the labourer was unable to procure the means of subsistence, and that the farmer was making extraordinary and unreasonable gains.
Besides the means of removing the evils immediately felt, the means were sought of preventing the recurrence of scarcity. For this object also one contrivance, that of public granaries, became so much a favourite, that Mr Burke thought it necessary to warn the public against it in that performance to which I have already alluded, and in which he has told us many things, which it is to be lamented so few of us seem to know.
While such projects were devised for removing scarcity, the second of the evils above-mentioned, and for preventing its recurrence, our attention was attracted, in some degree, to the first of those objects too, our dependence upon foreign countries for a part of our supply; and various schemes for the improvement of agriculture were daily discussed. The return of plenty put an end to those speculations; and we should have gone on without any further inquiry, till a new scarcity had overtaken us, if it had not been for an effect of the preceding scarcity which began to be experienced.
During the reign of enormous prices and of high profits, it is well known that the ideas of the farmers became too high. They estimated, as was not unnatural, at much more than its proper value, the continuance of the gains they were then making. They were so eager in their business that they became willing to promise any rent for their farms. New leases were in almost all cases granted upon terms proportioned, or nearly proportioned to the price of corn at that time. When the price of corn fell they found themselves of necessity reduced to distress, having bound themselves in an unwise, and unequal contract. But, as is usual with men, they did not blame themselves for the evils which they felt; they blamed the low price to which corn had fallen; and one of the happiest circumstances which could arrive to this country became the object of their clamour and outcry. The farmers had not sufficient profits; they could not carry on their trade; prices must be raised. Of course the landlords liked this cry much better, than that against unreasonable and ruinous leases. They joined in it; for their interest naturally prevented them from seeing its absurdity. They came to parliament for assistance to export corn, till the farmers could sell it high enough to pay them their present rents; and, wonderful to tell, parliament granted that assistance!2
Of course it was not for the declared purpose of enabling them to draw great rents that they sought or obtained the law. The old mercantile theory of politics suggested certain vague ideas of the efficacy of bounties; and they persuaded parliament, and endeavoured to persuade the world, that to grant a bounty on the exportation of corn, and a duty on importation, was one of the most effectual means to promote the interests of the country.
The advocates for the law enacted upon these reasons tell us, that the effects of a bounty upon the exportation of corn are to encourage in such a manner the production of corn, that in all ordinary years we shall not only supply ourselves, but have a surplus to export, and that in deficient years we shall have this surplus in reserve, to prevent the effects of scarcity; that the happy consequence of this law therefore will be a deliverance from both the evils under which we labour, of being dependent upon our neighbours for the necessaries of life, and of being subject to the hardships and dangers of scarcity.
This is unquestionably a very lofty promise. It is not a trifling benefit which the inventors of this expedient will have the honour of bestowing upon their country. Their merit is not diminished by the simplicity of the means employed to attain so important an end. But it may be reckoned somewhat wonderful, that a discovery of this magnitude should so long have escaped the intellectual eyes of all the great men who have spent their days in studying the means of national prosperity; and should be reserved to distinguish and immortalize those profound thinkers, and indefatigable inquirers who brought forward the late corn law. From the infinite diligence with which they have been long known to study all the profoundest questions of political economy, it was to be expected that they would go much deeper than any of their predecessors; and things of no small importance which had escaped all who went before them we justly hoped that they would bring to light. But a discovery so extraordinary as this even the great hopes which they had raised did not entitle us to expect. So much the greater therefore are our obligations.
They present their reasons to us in abundance of words, and they are composed of various particulars. They may all however be reduced to two heads; and it will assist us in obtaining a clear idea of them to consider them under that division. The first may be denominated their argument from experience; the second their argument from the nature of the case. Under these heads will be included everything which has been advanced in favour of the bounty upon exportation by Dirom and Mackie,3 by Dr Anderson,4 and Mr Malthus,5 and indeed every thing which the author of this essay conceives it to be possible to adduce in behalf of this doctrine. It is his intention to examine these arguments in every light in which they can be presented. And he has distributed the different parts of that examination under separate titles in the chapters which follow.
[Thoughts and Details on Scarcity originally presented to the Rt. Hon. William Pitt in the month of November 1795, London, 1800. The theme of Burke's memorandum was that ‘to provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of Government’.]
[43, 44 Geo. III, c. 109.]
[An Inquiry into the Corn Laws and Corn Trade of Great Britain and their influence on the Prosperity of the Kingdom, with a suggestion for the improvement of the Corn Laws by the late Alexander Dirom. To which is added a supplement by William Mackie, Edinburgh, 1796.]
[A Calm Investigation of the Circumstances that have led to the Present Scarcity of Grain in Britain, London, 1801.]
[In the 2nd edn. of his Essay on Population (1803) Malthus included a section praising the export bounty on corn.]