Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION V.: Of National Waste. - An Essay on the History of Civil Society
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SECTION V.: Of National Waste. - Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society 
An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 5th ed. (London: T. Cadell, 1782).
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Of National Waste.
THE strength of nations consists in the wealth, the numbers, and the character of their people. The history of their progress from a state of rudeness, is, for the most part, a detail of the struggles they have maintained, and of the arts they have practised, to strengthen, or to secure themselves. Their conquests, their population, and their commerce, their civil and military arrangements, their skill in the construction of weapons, and in the methods of attack and defence; the very distribution of tasks, whether in private business or in public affairs, either tend to bestow, or promise to employ with advantage, the constituents of a national force, and the resources of war.
If we suppose that, together with these advantages, the military character of a people remains, or is improved, it must follow, that what is gained in civilization, is a real increase of strength; and that the ruin of nations could never take its rise from themselves. Where states have stopped short in their progress, or have actually gone to decay, we may suspect, that however disposed to advance, they have found a limit, beyond which they could not proceed; or from a remission of the national spirit, and a weakness of character, were unable to make the most of their resources, and natural advantages. On this supposition, from being stationary, they may begin to relapse, and by a retrograde motion in a succession of ages, arrive at a state of greater weakness, than that which they quitted in the beginning of their progress; and with the appearance of better arts, and superior conduct, expose themselves to become a prey to barbarians, whom, in the attainment, or the height of their glory, they had easily baffled or despised.
Whatever may be the natural wealth of a people, or whatever may be the limits beyond which they cannot improve on their stock, it is probable, that no nation has ever reached those limits, or has been able to postpone its misfortunes, and the effects of misconduct, until its fund of materials, and the fertility of its soil, were exhausted, or the numbers of its people were greatly reduced. The same errors in policy, and weakness of manners, which prevent the proper use of resources, likewise check their increase, or improvement.
The wealth of the state consists in the fortune of its members. The actual revenue of the state is that share of every private fortune, which the public has been accustomed to demand for national purposes. This revenue cannot be always proportioned to what may be supposed redundant in the private estate, but to what is, in some measure, thought so by the owner; and to what he may be made to spare, without intrenching on his manner of living, and without suspending his projects of expence, or of commerce. It should appear, therefore, that any immoderate increase of private expence is a prelude to national weakness: government, even while each of its subjects consumes a princely estate, may be straitened in point of revenue, and the parodox be explained by example, That the public is poor, while its members are rich.
We are frequently led into error by mistaking money for riches; we think that a people cannot be impoverished by a waste of money which is spent among themselves. The fact is, that men are impoverished only in two ways; either by having their gains suspended, or by having their substance consumed; and money expended at home, being circulated, and not consumed, cannot, any more than the exchange of a tally, or a counter, among a certain number of hands, tend to diminish the wealth of the company among whom it is handed about. But while money circulates at home, the necessaries of life, which are the real constituents of wealth, may be idly consumed; the industry which might be employed to increase the stock of a people, may be suspended, or turned to abuse.
Great armies, maintained either at home or abroad, without any national object, are so many mouths unnecessarily opened to waste the stores of the public, and so many hands with-held from the arts by which its profits are made. Unsuccessful enterprises are so many ventures thrown away, and losses sustained, proportioned to the capital employed in the service. The Helvetii, in order to invade the Roman province of Gaul, burnt their habitations, dropt their instruments of husbandry, and consumed, in one year, the savings of many. The enterprise failed of success, and the nation was undone.
States have endeavoured, in some instances, by pawning their credit, instead of employing their capital, to disguise the hazards they ran. They have found, in the loans they raised, a casual resource, which encouraged their enterprises. They have seemed, by their manner of erecting transferrable funds, to leave the capital for purposes of trade, in the hands of the subject, while it is actually expended by the government. They have, by these means, proceeded to the execution of great national projects, without suspending private industry, and have left future ages to answer, in part, for debts contracted with a view to future emolument. So far the expedient is plausible, and appears to be just. The growing burden too, is thus gradually laid; and if a nation be to sink in some future age, every minister hopes it may still keep afloat in his own. But the measure, for this very reason, is, with all its advantages, extremely dangerous, in the hands of a precipitant and ambitious administration, regarding only the present occasion, and imagining a state to be inexhaustible, while a capital can be borrowed, and the interest be paid.
We are told of a nation who, during a certain period, rivalled the glories of the ancient world, threw off the dominion of a master armed against them with the powers of a great kingdom, broke the yoke with which they had been oppressed, and almost within the course of a century raised, by their industry and national vigour, a new and formidable power, which struck the former potentates of Europe with awe and suspence, and turned the badges of poverty with which they set out, into the ensigns of war and dominion. This end was attained by the great efforts of a spirit awakened by oppression, by a successful pursuit of national wealth, and by a rapid anticipation of future revenue. But this illustrious state is supposed not only in the language of a former section, to have pre-occupied the business; they have sequestered the inheritance of many ages to come.
Great national expence, however, does not imply the necessity of any national suffering. While revenue is applied with success, to obtain some valuable end, the profits of every adventure, being more than sufficient to repay its costs, the public should gain, and its resources should continue to multiply. But an expence, whether sustained at home or abroad, whether a waste of the present, or an anticipation of future, revenue, if it bring no proper return, is to be reckoned among the causes of national ruin.
of Corruption and Political Slavery.