Nicholas Barbon on the mutual benefits of free trade even in luxury goods (“wants of the mind”) (1690)

Nicholas Barbon

The English physician and businessman Nicholas Barbon (1623-1698) was one of the earliest defenders of free trade, even for goods which were not necessities (“wants of the body”) but also for so-called foreign luxury goods (“wants of the mind”):

It is not Necessity that causeth the Consumption, Nature may be Satisfied with little; but it is the wants of the Mind, Fashion, and desire of Novelties, and Things scarce, that causeth Trade. A Person may have English-Lace, Gloves, or Silk, as much as he wants, and will Buy no more such; and yet, lay out his Mony on a Point of Venice, Jessimine-Gloves, or French-Silks; he may desire to Eat Westphalia-Bacon, when he will not English; so that, the Prohibition of Forreign Wares, does not necessarily cause a greater Consumption of the like sort of English. Besides, There is the same wants of the Mind in Foreigners, as in the English; they desire Novelties; they Value English-Cloth, Hats, and Gloves, and Foreign Goods, more than their Native make.

Nicholas Barbon was a very early defender of free trade who based his arguments on a couple of novel ideas. He distinguished between two kinds of “wants”, those “wants of the body” such as food and clothing which were rather limited in their range, and those “wants of the mind” which were infinite in scope. Barbon was thus one of the first to suggest that “infinite” human wants, far from leading to decadence, would lead to the expansion and improvement of human life in many positive directions - “his Mind is elevated, his Senses grow more refined, and more capable of Delight; his Desires are inlarged, and his Wants increase with his Wishes, which is for every thing that is rare, can gratifie his Senses, adorn his Body, and promote the Ease, Pleasure, and Pomp of Life”. The second idea was that these desires for “fashion” or “luxury” goods cut both ways, that the English desire for “Flanders lace and French hats” would be reciprocated by a similar desire by foreigners for “English cloth and English gloves”, thus satisfying the customers as well as enriching both countries at the same time. There is a hint here of the idea of the possibility of indefinite human and economic progress.