Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VII.: WISDOM FROM THE SIMPLE. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5
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Chapter VII.: WISDOM FROM THE SIMPLE. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 5.
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WISDOM FROM THE SIMPLE.
Of all the party of exiles, Andreas was the one whose troubles grew the fastest as time rolled on. The family of Owzin were consoled by the return of domestic peace; Sophia becoming more and more like her former self as Cyprian slowly, very slowly, repaid the cares of his nurses by his improvement in health. Paul made himself comfortable, as he would have done in the Barbary desert, if sentenced to transportation thither the next year. He was not a man to doubt, in the intervals of his sighs for Poland, that he could find a wife and a home in any corner of the earth. What was in Ernest's mind nobody knew; but there was a new cheerfulness about him which it was difficult to account for, as he continued to disclaim all definite hope for Poland. He looked and moved like one who had an object, and yet it was impossible to conceive of any aim which could interest him through any other principle than his patriotism. Little Clara would have been the happiest of all, if her father had but allowed it. She thought less and less of Warsaw as fresh occupations and interests occurred to her in her new country. The opening of the spring brought a variety of employment to the industrious little girl. When the plates of ice with which she had made double window panes began to lose their clearness, and keep out the light rather than keep in the warmth,—when she had twisted and netted all the flax she could procure into fishing-nets.—when even the broadest pattens she could make or buy would not support the wearer in the melting snow,—and when, above all, the winter stock of food began to fail, she prepared herself eagerly for new devices, and watched day by day the advance of the season. She had not to wait long; and when the south winds began to blow, the suddenness of the change in the face of things startled her. As if by magic, a few genial days divided the mountainous district into two regions, as different in aspect as if tracts had been brought from the torrid and frigid zones and joined together in one sight. While on the north side of every mountain all was white and silent as ever, the south was brilliant with alpine vegetation, and the freed torrents were leaping noisily from rock to rock. The wild apricot put forth its lilac buds, and the rhododendron its purple flowers, over many a hill side: the orchis, the blue and white gentian, and the Siberian iris sprouted from the moss beneath tlie forest trees; and the blossoming elder and a variety of water lilies made the most impassable morasses as gay as the meadows of a milder climate. It was not from any idea that holiday time was come that Clara enjoyed this change. She knew that she must work all the year round; but it was much pleasanter to work in the open air than for eight months together within four walls, by the light of ice windows, and the close warmth of a brick oven. She now collected salt from the salt ponds of the steppe as fast as they melted; shovelled away the remaining snow wherever lilies were sprouting, that she might dig up the roots for food; and walked along the shores of the great lake when its tumbling waters once more began to heave and swell, and watched for whatever treasures they might cast up upon the beach. She even conceived the ambitious project of digging for a spring of water, as all that could otherwise lie procured was either salt, muddy, or bitter; but here she was foiled, as she might have known she would be, if she had taken an opinion upon the subject. She dug successfully to the depth of one foot, and then found the soil frozen too hard for her to make any impression. She tried again a month later, and got down another foot; but, as she afterwards learned, the strongest arm and the best tools can penetrate no deeper than two yards, before frost comes again and spoils the work.
Her father thought her a good child in respect of industry; but he acknowledged this with little pleasure, for no industry whatever could make a man rich in such a place. The longer he lived there, the more convinced he became of the dreadful truth, and therefore the more miserable he grew. Yet he was rich in comparison of his companions. He had hoarded many skins, and had more furniture and clothes than anybody else. But skins would soon be depreciated in value, he feared, from their abundance; and where would he his wealth then, unless he could foresee in time into what form it would be most profitable to transmute his hoard, while it retained its value as a representative of wealth, and before it should again become also a commodity? Night after night, when he came home from work in the mine, he dreaded to hear of an acquisition of skins. Day after day, did he look with jealous eyes on the heaps of silver which he must not touch, and long for the security of a metallic currency; that arrangement of civilized life which he most regretted. He saw—everybody saw—that some new medium of circulation must be adopted, if they wished to improve their state by further exchange with their neighbours; but the suggestion which was at last adopted did not come from him, or from any of the wiser heads. It was Clara who introduced a new kind of money.
In walking along the muddy verge to which a spring flood had reached, and where it had deposited various curiosities, she observed, among little heaps and beds of shells, some very remarkable bones. Though light to carry, they were so large that she could not imagine what animal they could have belonged to. She collected all that she could find within a long space on either side the river, and carried her lap full to Paul, the friend of all others who, with the advantage of his wife's help, could most frequently and readily enlighten her in any matter of difficulty.
Emilia explained that these were the bones of a monster which had been made by the spirits of the Charmed Sea to carry them high and dry on its back through the deep waters: and that having once displeased them by diving in the deepest part, they had, as a punishment, chained it down at the bottom of the neighbouring river, whence its bones were cast up as often as the spring floods overspread the country. Clara wondered at the spirits for not swimming or flying over at once, instead of taking so much trouble to create and then destroy a monster; and she liked Paul's account of the matter better than his wife's. Paul was not aware that spirits had anything to do with mammoths elsewhere, and did not believe that they had here, or that the mammoth ought to be called a monster. He simply called the mammoth a huge animal, such as is not seen in these days, and any traces of which, therefore, are a curiosity. He advised Clara not to throw away these curious bones.
“Papa will not let me keep them,” she replied. “He will sell them, if he can find anybody to buy.”
“I do not know who should do that, my dear. We have no cabinets of curiosities in such a place as this.”
“I do think,” said Clara, after a moment's thought, “that these bones would make very good money. You see, we could easily find out exactly how many may be had, and it can never happen, as it does with the skins, that we shall have twice as many one day as the day before.”
“It may happen, my dear, that a second flood or storm may throw up more bones. It is not likely, to be sure, that such a thing should come to pass twice in one season; but it is possible.”
“And if it does,” said Clara, “could not we agree that some one person should take care of them; or that whatever bones are found should belong to us all, and be put in one particular place, to lie till we want more money.’ We cannot do this with skins, because they are useful in other ways, and it would be very hard to prevent anybody horn getting as many as he could; but nobody would think it hard that he might not keep mammoth bones, because they would be of no use to him except tor money.”
“But would they not be slily kept for money, Clara? Would every one bring in the mammoth bones he might find to the treasury?”
“If they would trust me,” said the little girl, “I would go out after a storm or a flood, and bring in any that might be lying about. But think how very seldom this would happen; and Low very often we get a fresh supply of skins!”
“Very true, Clara; and I, tor one, would trust you to bring home all you might find. But there is more to Lie considered than you are aware of before we change our currency; and I very much doubt whether your father, among others, would agree to it.”
“You would give him as much of our new money as is worth the skins he has laid by,” said Clara, “or he would not hear of the change; and indeed it would not be at all fair. O yes; everybody must be paid equal to what he has at present; and if that is properly done, I should think they will all like the plan, as it will be less easy than ever to cheat or make mistakes. You see so few of these bones are like one another that, when once different values are put upon them, one may tell at a glance what they stand for, as easily as one may tell a ruble from a ducat. And then, again, there can be no cheating. If we were to clip and break off for ever, one could not make several pieces of bone into a whole bone, as one may with skins, or with gold and silver.”
“But these bones will wear out in time, Clara; and some will crumble to pieces sooner than others.”
“Not faster than from year to year,” argued Clara. “And next spring, when perhaps we call get more, it will be very easy to give out new ones, and take in the old, and break them up entirely before everybody's eyes. O, I think this is the best sort ot money we have thought of yet.”
Paul agreed with her, and promised to call the little company together to consult about the matter.
The first thing that struck everybody was that these bones would be without some of the most important qualities which recommend coined money as a medium of exchange.
“What are we to say to their value?” asked Taddeus. “There is no cost of production, except the little trouble and time Clara will spend in picking them up.”
“It is plain that they will have no value in themselves,” observed Paul, “but only such as we shall put upon them by common agreement.”
“That is,” said Ernest, they Will be a sign of value only, and not a commodity. Will a mere sign of value serve our purpose as a standard of value? That is the question. For the thing we most want is a standard of value. It was in this respect that our skins failed us.”
“The bones will serve our own little party as a standard of value, well enough,” replied Paul. “The difficulty will be when we come to deal with our neighbours, who not only use a different currency, but to whom mammoth bones are absolutely worthless. When we used skins, it was difficult to impress upon traders the full value at which we estimated our money; but it had some real value with them from its being a commodity as well as a sign.”
“Then we have to choose between the two inconveniences,” observed Ernest; “whether to fix a standard which none will agree to but ourselves, but which will serve our purpose well; or whether to use a medium of exchange whose value is acknowledged by the neighbouring traders, but which is, in fact, no standard to us, as it varies with the success or failure of every shooting expedition.”
“What a pity it seems,” observed Paul, “that all the world cannot agree upon some standard of value! What a prodigious deal of trouble it would save!”
“And where,” asked Ernest, “would you find a commodity which is held in equal esteem in all countries, and by all classes? Even gold and silver, the most probable of any, would never do. There are parts of the world where lumps of them are tossed about as toys : where they are had without cost of production; while here, you see what an expensive apparatus is required to work out any portion of them;—an expense of capital and of human machinery——”
Paul, dreading this part of the subject, interrupted him with,—
“Well, but why have any commodity at all? If we cannot find any existing thing which all would agree to value alike, why not have an imaginary thing? Instead of saying that my bow is worth a pound of cinnamon, and a pound of cinnamon worth three pairs of scissors, why not say that the bow and the pound of cinnamon are worth nine units, and each pair of scissors worth three units ? What could be easier than to measure commodities against one another thus ? ”
“Commodities whose value is already known, I grant you, Paul: hut what would you do with new ones whose value is unknown? It is to measure these that we most want a standard.”
“We must estimate the cost of production of the new article, and compare it with——”
“Aye; with what. With some other commodity, and not with au ideal standard. You see it tails you at the very moment you want it. When we measure our lances against one another, we can express their comparative length by saying that one measures three and the other four spaces,—a space being merely an imaginary measure; but if we want to ascertain the length of a pine stem which has fallen across our path, we must reduce this imaginary measure to a real one. Nothing can he used as a standard which has not properties in common with the thing to be estimated. That which has length can alone measure length; and that which has value can alone measure value.”
“How then can an ideal standard of value be used at all?”
“Because an ideal value alone is referred to it. But that abstract value is obtained through the reality which is ascertained by the comparison of commodities. When this abstraction is arrived at, an abstract standard may serve to express it; but new commodities must be measured by a standard which is itself a commodity, or a tangible sign which is, by general agreement, established in its place.”
“Then, after all, we must come round to the point that coined metals are the best kind of money, admitting, as they do, an ineffaceable stamp of value, and thus uniting the requisites of a sign and a commodity,”
“The best, at all events, up to a certain point in the progress of society, and, in general, till all societies winch make mutual exchanges have reached that point. Neither we, nor the travelling merchants of Siberia, nor the cultivators with whom we deal, have yet readied this point; and there is no doubt that it would be greatly for our advantage to be possessed of coined metals as a medium of exchange. As we cannot have them, these mammoth bones must answer our purposes. They promise to do so better than any device we have yet made trial of.”
Some one suggested that a metal medium might be procured by a little trouble and expense, if it should be thought worth while. Most of the Mongolian women they saw had small weights of virgin gold or silver fastened to their braids of hair, and might be easily prevailed on to part with them; and some persons in the present company had chanced to pick up morsels of silver in the beds of streams, and among the fragments of rock on the mountain side. Where would be the difficulty of impressing marks upon these, and thus instituting a sort of rude coinage ? It was, however, agreed that the temptation of clipping pieces of precious metal of an irregular form would be too strong to be safely ventured; to say nothing of the cost of production, which must be disproportionately heavy in the case of a small society which had no apparatus for facilitating the work of coining.
It would be difficult, Ernest observed, to have any com of a low denomination, as the cost of production would confer a high value on the smallest fragments of gold or silver; and, as for lead, it was too plentiful, and too easily melted and marked, to be made money of in their district. It appeared to Taddeus that there was no objection to their society having a new commodity of considerable arbitrary value in its possession, if it was once settled by what party the expense of its preparation should be defrayed. Some authority would of course be instituted by which the work of coining would be undertaken. Would the labour be bestowed freely by that party ? If not, by whom ?
“Why should we expect,” asked Ernest, “that any one should undertake so troublesome an office without reward? I know it is expected of governments, and I think unreasonably, that they should issue money from the mint without charge for coining it; unreasonably, because, supposing the supply to be restricted, it is exposing the state to too great hazard of a deficiency, and the government to the danger of an incessant drain, to make, by arbitrary means, the exchangeable value of coin equal with that of bullion; and because, supposing the supply to be left unrestricted, not only is this danger much increased, but great partiality would be shown to the holders of the precious metals by conferring gratis an additional value on their commodity. Those who, by having their metals coined by the government, are saved the trouble and expense of weighing and assaying them in the shape of bullion, may as reasonably be made to pay for this advantage as those who give a piece of broad-cloth into the hands of the tailor to receive it back in the shape of a coat. Among ourselves, therefore, the fair way would be, if we adopt a metal medium, first to establish a little mint in some corner of the smelting-house, and then to issue our money, if the quantity was restricted, at a higher value than the unformed metal would bear in the market if unrestricted, under the condition that a certain portion should be clipped off each bit before it was stamped, in order to defray the expenses; or that every one who brought metal should bring payment for the advantage of having it made into money.”
“We cannot afford this yet,” observed Paul. “Let us begin picking up gold and silver whenever we meet with it, in order to such an arrangement hereafter; but, meanwhile, let us be satisfied with our mammoth bones.”
Andreas, who liked none of these speculations on the effect of change, because he did not like change, protested vehemently against the substitution of bones for skins, or metals for either. Nothing, he declared, could be so disastrous to all trading societies as alterations in the currency.
They invaded the security of property, altering the respective values of almost all exchangeable articles, rendering every man in the community, except him who has nothing, utterly uncertain of the amount of his property, and arbitrarily reversing the conditions of the wealthy and the moderately provided. Ernest allowed all this to he true in the case of a large society, where the machinery of exchanges is complicated, and contracts subsist which comprise a considerable extent of time. In small societies, also, he allowed, that such a change is an inconvenience not to be lightly incurred; but, in the present case, there was necessarily a choice of evils. Their present currency was liable to excessive and uncontrollable fluctuations. Would it be better to continue suffering under these, or to undergo the inconvenience and trouble at once of valuing the property of each member of the society, and fixing the denominations of their medium accordingly? As there were no contracts existing between themselves or with their neighbours, no stocks of goods laid by whose value could be depreciated or increased, it seemed to him that the change would be one of pure advantage, and that the sooner it was made the better.
Every body but Andreas thought so too, and all were willing to conciliate him by winking at his extraordinary accumulation of skins, and to buy off his opposition by giving him a noble stock of the new money in consideration of the loss he must sustain by their being no longer any thing more in the market than a commodity.