ricardo to maria edgeworth
[Reply to 514]
Wottonunderedge 11 Jany. 1823
My Dear Miss Edgeworth
I hope that your venerable aunt Ruxton will long continue to enjoy life, and that you may, in many future visits to her, find no decay of the good feelings and lively faculties, which must now be a source of so much gratification to you.
I thank you much for your entertaining story. I was not so squeamish as Judy, but swallowed my portion of the agreeable draught you had mixed up for us, without affecting to make a wry face,—it went down very pleasantly.
On the subject of the potatoe, we are so far agreed that we both think security for a due supply of the principal food of the people of the first importance; but you add that if the supply of the principal food is not constant, you would be satisfied with a fair probability of the deficiency being supplied from other sources. So would I, but here you raise another important question, namely, whether there is any fair probability of a substitute being provided in case of a failure of the potatoe crop, when potatoes are the chief food of a people? The impossibility of providing any substitute is the stronghold of those who are enemies to the potatoe. They say, and say justly, 1st., that it is not to be supposed that any much greater quantity of grain will be provided than what is necessary for the average demand, and that if the demand should increase, in the degree in which it would do, if the bulk of the people, living before on potatoes, required all at once a large portion of corn, there could be no supply adequate to it, and consequently the price would rise enormously. 2dly., Supposing the first objection unfounded, and an adequate supply of corn procurable at its ordinary price, the people could not afford to buy it, and would be starving in the midst of plenty. As wages, in a potatoe country, would be regulated with reference to the average value of that root, the people would have no means, when the potatoe crop failed, of buying the dearer food. These objections appear to me conclusive against any dependence on substitutes, and therefore we are bound to consider what security we have for the regular supply of the potatoe itself, or of the storeable flour of potatoes of former years of plenty, to come in aid of a deficient crop. Before I say any thing on this question I wish to observe that the chief objection which the adversaries to the potatoe make against it, as the principal food of the people, is equally applicable to grain, which they think should be the principal food.
When the crop of grain fails, they say the people can have recourse to cheaper substitutes, such as potatoes. They can never make dear food a substitute for a cheap one, but they may make cheap food a substitute for a dear one. This argument would be just if at all times a supply of the cheap food could be obtained, but in a country where wheat constitutes the chief food of the people, no supply of potatoes ever is grown which can be adequate to feed the people if the crop of wheat fails. No more potatoes are grown than what are usually required in addition to the average crop of wheat. How then can potatoes be substituted for wheat? From whence are they to come? There is no limit to the rise in the price of potatoes which would take place under the circumstances supposed. In fact we should not substitute a cheap for a dear food, for this food which was ordinarily cheap would become as dear as wheat.
If it be said that when potatoes constitute the chief food of a people, we might, by a failing crop, be deprived of ¾ of our usual supply, and that when wheat constitutes such chief food, we are never deprived of more than one fourth by a failing crop, I observe that this may be a good reason for preferring the wheat, because it is a more secure crop, and this brings us to the main question the comparative security afforded by the two species of food.
We will first consider the quality of storeability of the potatoe flour, for I like the formal method, after the manner of Bentham and Mill, whose example you have so well followed.
1. That Potatoe flour will keep for the requisite time appears to be proved by tolerably good evidence: for the present I will assume the proof to be satisfactory.
2. The next point is the cost of preparing and storing potatoe flour. If the cost be great it will come under one of the two objections usually and I think successfully made against substitutes, namely that we must never attempt in the case of a bad crop to substitute a dear for a cheap food. Potatoe flour might in such case be a good provision against a failing crop of wheat but not against a failing crop of potatoes.
3. The next and most important point is the comparative hazard of a failure in the crops of wheat and potatoes. The answers to your questions given by the gentleman to whom you referred them, and in whose opinion you have confidence are very satisfactory and if confirmed by men of experience in the practical details, would remove all my objections to the potatoe, provided that the two following questions should be answered as satisfactorily. Q. What is the proportional difference of an average and a deficient crop of potatoes? The same question as to wheat. I fear, from the effects which I have observed of a failing crop of potatoes in Ireland, and a failing crop of wheat in this country that the answers would not be satisfactory for the potatoe. The gentleman to whom you referred your questions you say is a farmer, and I observe in his first answer he says “I reckon potatoes the most secure and profitable crop” Now this answer is a little suspicious. What is “secure and profitable” in the estimation of a farmer is not so in the estimation of a legislator. A short crop with a high price, its never failing attendant when general, is what a farmer wants—it is always most profitable to him and most secure in his sense of the word, but the legislator would commit a great error if he were guided by the same rule: He is to secure an abundant supply of food for the people and is to care nothing about profitable crops to the farmer.
It would never be necessary or profitable, I should suppose, to cultivate corn merely for the purpose of getting straw for manure. If straw be necessary, a large quantity will always be obtained from that portion of wheat, barley, and oats, raised for the higher and middling classes of the people. We should have a large quantity of these altho’ the great bulk of the people should be always fed on potatoes.
What you state respecting the want of money to purchase food among the lower classes last year is precisely the evil which will accompany every failure of the potatoe crop in Ireland. No food is so generally cheap as potatoes,—if they fail what can they buy? Mr. Western and others asked in the last Session of Parliament how the distressed state of agriculture could proceed from abundance when there was an actual famine in Ireland? Nothing can be more satisfactorily explained,—wages regulated by potatoes will never be adequate to purchase wheat under any probable abundance of that grain.
Whether any part of the late failure of the potatoe crop proceeded from the improvidence of the people in not planting in time, is of no importance to the present question, for the same improvidence might and probably would exist if they depended on wheat for their sustenance. You will give me credit for wishing to have all the moral evils of society cured that are curable—I know of none which I am more anxious to see removed than the improvidence of the lower classes. In your country this improvidence is the great bar to the happiness of the people, I know of no country in which it is not. To provide a remedy for it appears to exceed the talents and skill of the legislator, for under the head of improvidence I class the early and inconsiderate marriages of which Malthus has so well treated. When once the labouring classes know how to regulate their own affairs, and understand and foresee the circumstances which are to procure them happiness, or plunge them in misery, we shall be very near atchieving all the good within our reach. It cannot be doubted that good laws and good government will do a great deal for us,—laws which shall afford prompt protection to person and property, which shall visit with immediate punishment the acts which they forbid, and which shall give the greatest encouragement to the acquiring of information amongst all classes of the people. But where am I running to? I am a great way from the potatoe question, I shall only revert to it to say once more that all my objections against the unbounded use of “this root of plenty” would vanish if we had an equal security against the failure of the crop that we have in regard to wheat.
I wish I could give you advice worth having respecting the investment of your £300. I can only say that if your case were mine I would rather buy French 5 pct. than English 3pct. In buying either you will of course be subject to a loss of principal, for they may both fall considerably in price. I would not buy Spanish stock notwithstanding the tempting cheapness of price. If you know any banker or merchant of reputation that would take your money at 4 pct. I should recommend that mode of disposing of it. You may buy India Bonds but I dare say they bear a high premium. Exchequer bills pay little interest, and are rather troublesome, for they become due, and must be renewed if they are not paid off.
We are all (6 of us) staying with my daughter Mrs. Austin, and are as happy as the kindest people and the possession of every comfort can make us. We passed a delightful fortnight with my son and Harriet they are not with us here. On friday next we go for a fortnight to, not the least beloved of our beloved children, Mrs. Clutterbuck, after that I shall be prepared to meet all the charges and vituperation of the landed gentlemen against me, who are strangely infatuated as to the causes of the distress which they are suffering—
Mrs. Ricardo and the rest of the inmates of this house desire to be most kindly remembered to you.
We passed 2 days with our excellent friend Mrs. Smith—we had not been at her house since its late agreeable master was laid in the grave—we missed (and lamented the loss of) our poor friend every moment that we passed at Easton Grey. Our visit was a melancholy one, yet it had in it much to sooth and interest us. Mrs. Smith was never in such full possession of
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