234.: ricardo to mill1[Reply to 232.—Answered by 236] - David Ricardo, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 7 Letters 1816-1818 
The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa with the Collaboration of M.H. Dobb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 7 Letters 1816-1818.
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First published by Cambridge University Press in 1951. Copyright 1951, 1952, 1955, 1973 by the Royal Economic Society. This edition of The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo is published by Liberty Fund, Inc., under license from the Royal Economic Society.
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ricardo to mill
[Reply to 232.—Answered by 236]
Gatcomb Park 9 Novr. 1817
My dear Sir
I may then at length congratulate you on having finished your book, and put it in that state that it may be announced very shortly in the list of “Just Published” in the newspapers. The additional work which Col. Wilks publication has caused you is not to be regretted—nothing is, which has enabled you to make your book more perfect. I am prepared to give to it my whole undivided attention, and shall be well pleased if I can thoroughly understand all the difficult points on which it treats. The subject, as far as it regards the progress of human society, will be highly interesting to me, as I am eager for information on the causes which are constantly obstructing man in the rational pursuit of his own happiness. Legislation would be comparatively an easy science if it were not so much influenced by the characters and dispositions of the people for whom it is to be undertaken. However well we may have examined the end to which all our laws should tend, yet when they are to influence the actions of a different people we have to acquire a thorough knowledge of the peculiar habits, prejudices and objects of desire of such people, which is itself almost an unattainable knowledge, for I am persuaded that from our own peculiar habits and prejudices we should frequently see these things through a false medium, and our judgements would err accordingly. The effect of these habits and prejudices are not inoperative when legislating for the people amongst whom we have been brought up. Are we not witnesses daily of the bias given to our most common opinions by party feelings? To an unprejudiced by-stander it must appear surprising to see truth distorted as it often is to favour party views. In most of our legislators this is carried to an extravagant length, but there are perhaps very few men who are not in some degree biassed either by the love of their party, or the love of their favourite system. Legislation then becomes a most difficult science, for first you have to study the objects which ought to be attained to promote the general happiness, and then the nature of the materials on which you have to act for the attainment of that end. You see that I am not undervaluing the benefits of legislation, I am only advancing reasons why men of ordinary minds will necessarily be timid on this important subject, fearing pitfalls and stumbling blocks at every step. I agree with you that when a man sees his way before him he walks confidently, but that does not remove the difficulty which besets him from the obscurity of his path.—“Great changes in society may be effected, when the time is come, by comparatively insignificant means”,—but the difficulty in such a question is to decide, first, whether the change be itself desirable, and secondly, whether the time be come. These are the points that would puzzle me, and would make me determine to advance very cautiously. If you will assist me, as you promise, to get such a knowledge of these matters as shall enable me to come to satisfactory conclusions, you will be doing me essential service. I fear however that it augurs ill for your success in having formed a wrong estimate of the powers of your pupil. On that subject I shall say no more, I have acted like an honest man in telling you the truth as it appears to me,—you are now responsible for any false judgement you may make.
I have been reading Locke’s Essay for the second time, and although I do not take much pleasure in such subjects as that Essay treats of, I think I understand the author, and have endeavoured to fix in my mind the points which I think he has successfully established. I admire very much his tolerant spirit, and the ardor with which he enforces not only the right but the duty of free enquiry into the grounds of our religious opinions. How very much he undervalues eloquence and Rhetoric. He says they are of no other use but to insinuate wrong ideas, and are perfect cheats. I remember poor Horner observing that his manner of treating an adversary in argument was a model for all writings of that kind, and it appears to me to be a very just remark.
The articles in Bayle that you mention are precisely those which I had been reading. They are very able and I have not a word to offer against them. On these difficult points I keep my mind in a state of doubt from which in this world I never can be relieved. To account for evil in a world governed by a Being of unbounded benevolence and power is or appears to be impossible. It is as puzzling a question now as in the early times of which Bayle writes. Is it much different from the Manichean heresy to say that the Creator’s benevolence is unbounded, but that his power is limited—and thus to account for evil?
Excepting in the establishment of schools for the poor, I do not know what good we have done here which should deserve to be well spoken of by Lady Romilly. I shall be grateful to her for her praise, though undeserved, if it should be the means of inducing you to come and examine into the real worth of my claims. I want to see you here and I have no desire to have merit ascribed to me to which I am really not entitled. I hear from my friend Smith that Mr. Whishaw is returned highly pleased with his journey. Warburton too is at home after a short excursion to Holland and France. Mrs. Ricardo and all my young folks join with me in best wishes.—With kind regards to Mrs. Mill
I am My Dear Sir
Ever truly Yrs.
What a melancholy event is the death of the Princess Charlotte!
I am glad, and think it quite right, that your rich friends should pay for your book if they wish to have it. My purse strings will untie of themselves. I wish you would tell Baldwin to send me a copy. I shall have it earlier than if I sent to Murray.