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James Mill on the natural disposition to accumulate property (1808).

James Mill (1773-1836), the father of John Stuart Mill, defended commerce and the freedom to trade against its critics on the grounds that it was natural, greatly contributed to human happiness, and added to the amount of wealth in society.

…no arrangement of society, consistent with any tolerable degree of freedom and security, seems capable of preventing this wonderful agent [the disposition to accumulation] from adding something every year to the fund of production, from continually increasing the annual produce. As it is this gradual produce on which the happiness of the great body of the people depends, we may reflect with satisfaction and wonder on the strength of the principle on which it is secured; on the provision which is laid in the original laws of human nature for the well-being of the species!

Notwithstanding the avidity for immediate gratification, with which the greater part of mankind appear to be inspired, the disposition to accumulate seems, from experience, to be a still more powerful propensity; and wherever men are secure in the enjoyment of their property, a great part of them always exert themselves to make what they get exceed what they spend. By means of this powerful principle it is natural for every nation, which has scope for its industry, to make continual advancement, to see the produce of every succeeding year surpass that of the year that went before it. One arrangement of society may be more favourable to this advancement than another. In one country the natural subdivision of property may be more counteracted than in another. But no arrangement of society, consistent with any tolerable degree of freedom and security, seems capable of preventing this wonderful agent from adding something every year to the fund of production, from continually increasing the annual produce. As it is this gradual produce on which the happiness of the great body of the people depends, we may reflect with satisfaction and wonder on the strength of the principle on which it is secured; on the provision which is laid in the original laws of human nature for the well-being of the species!

About this Quotation:

James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, was an ardent defender of free trade and an opponent of the “sinister interests” which controlled British politics in the early 19th century. In this tract he defends the liberty and mutual benefits of free trade at a difficult time – Napoleon’s blocade of continental Europe was in force, in an attempt to weaken Britain by denying it its traditional markets on the mainland, and there existed a popular notion that trade and industry were not “really productive” whereas only “agriculture” was. So Mill had to fight a battle for free trade on two fronts: that England would benefit from free trade even if other countries persisted in subsidies and tariff protection; and that trade in goods other than traditional agricultural products could add to the sum total of “national wealth”. Even 200 years after Mill wrote this tract, we are still fighting the same battles.

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