Front Page Titles (by Subject) Section X.—: Application of some of the preceding Principles to the Distresses of the Labouring Classes since 1815, with General Observations. - Principles of Political Economy
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Section X.—: Application of some of the preceding Principles to the Distresses of the Labouring Classes since 1815, with General Observations. - Thomas Robert Malthus, Principles of Political Economy 
Principles of Political Economy (London: W. Pickering, 1836).
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Application of some of the preceding Principles to the Distresses of the Labouring Classes since 1815, with General Observations.
It has been said that the distresses of the labouring classes since 1815 are owing to a deficient capital, which is evidently unable to employ all that are in want of work.
That the capital of the country does not bear an adequate proportion to the population; that the capital and revenue together do not bear so great a proportion as they did before 1815; and that such a disproportion will at once account for very great distress among the labouring classes, I am most ready to allow. But it is a very different thing to allow that the capital is deficient compared with the population; and to allow that it is deficient compared with the demand for it, and the demand for the commodities procured by it.* The two cases are very frequently confounded, because they both produce distress among the labouring classes; but they are essentially distinct. They are attended with some very different symptoms, and require to be treated in a very different manner.
If one fourth of the capital of a country were suddenly destroyed, or entirely transferred to a different part of the world, without any other cause occurring of a diminished demand for commodities, this scantiness of capital would certainly occasion great inconvenience to consumers, and great distress among the working classes; but it would be attended with great advantages to the remaining capitalists. Commodities, in general, would be scarce, and bear a high price on account of the deficiency in the means of producing them. Nothing would be so easy as to find a profitable employment for capital; but it would by no means be easy to find capital for the number of employments in which it was deficient; and consequently the rate of profits would be very high. In this state of things there would be an immediate and pressing demand for capital, on account of there being an immediate and pressing demand for commodities; and the obvious remedy would be, the supply of the demand in the only way in which it could take place, namely, by saving from revenue to add to capital. This supply of capital would, as I have before stated, take place just upon the same principle as a supply of population would follow a great destruction of people on the supposition of there being an immediate and pressing want of labour evinced by the high real wages given to the labourer.
On the other hand, if the capital of the country were diminished by the failure of demand in some large branches of trade, which had before been very prosperous, and absorbed a great quantity of stock; or even if, while capital were suddenly destroyed, the revenue of the landlords was diminished in a greater proportion owing to peculiar circumstances, the state of things, with the exception of the distresses of the poor, would be almost exactly reversed. The remaining capitalists would be in no respect benefited by events which had diminished demand in a still greater proportion than they had diminished the supply. Commodities would be every where cheap. Capital would be seeking employment, but would not easily find it; and the profits of stock would be low. There would be no pressing and immediate demand for capital, because there would be no pressing and immediate demand for commodities; and, under these circumstances, the saving from revenue to add to capital, instead of affording the remedy required, would only aggravate the distresses of the capitalists, and fill the stream of capital which was flowing out of the country. The distresses of the capitalists would be aggravated, just upon the same principle as the distresses of the labouring classes would be aggravated if they were encouraged to marry and increase, after a considerable destruction of people, although accompanied by a still greater destruction of capital which had kept the wages of labour very low. There might certainly be a great deficiency of population, compared with the territory and powers of the country, and it might be very desirable that it should be greater; but if the wages of labour were still low, notwithstanding the diminution of people, to encourage the birth of more children would be to encourage misery and mortality rather than population.
Now I would ask, to which of these two suppositions does the present state of this country* bear the nearest resemblance? Surely to the latter. That a great loss of capital has lately been sustained, is unquestionable. During nearly the whole of the war, owing to the union of great powers of production with a great effectual consumption and demand, the prodigious destruction of capital by the government was much more than recovered. To doubt this would be to shut our eyes to the comparative state of the country in 1792 and 1813. The two last years of the war were, however, years of extraordinary expense, and being followed immediately by a period marked by a very unusual stagnation of effectual demand, the destruction of capital which took place in those years was not probably recovered. But this stagnation itself was much more disastrous in its effects upon the national capital, and still more upon the national revenue, than any previous destruction of stock. It commenced certainly with the extraordinary fall in the value of the raw produce of the land, to the amount, it has been supposed, of nearly one third. When this fall had diminished the capitals of the farmers, and still more the revenues both of landlords and farmers, and of all those who were otherwise connected with the land, their power of purchasing manufactures and foreign products was of necessity greatly diminished. The failure of home demand filled the warehouses of the manufacturers with unsold goods, which urged them to export more largely at all risks. But this excessive exportation glutted all the foreign markets, and prevented the merchants from receiving adequate returns; while, from the diminution of the home revenues, aggravated by a sudden and extraordinary contraction of the currency, even the comparatively scanty returns obtained from abroad found a very insufficient domestic demand, and the profits and consequent expenditure of merchants and manufacturers were proportionably lowered. While these unfavourable changes were taking place in rents and profits, the powerful stimulus which had been given to population by the continued demand for labour during the war, occasioned the pouring in of fresh supplies of labour, which, aided by the disbanded soldiers and sailors, and the failure of demand arising from the losses of the farmers and merchants, reduced generally both wages and profits, and left the country with a greatly diminished capital and revenue;—not merely in proportion to the alteration of the value of the currency, but in reference to the bullion value of its produce, and the command of this bullion value over labour, at the price at which it was actually employed. For the four or five years since the war, on account of the change in the distribution of the national produce, and the want of effectual consumption and demand occasioned by it, a check has been given to the rate of production, and the population, under its former impulse, has increased, not only faster than the demand for labour, but faster than the actual produce; yet this produce, though deficient, compared with the population, is redundant, compared with the effectual demand for it and the revenue which is to purchase it. Though labour is cheap, there is neither the power nor the will to employ it all; because not only has the capital of the country diminished, compared with the number of labourers, but, owing to the diminished revenues of the country, the commodities which those labourers would produce are not in such request as to ensure tolerable profits to the reduced capital.
But when profits are low and uncertain, when capitalists are quite at a loss where they can safely employ their capitals, and when on these accounts capital is flowing out of the country; in short, when all the evidence which the nature of the subject admits, distinctly proves that there is no effective demand for capital at home, is it not contrary to the general principles of political economy, is it not a vain and fruitless opposition to that first, greatest, and most universal of all its principles, the principle of supply and demand, to recommend saving, and the conversion of more revenue into capital? Is it not just the same sort of thing as to recommend marriage when people are starving and emigrating?
I am fully aware that the low profits of stock, and the difficulty of finding employment for it, which I consider as an unequivocal proof that the immediate want of the country is not capital, has been attributed to other causes; but to whatever causes they may be attributed, an increase in the proportion of capital to revenue must aggravate them. With regard to these causes, such as the cultivation of our poor soils, our restrictions upon commerce, and our weight of taxation, I find it very difficult to admit a theory of our distresses so inconsistent with the theory of our comparative prosperity. While the greatest quantity of our poor lands were in cultivation; while there were more than usual restrictions upon our commerce, and very little corn was imported; and while taxation was at its height, the country confessedly increased in wealth with a rapidity never known before. Since some of our poorest lands have been thrown out of cultivation; since the peace has removed many of the restrictions upon our commerce, and, notwithstanding our corn laws, we have imported a great quantity of corn; and since seventeen millions of taxes have been taken off from the people, we have experienced the greatest degree of distress, both among capitalists and labourers.
I am very far indeed from meaning to infer from these striking facts that restrictions upon commerce and heavy taxation are beneficial to a country. But the facts certainly show that, whatever may be the future effect of the causes above alluded to in checking the progress of our wealth, we must look elsewhere for the immediate sources of our present distresses. How far our artificial system, and particularly the changes in the value of our currency operating upon a large national debt, may have aggravated the evils we have experienced, it would be extremely difficult to say. But I feel perfectly convinced that a very considerable portion of these evils might be experienced by a nation without poor land in cultivation, without taxes, and without any fresh restrictions on trade.
If a large country, of considerable fertility, and sufficient inland communications, were surrounded by an impassable wall, we all agree that it might be tolerably rich, though not so rich as if it enjoyed the benefit of foreign commerce. Now, supposing such a country gradually to indulge in a considerable consumption, to call forth and employ a great quantity of ingenuity in production, and to save only yearly that portion of its revenue which it could most advantageously add to its capital, expending the rest in consumable commodities and personal services, it might evidently, under such a balance of produce and consumption, be increasing in wealth and population with considerable rapidity. But if, upon the principle laid down by M. Say, that the consumption of a commodity is a diminution of demand, the society were greatly and generally to slacken their consumption, and add to their capitals, there cannot be the least doubt, on the principle of demand and supply, that the profits of capitalists would soon be greatly reduced, though there were no poor land in cultivation; and the population would be thrown out of work and would be starving, although without a single tax, or any restrictions on trade.
The state of Europe and America may perhaps be said, in some points, to resemble the case here supposed; and the stagnation which has been so generally felt and complained of since the war, appears to me inexplicable upon the principles of those who think that the power of production is the only element of wealth, and, who consequently infer that if the means of production be increased, wealth will certainly increase in proportion. Now it is unquestionable that the means of production were increased by the cessation of war, and that more people and more capital were ready to be employed in productive labour; but notwithstanding this obvious increase in the means of production, we hear every where of difficulties and distresses, instead of ease and plenty. In the United States of America in particular, a country of extraordinary physical resources, the difficulties which have been experienced are very striking, and such certainly as could hardly have been expected. These difficulties, at least, cannot be attributed to the cultivation of poor land, restrictions upon commerce, and excess of taxation. Altogether the state of the commercial world, since the war, clearly shows that something else is necessary to the continued increase of wealth besides an increase in the means of producing.
That the transition from war to peace, of which so much has been said, is a main cause of the effects observed, will be readily allowed, but not as the operation is usually explained. It is generally said that there has not been time to transfer capital from the employments where it is redundant to those where it is deficient, and thus to restore the proper equilibrium. But such a transfer could hardly require so much time as has now elapsed since the war; and I would ask, where are the under-stocked employments, which, according to this theory, ought to be numerous, and fully capable of absorbing all the redundant capital, which is confessedly glutting the markets of Europe in so many different branches of trade? It is well known by the owners of floating capital, that none such are now to be found; and if the transition in question is to account for what has happened, it must have produced some other effects besides that which arises from the difficulty of moving capital. This I conceive to be a diminution of the demand compared with the supply of produce. The necessary changes in the channels of trade would be effected in a year or two; but the general diminution of demand, compared with the supply occasioned by the transition from such a war to a peace, may last for a very considerable time. The returned taxes, and the excess of individual gains above expenditure, which were so largely used as revenue during the war, are now in part, and probably in no inconsiderable part, saved. I cannot doubt, for instance, that in our own country very many persons have taken the opportunity of saving a part of their returned property-tax, particularly those who have only life-incomes, and who, contrary to the principles of just taxation, had been assessed at the same rate with those whose incomes were derived from realized property. This saving is quite natural and proper, and forms no just argument against the removal of the tax; but still it contributes to explain the cause of the diminished demand for commodities, compared with their supply since the war. If some of the principal governments concerned spent the taxes which they raised in a manner to create a greater and more certain demand for labour and commodities, particularly the former, than the present owners of them, and if this difference of expenditure be of a nature to last for some time, we cannot be surprised at the duration of the effects arising from the transition from war to peace.
The changes, however, which have taken place so generally must have operated very differently upon the different countries of the commercial world, according to the different circumstances in which they were placed; and it will be found generally, as the principles which have been laid down would lead us to expect, that those states which have suffered the most by the war have suffered the least by the peace. In the countries where a great pressure has fallen upon moderate or scanty powers of production, it is hardly possible to suppose that their wealth should not have been stopped in its progress during the war, or perhaps rendered positively retrograde. Such countries must have found relief from a state of things, which now allows them to accumulate capital, without which no state can permanently increase in wealth. But in those countries, where the pressure of the war found great powers of production, and seemed to create greater; where accumulation, instead of being checked, was accelerated, and where the vast consumption of commodities was followed by supplies which occasioned a more rapid increase of wealth than before, the effect of peace would be very different. In such countries it is natural to suppose that a great diminution of the demand compared with the supply, would decidedly check the progress of wealth, and occasion very general and severe distress, both to capitalists and the labouring classes. England and America come the nearest to the countries of this latter description. They suffered the least by the war, or rather were enriched by it, and they are now suffering the most by the peace.
It is certainly a very unfortunate circumstance that any period should ever have occurred in which peace should appear to have been, in so marked a manner, connected with distress; but it should always be recollected that it was owing to the very peculiar circumstances attending the late war that the contrast has been so striking. In the American and former wars it was very different; and, if the same exertions had been attempted, without the same powers of supporting them, that is, without the command of the greatest part of the commerce of the world, and a more rapid and successful progress in the use of machinery than was ever before known, we might have been in a state to have felt the greatest relief at the cessation of hostilities. When Hume and Adam Smith prophesied that a little increase of national debt beyond the then amount of it, would probably occasion bankruptcy; the main cause of their error was the very natural one, of not being able to see the vast increase of productive power to which the nation would subsequently attain. An expenditure, which would have absolutely crushed the country in 1770, might be little more than what was necessary to call forth its prodigious powers of production in 1816. But just in proportion to this power of production, and to the facility with which a vast consumption could be supplied, consistently with a rapid accumulation of capital, would be the distress felt by capitalists and labourers upon any great and sudden diminution of expenditure.
On this account there is reason to doubt the policy of raising the supplies of a long and expensive war within the year, a policy which has been recommended by very able writers. If the country were poor, such a system of taxation might completely keep down its efforts. It might every year positively diminish its capital, and render it every year more ruinous to furnish the same supplies; till the country would be obliged to submit to its enemies from the absolute inability of continuing to oppose them with effect. On the other hand, if the country were rich, and had great powers of production, which were likely to be still further called forth by the stimulus of a great effective consumption, it might be able to pay the heavy taxes imposed upon it, out of its revenue, and yet find the means of adequate accumulation; but if this process were to last for any time, and the habits of the people were accommodated to this scale of public and private expenditure, it is scarcely possible to doubt that, at the end of the war, when so large a mass of taxes would at once be restored to the payers of them, the just balance of produce and consumption would be completely destroyed, and a period would ensue, longer or shorter, according to circumstances, in which a very great stagnation would be felt in every branch of productive industry, attended by its usual concomitant general distress. The evil occasioned by imposing a tax is very rarely compensated by the taking it off. We should constantly keep in mind that the tendency to expenditure in individuals has most formidable antagonists in the love of indolence, and in the desire of saving, in order to better their condition and provide for a family; and that all theories founded upon the assumption that mankind always produce and consume as much as they have the power to produce and consume, are founded upon a want of knowledge of the human character and of the motives by which it is usually influenced.
It will be said, perhaps, that as the capital of the country compared with its population has been diminished since the war, partly by the unrecovered destruction which it sustained during the last two years of the contest, and still more by the sudden want of demand which occurred on its termination; how is the lost capital ever to be recovered, except by accumulation? Now it is perfectly true that the recovery and increase of our capital can take place in no other way than by accumulation. But in looking to this most desirable object, it is absolutely necessary that we should listen to the dictates of those great general laws which seldom fail to direct us in the right course. If population were ever so deficient in a state compared with its territory, yet, if the wages of labour still continued very scanty, and the people were emigrating, the great general laws of demand and supply would instruct us that some previous change in the state of things was necessary, before we ought to wish for an increased proportion of marriages, which in fact, under the actual circumstances, would not accomplish the object aimed at. In the same manner, if a portion of our capital be destroyed, and yet the profits of the remainder are low, and accompanied with frequent losses, and a tendency to emigrate, surely the great general laws of demand and supply cannot more clearly shew us that something else is wanted before we can accumulate with effect.
What is now wanted in this country is an increased national revenue,—an increase in the exchangeable value of the whole produce estimated in bullion,—and in the command of this bullion over labour. When we have attained this, which can only be attained by increased and steady profits, we may then begin again to accumulate, and our accumulation will then be effectual. But if, instead of saving from increased profits, we save from diminished expenditure; if, at the very time that the supply of commodities compared with the demand for them, clearly admonishes us that the proportion of capital to revenue is already too great, we go on saving from our revenue to add still further to our capital, all general principles concur in shewing that we must of necessity be aggravating instead of alleviating our distresses.
But how, it will be asked, are we to obtain this increase of revenue? What steps are we to take in order to raise the exchangeable value of the whole produce, and prepare the way for the future saving which is acknowledged to be necessary? These questions I have endeavoured to answer in the latter Sections of this very long Chapter On the immediate Causes of the Progress of Wealth, where it has appeared that a union of the means of distribution with the powers of production is absolutely necessary to create an adequate stimulus to the continued increase of wealth; and that the three causes, which, by favouring distribution, tend most to keep up and increase the exchangeable value of the whole produce, are, the division of landed property, the extension of domestic and foreign trade, and the maintenance of such a proportion of unproductive consumers as is best adapted to the powers of production.
The mention of these causes is alone sufficient to shew that they are much less within our immediate controul than the common process of accumulation. If it were true that, in order to employ all that are out of work, and to create at the same time a sufficient market for what they produce, it is only necessary that a little more should be saved from the revenue and added to the capital of the country, I am fully persuaded that this species of charity would not want contributors, and that a change would soon be wrought in the condition of the labouring classes. But when we know, both from theory and experience, that this proceeding will not afford the relief sought for, and are referred to an increase in the exchangeable value of the whole produce as the only cause which can restore a healthy and effective demand for labour, it must be allowed that we may be at a loss with respect to the first steps which it would be advisable to take, in order to accomplish what we wish.
Still, however, it is of the utmost importance to know the immediate object which ought to be aimed at; that if we can do but little actually to forward it, we may not, from ignorance, do much to retard it. With regard to the first main cause which I have mentioned, as tending to increase the exchangeable value of the national produce, namely the division of landed property, I have given my reasons for thinking that, in the actual and peculiar state of this country, the abolition of the law of primogeniture would produce more evil than good; and there is no other way in which a different division of land could be effected, consistently with an adequate respect for the great fundamental law of property, on which all progress in civilization, improvement, and wealth, must ever depend. But if the distribution of wealth to a certain extent be one of the main causes of its increase, while it is unadvisable directly to interfere with the present division of land in this country, it may justly become a question, whether the evils attendant on the national debt are not more than counterbalanced by the distribution of property and increase of the middle classes of society, which it must necessarily create; and whether by saving, in order to pay it off, we are not submitting to a painful sacrifice, which, if it attains its object, whatever other good it may effect, will leave us with a much less favourable distribution of wealth? By greatly reducing the national debt, if we are able to accomplish it, we may place ourselves perhaps in a more safe position, and this no doubt is a most important consideration; but grievously will those be disappointed who think that, either by greatly reducing or at once destroying it, we can enrich ourselves, and employ all our labouring classes.
With regard to the second main cause of an increase in the exchangeable value of the whole produce—namely, the extension of domestic and foreign trade, it is well known that we can by no means command either of these at pleasure, but we may do much to impede both. We cannot indeed reasonably attribute any sudden deficiency of trade to causes which have been of long duration; yet there can be little doubt that our commerce has been much impaired by unnecessary restraints, and that much benefit might be derived from the removal of them. While it is necessary to raise a large sum by taxation for the expenses of the government and the payment of the interest of the national debt, it would by no means be advisable to neglect so fair and fruitful a resource as the customs. In regulating these taxes, it is also natural that those foreign commodities should be taxed the highest, which are either of the same kind as the native commodities which have been taxed, or such as, for special reasons of health, happiness, or safety, it is desirable to grow largely at home. But there seems to be no reason for the absolute prohibition of any commodities whatever; and there is little doubt that, upon this principle, a much greater freedom might be given to foreign commerce, at the same time that a greater revenue might be derived from the customs. I have already stated, in more places than one, why, under all the circumstances of the case, I think it desirable that we should permanently grow nearly our own consumption of corn. But I see no sufficient cause why we should permanently prefer the wines of Portugal and the silks of London to the wines and silks of France. For the same reason that more British capital and labour is even now employed in purchasing claret than would be employed in attempting to make it at home, we might fairly expect that, in the case of an extended trade with France, more British capital would be employed in purchasing the wines and silks of France, than is now employed in purchasing the wines of Portugal and making the silks of Spitalfields and Derby.
At the same time it should be remarked that, in looking forward to changes of this kind, it is always incumbent upon us, particularly in the actual situation of our people, to attend to the wise caution suggested by Adam Smith. Fully convinced of the benefits of unrestrained trade, he observes, that, “The case in which it may sometimes be a matter of deliberation how far, and in what manner, it is proper to restore the free importation of foreign goods, after it has been for some time interrupted, is, when particular manufactures, by means of high duties and prohibitions upon all foreign goods which can come into competition with them, have been so far extended as to employ a great multitude of hands. Humanity may in this case require that the freedom of trade should be restored only by slow gradations, and with a good deal of reserve and circumspection. Were these high duties and prohibitions taken away all at once, cheaper foreign goods of the same kind might be poured so fast into the home market as to deprive all at once many thousands of their ordinary employment and means of subsistence.”* The caution here given by Adam Smith certainly applies in a very marked manner to the silk trade; and, however desirable it may be (and it is so most unquestionably) to open the trade with France, a sudden and incautious admission of a large quantity of French silks would tend to aggravate, instead of to relieve the present distresses of our working classes.
In all cases where, under peculiar circumstances, the distress of the country would be aggravated by the opening of certain trades, which had before been subject to restrictions, the exchangeable value of the whole produce estimated in labour, would for a time be diminished. But, in general, as I have endeavoured to shew in the 8th Section of this Chapter, the natural and permanent tendency of all extension of trade both domestic and foreign, is to increase the exchangeable value of the whole produce. This is more especially the case when, instead of changing the channels of commerce, we are able to make large and distinct additions to them. The good is then unalloyed by partial and temporary evil. This better distribution of the produce of the country, this better adaptation of it to the wants and tastes of the consumers, will at once give it a greater market value, and at once increase the national revenue, the rate of steady profits, and the wages of labour.
With regard to the third cause of an increase in the exchangeable value of the whole produce, the maintenance of unproductive consumers—though many have no power to be of use in this respect, others may do something; and it must certainly be advantageous that the truth, whatever it may be, relating to the effects of unproductive consumers, should be fully known, that we may not aim at what will obstruct the progress of wealth, and clamour at what is calculated to advance it. Whatever it may be thought advisable to do respecting the diminution of unproductive consumers, with a view to the placing ourselves in a safer position, we shall be led to proceed with more deliberation, if we are not hurried on by the impression that, by this diminution, we are affording immediate relief to the labouring classes.
It is also of importance to know that, in our endeavours to assist the working classes in a period like the present, it is desirable to employ them in those kinds of labour, the results of which do not come for sale into the market, such as roads and public works. The objection to employing a large sum in this way, raised by taxes, would not be its tendency to diminish the capital employed in productive labour; because this, to a certain extent, is exactly what is wanted; but it might, perhaps, have the effect of concealing too much the failure of the national demand for labour, and prevent the population from gradually accommodating itself to a reduced demand. This however might be, in a considerable degree, corrected by the wages given. And altogether I should say, that the employment of the poor in roads and public works, and a tendency among landlords and persons of property to build, to improve and beautify their grounds, and to employ workmen and menial servants, are the means most within our power and most directly calculated to remedy the evils arising from that disturbance in the balance of produce and consumption, which has been occasioned by the sudden conversion of soldiers, sailors, and various other classes which the war employed, into productive labourers.
If by the operation of these three causes, either separately or conjointly, we can make the supply and demand bear a more advantageous proportion to each other, so as to increase the exchangeable value of the whole produce, the rate of profits may then permanently rise as high as the quality of the soil in cultivation combined with the actual skill of the cultivators will allow, which is far from being the case at present. And as soon as the capitalists can begin to save from steady and improving profits, instead of from diminished expenditure, that is, as soon as the national revenue, estimated in bullion, and in the command of this bullion over labour, begins yearly and steadily to increase, we may then begin safely and effectively to recover our lost capital by the usual process of saving a portion of our increased revenue to add to it.
It is, I believe, the opinion of many persons, particularly among the mercantile classes, that nothing would so soon and so effectively increase the revenue and consumption of the country as a free issue of paper. But in holding this opinion, they have mistaken the nature of the great advantage which the national wealth may sometimes unquestionably derive from a fall in the value of the currency. The specific effect of this fall is to take away property from those who have fixed incomes, and give a greater command over the produce of the country to those who buy and sell. When the state of the national expenditure is such that there is a difficulty of supplying it, then whatever tends to throw a greater proportion of the produce into the hands of capitalists, as it must increase the power of production, must be just calculated to supply what is wanted. And, though the continuation of the act of restriction beyond the immediate necessity of the case, can hardly be considered in any other light than that as an act of positive injustice towards the possessors of fixed incomes; yet there is little doubt that the fall in the value of money, and the facility of credit which it occasioned, acting in the way described, must have contributed greatly to that rapid recovery of vast capital destroyed, which, in the same degree, never probably occurred in the history of any nation before.
But, if we were now to make similar issues of paper, the effect would be very different. Perhaps a sudden increase of currency and a new facility of borrowing might under any circumstances, give a temporary stimulus to trade, but it would only be temporary. Without a large expenditure on the part of the government, and a frequent conversion of capital into revenue, the great powers of production acquired by the capitalists, operating upon the diminished power of purchasing possessed by the owners of fixed incomes, could not fail to occasion a still greater glut of commodities than is felt at present; and experience has sufficiently shewn us, that paper cannot support prices under such circumstances. In the history of our paper transactions, it will be found that the abundance or scantiness of currency has generally followed and aggravated high or low prices, but seldom or never led them; and it is of the utmost importance to recollect that, at the end of the war, the prices failed before the contraction of the currency began. It was, in fact, the failure of the prices of agricultural produce, which destroyed the country banks, and shewed us the frail foundations on which the excess of our paper-currency rested. This sudden contraction no doubt aggravated very greatly the distresses of the merchants and of the country; and for this very reason we should use our utmost endeavours to avoid such an event in future; not, however, by vain efforts to keep up prices by forcible issues of paper, in defiance at once of the laws of justice and the great principles of supply and demand, but by the only effectual way, that of steadily maintaining our paper of the same value with the coin which it professes to represent, and subjecting it to no other fluctuations than those which belong to the precious metals.
In reference to the main doctrine inculcated in the latter part of this work, namely, that the progress of wealth depends upon proportions; it will be objected, perhaps, that it necessarily opens the way to differences of opinion relating to these proportions, and thus throws a kind of uncertainty over the science of political economy which was not supposed to belong to it. If, however, the doctrine should be found, upon sufficient examination, to be true; if it adequately accounts for things as they are, and explains consistently why frequent mistakes have been made respecting the future, it will be allowed that such objectors are answered. We cannot make a science more certain by our wishes or opinions; but we may obviously make it much more uncertain in its application, by believing it to be what it is not.
Though we cannot, however, lay down a certain rule for growing rich, and say that a nation will increase in wealth just in the degree in which it saves from its revenue, and adds to its capital: yet even in the most uncertain parts of the science, even in those parts which relate to the proportions of production and effective consumption, we are not left without guides; and if we attend to the great laws of demand and supply, they will generally direct us into the right course. It is justly observed by Mr. Ricardo that “the farmer and manufacturer can no more live without profit than the labourer without wages. Their motive for accumulation will diminish with every diminution of profit, and will cease altogether when their profits are so low as not to afford them an adequate compensation for their trouble, and the risk which they must necessarily encounter in employing their capital productively.”* Mr. Ricardo applies this passage to the final and necessary fall of profits occasioned by the state of the land. I would apply it at all times, throughout all the variable periods which intervene between the first stage of cultivation and the last. Whenever capital increases too fast, the motive to accumulation diminishes, and there will be a natural tendency to spend more and save less. When profits rise, the motive to accumulation will increase, and there will be a tendency to spend a smaller proportion of the gains, and to save a greater. These tendencies, operating on individuals, direct them towards the just mean, which they would more frequently attain if they were not interrupted by bad laws or unwise exhortations. If every man who saves from his income is necessarily a friend to his country, it follows that all those who spend their incomes, though they may not be absolute enemies, like the spendthrift, must be considered as failing in the duty of benefiting their country, and employing the labouring classes, when it is in their power; and this cannot be an agreeable reflection to those whose scale of expenditure in their houses, furniture, carriages and table, would certainly admit of great retrenchment, with but little sacrifice of real comfort. But if, in reality, saving is a national benefit, or a national disadvantage, according to the circumstances of the period; and, if these circumstances are best declared by the rate of profits, surely it is a case in which individual interest needs no extraneous assistance.
Saving, as I have before said, is, in numerous instances, a most sacred private duty. How far a just sense of this duty, together with the desire of bettering our condition so strongly implanted in the human breast, may sometimes, and in some states of society, occasion a greater tendency to parsimony than is consistent with the most effective encouragement to the growth of public wealth, it is difficult to say; but whether this tendency, if let alone, be ever too great or not, no one could think of interfering with it, even in its caprices. There is no reason, however, for giving an additional sanction to it, by calling it a public duty. The market for national capital will be supplied, like other markets, without the aid of patriotism. And in leaving the whole question of saving to the uninfluenced operation of individual interest and individual feelings, we shall best conform to that great principle of political economy laid down by Adam Smith, which teaches us a general maxim, liable to very few exceptions, that the wealth of nations is best secured by allowing every person, as long as he adheres to the rules of justice, to pursue his own interest in his own way.
Still it must be allowed that this very doctrine, and the main doctrines of the foregoing work, all tend to shew, as was stated in the Introduction, that the science of political ecomony bears a nearer resemblance to the sciences of morals and politics, than to the science of mathematics. But this truth, though it detracts from its certainty, does not detract from its importance. While the science of political economy involves some of the questions which have the nearest connection with the well-being of society, it must always be a subject of the highest interest. The study of it is calculated to be of great practical use, and to prevent much positive evil. And if its principles be carefully founded on an experience sufficiently extended, we have good reason to believe, from what they have already done, that, when properly applied, they will rarely disappoint our just expectations.
There is another objection which will probably be made to the doctrines of the latter part of this work, which I am more anxious to guard against. If the principles which I have laid down be true, it will certainly follow that the sudden removal of taxes will often be attended with very different effects, particularly to the labouring classes of society, from those which have been generally expected. And an inference may perhaps be drawn from this conclusion in favour of taxation. But the just inference from it is, that taxes should never be imposed, nor to a greater amount, than the necessity of the case justifies, and particularly that every effort should be made, consistently with national honour and security to prevent a scale of expenditure so great that it cannot proceed without ruin, and cannot be stopped without distress.
Even if it be allowed that the excitement of a prodigious public expenditure, and of the taxation necessary to support it, operating upon extraordinary powers of production, might, under peculiar circumstances, increase the wealth of a country in a greater degree than it otherwise would have increased; yet, as the greatest powers of production must finally be overcome by excessive borrowing, and as increased misery among the labouring classes must be the consequence, whether we go on or attempt to return, it would surely have been much better for the society if such wealth had never existed. It is like the unnatural strength occasioned by some violent stimulant, which, if not absolutely necessary, should be by all means avoided, on account of the exhaustion which is sure to follow it.
In the Essay on Population I have observed, that “In the whole compass of human events, I doubt if there be a more fruitful source of misery, or one more invariably productive of disastrous consequences, than a sudden start of population from two or three years of plenty, which must necessarily be repressed by the first return of scarcity, or even of average crops.”* The great demand for labour which took place during the war must have had an effect precisely of a similar kind, only aggravated by duration; and as this is a state of things which cannot in its nature continue, it is obviously the duty of all governments, if they have any regard for the happiness of their subjects, to avoid all wars and excessive expenditure as far as it is possible; but if war be unavoidable, so to regulate the necessary expenditure as to occasion the least pressure upon the people during the contest, and the least convulsion in the state of the demand at the termination of it. We may have good reason to lament that such taxation and consumption should ever have taken place, and that so great an impetus, which could only be temporary, should have been given to the wealth and population of the country; but it is a very different question, what is the best remedy now that the evil has been incurred? If the population had made a start during a few years of plenty, we should surely make great efforts to prevent, by importation, the misery which would be occasioned by the sudden return of average crops. If the human body had been subjected to a very powerful stimulus, we should surely be cautious not to remove it too suddenly. And, if the country had been unfortunately subjected to the excitement of a long continuance of excessive expenditure, it surely must be against all analogy and all general principles, to look for the immediate remedy of it in a great and sudden contraction of consumption.
There is every reason to believe that the working classes of society would be severely injured by attaining the object which they seem so ardently to wish for. To those who live upon fixed incomes, the relief from taxation is a great and unmixed good; to the mercantile and trading classes it is sometimes a good and sometimes an evil, according to circumstances; but to the working classes, no taking off of taxes, nor any degree of cheapness of corn, can compensate a want of demand for labour. If the general demand for labour fail, particularly if the failure be sudden, the labouring classes will be wretched in the midst of cheapness; if the demand for labour be considerable, they will be comparatively rich in the midst of dearness.*
To state these facts is not to favour taxes; but to give one of the strongest reasons against them; namely, that they are not only a great evil on their first imposition, but that the attempt to get rid of them afterwards, is often attended with fresh suffering. They are like those injudicious regulations of the mercantile system noticed by Adam Smith, which, though acknowledged to be pernicious, cannot be removed without producing a greater evil for an interval of considerable length.
Theoretical writers are too apt, in their calculations, to overlook these intervals; but eight or ten years, recurring not unfrequently, are serious spaces in human life. They amount to a serious sum of happiness or misery, according as they are prosperous or adverse, and leave the country in a very different state at their termination. In prosperous times the mercantile classes often realize fortunes, which go far towards securing them against the future; but unfortunately the working classes, though they share in the general prosperity, do not share in it so largely as in the general adversity. They may suffer the greatest distress in a period of low wages, but cannot be adequately compensated by a period of high wages. To them fluctuations must always bring more evil than good; and, with a view to the happiness of the great mass of society, it should be our object, as far as possible, to maintain peace, and an equable expenditure.
[* ] It is a contradiction in terms, to say that labour is redundant compared with capital, and that capital is at the same time redundant compared with labour:—but it is no contradiction in terms to say that both labourers and capital may be redundant, compared with the means of employing them profitably. I have never maintained the former position, though I have been charged with so doing; but the latter has been so fully established by experience, that I am surprized at the pertinacity with which theoretical writers continue to refuse their assent to it.
[* ] This was written in 1820.
[* ] Wealth of Nations, Book iv. ch. vii. p. 202, 6th edit.
[* ] Princ. of Polit. Econ ch. vi. p. 127.
[* ] Vol. ii. p. 170. 4th edit.
[* ] When there is no demand for labour, however low the price of food may be, the labouring classes can only obtain it by charity.