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James Mill likens the expence and economic stagnation brought about by war to a “pestilential wind” which ravages the country (1808)

In 1808 when the war against Napoleon was in full swing the Scottish economist James Mill (1773-1836) denounced the economic impact that higher taxes and restrictions on foreign trade were having on the British people. He compared the ravages of war to a “pestilential wind” which shrivels up the national wealth and causes great poverty and hardship among ordinary working people:

To what baneful quarter, then, are we to look for the cause of the stagnation and misery which appear so general in human affairs? War! is the answer. There is no other cause. This is the pestilential wind which blasts the prosperity of nations. This is the devouring fiend which eats up the precions treasure of national economy, the foundation of national improvement, and of national happiness. Though the consumption even of a wasteful government cannot keep pace with the accumulation of individuals, the consumption of war can easily outstrip it. The savings of individuals, and more than the savings of individuals, are swallowed up by it. Not only is the progression of the country stopped, and all the miseries of the stationary condition are experienced, but inroads are almost always made upon that part of the annual produce which had been previously devoted to reproduction. The condition of the country therefore goes backwards; and in general it is only after the country is so exhausted that the expence of the war can hardly by any means be found, that it is ever put an end to.

The general expensiveness of government, of which complaints are so common, and so well founded, will not account for the fact. All governments constantly spend as much as ever the people will let them. An expensive government is a curse. Every farthing which is spent upon it, beyond the expence necessary for maintaining law and order, is so much dead loss to the nation, contributes so far to keep down the annual produce, and to diminish the happiness of the people. But where a nation is considerable, and its industry improved and productive, the mere expence of government, however prodigal, cannot bear a great proportion to the whole of the annual produce; and the general savings of all the individuals in the nation can hardly fail to surpass the expences of the court. A country therefore can hardly fail to improve, notwithstanding the ordinary expence even of a wasteful government; it will only improve more slowly than it would have done had the government been more economical. The people may be still prosperous and happy, though they might have been a little more prosperous and happy, had the expence of the government been less.

To what baneful quarter, then, are we to look for the cause of the stagnation and misery which appear so general in human affairs? War! is the answer. There is no other cause. This is the pestilential wind which blasts the prosperity of nations. This is the devouring fiend which eats up the precious treasure of national economy, the foundation of national improvement, and of national happiness. Though the consumption even of a wasteful government cannot keep pace with the accumulation of individuals, the consumption of war can easily outstrip it. The savings of individuals, and more than the savings of individuals, are swallowed up by it. Not only is the progression of the country stopped, and all the miseries of the stationary condition are experienced, but inroads are almost always made upon that part of the annual produce which had been previously devoted to reproduction. The condition of the country therefore goes backwards; and in general it is only after the country is so exhausted that the expence of the war can hardly by any means be found, that it is ever put an end to. When the blessing of peace is restored, the country slowly recovers itself. But hardly has it gained its former prosperity when it is generally re-struck by the calamity of war, and compelled to measure back its steps. In this alternation between misery and the mere beginnings of prosperity, are nations for the most part, condemned to remain; the energies of human nature are exerted to no purpose; its beneficent laws are counteracted; and the happiness of society, which seems to be secured by such powerful provisions, like the water of Tantalus, is only allowed to approach the lip, that it may be immediately dashed away from it. The celebrated Vauban, the unrivalled engineer of Louis the 14th, whose profession made him locally acquainted with every part of his country, and who spoke the language of an honest observation, untainted by the prejudices of his education, or the course of his life, observed, Si la France est si misérable, ce n’est ni à I’intemperie de l’air, ni à la faute des peuples, ni à la stérilité des terres, qu’il faut I’attriboer; puisque l’air y est excellent, les habitans laborieux, adroits, pleins d’indnstrie et tres nombreux; mais aux guerres qui l’ont agitée depuis longtems et au defaut d’éeconomic que nous n’entendons pas assez.’

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In the war against Napoleon the British government acted like a “banker” to the monarchs of Europe who wanted his challenge to their political authority and system of government arrested. In order to achieve this the British government imposed a vast array of new taxes (which caricaturists like James Gillray graphically described). Napoleon in turn planned to weaken Britain economically by blockading British goods from the European market, the so-called “Continental Blockade” (1806-1814). By 1808, when James Mill wrote Commerce Defended, the high British taxes and government debt, and Napoleon’s economic embargo had pushed the British economy into recession (what Mill called “the stationary condition”). Mill replied to critics like William Cobbett who argued that this was not such a serious problem as only agriculture was “productive” and that “commerce” was not (thus the embargo on foreign trade would not have serious consequences). Mill vigorously defended the contribution of commerce to national wealth creation and in a final section called “General Reflections” wrote one of the best criticism of the terrible economic impact of war on ordinary working people. He likened it to a “pestilential wind” which dried up national prosperity and to a “devouring fiend” which ate up the nation’s savings.

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