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

James Mill

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.

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.