Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE.: OBSERVATIONS, &c. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3
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PREFACE.: OBSERVATIONS, &c. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 3 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 3.
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Correct views of the changes which it is desirable to introduce into our present plan of commercial policy, do not appear to the writer to have been in all respects well condensed, or satisfactorily developed; and he was not a little gratified, when the ill-judged decree of the Spanish Cortes, dated in July last, induced his venerable friend Mr. Bentham, whose profound and discerning mind had been for some time directed to the interesting events of the Peninsula, to record his opinions of that baneful anti-commercial system which has too long blinded the eyes and contracted the habits and feelings of so large a portion of society.
It will not be the least, though it has been one of the latest, practical lessons which has been taught us,—and taught us, too, by that best of instructors, suffering experience,—that no system of commercial policy can be ultimately beneficial, which is reared upon the selfish principle alone. To sacrifice the interests of the dependent many to the ambition or the avarice of the privileged few—to build a theory of successful scheming on the mere usurpations of fraud or violence—to make the pursuits and the profits of commerce depend on the intolerant dictation of military or of naval power, without any reference to the wants or wishes or interests of those concerned,—would seem, if now for the first time projected, as idle in the conception, as impracticable in the execution. Yet such a system has been but too long in vogue. Flattering to our but too prevalent feeling of national pride, this system (in defiance of the benign counsel of the moralist) has made us deem it excellent, because we have the strength of a giant, “to use it like a giant.” Almost necessary, perhaps, to a constantly drained treasury, it has ever refused to sacrifice a penny in possession to obtain a pound in reversion. It has retained the salt-duties, by which millions are lost, because through them thousands are gained;* it has, for the miserable produce of a tax on wool (miserable even in calculation, and how much more so in the result!) driven us from some of the most important sources of commercial profit, and abandoned large classes of industrious hands to hopelessness and the poor-laws. We have too long and lamentably been pursuing our path of error. Retract, return we must, sooner or later; and to-morrow we shall retract with a worse grace, and with a greater bulk of suffering, than to-day.
Spain is a country which possesses immense mines of agricultural wealth, and offers in consequence the strongest motives for the direction of her capital to agricultural improvement; since it might be so employed in the perfect security of a profitable and a prompt return: while, on the other hand, this new commercial system will as certainly prove calamitous as a better system might be beneficial. To Spain, it must be confessed, having little of that fictitious influence which has too often succeeded in compelling nations to unwarrantable self-sacrifices, that system will be more fatal than it has been to England. But the system is radically bad: it is bad everywhere. It is a poison that may act differently upon different subjects: its progress may be concealed, may be delayed; it is poison still,—and it is deadly.
The writer had originally intended the reorganization of the following pages, by keeping the case of Spain entirely out of view: but he found every attempt to increase, by any arrangement of his own, the effect he seeks to produce, frustrated by the constantly recurring conviction, that that effect would be most assuredly produced by allowing the Spanish decree still to occupy a prominent place. That decree is a fair specimen of the anti-commercial spirit. It does not go quite so far as some of our sweeping prohibitions—prohibitions made in all the wantonness of uncalculating arrogance: but it goes far enough for our arguments; and for anything beyond it, fewer arguments would of course suffice.
The writer cannot, however, in this place forbear expressing his astonishment at the reproaches and indignation with which, he is given to understand, the decree of the Cortes, which prohibits so many British manufactures, has been received in different parts of this country. Spain will punish herself—is punishing herself but too severely—by her erroneous policy; and interested as is the writer in the well-being of that country—the witness as he has been of so much of her suffering, and so much of her glory—bound by strong ties of personal affection to many of the illustrious actors in the late momentous and exhilarating changes,—he feels, and powerfully feels, disappointment and regret that her legislators should have committed an error so fatal: but he may be allowed to ask, on what plea of honesty or consistency can England object, who so inexorably shuts her ports to the manufactured produce of foreign hands? aye, even of those of her own subjects—of her own colonies! Is it for us, forsooth, to complain that high duties or severe interdictions prohibit the circulation of our fabrics, while the cheap linens of Russia, the fine ones of Germany, the cambrics of France, the carpets of Turkey, the cottons of India, and the silks of China, implore an admission to our markets, with all the claims of superior cheapness and superior excellence, and are met with a stern unyielding No?* We imagine—complacent souls!—that other countries will give a welcome to the works of our looms, because we offer them so honest an equivalent—the prohibition of everything produced by theirs. Their wool and their fruit, their oil and wine, their drugs and dyewoods, we will receive from them in our abundant generosity, as we are not able to produce them. But what right have we to complain, if they copy the example we have given them, and sullenly turn our manufactures away? They show how they value, and how well they can apply, the good lessons we have given them. We would persuade them, perhaps, that it is for their interest to take our goods: they are cheaper, better—nothing more reasonable. But, in common justice, if they have a word to say to us on that score in favour of their own, let us, pray let us listen to them. Shall our answer be—No, never?
It would tend greatly to facilitate the fair consideration of this most important question, if, in reckoning up the sources of national wealth, we were more accustomed to generalize, and less prone to draw a broad line of demarcation between commercial and agricultural interest. The prosperity of a nation is to be judged of from its aggregate productions; and in our general relations, if the commercial and the agricultural representatives of wealth be as two to two, and if by any changes they should fluctuate in the proportions of three and one on either side, the sum total of benefit remains the same. Such great fluctuations are no doubt calamitous in their progress, and can only take place where an excessive momentum is given by the application or removal of restrictive or impelling measures, from that ever-eager disposition to patch up temporary evils by permanent legislatorial enactments: but the habit of looking at different sources of riches and strength with an exclusive and narrow vision, has impelled men to the most fatal conclusions, and led in a thousand instances to the most mischievous of all attempts; to apply apparent remedies to the necessities of separate interests, without any reference to their connexion with or proportion to the common, the universal interest.
Satisfactory it is, however, to observe the rapid progress which sound notions of commercial policy have made in the world; and it is peculiarly satisfactory to notice their prevalence in those high quarters from whence (if at all) relief must ultimately come. The generally correct views which have been developed in the recorded opinions of the President of the Board of Trade; the acknowledgment from the lips of Ministers, that many and grievous evils have resulted from the present system; the reports of the Select Committee of the House of Commons; the representations of the merchants of the metropolis, which have been re-echoed by the intelligent merchants of the outports, and which have found a concordant voice even on the other side of the Atlantic; everything gives room to hope that most important changes must soon and certainly be introduced.
It has generally been the fate of those who have pointed out the errors, defects, and dangers, of any long-established institutions, to be met with the taunting defiance—“Give us something better;” and though there has been generally more art than honesty in such an evasion, it has too often produced the intended effect, by turning men away from the honest effort at melioration which would be necessarily called into action by a conviction of the mistakes of the existing system. On this question, however, that which nations have most earnestly to entreat from governments is, that the latter would cease to honour them with any officious interference: “Their tender mercies,” however well intended, “are cruel.” The best boon they can give is to let the stream of commerce flow as it will: its tide is strong enough to bear away all impediments; and governments are but too much the victims of self-deception, when they imagine that their decrees of prohibition or of encouragement do really produce the effects they contemplate. Those decrees are erected against and opposed to the natural tendency of things, and are in the end as absurd and as ineffective as it would be to direct the winds by an order in council, or to manage the tides by act of parliament. The evils of such interference are produced, uncontroulably produced,—they attach necessarily and invariably to it; but the good intended is not of such a character that it can be condensed into a cornucopia, whose tangible riches are to be distributed or withheld at the caprice of those who fancy themselves privileged to grant or to deny them.
In making these observations, let it not be imagined that the writer deems it practicable or desirable, by any one measure, violently and suddenly to shake and overthrow the now established commercial fabric. He would have the great principle of the freedom of commerce recognised by some public act, and by degrees, but as soon as may be, everything brought into that great principle. In many branches of commerce, the transit would be easy: with these we might begin, and step by step trace back the mistaken road.
And finally, let it not be forgotten, as a motive for reverting to a better system, that England no longer possesses the physical power of enforcing submission to her desires, when those decrees are friendly to nations whose local circumstances formerly made them so much dependent on the protection or forbearance of our government. Our ships cannot now blockade their ports, nor assume the exclusive right of conveying to them the foreign commodities they need. They are no longer compelled to receive their supplies from our warehouses; nor is that state of things likely to return. Franklin spoke like a practical philosopher, when he said that the best plan of policy would be to make England one free port. With her immense resources, of mind, of wealth, of industry—with everything, indeed, which can contribute to her commercial superiority—could she be spared the interference of those who, intending perhaps to protect, manage constantly to wound and injure her, what might she not become?
Of the following tract, everything that is emphatic in its style, or irresistible in its reasonings, belongs to its distinguished author. He has seized on, and applied with singular felicity and energy, all the great bearings of this interesting and important subject; and the writer has only ventured to blend with the original matter a few practical and local observations which have come under his personal cognizance.
[* ]The salt duties were repealed in 1823.—Editor.
[* ]It is mere quibbling to say that these or any of them may be introduced, when extravagant duties bar their introduction.