SIR W. DE CRESPIGNY’S MOTION RESPECTING MR. OWEN’S PLAN
16 December 1819
Sir W. De Crespigny moved that a select committee be appointed to inquire into the plan of Robert Owen, Esq. for ameliorating the condition of the lower classes. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, opposing the motion, read an extract from Mr. Owen’s speech of 21 Aug. 1817 and declared that, ‘as an official individual, he could not agree to a grant of the public money for the establishment of a plan that had been introduced to the public by a speech, in which all religions were pronounced false, and all systems of government bad.’ Mr. Brougham supported the motion, although he rejected the principle upon which the plan was founded, ‘that of the increase of population being a benefit to the country.’
Mr. Ricardo observed, that he was completely at war with the system of Mr. Owen, which was built upon a theory inconsistent with the principles of political economy, and in his opinion was calculated to produce infinite mischief to the community. Something had fallen from an hon. member on a former night, on the subject of the employment of machinery. It could not be denied, on the whole view of the subject, that machinery did not lessen the demand for labour; while, on the other hand, it did not consume the produce of the soil, nor employ any of our manufacturers . It might also be misapplied by occasioning the production of too much cotton, or too much cloth; but the moment those articles ceased in consequence to pay the manufacturer, he would devote his time and capital to some other purpose. Mr. Owen’s plan proceeded upon this—he who was such an enemy to machinery, only proposed machinery of a different kind: he would bring into operation a most active portion of machinery, namely, human arms. He would dispense with ploughs and horses in the increase of the productions of the country, although the expense as to them must be much less when compared with the support of men. He confessed he did not agree in the general principles of the plan under consideration, but he was disposed to accede to the proposition of a committee. Spade husbandry Mr. Owen recommended as more beneficial to production. He was not informed enough on the interests of agriculture to give an opinion, but that was a reason for sending the subject to a committee. For what did the country want at the present moment? A demand for labour. If the facts stated of spade husbandry were true, it was a beneficial course, as affording that demand. And though government or the legislature would not be wisely employed in engaging in any commercial experiment, it would be advantageous that it should, under present circumstances, circulate useful information and correct prejudices. They should separate such considerations from a division of the country into parallelograms, or the establishment of a community of goods, and similar visionary schemes. Before he sat down, he trusted the House would excuse his offering a few observations on what he considered the cause of the distresses of the country. He fully concurred in what had fallen from his hon. and learned friend on the subject of population. The proportion of the capital to population regulated the amount of wages, and, to augment them, it was important to increase the capital of the country. But when he heard honourable members talk of employing capital in the formation of roads and canals, they appeared to overlook the fact, that the capital thus employed must be withdrawn from some other quarter. The causes of the insufficiency of capital, and the consequent disproportion between wages and population, were to be attributed to many circumstances, for some of which government were not to blame. Supposing a country with a numerous population, large capital, and a limited soil, the profits of that capital will be smaller there, than in a country populous, with lesser portion of capital, and with a great extent of soil. This country was one of large capital, but of increasing population and of an extent of soil necessarily limited; of course profits would be lower in it than in countries which had not the same limitation: still, though the profits were smaller, the capital continued in this kingdom, not only because persons felt a solicitude to keep their property under their own eye, but because the same confidence was not reposed in the security of others: the moment, however, other kingdoms, by their laws and institutions, inspired greater confidence, the capitalist would be induced to remove his property from Great Britain to a situation where his profits would be more considerable: this arose from no fault in the government; but the effect of it was to produce a deficiency of employment and consequent distress. Then came the question, had we taken the proper steps to prevent the profits upon capital from being lower here than in other countries? On the contrary had we not done everything to augment and aggravate the evil? Had we not added to the natural artificial causes for the abduction of capital? We had passed corn laws, that made the price of that necessary of life, grain, higher than in other and neighbouring countries, and thus interfered with the article which was considered the chief regulator of wages. Where grain was dear, wages must be high, and the effect of high wages was necessarily to make the profits on capital low. A second cause arose out of the fetters upon trade, the prohibitions against the import of foreign commodities, when, in fact, better and cheaper than our own. This was done in a spirit of retaliation; but he contended, that whatever line of policy other nations pursued, the interest of this nation was different: wherever we could obtain the articles we wanted at the cheapest rate, there we ought to go for them; and wherever they were cheapest, the manufacture would be the most extensive, and the amount of it , and invitation to capital, the greatest. Another cause of the existing disposition to send capital out of the country was to be found in the national debt. Instead of paying our expences from year to year, Great Britain had constantly pursued a system of borrowing, and taxes were accumulated not only to pay the simple interest, but sometimes even the compound interest of the debt; and the amount was now so enormous, that it became a matter of calculation, whether it was worth a capitalist’s while to continue in a country where he not only obtained small profits, but where he was subjected to a great additional burthen. Every pecuniary motive impelled him rather to quit than to remain. For a great many of the various causes of the evil, some of the principal of which he had touched upon, there might not exist any immediate remedy. We had, however, a beneficial precedent in the proceedings of the last session. He alluded to the measures taken for a return to payments in specie; and he saw no inconvenience in keeping stedfastly to that system. Parliament had wisely extended the operations of that system over a number of years. They should follow the same course as to the corn laws. After the quantity of capital employed under the faith of legislative enactments in agriculture, it would be a great injustice to proceed to an immediate repeal of those laws. But that House should look to the ultimate good, and give notice, that after a certain number of years, such an injurious system of legislation must terminate. The same observation applied to our prohibitory commercial code. From the variety of interests now in operation under that system, it would not only be necessary to look, but to look stedfastly, to a distant but certain period for its repeal. With respect to the national debt, he felt that he entertained opinions on that point which by many would be considered extravagant. He was one of those who thought that it could be paid off, and that the country was at this moment perfectly competent to pay it off. He did not mean that it should be redeemed at par; the public creditor possessed no such claim—were he paid at the market price, the public faith would be fulfilled. If every man would pay his part of the debt, it could be effected by the sacrifice of so much capital— With respect to the objection, that the effect of that sacrifice would be to bring so much land into the market, that purchasers could not be found for such a glut, the answer was, that the stockholder would be eager to employ his money, as he received it, either in the purchase of land, or in loans to the farmer or landowner, by which the latter might be enabled to become the purchaser, particularly when the government was no longer in the market as a borrower. He was persuaded that the difficulty of paying off the national debt was not so great as was generally imagined; and he was also convinced that the country had not yet nearly reached the limits of its prosperity and greatness. It was only by a comparative reference to the state of other countries that the opposite opinion could be entertained, and such opinion would gain ground as long as so many unnatural temptations, by our policy at home, were held out to withdraw capital from the country. He repeated his conviction that Mr. Owen’s plan was in many parts visionary, but yet he would not oppose the appointment of a committee, if it were only for the purpose of seeing whether it was probable that the advantages which that gentleman expected from the use of spade husbandry could be realized.
The House divided: Ayes, 16; Noes, 141. Ricardo voted for the motion.